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A Benign China in Asia–Pacific? Not So Fast

Veerle Nouwens
Commentary, 12 January 2017
China, Defence Policy, Maritime Forces, Pacific
The timing was perfect: just as the new Trump Administration is preparing to take over in the US, Beijing has published a White Paper entitled ‘China’s Policies on Asia–Pacific Security Cooperation’. It claims to outline China’s contributions to Asia–Pacific regional security. But it fails to diminish concerns over its regional ambitions.

China this week published a White Paper that claimed that Beijing had a benign influence on Asia–Pacific security cooperation.

In the paper, Beijing underscores its vision of a ‘common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security’.

Countries, it claims, should keep up with the times by not adopting a binary approach to security, as used to be the case during the Cold War. ‘Absolute security’ is out, while a ‘new model’ of ‘major-country relations’ (that is, with the US) featuring non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and mutual beneficial cooperation is in.

Small and medium powers should, says Beijing, not take sides and instead work to help ensure that the Asia–Pacific remains peaceful. All perfectly logical, neat and appealing.

The paper goes on to warn that Asia faces ‘destabilising factors’ – a largely predictable list – and outlines how China has helped ‘the advancement of regional prosperity and stability as its own responsibility’.

It has, for example, sought to further implement the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and held bilateral consultations on counter-terrorism with the US, UK and regional neighbours.

China also came to the aid of neighboring Myanmar, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, providing relief supplies when floods devastated local communities.

However, the paper glosses over the fundamental problem that China’s evolution into a major power has been coupled with increasing assertiveness in certain regional disputes and an insistence on handling matters solely on its terms.

This has significantly eroded regional confidence and dented Beijing’s pledge to pursue the ‘win-win’ negotiated solution it advocates.

China’s latest White Paper mentions the dangers of ‘disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests [that] continue to unfold’. It adds that ‘some countries are increasing their military deployment in the region’. By ‘some countries’, one would hope that China also means itself and the role that it plays in the ‘continuous unfolding’ disputes.

For China’s role in the South and East China Seas has been anything but loyal to the ‘principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness in conducting diplomacy and the goal of maintaining and promoting stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region’. Instead, it has broken its own promises.

A case in point are the promises in 2015 by Foreign Minister Wang Yi that dredging for island building in the Spratly Islands had been halted, as well as President Xi Jinping’s pledge that China would not militarise those same islands.

Not only did the dredging for the artificial islands continue, but the defence infrastructure has been built, and anti-missile systems and anti-aircraft guns put in place. More, likely, will follow. It is a far cry from the humanitarian aid and disaster relief or scientific research facilities that Beijing has stated would be their function.

The current and imperfect regional security mechanisms – which China’s White Paper claims Beijing has used to help strengthen regional peace, prosperity and security – have actually been sidelined.

The Philippines, ASEAN’s current chair and Beijing’s latest regional friend, has vowed to finalise the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea this year. China, likewise, mentions in the White Paper that it will strive for the Code of Conduct’s ‘early conclusion’.

It is worth remembering that the Code of Conduct was first proposed in 1992 by ASEAN and its temporary non-binding precursor, the Declaration of Conduct, was only signed in 2002.

Should the Code of Conduct be finalised this year, it will likely be largely ineffective. Just as the Declaration of Conduct failed to prevent the South China Sea island disputes, so will the Code of Conduct likely fail in making any significant contribution to conflict management in the region.

China has delayed and frustrated negotiations. Beijing has also undermined ASEAN discussions on the South China Sea disputes by crying foul at any mention of the disputes.

In 2012 and 2016, ASEAN foreign ministers failed to reach an agreement on whether to mention the disputes in their statement. And countries such as Singapore, which have sought to strengthen ASEAN’s cohesion, were subjected to Beijing’s pressure.

To add insult to injury, China has not only failed to show a genuine desire for multilateral negotiations over the South China Sea disputes within ASEAN, but has also refused to do so internationally.

It declared the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s final decision (12 July 2016) on the illegality of China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea (an undefined area that engulfs almost the entire territory) as ‘a piece of waste paper’.

Furthermore and notwithstanding China’s promise that it never had, and never would, disrupt freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, it seized a US unmanned underwater vehicle last December outside its claimed nine-dash line maritime territory.

If Beijing is interested in upholding even a fraction of what it claims to be committed to in its latest White Paper, it must address what is at its core a fundamental lack of credibility; it must match its words with actions.

To truly ‘take responsibility’ and contribute to regional security, it must honestly and wholeheartedly be committed to true regional multilateral dialogue.

Likewise, Beijing’s call for even-handed, practical and mutually beneficial maritime security cooperation is undermined by statements that offer no room for negotiation or compromise, such as asserting that ‘China has indisputable sovereignty’ over the Spratly Islands and their adjacent waters.

Equally unhelpful in a paper that seeks to promote China’s image as a benign regional heavyweight open for dialogue is the statement that Beijing is ‘forced to make necessary responses to the provocative actions which infringe on China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests’ in the South China Sea.

China would do well to take pause and reflect on why there is such great concern over its growing presence. Merely stating that it is unnecessary is not enough.

The publication of the White Paper is well-timed and well-intentioned. At a time when tensions are failing to subside, the region needs more genuine efforts by all countries – large and small – to uphold the international rule of law and engage in multilateral cooperation.

China certainly has a role to play here. However, reading between the lines, this paper does little to elucidate the growing uncertainty about China’s real intentions, or provide any hint as to the region’s future security structure.

Banner image: Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands where an artificial island is being built by China, despte a pledge not to do so. Courtesy of US Navy/Wikimedia.


Veerle Nouwens
Senior Research Fellow

Veerle Nouwens is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Security Studies Department of the Royal United Services Institute,... read more

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