New National Strategy Provides Insight Into China’s Rise

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 17

In late July, the Politburo standing committee met for a study session to consider ways to build a “prosperous nation and powerful military” (fuguo qiangbing). The result was a “new” strategy with decidedly ancient roots: “to be able to talk peace, one must be able to make war.” This proverb (nengzhanfang, nengyanhe) and its implications that a strong military helps keep the peace, dates back to concepts put forward by both ancient Rome and the legendary Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu. While the idea that carrying a big stick gives a nation the ability to negotiate peace on their own terms is not novel, its adoption by Chinese leaders potentially signifies a major departure for Chinese national strategy, providing insight into a new phase of China’s development that will undoubtedly affect its international relations in the post-cold war period.

Later this month, the Communist Party’s Political Bureau Central Committee, China’s top 198 leaders, will hold their annual meeting in a tense atmosphere. A new generation of leaders will jockey for power amidst speculation whether or not Jiang Zemin will step down from his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission, quietly removing himself as Deng Xiaoping did. Ongoing debate about reigning in the runaway economy and controlling corruption will dominate the domestic agenda. Adding to tensions are persistent calls for democracy in Hong Kong, Taiwan’s relentless push towards independence, and a complex international scene where the U.S. is increasing its military presence in Asia as China becomes increasingly dependent upon imported energy and raw materials. In this environment, China’s leaders are seeking a new strategy that will build upon the groundwork that has been built over the previous two decades.

Peaceful Development or Peaceful Rise?

This new approach potentially reflects a major turning point for China’s broad national strategy, with implications for all of China’s international relations. It incorporates an outward looking dimension, which is a significant departure from the strategy of the previous two decades. Since 1979, China’s approach has been intrinsically focused on domestic economic and social modernizations, neglecting the military by rationalizing that if the economy grew steadily, resources for the military would be allocated without jeopardizing growth. Inherent in Deng’s strategies were avoiding international conflicts and passively encouraging a peaceful international environment where China could focus on its own course of nation-building. For the past two decades, Deng’s principles have dominated thinking and strategic choices. By departing from the past and promoting a powerful military, China risks alarming neighbors who fear that China’s rise will not necessarily be peaceful. A powerful military presents the threat of coercion and the indiscriminate use of force to settle international disputes. This new strategy connotes ambition and a willingness to be increasingly proactive in protecting China’s interests.

Not long ago, China’s leaders would not have considered adopting such a proactive foreign policy for fear of putting domestic reforms at risk. However, this new strategy reflects recent diplomatic successes on the Chinese periphery, including demilitarizing several borders, resolving a long-standing territorial dispute with Russia, entering border negotiations with India, and advancing a multilateral security forum for Central Asian states. Other successes include China’s handling of the Asian financial crisis and the delicate brokering of the six-party talks. Likewise, China has built increasingly strong trade relations with neighbors in East, Southeast and Central Asia, bringing traditionally distrustful countries into their economic sphere. Without these positive developments to their credit, any hint of China’s military modernization could have caused alarm or even sparked regional arms races. By shifting focus at this stage in China’s national development, the leaders apparently feel that a more powerful military will help protect China’s interests, but need not necessarily create an arms race that could undermine economic development or carefully built international trust. China’s leaders might have calculated that the period of relative peace following the end of the cold war is likely to continue, presenting an opportunity to capitalize on recent stability and economic growth at home to lay the groundwork that will enable them implement a more proactive foreign policy in years to come.

Undoubtedly, Taiwan is prominent in the formulation of this strategy. China’s commitment to use force to prevent Taiwan’s independence remains the most likely scenario where the Chinese military could engage with foreign forces. China’s steady military buildup has been largely focused on Taiwan and its closest ally, the United States, rather than focusing on the ability to project power which would undoubtedly intimidate neighbors and undermine claims that China’s rise will be a peaceful one. It is clear that China sees itself in a better position to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan issue if its military is prepared to back up its threats.

Fuguo Qianbing’s Appeal

While a strategy of building up the military to bolster national wealth and dictate peace denotes a significant departure from China’s previous approach, it meets the needs of the current leadership and can be interpreted as advantageous on both a practical and a philosophical level.

At the practical level, talk of building a wealthy country and a powerful military that is able to “talk peace” reflects anxieties over Taiwan and the mainland’s inability to further constructive dialogue that promotes reunification. A stronger People’s Liberation Army acts as an improved deterrent to independence-seeking Taiwanese and their supporters, buying the mainland more time to negotiate a settlement that binds the island to some form of “one China.” Additionally, an emphasis on fuguo qiangbing is a traditional response by Chinese rulers and political philosophers to ensure domestic stability. A strong military appeals to nationalist sentiments within the current leadership as well as the general population, which further bolsters the legitimacy of the party.

Aside from the domestic political benefits, there are practical economic concerns that proponents use to justify increased expenditures for the military. Civilian industries would potentially benefit from an upgrade of China’s industrial complex and increased investment in research and development. Leaders are also concerned about China’s growing dependence on the global economy and the necessity of protecting access to food, energy, raw materials and export markets. Increasing numbers of military and civilian elites believe that China is now in a position to follow America’s example: investing in the development of a sophisticated military-industrial complex which will create a more advanced and capable military, pay dividends to the civilian economy and add a new and potent tool to China’s foreign policy toolkit.

At the philosophical level, the new approach signifies a level of national-ambition not seen since Mao Zedong. Through adoption of this new doctrine, China would express its psychological readiness to expand its influence beyond its national borders, even if it currently lacks the ability to physically exert itself. Taiwan is the most immediate challenge, with the deepest impact on the national psyche, and the one that is perceived as the greatest national interest. It appears that Chinese leaders would be more willing to enter into negotiations about Taiwan’s future if they had greater psychological confidence that the People’s Liberation Army was in a position to actually deter Taiwan’s independence. Without the ability to make war, China’s leaders remain unwilling to discuss peace with Taiwan.

The classic conundrum

Will a military buildup in China inevitably lead to war? Not necessarily. Chinese planners have clearly set realistic limits on their strategic thinking and stated that China is not in a position to enter into an arms race that could involve multiple neighbors as well as a far more capable United States. China has benefited from peace and stability in the region, and would not profit from upsetting the current balance of power. While Taiwan probably presents the greatest risk for the outbreak of a “hot war,” Chinese strategic planners are genuine in their stated desire to achieve “peaceful reunification” without firing a single shot.

Over the past 10 years, China’s political discourse has been mottled with slogans and buzzwords that purport to define China’s aspirations, from “peaceful rise” to “wealthy nation, powerful military.” China’s quest for a national strategy reflects a dynamic international environment and evolving domestic circumstances that defy the traditional concepts which have served Beijing well for the past 25 years. The current debate over the ability to make war and talk peace is still hotly contested at the highest levels, with competing schools of thought pushing for divergent agendas. It is not a forgone conclusion that reaching the objective of a prosperous and secure China will necessitate a military build-up or arms race that threatens to destabilize the region. The politburo standing committee’s recent study session on “war and peace” indicates that a new phase of China’s national strategy is in the works, but by no means reveals that a consensus has been reached that points to a rejection of Deng Xiaoping’s principles.