Last week, for the first time ever, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a white paper outlining its policies on “Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation.” Though the document attracted few headlines, it represents an important articulation of the themes that may come to drive Chinese foreign policy in the Asian region in the coming years. It’s worth looking at closely, particularly given the possibility of the United States shirking its historic post-World War II interest in underwriting the regional rules-based order under the incoming administration of Donald J. Trump.
China’s new white paper comes amid a concerted push by China under President Xi Jinping for expanded regional leadership, seen in everything from Beijing’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” collection of initiatives to more structured multilateral undertakings like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, announced in 2013. On security, China has kept its ambitions moderate for the moment, focusing on fostering intergovernmental and track-two exchanges through the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia (CICA) and the Xiangshan Forum, China’s answer to the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Close observers may have noticed some commonalities in the themes included in the white paper that launched last week and remarks delivered by Liu Zhenmin, vice minister at the Chinese foreign ministry, at the 2016 Xiangshan Forum. Liu, at the time, had directly called for “the building of an Asia-Pacific security architecture.” Liu was building on Xi’s May 2014 remarks to the fourth CICA conference in Shanghai, where he noted that “Asia has come to a crucial stage in security cooperation where we need to build on the past achievements and strive for new progress.” As my colleague Shannon Tiezzi aptly observed at the time, a crux of Xi’s idea was the notion that Asian problems should be “solved by Asians themselves.”
At the core of China’s thinking about the possibility of a new Asian security architecture — one where the United States, presumably, does not enjoy large equities — is the idea that Asian states are fundamentally exceptional and can only be led by an Asian power, like China. We see the buds of this idea in earlier Chinese remarks on regional governance. For instance, at the 2011 Shangri-La Dialogue, General Liang Guanglie, China’s former minister of national defense, remarked that “Asian countries are different in social systems, and levels and models of development, yet they all have their legitimate core interest and major concerns.” Liang continued:
Only by acknowledging that countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community, only by leaving domestic affairs to one’s own and working together on affairs of shared interests through negotiation, only by advocating democracy in international relations and respecting each other’s core interest and major concerns, could the Asia Pacific region truly find its lasting peace, harmony and stability.
I bring these older remarks up because this context is critical to understanding the ideas laid out in the white paper released last week — especially in appreciating the notion that none of what the Chinese foreign ministry has outlined is new or sudden. In fact, China’s interest in gradually stepping up its rule-making credentials — both in the Asia-Pacific and globally — has seen considerably acceleration in the past two years.
The document follows a predictable format, beginning with a broad sweep of the factors driving China’s policies toward the Asia-Pacific before moving into a surface-level review of a wide range of acute challenges, bilateral relationship, and multilateral forums. Early on, the document addresses “multiple destabilizing and uncertain factors,” citing the “nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula,” “reconciliation process in Afghanistan,” and finally “disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime interests.” The order in which these issues are brought up is interesting and revealing of the areas where China believes the region’s attention would be best expended. Unsurprisingly, the area where China’s core interests are most directly at stake is the third.
Most importantly, the document outlines six primary recommendations from China on regional security that, while not entirely new, are worth reading closely as a set. These recommendations could increasingly come to define the direction of Chinese policy from 2017 onward. Distilled for brevity, the six recommendations are to:
- promote “common development and lay a solid economic foundation for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region”
- promote “the building of partnerships and strengthen the political foundation for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region”
- improve “the existing regional multilateral mechanisms and strengthen the framework for supporting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region”
- promote “rule-setting and improve the institutional safeguards for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region”
- intensify “military exchanges and cooperation to offer more guarantees for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region”
- properly resolve “differences and disputes, and maintain a sound environment of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region”
The ordering of these recommendations roughly corresponds to China’s regional priorities, with economic development leading the way and dispute resolution taking a back seat. Though the document pays considerable lip-service to China’s efforts in fostering multilateralism in and around ASEAN on the South China Sea issue, it sets aside last year’s arbitration decision at The Hague on Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, all while cautioning that the “rules of individual countries should not automatically become ‘international rules’ still less should individual countries be allowed to violate the lawful rights and interests of others under the pretext of the ‘rule of law.’”
One interesting area of change between this white paper with previous Chinese statements — most notably the excerpt from Liang’s 2011 remarks I quote above — is the taxonomy between “major countries” and others. (We saw this conception appear in Liu’s Xiangshan Forum 2016 speech.) No longer do we see Chinese insistence on the equality of states, “big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor.” Instead, the new white paper elevates the United States, Russia, India, and Japan as “major countries.” The white paper’s second recommendation on security operationalizes this taxonomy as follows:
Major countries should treat the strategic intentions of others in an objective and rational manner, reject the Cold War mentality, respect others’ legitimate interests and concerns, strengthen positive interactions and respond to challenges with concerted efforts. Small and medium-sized countries need not and should not take sides among big countries.
It’s no accident that these ideas first appeared last year and have now been codified in a major white paper. They represent a direct repudiation of the idea first introduced by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue of a “principled security network” of like-minded states, which China understandably perceived as an attempt by the United States to encourage smaller states to band together against China.
At its core, this is a white paper that lays out China’s most cogent case to date for it to take a lead on rule-making for the Asia-Pacific region. It builds on older expressions of this idea by Xi himself and Liu more recently; it underscores China’s long-standing opposition to the United States’ role as a Pacific power. Xi’s China appears to be interested in putting to rest old debates from the 2000s about whether China would emerge a rule-taker or a rule-maker; per this white paper, in the Asia-Pacific, China is poised to decisively become a rule-maker.
The conclusion of the document is particularly telling in this regard:
The Chinese people are working hard to realize the Chinese Dream of the great renewal of the Chinese nation. In this process, China will bring greater opportunities and benefits for development and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region.
In other words, Xi’s project of the “great renewal of the Chinese nation” has now gotten to the point where regional agenda-setting and leadership by Beijing will no longer be optional. The final sentence of the document alludes to the ultimate goal of Chinese regional policy, which will be the “building of a new model of international relations.”
Like many official Chinese foreign ministry documents and statements on policy, the 10,500 word white paper is amply broad and resistant to specific recommendations that China could easily change course should the regional environment change drastically. For example, if U.S.-China ties see a dramatic downward turn in the first year of the Trump administration on the back of a trade war or a U.S. re-think of the “one China” policy, China could become more explicit in framing its ambitions for regional leadership.
But just as “One Belt, One Road” remains nebulous and poorly articulated by Chinese officials more than three years from its original unveiling by Xi in September 2013 in Astana, Kazakhstan, don’t expect China’s “new model of international relations” outlined in the latest white paper to become any clearer.