Domestic-International Linkages on China's Periphery: The Subnational Dimensions of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road

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The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road initiative is a major component of China's national development strategy under the Xi Jinping leadership. What drives China's current economic initiatives on its immediate periphery, and what are their international implications?

One of the most distinct aspects of China's external environment is that it shares borders with more countries than does any other state – 20 countries. It established diplomatic relations with its neighbors throughout the 1990s, and by the mid-2000s, Japan, South Korea, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Russia, and India emerged among China's top ten trading partners. In 2013, Beijing's high-level exchanges with Central, South, and Southeast Asian neighbors, and participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and China-ASEAN summits, demonstrated the new leadership's prioritization of surrounding regions. At the same time, President Xi Jinping identified China's border regions as key drivers of both his "peripheral diplomacy" and economic reform agenda for the next ten years, drawing attention to China's late-developing inland regions that have remained largely marginalized after three decades of reform and opening.

This paper examines the subnational dimensions of China's foreign economic engagement under the Xi leadership's 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road initiative. Conventional explanations in international relations (IR) theory that are based on assumptions of China as a unitary actor overstate the systemic causes and consequences of China's external behavior. In particular, predominant views in both China and the United States see China's policy toward neighbors as driven primarily by strategic relations with the United States. From these perspectives, Xi's current regional outreach is an effort to reinforce China's rising power and influence in Asia after a recent period of heightened tensions with the United States and its allies under the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" strategy.

The article explains that China's current regional economic engagement through the Silk Road initiatives are largely aimed to promote the development and opening of China's border provinces. This trend has intensified since the early 2000s, when China shifted from coastal to inland development and identified the immediate periphery as a foreign policy priority. My assessment of Yunnan Province suggests that China's economic engagement of South and Southeast Asian neighbors is an outcome of coordinated interaction of (1) national, (2) subnational, and (3) international actors and their interests rather than primarily a centrally-led effort to consolidate China's regional power and influence as commonly perceived.

This paper is organized as follows. First, I frame the relationship between China's border development and Asian regional economic engagement since 2000. Second, I examine this relationship in the case of Yunnan and China-South/Southeast Asia relations in the context of the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road initiative. Third, I assess the central-local-international dynamics of China's foreign economic policy toward neighbors on its periphery.


BYUN, See Won

(Ph.D. Student, George Washington University)


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