For Generations of P.R.C. Leaders, a World ‘Alive with Danger’

An Excerpt from ‘Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping’

There can be few jobs more difficult than that of paramount leader of China: the surrounding world invariably alive with danger, the extent of the state, its integrity and stability forever uncertain. For an outsider, it is easy to observe that the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) is far more secure now than it used to be. To a Chinese leader, that is far from sufficient reassurance. The Korean War and the Taiwan crises, the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square—they are all burnt into the Chinese official mind. And behind them there are the lessons of a farther past, of Opium Wars and the warlord era, reminders of how complacency in a dangerous world can lead to dismemberment and despair. One cannot take national security for granted. That the P.R.C. was cobbled together is remarkable. That it has endured is even more so. Luck has played a role, of course, but so too has grand strategy.

The ideas and forces that would underpin P.R.C. grand strategy were evident from the state’s genesis. Most important, perhaps, was the idea that there was a Chinese state of which the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) was the rightful governing party. This might seem banal, but for a group of bandits dismissed by the outside world as incompetent peasants or a gang of thugs, it was revolutionary—all the more so given how many different pieces China had been broken into at the time. One has to understand oneself, one’s place in the world, to know what one will and will not defend. This the C.C.P. did. Having defined its goal as statehood, it would use different categories of power to achieve that goal. There was diplomacy: both with great powers and with ethnic groups beyond the area the state controlled, with rivals as well as potential friends; Mao would court the Soviets and the Americans, the Japanese and the Tibetans. Even Chiang Kai-shek could be talked to—as long as he realized he was talking to the representatives of a Chinese state. Delivering economically was crucial. The loyalty of the peasants would be dependent on their getting a decent living. Diplomacy and socio-economic policy alike would have to be backed up by military power. The state would not shy away from the use of force, whether out on the Central Plains or in the mountains of Tibet. It was forged, to a great extent, by war.



Haunted by Chaos

Sulmaan Wasif Khan
Harvard University Press: Before the Chinese Communist Party came to power, China lay broken and fragmented. Today, it is a force on the global stage, and yet its leaders have continued to be haunted by the past. Drawing on an array of sources, Sulmaan Wasif Khan chronicles the grand strategies that have sought not only to protect China from aggression but also to ensure it would never again experience the powerlessness of the late Qing and Republican eras.{node, 49171}The dramatic variations in China’s modern history have obscured the commonality of purpose that binds the country’s leaders. Analyzing the calculus behind their decision making, Khan explores how they wove diplomatic, military, and economic power together to keep a fragile country safe in a world they saw as hostile. Dangerous and shrewd, Mao Zedong made China whole and succeeded in keeping it so, while the caustic, impatient Deng Xiaoping dragged China into the modern world. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao served as cautious custodians of the Deng legacy, but the powerful and deeply insecure Xi Jinping has shown an assertiveness that has raised both fear and hope across the globe.For all their considerable costs, China’s grand strategies have been largely successful. But the country faces great challenges today. Its population is aging, its government is undermined by corruption, its neighbors are arming out of concern over its growing power, and environmental degradation threatens catastrophe. A question Haunted by Chaos raises is whether China’s time-tested approach can respond to the looming threats of the 21st century.

Once forged, there was room for give and take at the edges. Goodwill was what mattered. One could cede territory to Pakistan or Burma, leave maritime disputes unresolved, and continue business with neighbors. The status of territory counted less than the overall relationship and its contribution to national security. But that room for compromise went only so far. That Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were inalienable parts of China was a given. In that insistence one detects a departure from grand strategy. The geostrategic importance of Tibet and Xinjiang as buffer zones was evident when they were first taken and remains evident now. But Taiwan shows where grand strategy yields to emotion. It was one thing to insist on Taiwan being part of China when it was run by Chiang Kai-shek, intent on taking back the mainland. Taiwan today is an entity unto itself, and more useful to China in that capacity than as yet another province in which it must suppress rebellion. The easiest way of gaining a pliable Taiwan is to offer it independence and treat it like the Philippines: incline it to China’s will with suitable economic offerings and the occasional threat. In the failure to consider such a policy, in the heavy-handed approach to Hong Kong, in the counterproductive barbarities being perpetrated in Xinjiang, the blind spots of Chinese grand strategy become evident.

Even when agreeable compromise could not be reached, the P.R.C. was fine with letting talks wind on. The point of diplomacy was not to reach a specific agreement; it was to maintain a decent working relationship, because decent working relationships kept the state alive. The United States refusing to recognize the P.R.C.; the Soviet Union with which the border clashes became so fierce; the Taiwanese intent on staying apart from the country that claimed them; Japan clinging to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and sending its leaders to the Yasukuni shrine—the P.R.C. would not abandon communication with them. There were exceptions, notably during the Cultural Revolution and in Deng’s refusal to talk to Vietnam. But by and large, the P.R.C.’s practice has been to keep talking—even in, especially in, a crisis.

Geography gave the P.R.C. many neighbors. This could be a curse, but it could also be of help: the more players there were, the easier it was to achieve a balance of power favorable to Chinese national security. One wanted, in China’s position, to be closer to the great powers than they were to one another. Even while leaning to one side, Mao’s China would try to achieve a modus vivendi with both the United States and the Soviet Union; only thus could it be reasonably certain that the two superpowers would not conspire to carve it up. Smaller powers too had a role to play, and the more of them there were, the better. China was willing to talk to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, to seek decent relations with India as well as Pakistan. The insistence on addressing disputes in the South China Sea bilaterally rather than through ASEAN reflects the understanding that one is better off dealing with multiple actors than a bloc. One can play them off against one another, shoring up bits of support and understanding that add up over time. The search for farther friendships—in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America—reflects a deceptively simple insight: it helps to have all the friends you can get.

Because attitudes change and friends are unreliable, it was only responsible to back diplomacy with force. It was always going to be hard in China, with its outlaw bands and citizens’ militias, its revolutionary leaders who were guerrilla warriors, to demarcate the civil and military spheres cleanly. The Party would have to be perpetually ready to assert its leadership over the People’s Liberation Army. This would involve allowing the army a certain role in the political and economic life of the country; it would also involve defining the limits of that role. Education would be crucial: soldiers would be reminded over and over again that they were subordinate to the Party. The relationship between the Party and the military will require unceasing attention by Xi and his successors.

Two sides to the Chinese way of warfare would emerge. The first was the quest for a modern military: one that had the latest weapons and could stand up against the superpowers. The rise of Chinese naval power is rooted in the C.C.P.’s early battles along the coast. Defeat to the Nationalists at Guningtou was a lesson in the importance of sea power; with the Americans patrolling the Chinese coast, interest in warships and the airpower that accompanies them could only grow. Since China had gone to war with superpowers in the past, it was only sensible to be prepared for such a war in the future. So nuclear weaponry, sensors, missiles, and aircraft carriers would have to be obtained. Not that one was going to use them; the strategic precept remained active defense. It was just that guaranteeing defense required a formidable arsenal (one that could also be turned to offensive purposes). As a superpower, the definition of defense would expand: the P.R.C. would be far more active, not least because it felt that growing portions of the world were vital to its own survival. With great power comes great insecurity.

But the old belief in people’s warfare never went away. It was a struggling band of guerrillas, after all, who won the state. It was volunteers from China’s villages who fought the Americans to a standstill in the Korean War. If danger threatened, it was the people who would defend China. There was a time and place for modern weaponry. But there was a time and place too for fishermen militias, for people sailing into contested seas and pushing, gradually, against adversaries. Again, the goal was defensive. These were seen as Chinese waters; besides, letting potential enemies in them today was only a recipe for a larger-scale invasion tomorrow. A modernized military and people’s war would both be part of China’s military strategy. With both, there remained the idea—and this related to the diplomatic tack of never severing communication—that tension could be dialed up and down. Because one would be willing to keep talking, one could engage in clashes along the Amur River or in the East China Sea. One could signal displeasure by testing missiles (Taiwan) or even by invading a country (Vietnam). In the worst extremity, one could always adjust the use of force and avoid a larger war that would only harm Chinese security. This is imprudent conduct. It assumes that the other parties involved will be as rational as the P.R.C. in calibrating force to larger goals. But that assumption has been one the P.R.C. has made since its inception.

The greatest variations came in the economic realm, with Mao’s wild experimentation, the laissez-faire policies of the 1970s, and then the emergence of income inequality and dud loans that challenged China from the 1990s to today. But there was, throughout, an unwavering belief that the economy was one plank in the larger architecture of national security and would have to be treated as such. It was this idea that lay at the heart of Mao’s misguided Great Leap Forward: the only way of ensuring that one could stand up against the larger superpowers was by outstripping them economically. It lay at the heart, too, of Deng’s opening and reform: one needed to get China’s economy functioning in order to keep it secure. The fruits would be borne in the Jiang and Hu eras. China’s growth brought a new tool of statecraft: economic diplomacy. Beijing could offer loans to win friends, or threaten to cease business if a foreign country’s policy ran counter to its interests.

Problems were inevitable. To get rich is glorious, but in a capitalist system (and for that matter, in a communist one), there are winners and losers. There is incentive to cheat, exploit, steal—and one is better equipped to do that the closer one is to power. The state was bound to get entangled in the economy; since its officials were only human, they would take advantage of that entanglement. The insistence that there was only one legitimate institution of power would make it virtually impossible to tackle graft, for the Party would have to be cop, judge, and enforcer all in one. Income inequality and corruption represented the dark side of the success.

Abroad too, success came with the seeds of failure. As with corruption, these failures were, to an extent, inevitable. If China succeeded in becoming powerful enough to be secure, its sheer size would terrify its neighbors who would seek support from abroad. Mao had pointed out that smaller countries would fear large ones, and in this he was not wrong. Xi took charge of a country which places like Burma and Vietnam were already eyeing with suspicion. But because he too felt suspicious—and this was natural—and because he was not prepared to do nothing, the tone of Chinese grand strategy shifted. It became more assertive, strident; there were more Chinese ships in the near seas, more pressure on neighbors. This would exacerbate the insecurity in smaller countries, and in doing so create the very insecurity Xi had been trying to avoid. He himself could not understand this. Did they not see that China was merely defending itself and its core interests? As grand strategies go, Xi Jinping’s is not a bad one. In a world turning hostile, it is prudent to strengthen control, to shore up support, to make sure that China has the means of protecting itself. At a very fundamental level, Chinese grand strategists have been successful in the goal they set, and this success was by no means certain. To stick to the principles which underpinned that success makes eminent good sense. But it is one thing to pursue them when weak, another to pursue them when at China’s current size and shape. The latter inspires fear, and fear resistance.

Success also undermined the physical foundations of China. Civilization had emerged around rivers; what was one to do if they vanished? One could prepare to fight the Americans, but choking skies and land unfit for food production were enemies of a different kind. Environmental change has led to state collapse before—in China and elsewhere. It can do so again. Human beings are animals; like animals, they require a friendly eco-system in which to function. Without food and water, the P.R.C.’s long-term future will be bleak indeed. This problem too is a product of success, a result of economic growth. One needs a strong economy to stay secure. But the demands that economy has placed on its natural resources are simply too massive.

Such success as there has been feels, now, strangely wanting. The purpose of grand strategy—in China’s case at least—is to secure the state. That in itself is an accomplishment. But what is the purpose of the state? If it is meant to provide happiness, then the P.R.C.’s success has been mixed at best. The millions slain during the Mao years, the students slaughtered at Tiananmen, the activists rounded up in the post-Cold War era—they all show what happens when grand strategy is untempered by humaneness. The Chinese leaders responsible believed such measures were necessary. This is understandable, but untrue. One did not need to launch the Great Leap Forward to up China’s productivity. The students at Tiananmen could have been given more time to disband. Even if one dismisses Western-style democracy as unsuited to China’s circumstances, some of the arrests and imprisonment seem gratuitous. Between utter chaos and the state they created, there lie several shades of light, which, vision clouded by fear, China’s leaders were unable to see. The past, real and imagined, hung as heavy upon them as it does on us all; it bent them towards certain futures and rendered others unthinkable.

Mao Zedong took a broken colossus, made it whole, and stood it up on its feet. Deng dragged it to reason and strength; Jiang and Hu nurtured the still wounded giant, ensured that it continued to grow. Now, as Xi Jinping emerged to take mastery of it, great China strode the world, a behemoth whose time had come. But though the colossus was whole, it still felt fragile. It was hobbled by the memories of how difficult safety had been to achieve, and it was terrified that it would fall apart again.