Washington Journal of Modern China, Spring 2001/ Volume 7, No. 1

China Forum

Dialogue on China’s National Security Priorities

Kerry Dumbaugh, Bates Gill, Bonnie Glaser, and Ron Montaperto

The following is an edited transcript of a panel discussion from the China Forum television series, produced under the auspices of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation. This dialogue took place on January 4, 2001, and aired in March on northern Virginia public television station WNVC. A complete list of China Forum programs appears on page 119 of this issue. For more information on the China Forum series, contact the U.S.-China Policy Foundation at 316 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Suite 201, Washington, D.C. 20003; Telephone: 202-547-8615; E-mail USCPF@USCPF.org.

Kerry Dumbaugh, Asia specialist, Congressional Research Service (moderator): President Bush, in his first few months in office, is going to have to put together a framework for U.S. national security policy. In order to do this, he’s going to have to make some judgments about what China’s national security priorities are and how U.S. policy should respond to those priorities.  What would you say are China’s top two or three national security priorities?

Ron Montaperto, dean of academics, Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies: I’d say China’s priorities and concerns are essentially domestic and internal–to maintain economic development, to complete the processes required to comply with WTO entry, and to maintain the position of the Chinese Communist Party. This includes maintaining internal order and stability. The next priority is Taiwan, which would have equal status, then the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

Bonnie Glaser, consultant on Asian security affairs: I would certainly agree that domestic priorities come first for the Chinese leadership. They will be entering a succession process during 2002-2003, when Jiang Zemin’s successor will be chosen. Jiang and his cohorts are going to be focused on maintaining economic growth, political stability, and social stability, and keeping the Communist Party in power.

But beyond that, in the international and regional spheres, I think that the Chinese hope to preserve stability around their periphery and maintain a stable, predictable, good working relationship with the United States. The United States remains the most important bilateral relationship for China. So I think that the Chinese are going to look toward the new Bush administration early on for signs of the administration’s intentions. They want to understand where the administration is going to put China in terms of broader U.S. foreign policy, global strategy, and defense policy.

Taiwan certainly ranks up there among China’s first few priorities. I don’t think the leadership expects to achieve reunification in a very short period of time, but they also don’t want any crisis or instability with Taiwan. I think they’d like to see cross-Strait relations stabilized.

Bates Gill, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: I think in the United States we don’t pay enough attention to the degree of vulnerability that the current regime in China feels, rightly or wrongly. Any policy that we craft needs to be sensitive to that–not to prop up the regime and not to be an apologist for it–but just to be aware that Beijing has a great deal of concern about the next three to five years. Things could get tricky for the leadership because of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization as well as increasing discontent about the legitimacy of the Party and what the Party stands for in China’s future.

Everything around China’s periphery has an impact on China’s sense of vulnerability and most importantly, as Bonnie suggested, the bilateral relationship with the United States has an impact on that. There is no other relationship in its external realm as important for China as its relationship with the United States. We affect deeply the way that all they hold dear for China’s future development unfolds. So, in this way, we still hold a lot of cards but we have to play them carefully and sensitively.

Kerry Dumbaugh: All three of you have mentioned the U.S.- China relationship, so I assume this would be China’s top national security priority, after domestic issues.

Ron Montaperto: Well, other than domestic issues, yes, I think that’s fair to say. I completely agree with what Bates and Bonnie said about the centrality of the United States to China. If you look at China’s security calculus at this time, a stable relationship with the United States is key. Stability on its borders, on its peripheries within the region, is critical to that, because it’s the key to economic development, which is the key to the continued longevity of the Chinese Communist Party leadership.

 That said, I think we need to be aware that there are a couple of relationship breakers. Arms sales to Taiwan are going to be terribly important, I think, depending on what we might decide to transfer–or not transfer–to Taiwan in the future. China will also look at what we do in our alliance relationship with Japan, as well as on the Korean Peninsula. And I’m sure there are a number of other issues–nuclear missile defense, obviously, would be important too. Beijing will look at all these indicators to make their own judgment of where China fits into U.S. policy.

Kerry Dumbaugh: We often say that U.S.-China relations are terribly important to both the United States and to China. But, having said that, what do we do about it? This has been the case throughout the last decade, a time when U.S.-China relations have been very troubled. In fact, we preface every comment and every conference by saying we’re in a troubled period in U.S.-China relations. Well, now is the time to give advice to the new administration. Everybody’s giving advice–in editorials, in op-ed pieces. So what advice would you give? If U.S.-China relations are so important to the Chinese, as we all seem to agree, what should the Bush administration do to capitalize on this?

Bates Gill: One thing I think we need to do is strengthen the mainstream view that a stable relationship with the Chinese is in our national interest. I think the core policymakers no doubt are of this view, and I don’t think we should expect any major shift from the new administration in that sense. Nevertheless, we can expect lots of angry voices at this time. There are going to be a lot of political constraints placed on the new administration–just as there were with its predecessor–constraints that may make it difficult to have a stable relationship with China.

Something, I think, needs to be done at home. We need to make well-founded decisions and have informed debate about how we want to deal with China in the future. That debate is not finished. So this administration can have a role from the bully pulpit, if you will, to help shape domestic thinking. And that would, in turn, assuage Chinese thinking about our future intentions.

Bonnie Glaser: In that regard, I think it would be very important early on for the new U.S. president, and his policymakers on Asia, to make some speeches to the American public about the importance of China and Asia to the United States and to our security. The Clinton administration did this eventually, but it wasn’t done early enough. And I think it is part of a process of educating the public and building a consensus for our relationship with China. The president and the people below him need to explain to the American people why this relationship is so important to us.

Secondly, I think it’s very important to engage in a broad and deep dialogue with Chinese leaders about a range of subjects that are important to both countries. I’ve heard from many people in the Clinton administration that we have not really had serious, strategic dialogue with China. Both sides have presented their own perspectives on the world, but they often talk past each other. They have not really sought to build common ground by identifying their differences on important issues and then seeking to narrow those differences.

There are a whole range of issues on which I think we should be exchanging perspectives and talking about where we can cooperate more to advance peace and stability around the globe. South Asia and Korea are two examples that come to mind in which the United States and China have far greater potential for cooperation. We should seek to take advantage of those opportunities. In areas where we have differences, we ought to be clear as to what those differences are. And both sides should be making a concerted effort to address the concerns of the other side.

Ron Montaperto: I’d like to pick up on that theme. First, I think it’s necessary to give really serious consideration to just how China fits into our security calculus. I don’t believe we’ve ever done that. In the late 1970s and 1980s, China was anti-Soviet and was therefore useful to us in the Cold War. In my opinion, however, no one ever really thought through how to build a constructive relationship with this historically great power that is coming off two centuries of very hard times–a country that is proud, angry, arrogant, and determined to assert itself and to become a new power.

Second, I would advise the administration to be realistic. We have to realize that China’s perspective and our perspective are really very different. The relationship is likely to remain troubled for some time into the future, particularly over Taiwan. We also still have to negotiate what happens on the Korean Peninsula. Our interests and Chinese interests do not always coincide in every respect. I think we need to accept that there is going to be friction, work with that, and concentrate on managing our differences.

Bates Gill: I think that it’s a really strange relationship, and that the Chinese would agree with this assessment when they look at us. If you consider our relationship over just the past century, when we’ve been friends, it’s usually because we’ve been driven together by a common enemy–Japan in the 1930s and 1940s and the Soviet Union in the 1970s. In the absence of a common enemy, we have a very hard time finding the framework or parameters for a constructive relationship. But we sort of propel ourselves toward such a relationship because we think we need to.

I think what Ron might be saying is that we should simply recognize that this relationship is contentious: there are tensions, there are going to be problems, and we need to look at this as a more normal part of the relationship. Why can’t we think of China as we do Russia? We’re not friends with Russia, but there are many ways we can cooperate. We don’t want to be enemies with Russia either, and we try to avoid that in any way we can. We should not try to pretend that China is either an ally against some other power or the next enemy. Those are unrealistic ways of looking at it.

Kerry Dumbaugh: Everyone has brought up this issue of framework. I went to the War College for a year, where the word "framework" was practically etched into the walls. You had to have a framework for national security policy, for any policy decision. Now Ron, you’re at National Defense University. You seem to be saying that we have never had that sort of framework with China, and I agree. But Bates, if I understood correctly, I just heard you say that framework is not very important in how we look at China, if we just try to establish some sort of normal relations that are not as strategically focused.

Bates Gill: Well, what is the framework for our relationship with Russia? My point is that it’s almost too complex and variegated to try to impose some kind of template upon it. When we do that, it’s so simplistic that we end up getting ourselves in trouble and not looking at the deeper points that Ron was suggesting.

Ron Montaperto: Given the things that divide the two nations, in order to find a framework that both can sign up to, you have to rise to such a level of generalization that it becomes kind of meaningless. I would be happy if both sides would simply make some kind of a statement that, between us, we have the potential to really disrupt a major portion of the world.

Kerry Dumbaugh: So we are going to try not to do that.

Ron Montaperto: And we’re going to be pragmatic; we’re going to seek truth from facts; we’re going to look at our interests; we’re going to spell out our interests; we’re going to communicate about our interests; and we’re going to understand what each other’s interests are. The other part of this is consistency. Human rights must be a consistent part of our policy, one way or another.

Kerry Dumbaugh: As you mentioned, this kind of a debate is always very general, so let’s move to specifics. Coming up very soon, the new administration is going to have to make some security decisions that relate to China. One of those is related to arms sales to Taiwan in the spring. With regards to China’s national security priorities, the administration has some very definite ideas about arms sales to Taiwan. Bonnie, before we started taping you were talking about China’s “red lines.” What are some of the weapon sales for Taiwan that China would find totally unacceptable?

Bonnie Glaser: China is most concerned right now about the enhancement of Taiwan’s missile defense capabilities. The Chinese strongly object to the transfer of missile defense technology to Taiwan–especially the PAC-3 missile and AEGIS destroyers that may in the future become a platform for upper-tier missile defense systems. From Beijing’s perspective, such transfers would embolden those who support independence on Taiwan and undermine Chinese ability to deter Taipei from declaring its de jure separation from the mainland. China has also become very concerned about what they see as the development of operational links between American and Taiwanese military forces.

Kerry Dumbaugh: Do you mean the kinds of things in the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act?

Bonnie Glaser: Yes, the Chinese believe that the transfer of AEGIS battle management systems would signal an intention by the United States to be moving toward developing those operational links. They also believe that PAC-3 would be unacceptable, because it would degrade China’s abilities to militarily threaten Taiwan. China believes Taiwan would be more willing to move in the direction of independence if China did not have a credible deterrent. And that deterrent, China believes, takes the form of short-range ballistic missiles deployed along the coast against Taiwan. China has several hundred missiles deployed now, but is expected to increase this number in the next several years, perhaps significantly. So China has set down these red lines, particularly for AEGIS and PAC-3.

I agree with Ron that the United States has a very different perspective than the Chinese do regarding Taiwan. Other than agreeing that there's one China, there’s very little else that we agree on. Yet, it is very important for us to understand their positions and, of course, for the Chinese to understand our positions; that is, that we insist on peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue under any circumstances. Because, if we are clear in our messages and our signals to each other, then there will be little–or less–room for miscalculation.

Bates Gill: I might disagree a little about the red line issue. I think that position is just China’s opening bid. Like all good negotiators, they’ve set forth their toughest position first. I think they’re prepared to come off of that a little, depending on the overall political environment.

If, indeed, it appears that a combination of missile defense and political developments in Taiwan would equal permanent separation of the island, then it’s a very serious red line. But if the transfer of these systems does not affect the possibility of reunification or resolution of differences, I think China can accept that. These weapon systems are not as important to China for what they might mean in a military sense, because–to tell you the truth–I’m not sure these missile defenses could defend Taiwan.  More significant is what they demonstrate about the political relationship the United States has built with Taiwan and whether this might embolden the Taiwan government to separate. We have to judge exactly what those red lines mean, and I think that’s where nuance comes in.

Bonnie Glaser: Unfortunately, this issue will come up very early in the new administration, when policy reviews will not yet have been completed. The people in charge of determining policy on these issues will probably still be undergoing their confirmation processes in Congress. Nevertheless, a decision will be required on some of these systems. And, of course, a few of these decisions were postponed from last year pending the completion of a study of Taiwan’s naval modernization, which the Pentagon subsequently carried out. So I think the Chinese are going to look toward these decisions on arms sales as a signal of U.S. intentions on the Taiwan issue. And they will potentially view it as a signal of greater U.S. support under this administration for Taiwan than under the Clinton administration.

Ron Montaperto: It’s difficult for me to imagine what political act could occur, either here or in Taiwan, that could remove China’s innate suspicion and concern–maybe even fear–about what they have defined as their red lines.

Kerry Dumbaugh: I have been reading articles in which it seems that the Chinese government is actually somewhat favorably disposed to the incoming Bush administration. They know the players, so maybe there is a honeymoon period. Are they perhaps going to lay off a little bit? Have they been sending signals that they won’t be pressing or will they be testing the new administration?

Ron Montaperto: I think they’re going to test the new administration very carefully and very responsibly, because it is not in their interest to stir things up needlessly. They’re going to try and keep it as cool as they can. But, yes, they’re going to test. They want to know where we stand and where they stand in our view.

They have clear ideas of how to measure U.S. intentions. What we do in Taiwan, I think, is at this moment the most important indicator that they have. There’s a bit of fluff and a lot of bluster there, but I think we should not be distracted. It would be tragic if we were, because at the root of that tactic, there is a deep feeling that this is an issue of national reunification and national sovereignty, and they won’t compromise on it.

Kerry Dumbaugh: Let me mention some ways that Beijing might test the new administration. It might put some pressure on Taiwan. Or Beijing might signal some closer accommodation with Russia, perhaps as a source of weapons purchases–a sort of Russia card being played by China. Or Beijing might make decisions about strategic forces in the future based on possible U.S. decisions about ballistic missile defense. Are all of these likely–or at least potential–prospects?

Ron Montaperto: I think those are all likely areas in which China might try to test the new U.S. administration. I would add another area: continued testing of alternative forms of security organization for the Asia-Pacific region. China might advocate, for instance, upholding multilateral approaches to security and dialogue, which in many cases could even exclude the United States.

Bonnie Glaser: I would posit a different picture. I think the Chinese are going to be more reactive. I think they’re going to wait and see what kind of signals the United States is sending. I certainly think they will be clear about conveying their concerns. But I don’t think it would serve their interests to stir up trouble with Taiwan, unless we have taken the first step, in their view, by making some unacceptable sales or moving in a direction beyond that of the Clinton administration with respect to Taiwan. I foresee the Chinese as not being confrontational towards the United States at this particular juncture, unless they perceive that we are acting against their interests.

Kerry Dumbaugh: Let me move to one other area of confrontation in our approach to China. In November last year, China announced it would not export ballistic missile components restricted by the missile technology control regime. And within an hour, I think, we removed sanctions, or said that we would not sanction Beijing for past infractions. Bates, did we get a good deal on that? Was that a good exchange?

Bates Gill: There was a lot going on in the background then, a lot of pressure on the Clinton administration to have a deal. I think that, inside the administration, people worked very hard for a long time to get something–anything–of value from China on missile-related exports. So I think when you look at the big picture, it’s a very small step. And sometimes when I read the agreement, I’m not sure precisely what advantages we were able to extract.

If you consider this issue a little more narrowly though, as strictly a non-proliferation question, we did move a couple steps forward. China has agreed quite explicitly on the limitations and the parameters that define sensitive missile transfers. And, secondly, the Chinese said they would produce a public export control list for missile technologies, which they had not done previously. So those are good steps. But we’re not going to know about the successes there for some time to come.

Kerry Dumbaugh: From the U.S. domestic point of view, in fact, we’ve seen this kind of scenario for 15 years–China is reported to make promises, mostly verbal, sometimes in writing, not always publicly available, in exchange for which U.S. policy-makers give what could be seen as concessions. Domestically, how do you think this will be perceived?

Bates Gill: The agreement remains vulnerable, I think, to precisely that kind of criticism. But let’s be honest. That criticism typically erupts most loudly when China does backtrack on its commitments. So I think as long as we continue to see good progress on China’s part, maybe some of the critics can be tamped down.

Kerry Dumbaugh: Do you expect the new administration to be a little tougher on that?

Bates Gill: I do. Maybe the notion of sanctions is a little more credible under the new administration.

Kerry Dumbaugh: To sum up our discussion, it looks like the new Bush administration will be tougher with China, that administration officials should do a better job of informing mainstream views in the United States about China, and that both countries need to explore some confidence-building measures as a way of helping to reduce possible confrontations. As we move into the next couple of months, maybe we’ll meet again and do an interim report card.

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