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  • Contesting Visions of East Asia's Regional Economic Order:A Chinese Perspective
  • Xinquan Tu (bio) and Yue Lyu (bio)

Despite being the biggest country in Asia, China only within the last century has developed a sense of itself as a regional country. Historically, China considered itself the center of the world. It was not until the early twentieth century, after Western powers overwhelmingly defeated the Qing Dynasty and forced the country to open its markets, that the Chinese people began to observe the world from the perspective of a country located in East Asia. Since the government's economic reforms and opening in the 1980s, China has become a significant destination for trade and investment and a key link in the regional production network. In 2010, China surpassed Japan to become the world's second-largest economy.

This essay will provide a Chinese perspective on the contending U.S. and Chinese visions of the regional economic order in East Asia. The discussion is divided into four sections examining China's vision of the East Asian economic order, China's perception of the U.S. role in this order, the points of convergence and divergence between the Chinese and U.S. visions, and the impact of China's recent initiatives on the existing regional economic architecture.

China's Vision of the East Asian Economic Order

In the first three decades after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the relationship between China and its East Asian neighbors was difficult due to ideological differences. However, the rapid development of some of these ideological opponents became a mirror for China to reflect on its own backwardness and seclusion. Deng Xiaoping's visits to Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia in 1978 were considered a strong stimulus for his decision to reform and open up the Chinese economy. These neighbors set a good example for economic development, and China was eager to learn from and cooperate with them. China's opening was [End Page 26] also a great investment opportunity for these countries, in particular their overseas Chinese communities.1

Since then, diplomatic and economic relations between China and many East Asian countries have grown closer, and China has re-emerged as a major power in the region. However, it is not yet powerful enough to set up the regional architecture it prefers. In addition to the challenges China faces from the two incumbent powers, the United States and Japan, issues such as the South China Sea and North Korea complicate China's relations with the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) and South Korea, respectively.2 These tensions are causing China to rethink its strategy for regional integration. With no pressing need to build an East Asian community, China has chosen to lower its expectations and take a more pragmatic approach.

At the same time, China has begun to look beyond East Asia and see itself not only as a regional power but also as a global actor. Beijing has attempted to establish frameworks beyond East Asia in order to bypass the constraints imposed by Japan and the United States. This has, in part, involved launching cooperative forums with other regions of the world. For example, China started the China-Africa Cooperation Forum in 2000, took the lead in establishing the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) with Russia and Central Asian states in 2001, and launched the China–Latin America Forum in 2014. Recently, most attention has been paid to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which President Xi Jinping proposed in 2013. Although the plans for this wide-ranging and ambitious initiative have not been fully disclosed, it is obvious that East Asia is only a part of China's global strategy.

In East Asia, which is still very important for China in terms of trade and investment, Beijing's main approach has shifted from regionalism to bilateralism. Though the China-Japan-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has stalled, China signed FTAs with South Korea, ASEAN, and Australia in 2015, indicating its pragmatic approach to regional integration in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific. In December 2015 the State Council released [End Page 27] the first official document regarding China...


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