Chinese Influence in the Asia-Pacific: An Overview

10 JUNE 2023

China on a glowing globe with political borders

Photo by Christian Lue / Unsplash


The last four decades have seen a phenomenal rise in the power of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the world in general and Asia Pacific in particular. The watershed period was in the 1970s when Western rapprochement toward Communist China had allowed the country into the global political economy. In 1972 President Richard Nixon visited Beijing after the United Nations admitted it as a member of the General Assembly and permanent member of the Security Council.

After the death of Mao Zedong--its revolutionary leader--China decided to reform its economy to a more liberal and open one that over time attracted foreign investment and trade. These reforms and other policies transformed the standing of the Asian country domestically and globally. Politically, more collective leadership was championed by Deng Xiaoping, the most powerful Communist leader after the death of Mao. Later, leadership had become rotational and based on a 5 five-year term renewable once for the presidential office holder.

These and other structural reforms helped propel an otherwise isolated state to the global stage in unprecedented ways. The result has been massive economic growth and development that has been the fastest in centuries. With this wealth came increasing protection of power firstly, in the immediate neighborhood and the Asia Pacific, and the rest of the world.

The Region

The Asia-Pacific region encompasses East Asia, Oceania and the Russian Far East. The region is therefore made up of more than two dozen countries and territories. While several countries are essentially small island states with relatively low political influence in the region, there are equally more powerful states in the region. These states could be categorized into established powers and middle powers. China, Russia, Australia and Japan fall under the former. Some middle powers include South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and a few others.

The region is economically buoyant and has important maritime routes that are essential to regional and global trade. Economies in the region collectively have a big share of the global economy. The Strait of Malaca and the Taiwan Strait are important maritime routes. More critically, the region is home to several nuclear powers. China, Russia and North Korea are known possessors of nuclear armament. The United States, another nuclear power has many military facilities in the region. These combined with a huge and still growing population that is among the most concentrated in the world make the region one of the most sensitive hemispheres in the world.

Nature of China's Influence

The influence exerted by China in the region comes in different forms and approaches. In form, this has been economic, military and diplomatic. Beijing does not see any of the three to be mutually exclusive in pursuing its agenda. As aforementioned, Beijing gained diplomatic clout overnight when it was given a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and General Assembly. However, this has been more theoretical. With its rise, the PRC has therefore sought more consequential diplomatic influence around the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific where it seeks unquestioned primacy.

Consequently, Beijing has had three categories of diplomatic allies. The first category comprises North Korea, Russia and Myanmar. These are more or less reliable diplomatic partners in the region. These countries are sure to support China in any diplomatic forum. Another group is made up of countries that want to walk a diplomatic fine line between a growing China and the need for them to assert their sovereignty. These countries do not necessarily oppose China diplomatically but are cautious about its assertiveness as a great power. The last category is those countries that have become openly uncomfortable with rising China and how it affects their interest. Japan, Australia and South Korea are mostly found here.

The Economic Dimension

China's influence also comes in economic form. This is perhaps one of the most potent tools for influence in the region. With the second largest economy in the world and still growing, China's neighbors are under the economic spell of Beijing. This influence has been unprecedented. After the end of the Cold War, Japan's export-led economy was for a while the second largest economy of the world--far behind the US. Regardless, Japan had not possessed the kind of influence China currently has in the region. This could be a result of its post-World War II approach to the world. China on the other hand has used its economic might immensely to its advantage. This has meant that even countries that have territorial disputes with the PRC cannot cut economic ties with it. So far, not even Western-oriented Australia has found it easy to ignore the economic ramifications of either shunning or moving against Beijing.

Other middle powers like the Philippines, Vietnam and South Korea still maintain economic channels to China. Despite the potential of a conflagration between the PRC and Taiwan, the latter still has the former as its largest destination for its finished products.

Knowing this, China has leveraged its economic capacity as part of its broader strategy to dominate the region. This seemed to have achieved some success for Beijing despite corresponding measures by other states to find long-term alternatives to their reliance on the Chinese economy. With China's economy set to overtake that of the United States in the coming decades, it is still difficult to determine when its use of the economy as a tool of influence will weaken.

The "Gunboat"

The most critical of China's tools of influence has been its ever-expanding military. Before and after 1949, China'a military was more focused on maintaining stability within the territory. During the Second World War, the country concentrated on defeating Japan and driving it away from territories the imperial power was occupying within China. An example was the heavy presence of Japan in Manchuria. After the communists took over, keeping the vast territory under the control of the party was the primary preoccupation of the People's Liberation Army.

Much of the external engagement outside China had been related to the military support China gave to Communist governments and factions in Asia and sometimes in Africa during the Cold War. This was particularly the case in Vietnam and North Korea.

After the Chinese economy started its reforms and subsequent transformation, not its military also experienced some modernization. Despite substantial retooling and the building of domestic military capacity, the PRC's military had remained philosophically defensive to the outside world. China did not hide its focus on defensive security. It made official statements that emphatically mentioned that.

Admittedly, the country since the days of the Cold War had made claims to some of the territories the in the China Sea and Sea of Japan. However; such claims were not backed with military force or gunboat diplomacy. To many observers, therefore, China had focused more on its economy rather than the protection of hard power on the international scene during the 1980s and 1990s.

While no particular date can be mentioned to be the year China changed its military approach in the Asia-Pacific and the world, the 21st Century has generally seen a growing Chinese military in every respect.

By the 21st century, China's economy was still growing. It had lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty and had a growing middle class at a pace many economists were impressed with. Its trading partners were not only growing around the world, it was increasing becoming the number trading partner in many countries. Asia-Pacific was so much enmeshed in the Chinese economy.

This meant enough reserves to build the kind of military Beijing could dream of in the region and the world. Over the years China has transformed its military from a defensive one to one that is willing to go beyond the Pacific. The acquisition of at least three aircraft carriers for the PLAAN is enough to show the extent China wants to go with its kinetic force. Countries do not typically build such huge equipment to only protect their coasts. They do so to extend military influence beyond their boundaries. Also, the PRC has invested heavily in missile technology. It has developed hypersonic armament that could hit with precision. The alacrity with which Chinese authorities, especially their leader are willing to talk about its military capabilities and willingness to use same has been unprecedented in recent past decades.

More crucial, the PRC has sought to militarize all the territorial claims it has made over the decades with its newfound military might. In the process, it has antagonized several counties in the region. The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Brunei among others all have territorial waters that are claimed by Beijing.

China has expanded existing islands in these waters and militarized them. It has placed military facilities on them to bring its defenses forward to regional adversaries that have made counter-claims to these territories. In recent times, Chinese naval vessels have had close and dangerous encounters with the civilian and military vessels of opposing countries.

Of all the tensions this approach has brought to the region, the most dangerous and imminently probable has been the "Taiwan Question". Beijing has for decades claimed Taiwan as its bonafide territory since 1949. Taiwan has equally rejected the idea. In recent years, China has militarized the conflict and threatened to take it by the use of coercive force. With Taiwan having a relatively capable military and a strong economy of its own, the tension between the two countries has become potentially dangerous to international peace.

The US Presence

What has further made the tensions across the Taiwan Strait is the high possibility of the US getting involved in any conflagration between the two countries. The US has shown commitment to protecting Taipei should Beijing attempt to take it with force. This decades-old commitment has been taken a notch higher by the Biden administration. The administration has moved from ambivalent statements to more emphatic ones. In response, China has increased the intensity of its gunboat diplomacy against Taiwan.

Also, the US has moved closer to other nations in disputes with Beijing. It has got closer to Vietnam and the Philippines. While the latter country has always been closer to Washington, it has in recent times permitted an increased presence of the US military in its territory. For example, it has given access to islands closer to the PRC to be used for military bases. Vietnam is acquiring US armament and is in close military coordination with the Pentagon.

For traditional and sovereign US allies military coordination has become quite intense. Japan, South Korea and Australia are currently much closer to the US in the military sense of the word. Apart from such cooperation that has been made necessary by the increasing disputes in the region, these economically powerful states have resolved to increase their military budget to correspond with the threat posed. Japan, particularly has sought to move apart from its post-World War II pacificism to a more battle-ready state. It sees China's militarization of the disputes over some groups of islands with it as a bad signal toward peaceful coexistence.

Militarily it is believed that in a total conflagration in the region, North Korea and Russia are more likely to support Beijing. Everything put together it does not look like China will have many supporters in any military confrontation.

Contemporary Lessons and Outlook

Also, the war in Ukraine while very in a different theatre and with a unique set of dynamics, does not in any way encourage China to use its military to achieve its goals in the Asia-Pacific. Apart from the resilience and agility that the supposed inferior forces of Ukraine have proven to have, the commitment the West has shown to them further sends a clear message to Beijing.

Beijing is also aware of the possibility of its Himalayan neighbor, India, entering into a wider confrontation from the mountainous geography to Himalayan territorial gains. It does not want the confrontation in short to medium terms, therefore, China may not invade any territory in its neighborhood It is likely to continue with some measured gunboat diplomacy to exhibit some force over time. It is very much the case that Beijing would not want miscalculation when the short to medium terms, therefore, China may not invade any territory in its neighborhood which could bring it to a point of no return.

This further suggests that unlike in Eastern Europe, there are many corridors for negotiations and engagement in Asia-Pacific before anything dangerous happens.

Beijing is also aware of the possibility of its Himalayan neighbor, India, entering into a wider confrontation from the mountainous geography to Himalayan territorial gains. It does not want the confrontation in short to medium terms, therefore, China may not invade any territory in its neighborhood It is likely to continue with some measured gunboat diplomacy to exhibit some force over time. It is very much the case that Beijing would not want miscalculation when the short to medium terms, therefore, China may not invade any territory in its neighborhood which could bring it to a point of no return.


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