C3S Paper No. 0173/2015
A very recent article contributed by Sun Jianguo, Vice Chief of Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Chinese Communist Party’s theoretical organ, Qiu Shi, has made clear that under Xi Jinping’s new “Integrated National Security” approach, protecting the perceived core national interests will remain a basic principle; this is bound to have impact on China’s foreign policy, making the country to continue its assertiveness internationally, particularly towards the countries in the neighborhood having territorial disputes with Beijing. The latter will thus have reasons to worry; especially, the South China Sea and East China Sea littorals contesting China’s maritime claims may have to remain cautious. It is possible that in displaying assertiveness, Beijing may follow a policy aimed at balancing both hard and soft options as suggested by China’s authoritative scholars. Secondly, the confirmation by the senior PLA official that China is already in a period of strategic opportunities looks very much relevant as one tries to analyze the future patterns of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy behavior.
National security interests started dominating the foreign policy making in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ever since 2009; behind such development had been the changed world view in that year in the PRC that the nation is ‘going global and its international influence is becoming more visible and assertive and its diplomatic strategies accordingly need to comply with the changes in the international environment and domestic conditions’. Evolving ‘multi-polarity’ and ‘multilateralism’ as well as global challenges including climate change and energy security, marked the changes in the external conditions, according to the then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi ( “China’s core Interests diplomacy gains ground”, People’s Daily online, November 20, 2009, http://en.people.cn/90002/96417/6819611.html).
Basically, the PRC under Xi Jinping’s leadership continues to implement the post 2009 core-interests based foreign policy course, which seeks a win-win relationship for China with nations abroad, but under the condition that while doing so the country will not compromise on core national interests, more precisely those concerning national integrity and territorial sovereignty. No doubt, the course has been contributing to China’s assertive line in its external relations, setting aside veteran leader Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy position of ‘hiding one’s capacities and biding one’s time’. It is causing fears among the neighboring countries which have territorial disputes with China and is also affecting the US interests in the Asia-Pacific. Apparently realizing the need to smoothen the atmosphere, Xi has added some seemingly conciliatory features to his foreign policy like New Type of Major Country Relations and priority to ties with the periphery. Looking important is the ongoing shift in foreign policy focus to economic interests since 2013 due to changed perceptions that economic recession has become a bigger challenge to China than external threats (Timothy Heath, “ Xi’s Bold Foreign Policy Agenda – Beijing’s Pursuit of Global Influence and Growing Risk of Sino-US Rivalry”, China Brief, Vol 14 issue 6, dated 19.3.2015, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=). The focus on economic interests in particular appears a move to boost the “road and belt” initiative, launched by Xi. Theoretically, the apparent downgrading in importance of “external threats’’ can be attributed to the claimed gain of confidence on the part of the Xi regime about a ‘new situation’ which has arisen, allowing China to “remain in an important period of strategic opportunities for its development, in particular providing for increase the nation’s comprehensive national strength, core competitiveness and risk-resistance capacity and strengthen international standing and influence” (“China’s Military Strategy”, May 2015).
One expected that in an internationally important occasion like the Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of The Victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and The World Anti-Fascist War (Beijing, September 3, 2015), President Xi JInping will cover some specific aspects of his government’s security and foreign policies. But it has to be admitted that Xi’s address has been generic in nature; it did not make any reference to specific issues like those concerning South China Sea and East China Sea. Xi instead confined himself to make a call to “all countries to jointly uphold the international order and system underpinned by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter , build a new type of international relations, featuring win-win cooperation and advance the noble cause of global peace and development”. He said that “in the interest of peace, China will remain committed to peaceful development. No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion. It will never inflict its past suffering on any other nation. The Chinese people are resolved to pursue friendly relations with all other countries” (Full text at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2015victoryanniv/2015-09/03/content_21783362.htm). Xi’s making no reference to territorial issues can be viewed as a diplomatic move of the PRC to project a soft image during such an international gathering; the silence has however been negatively viewed by Japan for its own reason. It looks that Tokyo was anticipating some conciliatory remarks from Xi on its territorial problem with Beijing; with these not forthcoming, Japan’s official spokesperson Yoshihide Suga promptly expressed “disappointment” over the absence of “elements of rapprochement” in Xi’s speech.
A firm evidence has surfaced of late in China pointing to Xi Jinping’s intentions to continue implementing an assertive core-interests based foreign policy course, albeit with some fine tuning intended to project the image of the PRC as peace-loving state. It is in the form of an authoritative article in the party’s theoretical organ ‘Qiu Shi’, entitled “Adhering to a Distinctly Chinese Approach to National Security”, authored by Sun Jianguo, vice Chief of Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and President of China Institute for International Strategic Studies. (Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.5, 2015 and its English Edition, July-September 2015, Vol.7, No.3, Issue No.24, dated August 19, 2015; full text at http://english.qstheory.cn/2015-08/19/c_1116183183.htm).
Sun points out that with a view to striking a balance between domestic considerations and international ones and between security and development, President Xi Jinping has introduced a new approach to national security, known as “integrated national security”, since the convening of the Eighteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in late 2013. He claims that the approach is based on Xi’s ‘accurate’ interpretation of the international situation and China’s security situation. According to him, on the former, Xi finds that opportunities and challenges are emerging constantly in the world which is profoundly changing international system and order, and moving the balance of power between countries in favor of peace and development. With regard to China’s current stage of development, Sun says that as being seen by Xi, China is now closer than ever to the center of the world stage, nearer than ever to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and more confident and more able than ever to realize this goal. With regard to threats to China’s national security, Sun notes Xi’s finding that China faces the risk of being invaded, subverted, and split; the risk of its reform, development, and stability being sabotaged; and the risk of socialism with Chinese characteristics being interrupted.
The PLA official further says that in light of both the international situation and realities in China, Xi Jinping has brought forward a distinct Chinese approach that integrates security in a wide range of aspects – political, territorial, military, economic, cultural, societal, scientific, information, ecological, resource, and nuclear. The approach fulfills following conditions- (i) to fundamentally guarantee the long-term governing position of CCP and the enduring peace and stability of the country, the CCP should absolutely command China’s armed forces,
(ii) in matters of guaranteeing security during development of the country, political security should be taken as core, economic security as its basis, military, cultural, and societal security as an important guarantee, and the furthering of global security as foundation and (iii) to widen security management to include new fields like marine, marine, space, and cyber security.
The Chinese top military leader feels that Xi has taken a strategic, historical, dialectical, innovative, and worst-case-scenario approach with respect to China’s national security; that approach lays emphasis on protecting both internal and external security, both the security of territory and the people, both traditional and nontraditional security interests, both development and security interests and both China’s security and common security. Sun points out that as such, China has been able to establish a unified, efficient, and authoritative system of leadership for national security, for e.g it has established a new body to oversee national security affairs, the National Security Commission of the CCP Central Committee, with President Xi serving as its chairman, formulated and implemented the Outline of National Security Strategy, stepped up the pace of legislation on national security and made efforts to establish a solid national defense and strong military that reflect China’s international standing and conform to its national security and development interests.
Sun at the same time focuses on what he calls the ‘clear red line ‘in Xi’s approach. He quotes from Xi’s words – “China’s adherence to the path of peaceful development, in absolutely no way, means that it will give up its legitimate rights and interests or sacrifice its core national interests. No country should entertain the fantasy that China will allow its sovereignty, security, and development interests to be infringed. Should China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity be challenged, we will mount a head-on struggle and fight for every last inch. Now that China is strong, we have no reason to submit to such external pressure. We must safeguard China’s core and key interests.”
The PLA top brass then lists the following achievements made in China under Xi’s new approach – improving China’s strategy of active defense, preventing a “color revolution” from occurring in China, building of new type of relations between major countries, resolutely safeguarding China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in South China Sea and East China Sea, lawfully handling the “Occupy Central” movement in Hong Kong and establishing regional stability in order to create a favorable neighboring environment through a ‘pan-peripheral’ diplomatic strategy and a partnership formula to realize “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security for Asia” (Sun includes China’s strategic partnership with India in this category).
From the article of the PLA Deputy Chief of Staff, it becomes clear that under Xi Jinping’s new “Integrated National Security” approach, protecting the perceived core national interests will remain a basic principle; this is bound to have impact on China’s foreign policy, making the country to continue its assertiveness internationally, particularly towards the countries in the neighborhood having territorial disputes with Beijing. The latter will thus have reasons to worry; especially, the South China Sea and East China Sea littorals contesting China’s maritime claims may have to remain cautious. It is possible that in displaying assertiveness towards them, Beijing may follow a policy aimed at balancing both hard and soft options (“Balance Between China’s Hard and Soft Power”, Professor Shi Yinhong, School of American Studies, Renmin University, Beijing, August 6,2015 edition of the China Daily, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2015-08/06/content_21519142.htm). In any case, one may have to be watchful especially about any further complications with regard to contentious maritime issues. A second notable point in the article is the writer’s confirmation of China already in a period of strategic opportunities; it is in line with the already noticed assessment contained in China’s Military Strategy 2015 document. Such thinking will greatly influence Xi Jinping’s foreign policy in the coming years.
(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)