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China Reconsiders Its National Security

The Great Peace and Development Debate of 1999
David M. Finkelstein
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  • In the mid-1980s Deng Xiaoping provided an assessment of the international security environment that has since provided a rationale for the basic direction of China’s domestic policies, foreign policies, and defense policies. From March through at least September 1999, a remarkable national security debate took place within China. For the first time since 1985, Deng’s basic assessment was seriously questioned and intensely scrutinized both publicly and within the Chinese government. Of key significance, the efficacy of China’s foreign policies and the validity of China’s national defense policies were especially subjected to fervid debate.
  • This paper explores the context, conduct, results, and implications of what we might call “The Great Peace & Development Debate of 1999.”
  • The proximate cause of this policy ferment was NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo in March 1999. However, it is clear from reading the Chinese media---and the observations of Chinese who followed the debate or participated in it---that much of the debate was driven by long-simmering Chinese concerns about U.S. strategic intentions and policies in the post-Cold War world order in general and towards China in particular.
  • The debate resulted in a new official assessment of the international and regional security environment. The new “line,” known as the “Three No Changes and Three New Changes,” is clearly reflected in the sober analysis of security trends presented by the Chinese in their October 2000 Defense White Paper. 
  • The “Three No Changes” are essentially a reaffirmation of the Dengist assessment from the 1980s that provides the continued justification for China’s domestic reform programs; particularly economic reform. The “Three No Changes” are:
    • Peace and development remain the trend in international relations and the movement toward a multipolar world continues,
    • Economic globalization continues to increase, and
    • The major trend is toward the relaxation of international tensions.
  • The “Three New Changes” account for a general consensus resulting from the debate that China’s previous assessments of the international security environment, and particularly China’s security situation, as reflected in the July 1998 Defense White Paper, were overly optimistic. The “Three New Changes” are:
    • Hegemonism and power politics are on the rise,
    • The trend toward military interventionism is increasing, and
    • The gap between developed and developing countries is increasing. 
  • The debate also seems to have put to rest previous de rigueur Chinese internal and academic assessments that the “comprehensive national power” of the United States was in a slow decline---an analytic “line” that had been commonplace for at least a decade. The new line seems to be accompanied by an assessment that the United States will maintain its status as “sole superpower” for at least the next 15 to 20 years if not longer.
  • The debate was not merely an academic or theoretical exercise. The new “line” that resulted has implications for Chinese domestic policies, foreign policies, and
    defense policies.
  • For Chinese domestic policy, the results of the debate indicate that the domestic economic and structural reforms that have been underway for the past 20 years will continue. The new “line” provides justification for Beijing’s continued pursuit of WTO membership, reform of the state-owned sector of the economy, continued integration into the global economy, and other necessary social and political structural reforms.
  • For Chinese foreign policy, the new assessment of the international security environment will likely result in:
    • The pursuit of closer ties with Russia for political, economic, and security reasons.
    • Increasing ambivalence about relations with the United States. On the one hand, good relations with the U.S. will continue to be viewed by Beijing as an absolutely critical prerequisite to the success of domestic reforms. We can expect increasingly robust and mutually beneficial economic and trade relations. However, a deep-seated distrust of U.S. strategic intentions towards China will hang over the bilateral relationship for some time to come.
    • Enhanced diplomatic initiatives to stabilize relations with countries on China’s periphery.
    • Continued efforts to cultivate good ties with Western Europe for political and economic reasons.
  • For Chinese defense policy, the debate resulted in a general consensus that defense modernization and national defense deserves greater attention than in the past. Defense is clearly not going to become a higher priority than economic modernization, and likely will not even be equal in priority. However, quoting formulations from the late 1970s that “military modernization is the last of the four modernizations” may no longer be meaningful.
    • Most likely, the PLA’s budget will increase. This was already in the cards given the order for the PLA to divest itself from its commercial empire in July 1998. But NATO’s Kosovo intervention, and concerns about Taiwan will drive this as well. How much might the budget increase be? No one can say for sure at this point. But it might not be out of the question to speculate that in the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) the Chinese military establishment might be budgeted to receive annual increases in the official defense budget a few percentage points over the approximately 12 to 13 percent annual increases it has been receiving for the past few years.
    • One result of the debate, and the context surrounding it, is that most Chinese security analysts, civilian and military, are now convinced that the United States will intervene with military force if the PLA is employed against Taiwan.
  • Other insights from the debate speak to developments within China itself.
    • First, while Chinese institutions and bureaucracies have their “official” points of view, the conduct of the debate highlighted the fact that there are widely diverse opinions within Chinese government organizations. Certainly, the debate calls into question the validity of analytic constructs of Chinese politics in the West that rely on simple generalizations such as “reform minded” or “hard line” to describe the policy predilections of certain Chinese bureaucracies.
    • Second, some Chinese go so far as to suggest that the debate underscored that policy development in China today is more and more characterized by the creation of shifting coalitions of like-minded elites that cut across ministerial and organizational lines on an issue-to-issue basis. They also point out that in the absence of a single strong leader such as a Mao or a Deng Xiaoping the policy formulation process is more and more characterized by consensus and compromise among the core leadership.
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  • Pages: 42
  • Document Number: CME D0014464.A1/Final
  • Publication Date: 12/1/2000
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