China's Entry into International Society:

The Security Dimensions


Award Holder

Michael Yahuda

Period of Report

25 September 1996-5 February 1997


London School of Economics

Amount of Award


Aims and Methods of Research


The main aim of the project is to assess the character of China's participation in international society with specific reference to its conduct of security related issues in international institutions and within its own region of Pacific Asia. In particular it is important to evaluate the extent to which Chinese understand and take into account the security concerns of neighbouring states; the extent to which they deem important and are prepared to contribute to attempts to establish security arrangements for the region of Pacific Asia (or particular parts of it); and the significance they attach to international multilateral attempts to institutionalise aspects of security through law, arms control agreements, disarmament measures, confidence building measures and so on. The methods of research have involved documentary analysis and the conduct of interviews with officials, scholars and researchers in the first instance of China's neighbours and subsequently, with those with experience in negotiating with Chinese representatives at multilateral institutions in Vienna, Geneva and New York.


Preliminary findings


Since the end of the Cold War Chinese approaches to security matters have begun to conform more to the established practices and conventions of international society than was the case before. Two dimensions in particular are worth noting namely, the recognition of a correspondence between economic development, social and political stability at home and in neighbouring countries; and the acceptance of multilateralism in both treaty form and in the conduct of diplomacy. These were evident from the unprecedented five power agreement on borders and confidence building measures involving China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tadjikistan as well as from China's agreement to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and China's readiness to deal with ASEAN on a multilateral basis on aspects concerning the disputed islands in the South China Sea.


Although the Chinese have yet to display the degree of transparency in defence matters that is currently practised among many of its neighbours, military circles as well as civil officials have accepted the need to do so. Indeed a defence white paper has been promised within two years.


The primary obstacles to China's further integration in international society derive from resistance by some domestic interests to the implications of further reform and opening rather than to deep seated objections to international practices per se. The country is still in the process of a complex transition from its continentalist traditions and communist practices to those of a more maritime orientation. Indeed one of the preliminary findings is that the Chinese appear to have been more 'comfortable' in demonstrating flexibility and accommodation to the concerns and interests of others in what used to be called 'Inner Asia' than has been true of their approach to maritime Asia. China's leaders have had no difficulty in overlooking past 'humiliations' in accepting borders with Russia and Kazakhstan that were based on what have traditionally been regarded as unequal treaties. For the first time in modern history Chinese leaders formally recognised the independence of Mongolia in uncontested borders without having been prompted by Moscow (even though Chinese text books on patriotism question the legitimacy of Mongolia's attainment of independence). This, it might be noted, has occurred at a time in which the Chinese side openly acknowledge that the balance of power has swung in their favour - at least in that part of its region. A senior official of the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan described the relationship with China as one of a 'partnership' in which both sides cooperated in handling sensitive issues. These included the management of difficulties in trade, the implementation of confidence building measures regarding their military on the border, the handling of problems related to ethnic and religious unrest and Kazakh claims of contamination by fallout from Chinese nuclear tests. Pursuant to the latter the Chinese have agreed to establish a joint scientific commission to examine the evidence.


The Chinese side appears to continue to have difficulty in understanding what might be termed the character of maritime international relations and the sources of power associated with it. This is evident from the continuing to failure to understand how Japan as an island that is bereft of natural resources could nevertheless be the second largest economy in the world. China's leaders and the military in particular have little experience of maritime power and the technological gap not only with United States and Japan, but also with some of the other Asian neighbours is profound. But given China's leaders long term commitment to economic growth and to their immediate political need to satisfy the rising expectations of the population, they have a vested interest in maintaining good economic relations with neighbours and in assuring their governments of China's need for a stable and peaceful environment. Against this backcloth China's leaders moved rapidly to assuage the fears of the ASEAN countries after the Mischief Reef incident of March 1995 and the attempt at military intimidation of Taiwan later that year. Beijing dropped its earlier objections to discussing aspects of the disputed Spratly islands on a multilateral basis. The new approach appears to have gathered its own momentum as the Chinese have agreed within the framework of the Indonesian workshop to participate in a multilateral exercise to protect the bio-diversity of the waters of the South China Sea and they have agreed to co-chair with the Philippines the ASEAN Regional Forum Work Group on confidence building measures. Officials and researchers in the ASEAN capitals were particularly pleased when the hitherto obdurate Chinese Ambassador, Xu, rejected at a meeting in Paris criticism that ASEAN was playing too prominent a role in the ARF. He showed understanding of the subtleties of the emerging new order that allowed smaller countries to set the agenda under certain conditions. Thus he told the Japanese and American representatives that his country would object to their setting the course for the ARF just as much as they would object to China doing so.


At the same time most neighbouring states were wary about possible longer term developments in China even though they were generally satisfied that the next five to ten years would be relatively stable. In India this was seen as providing an opportunity for the country to focus upon its own economic development while at the same time deepening its new diplomatic engagements with ASEAN and the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. The ASEAN states looked to enhancing their varied and multi-layered security and political arrangements with Japan, India, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand and above all with the United States. Indeed a continued American presence was deemed essential and already there was evidence of thinking about how such a presence could be provided in the event of American forces being withdrawn from Korea and even Japan following the reunification of Korea or a settlement of some kind between North and South.


From a Chinese perspective the Korean problem provides a junction between domestic, local, regional and international concerns of great complexity and significance. It was the issue on which my interlocutors in Beijing were most reticent. Although Chinese interactions with Korea and Japan are necessarily marked by the legacy of pre-modern relationships, Beijing's conduct during the prolonged crisis of the North has drawn cautious praise from American negotiators as being basically constructive. It may be seen as consistent with an interpretation of a country that is in the process of being integrated with international society.

Beijing's principal security concerns centre on the alleged hegemonism of the United States. Despite my attempts to focus on relations with neighbours time and again my interlocutors in Beijing returned to the America problem. In immediate terms this was related to the questions of Taiwan and Japan. This suggested that one way of charcterising the emerging international security relations in China's large and varied neighbourhood is of competing attempts to establish balance of power arrangements between a China that would prefer to keep the role of actual or perceived rivals such as the US and Japan to a minimum and those of China's smaller maritime neighbours who see benefit from maximising international involvement in their region. Interestingly, despite the highly active attempts to develop cooperative security principally through the ARF, none of the officials in the ASEAN capitals I visited was prepared to base future security on that alone.


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