Will China Succeed in Creating an Asian Security Order?

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Will China Succeed in Creating an Asian Security Order?

China’s vision for the Asian security order has a strong emphasis on cooperative security, but Beijing, despite new initiatives, is not quite sure how to make it happen.  

Will China Succeed in Creating an Asian Security Order?
Credit: Depositphotos

From April 18-23 2024, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a three-nation tour of Cambodia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. The trip is part of a packed diplomatic agenda that’s been in motion since the start of the year which looks to consolidate China’s status in Asia as the prime geoeconomic and geopolitical influencer. 

Visits by leaders and other high-level officials, including from Russia, the Global South and rich European states like Germany, to China and by China’s President Xi Jinping and high-level Chinese officials to various parts of the world, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, will test the waters for China’s three world order-building projects: namely the Global Development Initiative (GDI), Global Security Initiative (GSI), and Global Civilization Initiative (GCI). 

Diplomatically, politically, and economically, China has already leapfrogged ahead of other regional giants, taking its place among the global superpowers. Yet, thus far, China has been lagging in building an effective Asian security order, one naturally centered on Chinese interests. Importantly, China appears to be very aware of the complexity of promoting and developing an Asian security order: that is to say, the institutions and principles that guide security relations between states.

Could the three new initiatives be the solution for an Asian security order? 

A Pan-Asian “Processual” Chinese Vision?

To a degree, China has a vision for Asia’s security order through its emergent GSI. Still, it is primarily processual, i.e., the process and principles of multilaterally achieving a (as-yet undetermined) security order rather than a set-in-stone vision for an Asian security order. This processual vision is pan-Asian, but China’s rhetoric changes by region, reflecting regional realities. 

There is, of course, no single Asian security order or architecture. Nor is there unanimity on the number of security orders in Asia, their scope, and their specifics. Therefore, one way to “dissect” the Asian security order is regional – even if these do not operate in silos. The five Asian regions – West (the Middle East), Central, South, Southeast, and East Asia – have dissimilar and varying degrees of security order. 

China’s geographic position in Asia grants it a unique (dis)advantage: China is positioned amid these five regions. If we include Afghanistan in West Asia, China is contiguous to all five Asian regions – the only Asian nation to which this applies. This gives China a stake and role in all of Asia’s security orders, from landlocked Central Asia to the other four with their strong maritime dimensions.

How do these five regions figure in China’s security ordering priorities? 

Ranking Asia’s Regions in China’s Security Order

Distant as it sits from China, the West Asian security disorder does not amply affect China’s security, and its substantial fossil fuel imports have seen little impact from regional armed conflict. Rather, Central Asia and its periphery have historically been a significant threat to China’s security. Today that is no longer the case. Russia, the Central Asian states, and China have found a calm, predictable modus vivendi in a region with a wide range of mostly Russian-dominated security-ordering institutions. 

Like West and Central Asia, Southeast Asia, too, lacks a resident great power. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a “soft-edged,” non-threatening supranational body that touts its centrality and normative value, i.e., inclusive, cooperative, and multilateral security ordering norms. It is no threat to China. Yet, the geographic crux of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy sits right at Southeast Asia and its waters, and it is in this theater that China-U.S. contestation arguably plays out the strongest. 

Unlike Southeast Asia, South Asia has a minimal security order, primarily due to the geopolitical rift at the heart of the region between the most prominent players, India and Pakistan. To thwart India’s rise and to establish a more permanent role in the region and the Indian Ocean –the site of crucial supply lines – China is quite actively engaged in the security ordering process in South Asia. 

China is also unnerved by India’s growing high-tech-oriented cooperation with the United States, as well as India’s newly found resonance within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad, comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.). China is especially averse to the Quad and looks at it as a Cold War-era relic (an “Asia-Pacific NATO”).

Notwithstanding the diverse regions of interest, it is in East Asia, where the United States with its treaty alliances with Japan and South Korea has been holding strong, that China – the region’s foremost resident leader – will be looking to reconfigure the Asian security order. Yet, it is also the most complex region in which to do so. 

China’s East Asian Paradox

Of the five regions, China has the most paradoxical relationship with the U.S.-led East Asian security order. When the U.S.-led West welcomed China to the Western liberal order in the 1970s, China acquiesced to U.S. security hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. As a result, China has been a significant beneficiary, perhaps the largest in Asia, of the primarily U.S.-led and sustained liberal international order. 

Economically, this order powered the globalization that has driven much of China’s modernization, and the increasingly more networked U.S.-led hub-and-spokes alliance system in the Asia-Pacific has helped keep the peace in China’s maritime periphery so that it could prosper. 

However, this is the flank from which the most consequential security threats emanate for China’s core interests, increasingly driven by expanding Indo-Pacific strategies and actions, because China’s primary urban and industrial centers lie at or near its eastern and southeastern shores. China, thus, has significant issues with the U.S. alliance system, which functions as security architecture through its firm mutual defense commitments. 

However, these issues have been around since long before China (re)gained great power status. China already called for revisions in 1997 when, in a joint declaration with Russia, it called for greater multipolarity in the international order, touted Westphalian sovereignty and territorial integrity, spoke of a “new era,” and opposed (U.S.-led) security alliances. China thus questioned the U.S. security role and collective security principles long before it had  the capabilities to supplant Washington. 

Changing Security Concepts: Will the GSI Gain Traction?

Importantly, it was also in 1997 that China proposed a “new” interpretation of security, “the New Security Concept.” This vision promoted “common security,” in later concepts also referred to as “universal security” and increasingly as “indivisible and cooperative security” (the prior is a concept also endorsed by Russia but with 1970s European origins). The New Security Concept promoted the centrality of the United Nations and U.N. Charter, emphasizing multipolarity, multilateral security cooperation, dialogue, and diplomatic and economic cooperation over regional military blocs and military alliances (i.e. “collective security”).

However, under Xi Jinping, China has increasingly promoted geographically more ambitious and marginally more specific security visions. These include the “New Asian Security Concept for New Progress in Security Cooperation” in 2014 and the 2017 “Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation” white paper, culminating in the broad-principles anchor concept of the GSI in 2022, and the updated 2023 version that calls for global input. 

The GSI, an operational work in progress, delegitimizes the United States’ collective and highly material security approach. Unlike the U.S. security order, the GSI links security with development and emphasizes non-traditional security issues. The GSI may shape perceptions and principles across Asia and the globe, particularly among those disillusioned with the U.S.-dominated international security order and those who want to avoid a destabilizing Sino-U.S. showdown. It may gain traction in Central and West Asia and parts of South and Southeast Asia, undermining the United States’ role and vision for an Asian security order. 

The Realities Behind China’s Security Vision

Zooming out from the regional to the continental, in a sense, China is forced to adhere to an open-ended multilateralist vision for Asia’s security order, for reasons of scope and geography, civilizational diversity, geopolitics, power balancing, and legitimacy. From a security lens, China needs to consider the role of 14 diverse land neighbors and a range of maritime neighbors. 

These neighbors include three great/major powers (Russia, India, and Japan), four nuclear-armed states (Russia, India, Pakistan, and North Korea), a “recalcitrant” North Korea, a rising Vietnam, two great technological powers (Japan and South Korea), and the increasingly more-networked U.S. alliance system. From a maritime perspective, contrary to the United States, Europe, and India, China is “boxed in” by rival security allies and partners. 

Moreover, unlike Europe and the U.S in their respective continents, China must deal with the wardens of four civilizations with distinct characteristics and aspirations: Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, and Western through the U.S. presence and influence – all spread over a gigantic terrestrial and maritime expanse. 

In addition to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, there are regional flashpoints and territorial disputes, arms races, intense regional and extra-regional geopolitical rivalry, and an increasing range of non-traditional security threats. Furthermore, many actors, such as India and ASEAN, seek to absorb and dilute Chinese centrality in Asian security order-building through multilateralism. 

China’s Global South-Oriented Non-Western Forum Outreach: A Game Changer? 

Operating in such a challenging environment, China creatively seeks to create a new Asian security order. One vital way has been to financially and geopolitically influence the Global South countries via outreach through non-Western-led forums such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), as well as through its widespread Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – not just an infrastructure project but a geopolitical tool to undermine the U.S.-led order. Then there is the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the pan-Asian security forum with the largest number of Asian participants, which China is looking to transform into a security-oriented multilateral platform. Notably, both CICA and the SCO have greater resonance in continental Asia.

These forums have indeed become the fulcrum of China’s Global South wooing. The expansion of the SCO and BRICS, as well as the growing interest in being included in these forums (Argentina’s rejection of the BRICS membership notwithstanding), is being heralded in the Chinese media as a sign of “political autonomy” for the developing world. 

In the era of the receding multilateralism and resurgence of dormant wars (in Eastern Europe and West Asia, to name two), as well as the increasing importance of middle/smaller states to major powers, the argument is compelling enough. Moreover, China projects itself as a developing country – something Xi emphasized at the 2023 BRICS summit. To capitalize on the developmental aspects with continuous stress on building a “shared future for mankind” through solidifying bilateral relations is a part of this Chinese narrative. This was on display in Xi’s recent visit to Europe, particularly to Serbia and Hungary, if not France. 

There is a bit of a contradiction here, as Beijing’s self-identification with the marginalized Global South is somewhat at odds with China’s financial clout, which is what makes it an attractive partner. Nevertheless, could such a collaboration lead to an Asian security order? 

It’s unlikely, given Asia’s sheer geographic size and the multitude of actors, large and small, including extra-regional actors such as the U.S., the EU, and the U.K. For example, throughout maritime Asia, China operates in a gray area between complicity with and resistance to the U.S.-led security order. The latter’s perceived legitimacy by regional countries is robust going by the “exceptional durability” of the U.S. alliances/partnerships and its track record in sustaining a safe Asian maritime environment since the end of World War II.

Now, as the U.S. security architecture seeks to balance China, Beijing has struggled to undermine this legitimacy. Given China’s claims over most of the South China Sea (now demarcated by a 10-dash line), incursions into disputed waters, and lack of experience in providing public security goods or security guarantees to other states, why would Asian states unreservedly give up a long-time security guarantor, the United States, for an untested China? 

As a result, China needs a sound strategic alternative to the status quo. Even then, China must accept a multipolar maritime Asia that includes the United States and other major powers, including Russia, India, and ASEAN. Beijing’s open-ended and processual-oriented security visions reflect pragmatic awareness and acceptance of this reality. However, a plural Asia where external actors, such as the United States, play a limited role would be Xi’s (and the Chinese Communist Party’s) strongly preferred outcome. 

In sum, even as China progressively enhances the institutional capacity and membership of preferred and near-exclusively Asian security platforms such as CICA and the SCO and conceptualizes newer forms of security initiatives and principles such as common security, it is to be seen to what degree its GSI reverberates among Asia’s political and security elites. Xi’s “Asia for Asians” call at CICA 2014 mostly fell on deaf ears, but we shouldn’t automatically expect the same from the GSI.