- China’s Search for Security by Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell
China’s Search for Security presents the anti-alarmist perspective within the American debate concerning the rise of China. While many other commentators describe China as calculatingly assertive and bent on driving the United States out of Asia to make way for a revival of Chinese domination, Nathan and Scobell portray Chinese security policy as a reflection of China’s fundamental weakness and defensiveness: “Vulnerability to threats is the main driver of China’s foreign policy” (p. 3), they write.
Their theoretical approach is “mostly realist”, augmented for “nuance” by borrowing from Constructivism, Institutionalism and Liberalism. Somewhat oddly, the authors define the latter as domestic interest groups driving foreign policymaking (p. xvi). Most sections of the book contain ample historical background, which helps stretch the length of the book to over 400 pages. As the authors are American, there is a heavy focus on US-China relations. The book also has very good summaries of the economic and domestic political aspects of China’s security as well as the challenges posed by Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. In contrast, the book has only one paragraph on China-Australia relations and one paragraph on China-Thailand relations.
The authors argue that China’s leaders do not have a “fixed blueprint”, but rather Beijing’s decisions will depend on how other countries treat China (p. xxii). Chinese foreign policymakers lack “free choice”, but respond to “tasks imposed by the facts of demography, geography, and history”. One might object that the authors’ view takes away Beijing’s responsibility for bad international citizenship, as if Chinese leaders cannot help but condone massive cyber-theft, make unjustifiably excessive territorial claims in the South China Sea, insist on Chinese Communist Party sovereignty over Taiwan or shield North Korea from the consequences of its rogue behaviour.
Nathan and Scobell make the case that China is too weak and preoccupied to be an international trouble-maker. Globalization and engagement with the international economy and institutions, they say, have opened China to “penetration” by foreign people, institutions and ideas, which “required China to alter its domestic legal, administrative, banking, and judicial systems; subjected China to deep surveillance and adverse judgment by and pressure from [End Page 154] foreign organizations and governments” and “generated disruptive change” (p. 12). The authors emphasize that China is the more vulnerable partner in the US-China economic relationship, whether through intentional punishment by Washington or through economic mismanagement by US leaders. Despite the fear of many Americans that China could undermine the economy by selling off its US Treasury Bonds, Nathan and Scobell say this would be economic suicide on China’s part. The authors more or less say that foreigners have substantial control over China as international engagement “involved a yielding of [Chinese] autonomy” (p. 275). China faces what the authors call three “time bombs”: a rapidly aging population; a worsening environmental pollution crisis that will require a deep cut in GDP to address; and water shortages as Tibetan glaciers melt. As a consequence, there is no Chinese hegemony in the offing. The problems of controlling affairs on or near its borders consume resources that China might otherwise use to expand its influence more broadly. The authors say that although Chinese military power is growing and has now made the scenario of an easy US victory in a Taiwan Straits war obsolete, for the foreseeable future the People’s Liberation Army will be unable to match the military forces of other major powers in the region, unless these countries decide to stop competing. Nor can China force its will upon Southeast Asia.
In some cases the authors seem to press the “vulnerability” argument past the point of credibility. China is vulnerable because of its many shared borders with both formidable states and near-failed states. But China is also vulnerable where it has no contiguous neighbours — along its 9,000 miles of sea coast — because “all along this coastline, the Han heartland lies exposed” (p. 15). This...