Home / Robert Farley / Book Review: China’s Search for Security

Book Review: China’s Search for Security


I reviewed Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell’s China’s Search for Security for H-Net:

Nevertheless, Nathan and Scobell argue that, despite its growing power, China’s international position remains almost uniquely precarious. China borders more countries that any nation on earth, and continues to have border disputes with several of the most powerful. Other strong states, such as the United States and Japan, threaten China’s littoral. Internally, political discontent threatens Beijing’s control of outlying areas, including Tibet and Xinjiang. Concerns about political discontent and the maintenance of economic growth continue to draw the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) focus inward.

On a related point see here, although I suspect that there are some translation issues regarding the terms “invasion” and “occupation.”

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  • I fail to see how China’s position today is that precarious. In fact China’s position today is much better than it has been in the past. China today unlike in the past does not have to worry about a nuclear war with the USSR (1969)or the occupation of large amounts of its territory by Japan (1931). Nor does it even have to worry about encirclement by the Soviet Union’s allies (1979). Anti-Chinese violence in Tibet and Xinjiang is much less today than it has been in recent years and decades. The claims to some small islands by a largely still demilitarized Japan does not at all counter the massive gains made in Chinese security that came with the collapse of the USSR.

    • Robert Farley

      And the next paragraph:

      According to Nathan and Scobell, the Chinese leadership
      continues to think of the world in context of China’s
      precarious internal and external security situation, rather
      than in offensive terms. Americans and Europeans have a
      poor understanding of the Chinese security mind-set because
      of the lack of serious security threats in Europe and
      North America. In comparison with China, the United
      States has secure borders, modest neighbors, and few if
      any irredentist threats. China, on the other hand, constantly
      worries about all of these problems.

      • How is it precarious today? In 1969 they almost went to war with the USSR? Today the border with Russia is no longer an issue of military contention. Just stating something without any evidence may be acceptable in political science. But, everybody else wants to see some proof.

      • Murc

        I’m actually kinda with Otto on this.

        It is right and proper for the Chinese to be concerned about the fact they’d have a lot of trouble projecting power, and about fluid borders with some of the nations surrounding them. North Korea in particular has always been an issue for them vis-a-vis refugees.

        But to describe their security situation in ANY way as “precarious” is laughable.

        • Robert Farley

          1. That China’s position in the past has been more [uncertain, unstable, insecure] does not mean that it cannot feel [uncertain, unstable, insecure] today.

          2. As the review notes, Nathan and Scobell are explicitly comparing Chinese perceptions of [uncertainty, instability, insecurity] with US and European perceptions of [uncertainty, instability, insecurity] in making an argument about US and European misunderstandings of Chinese foreign policy.

          And while I generally share your belief that China’s security is much greater now than it has been in the past, this fact is not central to Nathan and Scobell’s argument; they do make a pretty good case that China continues to feel threatened internally, in its littoral, and on its Central Asian frontiers, and that its foreign policy remains focused on this perceived [uncertainty, instability, insecurity] rather than on offensive power maximization.

          • Murc

            they do make a pretty good case that China continues to feel threatened internally, in its littoral, and on its Central Asian frontiers, and that its foreign policy remains focused on this perceived [uncertainty, instability, insecurity] rather than on offensive power maximization.

            Now this I believe.

            Do Nathan and Scobell get into any objective analysis in their work (i.e, ‘this is what China’s security status actually is’) as opposed to simply making the case that China perceives X about it’s security status, western powers perceive Y about it, and extrapolate from there?

            • Robert Farley

              As the review notes, this is more or less a sequel to Great Wall, Empty Fortress, which was written when China’s security situation was objectively more [uncertain, unstable, insecure], so there’s obviously some treatment of the basic factors. But mostly they’re interested in investigating the sources of Chinese security and foreign policy, which necessarily deals with perception.

          • Another Anonymous

            So, China needs Prozac?

          • Another Anonymous

            (Less flippantly, the argument’s been made that irrational insecurity of great powers caused WW1, so it’s a pretty real f—ing problem.)

          • Chatham

            It’s always a mistake to talk about a country as if it were an individual (though it seems to happen often in the field of International Relations). I don’t get the impression that common Chinese feel threatened by external actors any more than the average American (and perhaps less so).

            One of the big issues appears to be that the government has been trying to stir up nationalism to keep control of the populace, but isn’t able to live up to its rhetoric. Which means that increasingly they’re not just having to deal with liberal reformer types, but also pissed off ultra-nationalists of their own making.

  • Another Anonymous

    I thought Russia and China had the same # of bordering nations.

    • China has land borders with Mongolia, North Korea, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam so 12. Russia has borders with Mongolia, North Korea, China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, and Finland so 13. Russia borders more countries.

      • OOps I forgot one. Russia also borders Norway so 14 or two more than China.

        • Anonymous

          You missed Bhutan and Nepal.

          • Okay the same number then.

            • News Nag

              But you’re still right, Otto. Aren’t you.

              • Maybe not about the number of countries bordering China. But, I still have seen no evidence that China is in a precarious security position today. Especially when compared to the 1960s, 70s, and even 80s, China has never been in a more secure position. They are no longer threatened with nuclear annihilation by the USSR.

      • JoyfulA

        Are you counting the Baltic for Russia and Poland sharing a border? If so, does the U.S. border every country with an Atlantic or Pacific coast, e.g., Ghana?

        • No, I am counting Kalingrad Oblast as bordering Poland and Lithuania. Look at a map. There is a Russian enclave formed from the part of Koningsberg annexed by the USSR from Germany at the end of WWII between Poland and Lithuania.

          • JoyfulA

            You’re right! A little (formerly) Prussian exclave, formerly Konigsberg.

            I wonder if my father-in-law knows about this.

    • Robert Farley

      It’s so hard to count accurately these days, what with the Gangnam Style and the crack cocaine.

      • Another Anonymous

        Eh, that’s what the older generation says, but they had nowhere near so many countries to count.

        • Murc

          There are too many countries these days. Please eliminate three.

          I am not a crackpot.

          • JoyfulA

            Seems to me there are 10 times the number of countries now than in my eighth-grade geography book. Plus all those major cities that are now spelled differently. No doubt countries’ major exports have changed, too.

            Learning is easy. It’s just all that unlearning is so hard.

    • Chatham

      It’s silly to directly tie the number of countries bordering a country to the security of said country. Does Germany have a more precarious position than Israel?

      I doubt that many in China are concerned about the political might of Bhutan. On the other hand, many of the issues are with countries that China doesn’t border, like Japan and the Philippines. Likewise, if India took over Bhutan, Nepal, and Burman, I doubt the reaction from the Chinese leadership would be, “Great, now we’re bordering far fewer countries!”

  • News Nag

    Well, I don’t really know about these things. No, really I don’t know about these things. But I’ve gleaned that domestically China is kind of a tinderbox, with serious labor revolts of all kinds going off like whack-a-moles and a teetering mass inequality of the economy, and resentment against egregious corruption, as well as the historical foreign devils insecurities – Jeesh, Japan was there how few generations ago and the Boxer rebellion era before that, and formerly with the Chiang civil war and now the lingering Taiwan struggle, and how many island or peninsula European colonies are/were there and for how long now?

    If even near simultaneously things internally went to heck big-time and then even a couple of significant borders flared up violently, with other borders flooded with incoming refugees – you must’ve heard about steadily increasing food, climate, and oppressed population insecurities, right? – then China actually could be stretched to or beyond its means of responding effectively to all or most of them, especially if the ghost of Zumwalt or Perry or Hornblower or someone else with sophisticated nuclear armed forces was trolling for dollars a little too closely nearby, or if one of our spy planes again (or another KAL flight) goes ‘off course’. China could go boom and bust at the same time, and I’m not just talking about its economy. Sounds a little precarious to me, though I might’ve just scared only myself!

    • News Nag

      …though I think Chinese leadership is most psychologically threatened by Falun Gong.

      • John F

        The Chinese Government’s extreme overreaction to Falun Gong tends to give credence to the view that the government is almost irrationally insecure in some ways (psychologically speaking)

        • ajay

          Or else they all believe in Falun Gong too, and are – entirely rationally – terrified of being attacked by unstoppable mystical warriors with spinning flaming swastikas in their bellies. I know I would be.

    • ajay

      the ghost of Zumwalt or Perry or Hornblower or someone else with sophisticated nuclear armed forces

      Hornblower didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. You’re thinking of Bush…

  • shah8

    Reading the review, I broadly agree with Farley’s sentiments, given he gave an accurate representation of Nathan and Scobell’s work.

    I found this book invaluable in terms of giving a deep patina of quick understanding of China’s diplomatic approach:

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