Qualified Engagement: U.S. China Policy and Security Concerns

By Gregor, A. James | Naval War College Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Qualified Engagement: U.S. China Policy and Security Concerns


Gregor, A. James, Naval War College Review


THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT THAT the People's Republic of China (PRC) has become, and will remain for many years, a major preoccupation for policy planners in Washington, D.C., and pundits everywhere. To date the discussion has turned mostly on the generic China policy alternatives-"containment" or "engagement."1 Publications advancing the rationale for one or the other are legion.2

While the bulk of professional judgment is that "engagement" recommends itself, it is not clear precisely how "deep" or "constructive" such engagement should be, how it might be implemented, or how it might be qualified.3 Some have suggested that not only has the modernization of Beijing's armed forces "heightened regional anxiety" but that "Chinese actions" (as distinct from Beijing's declaratory posturing) have done nothing to allay that anxiety.4 It has been said that the People's Republic of China has been pursuing an "assertive maritime regional policy" in Southeast Asia, and there are those who fear as a consequence not only a potential "threat to Western interest in the free movement of shipping" in the region that could generate the "strong possibility" of "limited war," but real conflict with the United States as well.5

The issues involved are far too important to be accorded cavalier treatment.6 They require at least a review of Beijing's strategic and military doctrines, of the current and projected inventory of its armed forces, and of the disposition of the Chinese to pursue their interests with organized violence, as well as an assessment of the environment in which the PRC will operate for the foreseeable future.7

This article concludes that however "constructively" and "deeply" engaged the United States may be with the PRC, prudence recommends that engagement be qualified by a clear recognition that Beijing may soon be in a position to destabilize the security of East Asia and threaten the interests of the industrialized democracies in general, and those of the United States in particular.8 Since that conclusion plainly bounds how far "engagement" should be pursued, let us examine the evidence that necessitates such a cautionary assessment.

Strategic and Regional Doctrine

As early as 1985, Chinese strategic and defense thinking significantly changed. The conviction arose, for a variety of reasons that need not detain us, that armed conflict between the major military powers, involving early, largescale engagements and a nuclear exchange, was very unlikely.9 Rather, the political and military leaders of the PRC anticipated that armed conflict for the foreseeable future would involve conventional weapons, would be of short duration, and would probably be a response to immediate territorial or maritime disputes.

Chinese military theorists argued that technological developments afforded major enhancements of conventional military capabilities. Modern research had significantly increased the range, target-acquisition capacity, precision, lethality, and stealth properties of weapon systems, allowing military engagements to be, more likely than not, brief and decisive.10

As a consequence, Chinese strategists argued, the armed forces of the PRC would have to develop capabilities suited to rapid-response, joint-force, smallscale conflicts. Such conflicts might grow out of Beijing's disputed territorial and maritime claims-particularly those in the South China Sea, where today significant seabed, subsoil, natural gas, and oil resources are contested and fish harvests are of considerable importance.11

Since its unsuccessful "punitive" war with Vietnam in 1979, in which the armed forces of the PRC suffered heavy casualties and losses in inventory to very little purpose, Beijing has both transformed its military doctrines and sought to enhance its force capabilities. The Enlarged Meeting of the Party Central Military Commission of 1985, in which Deng Xiaoping announced his new military doctrine of limited warfare on China's periphery, anticipated major changes in the inventory, character, and missions of the Chinese armed forces. …

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