China

COMMENTARY
Chinese-box approach to international conflict
By Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui

(In February 1999, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, colonels in the People's Liberation Army, published Unrestricted Warfare, in which they proposed tactics for developing countries, especially China, to compensate for their military inferiority to the United States in a high-tech war. Mentioned prominently in the book was a certain Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden. Asia Times Online is presenting two articles by the officers on China's unique approach to international conflict.)

Many people and countries that have looked to China for more effective intervention in regional affairs are disappointed that, as India and Pakistan are rattling their sabers, China's leaders, instead of putting forward concrete solutions to the crisis, have only called on both parties to adhere to the "five principles of peaceful co-existence" (mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence). However, China's approach to the Indo-Pakistani conflict illustrates the unique Chinese manner of intervening in international conflicts.

China certainly does not regard the Kashmir conflict as a trivial matter, as it is concerned both about the success of its strategy for developing western China and about maintaining its leading position in regional affairs. As Beijing sees it, however, the Kashmir issue cannot be treated in isolation: it has to be tackled along with the broader issue of Indo-Pakistani relations, which in turn should be placed in the context of the South Asian framework. Viewed from the perspective of the global powers' involvement in the region, especially the concentration of US forces in South Asia, there is also the American factor to be considered. Which also means a global vision is needed.

In other words, to check or ultimately to resolve the Kashmir conflict, the whole issue should be approached and tackled from the Kashmir-Indo-Pakistani-relationship-South Asia-global-security angle.

It is Chinese practice to attack an issue with a framework larger than the issue itself. When a crisis occurs, Chinese leaders first detach from it temporally and spacially. They spend time thinking about the issue before action, thus allowing more room for maneuver in the future. This is somewhat like playing with a magic box: first you pack the specific problem and related factors into a box and then fit it into larger boxes with related problems in different levels. Finally, you come up with a framework of highest generality to harness the whole situation.

In the Chinese mythical story Journey to the West , the mighty Tathagata Buddha did not seek to subdue the Monkey King, who had just wrought havoc with the Celestial Palace, on their first encounter. Instead, the Monkey was given full freedom to display its somersaulting skill. Far though the Monkey might jump, the Buddha, an even more adept magician, enlarged his hand so that the Monkey could never reach beyond his palm. Strategically, what Chinese leaders admire most and strive hard to achieve is emulating the masterly Buddha in engaging his opponent. "Forbearance is the mark of great virtue": such is the pursuit of Chinese moral cultivation and the goal of Chinese statecraft.

The characteristic of Chinese strategic thinking is that the Chinese do not want to tackle an issue as such but would rather place it in a wider context and spend more time seeking a solution. It is similar to the Chinese medical approach. If the doctor administers a prescription that treats the disease as such, the Chinese would say he is only treating the symptoms rather than the root cause. Therefore, crisis-management theory, which is common knowledge in the international community, is still alien to China's leaders. They may even be resistant to the practice of emphasizing transparency of procedures, quick response and individual responsibility. The situation is like Chinese people's resistance to Western medicine.

This slow-boat approach was gradually cultivated during the time when the Chinese government was focused on internal affairs and important international crises only occurred once in a few years or decades. The core of this mindset is "avoid troubles": don't build a fire that will burn your fingers. As the speed of globalization increases, however, China's leaders are discovering that crises are coming one after the other, some of them even deliberately manufactured.

There is no way that troubles can be avoided now. China will be put into a passive position if it fails to respond to these crises quickly. This has been proved in cases such as the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the Chinese jet fighter's collision with a US aircraft, and the North Koreans' intrusion into a Japanese consulate.
Given that the possibility of changing the present decisional procedures is slight, China has deployed a strategic "idle piece" on the chessboard of international affairs. And it seems to be effective.

The idle piece
Although the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established in 1996, is the first regional organization created under the auspices of China, because of the lack of any concrete follow-up measures and the stable conditions of Central Asia at the time of its creation, it was regarded as expendable, like an "idle piece" in the Chinese game of go.

After September 11, the United States, with its victimization by terrorists as a moral justification, marshaled a global anti-terrorism campaign and waged a war in Afghanistan. Suddenly tension rose in Central Asia. Faced with this emergency, SCO members could not even come up with a common position. Instead, they declared their support for the US anti-terrorist campaign individually. The fact that Russia and China remained silent to US double standards in regard to Chechen and East Turkestan terrorists especially exposed the impotence of the SCO.

This changed when the SCO held its summit in St Petersburg recently. The six members passed the Charter of SCO, issued an "anti-terrorist statement", decided to set up an office in Beijing, and established an anti-terrorist center in Kyrgyzstan, which helped gain some say for China, Russia and the Central Asian countries in the global anti-terrorism campaign. Suddenly the SCO had become a real thing.

More important, the SCO has a great strategic potential for a framework of regional security cooperation. Pakistan has expressed its wish to join the organization, as has India. Although it may be doubtful that this "security roof" can accommodate the two perennial enemies, the prospect is promising. If one day the SCO accepts India's and Pakistan's membership to form a large cooperation organization composed of Central and South Asian countries, there will be a revolution in the global geopolitical setup and the status of the SCO will be raised significantly. The Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia held in Almaty may be a transition to the formation of this framework. That is why the leaders of the 16 countries in the region were willing to participate in this informal meeting.

For China, there are more potential advantages. If this framework can ultimately be formed, not only will the threat to China's west constituted by the Indo-Pakistani "dangerous liaisons" be deflected, China will also be able to find a way to counter the US infiltration in European and Asian continents or even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's eastward expansion, a possible result of the cooperation between Russia and NATO. The key is to unite Central and South Asian countries for regional security and development.

China might not have had this strategic awareness when the SCO was established, but it nevertheless turned out to be a proactive move. The issue today is that China should make more such moves at quicker speed. It should integrate the economic development of the western region with its geopolitical strategy, so that the gambit of playing off the Western alliance against eastern expansion can materialize. As pressure from the West's eastern expansion is repelled, there will be more room for development and better security conditions for China.

When President George W Bush named the "axis of evil" and prepared for a "pre-emptive strike", US security strategy did not intend to leave much room for a security framework centered on other regions. From Russian President Vladimir Putin's idea of an "arc of stability", it can be seen that not much time has been given to Russia (in fact China too) to build up a geopolitical strategy that is consistent with their national interests. For a country that longs to be an influential global power, a long-term strategic design alone is not enough. There is also the need to react promptly and take the initiative. This is not just the trivial trick of "playing off the barbarians against the barbarian", but a grand move in the participation of creating a new international order.

It should be admitted that China, still a junior student in international affairs, is learning to be a global power, including how to respond to crises. However, as a junior student that nevertheless is thousands of years old, China should rise above its long-held parochial Sino-centric (Tian-sha) vision, salvage the wisdom of diplomatic maneuvers from the depth of historical memory, and absorb the nutrients of strategic thinking from its heritage, so as to arrive at its own original answers in the test of international strategy.

In the next Asian crisis, people will find that China has already put another "idle piece" in the far-away city of Bo-ao. It is hoped that the strategy of "playing off the Western alliance against eastern expansion" will have become mature by then and, like other Chinese strategic deployment, will form a security buffer for China.

  • Next: Western alliance and eastern expansion

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    Jul 31, 2002


    Russian-Chinese pact a 'great game' victim (Jul 30, '02)

    China's southern discomfort (Jul 10, '02)

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    Shanghai spirit may yet haunt Asia (Jun 23, '01)

    China, Russia raise Central Asia stakes (Jun 20, '01)

     

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