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China's Quest for Security in the Post-Cold War World

Authored by Dr. Samuel S. Kim.

July 29, 1996

37 Pages

Brief Synopsis

In April 1996, the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute held its Seventh Annual Strategy Conference. This year's theme was, "China Into the 21st Century: Strategic Partner and . . . or Peer Competitor."

Dr. Samuel S. Kim of Columbia University argues that, while post-Tiananmen China is a growing regional military power, it is, almost paradoxically, a weak state both pretending and trying to be a strong one. By flexing its muscles with its weaker neighbors, China, is largely compensating for self-doubts about its national image and strength.

What the world sees in China, a modernizing, economically robust, and assertive regional hegemon and world power "want-to-be," is, Dr. Kim asserts, at least in part a facade. Although China has made remarkable economic progress in the past few years, those who trumpet its rise do not consider its massive internal contradictions involving social, political, demographic, and environmental problems. Dr. Kim makes the point that weaknesses in those areas cannot be overcome by purchasing modern weapons, even those high-tech weapons that bolster a nation's claim to being a major military power.

The United States is, and in all likelihood will remain, a Pacific power. China, despite the limitations Dr. Kim examines herein, will be an immense factor in the strategic balance of power in the Pacific region.


China's security behavior, riddled with contradictions and paradoxes, seemed made to order for challenging scholars and policymakers concerned about the shape of things to come in post- Cold War international life. With the progressive removal of the Soviet threat from China's expansive security parameters from Southeast Asia, through South Asia and Central Asia, to Northeast Asia, coupled with the growing engagement in international economic and security institutions, came perhaps the most benign external strategic environment and the greatest international interdependence that China has ever enjoyed in its checkered international relations. Despite the deterioration of Sino- American relations in the past 2 years, most Chinese strategic analysts do not believe the United States poses a clear and present military threat. Indeed, there has been no shortage of upbeat assessments of China's post-Cold War security environment to be, on balance, the least threatening since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.1 And yet Beijing has been acting in recent years in a highly provocative manner as if it were faced with the greatest threat. For good or otherwise, Beijing managed to capture global prime time with the "rise of China" chorus in the global marketplace suddenly turning into the "rise of China threat" debate in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. All the same, Beijing seemed determined enough to proceed with all deliberate speed to beef up its military power projection capabilities, especially air and blue-water naval power, with the real military spending increasing at double-digit rates even as global military spending, especially those of all the other members of the Perm Five in the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council, began to fall sharply since 1992.2 The revealing paradox of the capitalist world economy is that "market Leninist China," with the fastest growing economy--China's GDP in 1994 reached almost $3 trillion on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis, making it the second-largest economy in the world after the United States3--is, at the same time, the fastest-growing emitter of greenhouse gases and the largest recipient of multilateral aid from the World Bank and of bilateral aid from Japan!

What matters most is not so much the growth of Chinese capability as how Beijing uses its new military strength. Through a series of provocative actions, China has cast a long shadow over the strategic landscape of the Asia-Pacific region. The demonstration of China's military muscle as an up-and-coming naval power is all the more unsettling, as the Asia-Pacific region is a primarily maritime theater with several major flash points. In recent years Beijing expanded its dominion in the geostrategically vital and geo-economically contested South China Sea, test-launched its first mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, and continued to defy the post-Cold War moratorium on nuclear testing. China's southward creeping expansionism from the Paracels to the Spratlys to Mischief Reef is a stark reminder of Beijing's growing naval power--and its willingness to use it if necessary--in a resource-rich area of more than 3.6 million square kilometers. Only China, among the five recognized nuclear powers (with the short-lived exception of France), defied the post-Cold War moratorium on nuclear testing that has been in place since October 1992. Then came a series of missile-firing military exercises toward various target areas near Taiwan in July and August 1995. The latest third round of saber-rattling missile diplomacy started March 19, 1996, following 9 days of live-ammunition air and naval maneuvers and ballistic missile testings to stop Taiwan's accelerated march toward democracy only to help people on Island China to forge a more distinct Taiwanese identity. As well, this latest (mis)guided missile embargo caused ripples throughout the region and beyond.

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