‘A Clash of Security Concepts’: China’s Effort to Redefine Security

New PLA Intelligence Chief Wang Guanzhong

If there was any doubt, last week’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore made it clear that China is unhappy with the behavior of the United States in Asia. Following speeches by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that criticized Chinese actions, General Wang Guanzhong departed from his prepared speech to accuse the two countries of revealing a “taste of hegemony” and trying to “stir up trouble” (IISS.org, June 1). But his scripted remarks highlighted something which may be an even more fundamental challenge to the U.S. role in the region: China’s “New Security Concept for Asia.” This concept appears to be an effort to redefine the idea of security on terms that cast China as a regional security provider and the United States as an over-assertive outsider that threatens to undermine regional security. Official Chinese interpretations of the argument largely accords with a headline from the online edition of the People’s Daily: “The Shangri-La Confrontation is a Clash Between Old and New Security Concepts.”

The core of the New Security Concept, introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in a May 21 speech at the Conference on Interactions and Confidence-Building in Asia, is the idea that “development is the greatest form of security” (People’s Daily Online, May 21—see also China Brief, May 23). As the largest trading partner of most countries in the region and a major contributor to infrastructure investment, China already has a good claim to be the chief driver of the region’s development. If security is development, China is therefore also the main provider of Asian security—killing two birds with one stone. But to make this argument persuasive, China must refute understandings of security that emphasize traditional concerns such as territory and national sovereignty. This means contesting international norms with the United States. Ultimately, like the earlier Five Principles for Peaceful Coexistence, the New Security Concept will “gradually become a universal norm of international relations” (PLA Daily¸May 23).

This concept is more than a bit of rhetorical slight of hand—it is both an application of the Deng-era verdict that the goal of security policy should be to “maintain a peaceful external environment for development,” and an effort to promote this understanding abroad. It most likely represents beliefs genuinely used in Chinese policy-making: A similar effort is simultaneously underway in China’s domestic security sphere. Xi has recently emphasized the concept of “overall national security,” a comprehensive view of security which has been defined to include both fairly conventional matters such as military and territorial security, and non-traditional fields such as economic, cultural and ecological security (see Terrorism Fears Push Muscular Approach to ‘Overall National Security,’” China Brief, May 7). What unites this eclectic list is the risk of interruptions to the project of national construction under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. You Ju, a political expert in a military research institute, told People’s Daily online: “The New Asian Security Concept and our Overall Security Concept are closely linked. Every country has its own security needs, and all of them cannot be separated from cooperation with peripheral countries and the path of peaceful development” (People’s Daily Online, May 21).
Both Xi’s and Wang’s speeches, and their analysis by the Chinese media, heavily emphasized the concept of “nontraditional security”—a bridge between Chinese analysis and mainstream international relations theory. When discussing the New Security Concept, Chinese experts point to problems such as terrorism, transnational crime, securing investments overseas and ensuring financial stability, emphasizing transnational issues related to development (Beijing Times, May 22; China.com, May 22). One expert commentary in the party-affiliated Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po brought up the recent anti-China riots in Vietnam as an example of the danger of focusing on an old definition of security, warning that they had already greatly harmed the Vietnamese economy (Wen Wei Po, May 25).

The New Security Concept was introduced at CICA, a forum established by Kazakhstan and populated with countries ranging from the Middle East, to Central and South Asia, to Southeast Asia. But it applies especially to China’s territorial disputes with Southeast Asian countries and India. According to this analysis, the security of China and the region are threatened not by unresolved disputes over territory, but by an “old” or “zero-sum” understanding of security that encourages China’s neighbors to focus on these disputes rather than the positive story of economic growth and integration. “Unfortunately,” a commentary in the military newspaper Liberation Army Daily wrote, “some people have their heads stuck in the past, and cannot get over Cold War thinking” (PLA Daily, May 26). According to this framing, Japan and especially the United States are real threats to the security of Asia—by treating territorial disputes as central issues, and offering political and military support to China’s Southeast Asian neighbors, they encourage those countries to challenge China rather than focusing on the positive side of its rise.

This analysis apparently recognizes that the logic of territorial security pushes many regional powers toward bandwagoning with the United States to “encircle” China—but it frames that logic as the real threat. Thus, as Ruan Zongze, deputy director of the China Institute for International Relations, told Xinhua, the real cause of the arguments in Singapore was old-fashioned thinking: “As you saw, the recently-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue was full of outdated ‘old security concepts,’ or zero-sum security theory” (Xinhua, June 3).

China’s goal for the years ahead is to win a war of ideas­—to make suspicious neighbors into friends not changing its own behavior, but by persuading them to understand their own security in a way that accepts it. Chinese analysis claims that this contest is taking place on favorable ground—ultimately, the People’s Daily “Clash of Security Concepts” story concluded, even U.S. allies will abandon their grievances against China if confrontation threatens the real security of development. “American and Chinese ‘Asian Security Concepts’ will continue to collide—but which one is more conducive to the well-being of the people of Asia, more to the benefit of regional development and more favorable to shared prosperity, history will decide.”