China's Strategic Culture

A RECENT visitor from Singapore, an able and well-informed reporter from the Straits Times, wanted me to know that the people of East Asia were uneasy about what they perceived as a crisis in Chinese-American relations and that they expected the United States to back off. Didn't we realize that the Chinese had never been an aggressive or expansionist power? As academics are wont to do, and despite my own misgivings about America's China policy or lack thereof, I took a few minutes to lecture him on the history of the Chinese empire, on thousands of years of attacks on China's neighbors -- Vietnamese, Tibetans, Uighers, Mongols, Koreans, and countless minority peoples who had the misfortune to get in the way. And I told him to read Iain Johnston's book, Cultural Realism.

Chinese analysts invariably claim that Chinese strategic culture has been primarily defensive since Sun Zi produced his (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.

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'S findings suggest the need for a re-examination of the strategic behavior of the People's Republic of China. His book cites a study by Jonathan Wilkenfield, Michael Brecher, and Sheila Moser that indicates that the PRC, involved in eleven foreign-policy crises from 1950 to 1985, resorted to violence in eight of them, or 72 percent of the time -- far more often, proportionally, than any other major power in the twentieth century. China, Johnston argues, is much more likely than other states to use force in territorial disputes, partly because of historical sensitivity to threats to China's territorial integrity. The continuing contretemps over Taiwan is a case in point. He contends that Chinese leaders in Mao's day had a low threshold as to what constituted a danger to the security of the state. And China's willingness to use force has grown with the improvement in its capability. It is more likely to be confrontational as it grows stronger.

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 them.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1997; China's Strategic Culture; Volume 279, No. 3; pages 103 - 105.