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Experts ponder China’s future

Distinguished researchers of Chinese politics and international relations discussed the worldwide ramifications of a rising China yesterday as part of the Oksenberg conference series.

The conference, titled “Constraints on China’s Foreign Policy: Inside and Out,” consisted of a keynote address delivered by Thomas Christensen, professor of politics at Princeton. The conference was followed by two panel discussions.

In his address, Christensen noted that China, as a rising power, will encounter international challenges and suggested that China’s losses are not necessarily America’s gains.

“This is not a zero-sum game,” he said. “It’s not to the benefit of the United States when China has abrasive policies towards its neighbors and has tensions with our allies, and although many Americans might think that and say ‘That will help us bolster our alliances,’ we can bolster our alliances on our own.”

China is now more influential in international organizations and in the global economy, Christensen said.

He noted that last year China opposed sanctions on North Korea after that country attacked a South Korea naval ship and shelled a South Korean Island. In addition, China’s loud protest of U.S.-South Korean military exercises and its maritime tension with Japan have cast it in a negative light with some neighboring countries.

Christensen observed that Chinese leaders have recently encountered difficulties in handling certain international problems.

“I don’t see China reaching out in a systematic way to solve various long-term problems, to change its overall diplomatic strategy,” he said. “Instead, I see China running up against the normal problems of a great power as its power rises and then behaving extremely badly in response to the challenges that are created by those normal frictions of growth and interaction in new ways with neighbors and with faraway powers.”

He added that between 2006 and 2008, China played a constructive role in international affairs. For example, it put pressure on North Korea and Sudan and sent the first non-African peacekeeping force to Darfur.

Following Christensen’s talk, Stanford professor of political science Jean Oi moderated the first panel. The discussion centered on topics including rising income inequality, popular dissatisfaction with the government and the rise of nationalist sentiment. The panelists were Terry Sicular of the University of Western Ontario’s economics department, USC professor of political science Stan Rosen and George Washington University professor Bruce Dickson.

Dickson argued that although the Chinese are wealthier, this increased prosperity may not result in a transition to a democratic system any time soon.

University of Maryland professor Scott Kastner was one of several experts to speak at Wednesday's conference about the "Constraints on China's Foreign Policy." (JIN ZHU/The Stanford Daily)

The second panel dealt with the implications of China’s growing influence around the world. It was moderated by Michael Armacost, a distinguished fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. The panelists were Scott Kastner from the University of Maryland, Ely Ratner from the RAND Corporation and Tai Ming Cheung from UC-San Diego.

Ratner’s analysis focused on foreign threats to China, such as terrorist groups carrying out attacks in China or on Chinese interests abroad. Ratner said that groups urged retaliation after the Chinese government cracked down on dissent in the mostly Muslim region of Xinjiang in response to the 2009 riots. China may continue to face the challenges posed by international terrorism as its influence grows.

“In addition to problems of perceived mistreatment of Muslims in China, Islamist groups could also target Chinese interests as punishment for supporting secular or autocratic regimes particularly in the Muslim world,” he said.

Other topics raised included the role of the Chinese military.

Students came away more knowledgeable about the issues relevant to China’s rise. Jimmy Ruck ’11, a history major, is working on an honors thesis on the role of the Chinese military in contemporary China. He noted the significance of outside threats to China and how these threats may prevent China from importing resources to fuel its economic growth.

“It’s important to realize that China faces threats themselves,” Ruck said. “The idea that there’s terrorism against them and then this constant push for resources, I thought they were some pretty important points.”

Xiaojun Li, a fourth-year doctoral student in political science, said that the greatest insight he gained was on the importance of a nation’s domestic and foreign policies.

“It’s important now to look at both domestic and foreign policy as well as the implications for both China and the U.S.,” Li said.

Sungmin Rho, a third-year doctoral student in political science said she enjoyed hearing about the diversity of views on China’s role in the world.

“It was interesting in that we could actually hear more opinions of current events and current policies and how American policymakers perceive China and at the same time how other countries perceive China,” Rho said.

The Oksenberg lecture series began in memory of Michel Oksenberg, who died in 2001. He was a fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Oksenberg served on the National Security Council in the years that the United States and China normalized diplomatic relations.