Chinese Statist Strategic Subculture

On the strategic subculture intellectuals of contemporary China

1/ This week the New York Times newspaper published an article on the statist intellectuals who support China’s President Xi Jinping. Whilst many Western academics describe China as an authoritarian regime, the new statist intellectuals describe an emerging strategic subculture on its own terms, that gives legal shape to President Xi’s geopolitical vision.

2/ China is not new to the strategic culture literature that I analysed in my 2020 Monash University PhD dissertation. Harvard University professor Alastair Iain Johnston studied Ming China in his 1993 University of Michigan PhD dissertation which became the book Cultural Realism: Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), which is now finally available on Amazon Kindle. Johnston’s 1995 International Security article ‘Thinking About Strategic Culture’ integrated the fragmented literature on strategic culture into three cohesive generations since 1977. But Johnston left the strategic culture sub-field after a harrowing exchange with the late professor Colin S. Gray which became known as the ‘Gray-Johnston debate’ in the subsequent literature. Johnston chose instead to focus on contemporary China. Dr Huiyun Feng of Australia’s Griffith University has provided a counterview to Johnston, and to other influential Western scholars such as Harvard’s Graham Allison, stating that China can go beyond Thucydides’ trap.

3/ President Xi’s statist intellectuals offers strategic culture researchers an opportunity to now integrate Johnston’s later work with new empirical research. Just as a strategic culture is a national level set of attitudes, beliefs, norms, values and worldviews about the use of force, the statist intellectuals represent a particular strategic subculture which seeks to influence and to justify President Xi’s military and national security decisions. This is a contemporary knowledge or research gap that strategic culture scholars need to urgently explore.

4/ To do so, strategic culture scholars will need to work closely with area studies specialists who have deep cultural, historical, linguistic, political and social knowledge of contemporary China. The Western view of China as an authoritarian and illiberal regime has not always had this knowledge in mind nor has it always deeply understood the Chinese way of viewing President Xi’s military and national security decisions. Luckily, new norm entrepreneurs and scholars are emerging to translate President Xi’s speeches and statements, thus providing the primary data that strategic culture scholars need for their analysis. One example of such norm entrepreneurs and scholars is the blog Reading The China Dream.

5/ Strategic culture’s historical roots provided US policymakers with a way to understand the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the Nixon, Ford and Carter administration eras. Strategic culture’s first generation ended in 1989-90 with a comparative analysis of the United States and the USSR, just as the Cold War was ending. The RAND Corporation think tank where a young predoctoral Jack Snyder first conceptualised and wrote about strategic culture in 1977 has recently written about China’s grand strategy. President Xi’s statist intellectuals now provide a similar opportunity for strategic culture scholars to more deeply understand the Chinese perspective of the looming great power maneuvering between the United States and China. With such a cross-cultural understanding a new Cold War and an ongoing trade war are likely to be avoided: interdependent prosperity may be secured.