China and East Asian Security
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
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
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
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:
- Safeguarding China's national development. While priority will continue to be
accorded economic, rather than military, development, the PLA is expected to
provide the secure, stable environment necessary to allow this to occur
- Protecting China's expanding national interests, including in space
- And ensuring world peace through a greater range of activities, including
participation in international security efforts and dealing with transnational
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
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
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
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
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
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
- Shift from an emphasis on quantity to an emphasis on quality.
- 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.
This page last updated October 1, 2012 jdb
|1||"World Economic Forum: China Economic Growth on Track Say Wen Jiabao,"
BBC World News (September 11, 2012). |
|2||Russell 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).
|3||Bates 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).
|5||Ian 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).
|8||Zhang 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).|