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Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2000

China stays focused on the big picture

Staff writer
INTERPRETING CHINA'S GRAND STRATEGY: Past, Present, and Future, by Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis. RAND 2000, Project Air Force, 2000, 283 pp., $35 (cloth), $20 (paper).

Dealing with China is the chief foreign-policy challenge of the 21st century. Governments in Tokyo, Washington and elsewhere must develop coherent strategies to either accommodate or check (depending on circumstances) a huge country with immense resources that sprawls across the region and aspires to a more prominent profile within Asia and on the global stage. The task is complicated by the fact that decisions made now will shape China's development: If we treat Beijing as an enemy, it is sure to become one.

The variables are countless and the contingencies unknowable, but throwing up our hands and leaving things to fate is both irresponsible and dangerous. One possible guide is the past, which is why "Interpreting China's Grand Strategy" is important.

The authors are two veteran China analysts in the U.S. defense community. Michael Swaine is one of the best in the field. (But note the field: RAND has a Pentagon constituency and while its research is always top-notch, it rarely breaks out of the box.)

The authors' reading of history shows that traditional Chinese security thinking is focused on territorial defense. That's straightforward enough. But the definition of territory is key. The "larger" China is, the more its neighbors need to be concerned. And the authors suggest that there is reason to worry.

"Throughout most of Chinese history, the pacification or control of this periphery [continental and maritime regions] was usually regarded as essential to prevent attacks on the heartland and during various periods of the imperial era, to secure Chinese dominance over significant nearby inland (and to a much lesser extent, maritime) trade routes. The establishment of Chinese control or influence over the periphery . . . was also considered extremely important during most of the imperial era as a means of affirming the hierarchical, Sinocentric, Confucian international order."

The continuities in Chinese thinking are evident in Chinese maps that show the entire South China Sea as being Chinese waters. This suggests that tensions in the western regions of the country will not abate, and that the Senkaku dispute is a potential problem.

Frequently, China hands counter that Chinese philosophical writings eschew violence, advocating the defeat of enemies through deception, guile or other means. There is some basis for this argument. But then, every military writer worth his salt concedes that battles should be won before the first shot is fired. After all, even Clausewitz, that crusty old Prussian, wrote that war is just politics by other means.

Swaine and Tellis dismiss the claim that China is inherently more pacifist. "A closer examination of the writings [of Confucius, Mencius and Sunzi] and of the historical record does not generally confirm this viewpoint."

Beijing's leaders pursue what Swaine and Tellis call "a calculative strategy." It is based on three pillars:

  * a nonideological approach keyed to market-led economic growth and maintenance of amiable international political relations with all states;

  * deliberate restraint in the use of force;

  * expanding involvement in various international multilateral forums, with emphasis on attaining asymmetrical gains. In other words, China wants to use international law to restrain its adversaries, while maintaining the maximum possible freedom of maneuver.

It is a smart strategy. It puts forward the image of China as a good international citizen, which encourages other nations to do business with it, nudge it in the right direction and help develop its economy. And that, of course, is the goal.

Economic development is the foundation of military modernization and it requires indigenous scientific, technological and economic capabilities. "Superior economic growth rates are critical, because they present, in principle, fungible resources that can be garnered by the state and applied to the acquisition of some specific capabilities that one's competitors may have."

Swaine and Tellis believe Chinese leaders have done their homework, yoking national strategy to the purpose of strengthening the state. They have no confusion about ends and means.

"The calculative strategy has paid off handsomely for China. It has put it along a path that, if sustained, could make China the largest economy in the world sometime in the first half of the 21st century.

"Even more significantly, it has allowed such growth to occur as a result of an export-led strategy that increasingly employs significant proportions of imported technology and inputs -- an amazing fact signifying that China has been able to rely upon both the markets and increasingly the resources of its partners to create the kind of growth that might eventually pose major concerns to its economic partners, without greatly unnerving those partners in the interim."

That interim is likely to last for a while. China is developing, but its shortcomings are increasingly evident. The leadership may clamor for a higher international profile, but the country has a ways to go before it can claim that place. The implication is that China's strategy is unlikely to change for some time. The Taiwanese can feel some relief -- as long as they do not push too hard.

Still, the authors believe that this is only an interregnum. There will come a time when China will square its shoulders and become more assertive. But they write that "Only when China reaches the point where it becomes like a large developed country -- that is, one pursuing an internally driven growth strategy that exploits the diversity of resources and markets within its own borders -- would it experience significant economic incentives to shift toward the more normal risk-accepting international political behaviors associated with true great powers."

Why? There are simple but time-honored reasons for China to become more "normal": fear, anticipation, status, greed, irredentism, co-optation. "The weight of global history suggests that China as a rising power will exhibit increasingly assertive behaviors over time."

What should be done, and how should the world -- in particular, the United States -- deal with China? First, forget containment. The authors dismiss it as neither feasible nor desirable. In fact, it is counterproductive. "Efforts to contain China would almost certainly provoke the emergence of an assertive and more militant China far sooner and to a much greater degree than might have otherwise occurred."

Engagement makes sense, but only so long as policymakers focus on the ultimate objective. It is a means to an end, not a strategy in itself. "Engagement must be oriented toward encouraging a more cooperative China, whether strong or weak."

Actually, the authors believe that all such shorthand is suspect. "The U.S. should jettison the use of rhetorical labels such as containment, appeasement and constrainment . . . it is more productive to focus on the content of desirable policies to be pursued in various issue areas."

That's easier said than done. The problem is the time lag. We engage now for benefits later. When the time comes to assess the merits of a strategy, there are always conflicting interpretations. Constituencies develop and they argue for the status quo; engagement becomes an end in itself.

As always, it boils down to political judgments. The problem for Americans is that they have ideas about China -- myths, really -- that bear little, if any, correspondence to reality. For almost a century, China has been the tabula rasa on which the U.S. has written its dreams of remaking the world. Shrewd Chinese leaders -- Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Chou Enlai -- have reflected those dreams back into the eyes of U.S. politicians, often blinding them to the reality of that country.

Dispensing with the myths and taking China as it is, is the first step in formulating a workable strategy for the 21st century. "Interpreting China's Grand Strategy" is an indispensable aid.

Brad Glosserman can be contacted at brad@japantimes.co.jp.

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