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Defense diplomacy, Chinese style
By Stephen Blank

The concept of defense diplomacy originated in post Cold-War Europe. The idea was that by establishing relationships of trust and mutual confidence among former rival militaries, confidence could be built, generalized standards could be achieved with regard to the interoperability of militaries and a broader democratization of civil-military relations could take part in what was once the Soviet Bloc.

Ultimately, the processes associated with defense diplomacy would serve as powerful tools to encourage and reinforce the broader process of European integration that took place after the Cold War ended. This integration would also be an essential part of a pan-European project to establish cooperative security relationships among the United States, Canada, Western Europe and all the members of the former Soviet Bloc and Soviet Union. To date, this process of defense diplomacy has enjoyed much success in Eastern Europe but rather less in the former Soviet Union, where it faces more serious obstacles and started later that it did in Eastern Europe.

However, it is clear that this experience has not been lost on China. Beijing, as it reacts to the world around it, has seen the value of stepped-up military relationships with its neighbors in ways that go far beyond China's traditional military and foreign policies. As David Finkelstein, a longtime student of Chinese security affairs, wrote in 1999, China's leaders had established a series of benchmarks that declared China would not participate in formal alliances with foreign governments. It would then not have to concern itself with alliance issues like interoperability of equipment, training and doctrine. Therefore, China rejected all efforts to participate in combined training exercises like those now common in Europe even when those exercises were confidence-building measures. Second, the benchmarks would prevent China from stationing forces abroad, making sure thereby that China's defense would occur at or within the country's borders. However, even as Finkelstein was writing, the ground was changing beneath China's feet, and recent developments even indicate an acceleration of the fundamental change in Beijing's policies.

Already in 1999 and 2000, in response to the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) war in Kosovo, China took part with Russia in combined naval exercises in the Western Pacific. This action undoubtedly grew out of both sides' shared and continuing concern about the aggrandizement of US military power and the lack of institutional checks upon it. This exercise and the ongoing institutionalization of regular staff talks represented actions aimed at countering US policy and power and a new departure in Chinese policy.

By 2000-01, facing continuing tensions with Washington and the growing threat of terrorism and insurgency within Central Asia and Xinjiang, Beijing was ready to move forward. During this time, it converted the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) from an organization whose main purpose was confidence-building, border demarcation and the expansion of trade, into a vehicle for cooperative security and, more important, a model for subsequent attempts to deal with other states on China's periphery. This conversion process, part of China's larger "periphery policy", represented efforts to make the SCO into a vehicle for the broader acceptance of China's blueprint for a new Asian, if not world, order.

A major part of this conversion of the SCO was China's agreement, along with that of the other SCO members, to form a genuine collective security organization. In the event of an attack on any one of the members - China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - the others would be pledged to come to the attacked party's defense if it requested such assistance. As commentators at the time noted, China's decision to offer its own forces under the SCO's charter or treaty of 2001 to assist in the defense of the members' integrity and sovereignty against what Beijing calls the threats from terrorism, secessionism and splittism represented the first time ever that such a decision to commit forces beyond the border had been taken.

As those observers pointed out, this was the first time that China publicly consented to spelling out conditions under which it would be willing to project its military forces beyond China's borders. Hence it could mark a very significant precedent for all of Asia. Certainly that provision indicates how seriously Chinese leaders view Central Asia and threats to China's security from there. Thus China gives military assistance to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan while also seeking to prevent these countries from assisting Uighur insurgents in Xinjiang who have resisted Beijing's rule for at least 20 years. Likewise, these policy steps were part of a broader process by which China attempted to project greater influence throughout Asia and to do so in a framework of reassurance and confidence-building.

Since then these trends have deepened and intensified. China has undertaken joint exercises with Kyrgyzstan's forces and since August, with the forces of all the SCO's members. These exercises set up an anti-terrorism scenario in both Central Asia and China and represented the seriousness with which both Beijing and Moscow, if not the Central Asian states, approach this effort. Paralleling these activities is a comprehensive strengthening of the organizational components of the SCO with a permanently functioning secretariat in Shanghai.

More recently, China's navy has also joined the process of defense diplomacy. It has conducted search and rescue operations involving both air and naval units with the Pakistani navy and is about to do so with India's navy. These exercises also constitute first time activities of their sort with foreign navies and bespeak China's efforts to maintain and improve its ties with the two South Asian rivals. These exercises also represent obvious efforts to build confidence and rehearse procedures for future combined operations. Typically they begin with relatively simple and agreed upon operations such as search and rescue operations. From there it is possible that future exercises will progress to more complicated and complex missions.

But beyond building relationships of confidence and trust and combining experience with other Asian military partners, this defense diplomacy is obviously part of the broader periphery strategy aiming to enhance China's influence throughout Asia. Notwithstanding the peculiarities of each case, China's recent major initiatives regarding North Korea and Southeast Asia all point to the intensified reach, assuredness and confidence of Chinese diplomacy in Asia and its search for ways to expand its influence in non-threatening and apparently cooperative ways, including cooperative uses of its military power.

This does not mean that Chinese policy is now sweetness and light. The discovery of new Chinese markers in the Spratly Islands suggests otherwise. But the growing resort to this kind of defense diplomacy and to initiatives combining this diplomacy with the broader initiatives of China's periphery policy indicates that Beijing is acquiring mastery over a broad and growing range of diplomatic and strategic instruments of power. And it is clearly gaining confidence in its ability to deploy these instruments successfully across Asia.

To the degree that this trend continues, China, sooner rather than later, will come more fully into the inheritance its elites expect to acquire of being the main actor on the Asian continent. And they will then be in possession of more and greater means of consolidating that position than they could have ever dreamed possible, even just a few years ago.

Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
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