It’s tough being a totalitarian nowadays. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) potentates crave nothing more than peace and stability, yet rival great powers and internal separatists cussedly refuse to let concord blossom across East Asia. Such are the travails besetting China according to the party’s latest defense white paper, entitled China’s National Defense in the New Era. Weep briny tears for Beijing.
There are a few mild surprises in the white paper, notably its muted attention to military strategy and operational matters. There’s the usual boilerplate about China’s being wholly defensive in outlook yet prepared to counterattack, and it notes that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “adopts active defense.” That bland statement is a far cry from the 2015 while paper, dubbed China’s Military Strategy, which declared that “active defense”—the mainstay of the CCP way of war since Mao Zedong spelled out the concept during the 1930s—remains the “essence” of Chinese Communist thought.
On second thought, though, the apparent shift in emphasis may not be such a mystery. It’s far from obvious that the 2015 white paper constituted one in an unbroken series of defense white papers stretching back to 1998, the way we China-watchers assume. Some of them display different perspectives. Just look at the 2015 white paper’s title: China’s Military Strategy, not China’s National Defense in 20xx. (The 2013 white paper was titled The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, making it another outlier. It too gives active defense a shout-out, stating that the PLA “unswervingly” pursues the Maoist approach.) That suggests a different agenda. Military strategy is a subset of national defense strategy, just as defense strategy is a subset of national security strategy. That’s why Washington publishes National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and National Military Strategy documents. These documents are not interchangeable with one another.
That being the case, it’s only fitting that a white paper about military strategy would pay closer attention to such matters as active defense, a technique for enfeebling a stronger foe on the battleground while buttressing one’s own strength, whereas a white paper about national defense genuflects to the military dimension yet concentrates on larger things. There’s little reason to replicate what the former says in the latter, since they represent parts of a family of documents that fit together and mutually support one another. Let’s give Chinese scribes credit for excellent English, for linguistic precision when they choose to be precise, and for grasping the difference between levels of foreign policy and strategy. They grok strategy.
Apart from that idiosyncrasy, let’s wax philosophical. The 2019 white paper’s framers enunciate lofty purposes, peace and stability chief among them, and they contend that others have a stake in the Chinese Communist Party’s version of regional harmony. “The dream of the Chinese people,” they claim, “is closely connected with the dreams of peoples around the world. Peace, stability, and prosperity in China present opportunities and benefits to the rest of the world. A strong military of China is a staunch force for world peace, stability, and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.”
They then pirouette to threats. The United States has boosted defense spending, “pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defense, and undermined global strategic stability.” “The ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces and their actions remain the gravest immediate threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the biggest barrier hindering the peaceful reunification of the country. External separatist forces for ‘Tibet independence’ and the creation of ‘East Turkistan’ launch frequent actions, posing threats to China’s national security and social stability.”
Figures of high repute from different historical epochs might hazard some pepperish remarks about China’s National Defense in the New Era. They might also have a few choice words for reporters and commentators who held forth about the white paper after it hit the streets late last month. Chief among them: Whether peace is worthwhile depends on the nature of that peace. Stability is overrated. And, above all, beware of wordplay when dealing with despotic regimes like China’s. Totalitarians excel at defending the indefensible through euphemism. The more candid among them confess that diplomacy is warfare through alternative means. This is ground truth.
First up is the 2nd-century historian Cornelius Tacitus, a member in good standing of the Roman elite. After growing up under the tyrants Nero and Domitian, Tacitus was a bitter critic of imperial corruption and brutality. And eloquent. In fact, Thomas Jefferson described him as the world’s finest writer, “without a single exception.” That’s quite a testament coming from the author of the Declaration of Independence. In the context of the Roman conquest of Britain, Tacitus pointed out that peace can take many forms—some truly odious. He lambasted Roman conquerors for their methods: “they make a desert and call it peace.”
A desert is a peaceful place. That’s because it’s a desolate place. The same goes for the grave. Few places are more tranquil than a garden of stone. An Orwellian superstate is peaceful. After all, it’s lethal to oppose—or even hint at opposing—Big Brother. An international league in which the predominant ally exterminates wayward allies is peaceful once the crackdown is over. One imagines Tacitus would have tart words to say about the Chinese Communist Party, Big Brother Xi Jinping, and their avowed fealty to peace.
Sure, Beijing is sincere about its love for peace. But it defines peace as others’ submitting meekly to the party’s demands, however unjust or unlawful. That’s scarcely what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant meant when he spun a vision of perpetual peace, a world where constitutional republics preside over all countries. In this happy world, citizens demand that governments set aside their feuds. Laying down arms lets republican societies get on with the business of business—searching for prosperity rather than wasting lives and resources on warfare. Now that’s a peace worth striving toward. Surrender is not.
Next up is St. Augustine of Hippo, a 5th-century clergyman who saw the Roman Empire fall to ashes around him. The Catholic bishop maintains that not even those who make war relish war. “Every man seeks peace by waging war, but no man seeks war by making peace. For even they who intentionally interrupt the peace in which they are living have no hatred of peace, but only wish it changed into a peace which suits them better.” In other words, writes Augustine, even peace-loving rulers or societies believe there are worse things than war.
Namely an unjust status quo. The liberal U.S.-led order rankles with CCP overseers. They would like to amend it or replace it altogether, instituting a new Asian order under CCP management. They appear increasingly convinced China boasts the diplomatic, economic, and military might to undertake such a project. So Xi & Co. have proclaimed the new status quo, and branded the United States, its allies, and anyone else who opposes CCP primacy disturbers of the peace. Hence the defense white paper’s repeated claims that Beijing is upholding stability while others sow instability.
St. Augustine’s commentary rhymes with Sun Tzu’s writings, which exhort sovereigns and generals to win without fighting. The Chinese sage depicts bloodless victory as the zenith of martial skill. For him, though, it’s blindingly clear that the win part takes precedence over the without fighting part. If possible the ruler should expand his power and prestige without the dangers, costs, and reverses inherent in warlike adventures. But Sun Tzu would hardly counsel political magnates to forego the battlefield and its potential rewards if a non-violent triumph eluded them. Why write a military manual otherwise?
Again, never take CCP spokesmen at their word. Like peace, stability may or may not be a good thing. Ask what kind of status quo is Beijing trying to upend, and what kind of status quo it wants to render stable.
Last comes the 20th-century philosopher Hannah Arendt. In her landmark work The Origins of Totalitarianism—a work worth perusing when girding for strategic competition against today’s totalitarians—Arendt prophesies that “the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.” She uses the word conservatism with precision, to denote an attitude toward change rather than a set of political ideas or policies. Conservatives want to conserve what is.
The revolutionary wants to do away with the existing order and replace it with something entirely different. Once the revolution is over, however, the victors want to lock in the new order. Ergo, fire-breathers morph into archconservatives overnight in order to preserve their gains. The Chinese Communist Party has been in archconservative mode since winning the Chinese Civil War seventy years ago this year. That’s why the leadership is squelching dissent by any means necessary, including through such innovations as social credit scores, omnipresent surveillance cameras, and facial recognition software. Big Brother had nothing on Xi Jinping.
Beijing’s policies and strategies would be instantly recognizable to Arendt. It has supersized the police-state apparatus compared to past totalitarians such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, pikers next to Chinese Communists. In the international realm it seems to be trying to shift from a strategy of “positive aim,” in which it tries to seize something from the keepers of the liberal order, to a strategy of “negative aim,” in which it tries to keep others from taking away what it has. It wants to conserve the Chinese-led order it claims to have installed. This is the outlook shaping China’s National Defense in the New Era and kindred statements of purpose and methods.