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China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China

Review of John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Reviewed by Andrew Scobell, Ph. D., Marine Corps University, Bren Chair for Non-Western Strategic Thought endowed through the Marine Corps University Foundation by Mr. Donald Bren.

Recommended citation verbiage: ‘adapted from “China Engages the World, Warily: A Review Essay,” Political Science Quarterly Vol. 132, no. 2(2017), pp. 341-45.’

What drives the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? This is a pressing question because China appears to be locked in an intense rivalry with the United States and is increasingly assertive on a wide range of issues. To explore the question, we have the benefit of a magisterial tome by Georgia Tech Professor Emeritus John Garver that surveys seven decades of PRC foreign relations. Garver highlights the “link between internal politics and its foreign relations,” arguing that political insecurity, especially anxiety over regime legitimacy, is the primary force propelling China’s foreign policy forward.

Although ever-present, this insecurity has fluctuated over time. The sweep of foreign relations divides into three periods each separated by a significant shift in the degree of insecurity felt by the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Between 1949 and 1977, the CCP focused on establishing a “revolutionary state.” Then, following the emergence of pragmatic leadership in 1978, the CCP launched a concerted effort to reform China’s economy and open up the country to foreign trade and investment—a move made possible because of increased self-confidence in China’s ability to engage constructively with the outside world.

But the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre prompted a reassessment of China’s security environment and CCP leaders concluded that they faced heightened threats. Consequently, since the 1990s, although Chinese leaders have continued to conduct vigorous foreign relations with other states, including the United States, they have become much more insecure.

Lost in American alarmism surrounding China’s seemingly inexorable rise is that the PRC remains a ruled by a communist regime fearful of threats from without and within. Yet, just because CCP leaders are insecure, does not mean they are in perpetual panic mode. Garver writes matter-of-factly that “regime survival” is their top priority. But this term is misleading since it implies that Chinese leaders believe they are in constant fear of collapse or overthrow. On the contrary, Chinese leaders are confident enough to believe their hold on power is secure for the near term and likely to endure through the medium term. Nevertheless, constant vigilance is required. This is why the regime employs a highly sophisticated, robust, and costly coercive apparatus to protect its hold on power. Chinese leaders are not living from day-to-day, from week-to-week, or even from month-to-month. Rather, they plan well ahead in five-year and ten-year increments to ensure the CCP will not just be around to celebrate the centenary of its founding next July but also for the PRC’s 100th birthday in 2049. Consequently, far from being desperate or limited in their goals, these leaders exude supreme confidence and articulate highly ambitious agendas. Yet, this pervasive regime insecurity has a subtle but discernible impact on Chinese statecraft: a wariness and suspicion pervade interactions with other states.

In sum, China’s Quest is an invaluable reference volume and important interpretive guide for the U.S. national security community.

The Academy of Political Science and Wiley grant permission to The Marine Corps University Foundation to publish on its website your review essay entitled “China Engages the World, Warily: A Review Essay,” which appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Political Science Quarterly. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/polq.12619.

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