China’s Rough Edges

Managing Instability on China’s Periphery – Council on Foreign Relations.

A fair amount of attention has gone in recent years to China’s growing influence far from its shores, in particular in Africa and Latin America. The western powers are predisposed to hypersensitivity in these areas. Africa is no longer the southern extension of European empires, but the EU is not anxious to allow the continent to fall under the influence of any other power. In the Americas, the Monroe Doctrine is much changed but it is not dead: witness the reactions to Russian or Chinese warship visits to Venezuela or Cuba.

But as five scholars from the Council on Foreign Relations remind us, we would be foolish to forget that where China’s influence is felt strongest is in the Middle Kingdom’s near abroad, in the nations lining China’s extensive borders. What is more, China’s borderlands house some of the world’s most volatile hot spots: North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.

The authors of Managing Instability on China’s Periphery seek policy options to try and prevent crises from emerging in those countries and potentially undermining the US-China relationship. The publication, released in September, is timely not simply because of the recent death of Kim Jong-Il and the resultant uncertainty over the Korean peninsula, but because many of us watching China (myself included) underweight the instability in China’s borderlands when analyzing how and why China thinking about the drivers shaping the PRC’s foreign and security policy.

That’s a significant oversight, and this book is a forceful reminder that we must change our calculus. China’s credible ascent to global power depends on the PRC first securing its own borders: if it cannot, the nation will have to focus its arms and treasure on keeping instability out rather than extending influence far from its shores. If, on the other hand, China can arbitrate peaceful transitions for each of these weak states, the nation will gain prestige and influence worldwide.

China understands what is at stake, and will thus view American initiatives in this de facto sphere of Chinese influence with suspicion. This is the minefield the authors seek to navigate for us, and as such their book is an essential read.