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.