Three New Looks at China – international relations

Three New Looks at China – international relations – books

Larry M. Wortzel

Serious questions are being asked in the United States about the nature of China as a political and military actor in the world. Is China a third-world, developing country that is no threat to United States or Asian interests, is it a major power on the verge of being a great power that threatens the United States, or is it somewhere in the middle of these two extremes? This uncertainty has been reflected in the debate in the US Congress over whether to grant China permanent normal trade relations and in the political campaigns for the presidency. Will even moderate improvements in the state of science and technology in China translate into the development of new, deadly weapons? Will each incremental increase in gross national product for China translate into improvements in China’s military? Or is China simply a state that is so far behind the West, and especially the United States, that anyone who advises caution in policy with regard to China is simply a “chicken little,” crying danger when there is none? These are the questions that the three books under review try to answer.

In China and the People’s Liberation Army, Solomon M. Karmel expands the thesis of an earlier writer from the United Kingdom, Gerald Segal, arguing that China is a weak power, not a superpower or great power. Karmel starts out by quoting a Chinese text, The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Deng Liqun, et al., Beijing, 1994), which argues that to be a superpower, a nation must possess four qualities: a large, diversified national economy; a major conventional military force; a nuclear weapons capability (and the means to deliver the weapons); and a strategic geographical location. He then systematically argues throughout the book that “in China’s case, the dilemmas of development are simply too great for the state to exert the type of great power influence over East Asia that the Soviet Union exerted over Eastern Europe and its many satellite states throughout the world.” He believes that “China’s security and freedom from occupation threats in the postwar period have done little to enhance its power over ot her states.” It is Karmel’s thesis that those who argue that China is a great power are misinformed, and those who believe China is a military threat are crying wolf. Having defined his terms carefully in the initial chapter of the book, Karmel goes on to justify his thesis in subsequent chapters relying on extensive primary-source research in Chinese-language publications and Western secondary sources.

In six well-argued chapters, Karmel systematically dismantles China’s military force structure, which he views as weak and poorly integrated; its military-industrial complex, which he characterizes as anemic and plagued by inefficiencies and corruption; the defense budget, which he believes is wasting a lot of money on the wrong priorities; and the role of China in Asia, which he defines as increasing in power but still inadequate to qualify China for great-power status. This is a readable book. Its weakness is that it is supported by research that is full of glaring inaccuracies which seem to reflect a lack of familiarity with the military in general and with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in particular.

The author is simply wrong when he explains the force structure of the PLA, saying that the seven regional military commands, analogous to the unified commands of the United States, are subordinate to the army. They are not. The military regional commands of the PLA are subordinate to the General Staff Department and the Central Military Commission. They are joint, and although the ground forces dominate them, they are jointly commanded and structured. The author is also wrong in his characterization of the development of the General Armaments Department from the Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND). Karmel argues that COSTIND turned into a structure of state-owned military-civilian defense industries under a State Science and Technology Commission. In fact, when the General Armaments Department was created, it took over much of the military production, research, and development. However, some production did stay under the old COSTIND, but was more centrally controll ed by the state. Harlan Jencks, whom Karmel quotes extensively, has called the new organization SCOSTIND, for “State COSTIND.”

In other areas, Karmel’s careful culling of sources to prove his thesis has missed such PLA authors as Li Qingshan and Li Jijun, who have published extensively on joint warfare, military production, and strategy. Karmel also fails to credit the PLA for its earlier successes in doctrinal and force structure modernization based on the PLA’s study of US Army Field Manual 100-5, on warfighting doctrine, and a thorough review of the US lessons learned from the 1991 Gulf War.

To respond to some of Karmel’s arguments suggesting China is a weak power, one needs only to remember that at the mere suggestion that “relations with China would be difficult,” the Clinton Administration refused to approve badly needed air and cruise missile defenses for Taiwan. When China suggested that “it would not be good for relations,” the Republic of Korea opted not to participate in research on theater missile defenses in Asia with the United States. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum (ARF) was formed primarily to respond to China. Vietnam is seeking a new form of security relationship as a balance against China. With regard to Karmel’s claim that China’s military industry is poor in general, although it does have its problems it managed to supply Pakistan with a nuclear and ballistic missile capability, it managed to build a force of approximately 400 ballistic missiles for use against Taiwan in a relatively short period, and it has managed to produce a strategic nucl ear force capable of hitting the United States. The threat of force from China has deterred elected leaders of Taiwan from scheduling a referendum on national sovereignty and self-determination. And in the United Nations, China has a veto in the Security Council as a permanent member. This reviewer has not accomplished the extensive literature search of Solomon Karmel to define “great power status” versus “superpower status,” but all of this evidence suggests that China’s power seems great.

If one is going to read Karmel’s work, it should at least be read in conjunction with other texts by authors far more familiar with militaries in general and the PLA in particular.

Ted Galen Carpenter and James A. Dorn have compiled an excellent edited volume presenting a range of essays on international issues, domestic matters in China, and its industrial and economic future. Titled China’s Future: Constructive Partner or Emerging Threat?, this is a balanced, realistic treatment of the subject. Carpenter and Dorn have assembled a group of 19 distinguished scholars, strategists, former policymakers, and the most eminent economists on China. The book, which is the product of a September 1999 Cato Institute Conference, examines the history of China in the past 50 years, analyzing trade, human rights, economic production, foreign policy, and national security issues. Not surprisingly, the bottom line in the book on how China will evolve is found in its final chapter–“The answer will depend, to a great extent, on the fate of liberalism in China: a liberal China will be a constructive partner; a nationalistic and authoritarian China will be an emerging threat.” The book lacks a chapter wi th an in-depth discussion of China’s military forces and strategy, which might help answer the question of how serious an emerging challenge or threat China could become. Nonetheless, it is a superb addition to any library on contemporary China.

For Carpenter and Dorn, and their contributing authors, the outcome of China’s political future is more important than the military achievements of the PLA. The editors note that China is neither a “messianic power” like Nazi Germany, nor an “expansionist power” like the Soviet Union. They advise that “the prudent course is to treat China as a normal (albeit sometimes repressive and prickly) great power, but avoid the extremes of seeing the PRC as either enemy or strategic partner.” In Chapter 6, Selig S. Harrison provides a brief but credible perspective examining China as a regional power in East Asia. Harrison’s treatment is realistic and not inflammatory. Nor does he minimize China’s present or future capabilities. The real key to the future, to put it in the vernacular of strategists, is the capabilities-versus-intentions equation. A highly or even moderately capable state in a military sense with good intentions should not be considered a threat. Thus it is the nature of the future Chinese state that c oncerns the authors, not present capabilities.

Two very solid scholars on the Chinese economy, Thomas G. Rawski and Barry Naughton, provide chapters discussing trade liberalization in China and the move to create a market economy from the Stalinist command economy. Both are cautiously optimistic. Several Chinese scholars who hope for economic and political reform in China complement their assessments. The bottom line of this book is that the United States should continue to trade with China, maintain a strong, engaged American military and an active foreign policy in Asia, and hope for the future. I endorse these prudent suggestions.

Robert G. Sutter is an experienced scholar and analyst of Chinese and Asian affairs who has a long history of publications on China at the Congressional Research Service. At present he is the National Intelligence Officer responsible for producing estimates on China and Asia. Thus he approaches his work, Chinese Policy Priorities and Their Implications for the United States, with credibility and a wealth of knowledge. The breadth of his treatment of what he sees as China’s policy priorities makes this book worth reading. Sutter argues for a balanced view in the United States of China’s domestic and foreign policy priorities. He also makes policy recommendations for the United States that seek to avoid what he believes are “excessive swings” in policy toward China. Instead, Sutter argues, both countries should seek realistic assessments based on common ground and agreed differences.

Sutter’s treatment of China’s policy priorities focuses first on what he terms “the primacy of domestic policy concerns” which dominate Beijing’s thinking. He sees the political leadership of China as reasonably unified (or at least less divided) on a number of issues: the importance of domestic stability for continued economic growth; an emphasis on professional and technical competence in leadership and management over ideological purity; a military that remains the main bulwark against popular unrest and discontent, but which is increasingly more professional than in the past; and an assertive foreign policy that focuses on an economic modernization program that is carried out in a stable regional environment. After outlining the major policy concerns in two chapters, Sutter turns to China’s foreign relations. Russia, the United States, and Japan each warrant separate chapters. The Middle East, Africa, and Latin America are treated in one chapter, Southeast Asia and the Pacific in another, and the two Kor eas and Taiwan are given a single chapter.

The argument for balanced assessments and policies in Sutter’s introduction and conclusion is admirable. Such an approach is possible within the context of a critical commentary by the author. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, despite the wide range of topics covered very well, Sutter has avoided taking critical, objective stances. Perhaps this approach is an accommodation to his position as an official of the United States government. But it leaves the reader somewhat wanting. To have any real impact an author should make some judgments, and can certainly do so without being polemical or partisan. For instance, in the section on Russian-Chinese arms cooperation, Sutter concludes that “there is a debate in the West over when and if such weapons will alter the regional balance.” Many other experts in the field assert the balance has already been altered, and after reading the book one wants to sit Mr. Sutter down and ask, “What do you really think, Bob?”

There is only passing, tangential mention in the book of the statements by Presidents Clinton and Jiang Zemin about the nature of US-China relations, and no discussion of whether their declaring that China and the United States are working toward a “constructive strategic partnership” was wise, overstated, or hyperbole. And what was the effect of that statement on America’s allies in Asia, who believed they were the center of US foreign policy, not the “Middle Kingdom”? David Lampton and Gregory May argue in Managing U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century that such a formula was not particularly useful. Once more, this critical subject could have been treated more thoroughly, with critical commentary by the author. On the Korean Peninsula, Sutter is absolutely correct when he argues that one of Beijing’s main goals is to reduce the US presence in South Korea, trading with the wealthier and better-developed South while maintaining its traditional support for the communist North. But how does Beijing manage to advocate some form of confederation for North and South Korea, while insisting that no such formula is possible for the separation between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China?

In sum, none of the three books reviewed here should be read as a stand-alone treatment of the broad issue of China. Solomon Karmel’s book presents the least realistic and critical account of China’s significant military and foreign policy clout. Ted Galen Carpenter and James Dorn take the most objective and critical positions, and Robert Sutter’s work provides an excellent, broad-brush synopsis of the associated policies. If I were teaching a course on the subject, I’d recommend the latter two books.

The Reviewer: Colonel Larry M. Wortzel, USA Ret., is director of the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation. He previously was the director of the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College. During his active-duty career he was a military intelligence officer and a Foreign Area Officer concentrating on China and East Asia. Colonel Wortzel earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hawaii and served two tours as a military attache in China. He is the author of Class in China (1987), China’s Military Modernization (1988), and Contemporary Chinese Military History (1999).


Carpenter, Ted Galen, and James A. Dorn. China’s Future: Constructive Partner or Emerging Threat? Washington: Cato Institute, 2000.

Lampton, David, and Gregory May. Managing U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century. Washington: The Nixon Center, 1999.

Liqun, Deng, et al. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Beijing: PLA Press, 1994.

Karmel, Solomon L. China and the People’s Liberation Army: Great Power or Struggling Developing State? New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Sutter, Robert G. Chinese Policy Priorities and Their Implications for the United States. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

COPYRIGHT 2000 U.S. Army War College

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