Understanding China’s Strategy

While the Pentagon wonders whether China is its friend or foe, the Middle Kingdom’s strategy remains aimed at stability.

Chinese sailors man the rails aboard the destroyer Qingdao as they arrive in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, September 6, 2006
Chinese sailors man the rails aboard the destroyer Qingdao as they arrive in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, September 6, 2006 (US Navy)

The Department of Defense released its report on Military and Security Developments in the People’s Republic of China (PDF) earlier this week, a few months overdue and outdated but still reflective of the Pentagon’s natural inability to decide whether China is a friend or foe. Among other things, the report sought to assess China’s strategy in relation to its defense and foreign policy.

The report’s authors admit that “limited transparency” on China’s part leaves “many uncertainties” about its military modernization projects and planning. Nonetheless there is some sense to be made of the Middle Kingdom’s strategy, starting with how it describes its own objectives:

upholding national security and unity and ensuring the interests of national development; achieving the all-round coordinated and sustainable development of China’s national defense and armed forces; enhancing the performance of the armed forces with informatization as the major measuring criterion; implementing the military strategy of active defense; pursuing a self-defensive nuclear strategy; and fostering a security environment conducive to China’s peaceful development.

“Much more could be said by China about its military investments, the strategy and intentions shaping those investment choices, and the military capabilities it is developing,” notes the report, which is hardly surprising considering that the above summary, from China’s most recent Defense White Paper (2008) actually says very little.

The report is careful to note that the study of China’s military strategy remains an “inexact science.” Outside observers have little direct insight into the formal strategies motivating the expansion of China’s armed forces, the leadership’s thinking about the use of force, the contingency planning that shape the military’s structure and doctrine, or into the linkages between strategic pronouncements and actual policy decisions, especially in crisis situations. “It is possible, however, to make some generalizations about China’s strategy based on tradition, historical pattern, official statements and papers, and emphasis on certain military capabilities and diplomatic initiatives.”

For starters, Beijing makes decisions based on the following set of strategic priorities: perpetuate Communist Party rule; sustain economic development and growth; maintain domestic political stability; defend China’s national sovereignty; secure China’s status as a great power. These are all defensive goals, meaning that they aim at preventing crises which might upset China’s precious sense of security. But China’s leaders are also recognizing a “window of opportunity” at the start of this twenty-first century, meaning that they will seek to promote regional preeminence and global influence for their country.

Realizing that China’s economic growth will inevitably prompt domestic challenges and that China’s entry on the world stage as a great power means that it is no longer isolated from international affairs, China’s leaders appear have decided that, “through 2020, they should focus on managing or exploiting external tensions, especially with the great powers, to maintain an environment conducive to China’s development.”

This attitude is confusing both American and Russian policymakers with China expanding its claims in the South China Sea, vying for influence in Central Asia, obstructing international climate change legislation at Copenhagen, squabbling with Google over Internet freedom, trying to water down sanctions against Iran and refusing to outright denounce North Korea over sinking a South Korean corvette.

The apparent schizophrenia on China’s part may be part of a deliberate scheme aimed at contesting American global leadership but so far, Beijing has shown little willingness to accept a more responsible role on the world stage. It works with Russia to preserve a favorable balance of power on the Eurasian landmass, trying to prevent more Western-backed color revolutions for instance and launching the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but in 2008, it refused to support the independence of the breakaway Georgian provinces which Russia claimed to defend. Beijing and Moscow haven’t really been seeing eye to eye since.

China’s ambiguity toward the rest of the world may be reflective rather of a division within China’s leadership, with hardliners in the military and in the party convinced that America is conniving to deceive China and keep it poor while Foreign Ministry officials and businessmen understand the value of maintaining peaceful ties with the West.

(One Chinese general recently spoke out, writing in Hong Kong’s Phoenix magazine that China must democratize after the American example lest is succumb to Soviet-style stagnation. The fact that such dissent is aired publicly is evidence of China’s move away from authoritarianism. It will likely take some time for Beijing’s mandarins to get used to being criticized though.)

In either event, China, like any state, pursues its own interests before anything else. It will do so in the South China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula, especially when its policy there is driven by hardliners who like to think of geopolitics as a zero-sum game. It will not allow anyone to dictate the pace of its inevitable democratization process and as such, it will censor Internet access if it feels it has to. And it will obstruct foreign efforts to curtail its growth in the name of environmentalism because it won’t pay the price for two centuries of Western pollution.

The Defense Department report points at several factors that could compel China to turn inward again, including rising nationalism, demographic pressure and the sustainability of Communist Party rule, but overall, Beijing knows that China “cannot develop in isolation from the rest of the world, nor can the world enjoy prosperity and stability without China.” And that’s a direct quote from China’s 2008 Defense White Paper again.