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Chapter Ten

China's "New Concept of Security"


David M. Finkelstein


Many China watchers first came upon the "New Concept of Security" in the context of the July 1998 defense white paper, China's National Defense. The concept was featured in the important first section entitled "The International Security Situation."

This, however, was not the first time the concept was put forth. Indeed, the defense white paper merely capped off more than a year and a half of clarion calls throughout the Asia-Pacific region by high-level Chinese foreign policy and defense officials for such a new alternative concept:

  • It was officially unveiled by the People's Republic of China (PRC) in March 1997 at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum.
  • In their joint statement at the conclusion of their April 1997 summit, President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Boris Yelstin called for a "new and universally applicable security concept."
  • In December 1997, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen outlined and explained the "New Concept of Security" during activities marking the 30th anniversary celebration of the ASEAN.
  • In February 1998, Defense Minister Chi Haotian called for the establishment of a "New Concept of Security" in a speech in Tokyo to the National Institute of Defense Studies, and again in a talk presented to the Australian College of Defence and Strategic Studies during his visit to Canberra.

Nothing in the concept seemed very new or extraordinary. At the time of its release, it seemed to be merely a repackaging of China's time-honored "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence" and China's discovery of what most other developed nations already understood: to wit, that economic security is just as important as military security.1

What was compelling about the New Concept of Security at the time was the context in which it was trotted out. China was clearly leaning forward in the international community to offer an alternative vision, however vague, of how nations should pursue national security in the post-Cold War world order. This was clearly not in line with Deng Xiaoping's oft-quoted dictum that in international affairs, China should "keep a low profile and never take the lead." So my interest in the concept began with my own questions as to whether we were about to see a fundamental shift in Chinese foreign policy behavior since it was during this period that Jiang Zemin was globetrotting to create numerous "strategic partnerships."2

Conceptually, there was not, nor is there today, anything in the concept that one would feel compelled to take issue with. But from an American perspective, what has been troubling about the New Concept of Security has been the packaging used to promote it, especially when it was first brought out.

In the past, the Chinese repeatedly have referred to the New Concept of Security as an alternative to the "Cold War mentality" of "some nations" that continue to rely on military alliances and "military blocs" to secure or promote their interests. It does not take much of a stretch to fill in the blanks. Moreover, at the time the new concept was unveiled back in 1997 and 1998, one read much more about what China was against than about how China planned to operationalize this alternative international system. This is still more or less the case. Clearly, the use of the concept as a rhetorical vehicle to castigate U.S. foreign and security policy reached fever pitch in Beijing's October 2000 defense white paper.

China's New Security Concept

Overall, then, starting with the April 1997 Sino-Russian Joint statement and continuing through the defense white paper of October 2000, Beijing has in the past felt a need to argue the merits of the New Concept of Security by juxtaposing it against thinly veiled or openly direct criticisms of U.S. foreign policy mechanisms or specific U.S. security policies. In effect, Beijing accuses the United States of perpetuating a security system that will prove inherently dangerous and destabilizing, both regionally and globally. This tack may ultimately detract from serious consideration of the essence of the concept, especially in the United States, if it continues to be perceived as nothing more than another rhetorical device with which to attack U.S. policies.

Why the New Concept of Security?

Explaining why Beijing promulgated the New Concept of Security is very much tied to Chinese security concerns throughout the mid- to late 1990s, many of which persist today.

Beijing's call for a New Concept of Security is an indication of China's dissatisfaction and frustration with the unfolding international system. China's much-hoped-for multipolar world has not come about with the end of the Cold War, as Chinese international relations theorists had predicted. Instead, what they face is an increasingly globalized world with an increasingly strong and dominant power--the United States. In as much as China had declared in many foreign policy statements that it would work to create a multipolar world, the New Concept of Security provided a framework for political, economic, and security relations in a future multipolar world order. This framework had been missing from previous Chinese prognostications about the movement of the international order toward multipolarity. The concept, therefore, served as a theoretical device.

The New Concept of Security clearly was a direct Chinese reaction to policies and actions by the United States that Beijing perceived as threatening, especially Washington's strengthening of its military alliances. The concept continues to serve as a counterargument to the U.S. assertion that East Asia's economic prosperity--past, present, and future--is a direct result of the peace and stability that is underwritten by the forward presence of U.S. military forces and military alliances.

At the time, the concept was a clear reaction to the movement to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into Eastern Europe, which began in 1995, as well as to NATO interventions in the Balkans. It was also a reaction to Chinese concerns that the Partnership for Peace was encroaching into Central Asia--onto China's doorstep. The U.S. Atlantic Command's combined military exercise with Kazakhstan and Russia--CENTRAZBAT 97--evinced tremendous concern among Chinese security analysts at the time.

In addition, the New Concept of Security was a reaction to Beijing's assessment that in the long term, the United States would maintain its primacy as the sole military superpower by developing and fielding advanced defense technologies. Hence, many of Beijing's verbal attacks on the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs have often couched in terms that argue that developing these systems "run counter" to the aspirations of many countries that want to see an end to the "Cold War mentality."

Also, the New Concept of Security was likely China's response to the Clinton-Hashimoto Joint Statement in April 1996 and the promulgation in 1997 of the U.S.-Japan Revised Guidelines for Defense Cooperation. This point, admittedly, is very tentative, but the timing between the two events does suggest the possibility of linkage.

When first issued, the New Concept of Security constituted a concerted attempt by Beijing to present a kinder and gentler face within the region, especially in Southeast Asia. Officials of the People's Republic of China (PRC) Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) generally agree that, at least from an MFA perspective, a critical target audience for the new concept was the nations of Southeast Asia. (Recall that the new concept was first formally enunciated at the 1997 ASEAN meeting.)

Beijing had good reason to be proactive in the region. Throughout the 1990s, some Asian nations began to view China's growing national power and Beijing's perceived regional aspirations with increasing suspicion and concern. These concerns arose from confrontations over the Spratly Islands, Chinese claims in the South China Sea, and China's apparent willingness to engage in demonstrations of force in the Taiwan Strait, especially in 1995 and 1996. All this was exacerbated in some regional quarters by Beijing's minimal defense transparency.

Moreover, Chinese officials were likely taken aback by the united front among ASEAN states when, at the Hangzhou Conference in 1995, Southeast Asian ministers protested China's actions at Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. As a result, the New Concept of Security was offered to the region as part of a larger diplomatic effort to debunk the "China threat theory," as it is referred to by the PRC. Other actions taken by the PRC to soften its image in Southeast Asia included:

  • capitalizing on its favorable image as a "responsible actor" during the Asian financial crisis
  • acting in concert with the "nuclear club" countries to condemn the South Asian nuclear detonations
  • heralding its "strategic partnerships" around the globe
  • grandstanding about its decision at the 15th Party Congress to demobilize another 500,000 troops from the PLA
  • taking modest but welcome steps toward defense transparency as characterized by the publication of the July 1998 defense white paper and China's participation in multilateral Track I and Track II security forums
  • agreeing in principle to take part in talks aimed at establishing a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

These, then, are the three main reasons I see as explaining why the new concept was offered in the first place. Let us turn now to military issues.

The Military Dimension

Conspicuously absent from the formal articulation of the New Concept of Security is a military dimension. At best, it only states that nations should not "resort to military threats or aggression."

This absence of a formally articulated military dimension likely led to some confusion within the PLA, especially given the fact that Defense Minister and Central Military Commission Vice Chairman General Chi Haotian was one of the most audible voices calling for a new international security order. General Chi still refers to it in his publicized comments to visiting foreign defense officials.

The first order of business for the PLA when the new concept was articulated was to show its political support for it publicly. Consequently, on December 23, 1997, the editorial department of Zhongguo Guofang Bao held a seminar to discuss and laud the New Concept of Security. As least as publicized, the seminar did little other than to applaud the new concept, declare it another indication of the correct leadership of Jiang Zemin and the third-generation leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, denounce Cold War security arrangements, and assert how proud the PLA was that "China is the first to advocate a new security concept and a new peacekeeping mode in the world."3

The next day, Jiefangjun Bao carried a lengthy signed article (with an editor's note to preface the importance of the new concept) based on the premise that the world must get out of the "shackles of Cold War mentality." At least half of the author's explanation of the new concept was devoted to its political and economic dimensions. But there also was an attempt (albeit an extremely weak and self-serving one) to define the role of national military establishments, aimed, obviously, at propagandizing the greater Chinese military readership:

From the viewpoint of military security, the security concept requires: The military force shoulders the important mission of defending a state's territorial sovereignty and integrity, resisting foreign aggression, and safeguarding state unification. Therefore, it is necessary to strengthen army building, develop armaments, and reform military organizations. The defense policies and military strategies of all countries should be defensive, be based on avoiding conflicts and wars, preventing crises, and checking the escalation of conflicts. The military forces of all countries should play a role in the broader scope such as cracking down on terrorism and drug trafficking, rescue work, and humanitarian aid. All countries should not and are not allowed to pursue the doctrine of military interference and resort to military force at every turn. The military cooperation and munitions trade between countries should be based on the principle which is "not aimed at any third party."

The article later acknowledges the following types of activities for national military establishments:

  • peacekeeping operations (which, it was argued, were in danger because certain countries were using them as the excuse to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries)
  • security dialogues
  • confidence-building measures
  • security consultations
  • security agreements based on mutual benefit.4

And that was about it. Although I cannot claim exhaustive knowledge of the military dimensions of the New Concept of Security as represented in the Chinese literature, I have seen nothing that gets any more granular than the points outlined above. In September 2001, Deputy Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant General Xiong Guangkai referred to the concept in a speech on China's national defense. His remarks are no more specific about the role of the military than the two articles already cited, which were written over three years earlier:

. . . China advocates a new security concept with mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination at the core, and stands for the promotion of multilateral security and security cooperation, including effective international arms control and disarmament on the principles of justice, reason, comprehensiveness and equilibrium through dialog and negotiations on the basis of the five principles of peaceful coexistence and the strengthening of economic cooperation.5

What all of this suggests is that the New Concept of Security is much more a political and economic construct than a military one. It indicates that, as usual, the role of the PLA will be to support foreign policy through all of the military diplomacy mechanisms that it usually employs. The New Concept of Security was not a PLA initiative. For the most part the Chinese armed forces have had to figure out where they fit into the greater scheme, if at all.

Various PLA articles and speeches by its leaders suggest that the PLA believes the role it had been playing in foreign military diplomacy and its limited participation in UN-sponsored observer efforts was already appropriate to the newly articulated security concept. Chinese foreign military diplomacy around the globe is quite extensive and far beyond the scope of this chapter.6

Is the New Concept of Security Viable?

Is Beijing's new concept going to gain enough traction to shape the greater international post-Cold War security system? The answer is simple: certainly not, for several reasons:

  • Very little in the concept is actionable. The new concept is little more than a set of principles-admirable principles in the main, but ones bereft of a framework around which to build a serious alternative international security structure on a global scale.
  • The packaging of the concept has in the past been too heavily laced with anti-U.S. rhetoric. While many countries will find the principles attractive in theory, many are not going to be disposed to sign on to a construct that often takes on an anti-U.S. flavor. The exception, of course, will be those nations that already oppose the United States.
  • At least three of the five major poles in China's multipolar world order construct--namely Japan, Western Europe, and the United States--seem to have their own ideas about what the post-Cold War order should look like. And the fourth pole, Russia, is now straddling both sides of the fence, as a result of the terrorist events of September 11, 2001.
  • Those nations in Asia that are convinced that the presence of the U.S. military in the region is a force for stability are not going to be talked out of it by Beijing. Indeed, U.S. defense relations with Australia and Japan have strengthened in the past few years, and some Southeast Asian nations, Singapore for one, are eager to be accommodating to that presence.
  • NATO is not going to disband. If anything, it has been strengthened by the peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and the invocation of Article 5 pursuant to the attacks on the United States in September 2001. Moreover, NATO remains quite attractive to current nonmembers in Eastern Europe, some in Central Asia, and, potentially, Russia itself. Moreover, in spite of the ambivalence of some European nations over the U.S. national missile defense program and U.S.-European frictions over the Euro Corps, security relations on both sides of the Atlantic remain strong.

In retrospect, in the 4 years since I first encountered the New Concept of Security, it appears less and less to have been intended to replace the larger international order than to shape China's peripheral security environment.

Is the New Concept of Security an Empty Concept?

Although the New Concept of Security is not going to drive the international world order by any stretch of the imagination, it cannot be considered an entirely meaningless initiative. In an ironic twist of circumstance, there is one region of the world in which the concept is being given form, where it is in the process of being operationalized, and in which new security policy precedents are taking shape. That region is in Central Asia, where the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is operating.

The SCO was formally established in June 2001; it was an outgrowth of the Shanghai Five group consisting of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. With the establishment of the SCO, a sixth member, Uzbekistan, joined the group. The original Shanghai Five was established in 1996 for the express purpose of:

  • working out extant border disputes peacefully
  • instituting military confidence-building measures among the respective armed forces in the border regions
  • coordinating and cooperating about cross-border security due to the terrorist, separatist, and criminal activities that had been plaguing each in the border areas.7

With the creation of the SCO, the prospect of security cooperation among the members is growing. Decisions have been made to establish an antiterrorism center in Bishkek, and the possibility of combined military exercises to secure the border areas has been under consideration since at least June 2001.

This type of activity is unprecedented for China. This is the first time in the history of the PRC that Beijing is a formal signatory to a multinational convention, the primary purpose of which is security. Second, if the SCO countries actually do conduct a combined military exercise, it would be a first for the People's Liberation Army. But beyond these first two points, this is the first time that the PRC has taken the lead, an active role, in the creation of a multilateral security organization. Indeed, many Chinese observers consider China's leading role in the SCO a turning point in post-1949 PRC foreign policy.

The Shanghai Five and its successor, the SCO, have been and continue to be hailed by the Chinese as the epitome of what the New Concept of Security is supposed to be about. As they see it, the SCO is primarily concerned with security but has political and economic components as well. It is about mutual security and working out differences amicably. It is about enhancing collective security "without being aimed at a third party." In short, Beijing is pointing to at least one instance in which the New Concept of Security can arguably be said to have taken form.8

But even here, the PRC has not always been content to showcase the SCO and the "Shanghai Spirit" on its own merits. Beijing has borrowed some Shanghai Five joint statements to condemn various U.S. policies, such as the BMD program, and to rally support for the sanctity of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and all that it implies for the U.S. BMD program.9 It is difficult to accept at face value that the governments in Bishkek, Dushanbe, or Astana feel that the theoretical prospect of the deployment of U.S. missile defense systems in the Pacific would pose a threat to their national security interests. This is unfortunate because if one stands back from the polemics, a case actually can be made that the SCO is a unique form of post-Cold War international security cooperation.

At the same time, consider what this particular "success" for the New Concept of Security in Central Asia says about the concept in a larger framework.

The concept has not taken hold in the primary region in Asia for which it was originally intended--Southeast Asia. This is probably because the U.S. presence (political, economic, military, and cultural) is too strong, and affinities in the region for many U.S. security policies are considerable. This also probably is the case because some nations in Southeast Asia view China as the potential cause of instability, not its potential solution. Moreover, the countries in this region have no common set of overarching security concerns that draw them together--and in some cases they have extant security differences, hence the utility of the United States as honest broker.

Assuming that the New Concept of Security does work in at least one region of the world, Central Asia, how is this explained? First, all of the countries in the region agree that they share a common security problem: vulnerable borders and what the Chinese and other SCO members term the "three evils" of "terrorism, splittism, and fanaticism." Second, Central Asia is a region where for the most part there was little U.S. political, economic, or military presence (at least before September 11). Third, and related to the previous point, it is a region where China and Russia have traditionally been the dominant powers. And fourth, it is one region where some countries see China as a potential solution to concerns about a lingering (pre-independence) Russian hegemony.

Ironies do abound, however. Whereas the New Concept of Security had found fertile ground in Central Asia via the SCO prior to September 11, one does wonder what the new U.S. presence in the region--especially its new and enhanced security relations with some SCO members--portends for the viability of the organization.


First, the New Concept of Security does not seem to have had much of an impact around the globe to date as an alternative international security architecture; it is a set of principles in search of actionable suggestions. The principles are fine, but how are the nations of the world expected to execute them?

Second, the New Concept of Security has not had the greatest impact where it was originally intended--among the countries of Southeast Asia. This is most evident by the recent (August 2002) repackaging and distribution of the concept as a position paper at the ARF.

Third, the anti-American packaging that the new concept has in the past often been wrapped in detracts from it. In theory, the principles should be appealing, especially in these troubled times. It is, however, ironic that the very concept that is supposed to replace the "Cold War mentality" has often been propagated in rhetoric that recalls Cold War wordsmanship between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Fourth, the New Concept of Security probably will have limited influence beyond the Chinese periphery. It may accrue supporters in principle in the greater developing world (for example, Africa, Latin America, perhaps the Middle East), but such support will more than likely go no further than lip service agreement to the principles in the concept. In regions where the United States or some of its key allies and supporters (NATO and beyond) have a presence and commitment (not merely military but political and economic), the concept will have difficulty accruing any gravitas.

Fifth, Chinese leaders will continue invoking the New Concept of Security in meetings with foreign officials and at international gatherings--it has become symbolic of China's desire to be viewed as a serious world player. And, even if only theoretical, the concept represents Beijing's need to attempt to shape the international security environment as it becomes more and more enmeshed in the global political economy.

The events of September 11 have underscored the key weakness of the New Concept of Security as originally formulated. The new concept is mainly a preventative formula. It offers ways in which nations should conduct their relations to avoid conflict or, in the worst case, to resolve security differences. It does not offer much in the way of what should happen when political relations and negotiation break down. The concept was not meant to address security threats from nonstate actors, although the entire Shanghai Five and SCO framework has evolved quickly to address such threats specifically.

It may turn out that the terrorist attacks, and especially the U.S. and the international community response to them, will define post-Cold War international security relations in ways no one, not even the Chinese, could have imagined. The wide-ranging international cooperation and support that the United States is enjoying from some quarters around the globe was hitherto difficult to imagine. It may just be that another new concept of security is de facto starting to unfold that is not necessarily at odds with the principles in the original Chinese version. But, ironically, if the international response and realignments due to the events of September 11 do in fact form the basis for a new concept of international security, then it will have occurred because of what the United States did, not because of China's enunciation of a need for new principles. There is every reason to hope that Washington and Beijing will want to cooperate in the post-Cold War international security environment that is unfolding, regardless of preferred frameworks and theories. The October 2001 and February 2002 meetings between Presidents Bush and Jiang in Shanghai and Beijing, and their stated desire to seek a cooperative relationship, are hopeful signs.


 1The "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence" were originally articulated by Premier Zhou Enlai, first during the Geneva Conference on Indochina (1954-1955) and subsequently (and most well remembered) at the Bandung Conference of Afro-Asian Nations in April 1955. [BACK]

 2The question of whether Chinese foreign policy initiatives in the late 1990s were reaching too far from Beijing's traditional interests was one of the issues hotly contested in Chinese analytic circles during the great "peace and development debate" of 1999. See David M. Finkelstein, China Reconsiders Its National Security: The Great "Peace & Development Debate" of 1999 (Alexandria, VA: The CNA Corporation, 2000). [BACK]

 3Niu Junfeng, "Cultivate New National Security Concept, Advocate New Peacekeeping Mode; Zhongguo Guofang Bao Holds 'New Security Concept and 21st Century National Security Mode' Seminar," Jiefangjun Bao, December 26, 1997. [BACK]

 4Li Qinggong and Wei Wei, "The World Needs a New Security Concept," Jiefangjun Bao, December 24, 1997. [BACK]

 5Chen Jing: "Xiong Guangkai Elaborates on Two Characteristics of China's National Defense Policy," Zhongguo Xinwen She, September 11, 2000. [BACK]

 6For an overview of this subject, see Ken Allen and Eric McVadon, China's Foreign Military Relations (Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 1999) and David M. Finkelstein, Engaging DoD: Chinese Perspectives on Military Relations with the United States (Alexandria, VA: The CNA Corporation, 1999). On the topic of PLA participation in international peacekeeping operations, see Bates Gill and James Reilly, "Sovereignty, Intervention, and Peacekeeping: The View From Beijing," Survival (Autumn 2000). Readers may be surprised by the statistics in the Allen-McVadon and Gill-Reilly papers. [BACK]

 7Of course, the creation of the Shanghai Five offered the collateral benefit of countering what was perceived in both Beijing and Moscow to be tentative moves by the United States to achieve some degree of presence in Central Asia. For example, U.S. military engagement activities in the region were, from early on, focused on Kazakhstan due to concern over extent stockpiles of former Soviet nuclear fissile materials, and I have already made reference to the Central Command exercise CENTAZBAT 97. In the case of Tashkent, the U.S. Central Command had been building ties to the Uzbek military since at least 1995. See C.J. Chivers, "Long Before War, Green Berets Built Military Ties To Uzbekistan," The New York Times, October 25, 2001, 1. [BACK]

 8For articles by Chinese analysts that link the SCO with the New Concept of Security, see Xu Tao, "Promoting the 'Shanghai Five' Spirit for Regional Cooperation," Contemporary International
11, no. 5 (May 2001), 14-24; and Xia Yishan, "The Shanghai Cooperation Organization As I See It," Foreign Affairs Journal, no. 61 (September 2001), 8-13. [BACK]

 9See the Dushanbe Statement of the Shanghai Five (July 2000) for statements opposing the spread of theater ballistic missile defense to the Pacific, the sanctity of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, opposition to so-called humanitarian interventions outside of United Nations Security Council auspices, and so on. [BACK]

Table of Contents  I  Chapter Eleven

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