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China's Quest for Security in the Post-Cold War World

Authored by Dr. Samuel S. Kim. | July 1996

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China's security behavior, riddled with contradictions and paradoxes, seemed made to order for challenging scholars and policymakers concerned about the shape of things to come in post-Cold War international life. With the progressive removal of the Soviet threat from China's expansive security parameters from Southeast Asia, through South Asia and Central Asia, to Northeast Asia, coupled with the growing engagement in international economic and security institutions, came perhaps the most benign external strategic environment and the greatest international interdependence that China has ever enjoyed in its checkered international relations. Despite the deterioration of Sino American relations in the past 2 years, most Chinese strategic analysts do not believe the United States poses a clear and present military threat. Indeed, there has been no shortage of upbeat assessments of China's post-Cold War security environment to be, on balance, the least threatening since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.1 And yet Beijing has been acting in recent years in a highly provocative manner as if it were faced with the greatest threat. For good or otherwise, Beijing managed to capture global prime time with the "rise of China" chorus in the global marketplace suddenly turning into the "rise of China threat" debate in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. All the same, Beijing seemed determined enough to proceed with all deliberate speed to beef up its military power projection capabilities, especially air and blue-water naval power, with the real military spending increasing at double-digit rates even as global military spending, especially those of all the other members of the Perm Five in the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council, began to fall sharply since 1992.2 The revealing paradox of the capitalist world economy is that "market Leninist China," with the fastest growing economy--China's GDP in 1994 reached almost $3 trillion on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis, making it the second-largest economy in the world after the United States3--is, at the same time, the fastest-growing emitter of greenhouse gases and the largest recipient of multilateral aid from the World Bank and of bilateral aid from Japan!

What matters most is not so much the growth of Chinese capability as how Beijing uses its new military strength. Through a series of provocative actions, China has cast a long shadow over the strategic landscape of the Asia-Pacific region. The demonstration of China's military muscle as an up-and-coming naval power is all the more unsettling, as the Asia-Pacific region is a primarily maritime theater with several major flash points. In recent years Beijing expanded its dominion in the geostrategically vital and geo-economically contested South China Sea, test-launched its first mobile intercontinental ballisticmissile, and continued to defy the post-Cold War moratorium on nuclear testing. China's southward creeping expansionism from the Paracels to the Spratlys to Mischief Reef is a stark reminder of Beijing's growing naval power--and its willingness to use it if necessary--in a resource-rich area of more than 3.6 million square kilometers. Only China, among the five recognized nuclear powers (with the short-lived exception of France), defied the post-Cold War moratorium on nuclear testing that has been in place since October 1992. Then came a series of missile-firing military exercises toward various target areas near Taiwan in July and August 1995. The latest third round of saber-rattling missile diplomacy started March 19, 1996, following 9 days of live-ammunition air and naval maneuvers and ballistic missile testings to stop Taiwan's accelerated march toward democracy only to help people on Island China to forge a more distinct Taiwanese identity. As well, this latest (mis)guided missile embargo caused ripples throughout the region and beyond.


The preceding analysis of China's quest for security in the post-Cold War world leads to one obvious and somewhat paradoxical conclusion. Despite the ritualistic and habit-driven assault on "power politics," Beijing has emerged as perhaps the most unabashed practitioner of power politics in the post-Cold War setting. Beijing's own security thinking and behavior seemed firmly embedded in the realpolitik track, allowing only hypernationalist calculus to play a dominant role, with a smaller role for international security interdependence and no role for common security.66 Despite the participation in the Security Council and global ACD fora for more than two decades, there is little evidence of any fundamental paradigm shift from unilateralto cooperative security. The notion of security interdependence in an increasingly interactive and interdependent world that one state's security is increased, not reduced, only when other neighboring states also feel secure, or that China's own unilateral self-help behavior could not easily escape from the reactive--and self-fulfilling--dynamics, remains yet to find its way clear to China's security thinking and behavior in the post-Cold War world.

This is not to deny the rise of an ACD policy community at home and the dramatic increase in China's participation in and commitment to multilateral ACD conventions including the NPT. But all the policy shifts in the 1980s and 1990s can be better seen as adaptive realpolitik rather than a fundamental change in the strategic paradigm or worldview. China has exploited, and will probably continue to exploit, its participation in international ACD regimes and negotiations as a more cost-effective way of learning how to defect or free-ride within, rather than without, these regimes. In attempting to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable--unilateral realpolitik security interests versus idealpolitik concerns for its international reputation--Beijing latches itself onto the declarations of its antihegemonism and no-first-use pledge as both necessary and sufficient conditions for peace and stability in the region, indeed as the surest and shortest pathway to global peace. In this way China projects its "principled stand" on a range of ACD issues, asking others to follow what China says, not what China actually does.

The driving force for such realpolitik behavior is not any sense of a military threat from any external power but the leadership's resolve to project its national identity as an up-and-coming superpower in the Asia-Pacific region, so as to make up for the growing domestic legitimation and security deficits. The dogged determination to enact and legitimize national identity in terms of state sovereignty, state status, and state security defines the parameters of China's quest for security in the post-Cold War setting, conditioning Beijing's response to regional and global cooperative security mechanisms and processes. The mounting international outcry against China's perfidious behavior on human rights abuses at home, nuclear weapons or missile proliferation, maritime expansionism in the South China Sea, and missile diplomacy against Taiwan is increasingly viewed as a Western conspiracy led by Washington to carry out a "peaceful evolution" (heping yanbian) or "divide-and conquer" strategy of winning war without firing a single shot and thus arresting China's accelerated march to the promised land of superpowerdom.

Paradoxically, post-Tiananmen China is at one and the same time a growing regional military power--and a major non-status quo power--with extensive irredentist claims to territories and islands along and beyond its periphery throughout the Asia-Pacific region as well as an insecure and weak status quo state at home. Contrary to the popular notion, the PRC today is a weak state pretending and trying desperately to be a strong state. The defining and differentiating feature of a weak state is the lack of a unifying national ethic or legitimizing ideology and the correspondingly high level of violence or power to cope with domestically generated threats to the security of the government.67 Faced with such a legitimacy-cum-identity crisis, the CCP leadership has shifted toward perform-ance-based legitimation to enhance system effectiveness via "market Leninism" and flexing its military muscle power "near abroad" (the Spratlys and Taiwan). That is, the post-Tiananmen leadership is seizing geo-economic and geo-strategic opportunities abroad (the global marketplace and the power vacuum in the post-Cold War Asia-Pacific region) to cope with legitimation and identity threats at home (fragmentation). When the PRC's official national identity and legitimation are blocked in one domain, as earlier postulated, the leadership seeks to compensate in another. Hyper-militarism, hyper-nationalism, and mercantile diplomacy are synergistically linked to form a tripod of security policy in the post-Cold War era, buying performance-based legitimation. In short, as China becomes more insecure and fragmented at home, it feels more compelled to demonstrate its toughness abroad.

The legitimation-cum-identity crisis has been accentuated as well by a deep anxiety about other competing processes of national identity mobilization among Muslims in Xinjiang, Mongols in inner Mongolia, Tibetans in Tibet, Chinese in Hong Kong, and island-born Taiwanese in Taiwan. What makes the sound and fury of state sovereignty all the more compelling, yet problematic in the Chinese case, is the unresolved unification problem coupled with the twin challenges of globalization from above and without and substate ethnonational fragmentation from below and within. Lacking charismatic and rational-legal legitimacy, the post Tiananmen third-generation leadership instinctively invokes the party-state's last remaining source of--and indeed its ultimate claim to--legitimacy grounded in the national-identity enacting mission of restoring China's great-power status in the world. Chinese hypernationalism disguised as state sovereignty has become a sword with which to cope with a host of domestic threats and a shield with which to ward off any external normative challenge. Thus, the Chinese leadership seemed unable and unwilling to manage the rising tension between nationalism and internationalism or to make the necessary compromises on issues of sovereignty relating to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Spratlys, Senkakus, and the remaining irredentist claims to territory held by many of China's 16 neighboring countries.

Yet fighting ethnonatinalist separatist fire with Han hypernationalist fire can easily backfire. China's basic securitydilemma here is not only ethnonationally charged but geo strategically entangled, as more than 80 million minority nationality people (or about 8 percent of the total population), reside in the strategically sensitive but politically "autonomous" regions that account for roughly 64 percent of Chinese territory. The image of sovereign Kazahks, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Taijiks, and Mongols in the post-Cold War setting of substate fragmentation and rising ethnonationalism could prove too inspiring for the non-Han peoples in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet to put up with their suppressed national identities.

Clearly, China encounters here a "too little, too much" dilemma in its domestic/foreign policy. The latest round of coercive missile diplomacy against Taiwan may well have been catalyzed by the belief in a domino theory with Chinese characteristics--if Taiwan goes its separate way, what next? Today's Russia may not necessarily be tomorrow's China, but the challenge of transforming multiple "Chinas"-- Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and more--into one unified, coherent and stable multinational state, with two or more systems, without much bloodletting or federalism seems like a mission nearly impossible.

There is little doubt that the rise of the China chorus made possible by China's remarkable economic growth and assertive nationalism has bought some political legitimacy for the Chinese leadership. And yet, paradoxically, the rise of China thesis comes at a time of a rapid deterioration of the coherence of the Chinese state. State sovereignty no longer provides the center with security or control, as domestic, social, political, demographic, and environmental problems in Beijing's march to the promised land of superpowerdom are becoming legion. How can the wobbly edifice of the Chinese national security state survive the multiplying threats from within? Despite the unpre- cedented economic growth and an all-time global record in doubling per capita output in the shortest time period in the history of the global political economy (1977-87), 68 hundreds of thousands of Chinese are escaping from their homeland in search of better economic opportunities and political freedom in foreign countries--a very obvious stye in China's national identity projection. Irrespective of the amount of violence power at its command, such a repressive state is ipso facto a weak state. No state, certainly not a huge multinational state, can be held together for too long without a legitimizing democratic system, as dramatically shown by the collapse of what was widely and wrongly perceived to be a strong state in the former Soviet Union.

Can a weak, insecure, and fragmenting state be expected to be or act as a responsible and peace-loving great power? Only time will tell whether my reading of China's security behavior as more domestically driven and as more conflict prone is correct. As it is, the once widely shared image of a China in disintegration and of a dragon rampant in neighboring Asian states seems to be moving perilously close to the reality.


1. In his political report to the 14th CCP Party Congress, Jiang Zemin offers such an upbeat assessment of the external security environment as having "never been more satisfactory since the founding of the Republic," coupled with a rationale for strengthening the military. See the full text of the report in Foreign Broadcast Information Service: Daily Report: China [hereafter cited as FBIS-China] , October 21, 1992, pp. 1-21, especially at pp. 15-16 [hereafter cited as Jiang's Political Report]. See also Chen Qimao, "New Approaches in China's Foreign Policy: The Post-Cold War Era," Asian Survey 33:3, March 1993: 237-251, especially at p. 239.

2. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), SIPRI Yearbook 1993: World Armaments and Disarmament, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 10.

3. The Economist, January 27-February 2, 1996: 102.

66. For full discussion on the more synergistic and multilevel notion of "common security," see Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues, Common Security: A Blueprint for Survival, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982; Burns H. Weston, ed., Alternative Security, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990; and Michael T. Klare and Daniel C. Thomas, eds., World Security: Trends and Challenges at Century's End, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

67. For further elaboration on the "weak state" theory, see Buzan, People, States and Fear, pp. 96-107.

68. See World Bank, World Development Report 1991: The Challenge of Development, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, Figure 1.1, p. 12.