China has established a seven-decade-long record of strategic caution and a preference for diplomatic and paramilitary rather than military solutions to national security problems.
China clearly prefers to use measures short of war to protect itself but has shown that it is fully prepared to go to war to defend its borders and strategic interests.
Chinese uses of force have been notably purposive, determined, disciplined and focused on limited objectives, with no moving of the goalposts.
In Korea, where ragtag Chinese forces fought the United States to a standstill from 1950 to 1953, China settled for the de facto restoration of the status quo ante bellum — strategic denial of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula to hostile forces. In 1958, it ended its military presence in Korea.
When border skirmishes escalated into war between China and India in 1962, China first showed India that, if provoked, the PLA could overrun it. Then, having made that point, China withdrew its troops to their original positions.
In the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, China accepted huge losses on the battlefield to teach Vietnam that the costs of continued empire building in association with the Soviet Union would be unacceptably high. Once Vietnam seemed convinced of this, China disengaged its forces.
China waited a decade to respond to multiple seizures of disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea by other claimants. The Philippines began the process of creating facts in the sea in 1978, Vietnam followed in 1982, and Malaysia did the same in 1983. In 1988, China intervened to halt the further expansion of Vietnamese holdings.
Since then China has established an unejectable presence of its own on seven artificially enlarged land features in the South China Sea. It has not attempted to dislodge other claimants from any of the four dozen outposts they have planted in Chinese-claimed territories. China has been careful not to provoke military confrontations with them or with the U.S. Navy, despite the latter’s swaggering assertiveness.
Pattern of restraint
A similar pattern of restraint has been evident in the Senkaku Islands, which China considers to be part of Taiwan and Japan asserts are part of Okinawa. There, China seeks to present an active challenge to Japanese efforts to foreclose discussion of the two sides’ dispute over sovereignty.
It has done so with lightly armed Coast Guard vessels rather than with the PLA’s naval warfare arm. Japan has been equally cautious.
China negotiated the reunification of both Hong Kong and Macau, although it could have used force, as India did in Goa, to achieve reintegration.
China has negotiated generous settlements and demarcations of its land borders with Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. China’s borders with the former British Empire in Bhutan, India, and Myanmar remain formally unsettled but for the most part peaceful.
These interactions between China and its neighbors demonstrate a high degree of Chinese competence at managing differences without armed conflict. They provide grounds for optimism. War, including accidental war, between China and its neighbors – or China and the United States as the ally of some of those neighbors – is far from inevitable.
The Taiwan issue
China has been cautious even with respect to Taiwan – that most chauvinist of issues. There has been no exchange of fire between the civil-war rivals on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait since 1979.
On Jan. 1 of that year, the United States accepted Beijing as China’s capital and ended its formal championship of Taipei in that role. Beijing responded by discontinuing its advocacy of the forceful “liberation” of Taiwan and announcing a policy aimed at peaceful reunification.
So far, despite occasional provocations from pro-independence forces in Taiwan, China has stuck with this policy, placing equal emphasis on enticement and intimidation. Beijing’s “united front” outreach to Taiwan complements the military pressure its growing capacity to devastate the island imparts to the imperative of cross-Strait accommodation.
The bottom line is that, while Chinese warnings must be taken seriously, Chinese aggressiveness should not be overestimated. China tends to act militarily with prudence, upon warning, not rashly. Its wealth and power are growing, giving it an incentive to defer confrontations to the future, when its relative strength will be greater and new opportunities to win without fighting may arise.
The record shows that China adheres to limited objectives, limited means, and limited time scales. On the other hand, it is characteristically determined, once the die is cast, to invest whatever level of effort is required to achieve its objectives.
China has been notably careful to avoid “mission creep” in the wake of success. There is no evidence that its ambitions are open-ended or unbridled. If given an inch, it is unlikely to seek to take a mile.