A Chinese Assessment of China’s External Security Environment

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 5

Dr. Shen Dingli

An assessment based on a Chinese government white paper and recent report published by a leading think tank on China’s external security environment suggest that Beijing perceives that it is facing unprecedented external challenges.  On January 11, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (hereafter MFA) revealed—exclusively through Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Po—some key parts of its annual 2011 White Paper on China’s Diplomacy, which highlighted the country’s foreign policy and its views on the "international situation" (Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], January 11). A day later, a leading Beijing-based think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), published Yatai Lanpishu (Asia-Pacific Blue Paper), which outlined a turbulent and grim outlook for China’s peripheral security environment in the years ahead.  Given the authority of the two publications, it is worthwhile to attach importance to the analysis and further elaborate on China’s external security environment.


The analysis in both documents focused on China’s changing external security environment.  The Wen Wei Po article reported that the white paper highlights five features in China’s international situation for 2010.  First, while the global economy has been slowly recovering, development issues are becoming more acute.  Second, the international situation is moving on a more balanced path.  Third reform of the governance mechanism in the global economy has been making new headway.  Fourth, the international security situation is becoming more complex.  Fifth and lastly, various international thoughts are more actively interacting among themselves (Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong, January 11).

The CASS Asia-Pacific Blue Paper underscored the challenges facing China’s peripheral environment in terms of four types of external trends and threats.  According to the report: First, the "return" of the United States to Asia has made China less appealing to some of its neighbors, through tapping some long existing disputes and incidental security accidents.  Second, instability in Northeast Asia (i.e. North Korea) has become the most serious security challenge to China’s peripheral defense, particularly because of the Cheonon incident and Yeonpyeong artillery shelling.  Third, maritime disputes have become an important source of security tension along China’s periphery.  Fourth, some non-traditional security issues—water security in particular—have affected China’s stability and its regime security, and China’s relations with some neighbors (World Journal, January 13).

China’s External Environment

Indeed, China’s external relations—especially toward East Asia—have experienced a great deal of turbulence over the past year, particularly in terms of Sino-Japanese relations.  China demanded that Tokyo immediately release the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with a Japanese government vessel over a fishing row near the disputed Diaoyu Island (Senkaku Islands).  Though China has long claimed sovereignty over the disputed island, its high-handed manner, which included curtailing the export of rare earth metal to Japan during the dispute—which may have been partly motivated by domestic consumption—was unhelpful for its public relations with Japan at-large.  As a consequence, America’s position shifted from being vague in defending Japan over this island under dispute to being more explicit and firm.

As the CASS Asia-Pacific Blue Paper pointed out, the most serious challenges facing China are from the Korean Peninsula.  In 2010, North Korea did not return to the Six-Party Talks for dismantling its nuclear program.  Instead, Pyongyang staged a series of dangerous moves affecting inter-Korean relations.  In Beijing’s perspective, although it is not certain that Pyongyang was the culprit behind Cheonan’s sinking, North Korea’s artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong is indisputable.  China could have been under external pressures by protecting Pyongyang at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) over both the Cheonan incident and Yeonpyeong barrages (World Journal, January 13).

China’s security environment is increasingly challenged by the United States in that the latter has taken the opportunity presented by regional tensions to shore up its alliance with both South Korea and Japan, as well as through trilateral defense coordination.  If the United States’ "return" to East Asia has not been enough, Washington is also apparently revamping its relations with some Southeast Asian countries and urging these nations to hedge against China’s rise.  In July 2010, Secretary of State Clinton openly challenged China’s position on the South China Sea in her address to the 17th ARF Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi, which was bluntly rebuffed by her Chinese counterpart.

Why Challenges Emerge

While observing the difficulties, it is far more significant if the Chinese leadership could better understand why these challenges have emerged and how China may have contributed, or could possibly avert their emergence.

China’s Own Rapid Rise

China’s rise is a source of its growing confidence, but if China rises too fast and acts overly-confident, then it may lead to a source of tension between China and other nations.

Measured by GDP, China grew from $1 trillion in 2000 to $5.8 trillion in 2010, increasing some 480 percent over a span of one decade.  By comparison, the United States’ GDP increased from $10 trillion in 2000 to $14.6 trillion in 2010, an increase of 46 percent.  Therefore, China’s growth rate over the past decade is 10 times higher than the United States.  If the growth rates were to remain constant, China could surpass the United States in terms of GDP in another decade.

Similarly, China’s official defense budget for 2010 was $78 billion, which was 50 percent higher than Japan, and 150 percent more than India.  With the 2011 official defense budget at $91.5 billion, it could be worth the sum of Japan and India.  Even if China has the most benign intentions and implements greater transparency, the pressure on its neighbors, due to such an increase, would be predictable.  A number of China’s neighbors are apprehensive about Beijing’s fast rising power and are trying to manage their response, including through dialogue and hedging.

Lack of Trust in Sino-U.S. Relations

China has long argued that U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan are insulting and intolerable.  Yet, Beijing has bided its time in the belief that the United States would respect China’s rise and end its interference in such "internal affairs."  Against the backdrop of the global financial crisis and U.S. commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, Beijing may have concluded that the time to end U.S. weapons sales has come.  That may be why a year ago, China demanded that the United States end such sales, or the United States would be "truly" sanctioned.  China did so, despite acting against its own interests by freezing mil-to-mil exchanges in 2010, a routine type of retaliation, no different from past tensions.    

Unbalancing the Koreas

In addition to the United States, North Korea is increasingly becoming a challenge for Chinese leaders.  China’s North Korea policy is, at best, contradictory.  While Beijing appears to be trying to move its relations with Pyongyang from a tongue-and teeth type to a more normal state, it continues to protect the "traditional" bonds, and therefore prevents the North from being sanctioned for its behavior.  For instance, the UNSC has ordered comprehensive sanctions against the North for its nuclear/missile development, short of humanitarian aid.  Yet, China is reportedly by the Source Korean press, to be in discussion with North Korea to develop the latter’s harbors and other infrastructure (Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], September 4, 2009). It could have moved beyond the UN limit of "humanitarian purposes."  Furthermore, after the first wave of the Yeonpyeong shelling in November 2010, China was silent, and was unhelpful in order to prevent the North from threatening a second wave in December.

On the contrary, China has treated South Korea, its strategic partner, rather differently.  After the Cheonan sinking, China waited five weeks to issue its condolences, which stands in sharp contrast to its two high profile welcomes to the North’s supreme leader last spring.  In the Yeonpyeong case, China neither accused the South for staging a shelling exercise too close to the North, nor condemned the North for shelling Yeonpyeong and violating international law.  China’s unwillingness or inability to play a fair role on these matters undercuts its credibility and strength as a responsible stakeholder and honest broker.  This could have partly contributed to the deterioration of its external sphere of influence.

Maritime-based challenges

China is facing more security challenges on the maritime front, and has had a number of disputes with some ASEAN neighbors concerning their claims over territorial waters in the South China Sea.  In addition, China has increasingly had disputes with the United States regarding the right of foreign military ships and airplanes to enter China’s Special Economic Zone and airspace.  Thus far, China and the United States have been unable to resolve their disagreement in interpreting the UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) on the foreign accessibility of the EEZ.

Beijing and Washington have also clashed, perhaps unnecessarily, over "China’s core national interest concerning South China Sea."  Core national interests shall be most important in terms of substance, and therefore most narrowly defined in terms of scope.

Regarding sovereignty, core national interests shall only be defined as China’s sovereign soul, space and waters within 12 nautical miles from its sea baseline. All others—adjacent water, the rest of exclusive economic zone, and the entire South Sea as contained by the "nine-dashed-lines", except for those islands that China claims and the associated territorial waters—are not part of China’s core interests.  By resolving these issues, both parties could help regain the others’ trust and respect, and would help secure a legitimate security environment.


The brief survey above indicates that China’s complicated security environment may be the outgrowth of three factors: external pressures, China’s fast rise and its own performance, as well as its interactions.  U.S. security pressure on China obviously persists, but the way Beijing has handled the situation increasingly accounts for the complexity of its security situation.  The mutual distrust and suspicion between China and other parties, especially the United States, at a time of China’s rise, enhances mutual hedging.  Hedging is not necessarily negative, because it can be framed as a part of a realist, precautionary and preventive strategy.  Generally, hedging helps prevent the burst of a sudden disaster.  Yet, hedging is not always constructive, as nations would be able to save resources for cooperation if mutual trust can be established.  
While China’s clout still could not prevent the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, it has become more influential in many international affairs, and has already had some impact in alleviating regional tensions and global concerns.  Its newly established role in the G-20 is largely constructive, and its official development aid to other developing countries, with total amount more than what the World Bank delivered in 2010, has contributed to a decrease in poverty rates for the underdeveloped.  These are its positive sources of hard and soft power.

If China reformed and modified some of its foreign policy measures, regional tension would ebb.  It would thus be in a better position to overcome those challenges that were outlined by the White Paper and Blue Report.  In fact, dealing with maritime disputes primarily through international law, stabilizing Korean Peninsula situation by being proactively balanced, and working with the United States to allay each other’s legitimate concerns, are the three remedies that China could possibly take to soothe its external environment.