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Book Reviews

New Directions In The Study Of China’s Foreign Policy

Alastair Iain Johnston and Robert S. Ross (eds.)

Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 2006
482 pages, $28.90 

Reviewed by Richard Desjardins

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Book coverThis book followed a December 2002 conference honouring Professor Allen Whiting, whose masterpiece, China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War, was published 40 years ago but is still considered a classic. Twelve highly noted academics contributed to this work on China’s foreign and security policies. The book is divided into three parts – focusing upon the issue of security, China and globalization, and domestic policy.

The first part constitutes much of the book, and it contains six essays on various aspects of China’s security policy. In all the essays, the authors attempt to address the role Professor Whiting’s approach has played in their own research about China, that is, establishing a link between theory and reality.

Professor Robert S. Ross wonders whether there can be any distinctions between Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula with respect to the threat of a conflict. For Ross, if the balance of power in the Strait of Taiwan ensures a stable mutual deterrence situation, the Korean Peninsula, on the other hand, represents a rather unstable case of mutual deterrence, and, thereby, a greater risk of conflict between the two Koreas. 

Professor Thomas J. Christensen raises the alarm against such a scenario, noting that, in the past, China has had the propensity to intervene militarily in some conflicts when there was an opportunity to do so, or whenever it felt it was vulnerable. The Chinese therefore would have supported North Korea in the Korean conflict if they feared the Americans would strengthen their position in the South to the extent of becoming a direct threat to China itself. By opting for an early challenge, China was taking advantage of its position at the time. Thomas Christensen argues that the situation with respect to Taiwan could lead to a similar case.

Through access to Chinese archives and internal publications of the government of India, Professor John Garver reviewed events that occurred during the 1962 war between the two countries. His findings led him to new evidence on the origin of this war. Professor Avery Goldstein notes that the relationship between China and the Korean Peninsula has evolved. If the Cold War played a role at the time in China’s decision to get involved militarily in the Korean conflict (1950-1953), today it is globalization and domestic economic reforms that influence the Chinese approach to the two Koreas, as well as its desire to maintain the status quo and to reduce tensions. Professor Michael Yahuda, a seasoned observer of Asia-Pacific geopolitics, reviews China-Japan relations, which have come under some strain during the last few years. Yahuda focuses on a number of conflicting issues between the two countries, and concludes that the differences are too deep to expect any future resolution. He then offers three scenarios that the reader might find rather pessimistic. Lastly, Yong Deng, Professor of Political Science at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, looks at how China reacts to foreign accusations of a Chinese threat. Ironically, these accusations have somewhat helped soften China’s position in international fora. The Chinese threat is presented as both military and economic. Deng concludes that China has a long way to go to refute this description.

Even though the second part of the book does not directly deal with security issues, it nonetheless helps to explain the context in which they are discussed. The three essays in this section focus upon the role that China plays on the international scene, including the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. In the authors’ view, China seems to have made significant strides in presenting itself as a responsible player on the international stage, even making concessions on issues of sovereignty – traditionally a very sensitive subject for China.

Finally, the third part of the book deals with how China perceives the United States. This perception is often influenced by the way the Chinese see themselves. The more confident they are of their own future, the less likely they will have a negative opinion of the United States. However, how the United States treats them, particularly in terms of the two nations being equal partners, is a threat to a relationship that needs strengthening.

This book will be very much appreciated by all those involved in the planning of Canadian foreign or military policy with respect to China.

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Richard Desjardins works at the Canada Border Services Agency. He has a Master’s degree in Chinese Politics.