Strategic Posture Review: China

Strategic Posture Review: China

The leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) can look forward to the new decade with considerable optimism. Last year, the PRC celebrated its 60th anniversary, with the state-controlled media taking care to trumpet the regime’s major political, economic, and military achievements. In the eyes of its leaders, the country’s rapid increase in wealth, prosperity, and prestige has, by propelling China to the forefront of global players for the first time in centuries, vindicated its present model of government, both at home and abroad.

Although one can challenge that assessment, China clearly remains the world’s most populous nation and is becoming the most probable next peer competitor of the United States for regional and perhaps global primacy. Both admiring and fearful foreign observers have cited the PRC’s growing economic, diplomatic, and military power as foreshadowing the advent of “China’s century.”

Nevertheless, the PRC is replete with contradictions that make the country simultaneously a strong and weak state. Despite its stupendous economic growth during recent decades, China remains a developing country with unprecedented pollution problems, many public health issues, and pervasive social stresses. The PRC is modernizing its military but still suffers from serious defense weaknesses. Foreign dictators may admire how Chinese leaders can combine strong economic growth with ruthless political stability. But the PRC lacks soft-power appeal among many foreign observers, who either feel threatened by Chinese economic strength or else disapprove of Beijing’s authoritarian political system, including its mistreatment of ethnic minorities and pervasive repression of civil liberties.


Few countries in the world have experienced such dramatic changes as the PRC, especially since Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping consolidated his authority in 1979 and launched major economic and other reforms. During the past three decades, China has transformed from a state whose government advocated world revolution to a “status quo” power that pursues a strategy of integrating into the current international system as a de facto major global stakeholder.

China before 1979 was an “outsider” that actively opposed most existing international institutions. Today’s PRC has become an “insider” of the existing global system, assuming a leadership role in many multilateral security and economic regimes and organizations. Whereas the Soviet Union and its satellite states experienced massive upheavals during the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which their communist regimes irretrievably collapsed, China’s authoritarian leaders successfully managed the 1989 Tiananmen crisis and then skillfully leveraged PRC assets to break out of the international isolation and sanctions that followed. At the same time, China has also become a much more complex international actor. Whereas three decades ago, the PRC might have been described as a largely monolithic society governed by an totalitarian regime, China today represents a diverse society, with many players that could potentially influence the country’s foreign and domestic policies. As a result, Chinese policies present a complex mix of potential challenges and opportunities for other countries.


Even before Deng’s stewardship, the PRC’s international priorities had generally consisted of a mixture of defensive and expansive goals: protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, preserving the CCP regime’s political power, promoting national economic development and prosperity, and advancing the PRC’s international influence and prestige. Chinese scholars themselves argue that, although the PRC is in some respects a great global power, in other respects it should best be seen as a developing country whose government is preoccupied with promoting economic growth, preventing domestic instability, and — above all — upholding the regime’s legitimacy within China. The PRC’s continued claims to developing country status have led Chinese diplomats to side with the non-aligned bloc in many global institutions, most recently complicating climate-change negotiations, and more generally constraining Beijing’s willingness to assume a leadership role in many global institutions.

Several historically determined lenses influence how Chinese policymakers pursue these goals, whose relative emphasis and policy manifestations naturally differ over time. For example, the PRC’s recent resurgence is seen as China simply reassuming its rightful status as a major great power, especially in the East Asia region. Although this “restoration” also ends at least a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, that very history helps explain why Chinese representatives remain sensitive to perceived infringements on the PRC’s sovereignty, and fearful that foreign powers will try to constrain and coerce China by exploiting its internal weaknesses.

China’s latest national defense white paper, “China’s National Defense in 2008,” describes both favorable and unfavorable trends and scenarios. Like other government-approved publications and statements, it underscores the pervasive uncertainty among Chinese policymakers and scholars about the range and severity of the threats and opportunities presently faced by the PRC. The white paper states that “peace and development remain the principal themes of the times,” a reaffirmation of the international strategy Beijing has followed for at least the past decade. In the authors’ assessment, the “major powers are stepping up their efforts to cooperate with each other and draw on each other’s strengths.” Other trends, such as increasing economic interdependence, are “keeping low the risk of worldwide, all-out and large-scale wars for a relatively long period of time.”

Yet, the document also cautions that “global challenges are on the increase, and new security threats keep emerging.” Among these “multiple difficulties and challenges,” the white paper identifies the intensified struggle for “strategic resources, strategic locations and strategic dominance,” and cautions that “hegemonism and power politics still exist, regional turmoil keeps spilling over, hot-spot issues are increasing, and local conflicts and wars keep emerging.”


Economic Growth. The core source of China’s expanding global power and influence has been the country’s remarkable economic achievements. Since the PRC opened up its economy to foreign investment in the late 1970s, its economy has experienced phenomenal growth, doubling every decade. If present global growth rates continue, China will have the second-largest economy in the world sometime during the next few years, and the largest by the middle of this century.

The ability of the Chinese leadership to promote rapid economic growth while maintaining domestic stability and increasing the PRC’s international clout has further enhanced the regime’s domestic and international legitimacy, a self-perpetuating cycle that China continues to use to its full advantage. Although many of the PRC’s neighbors harbor doubts about China’s ultimate objectives, their unease has thus far been mitigated by their desire to gain access to the world’s largest emerging market.

According to PRC government calculations, China’s annual defense spending relative to the country’s GDP and yearly government financial expenditures has generally fallen since 1978 (although it has increased slightly as a proportion of the country’s GDP since 1998). Chinese analysts claim that the PRC’s defense spending remains far below that of the United States and other major military powers. Foreign analysts note that official Chinese budget figures exclude spending on nuclear weapons, purchases of foreign weapons, and military research and development. For this reason, experts generally double or triple the official Chinese defense spending figures, which yields a 2007 budget of well over $100 billion for military-related projects.

Military Modernization. Thanks to an infusion of funds made possible by its economic growth, the PRC has been able to finance a major military buildup in recent decades. Although China has used its economic wealth in part to import weapons from abroad — notably from Russia — it has also made the development of the PRC’s domestic defense industry a high priority. The Chinese government has pursued a multi-pronged strategy for enhancing its indigenous defense industries. First, in order to avoid stretching its resources too thin — a major pitfall of the Soviet Union’s defense buildup — PRC planners have focused on several important areas in which the country enjoys some relative advantages. Second, the government has sought to integrate the military-industrial sector into civilian industries to facilitate the acquisition of dual-use technologies by defense firms and decrease the financial burden of subsidizing them. Finally, the military, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has encouraged the reverse-engineering of advanced imported equipment, with the knowledge then applied to the manufacture of the PRC’s own weapons systems.

The most recent version of the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual publication, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” released in March 2009, observes that, “The pace and scope of China’s military transformation have increased in recent years.” Not only has the PLA obtained more major weapons systems, but the Chinese armed forces are acquiring more-advanced systems while improving their capacity to integrate the key elements of Chinese military power. The PLA, which previously concentrated on winning a lengthy war of attrition against any possible foreign invader, is now developing the capacity to win short, high-intensity conflicts around China — especially near Taiwan, and potentially beyond. In addition, the report documents the PRC’s growing strengths in the unconventional domains of warfare: notably nuclear weaponry, the targeting of space-based assets, and cyber warfare.

The demise of the Soviet threat led to a major reorientation in Chinese strategic concerns. Previously, the PLA’s main focus was on countering a feared Soviet ground attack from the north and west. Since the Soviet collapse, Chinese authorities have worried more about maritime clashes involving the United States and other countries in the Pacific Ocean. More recently, as the PRC has become a global trading nation increasingly dependent on overseas energy sources and other key imports, Chinese leaders have stressed the importance of defending the PRC’s maritime supply lines and curbing other threats to its freedom of the seas. For this reason, the PRC’s conventional military buildup has focused on strengthening the PLA Navy (PLAN). The fleet has acquired advanced surface ships, submarines, and anti-ship missiles. Its supporting aviation arm has also strengthened.

In coming years, the PRC will probably begin building aircraft carriers and seeking access to overseas military bases. Acquiring these assets could help the PLAN execute sea-denial and anti-access strategies, enhance the fleet’s power-projection capabilities, and ensure the free flow of oil and natural resources through vital sea lines of communications.

Many analysts worry that present trends will soon lead PRC leaders to believe that they have viable military options against Taiwan. Not only is the conventional military balance across the Taiwan Strait shifting in Beijing’s favor, but the PLA has been developing new capabilities and techniques to negate traditional U.S. military strengths in such areas as information technology and space-based defense systems. Chinese strategists now consider negating U.S. computers and satellites as an essential component to any military conflict that might arise with the United States, with Taiwan as the most likely flashpoint.

Asymmetric Capabilities. The PRC has been developing so-called “assassins’ mace” capabilities designed to negate U.S. strengths and exploit asymmetrical vulnerabilities in U.S. military defenses. China’s new military thinking has manifested itself in the PLA’s rising investment in, and focus on, cyber warfare capabilities. The PLA’s cyber-war effort can be broken down into several categories that are designed to inflict maximum damage on an enemy’s technological infrastructure and severely impede an adversary’s ability to communicate and transfer data or other information via cyber-based networks. The PLA’s focus ranges from malware and service-denial attacks to botnets and hacking. These methods of attack aim to cripple anything from banking systems to power grids.

The PRC’s quest for disruptive military technology also became globally visible in January 2007, when the PLA successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon by maneuvering a Chinese ground-based missile to fly into the path of an orbiting satellite. Chinese officials were conspicuously silent about the reasons for their actions, which broke a decades-long international moratorium against such experiments. One interpretation, originally developed by Western arms control advocates but later adopted by some Chinese analysts, is that Beijing hoped to shock the Bush administration into abandoning its opposition to further outer-space arms control measures. A more common assessment is that China was seeking the capacity to disrupt U.S. space-based communications and reconnaissance, with an eye toward a future Taiwan contingency. In any case, the PRC succeeded in confirming for themselves, and demonstrating to the rest of the world, that the PLA possessed offensive space capabilities that could inflict acute blows on U.S. defenses.

Transparency. Representatives of the United States, Japan , and other countries have repeatedly called on the PRC to make its defense plans and programs more transparent, to minimize misunderstandings about China’s intentions. These experts caution that Beijing’s excessive military secrecy has alarmed its neighbors and impeded China’s integration into regional security institutions.

China’s latest white paper on defense demonstrates an awareness of these concerns. The text reassures readers that the PRC “makes unremitting efforts to enhance military transparency and promote mutual trust with other countries in the military sphere.” The paper also provides the most detailed discussion to date of the reasons behind specific Chinese defense modernization programs, though without providing programmatic details made available in U.S. publications, such as the quantity and timing of planned purchases.

In fact, when it comes to the details of Beijing’s military modernization plans, “China’s National Defense in 2008” provides little information about the country’s specific military procurement programs. Does the PRC intend to build an aircraft carrier? Will China deploy additional strategic ballistic missiles to counter U.S. national and regional missile defense programs? Is China continuing to develop anti-satellite weapons? Chinese policymakers still obscure many details in order to avoid highlighting their ongoing military buildup to outside observers, and to deny potential adversaries insights into China’s defense vulnerabilities.

Nuclear Weapons. “China’s National Defense in 2008” is more forthcoming about explaining the rationale underpinning the PRC’s policy of using nuclear weapons to deter and, if necessary, retaliate against a nuclear attack against China. In addition, for the first time in such a high-level government document, the white paper describes how Chinese nuclear force will come into play in a strategic crisis. According to the authors, in peacetime, the land-based nuclear weapons of the PLA Second Artillery Force are not aimed at any country. But if China comes under a nuclear threat, the nuclear missile force will go into a state of alert and prepare for a nuclear counterattack to deter enemy use of nuclear weapons against the PRC. If China comes under a nuclear attack, the Second Artillery Force will use nuclear missiles to launch a resolute counterattack against the adversary.

Foreign analysts have raised the idea of engaging the PRC more directly in strategic nuclear arms control negotiations, which thus far have been largely confined to Moscow and Washington. Yet, “China’s National Defense in 2008” does not give much optimism on that score, arguing that, “The two countries possessing the largest nuclear arsenals bear special and primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament.” The authors also insist that China needs “a lean and effective deterrent force and the flexible use of different means of deterrence” to avert international crises and wars.

According to many estimates, whereas Russia and the United States have thousands of strategic nuclear warheads, China has only about 20 operational intercontinental ballistic missiles — each carrying a single warhead — capable of reaching the continental United States. The U.S. intelligence community anticipates that, at best, China will be able to increase this number to 100 warheads by 2015. Chinese officials have therefore eschewed transparency measures that could facilitate the ability of the United States to locate and destroy China’s inferior strategic weapons. Even so, for Russia and the United States to reduce their nuclear arsenals below the threshold of 1,000 warheads, the PRC will probably need to make at least a unilateral commitment to constrain its nuclear force buildup, in order to overcome Russian and American fears that China would use the opportunity presented by the reductions to “race to parity.”


Despite the PLA’s improving capabilities, the PRC leadership’s preoccupation with possible domestic and foreign challenges to the regime’s survival has led Beijing to pursue generally conservative international behavior. China’s leaders constantly fear being targeted for constraints by the United States and other powers. They also worry about threats to their domestic political legitimacy and the PRC’s system of governance in a rapidly developing and diversifying market economy. In practice, this moderation has effectively self-contained the PRC’s use of China’s rising power. Yet, since these perceptual constraints are largely self-imposed, the government can more easily discard them than it could structural and external impediments on the exercise of Chinese power.

Notwithstanding Beijing’s fears, most observers would generally perceive China’s efforts to “rise” while not provoking a countervailing international balancing coalition as successful. A major reason for that is the care Chinese leaders have taken to characterize their policies as reflecting a “win-win” formula that yields benefits for all parties. This formula enables the PRC to reduce foreign hostility to China’s growing economic presence overseas and penetration of international markets. By endearing itself to foreign leaders and populations through the announcement of generous economic aid, trade, and investment deals (with no explicit strings attached, unlike those from the West), the PRC has sought to portray itself as a benevolent rising power that does not threaten other countries’ security or economic well-being. By pursuing such win-win relationships, the PRC has forged mutually beneficial relationships with countries all over the world. The deals have not only improved China’s security and prosperity in the short-term, but they have also typically established a framework for more extensive long-term cooperation.

For the win-win strategy to be effective, it must avoid contentious issues that divide the two sides, especially where one side’s gain would appear to come at the cost of the other side’s loss. So China purchases oil from Sudan while refraining from criticizing the Sudanese government’s human rights abuses in Darfur. Critics see this approach as evidence of the amorality of the PRC’s foreign policy, claiming it provides benefits only to the political and economic elites of the countries involved, while excluding their broader populations from the relationship’s advantages.

Unfortunately for China, the limits of the win-win strategy’s effectiveness have begun to appear. In its bilateral relationships with many countries, as well as regarding some global issues such as climate change, PRC negotiators have frequently found it necessary to defend specific Chinese interests rather than accept solutions that would result in net global gains at a discrete cost to Beijing.

China’s rising international prominence has also made it more difficult for PRC diplomats to pursue cooperative relations with pariah regimes that violate human rights and other global norms. As China’s foreign influence grows, moreover, so too have expectations for the PRC to assume more responsibility for global stewardship. Other capitals now place great stake in whether the PRC will support international sanctions against Iran or agree to limit its carbon emissions, to name but two examples. In this respect, PRC leaders’ reluctance to offer a detailed blueprint of where they would like to lead the world — i.e., their preferred international order, which would naturally imply losses for some as well as gains for China — could increasingly become a debilitating factor, as other nations look to Beijing for leadership that fails to materialize


Since the early 1990s, China has launched a sustained campaign to enter important international institutions. The country has obtained full membership in the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization and developed strong relations with the African Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. China also plays a dominant role in some multilateral institutions, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Six-Party Talks, which have respectively become the main security institutions in Central and Northeast Asia. After 2001, China emerged as a leading force-contributor to U.N. peacekeeping missions, building on the PRC’s traditional influence as one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Although Chinese officials have become more comfortable authorizing and contributing to peacekeeping operations, they regularly oppose employing force or coercive sanctions to induce other governments to change their behavior. Chinese diplomatic statements consistently affirm a commitment to upholding traditional interpretations of state sovereignty, which severely limit the right of external actors to challenge a national government’s domestic policies. Chinese leaders defend their non-interference doctrine by appealing to international law, though they make a major exception in forcing security partners and aid recipients to eschew close ties with Taiwan.

Furthermore, unlike the United States, which has over a century of experience in sending military forces into foreign nations to reconstruct their political and economic system, the PRC has never used the PLA for nation-building purposes outside of Chinese territory. The defense of the principle of non-intervention also reflects more pragmatic considerations — notably the desire to not have Western countries criticize Beijing’s human rights and civil liberties practices or seek to depose authoritarian governments friendly to China in the name of such criteria.

Chinese policymakers have readily supported other transnational institutions that constrain Washington’s ability to pursue unilateral actions that might harm Beijing’s security interests. After the United States invaded Iraq, for instance, the Chinese government took the lead in organizing the Six-Party Talks, a regional forum that helped avert a similar unilateral U.S. strike against North Korea by providing all parties with multilateral diplomatic options.


East Asia. Although eager to profit from access to the Chinese market, many of China’s neighbors cast a wary eye at its growing military strength. It is not difficult to conceive of scenarios in which the PLA would use its new capabilities to coerce other East Asian states into making concessions on various disputes. For instance, China has active maritime disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. These contested regions of the East China Sea and the South China Sea have rich fishing grounds as well as valuable undersea natural resources, including deposits of oil and natural gas.

Tensions between Beijing and Taipei have decreased following the election of a Taiwanese government more committed to improving cross-Strait relations. But the Pentagon believes that the PRC is still pursuing capabilities both to defeat Taiwan in any military confrontation, and to “deter, delay, or deny” possible American military intervention on Taipei’s behalf. An example of the latter capability is the so-called “carrier-killer” anti-ship ballistic missile that China is reportedly developing. Once operational, the missile would render U.S. carrier-based air capability, central to U.S. regional security planning, vulnerable to attack.

Japan and China remain divided by a terrible historical legacy. Although they have managed to increase their economic coordination for mutual benefit, they have been unable to resolve their dispute over the East China Sea and its valuable natural gas reserves. The bilateral negotiations that began in 2004 have neither reconciled their conflicting sovereignty and territorial claims nor established an agreed mechanism for joint exploitation of the energy reserves that lie within their overlapping maritime economic zones.

Japanese national security officials have identified China’s military modernization as a potential threat and have repeatedly called on Beijing to make its defense programs more transparent. For their part, Chinese leaders view warily Japan’s growing military capabilities, expanding security role in East Asia, and efforts to revise the pacifist clauses in the Japanese constitution. In particular, Beijing fears that Tokyo’s expanding military cooperation with the United States could lead to the provision of de facto Japanese assistance to Taiwan in a future cross-straits confrontation. Over the long term, Chinese security experts fear that Japan could exploit its technological and industrial potential, including the country’s latent nuclear weapons capacity, to become a major military power.

Korea and Iran. While the PRC has historically enjoyed closer ties to North Korea, in recent years improving Chinese-South Korean economic and political relations has become an important consideration in Beijing’s thinking. Meanwhile, the relationship with North Korea has remained remarkably stable despite China’s coordination of the Six-Party Talks. Indeed, the PRC’s regional stature has benefited from the perception that Beijing enjoys more influence in Pyongyang than any other foreign government. Chinese policymakers have opposed North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, but they have consistently resisted developments that could create chaos on their joint border. The PRC continues to provide North Korea with weapons, economic assistance, and energy. Despite their frustrations with Kim Jong-Il, Chinese policymakers appear to have resigned themselves to dealing with his regime for now, while hoping that a more accommodating leadership will eventually emerge in Pyongyang.

Tehran’s efforts to acquire sensitive nuclear technologies, such as the capacity to enrich uranium to manufacture nuclear fuel, have also been the main factor complicating Sino-Iranian relations. Beijing does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons, but the PRC has proven to be unenthusiastic with regards to sanctioning Tehran for its nuclear activities. Chinese diplomats, in partnership with their Russian colleagues, have often worked to weaken proposed sanctions, accepting only the minimum measures necessary to avert a possible American military attack on Iran. In addition, they have consistently defended Iran’s right to pursue nuclear activities for peaceful purposes, such as civilian energy production.

Economic considerations readily explain the PRC’s opposition to sanctions. Iran has become one of the PRC’s most significant sources of foreign energy, supplying China with as much as 15 percent of its imported oil. Beijing has also benefited from the reluctance of Western companies to invest in Iran due to the numerous unilateral and multilateral sanctions imposed on the Iranian government. If anything, Beijing’s dependence on Iranian oil should increase in the coming years as China’s energy consumption continues to rise.

Central Asia and Russia. China has had ties for centuries with Central Asia, but Russian and Soviet control of the region since the 19th century largely severed these contacts. Since the USSR’s demise in 1990, however, China has re-emerged as a major player in the region. In the security realm, Chinese authorities worry most about the spread of hostile ideologies — such as liberal democracy and Islamic fundamentalism — in Central Asia, both for their direct local effects and for the potential for spill-over into Chinese territory. Some members of the Uighur Diaspora in Central Asia, which numbers approximately half a million people, have been active in groups seeking an independent East Turkistan in China’s Xinjiang province.

China’s counterterrorist interests in Central Asia are reinforced by its eagerness to gain access to Central Asian energy resources, as well as copper and other raw materials from Afghanistan. At present, Beijing policymakers are uneasy about relying so heavily on vulnerable Persian Gulf energy sources. Gulf oil shipments traverse sea lanes susceptible to interception by the U.S. or other navies. In addition, the Chinese government recognizes that terrorism, military conflicts, and other instability in the Middle East could abruptly disrupt Gulf energy exports. Since Chinese efforts to import much additional oil and gas from Russia have proved problematic, Beijing is pushing for the development of land-based oil and gas pipelines that would direct Central Asian energy resources eastwards towards China. New inland routes would provide more secure energy supplies to the PRC than existing seaborne links. China is beginning to develop direct pipelines with its Central Asian neighbors, especially Kazakhstan. A pipeline connecting Turkmenistan gas reserves with China’s Xinjiang territory recently went online as well.

Avoiding political instability in these countries is a key concern of Chinese policymakers. Besides securing access to the region’s energy resources, PRC officials also seek to enhance commerce between China’s relatively impoverished northwestern regions and their Central Asian neighbors. This consideration applies particularly to restive Xinjiang, as over half the province’s income derives from trade with Central Asian countries. In addition, countering unrest in Xinjiang is a major reason why the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has become one of the PRC’s most important regional security institutions. Beijing has used its influence within the SCO as well as more direct bilateral pressure and inducements to encourage Central Asian governments to suppress local Uighur opposition to Beijing.

The fact that Beijing has had to share leadership of the SCO with Moscow has led to some Sino-Russian tensions, especially when they have advocated diverging policies for the organization. For example, Chinese policymakers have had to ward off Russian attempts to give the SCO a major military dimension. China and some of the Central Asian governments want the SCO to remain primarily an anti-terrorist institution that focuses on countering internal threats to members’ security. Conversely, Russian opposition has blocked PRC proposals to establish a SCO-wide free-trade zone, which could result in Chinese products driving Russian exporters out of their traditional Central Asian markets.

Overall, however, China’s policies towards Russia have been largely non-confrontational, with a focus on achieving mutually beneficial economic relations. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently characterized ties between Beijing and Moscow as better than at any time in their history, and the two countries seem finally to have consummated their long-awaited energy partnership.

South Asia. The China-India relationship remains problematic. Both countries are rising Asian states with clashing visions regarding their respective places in the international system. While the PRC and India have increased ties over the last decades, the two countries remain suspicious of each other’s intentions. Despite more than a dozen senior-level meetings since 2003, they have been unable to resolve their border disputes. Meanwhile, improving U.S.-India ties are presenting Chinese policymakers with new challenges. PRC diplomats have also been dragging their feet on U.N. Security Council reform to prevent India (and Japan) from becoming permanent members. Nonetheless, both Beijing and New Delhi have kept these disputes from derailing their broader economic relationship and from threatening regional stability, from which they both benefit.

Beijing has traditionally considered Pakistan a counterweight to India in South Asia, an important base for enhancing Beijing’s influence in Central Asia, and a significant economic partner, both directly and as a transit country. Although media attention focuses on ties between Washington and Islamabad, many Pakistanis would identify China as their main — or at least their most reliable — security partner. Whereas the United States led international efforts to sanction Pakistan for its nuclear weapons program, China supplied much of the technology and expertise that allowed Islamabad to achieve a nuclear deterrent against India. The PRC is helping develop Pakistan’s infrastructure, perhaps with the hope of being able to use the new roads and port facilities to support its military as well as commercial ambitions in South Asia. Chinese policymakers share the preoccupation of their Western counterparts with maintaining Pakistan’s integrity in the face of a growing threat from Islamist militancy, but they thus far have assisted Pakistan bilaterally rather than as part of a multinational consortium.

Chinese government representatives have expressed interest in assisting the Afghan government to counter the Taliban insurgency and contain the country’s narcotics trade. Yet, the PRC’s security ties with Afghanistan remain much less developed than they are with many other Central and South Asian governments. Chinese policymakers seem ambiguous about the U.S. and NATO role in Afghanistan (and Iraq). They certainly do not want Islamist militants to be able use these countries to spread extremism to the PRC. Chinese officials have also traditionally avoided challenging the United States on core security issues. Yet, Chinese policymakers do not support a long-term Western military presence in either country and have resisted contributing combat forces to either theater.

The United States. Beijing’s eagerness to maintain good relations with Washington is understandable. Chinese officials and analysts consider the United States the most influential global actor in many realms. Furthermore, they desire to maintain good ties with Washington and its Asian and European allies as part of their general strategy of preserving a benign international environment in which Beijing’s power and prosperity can increase unfettered by Western sanctions or other impediments. In certain cases, some Chinese leaders have considered countervailing interests — such as gaining influence or neutralizing threats — to be sufficiently important as to warrant challenging U.S. positions. Even then, they have not sought to organize an overtly anti-American bloc of states to challenge Washington’s global primacy or the international system it supports.

Sino-American naval clashes in the South China Sea last year highlight how, despite decades of military-to-military talks and the creation of several China-U.S. defense confidence-building measures, incidents between PLA and U.S. military units operating in international waters and airspace near the PRC have repeatedly disrupted bilateral relations. Since the mid-1990s, the two defense communities have negotiated a series of bilateral defense agreements and confidence-building measures seeking to reduce mutual tensions and advance their common security interests. These measures have promoted a better understanding of each party’s security concerns, but they remain highly constrained and vulnerable to disruption from external shocks.

This coming year could see renewed maritime confrontations as well as disagreements over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Barack Obama’s plans to meet with the Dalai Lama. Nevertheless, relations between Beijing and Washington look to be as generally positive under the Obama administration as they were during the previous Bush administration.


Thus far, Beijing’s policy toward many international security issues still follows Deng Xiaoping’s adage that, in its foreign policies, China should: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

Yet, in the past, major changes in the global distribution of economic and military resources among countries have resulted in power-transition tensions and conflicts, sometimes with violent consequences. Some observers expect China to become the next peer rival of the United States, inheriting the role played by the Soviet Union during the second half of the 20th century.

With Washington’s attention focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the nuclear policies of Iran, China is patiently developing a leading economic presence in many countries and positioning itself to become their most important foreign partner should U.S. global influence suffer further setbacks. However, Beijing still faces domestic political and economic challenges that, unless overcome, will confine the PRC to the status of primarily a regional hegemon with worldwide ambitions, rather than the next global superpower.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.

Photo: Chinese sailors man the rails aboard the destroyer Qingdao as they arrive in Pearl Harbor for a routine port visit (U.S. Navy photo by Spc. Joe Kane).