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June 4, 2004 - "China's Military and Security": Lecture III of the Policymakers Seminar Series

On 4 June, Dr. Michael Swaine, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke to the 2004 Policymakers Seminar participants about recent trends in China’s military and security policies. Dr. Swaine focused on the period beginning with Deng’s economic reforms in the late 1970s and tried to give his audience an understanding of how China’s security environment relates to its military and diplomatic policies. Following is a summary of the main points raised during his lecture.

According to Dr. Swaine, there are four main priorities that most influence Chinese security decisions. First and foremost, China’s priority is to defend the current regime from both domestic and foreign threats. Second, because China’s current leaders base their legitimacy almost entirely on their ability to create constant economic growth and development, it is absolutely vital that they maintain domestic order. Third, Beijing must protect the integrity and sovereignty of the Chinese nation. Chinese nationalism and national consciousness were conceived during the age of imperialism when China was victimized by foreign powers. As a result, China’s rulers cannot afford to appear weak in the face of threats to their perceived sovereignty, including the Taiwan issue, or popular nationalism could explode and threaten the regime itself. Finally, Chinese security policy is designed to achieve Great Power status, both in Asia and beyond.

Ten Factors that Shape China’s Security Perceptions

1.) Since the end of the Cold War, there is no rational for cooperation with the United States. Compounded with the results of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, U.S.-China relations have no strategic cohesiveness and are much more volatile.

2.) China is increasingly dependent on foreign nations for trade, investment, and technology to maintain its economic development.

3.) Beijing’s economic and political influence is rising.

4.) China is facing a severe crisis in resource availability.

5.) As a result of increasing contact with the outside world, the Chinese elite’s values, perceptions, and interests are changing. As an example, Dr. Swaine cited the case of non-proliferation. During the Maoist era China viewed the international non-proliferation regime as a means to monopolize power in the Western developed world. Today however, China has come to believe that weapons proliferation is dangerous for international stability and a threat to its economic development.

6.) The Chinese political system is currently completing the transition from charismatic one-man rule to collective leadership by technocrats and the Chinese bureaucracy.

7.) As China’s economic and political influence increases, there is also a growing sense of state-based nationalism among the Chinese people. This trend is one of the most dangerous threats to the PRC’s regime stability and often forces the government to adopt aggressive policies when it may have preferred a more peaceful course of action. Dr. Swaine cited the 1999 embassy bombing in Kosovo and the 2001 EP-3 spy plane incident as two of the most recent examples.

8.) Rapid democratization on Taiwan and the development of an indigenous Taiwanese identity is forcing Beijing to rethink its policy of putting the Taiwan question aside for future generations to deal with.

9.) China’s concentration of economic assets has moved from the northeast and the central provinces to the eastern and southern coastal provinces. This trend has led to a sense of greater vulnerability and is pushing the drive to modernize China’s force projection capabilities in its coastal areas.

10.) While China is currently at peace with all of its neighbors, within the past fifty years Beijing has fought wars with nearly all of them: Korea, Russia, Taiwan, India and Vietnam. These tensions remain in Asia’s current hot-spots: the India-Pakistan border, the Taiwan Strait, The Korean Peninsula, and the South China Seas.

Implications for Chinese Security Policy

1.) China strives above all else to maintain a peaceful environment conducive to economic development. Beijing currently pursues amicable diplomatic relations with all global and regional powers and seeks to avoid conflicts at all costs.

2.) Beijing seeks to elicit maximum amounts of capital ad technology from the outside world while simultaneously minimizing efforts to contain or isolate China. For these ends China has sought to dismantle the perception that China’s rising power is a threat. Beijing is assuming more responsibility in numerous international institutions – diplomatic, economic and security – and works within the confines of the existing international system to advance its own interests.

3.) China’s leaders have resolved or successfully deferred all outstanding territorial disputes with its neighbors.

4.) Beijing is pursuing a systematic and significant program of military modernization. This program is focused on a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait. The increased military capability is designed to coerce Taiwan and defeat both Taiwanese and U.S. forces in the event of a conflict. At the same time, China’s leaders have sought to prevent any regional arms races by pursuing a gradual program of modernization.

Implications of 911

The global war on terror has both positive and negative implications for China’s security strategy. The negative effects are an increased U.S. sensitivity to challenges to American power and a loss of influence for China in Central Asia. On the other hand, the U.S.’ preoccupation with the "global war on terror" and the resulting rift between America and the rest of the world has provided China with a number of opportunities. First, the U.S.’ attention has been diverted from China as a rising threat. Second, China is trying to exploit the current rift between the United States and Europe to acquire advanced weaponry from Europe. Finally, China’s participation in the war on terror has provided Beijing and Washington with a rational for partnership that had been lacking since the end of the Cold War. China is now actively working to control the situation on the Korean peninsula while Washington remains preoccupied In Iraq. We now have the basis for greater Sino-American cooperation, but also a chance for China to realize its interests at the expense of the United States.

The Taiwan Question

China is increasingly integrated with Asia and the world, and both China and the United States have strong incentives to avoid conflict. The Taiwan question however, still remains as the central obstacle to stable and peaceful U.S.-China relations. China recognizes that a significant proportion of Taiwan’s citizens support independence. China must prevent an independent Taiwan, but this does not mean that they have to conquer Taiwan. They only have to maintain the current status quo. Beijing worries that increased U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan only complicate this delicate task.

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