Inside China's Grand Strategy: The Perspective from the People's Republic

  • Published
Inside China's Grand Strategy: The Perspective from the People's Republic by Ye Zicheng (edited and translated by Steven I. Levine and Guoli Liu). University Press of Kentucky, 2010, 314 pp.

Inside China's Grand Strategy is a rewarding read although much of this gratification does not come easily due to the difference between a Western reader’s and the author’s perspective. This work of nonfiction was written for a Chinese audience to lay out a pragmatic way ahead for the Chinese state as it navigates its economic and geopolitical rise. The study focuses on several of China's internal challenges; the key strategic decisions it must make; and vital external relationships with the United States, other rising powers like Russia, and China's geographic neighbors. Now expertly translated to allow the author’s worldview to shine through, it offers readers keen perception into how the world looks from Beijing. To appreciate this worldview, Western readers—particularly those from the United States—may initially squirm, but perseverance will yield valuable insights.

A smaller struggle stems from idiosyncrasies in Ye’s writing. Often, especially early on, Ye relies on lists of figures to argue his points without providing the greater context necessary to make the argument truly stick. Additionally, this book was first published over a decade ago, and although some figures were updated for the translation in 2008, significant changes have occurred in China in the intervening eight years. In most cases, the absence of updated data is not a problem because Ye's arguments are strategic enough to remain insightful, often foreshadowing what has since occurred or highlighting decisions still in the making. In a few cases, however, China has already made choices that deviate from Ye’s proposed path forward. He offers a good basis for understanding China, but Ye’s is not the faultless voice of either the people or the party; nor is it a sparse voice—each of the book’s six chapters average well over 40 breathless pages.

A lead professor of international studies at Peking University, Ye can be considered a moderate or even progressive member of China's academia. Throughout his book, he usefully outlines and then deconstructs hard-line Chinese preconceptions of China's current role in world affairs. In turn Ye advocates that China prioritize the economy over the military, begin empowering democracy, become more transparent in governance, and boldly face domestic challenges. He sees war between the United States and China as both catastrophic and unlikely, advocates friendly relations with neighbors, and concludes that the resolution of reunification with Taiwan requires ample prosperity, peace, and patience. Still, for Western readers, many fundamental elements of his arguments and conclusions will cause discomfort.

Ye questions readers’ assumptions regarding the United States’ geopolitical role and intentions by appearing to advocate the subordination of free speech to stability, the necessity of China's becoming a world power and reclaiming Taiwan, a path to democracy that allows room for the postponement of individual liberty, and China’s not only seizing opportunity but also creating it. These and other views hang in the background of the entire work, coloring what are often pragmatic conclusions with biases and assumptions that are at times frustrating, arrogant, unsupported, and frightening from a Western perspective. However, opposing these notions may prove futile since the elements of disagreement are often founded in the reader’s point of view rather than in facts. Indeed, these apparent and at times infuriating qualities of the book will likely act as a mirror for the reader’s own biases. As someone from the outside looking in, I could not help thinking that the historic biases of American exceptionalism and virtue must invite similar skepticism and concern abroad.

Inside China's Grand Strategy is a worthy read for those who seek a better understanding of China's actions and motivations in the coming years from the perspective of an insider, as well as for those willing to have their own views forged and tempered by the challenging ideas of a moderate Chinese academic.

Capt Stefan G. DePaul, USAF
Defense Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."