China’s Grand Strategy: Part 1

Will China’s rise be peaceful? What the smart money says
By Evan Dudik

Whether you believe China can be tamed depends a lot on who you ask.

Will China’s rise be peaceful? Is the world’s newest superpower benign? Is China the inevitable world hegemon? Should we accept, even welcome, this new superpower to the world order? Facilitate and encourage its membership in international organizations? Expect that in the course of time, China will accept and behave in accord with international norms of behavior?

Let’s look at what the smart money has to say.  Here are excerpts from two credentialed observers who believe the United States can and should accommodate China as a peer power. It’s really in the U.S.’ interest and indeed its obligation to accommodate China. It will be the U.S.’ responsibility if war breaks out

Charles L. Glaser, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., asserts that “China’s Rise Can Be Peaceful If the U.S. Doesn’t Provoke It,” New York Times Dec. 16, 2016:

… Contrary to many pessimistic assessments, China can rise peacefully. Its growing military and economic power pose major challenges to U.S. dominance in the region, but need not lead to conflict….U.S. strategy must therefore strike a careful balance: its policies must effectively deter attacks against U.S. vital interests, while at the same time not posing a serious threat to China’s security….

Even appearing to be moving toward supporting Taiwan’s independence would be seen by China’s leaders as a highly provocative act. …The growing centrality of nationalism to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party makes Taiwan’s future essential to the regime’s survival. China has made clear that it will use force if Taiwan declares independence…

… the United States should be moving in the opposite direction — reducing its commitment to Taiwan to improve U.S. relations with China… Although costly, among other reasons because Taiwan is a democracy, accommodation could increase U.S. security. But China’s growing assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea, has cast doubt on the wisdom of such a bargain — accommodating an expansionist state can be self-defeating. Down the road, the prospects for bargained mutual accommodation may be better.

Here’s a second: University of Chicago scholar Neil Thomas writes in the East Asia Forum [1] that:

International policymakers must study Xi’s  [Xi Jinping’s] words because he, as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) General-Secretary and head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, is pivotal in setting the overarching orientations and strategies of China’s foreign policy. The most authoritative articulation of Xi’s policy agenda is his ‘Report’ to the 19th CCP National Congress in October 2017.

An analysis of Xi’s foreign policy discourse suggests that there may exist more continuity than often assumed between the strategies of Xi and his predecessors. This intersection between past and present is captured neatly in the foreign policy section of Xi’s Report: ‘Following a path of peaceful development and working to build a community of common destiny for humankind’.

What’s not new is that Xi retains the ‘peaceful development’ strategy articulated by Hu in the mid-2000s, which derives from the CCP’s ‘basic line’ of ‘peace and development’ in international relations that Deng Xiaoping introduced in 1985. In the Report, Xi framed the foreign policy achievements of his first five-year term, including the BRI and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as ‘new contributions to global peace and development’. He has told Party leaders that the ‘peace and development’ strategy is ‘aligned with the fundamental interest of the country’ and is a ‘fundamental foreign policy goal’.

This ‘peace and development’ strategy reflects the belief that China’s economic development requires a peaceful external environment and cooperative relations with major powers. It replaced the Maoist creed of inevitable conflict between the capitalist and socialist worlds as the CCP’s official ‘assessment of the international situation’. Deng believed this strategy would help China ‘exert a much greater influence’ in a global system that the CCP perceived as dominated by Western powers.

Xi’s policy statements imply that the overarching concern of China’s foreign policy remains the creation of a ‘more enabling international environment’ for China’s continued development. As China’s interests continue to expand, so too does its desire to participate in global affairs.

But contrary to some recent commentary, it seems unlikely that ‘world power’ or ‘world domination’ are China’s priorities. The CCP observed the Soviet errors of external overreach and antagonism toward the US-led system during the Cold War. China now interacts with the international order like other major states: it complies with the order because to do so serves its interests and tries to influence this order where it does not.

I’m sure you could multiply examples of this genre of analysis logarithmically.

This series is about China’s grand strategy. This article differs from opinion pieces such as the above in exploring China’s actions as the guideposts to its grand strategy, not its professed intentions. For example, it does not speculate on China’s behavior were the U.S. to abandon Taiwan. It ignores China’s professed interest ‘enabling international environment’ for a peaceful rise, except as such statements are themselves behaviors part and parcel of its Grand Strategy.

It pays to look at actions and behavior because all such official statements about goals and aims stem from a bureaucracy that’s political to its very core. We should not look to Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs but to the Communist Party of China. The one-party state’s supreme body – the Politburo Standing Committee and its Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs  – has the ultimate decision-making power on all matters, including foreign policy. All pronouncements are moves on a political chessboard, evidently meant as much for consumption by the country’s political factions, especially the armed forces and China’s public at large as for the foreign affairs departments of other countries.

For the purposes of this article, I define a nation’s grand strategy as the set of propositions which appear to guide the country’s actions with respect to its own internal arrangements and its current and future relations with other countries. These excessively abstract ideas mean in the real world: How does a nation-state allocate its military and economic resources to ensure its security and attain its ambitions—and achieve the most advantageous position possible relative to its friends and rivals—while maintaining its internal stability and cohesion?

Sometimes a nation’s grand strategies are in fact developed and documented by very serious people in foreign ministries, think tanks and defense departments. Sometimes they are consequences of multiple forces at work, including pressures from economic constituencies (example: Japan’s need to import raw materials and Saudi Arabia’s need to export oil), the inertia and momentum in armed forces’ bureaucracies, a government’s need to shore up its legitimacy or distract its citizens through foreign adventures. Example: Some scholars think Germany’s Junker elites initiated World War I in part to discomfit the emerging socialist majority in the Reichstag, [2] similar to the way Bismarck provoked the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, collective historical paranoia (Russia comes to mind), the need to fend off or defuse predatory neighbors (e.g., Finland as a westward oriented nation steps carefully on the world stage, making sure to keep relations with Moscow friendly),  geographical accident or an embedded, widely held caricature of its stature, talents and capabilities leading to an exaggerated belief in its ‘destiny’ (Germany and Italy in the 1930s, post-revolutionary and Napoleonic France, Athens at the time of the Peloponnesian War, Japan in the first half of the 20th century, United States of America since the 1840s).

Rather than trying to deduce China’s grand strategy from public statements (which are themselves part of the grand strategy), or speculate what its grand strategy ought to be (peering out from a U.S.-centric vantage point), all things considered, it is better to look at China’s actual behavior.

China’s behavior reveals a grand strategy far more coherent, structured, powerful and sinister than what experts such as those quoted above appear to believe. Analysis of China’s grand strategy also suggests that while China pursues its grand strategy coherently and ruthlessly, China’ reaching its strategic goals is far from inevitable or inexorable.

This grand strategy’s elements appear architectonic, expressing elements as interlocking as a Rubik’s Cube.

Let’s take a look. In this series’ second installment, I’ll delve into how the South China Sea and Taiwan are central to the Chinese grand strategy.

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