- Introduction to the Special Issue on China’s Relations with Its Neighbors: Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Issues
China shares borders with more countries than any other state in the world today. It shares land borders with fourteen nations: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. China also shares maritime borders with eight countries: Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, North Korea, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam. Its neighbors include big and/or powerful states (such as India, Japan, and Russia), nuclear powers (i.e., India, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia), and unstable states, such as Afghanistan. China’s neighborhood comprises the largest economic region in the world and the highest concentration of great powers and nuclear powers in the world.
China’s surge to global power in the twenty-first century has caused endless debate about the implications of its rise for international politics and global stability in general and the dynamics of the US global role in particular. China is now one of the defining factors in the Asia Pacific international configuration as the rise of China has created “shock waves” in the policy choices of its neighboring countries. China’s neighboring countries are also on the frontier of transformative international developments, which often involve the United States and other powers. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, concerns over China’s rise, along with China’s territorial and maritime disputes with its neighbors (such as the June 2017 China-India border standoff on Doklam, the China-Japan dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and the South China Sea issue) and various emergencies in its neighborhood (such as the North Korean nuclear crisis, armed conflict in [End Page 485] northern Myanmar in November 2016, and the terrorist attack in Rakhine State in western Myanmar in August 2017), many of which are rooted in the Cold War era, complicate China’s relations with its neighbors. How will China deal with its neighbors given its growing power? Global interest in China’s historic engagement on its periphery has markedly increased as international leaders, analysts, policymakers, and scholars seek to understand and predict China’s current and future relations with these countries.
Over the last twenty years, empirical studies of China’s relations with its neighbors during the Cold War have evolved into a prominent discipline in the field of contemporary Chinese diplomatic history, even in the entire field of history. The increasing availability of a greater amount of archival documentation, the influence of new Western historical trends, the Chinese government’s practical needs in handling relations with its neighbors, and the growing attention of international scholars are the driving forces of this change. In comparison with their international counterparts, mainland Chinese scholars have advantages in accessing and employing historical documents in this regard. They have also attempted to form certain broad theoretical frameworks for interpreting this history. In this introduction I first discuss the background behind the rise of empirical studies of China’s relations with its neighbors during the Cold War. I introduce some of the representative works of Chinese scholars that have been published in the last two decades. I then highlight the main arguments and contributions of the five articles featured in this special issue and conclude by pointing to future directions of the field.
Historical Documentation, Methodology, and the Contemporary Concerns
In the Chinese academic world, studies of China’s relations with its neighbors have been attached to China’s diplomatic history. But those studies, usually in the form of consulting reports, news analyses, and commentaries for national strategic decisionmaking, rarely relied on primary sources. For various reasons those studies failed to understand the historical essence of specific issues and [End Page 486] thus were unable to offer foresight in their policy suggestions. They provided opinions solely on a tactical, and not a strategic, level (Yu 2018). In the twenty-first century, major changes have taken place, most of which are reflected in the use of the official documents of China and target countries, the entry of younger scholars into the field, and the formation of relatively stable research teams. Thus, Chinese scholars...