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China’s Multilateral Strategy

China has conducted a successful diplomatic initiative by forging a series of interrelated bilateral and multilaterral ties in the Asian continent.

This has been done quite rapidly in conjunction with, in the 1990s and the new millenium, a muting of military rhetoric. China’s foundation of cooperative establishments is helping it emerge as a regional leader not just due to the inevitability of influence that follows economic and demographic advantage but also because of diplomatic leadership. This has helped create the beginnings of a sphere of influence.

Michael Vatikiotis, a specialist of Asian studies, notes that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of 2001 “secured an institutional alliance with central Asian states [such as] Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Tajikstan, and Uzbekistan. In 2005 China encouraged the formation of the East Asian Community, bringing together China, Southeast Asia, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand.”

This helps China secure it borders and access primary resources to feed its rapacious and fast expanding economy. By mitigating regional antagonism towards it, China can reduce opposition to its rise in power without the requirement to invest disproportionately in its military capacity: the focus of financial investment remains economic, and infrastructural.

A 2006 poll of 22 countries showed that nearly half of those polled viewed China as a positive influence. Only 38% believed the same of the United States.


The way was cleared for China’s emergence as a regional power thanks to events in the 1990s. The USSR collapsed, and once client central Asian states found themselves uncertain of the future and with more choices than before at their disposal. This gave China the opportunity to offer itself as an ally and counter to Russia’s influence to those states that sought greater independence from Moscow.

Japan suffered a deep economic recession in the same decade as the Soviet disintegration. Also, Japan failed to capitalize on the grativity of its immense economic advantage by showing diplomatic leadership during a period of Asian regionalism. The reasons for Japan’s lost chance at leadership are twofold: its economic influence was mitigated by recession, forcing it to narrow foreign investments due to clawbacks, and it never came to terms with itself or its neighbours after the Pacific war’s attrocities. A lingering malignancy and distrust of Japan’s foreign policy proved an effective barrier to real leadership.

China’s actions during the Asian economic crisis of 1997 further endeared it to its neighbours. China did not use the crisis to prey uninhibited on weaker neighbours and make rapid economic gains from regional markets vulnurable and lain bare. Vatikiotis explains that China offered currency stability and trade concessions. This diplomatic investment helped neighbours better weather the crisis and significantly altered opinion regarding China in ASEAN* countries, greatly diminishing aprehension over the country’s earlier military and political agressions.

The new regional relationships were not squandered. China was quick to take advantage of improved relations by formalizing friendships through treaties. This forged a strong multitude of state-to-state ties to Beijing.


* ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an economic and political organization of regional countries.


The above is a review and synopsis of part of an essay written by Michael Vatikiotis, a specialist on Asian studies. The essay is called “The Architecture of China’s Diplomatic Edge,” and is published in the Brown Journal of World Affairs.

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  1. April 12, 2007 at 9:12 am

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