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“China’s Search for Security”: Video Interview and Book Excerpt

June 27, 2013

Conversation with Andrew J. Nathan

Political scientist Andrew J. Nathan, co-author of China’s Search for Security, shares his insights on topics including China’s engagement with the international human rights system, the contention around values between China and the U.S., and the effect of ongoing human rights problems in China on global security.

Excerpt from China’s Search for Security

Chapter 1, “What Drives Chinese Foreign Policy?”

Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell. China’s Search for Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 4-7. 
Copyright (c) 2012 Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell. Excerpt used by arrangement with Columbia University Press.
All rights reserved.


Vulnerability to threats is the main driver of China’s foreign policy. The world as seen from Beijing is a terrain of hazards, stretching from the streets outside the policymaker’s window to land borders and sea lanes thousands of miles to the north, east, south, and west and beyond to the mines and oilfields of distant continents.

These threats can be described in four concentric circles. In the First Ring—across the entire territory China administers or claims—the Chinese government believes that domestic political stability is placed at risk by the impact of foreign actors and forces. The migrant workers and petitioners who crowd the streets of Beijing and other major cities have been buffeted by the forces of the global economy, and their grievances have become issues in the West’s human rights criticisms of China. Foreign investors, managers, development advisers, customs and health inspectors, tourists, and students swarm the country—all with their own ideas for how China should change. Foreign foundations and embassies give grants and technical support to assist the growth of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Along the coast to the east lie maritime territories, large swathes of which Beijing claims but does not control and which are disputed by its neighbors. These territories include islands and adjacent waters in the East China and South China seas. The most significant island is Taiwan, seat of the Republic of China (ROC). Located a hundred miles off the coast, Taiwan is a populous, prosperous, and strategically located island that China claims but does not control. The island has its own government and military force, formal diplomatic recognition from twenty-odd states, strong defense ties with the U.S., and political and economic relations with Japan and other countries around the world. To the far west, dissidents in Tibet and Xinjiang receive moral and diplomatic support and sometimes material assistance from fellow ethnic communities and sympathetic governments abroad.

Although no country is immune from external influences—via migration, smuggling, and disease—China is the most penetrated of the big countries, with an unparalleled number of foreign actors trying to influence its political, economic, and cultural evolution, often in ways that the political regime considers detrimental to its own survival. These themes are further explored in this chapter and chapter 10.

At the borders, policymakers face a Second Ring of security concerns, involving China’s relations with twenty immediately adjacent countries arrayed in a circle from Japan in the east to Vietnam in the south to India in the southwest to Russia in the north. No other country except Russia has as many contiguous neighbors. Numbers aside, China’s neighborhood is uniquely complex. The contiguous states include seven of the fifteen largest countries in the world (India, Pakistan, Russia, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam—each having a population greater than 89 million); five countries with which China has been at war at some point in the past seventy years (Russia, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and India); and at least nine countries with unstable regimes (including North Korea, the Philippines, Myanmar/Burma,1 Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan). China has had border disputes since 1949 with every one of its twenty immediate neighbors, although most have been settled by now.

Every one of these Second Ring neighbors is a cultural stranger to China, with a gap in most cases larger than that which the U.S., Europe, India, and Russia face with their immediate neighbors. Although Japan, Korea, and Vietnam borrowed some parts of their written and spoken languages and some Confucian beliefs from China, they do not consider themselves in any sense Chinese. The other neighboring cultures—Russian, Mongolian, Indonesian, Indian, and others—have even less in common with China. None of the neighboring states perceives that its core national interests are congruent with China’s. All the larger neighbors are historical rivals of China, and the smaller ones are wary of Chinese influence.

Complicating the politics of the Second Ring is the presence of Taiwan (which is also part of the First Ring). The overriding goal of its diplomacy, as we discuss in chapter 8, is to frustrate China’s effort to gain control. In doing so, it seeks support from other countries within and beyond the Second Ring. Taiwan is thus a major problem for Chinese diplomacy and counts as a twenty-first political actor on China’s immediate periphery. Finally, the Second Ring includes a twenty-second actor whose presence poses the largest single challenge to China’s security: the U.S. Even though the U.S. is located thousands of miles away, it looms as a mighty presence in China’s neighborhood, with its Pacific Command headquarters in Honolulu; its giant military base on the Pacific island of Guam (6,000 miles from the continental U.S., but only 2,000 miles from China); its dominating naval presence in the South and East China Seas; its defense relationships of various kinds around China’s periphery with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan; and its economic and political influence all through the Asian region. If the vast distances that separate the United States from China prevent China from exerting direct military pressure on it, the same is not true in reverse.

All in all, China’s immediate periphery has a good claim to be the most challenging geopolitical environment in the world for a major power. Except for China itself, Russia faces no contiguous country that is anywhere near its own size; its demographic and economic heartland in the European part of the country is buffered from potential enemies by smaller states; it has invaded its neighbors more often than it has been invaded by them; and it has not been attacked by a direct neighbor since the Russo–Japanese War of 1904–1905. Even more striking is the comparison of China’s situation with that of the U.S., a country that has only three immediate neighbors, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba, each much smaller, and that is separated by oceans from all other potential enemies.

Also unlike the U.S., China seldom has the luxury of dealing with any of its twenty-two neighbors in a purely bilateral context, a fact that brings into play a Third Ring of Chinese security concerns, consisting of the politics of six nearby multistate regional systems. Beijing’s policies toward North Korea affect the interests of South Korea, Japan, the U.S., and Russia; its policies toward Cambodia affect the interests of Vietnam and Thailand and often those of Laos—as well as the interests, again, of the U.S.; its policies toward Burma affect India, Bangladesh, and the nine states that are comembers with Burma in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—and again, the U.S. Because of such links, China can rarely make policy with only one state in mind and can almost never make policy anywhere around its periphery without thinking about the implications for relations with the U.S. The map of Asia is too crowded for that.

This Third Ring of Chinese security consists of six regional systems, each consisting of a set of states whose foreign policy interests are interconnected. The memberships of some of the systems overlap. The six systems are Northeast Asia (Russia, the two Koreas, Japan, China, and the U.S.), Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, twelve Pacific island microstates, China, and the U.S.), continental Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, China, and the U.S.), maritime Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, China, and the U.S.), South Asia (Burma, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldive Islands, Russia, China, and the U.S.), and Central Asia (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, China, and the U.S.) (see frontispiece map). The aggregate number of states in the six systems is forty-five.

China is the only country in the world that is physically part of such a large number of regional systems. (If the U.S. and Russia are engaged in even greater numbers of regional systems, it is not by the dictates of geography, but by choice.) Some issues are pervasive across all six systems (for example, China faces the U.S. presence in all of them, and in all systems its neighbors are wary of its rising influence), whereas some are distinctive to particular systems (such as the North Korean nuclear weapons issue in Northeast Asia and Islamic fundamentalism in Central, South, and maritime Southeast Asia). Each system presents multifaceted diplomatic and security problems.

These first three rings of security—from the domestic to the regional— thus present a foreign policy agenda of extreme complexity, which absorbs most of the resources China is able to devote to foreign and defense policy. Yet these three rings cover only about one-quarter of the globe’s surface if one leaves out the vast watery region dotted with the microstates of Oceania. The rest of the world—including eastern and western Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and North and South America belongs to an outer, or Fourth Ring, of Chinese security.

China has entered this farthest circle in a big way only since the late 1990s and has done so not in pursuit of general power and influence, but, as we argue in chapter 7, to serve six specific needs: for energy resources; for commodities, markets, and investment opportunities; for diplomatic support for its positions on Taiwan and Tibet; and for support for its positions on multilateral diplomatic issues such as human rights, international trade, the environment, and arms control. Not only its goals but its tools of influence in the Fourth Ring are limited: they are commercial and diplomatic, not military or, to any significant extent so far, cultural or political.

To be sure, China’s weight in this wider global arena is enhanced by its demographic and geographic size, its trajectory of economic growth, its independence of the U.S., and its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But in contrast to the U.S., Europe, and even to some extent Russia, and in common with regional powers such as Japan, India, Brazil, and Turkey, China seldom endeavors proactively to shape the politics of distant regions to its own preferences. Instead, it must deal with whomever it finds in power, and if that regime is overthrown, it seeks relations with its successor. China has arrived in the Fourth Ring as a dramatically new presence, but not in the role of what we would call a global power—at least not yet.

Within each of the four rings, China’s foreign policy agenda is seldom its policymakers’ free choice, as can sometimes be the case when the strongest powers take an initiative to oust a government or force a peace settlement in a region far from their own shores. Chinese foreign policy instead responds defensively to a set of tasks imposed by the facts of demography, economics, geography, and history.

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