China sees itself emerging as a major regional power and important global player. Among other things, Beijing will seek peaceful borders; insist on an appropriate role for China in Northeast Asian security; pretend, at least, to have learned humility in the South China Sea; balance its relations in South Asia and on the Korean Peninsula; and hope to master the technique of getting oil without giving arms in Southwest Asia. In all of this, weapons and troops mean much less than it seemed they would only a decade or so ago. A similar situation will apply to other countries of the region. Cancelled and postponed arms purchases by China’s neighboring states, as a consequence of the Asian financial crisis, pale in security significance to the manner in which those nations will restore their competent workforces to productivity and to robust interdependent economic relations. A modernized PLA is a minor component of China’s regional security calculi. Only with respect to Taiwan, not a peripheral state by Beijing’s definition but a renegade province is a formidable PLA truly a prominent part of the current picture. Even in this cross-strait contest, the odds are not bad for those who are willing to gamble that economic considerations will prevail and ultimately produce a lasting solution across the Taiwan Strait.
There is considerable evidence that China means much of what it says in the 2012 Defense White Paper. Beijing is devoting more “quality time” and attention to its peripheral environment and doing so, although not perfectly, in ways that tends to build economic bonds rather than sow seeds of distrust and trepidation. Beijing will likely continue to be seen by Washington and others – especially Taipei – as obnoxious; but as Washington has demonstrated over the decades, it is very hard to be both big and powerful and still universally adored. Nevertheless, China is learning at least the jargon of ultilateralism, confidence-building, and how to be a pre-eminent power while dodging epithets such as “hegemon” and “bully.” China’s impressive national economic success, as contrasted with its mediocre military modernization, may serve to reinforce the tendency in Beijing to believe that economics is the most important component in China’s comprehensive national power and that military power is, at best, only complementary. That raises the intriguing question of how this new Chinese attitude might be affected were the economy to take a big tumble, as has been the case with several of China’s neighbors. For now, examination of the odds of that occurring can be postponed for a future endeavor. At present, Beijing is making a convincing case that security relations on its periphery in the 21st century will turn on matters of economic security and interdependence, elements of national power where China is increasingly competent.