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Strategic Caution, Confrontation, and the “Chinese Dream” of a Sinocentric World


Below follows the text upon which Dr. Ford based his remarks at a workshop in Washington, D.C., on September 19, 2013, attended by another American scholar of China and a delegation of foreign guests.

Let me begin by thanking our hosts for organizing this event, and our friends who have come so far for this dialogue.  It is an honor to be able to meet and speak to you.

When I spoke to a different group here last month, I offered a few thoughts on the apparent ambitions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to control the “discourse” and shape the norms of the global order, and upon the sort of things the PRC might demand of others if it were to become the dominant state in the international system.  I will merely summarize those comments now, before moving on to the question of how assertive and confrontational the PRC may choose to be in pursuing the kind of world it wants.

I.          The “Chinese Dream” of Sinocentric Order

In my earlier presentation, I suggested that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime does at least aspire to reshape the world-system in its image, replacing the Western-originated international order with a successor scheme that more closely mirrors the PRC’s values and priorities.  If one can imagine a kind of global operating system “with Chinese characteristics,” I suspect it would reflect the Chinese predisposition to see political authority as existing principally along a vertical axis of hierarchical deference to a lead actor, rather than along a horizontal axis of pluralist interaction.  In the “harmoniousness” of this order, all understand their place in a hierarchical framework, and all “spontaneously” conform their conduct to the norms established under the guiding hand of an ideally-benevolent leader-state.

It is seldom very clear precisely how PRC thinkers envision this working in practice, but at least from the perspective of the world-system as a whole, this Sinocentric vision does not necessarily entail direct dominion.  To be sure, direct rule would surely still be very possible in China’s immediate periphery, and there would be precedents and rationalizations readily available to justify the use of force in response to offenses against “harmony” anywhere within the physical reach of Chinese power-projection.

PRC primacy farther afield, however, would likely be a more subtle and complex phenomenon. On this interpretation, state units would still be functionally independent, but would nonetheless do the right thing voluntarily, by acting “harmoniously” in according appropriate status and deferential respect for the virtuous normative leadership of the central player.

In this vision of a Sinocentric world, moreover, it would not be “interference” in the internal affairs of other states for China to demand deference even with respect to how others depict China, because these sorts of thing aren’t really “internal.”  Respect for systemic norms is inseparable from respect for the norm-setting state, and it is a threat to harmonious order to express incorrect thoughts about – or to insult, or to malign the virtue of – the systemic leader.

Late last year, when attending a conference in Beijing, I had a prominent Chinese general explain to me that it was entirely appropriate for the PRC to demand that Japan revise its history textbooks and change its political-expression laws to suit Chinese sensibilities with respect to the depiction of atrocities in China during the Second World War.  Japanese educational curricula and domestic laws are not, I was told, Japan’s “internal affairs” because questions of how China is depicted to the Japanese public concern China and are therefore fair game.

Coming from a CCP regime that bristles at any foreign suggestions about its own internal affairs, and which rigidly controls and systematically distorts its own historiography, this sounds like rank hypocrisy, of course – and it basically is.  From the perspective of Confucio-totalitarian theory, however, there isn’t really a double standard: it is right and proper for the dominant player to set, and to enforce, the norms and values of “its” order system.  Where what is at issue is respect for the values of this proprietary order-system, moreover, including the question of other actors’ deference to the normative sensibilities of the leader-state, nobody has “internal” affairs.

II.        Japan, China, and the Dynamics of Assertiveness

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the PRC desires a Sinocentric world along such lines, one important question for policymakers in the United States, Japan, and other Pacific Rim nations is: (1) how fast Beijing wishes to bring about this shift; and (2) how aggressive it is willing to be in pushing others to treat China with the deference it wants.

Many people know of Deng Xiaoping’s aphorism about the need for China to “bide its time and hide its capabilities.”  This is an ethic of strategic caution, stressing the need for non-confrontational approaches in order to give the PRC breathing space in which to become more powerful without provoking international counter-mobilization or other steps that would threaten the “outward”-looking economic engagement needed to build the power necessary to achieve China’s “return.”

This approach of strategic caution has in recent years increasingly been challenged within the Chinese elite, however, by those who are impatient with “biding their time,” and who long to see the PRC finally step out as an assertive player on the world stage.  Dengist strategic caution has been losing ground, both in the PRC’s official discourse and in its actual behavior.

What I would like to offer you today are my thoughts on some of the factors that I think underlie the timing and direction of the PRC’s growing shift against Dengist strategic caution.  In doing so, I will draw upon China’s history of relations with Japan in the 1990s, because I think this may offer us some lessons today.

I certainly do not need to tell you that there exists in the modern Chinese popular imagination a considerable reservoir of anti-Japanese feeling – feelings that are grounded in some very real and painful historical experiences, but which have also been carefully nurtured for propaganda purposes.  Despite this historical baggage, however, Chinese official images of Japan were fairly positive in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.  But by the mid-1990s, these images had turned very sour.  Why?

Japan had a relatively favorable image in the PRC’s official narrative for so long in large part simply because the CCP regime considered Japan-bashing unproductive, and indeed counterproductive from the perspective of China’s power ambitions.  In the late 1970s and in the 1980s, Japan seemed to be an economic miracle: an export-driven powerhouse that some Chinese analysts suspected would even overtake the United States in economic terms and overall national power.  This Japan was a very attractive model to the PRC, which was itself then just beginning Deng Xiaoping’s policy of boosting national power by “opening” to the world after years of Maoist stagnation.  Beijing felt it needed to learn from Japan; this required cooperative engagement so that the PRC could acquire the secrets of Tokyo’s successful modernity.

The dream of China’s national “return,” therefore, then dictated strategic caution.  It called for a non-provocative engagement that would avoid turning the rising Japanese superpower into an enemy, while simultaneously giving the PRC its best possible chance to emulate Japanese success by studying the ways of modern power as Japan’s cooperative partner.  Even when various events led to upwellings of popular anti-Japanese expression in China in the mid-1980s, therefore, the CCP authorities did little to encourage these sentiments, publicly defended their engagement with Japan, and generally avoided strident anti-Japanese posturing.

Thereafter, however, things changed.  Several factors contributed to this.  The main impetus came from the fact that the CCP regime decided – especially after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 – that appealing to Chinese nationalism by whipping up anti-foreign resentment could help keep the Party in power.

In the 1990s, however, Dengist strategic caution still dictated limits on this appeal to xenophobic anger.  Agitation against the United States, at least, was still dangerous.  Especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War of 1991, the United States was an unchallenged superpower; confrontation with America could be profoundly dangerous to a China that was still weak and dependent upon “outward” economic engagement.  The CCP needed a foreign enemy against which to whip up nationalist venom, but finding this political foil in Washington was still out of the question.

But Japan was now a different situation.  Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s even many Americans had feared the onrushing colossus of export-driven Japanese economic power, by the mid-1990s Japan was languishing in its “lost decade,” and appeared, to the PRC, to have squandered its earlier advantages.  This made congenial engagement with Japan seem less necessary, because there appeared to be little for a rising China to learn from a Japan lost in the economic doldrums.  At the same time, Tokyo’s problems made confrontation seem less costly: from Beijing’s perspective, Japan was clearly no longer a proto- superpower which Chinese should treat respectfully for fear of painful consequences.

At a time when it badly needed an enemy image to cultivate through increasingly ugly nationalist propaganda, the CCP perceived China’s old Japanese adversary to have become weak enough – relative to the PRC, which was itself growing quickly – that anti-Japanese viciousness could be cultivated with little negative consequence.  It is not a coincidence that it was at this time that Jiang Zemin’s “patriotic education campaign” of the mid-1990s got going, and anti-Japanese themes increasingly came to preoccupy the propaganda apparatus of the Chinese Party-State.  At least as applied to Tokyo, therefore, Dengist strategic caution began to be phased out, sacrificed on the altar of domestic legitimacy-building by the Chinese regime.

III.       Lessons?

The development of the CCP’s stepped-up anti-Japanese political discourse in the 1990s may offer a cautionary tale for those of us in both our governments concerned with the implications of China’s rise and the future of trans-Pacific relations today.  On the one hand, this case study suggests that despite the PRC’s apparent hopes for Sinocentric predominance, Beijing is sensitive to the potential costs of confrontation with strong and resolute foreign powers – and is capable of strategic caution in avoiding provocative approaches under Deng’s rubric of “biding time.”  On the other hand, the “Japan case” also suggests that relations with Beijing can turn ugly rather quickly if the PRC regime decides that it can engage in confrontation with relative impunity, particularly where internal CCP legitimacy problems make it useful to declare the existence of enemies bent on harming China and robbing it of its birthright of “return.”

So, is the United States today heading down Japan’s path into worsening relations with an increasingly confident and strategically incautious PRC regime that still needs foreign enemies but no longer worries so much about the cost of confronting us?  At a time when Washington is plagued by economic stagnation and a huge debt burden, political polarization and dysfunction, and leadership that – despite talk of a “rebalancing” towards Asia – plainly finds robust engagement in global security affairs to be distasteful, I leave this for you to ponder.

I would suggest, however, that particularly if the PRC does entertain the hope of eventually creating some sort of Sinocentric global order as part of its long-awaited “Chinese dream” of national “return,” we need to ponder the implications of Beijing’s moves away from Dengist caution towards a more aggressive approach.

Thank you very much.  I look forward to our discussions.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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