China and Coexistence: Beijing's National Security Strategy for the Twenty-First Century

  • Published

China and Coexistence: Beijing’s National Security Strategy for the Twenty-First Century by Liselotte Odgaard. Woodrow Wilson Center Press and the John Hopkins University Press, 2012, 244 pp.

The attempts (if not desire) to understand the motivations of Chinese foreign policy seem to be gaining increasing urgency in what is almost universally acknowledged to be the “Asian century.” Attention to the emergent dynamics of international interactions has been facilitated by the breakup of the Cold War order, which has allowed a number of actors to extend their international roles and outreach. In this respect, thinking about the shifting contexts of global politics has often gravitated toward the realms of fiction and fantasy. This seems particularly the case when grappling with the nascent international agency of China—an actor whose conceptualization of world politics often straddles the invention/reality divide. Beijing’s enhanced confidence and ability to fashion international relations seem to attest both to its transformations in and the transformative potential of Chinese foreign policy attitudes. The established purview is that the complex interaction between the very turbulence of the post-1989 period and the ability to maintain consistent levels of economic growth have allowed China to demonstrate an enhanced confidence in navigating the turbulent dynamics of world affairs. Such governance capacities seem to have provoked both interest and anxiety.

Liselotte Odgaard’s investigation addresses the uncertainty by undertaking a detailed analysis of China’s national security strategy and its implications. In fact, she is quite blunt in outlining the main distinguishing feature of China’s framework of world order—the emphasis on “respect for the inherent differences in national interests and values as the most feasible way to preserve international peace and stability” (p. 180). While differing from most Western perspectives, China’s is not inherently confrontational or intended to provoke conflict. In this respect, Odgaard—an associate professor at the Institute for Strategy of the Royal Danish Defence College—examines the impact of the national security strategy not only on China’s external outlook, but also on the patterns of global politics. Her book tackles this issue directly by offering a thoughtful analysis of China’s emerging international agency.

It is the elucidation of the content, scope, and implications of the notion of “peaceful coexistence” that facilitates Odgaard’s prescient engagement of China’s global roles. Perhaps, the key organizing principle of Chinese strategic thinking (at least, in Beijing’s public diplomacy) is coexistence. She describes it as an “attempt to preserve peace and stability through common habits and practices designed to regulate international conduct” (p. 5). While it has historical antecedents, the contemporary form of “Chinese-style peaceful coexistence involves policy coordination on conflict resolution, and the prioritization of nonmilitary means of persuasion and negotiation rather than coercion and punishment” (p. 181). Thus, as a national security strategy, peaceful coexistence infers a pattern of world politics emphasizing the “co-management of global security issues between great powers that subscribe to different programs of international order” (p. 64).

In this context, Odgaard promotes a much broader and more sophisticated understanding of the concept of coexistence than advanced in the existing literature. Her framework of China’s foreign policy strategy rests on four variables: (1) a demonstrated willingness to forgo national interests to the advantage of the common interest of states in peace and security, (2) endorsement of its program for international order by a majority of states, (3) a strategic partner with economic and military capabilities at the great power level that assists in managing international order, and (4) a state-society model that persuasively manages political authority (p. 13).

While innovative, Odgaard’s account is not without its shortcomings. Perhaps the key one is the lack of engagement of the Chinese-language literature on the topic. Instead, her analysis rests on rearticulations and reframings of existing debates in the English-language literature. While worthwhile and pertinent, such an approach undermines the persuasiveness of her argument. It is likely for this reason the book offers extensive accounts of the historical experience of Prussian, Austrian, British, Soviet, and Indian uses of peaceful coexistence. The comparative value of such parallel assessment is indisputable and indeed welcome; yet it does not convince that the framework for explanation and understanding provided by Odgaard is necessarily the one Chinese strategists and decision makers have in mind. In this respect, a more extensive analysis of the contextualization of the notion and practices of peaceful coexistence in Chinese accounts would have enhanced the veracity and persuasiveness of her propositions regarding Beijing’s external outlook.

This shortcoming notwithstanding, Odgaard’s book makes an important and valuable intervention in both the explanation and understanding of China’s foreign policy formulation. What emerges is that, in contrast to the Cold War period when Beijing lacked the power and capacity to “implement its peaceful coexistence strategy,” today it has “sufficient political power to influence the terms of engagement in international politics” (p. 201). Yet, this does not necessarily portend a coming military confrontation between China and the (waning) American superpower. On the contrary, Odgaard aptly evidences that China’s capacity to punch above its weight has encouraged it to cultivate influence through the development of diverse sets of bilateral and multilateral security arrangements. This suggestion offers a stimulating framework for the discussion of the prospective trajectories of Chinese foreign policy interactions. Odgaard’s analysis offers a wealth of solid knowledge on the evolution, patterns, and practices of China’s external relations. Thus, to the buffs of Chinese foreign policy, her account offers a superbly researched view of the strategic underpinnings of Beijing’s international agency. Moreover, Odgaard’s study of China’s national security strategy uncovers the geopolitical consideration backstopping Beijing’s external outlook. The book should be welcomed by students and scholars alike. At the same time, Odgaard’s careful process-tracing of this complex topic of current global politics provides a compelling perspective bound to attract policymakers and pundits interested in Chinese foreign policy.

Emilian R. Kavalski, PhD

Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations

University of Western Sydney (Australia)

"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."