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China: Analysis From Washington -- Looking West From Beijing

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 11 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Having solidified its status as a major economic player in Asia, China is now positioning itself to play an expanded economic and geopolitical role within and among the post-Soviet states.

But just as along the Pacific rim, Beijing's growing influence in these states is also generating a kind of backlash that the Chinese authorities have not yet found a way to overcome.

And consequently, China's actual impact on developments in these countries -- both intended and unintended -- may prove to be large but very different from what the leaders in Beijing almost certainly would like to see.

That downside risk helps to explain why Beijing has moved so cautiously in the political realm up to now. But an event this week signals that at least some in the Chinese capital are prepared to take the greater risks associated with a higher political profile.

On Thursday, Beijing successfully sold more than $500 million in bonds on the international market. This sale has attracted international attention not only because it was the first such offering by an Asian country since the collapse of the Russian ruble in August, but also because it was so clearly political.

Beijing currently has more than $140 billion in foreign currency reserves and thus has no immediate need for the cash raised by this sale. Instead, it appears to have made this offering in order to highlight its stability, economic progress and its growing political influence.

Not surprisingly, that aspect of the sale has sent shockwaves through many Asian capitals. But they may play an equally important role in the post-Soviet states, helping Moscow to rein in its restive Far East while giving the other countries of the region expanded freedom of action.

China's impact on the Russian Far East is likely to be especially great, but it may prove the most complex. On the one hand, increased Chinese involvement in the economy of that hard-pressed area is likely to be welcomed by the population, as long as it does not entail large-scale Chinese immigration.

And such economic improvement in turn could push some regional leaders to think about pursuing an even more independent course, one that some have said might even include eventual independence as a Pacific rim state.

But on the other hand, Moscow will almost certainly use any increase in Chinese participation there to generate Russian nationalism and hence increase cohesion of the Russian Federation.

Over the past five years, Moscow officials and especially those in the military have sought to frighten Russians in the region by suggesting that an overpopulated China continues to look "greedily" at the wealthy but underpopulated Russian Far East.

Russian generals have frequently dramatically overstated the number of Chinese migrants there in order to press the case for greater vigilance against what they say is the Chinese threat.

Such campaigns have not always worked, but they have proved effective in countering nascent secessionist movements in the region. They are likely to be tried again and may be more effective if China becomes the dominant player, thus eliminating or at least reducing the possibility that leaders of the Russian Far East could play off China against Japan.

China's impact on other post-Soviet states is likely to be larger and also less contradictory. Until recently, China has pursued a relatively low profile in both Central Asia and further afield, including the southern Caucasus and Ukraine.

Now, it appears likely that China may choose to increase its economic presence and hence its political influence in these countries. Such an increase would likely have three major consequences:

First, it would give the economies of these countries a boost in and of itself.

Second, it almost certainly would lead other Asian countries to up their participation in their economies, thus diversifying the economic ties of these countries.

And third, it would give these countries expanded opportunities to stand up to Russian pressure while participating in economic ties with a country that in most cases would be less likely to provoke Moscow than greater attachments to Western states.

In all these ways, China's latest sale of bonds may have an impact on the entire post-Soviet region, yet another indication of the way in which these countries are now being integrated not just into the West but into the world economy.

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