Understanding China’s new place in the world


China and Regional Studies Joint Webinar Series

China’s ever greater role on the world stage is the result of far-sighted economic policies and diplomatic initiatives. But the country’s increasing reach and prominence has also inevitably given rise to heightened tensions with Asian neighbours and other global rivals wary of any challenge to their own superpower status.

Some of these frictions are longstanding, rooted in historical grievances and perceived inequities. Others are much more recent, linked to the push for enhanced trade, new alliances, and opportunities to extend influence through strategic investments, shared technology and large-scale infrastructure projects.

Those themes – and where they may lead - were the focus of the third in the China and Regional Studies Joint Webinar Series, organised by Lingnan University and the University of Turku in Finland. The session saw two expert speakers examine both the persistent hold of past events on current thinking and China’s latest moves to become a significant, if not dominant, player in various regions around the world.

Setting the scene, Liisa Kauppila. a doctoral candidate at the Centre for East Asian Studies at the University of Turku, first outlined how China’s rise in recent decades can be seen as a carefully conceived process of connecting the country with major corners of the world through a network of overseas economic regions.

These “master clusters” are built upon the flow of goods, natural resources, energy, data, technology and knowledge.

According to Kauppila, China’s objective is to become the primary node of these “global extensions” of the national economy, thus making each of them a specific sphere of influence and enabling the smooth movement of the manufactured goods, components and commodities which are key to ongoing economic growth.

Ultimately, she noted, such developments are also intended to serve the “need and creeds of the Chinese population” and bolster the position of the ruling party.

To illustrate, her analysis, Kauppila used the making of the rapidly evolving China-Arctic economic region as a prime example. This shows how a wide range of tried and tested practices and mechanisms are being deployed to achieve clearly identifiable goals.

However, on another level, it also demonstrates how China’s plans and actions are based on a different type of “spatial imagination”, one that contrasts with the Euro-centric reading of space and how countries commonly exert power.

In particular, it shifts the emphasis from control of territory to having an effective network of relations which operate in tandem with other national and regional economies.

“You cannot draw these relationships on a traditional map; they are constantly changing,” Kauppila said. “But they serve China’s primary node vision and are a Sino-centric regional phenomenon.”

The Arctic case, she noted, is especially interesting as the effects of climate change mean it is fast evolving. For China, the main attractions are the “flows’ in natural resources - minerals, energy, rare earths, fish and other foodstuffs. But there are also opportunities for seaborne trade, social science projects, satellite data, and even tourism with Russia and the Nordic countries.

To build trust among the Arctic community, China has been engaged for some years in a concerted campaign to polish its reputational profile, facilitate economic activity, and establish actor-to actor networks.

This has involved high-level state and official visits, so-called “panda diplomacy”, writing op-ed favourable pieces for publication in local media, as well as monitoring known influencers and target groups.

“These practices shape the landscape and rules to enable flows to China,” Kauppila said. “But they also bring actors together to establish joint research centres, do pilot projects, test technology and develop critical infrastructure like Finland’s railway corridor. The Arctic as we know it is gone both politically and economically.”

Professor Kar-ming Yu, Director of the Lingnan Institute of Further Education, addressed a similarly important topic, looking at both the old and new issues affecting China’s relations with its neighbours in East Asia.

The plain fact is that many of the past problems, whether centred on maritime disputes, economic rivalries, contrasting ideologies or last century’s wars simply refuse to go away. Indeed, as China’s power increases, and with it the sense of international competition and mistrust, a number of the old points of contention have resurfaced, adding to the strains caused as the balance of power within the region subtly readjusts to accommodate new demands and realities.

Despite China’s emphasis on a “peaceful rise”, the international system is always interpreted as a zero-sum game. Yu noted. As a result, the country’s increasing influence in East Asia is viewed as coming at the expense of Japan. South Korea and others.

Yu nimbly reviewed key historical touchpoints and today’s potential flashpoints, explaining that China’s stance on foreign policy matters is typically driven by four concerns: economic growth, territorial integrity and sovereignty, national security and defence, and global status.

“China is more assertive now and on some of the big issues will stand very firm when they think it is a base line,” Yu said. “But there is also a more pragmatic approach, looking at things issue by issue and not just following ideology.”