Cover: Interpreting China's Grand Strategy

Interpreting China's Grand Strategy

Published 2000

by Michael D. Swaine, Ashley J. Tellis

Research Brief

China's stature in the international political power structure has been rising since the late 1970s, largely because of market reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping. If concluded successfully, China's ascent could cause a dramatic power transition within the international system, possibly challenging the U.S. role as the region's preeminent security provider. Therefore, managing the rise of China during the next few decades is critically important to U.S. interests. Developing successful policies toward China, however, requires an understanding of China's past and present approach to providing for its security.

In Interpreting China's Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future, RAND researchers Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis lay the groundwork for just such an understanding. The study examines China's security strategy from historical, empirical, and theoretical perspectives; identifies the major features of the strategy and the major factors driving it; and assesses how the strategy will likely evolve. The analysis also provides practical lessons for U.S. decisionmakers on how to devise policies that encourage the emergence of a cooperative China while safeguarding U.S. interests in the region.

What Are China's Security Objectives?

From the consolidation of China as a unified state under the Han Dynasty (in the 3rd century B.C.) through the emergence of the present Communist government, Chinese regimes have faced a common set of security problems.

First, China has an astonishingly long border—more than 10,000 miles in all—to defend against local and distant threats. During the imperial era (from the 3rd century B.C. until the mid-19th century), raids by nomadic tribes threatened the Chinese periphery. In the early modern era (from approximately 1850), the periphery was threatened by great imperialist powers, including Russia, Germany, Great Britain, and France. Since World War II, militantly strong, industrialized states—India, Russia, Japan, and the United States—have posed new security threats to the periphery.

Second, China's domestic political system has always been marked by a personality-based pattern of rule in which ultimate authority comes from the power and beliefs of individual leaders, not from legal and organizational norms and processes. In such a system, policy content and behavior—including external security policy—often become tools in the domestic power struggle among senior leaders. This tends to cause volatility within the government and internal political strife.

Third, no matter what its relative geopolitical strength at any time, China thinks of itself as a great power. This self-image is based on China's historical role as a central political player in Asia and on its tradition of economic self-sufficiency. During imperial times, Chinese regimes usually held a deep-seated belief in China's political, social, and cultural superiority over its neighbors. In modern times, Chinese regimes have aspired to economic, technological, and military equality with, rather than superiority over, the other major powers.

These three key considerations have shaped China's basic approach to political and military security throughout its long history. Viewed through the prism of time, the security strategies employed by various Chinese regimes converge into an overall "Grand Strategy" that strives for three interrelated objectives: (1) to control the periphery and ward off threats to the ruling regime; (2) to preserve domestic order and well-being in the face of different forms of social strife; and (3) to attain or maintain geo-political influence as a major, or even primary, state.

How Has China Pursued These Objectives

Although the strategic approaches China employs to achieve these objectives have changed over time, certain general principles applied throughout China's imperial era. As a rule, imperial regimes were most likely to use military force to advance their security objectives when they were strongest, generally during the first one-third of the regimes' existence. As they matured, strong, stable regimes increasingly employed complex mixtures of force, diplomacy, and cultural norms. However, during the final one-third of their existence, waning regimes relied more on diplomatic maneuvers, defensive or passive military stances, and other noncoercive strategies to advance their security objectives. Thus, "strong" regimes ruled by assertive coercive and noncoercive means, and "weak" ones largely by noncoercive and passive ones.

Although China's basic security objectives have not changed substantially during the modern era, the challenges posed by the industrialized world have spawned new security strategies. China's modern regimes have been neither purely weak (and therefore cooperative) nor wholly strong (and therefore assertive). Rather, in modern times China has adopted hybrid "weak-strong" strategies that use force and diplomacy selectively.

The Calculative Strategy

In the last few decades, this hybrid strategy has coalesced into a "calculative" strategy—that is, a strategy calculated to protect China from external threats as it pursues its geopolitical ascent. The purpose of the calculative strategy is to allow China to continue to reform its economy and thereby acquire comprehensive national power without having to deal with the impediments and distractions of security competition. If successful, the strategy will buy China the breathing room it needs to improve domestic social conditions, increase the legitimacy of the governing regime, expand the nation's economic and technological capabilities, strengthen its military, and enhance its standing and influence in the international political order—all of which are important elements in achieving its long-standing security objectives.

The calculative strategy is designed to allow China to increase its power in a variety of issue areas in as nonprovocative a fashion as possible. The RAND study traces the strategy in action through four issue areas.

  • In its policies toward the United States and other powers, the calculative strategy aims to win support for China's expansion, while preventing any efforts that may frustrate its growth. To this end, the strategy focuses on developing and maintaining friendly relations with the major powers and convincing them that the rise of China will be a stabilizing force in Asia. By garnering this cooperation, the strategy aims to forestall a U.S. defensive counterresponse that could widen the gap in power between China and the other major players. Continued friendly relations also improve China's access to the world's wealthiest economic markets.
  • In its policies toward military modernization, the calculative strategy aims to reduce China's existing vulnerabilities while increasing the ability of its military forces to secure diplomatic and political leverage. The modernization—in both nuclear and conventional forces—is going forward slowly and steadily because a rapid military buildup might alarm China's neighbors and the major powers. Further, a sudden buildup would detract from China's current emphasis on civilian economic development.
  • In its policies toward territorial claims, the calculative strategy aims to avoid using force to settle territorial disputes. Rather, it dictates that China pursue a good-neighbor policy designed to strengthen or mend ties with its neighbors and to delay resolving disputes, at least until the regional balance of power shifts in favor of China.
  • In its policies toward international regimes, the calculative strategy aims to secure advantages without incurring losses. Therefore, China's level of participation in international regimes—in such areas as economic development, trade, technology transfer, arms control, and the environment—is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Taken together, these policies display the "calculating" aspect of the calculative strategy. They illustrate how the strategy has encouraged foreign collaboration in underwriting China's rise to power, while temporarily removing external threats that could distract Beijing from its uninterrupted ascent.

If the calculative strategy is not knocked off course by some catastrophic event, it is likely to remain China's guiding strategy for at least the next few decades, until Beijing has completed its ascent into a position of economic, military, and political strength. When this occurs—certainly not before 2015-2020—a more assertive China is likely to emerge.

This conclusion comes from the authors' analysis of China's past behavior and current strategy, as well as a comprehensive historical analysis (from the Middle Ages to the late 20th century) of the behavior of newly powerful nations. This long historical view suggests that rising states tend not to simply accept the prevailing global political order and peacefully integrate themselves into it. Nor, however, do they rush out to topple that order. Rather, by asserting their new power, rising nations can precipitate a range of political, economic, and military tensions that draw the other world powers into conflict. Like other rising nations throughout history, a rising China is likely to assert its power.

What is the Best U.S. Policy Toward China?

If China's calculative strategy is completely successful, an intense United States-China rivalry may be inevitable. Still, China's rise to greatness (and its move toward assertiveness) is far from assured. The challenge for U.S. policymakers is to devise policy aimed at influencing China's behavior over the course of the calculative strategy. U.S. strategy designed to preemptively contain Chinese aggression might provoke its very emergence. On the other hand, strategy aimed at preemptively appeasing China might result in the United States giving away too much, too early.

A realistic policy over the course of China's calculative strategy should pursue cooperation with China aimed at attaining deeper levels of understanding, stronger mutual trust and confidence, and increased Chinese integration into the international system. At the same time, U.S. policy should discourage or prevent China from acquiring capabilities that could unambiguously threaten the United States' core national security interests in Asia and beyond. Finally, the United States should remain prepared to cope with a more assertive and militant China.

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