The ICAS Lectures


China and East Asian Security

Dean Cheng

ICAS Spring Symposium

May 22, 2012 Tuesday 1:00 PM - 4:30 PM
Rayburn Office Building Room B318
United States House of Representatives Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20515

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Biographic sketch & Links: Dean Cheng

China and East Asian Security

Dean Cheng

Over the last year, it would appear that Sino-US relations are in a state of confusion. On the one hand, we have had a string of high level visits, including Secretary of Defense Panetta's visit to China, as well as visits by Xi Jinping to the United States and Vice President Biden to China.

At the same time, however, we have had angry Chinese reactions to the annual DOD report on China, to the meeting of the President with the Dalai Lama, and concerns about what kinds of arms might be sold to Taiwan.

This occurred against a backdrop of what appears to be ever improving Chinese economic statistics. Despite the global economic slowdown, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has claimed that China remains on track for 7.5% growth in GDP in 2012.1 This expanding economy has allowed the PRC to purchase both guns and butter, as China's defense budget has enjoyed double-digit growth for much of the past two decades.

Those statistics may sound impressive, in part because they are. Clearly, the United States would like to have 7.5% growth in GDP and a double digit increase in defense spending. But it is essential to place those statistics in additional context, and in this regard, behind these numbers, there are two very different Chinas at work.

One China is the China of the burgeoning economy, with forests of construction cranes dotting the sky-lines. This is the China that Forbes' tracking suggests has gone from 20 billionaires in 2008 to 64 in 2009 to 115 in 2010.2 For the 300 million Chinese that live on the coast, from Beijing to Shenzhen, life under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has clearly improved over the past thirty years of "reform and opening."

Given this expanding economy, China's overseas interests are expanding, and this is reflected in the growing Chinese military footprint overseas. Members of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) have joined UN peacekeeping forces since 1989, with more and more PLA contingents worldwide annually.3 Meanwhile, the PLA Navy has now rotated its contingent of anti-piracy ships off Somalia to fight piracy for the twelfth time, marking one of the most extended, sustained out-of-area deployments ever by the Chinese navy.4

There is, however, another China. This is the China of the billion or so people who live farther inland. From these inland provinces and the countryside in general, some 200 million migrant laborers, two-thirds of the population of the United States, go to the cities, looking for work, on either a part-time or permanent basis.5 For these Chinese, they see only a widening gap between the shiny skyscrapers, and their rural homes.

Consequently, this other China is one riven by internal dissension which often turns violent. This is the China that now has tens of thousands of officially acknowledged "mass incidents" (qunti xing shijian; ?????) a year, apart from the ethnic separatists, as people protest about environmental conditions, corruption, and expropriation of their lands. This is also the China that in 2008 dispatched thousands of members of the People's Armed Police to crack down on Tibetan separatists, and more recently had massive protests in Xinjiang among the native Uighur population.

For both Chinas, the People's Liberation Army plays a central role.

For the wealthier China, the PLA serves in the role of every military-guarantor of national security and preserving national interests. This is consistent with what Chinese leader Hu Jintao termed the new "historic missions" of the PLA, in a December 2004 speech. In that speech, Hu said that some of the key tasks before the PLA are:

For the poorer China, the first and foremost "historic mission" of the PLA is to provide loyal support to the Chinese Communist Party. This point is of great importance, for when you think about the People's Liberation Army, it is essential to remember that it is a Party Army. That is, it is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party, and not solely the armed forces of the People's Republic of China. In this light, we should not be surprised if and when the PLA is called upon to suppress internal dissent, in order to help the Party remain in power-this is, in essence, part of its charter.

The Chinese Security Challenge

With this in mind, let me note here that the PRC is not the Soviet Union. With the Soviets, we were confronted by an opponent who was global in scope, touting an ideology that was, frankly, messianic and reprehensible in nature, and which was economically autarkic. Thus, in some ways, they were an ideal opponent for the United States.

There was no question that the Soviets were an opponent of the US, as they fomented revolution from Cuba to China. Communism, at least as practiced in the Kremlin, was something that could be applied around the world, and which they tried to do. It was an ideology directly opposed to the values we ourselves hold dear, and which was sufficiently unpopular to allow us to forge a global alliance to contain it. Yet, because the Soviets neglected their economy, and even isolated themselves from the global trading system, our opposition to them did not carry a significantly opportunity cost. There were few industries or consumers whose lives were affected by limited access to Soviet products.

China, by contrast, is a very different challenge. China is, at this point, primarily a regional, not a global, military power. While there are now Chinese troops participating in peacekeeping operations, they have only a minimal base structure overseas. China's military, for the most part, remains focused on Taiwan and the rest of its periphery.

At the same time, China poses only a limited ideological threat to the United States. The Chinese themselves are Communist only insofar as it keeps the CCP in power. As Deng Xiaoping once observed about socialist policies, however, "if it works, it's socialist; if it doesn't work, it's capitalist." This is a level of pragmatism, or breath-taking cynicism, that clearly subordinates ideology to practical results, such as profits.

Moreover, for better or worse, Chinese xenophobia means that one cannot become Chinese; as important, unlike the 1950s and 1960s, China is hardly exporting revolution. Rather, it is focused on exporting t-shirts, washing machines, and color TVs. Soon to be followed by passenger aircraft.

More importantly, China is hardly autarkic; rather, it has extensive trade relations with most of the world. This makes forging any kind of response to Chinese challenges, however, that much harder, as security and trade interests contradict, rather than mutually reinforce.

Overall, then, unlike the Soviet Union, China is hardly an avowed and dedicated adversary of the United States. Indeed, Stephen Colbert's "frenemy" comes to mind. They are a nation in hard-headed pursuit of their own interests, some of which will align, and some of which will be in conflict, with our own.

Prospects for Conflict

Where are those interests most likely to clash? For the moment, as I noted, China is still a regional power, so, not surprisingly, the most important areas where the US and PRC are likely to confront each other are on China's borders.

The first area is Taiwan. The United States remains committed to ensuring that the situation in the Taiwan Straits is not changed through the unilateral action of either Beijing or Taipei. This means that, on the one hand, the US opposes any effort by the PRC to invade Taiwan. At the same time, however, the US also opposes any effort by Taiwan to become a de jure independent nation. The 2008 elections in Taipei have made this easier, as President Ma Ying-jeou has sought to ratchet down the pro-independence rhetoric of his two predecessors.

Ironically, however, although Taipei, for the first time in 16 years, is following a more conciliatory line, Beijing appears less capable of responding. This is in part because of the flaring up of separatist activity in Xinjiang and Tibet, and in part because of the domestic instability I mentioned earlier. Consequently, Beijing does not appear prepared to make any significant conciliatory measures towards Taipei. Despite President Ma's decision not to raise the independence issue, for example, there is no evidence that Beijing has reduced the number of ballistic missiles targeted on Taiwan, with over 1200 still ranging the island.

The second area is Japan. Chinese suspicions of Japan date back to the Second World War, and before. Chinese nationalism is often expressed in anti-Japanese terms, such as the riots that occurred in 2004 after a soccer game where the Japanese beat the Chinese.6 In recent years, the two main flashpoints between China and Japan have been the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, uninhabited rocks between Okinawa and Taiwan, and the overlapping exclusive economic zones in the East China Sea.7 Both of these disputes are rooted, in part, in the potential for oil in those areas.

More to the point, however, they represent the ongoing competition between Tokyo and Beijing for regional dominance. Who will be the premier power in Asia?

The recent elections in Japan, ending nearly fifty years of dominance by the Liberal Democratic Party, were expected to soften that conflict. Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama had talked about improving relations with the PRC, and also rethinking the US-Japan security relationship. Yet, the 2010 iteration of the Senkaku crisis, and the subsequent Chinese decision to suspend shipments of rare earths to Japan, effectively ended any chance of closer relations between Beijing and Tokyo. Instead, as the current tensions amply demonstrate, Sino-Japanese relations are arguably at a nadir.

Third is China's access to the sea lanes of communications, especially to its south. As China imports more and more oil, it becomes ever more dependent on the seas to sustain its economic growth. Indeed, this is alluded to in Hu's "historic missions," and is concretely reflected in China's participation in the anti-piracy patrols off Somalia. China understands that freedom of the seas is essential if it wants to benefit from global trade.

Unfortunately for the PRC, those sea lanes of communications transit multiple choke points, including the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. This is one reason the Spratlys, a large group of islets scattered across the South China Sea, and claimed by a variety of states, including China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, are of such concern to Beijing.

Ironically, the Spratlys also highlights the "frenemy" relationship between the US and the PRC. While China's increasing dependence on the seas for oil and for shipping its exports makes it vulnerable to the US Navy in event of conflict, at the same time, it is the US, in peacetime, that helps keep those sea lanes relatively unmenaced, to China's benefit.

The Capabilities of the PLA

Nonetheless, the Chinese military is not prepared to depend upon the kindness of strangers, and it has enjoyed over a decade of double-digit defense spending increases to ensure it does not have to.

Much of this has gone towards acquisition of a variety of new systems from Russia, including Su-27 and Su-30 fighter aircraft, Sovremennyy-class destroyers, and Kilo-class submarines. There has also been plenty of home-grown acquisition, however, especially in big-ticket naval and air assets. This is not surprising, as the Chinese have themselves indicated that their focus will be on building up their naval, air, and missile forces, rather than the ground forces.

For the Chinese navy, these include the Type 039 Song and Type 041 Yuan-class new diesel electric submarines, the Type 093 Shang-class nuclear attack boats, and various variants of the Luyang-class destroyers, the latest of which are equipped with phased array radars and the Hongqi-9 SAM, roughly comparable to our own Patriot. For the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy Air Force, it includes the JH-7 Flying Leopard, the J-10, which was on display in the 2009 National Day fly-by, and the J-11, an indigenous version of the Su-27.

It is, however, the less visible aspects of the PLA that should arouse the most concern. Because this is not your father's PLA. Gone are the days of "human wave attacks," when the PLA would try to win through simply overwhelming numbers. Instead, in the wake of the US success with Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1991, the PLA concluded that it needs to be able to fight and win "Local Wars Under Modern, High-Tech Conditions." The significance of this phrasing was codified in Jiang Zemin's 1995 speech on the "Two Transformations" (liangge zhuanbian; ????), which called for the PLA to:
  1. Shift from an emphasis on quantity to an emphasis on quality.
  2. Shift from preparing to fight local wars under ordinary conditions (i.e., industrial age warfare) to preparing to fight local wars under modern, high-tech conditions (i.e., in light of information technology and systems of systems).8

A corollary that usually accompanies these two imperatives in PLA literature is that the PLA must also transform itself from an army that is personnel intensive to one that is science and technology intensive. This parallels regular Chinese admonitions on the need to raise the S&T level of the nation as a whole.

Implications for the United States

All of this adds up to a very complex situation for the United States. Unlike during the Cold War, it is neither possible nor desirable, in my view, to "contain" China. The economic links are too myriad, and in many cases too extensive, to allow for a containment strategy. Moreover, it is a policy that few of our allies are likely to support. Most of all, as I noted earlier, China is not an opponent of the United States comparable to the Soviet Union.

At the same time, however, we do have significant, and important, policy differences with the Chinese. They are clearly of the view that the East Asian littoral is their sphere of influence, and that its neighbors should look more to China than the United States for direction. Such a view, needless to say, would entail the US ceding long-time allies to the PRC. This would hardly be welcomed in Manila, Seoul, or Tokyo!

Moreover, we do not know what a powerful China, perhaps even a hegemonic one, would act like, as this is something that has not existed in nearly 200 years. It might be a status quo power, interested primarily in developing trade relations with its neighbors and ourselves. That is to be fervently hoped for, as it would maximize the benefits for the Chinese and Asians in general, as well as for ourselves. Yet, there is also the more likely scenario that it will be a much more assertive state. That is something that Vietnam, the population on Taiwan, and India fears. To forestall that, it is essential that the US maintain a predominant presence in the region, so that no Chinese leadership will miscalculate in the mistaken belief that we will cede that region to Beijing.

1"World Economic Forum: China Economic Growth on Track Say Wen Jiabao," BBC World News (September 11, 2012).
2Russell Flannery, "China's Billionaire Drop-Offs," Forbes (March 11, 2009).
Russell Flannery, "It's China's Year on the 2011 Forbes Billionaire List," Forbes (March 10, 2011).
3Bates Gill and Chin-hao Huang, "China's Expanding Peacekeeping Role," SIPRI Policy Brief (February 2009).
4"China's Anti-Piracy Escorts Not a Short-term Mission," China Daily (March 11, 2009)
"China's 11th Escort Fleet Returns From Somali Waters," Global Times (September 13, 2012).
5Ian Johnson and Loretta Chao, "Painful Lunar New Year for China's Migrant Workers," Wall Street Journal (January 23, 2009).
6"Chinese Riot After Japan Win Final," CNN (August 7, 2004).
7"Japan's Provocation in East China Sea Very Dangerous," People's Daily online (July 21, 2005).
Rick Wallace, "Asian Powers Get Stuck In Over Disputed Isles," The Australian (September 29, 2012).
8Zhang Qinsheng and Li Bingyan, "Complete New Historical Transformations--Understanding Gained From Studying CMC Strategic Thinking on 'Two Transformations," Jiefangjun Bao, (January 14, 1997) in FBIS-CHI. One sometimes sees this term written as "the two basic transformations" or the "two basic conversions" (both being given as liangge jibenxing zhuanbian).

This page last updated October 1, 2012 jdb