Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy since The Cold War

Chinese Foreign Relations

Author(s):  Robert G. Sutter

ISBN:           978-1-4422-1134-6

Publisher:  The Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Year:           2012

Price:          $39.95

Reviewed by David K. McQuilkin, Professor Emeritus, History and Political Science, Bridgewater College (Virginia), United States.

 An oft repeated saying states history frequently repeats itself. While the adage fails to account for the ever changing context of the historical milieu over time, it does, however, suggest that history often presents recurring patterns of behavior and/or circumstance. How the actors of these differing historical eras respond to the extant stimuli confronting them determine the shape of events that will follow. Such is the relationship between the Cold War and Post Cold War periods that has guided United States foreign policy since the end of the Second World War in 1945.

     At issue has been the emergence of two major post revolutionary states, Cold War Soviet Russia and Post Cold War China, whose foreign policies were perceived as posing significant threats to American national and global political, strategic, and economic interests. In the case of Soviet Russia, the primary concern was whether the Soviets with their truculent anti-Westernism, a deep-seated hostility to American world influence, and reinforced by a Marxist-Leninist emphasis on “proletarian” universalism, would be prone to constant international destabilization and territorial aggrandizement or promote international and global stability through peaceful interaction. With the end of the Cold War in the West and the rapid emergence of modern Chinese economic leviathan, the same questions are being asked once again by the United States as post revolutionary China continues to expand her global economic, political, and military footprint. That is, will China constantly promote international destabilization and thus threaten American national and global interests, or will present and future Chinese political leadership seek to pursue policies of international and global stability through peaceful interaction? It is precisely these questions that Sutter addresses in his thorough examination of the strengths and weaknesses of China’s government together with its ability to control overall foreign policy strategy, to respond rationally to competing interests in Asia, and to protect its specific national and regional security interests.

     To achieve this immense undertaking, Sutter investigates every possible influence that affects the formulation of Chinese foreign policy. He begins this process with a series of chapters designed to explain and assess the multiplicity of complex factors, both past and present, that create the overall framework through which China views the world and which in turn determines her foreign policy responses. Some of the key issues dealt with include the determinates of Chinese post Cold War foreign policy, domestic and foreign policy priorities, Chinese world views and policy behavior, Chinese economic globalization, participation in regional and global governance entities, and the role of the China’s military in Chinese international relations. Sutter follows this initial segment with an assessment of China’s foreign relations with the world at large. No region is ignored as each is dealt with in its own specific chapter and range from the United States, East Asia, the Pacific Rim to South and Central Asia, Russia and Europe before concluding with the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.The final chapter, “Prospects”, represents the application of Sutter’s extensive knowledge, research, and experience regarding the intricacies of recent Chinese foreign policy to suggest how an emergent China is likely to respond to the challenges and vagaries posed by an uncertain contemporary world. Also included is his prescription for an appropriate American response to China’s growing influence as a global power.

     In assessing Chinese foreign policy, Sutter makes it clear that two fundamental problems complicate the ability to predict a pattern of consistent behavior based upon long term foreign policy goals. First is that China’s international approach “is mixed and often confusing” (p.12), a circumstance that betrays the Chinese leadership’s “confidence in some areas and uncertainty is some others” (p.12) and which “provides a weak foundation for a coherent and lasting strategy in foreign affairs” (p.12). The effect is that key Chinese foreign policy goals not only lack reliability, but also “there is no clear view as to whether the prevailing Chinese approach to world affairs reflects Chinese confidence, strength, and determination to continue the current course, or reflects vulnerability and uncertainty at home and abroad that could prompt change in China’s international approach” (p.11-12). In support of his argument, Sutter cites several examples that illustrate this mixed and confused pattern of China’s policy formulations since 2000. The first replaced the earlier Maoist anti-imperialist foreign policy with one emphasizing a “harmonious world order” (p.11) assuring the United States that China would not threaten the US or its primary Asian or global interests.  A second involved the introduction of a new foreign policy goal that stated a “rising China was not a threat, but a source of opportunity” (p.11) to its Asian neighbors. Last was the prioritization of Chinese energy independence in order to maintain China’s continued industrial development and expanding domestic consumer economy.

     The second problem that Sutter identifies as inhibiting the ability of the Chinese government to formulate a predictable foreign policy is its uncertainty over the course of the future direction of U.S.-Chinese relations. This relationship is the most important of its bi-lateral relationships and is therefore a critical factor in determining the direction of Chinese foreign policy. Thus whether China continues to pursue “the self-proclaimed strategic direction of peace and development” or “veers toward assertiveness and confrontation” (p.13), or in a different direction altogether is highly dependent upon its relations with the United States.

     Throughout his detailed assessment of Chinese foreign policy, Sutter states his agreement of the“realist” school of Chinese foreign interpretation and his rejection of both the liberal and constructivist approaches. “It is important and prudent,” he argues, “to determine when China may reach a point of greater power and influence in Asian and world affairs that it would be inclined to adopt more assertive and less diffident approaches in foreign affairs” (p.339). Specifically, the nexus to understanding future Chinese foreign policy rests with China’s ability to substantially increase her power and influence within Asia where China has historically exerted her greatest influence and power.  Should China succeed in exerting a future dominance in Asia, then a more assertive (potentially disruptive?) Chinese foreign policy in Asia and elsewhere is a strong possibility.  However, if future Chinese influence and power in the region remains limited or constrained, regardless of her continued economic expansion and global involvement, then China’s leadership will be unlikely to pursue an assertive foreign policy regionally or globally. In rejecting the liberal and constructivist schools, Sutter maintains each misjudged the relative strengths and weaknesses of both the United States and China as well as the complexities of Asian political realities after 2000. It is not without a certain degree of justification that Sutter notes that recently a number of commentators and think tanks that previously warned of a declining United States and arising China in Asia have “revised their calculus to focus more on Chinese weaknesses and U.S. strengths…in the region” (p.340). This is particularly true in light of the policies undertaken by the Bush and Obama administrations to encourage “constructive and cooperative Chinese foreign behavir” (p.14) and to reinforce “a cautious optimism that positive and constructive aspects in Chinese foreign relations will continue….(p.14). Despite this momentary glimmer of optimism, Sutter remains pessimistic regarding China’s innate ability to pursue a consistent and coherent foreign policy.  His overall perspective towards China is conservative and cautious, a viewpoint that coincides with his distrust of China’s ability to maintain her current moderate foreign policy in the face of changing external and internal circumstances. Moreover, Sutter does not recognize Chinese foreign policy as being completely rational, a prospect that requires U.S. policy makers to “hedge their bets” (p.13) as to China’s potential to sustain a moderate foreign policy approach over time. The evidence on this point, he concludes, “is ambiguous on whether China has settled on a strategy in international relations that will focus on peace and development and establishing a harmonious world order for the next several decades” (p.13).

     Although Sutter’s arguments regarding the future direction of Chinese foreign policy are clear, concise, and presented with an aura of scholarly certainty, not everyone will agree with his conclusions. That is certainly true for this reviewer. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is that while he postulates a post Cold War framework for Chinese foreign policy, Sutter remains a product of the Cold War and this tends to color his analysis. On the one hand, the rationalism he imposes on the international political system is one that functions from a Western (American?) perspective. Concomitant with this, Sutter states that China’s leadership weaknesses and uncertainties preclude the development of long term policy goals, circumstances that could potentially result in China’s pursuit of an aggressive and disruptive foreign policy. These arguments are similar to those put forth concerning Soviet Russia foreign policy during the Cold War. What we ultimately learned then, and which is still true today, is that viewing foreign policy as a mirror image can be somewhat misleading. The reality of Cold War Soviet Russia and post Cold War China is that both functioned as post revolutionary states, each with their own anti-Western world view and rationality, each seeking to carve out a position of power and influence in the international arena. To achieve this, each sought with varying degrees of success to align themselves with alienated, disenchanted, or anti-Western states to construct a functional balance of power, especially in those areas of critical strategic interest or territorial and national security.  At the same time, each sought advantage in the perceived weaknesses of the West as a means to expand their influence and position. Certainly China will continue such practices wherever it will benefit her interests and by doing so will appear aggressive from a U.S. and Western standpoint. However China will not risk her place or role in the global political system at risk by destabilizing the international political system. The cost would not justify the uncertain benefit that might be gained.

     Sutter’s book on post Cold War Chinese foreign policy is a valuable resource, an updated edition notwithstanding,  for anyone interested in international policy studies in general and China in particular. Not only does it provide a critical analytical viewpoint and insight that cannot be ignored, but it also challenges recent perspectives as to China’s modus operandi in global political arena. However, whether one agrees or disagrees with Sutter’s analyses and conclusions, the work offers a unique opportunity to engage in a spirited conversation with the author. This alone makes the book worth reading.

Suggested citation:

McQuilkin, David K. (2014). Review of “Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy since the Cold War”, by Robert G. Sutter, East Asian Integration Studies Vol. 7, no.15, Internet file: