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Chinese analysts invariably claim that Chinese strategic culture has been primarily defensive since Sun Zi produced his Art of War (circa the sixth century B.C.). Johnston, a young political scientist at Harvard, decided to test this premise of a uniquely Chinese, essentially pacific strategic culture, rooted in the Confucian-Mencian disparagement of the use of force. His methodology combines excruciatingly close textual analysis of the Seven Military Classics of ancient China, still a part of Chinese military discourse, with study of Ming dynasty (1368-1644) foreign-policy decisions. Johnston defines "strategic culture" as "ranked grand strategic preferences derived from central paradigmatic assumptions about the nature of conflict and the enemy, and collectively shared by decision makers." A formidable mouthful -- but a welcome relief from the vagueness with which the term is usually employed.
See "One China?"
a Flashback about Chinese-American relations.
In the Seven Military Classics, Johnston finds evidence of two
strategic cultures. There was a Confucian-Mencian-based set of
assumptions and preferences for policies dependent on diplomacy and economic
incentives, or on winning over one's foes through self-improvement and the
example of Chinese rectitude, but it was largely symbolic, used primarily to
justify behavior in culturally acceptable ways. This was augmented by an
operational set of assumptions and policy preferences indistinguishable from
the realpolitik practiced by much of the rest of the world. Ancient Chinese
writers on strategy invariably concluded that the best way to respond to a
threat was to eliminate it by force. Johnston contends that the Chinese
classics stressed the value of violent solutions to security conflicts and of
offensive over defensive strategies. True, they also called for flexibility,
for using noncoercive means when confronting a more powerful enemy -- but only as
an expedient, until China could be sure of prevailing. Negotiations were a
device for delaying action until the moment was auspicious. The goal would
remain annihilation of the enemy. Johnston concludes that there was no pacifist
bias in the Chinese strategic tradition but only realpolitik sometimes cloaked
in Confucian-Mencian rationalizations.
Johnston's argument is strengthened by his examination of Ming strategic decision-making. He finds that the Seven Military Classics were widely read by Ming emperors, scholar officials, and military leaders, and were reflected in strategic texts of the time. His analysis of 120 memorials written by various Ming officials at various times notes the relative absence of references to Confucian-Mencian symbols and a conviction that the Mongols, the principal threat to the dynasty during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, must be met with force. The enemy was presumed likely to interpret concessions or a defensive posture as evidence of Chinese weakness. The application of military power was deemed essential to maintain Chinese credibility. Debate among policymakers focused not on basic assumptions but on the question of whether the Ming were strong enough to prevail at a given moment. Johnston leaves little doubt that Ming leaders, well versed in traditional strategic thought, consistently chose war whenever they believed that Chinese power was adequate to defeat their adversaries. Neither Bismarck nor Kissinger would find their reasoning alien -- nor would they consider it uniquely Chinese.
Johnston prudently offers a disclaimer: "None of this is meant to imply that contemporary China has inherited a predisposition to aggressive, offensive uses of force." He will go only so far as to say that China does have an operative strategic culture, that it is not unique, that it approximates Western versions of realpolitik -- and that the Chinese in fact have been more likely than others to resort to force to cope with perceived threats. A less prudent reader, like me, viewing Chinese behavior since Tiananmen Square and trying to predict Chinese actions in the future, might think there is justification for carrying the lesson further.
Recent works by Chen Jian and Zhang Shuguang, Chinese scholars in the United States, reinforce the idea that Mao Zedong was undeterred by the prospect of confrontation with the United States in 1950 and that his decision to intervene in the Korean War was intended to inflict a blow sufficient to eliminate the threat he perceived from the United States. China today is far more powerful than it was in 1950, and its relative strength is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade. Given what Johnston has taught us about China's strategic culture, have we any reason to assume that Chinese leaders will be less bellicose in the years ahead?
Again, Johnston's analysis implies an answer. From ancient times to the present, Chinese leaders have insisted upon operational flexibility, on retaining the option of accommodation when estimates of the adversary's strength and determination indicate little chance of victory. But the determination to resist Chinese transgressions has not been apparent anywhere. In recent years, especially during the Clinton presidency, Washington has signaled Beijing that the United States cares about little except trade, and that American concern for human rights in China, for the oppressed Tibetans, for democracy in Hong Kong, for nuclear nonproliferation, is merely symbolic -- rhetoric designed to be culturally acceptable to Congress and the electorate. As the Chinese have violated their agreements, mistreated their people, and intimidated their neighbors, American businesspeople and the U.S. Department of Commerce have assured them that their market for goods and capital is essential to the U.S. economy. Not unreasonably, they have assumed that if they step up their intimidation of Taiwan, they have nothing to fear from the United States.
My visitor from Singapore also expressed the widely held view that the next
generation of Chinese leaders will be more cosmopolitan and easier to live
with. If Johnston's analysis of China's strategic culture is correct -- and I
believe that it is -- generational change will not guarantee a kinder, gentler
China. Nor will the ultimate disappearance of communism in Beijing. The
powerful China we have every reason to expect in the twenty-first century is
likely to be as aggressive and expansionist as China has been whenever it has
been the dominant power in Asia -- except when its leaders have reason to believe
that potential adversaries have both the power and the determination to stop
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1997; China's Strategic Culture; Volume 279, No. 3; pages 103 - 105.