China and Arms Control: Transition in East Asia

Arms Control Today, November 1994 | Go to article overview

China and Arms Control: Transition in East Asia


With the Asian security environment in transition from the Cold War structure to whatever replaces it, prospects for arms control initiatives in the region and the attitudes and cooperative mechanisms to implement effective regimes are in a state of flux. Within Asia, Beijing's conventional and nuclear defense modernization programs, combined with its active arms export program, make China a central player in present arms control regimes and any future agreements. While the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union meant that China lost much of its strategic significance, Beijing's growing economic and military power guarantee that it will be a major source affecting regional stability -- or instability -- for the foreseeable future. At present, China is viewed by many as a less- than-perfect partner in efforts to achieve a more effective Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an agreement on a comprehensive test ban (CTB) treaty before 1996 and other non-proliferation and arms control initiatives. To understand why this is so, and to appreciate how the current transition in thinking among China's elites can help or hinder these initiatives over the long term, it is necessary to more clearly see the post-Cold War world and Asia from Beijing's perspective.

China's Strategic Culture Changes

For the past decade, China has asserted that power and influence in the 21st century will be a function of a state's "comprehensive national power," which is derived from a robust economy and a vigorous infrastructure of advanced science and technology. While military power plays a significant role, Beijing's security analysts believe that this alone cannot provide the foundation for long-term influence provided by the combination of a strong economy, a defense establishment supported largely by indigenous capabilities and a stable political system.

China's leaders undoubtedly view the demise of the Soviet Union as originating in large part from an economy and science and technology infrastructure distorted by an overcommitment to military development and production. Thus, Beijing's primary security concern is to sustain a "tranquil international environment" within which it can pursue the domestic development goals required to achieve the comprehensive capabilities required for a major power in the 21st century. These goals have been designated the modernization of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense -- the "four modernizations."

In this context, it is important to understand that Beijing's overriding security objective is to develop such a power base that China will never again suffer the degradations it experienced in what Chinese refer to as the "century of humiliation." Beijing's political and military elites see the period between the first Opium War (1839 to 1842) and the communist victory over the Kuomintang in 1949 as the time when China lost control of its own destiny to the imperial powers of Britain, Japan, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. It was a century of rebellion, revolution, civil and international war that left a moribund China exposed to the predatory schemes of foreign powers epitomized by the "unequal treaties" its badly weakened government was forced to endorse. This recent history has passed on to China's political and military elite a strategic view that enshrines freedom from fear of domination by hostile powers as the core of national security policy.

All Chinese, regardless of political persuasion, can agree on this important point because it becomes a prism through which all dealings with foreigners and foreign states are viewed. Any policy, cooperative measure, arms control regime, treaty or arrangement that could conceivably put China again in a subservient relationship is to be avoided. The lesson of history, before and after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, is that foreigners cannot be trusted. …

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