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  • China’s Search for Security by Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell
  • Christopher A. Ford (bio)
Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell. China’s Search for Security. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. xxv, 406 pp. Hardcover $32.95, isbn 978-0-231-14050-8.

Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell have written a valuable survey of the foreign policy and national security behavior of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the many factors that bear upon it. The task they have set for themselves in this volume is to “look at China’s security problems from the Chinese point of view in order to analyze how Chinese policymakers have tried to solve them” (p. xi). Ultimately, it is a book that offers advice to leaders in Washington about how to respond to the PRC’s growing power and international influence. The book is very useful for the thoughtful breadth of its coverage of a great many important topics, but it is also an intriguing volume in part because of the ambivalence of its analysis—or, at least, what at first seems to be ambivalence.

On balance, from a U.S. policymaker’s perspective, the fundamental conclusions with which Nathan and Scobell bracket their volume are broadly reassuring. China, they assure us, is “too bogged down in the security challenges within and around its borders to threaten the West unless the West weakens itself to the point of creating a power vacuum” (p. xi). Decision makers in Beijing, the reader is told, are broadly “rational,” pragmatic, and nonideological in their orientation, and are principally interested—as the book’s title suggests—simply in security. It is “vulnerability,” rather than overweening ambition, that remains “the key driver of China’s foreign policy” (p. xiii).

According to Nathan and Scobell, the PRC’s motivations and objectives are best understood through the conceptual model of realist theory, and Beijing’s aims are principally defensive. With no expansionist ambitions and no sign either of any intention of using military force beyond its borders or of any desire to change others’ ideology, modern China is said to be a “status quo power in a system designed by the West” (pp. xiii, xv, 13, 21, 347).

One might hope, of course, that all this is true, and that such things as China’s recent efforts to revise accepted international boundaries in the South and East China Seas are in truth somehow ‘defensive’ and not as threatening to regional and international security as they appear to be. A careful reader of the book, however, may also be struck by the degree to which so many specific lines of argumentation therein suggest a subtextual argument—and, indeed, an ultimate conclusion—that is not quite congruent with this blandly reassuring conventional wisdom.

To be sure, some of the volume’s ambivalence shows up in the form merely of inconsistency in small assessments. The reader is told, for instance, both that the PRC is “not adamantly opposed to an eventual unified Korea under the dominance of the South” and that Chinese leaders “seem to have decided that they will do everything they can to postpone or even prevent a collapse of the North Korean regime” (p. 136). At different points, moreover, the PRC is recounted both as [End Page 151] having eliminated its proliferation-facilitating technology transfers “by the late 1990s” (p. 182) and as having faced U.S. sanctions for such transfers “dozens of times” in the early 2000s (pp. 311–312), because “military-run enterprises” apparently declined to comply with “nonproliferation commitments made by central officials” (pp. 51–52). The reader’s principal challenge from the authors’ apparent ambivalence, however, is at a higher level of analysis: in connection with the big-picture policy, conclusions, and recommendations that Nathan and Scobell make about the implications of China’s modern “rise” for its neighbors, and for U.S. policy.

On the one hand, as noted, the authors’ message is, on one level, broadly reassuring. While Nathan and Scobell suggest that the United States should be willing to accept “a new equilibrium of power” that entails “a larger role for China” in world affairs (p. 356) and...


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