08.05.2014 Author: Matthew Crosston

Reluctant Dragon: The Chinese Intelligence Condition

3453452While China has accepted human security as a new framework to study modern security challenges, it has been very busy trying to show how the implications of human security can be intrusive and even invasive of state sovereignty. Indicative of its confidence in projecting its own power outward across the global community, ‘non-traditional security’ includes not just people and populations but actual state security as well. Thus, China definitively inserts the rights and obligations of the state, and the chief imperative of state survival, as coincident with the desire to resolve and alleviate health emergencies, financial crises, natural disasters, nuclear pollution, political instability, and food shortages. By broadening the sphere of impact for human security to state functionality, China is operationalizing the ability to act in areas not necessarily deemed firmly within governmental jurisdiction. Not coincidentally, these problems represent most of China’s domestic and emerging security interests.

  • Chinese domestic aspects of security
    • Ethnic unrest
    • Economic inequality/Social stability
    • Military modernization
  • Chinese regional aspects of security
    • Fishing disputes
    • Offshore oil and gas fields
    • Border security
    • Conflict between neighboring states
  • Chinese global aspects of security
    • Economic instability
    • American ‘adventurism’
  • Chinese emerging aspects of security
    • Energy security
    • Environmental security
    • Cyber security
    • Maritime security

China’s domestic and regional security aspects are fairly distinct: whether it be the new regime’s focus on battling corruption or the Uyghur problem on its western borders or the growing concerns about economic inequality between urban and rural dwellers, China sees domestic security as an issue fully capable of being dealt with by the state and not open to interference or influence by external actors. This is interestingly another aspect where the lack of restriction on eligible targeting, foci, or participants in the intelligence gathering process draws a sharp distinction between Western and non-Western states. China has always seen very little difference between intelligence and information, between collection and research, and has not made an operational distinction between the domestic and international arenas. As a result, some of the greatest high-volume intelligence traffic arguably takes place inside China by the Chinese against other Chinese.

Chinese regional aspects of security give a strong hint of where China would be most motivated to insert intelligence efforts within its immediate neighborhood. China is most concerned with disputes that at the moment do not threaten it internally: primary amongst these are the disputes between the two Koreas, the Indo-Pak rivalry over Kashmir, the ongoing issues with Taiwan, and the general unrest within Central Asia. Ironically, the potential conflicts in offshore oil and gas fields could end up becoming a primary field of intelligence operations for China given how important energy security and resource scarcity factors into its concerns about future economic development and instability.

Much of the political culture and contemporary philosophy from the Chinese state today emphasizes state sovereignty and the principal of non-interference. Despite these so-called cultural and philosophical leanings the Chinese position is fraught with contradiction: China believes in pushing a grand strategy of reassurance that emphasizes cooperation with major powers and regional centers in order to demonstrate that it has benign intentions even as it grows ever more powerful. What that does not include, however, is an explicit Chinese commitment to simultaneously undermine any and all balancing coalitions that might be forming against China. Even more eloquent, and yet still somewhat contradictory, is a call for China developing a ‘more sophisticated grand strategy comprised of four ongoing changes:’

  • The concept of security must be made more complex to include non-traditional aspects.
  • Chinese diplomacy must evolve so as to be more issue-based and functional rather than country-based.
  • Economic development must shift from dependence on foreign technology and export to domestic consumption and sustainable development.
  • China’s use of ‘soft power’ must be enhanced so as to embrace shared values like good governance and transparency.

These objectives are entirely rational and perhaps in long-term operational forecasting these four dimensions will indeed show the way to where Chinese intelligence will begin to focus. But in the meantime domestic, regional, and global reality interferes with such long-term projection. For example, Chinese intelligence may already be focusing on issue-based operations but those issues de facto push them into specific countries. Thus, security issues will push China into Northeast Asia; economic issues will push China into Southeast Asia; energy and resource issues will push China into Central Asia; Island and fishing issues push China out into the South and East China Sea. All of these issues lead Chinese intelligence to focus on Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, North Korea, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, etc.

It is sound policy to move economic development from dependence to sustainability. That goal, however, does not ignore the fact that Chinese economic strategy still focuses on taking advantage of severe trade/debt imbalances with other countries while economic reform to deepen and broaden domestic economic mobility and prosperity have so far been uneven at best. This reality cannot help but ultimately press deeply into the Chinese strategic intelligence condition. This is yet another perfect example of how malleable culture can be, especially in the area of intelligence analysis. China is clearly expert on understanding and knowing how to utilize the democratic, free-market, and human security buzzwords when positioning itself on the global stage. But as one Chinese analyst mentioned, China’s leadership still believes in the two Karls – Marx and von Clausewitz – in that politics, economics, diplomacy, and military might are all aspects and tools utilized for the continuation of a single game. And what can a project that touches upon Chinese political culture and security consider itself without a pithy quote from the inimitable Sun Tzu:

‘It is preferable to subdue a state whole and intact than to destroy. The skill in killing does not deserve the highest praise. To conquer the enemy without resorting to war is most desirable. The adepts in warfare are those who can conquer the enemy without fighting battles. They can win a complete victory without as much as wearying their own men.’

Despite this philosophical tradition that crosses the ages, many Western observers of Chinese intelligence find fault with it based on how little it mimics American conceptions. This fault-finding is misplaced as China’s 2500 year tradition is also one that exemplifies a relatively merit-based bureaucracy that long preceded the rise of Weberian-style rationalist administration in the West and that has withstood to a degree even the irrational blows of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Thus, China’s intelligence condition interacts with culture, to be sure, but it does not end up dominated solely by cultural factors. This only gives greater affirmation as to why a formula based on non-Western conditional realities would be a welcome addition into the analytical intelligence discipline and allow for greater debates with more predominant cultural explanations.

China has long felt comfortable occupying a major portion of the global stage and is simply aiming to ensure no one violates its personal space. One cannot sense the same sincerity, however, when the Chinese strategic intelligence condition discusses the need for a polycentric order and crows about multilateralism and respect for sovereignty. Be wary of such posturing: in this instance the positioning is not to ensure equality in balance but rather to inculcate regional domination and global leverage. China does not want the responsibility that comes with being the recognized regional or global superpower like the United States. This would be seen as inefficient and wasteful. It would be preferable to simply acquire the material, diplomatic, economic, political, and military benefits that would naturally come with such a position while not having to sacrifice too much in order to maintain it. This is the overwhelming distinction and contrast one discerns when building and comparing the Chinese strategic intelligence condition with others.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies Program at Bellevue University (USA), exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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