Analyzing China's security strategy

By Liu Kuan-teh 劉冠德  / 

Sat, Feb 10, 2001 - Page 8

As the notion of the so-called "China threat" gradually gave way to the mainstream approach of "engagement with China" over the last couple of years, a new strategic thinking regarding US-China relations has also emerged.

As the Bush administration got ready for business, his foreign policy team introduced a somewhat different approach to the Asia Pacific region. In reaction to the Chinese government's recent display of training achievements shows, the new US government has also reiterated its intention to review its Asia policy by emphasizing the need to strengthen relations with its allies. For the Bush administration to understand the transformation of Chinese military capability, however, it must pay attention to the reasons behind such strategic thinking.

For decades, China's security strategy has been heavily conditioned by four fundamental features of its security environment. First, China has long had a long and, in many places, geographically vulnerable border. Second, the presence of many potential threats, both nearby and distant, constitute major security concerns for the Chinese leaders. Third, a domestic political system marked by high levels of conflict at the apex and weak institutions or processes for mediating and resolving such conflicts further undermine the improvement of the Chinese military. Finally, a great and powerful self-image, which has been at the center of Chinese military thinking, drives the leadership to strive to emerge from the shadow of the what they consider a"century of national humiliation."

These five basic features of Chinese security strategy and behavior, however, underwent systemic changes following the initiation of Deng Hsiao-ping's(鄧小平) "open door" policy in 1978. Since the early 1980s, a more pragmatic approach that emphasizes the primacy of domestic economic growth and stability, the improvement of its international relations, the relative restraint in the use of force, combined with increasing efforts to create a more modern military, constituted the core of China's security strategy.

The rationale behind this new strategy was rooted in the fact that China requires high levels of undistracted growth in economic and technological terms, and hence significant geopolitical quiescence, both to ensure domestic order and well-being and to effectively protect its security interests along the periphery and beyond.

In terms of the advancement of military capability, most such advances attained in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s came about primarily through incremental and marginal improvements in the largely obsolete Soviet weapons. By the mid-1980s, however, most Chinese civilian and military leaders clearly recognized that a strong and stable force could not be built through a continued reliance on the failed, autarkic and excessively ideological policies of the past.

As a result, China's past impractical and insular approach to military modernization gave way to a new effort at examining and selectively incorporating advanced foreign technologies while attempting to "indigenize" these qualities through incorporation and absorption of military know-how. This effort, in turn, required the creation of a more efficient, innovative, and productive defense industry and the application of more purely professional criteria to military training and personal selection.

These factors often go unrecognized, however, because China's strong dependence on the external environment for continued economic success usually obscures the effect of internal transformations on Beijing's newest shift in strategy. Perhaps the most important internal change is the rise of more institutionalized forms of authority and governance.

Liu Kuan-teh is a political commentator based in Taipei.