China and the Limits of History

Some things we used to know about china’s past and present but, now, not so much” 
Alice Lyman Miller
Proceedings of the USC US-China Institute Symposium, “History and China’s Foreign Relations: The Achievements and Contradictions of American Scholarship”,
Feb. 16-17, 2008

Stanford’s Alice Miller is one of those China scholars who prefers not to mince words. Whether it was her sixteen years with the CIA or the cumulative effect of four decades studying China, she is direct and still unfailingly scholarly in her assessments and, as a result is, a joy to read.

Her paper at a USC symposium above is an excellent example. There is a school of China scholarship that attempts to parse Beijing’s politics and foreign policy through a prism of China’s imperial past. To those scholars, the CCP is just another dynasty in China dynastic cycle, its current leaders just emperors in new clothes, and China wants to turn the rest of the world into tributary powers.  As a history buff with late-life aspirations to historianship, these parallels are appealing to me, and they are clearly appealing to others, else Miller would not feel the need to debunk the approach.

And debunk she does. Offering ample examples from current scholarship and public discourse, she makes a convincing case that while the history has some general value as background in understanding Chinese strategic thinking, past behavior is no template for current or future action.

A must-read for any China-watcher, it surprises me that this paper has not received more attention, but perhaps it shouldn’t: as a longtime purveyor of the “China is more nuanced than that” approach, I know that people are not looking for nuance: they’re looking for easy. Miller makes it clear that this sort of intellectual laziness is a hazard to be avoided.

History, however, is not the bunk that Henry Ford thought. I side with Cicero: ignorance of history is the hallmark of intellectual immaturity. Miller is correct in saying that we should not rely on history too much. It is important to caution that we ignore it at our peril.

China’s Assertiveness: Seven Years in the Making (At least)

Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics? Reading and Re-Reading China’s 2006 Defense White Paper
Mike Metcalf
NI Press
September 2011

Flag ~ China - People's Liberation Army

Flag ~ China – People’s Liberation Army (Photo credit: e r j k p r u n c z y k)

Mike Metcalf, a member of the faculty at the National Intelligence University in the US, has spent a lot of time parsing China’s seminal 2006 Defense White Paper. China has issued such signalling documents in the past. What distinguishes this one, according to Metcalf, is that it points Beijing toward a national security posture that goes beyond territorial defense.

In the publication, Metcalf provides his own overview of the white paper, then offers two translations of the analysis of the paper by the man considered its pricipal drafter, Dr. Chen Zhou of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, as well as Metcalf’s own analyses of Dr. Chen’s point of view.

It is a rare treat to have an informed and scholarly discussion on Chinese source material made available in a format the rest of us can digest. All the more so given that the import of this book is to prove that China’s assertive nationalism is not a product of Xi Jinping’s making, but something that has been in the works for nearly a decade. As such, it is hard to expect this direction to be fleeting: we are looking at what is likely to be a lasting trend in Chinese international relations.

Toward a More Humane PLA

The PLA and International Humanitarian Law: Achievements and Challenges
Lt. Col. Wang Wenjuan
Institute for Security and Development Policy
Stockholm
October 2013

English: A Chinese soldier with the People's L...

English: A Chinese soldier with the People’s Liberation Army waits to assist with American and Chinese delegation’s traffic at Shenyang training base, China, March 24, 2007. Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even leaving aside the tragic events of June 1989, speaking of the humanitarian record of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seems almost an oxymoron. We simply do not think of the PLA in those terms.

Wang Wenjuan does, though, and in her paper she makes a clear case that China’s military leaders are at least going through the motions. She documents the understanding international humanitarian law (IHL) at the highest levels of command, the degree to which it is integrated into PLA training and indoctrination programs, and the fact that the PLA is even engaged in “research” into humanitarian law.

What matters, of course, is the behavior of the force on the battlefield and in the administration of areas captured and occupied in combat, or areas administered under a peacekeeping mandate. In the two decades during which Wang suggests that the PLA has been in compliance with IHL, the force has never faced a true test of its resolve. And there lies the rub.

In language designed carefully not to place her career in jeopardy, LTC Wang makes clear that more effort is needed to ensure that the PLA behaves in the field according to its professed ideals. History has proven that this is a tall order even for the armed forces of democratic powers (Amritsar, My Lai, and Abu Ghraib, for example.) The PLA has much to prove, and Wang understands that the PLA has a long way to go before it can face such a test.

Chatham House on the Xi Administration

 

Xi Jinping - Caricature

Xi Jinping – Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

“The New Leadership in Beijing: Political and Economic Implications”
Kerry Brown
Chatham House
July 2013

If you have grown tired of reading analyses of Xi Jinping and his leadership program, you are not alone. The tea-leaf readers have been out in force this year, and anyone coming to the party at this point is somewhat late. But if you really care about what is going on in China, you are left with little choice but to keep reading. I do. Not necessarily because I expect a revelation with each new document, but because the better ones sharpen the definition of an incredibly fuzzy picture.

Many of my fellow China Condors and I are hoping to get some clarity about the next ten years following the coming plenum of the Party congress. The leaders have been chosen, the theory goes, and now it is time to lay out the policy platform that will guide the country over the next decade. There is much wishful thinking here: none of us are betting that we are going to be any clearer about the new leadership’s priorities then than we are now.

So we keep scouring the literature, and Kerry Brown’s paper is delightful in its brevity and clarity. Of all of his conclusions, the one that is likely to spark the most controversy (see the Eurasia Review link below) is this:

This is a leadership set up therefore for a domestic agenda and that will resist attempts to pull it more deeply into international affairs, which are seen as lying beyond what the elite define as in China’s national interests (preservation of stability, building up economic strength, safeguarding sovereignty), despite the very real pressures that will be put on it to that effect.

Comforting words, if true, particularly to China’s neighbors. Japan and the Philippines in particular are understandably worried about Chinese adventurism. Yet there is a limit implicit in Brown’s statement. The moment that China’s elite define the national interest as a plunge into international affairs – perhaps as a palliative to a restive populace, or in defense of the threatened assets of national enterprises – all bets are off.

A great read, and if you have read nothing else about the new leadership, Brown’s paper is an excellent précis of a vast and growing corpus of analysis.

What is Beijing Thinking?

 

English: Profile image of Hu Shuli

English: Profile image of Hu Shuli (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

China 3.0
Mark Leonard, et. al.
The European Council on Foreign Relations
November 2012

Those of us watching the goings-on in Chinese politics have been treated to the non-fiction equivalent of a byzantine soap opera over the past two years. The unexpectedly turbulent generational leadership transition has given us opportunity to speculate ad nauseum about who was going to get what seat, a debate doubly invigorated by the drama surrounding Bo Xilai‘s metoric rise and fall.

But the seats are filling, the slate of leaders is falling into place, and our attention turns from personalities to policies. What, exactly, are those leaders going to be doing for the next ten years?

President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have begun to lay out their policy priorities, but there are few surprises or insights to be gleaned from public positions. Of far greater interest are the debates taking place within government and the nation’s intelligentsia over the path to take in the future. As James McGregor summarizes in his recent book No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers, for the first time in generations the path forward for China is unclear, there are contending schools of thought at the top of the Party organization, and China lives under the threat of indecision and paralysis in Beijing.

Which is why this slim volume, edited by Mark Leonard, c0-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is such a valuable survey. Rather than focusing on the dramatics, Leonard’s line up of scholars and observers (including Caixing’s Hu Shuli and blogger Michael Anti) focus on how the debates around finding that way forward are playing out.

In the course of a dozen pithy essays we are treated to a glimpse of how the nation’s leaders are thinking about the future of domestic politics, the economy, foreign policy, and the search for models from which China can glean its own pathway to the future. Most of us will never get a chance to sit in the halls where these decisions are being made, but in China 3.0 Leonard and the ECFR have given us a chance to sit outside the door and listen at the keyhole, all while being treated to the perspectives of 17 of China’s own most astute observers.

Reign in the Drones

IAI Heron 1 UAV in flight. Location: NAVAL AIR...

IAI Heron 1 UAV in flight. Location: NAVAL AIR STATION, FALLON, NEVADA (NV) UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (USA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies
Micah Zenko

Council on Foreign Relations
January, 2013

Have drones become the hammer that has turned every U.S. foreign policy challenge into a nail? Micah Zenko isn’t ready to go quite that far, but he does suggest that the lack of a policy framework to regulate their use hurts the U.S., and that we are best served long-term by helping to promulgate a set of international rules and norms to govern their use.

The piece is not directly China related, but given China’s active effort to develop its own unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) force, Zenko’s calls for international norms should bring China immediately to mind.