Understanding China’s foreign policy perspective

Author: Nidhi Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Recent tensions over maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea have highlighted the lack of consensus over the existing security order in Asia. Understanding China’s perception of the Asian security order is crucial if innovative policy solutions to enhance security cooperation are to be found. So how does China conceptualise the current security order and what do we know of its vision for the future?

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, 30 November 2015 (Photo: AAP)

China is sceptical of the existing security order, especially of the presence of the United States in East Asia and the US ‘hub and spoke’ alliance system. This scepticism drives China’s concept that Asian security should be guaranteed by Asians alone.

China sought to redefine the concept of security and its traditional emphasis on military capabilities in a speech at the ASEAN summit in 2002. The desire to do so was driven by the increased interdependence of security threats from traditional, non-traditional, state and non-state sources.

China’s views of security and security cooperation are guided by the United Nations Charter and the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. The ‘new security’ concept entails: relations of mutual respect, peaceful resolution of disputes, emphasis on non-traditional security threats like terrorism, ‘preventing foreign invasions and safeguarding territorial integrity’ as well as pursuing mutual trust and mutual benefits.

The Chinese foreign ministry website elaborates on these phrases. Mutual trust and respect is understood in terms of respect for differences in each country’s domestic and political systems. Key to this concept is China’s emphasis on non-interference. Equal benefits translate as ‘win–win’ cooperation, where common security goals are achieved by viewing all countries as equal members of the international community. These principles form the basis of China’s vision for a multipolar world order and multilateral global governance institutions.

While these concepts are encompassed under the legal foundations of the UN Charter, many countries believe that implicit in China’s emphasis on these values is a challenge to the existing international order.

This suspicion is reinforced by how China’s foreign policy perspective views two important issues: hegemony and inclusion. Chinese officials have stated that in Asia ‘no country should attempt to dominate security affairs or infringe upon legitimate rights and interests of other countries’, and that ‘entrench[ing] a military alliance targeted at a third party is not conducive to maintain common security’. These comments seem to be directly aimed at the US alliance system. China does not believe in outsourcing security to any extra-regional country. Whether the United States will be considered to be a stakeholder in China’s security order is uncertain.

So how might China’s new security order work in practice? China cites the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) — which aims to address the threats of terrorism, separatism and extremism — as an example of a ‘successful case of the new security concept’. This is primarily because since the formation of the ‘Shanghai Five’ process in 1996 the framework has been modelled on the same values articulated in the ‘new security concept’: non-alignment, non-confrontation and an avoidance of security policies that are targeted at other countries or regions.

But recent tussles over the disputed islands in the South China Sea have cast doubt on China’s commitment to these foreign policy principles. China’s threat of the use of force and pursuit of unilateral measures has led many to question its commitment to relations of mutual trust, benefit, equality and coordination as well as its commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes.

China’s ‘new security’ concept was reiterated with renewed enthusiasm at the Conference on Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) Summit in 2014. In conjunction, China proposed two new initiatives, the Asia Investment Infrastructure Bank and the Maritime Silk Road. China’s initiatives of creating multilateral institutions signify a gradual implementation of its foreign policy goals and values.

But this has begun to change. Chinese foreign policy pronunciations now have a grand strategic nature, with long term interests at stake in addition to a new vision for regional security and economic wellbeing. Chinese leaders now seek to strive for a ‘common destiny for Asia’ based on the principles and values enshrined in the ‘new security’ concept.

As China’s stake in the international order deepens, both the costs and benefits of greater engagement increase. By articulating a multilateral concept of security and pursuing multilateral cooperation, China is gradually recognising the challenges of being a ‘great power’.

China’s foreign policy approach will test the defenders of the current liberal international order. But it is integral that states that are anxious about China’s rise seek to understand how China conceptualises security and to support its peaceful development.

Nidhi Prasad is studying for a Masters of Philosophy at the Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

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