China's Security Agenda in 2004

von Pan Zhenqiang
Online Info-Dienst Ausgabe 2/2004


Review of China's security situation in 2003(1)

2003 has been an eventful year for China's new leadership. Hardly had Hu Jintao (as the new president of the Communist Party as well as the state) and Wen Jiabao (as the new premier of the Chinese Government) taken the power from the leadership of the older generation headed by Jiang Zemin in March, when they immediately found themselves confronting formidable challenges both at home and internationally.

At home, an unexpected epidemic called the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) attacked the country in spring, which was quickly spread over 25 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities with Beijing and Guangdong as the two most affected areas. Thousands were infected and 349 were killed nationwide. Moreover, more than 8000 people were hit by the disease mostly in Asia, among which 774 were dead(2). The epidemic haunted the land of China in such an unexpected, swift and ferocious manner, that both the Government and citizens were taken by surprise. The Government, particularly the local authorities, first appeared to have neither experience nor an effective national mechanism to deal with such an sudden social crisis. Thus, there was stonewalling, bad information and even a reluctance to acknowledge the serious nature of the problem, which in turn contributed to the quick spread of the epidemic. The disastrous implication of the disease is not so much the death tolls it had brought to the nation but the extremely negative psychological it had on the minds of the average people. Everyone seemed to be scared and at loss as what to do since the exact cause of the sudden eruption of the epidemic remained mysteriously unidentified. In the peak of the disease, Beijing and other many major cities looked like deserted cities. That led to the high risks of serious dysfunction of the whole society. Meanwhile, the Government's initial poor performance invited criticism from the world opinion. By many, China was regarded as the source of the problem. The credibility of China's new leadership was being seriously questioned.

At the international arena, almost at the same time, the Bush administration launched invasion on Iraq without the endorsement of the UN Security Council, putting its doctrine of preventive pre-emption into practice. Despite its quick victory over Saddam Hussein, the war was instrumental in creating more problems than those intended to solve, further exacerbating the already tense situation in the Middle East, dividing the international community and eroding the role of the United Nations. The norms of the international behavior were being seriously challenged by the unilateral approach of the Bush administration. Like many members of the international community, China was consistently opposed to the war, but seemed powerless to resist the blatant move of the neo-conservatives in Washington aimed to consolidate the U.S. dominance over the world order. How to respond to the actions of the world's only superpower while not undercutting China's overarching strategic objective to develop a more stable and peaceful international environment was a new challenge again confronting the new leadership of China.

Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao soon proved to be able to provide a strong and effective leadership. They resolutely braved the challenges of the quick spread of the SARS, putting its prevention and treatment as the top priority on the national agenda. The government quickly mobilized all the necessary resources to fight a "people's war" against the disease. A series of measures were taken to cut off effectively the source of the SARS with the full support of the whole nation. The gloomy situation quickly took a turn for the better. By the end of May, the SARS was under control and soon it evaporated from the whole land of China. As a Chinese saying goes "a bad occurrence could be turned into a good thing", the SARS helped enhance the nation's consciousness of respecting the nature's law while engaging in the modernization drive, and the importance of developing a national mechanism to deal with the unexpected crises. It has also served to strengthening the cohesion of the nation to confront the future challenges in its nation building.

Despite the great input of the country into the fight against the SARS, China was able to maintain a record growth rate of 9.1% in 2003, a remarkable achievement when the whole world seemed to be in a slow process of recovery. The government had done extremely well in 2003, in terms of the international recognized policy goals, namely economic growth, inflation, employment and external balance(3). China's new leaders have won tremendous respect by the Chinese people through the combat against the SARS and for the marked achievement.

China's continuing rapid economic development has become one of the major driving forces in pulling the world economy out of its depressed state. With a growth from $650 billion in 2002 to $840 billion in 2003, China's foreign trade has particularly been helping economies of Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN countries get back onto the track of recovery.

Internationally, Hu and Wen seemed to make painstaking efforts to insure great continuity of the policy as laid out by Deng Xiaoping and the third generation leadership under Jiang Zeming, further announced by the 16th Party's congress. On the other hand, Hu and Wen have begun to leave their own marks on the world by what the New York Times referred as "the more nuanced and constructive diplomatic style"(4). Both the international and domestic opinion gave great credit to their easy-going, practical and confident manner in dealing with so many entangled thorny issues at one time.

The encouraging aspect is not only confined to their style. Many security analysts point out that they perceive substantial development of China's security policy under the new leadership. During 2003, despite being preoccupied with many big domestic issues like the SARS, the new leaders have also demonstrated remarkable capability of increasing constructive interactions abroad. China has become more proactive to expand its friendly and cooperative ties with its neighbors, to show greater interests in integrating into the world community and more willingness in playing its role in stabilizing the world and regional situation, and there seems also greater flexibility in dealing with disputes(5).

Thus the scoreboard of China's diplomatic activities in 2003 looks remarkably positive. First of all, the new Chinese leadership was successful in sending out the signal that China was steadfast in furthering the reform and opening up, and the international community seemed to well accept it. As a result, mutual political confidence and trust was greatly strengthened with almost all the other countries of the world. In 2003, China's efforts to improve bilateral relations with Russia, India, Australia, European Union, and ASEAN countries were particularly impressive. Second, China was able to manage its difference with the United States, while continuing cooperation where the interests overlapped between the two countries like in the field of anti-terror and non-proliferation. The Sino-U.S. relations are at one of the best times. Thirdly, China successfully promoted multilateral cooperation in its periphery. Many regional economic and political cooperative mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific has begun to emerge thanks to the leading efforts of China. China's joining of the treaty of ASEAN, the institutionalization of Ten Plus One and Ten Plus Three, and the further strengthening of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) are all good examples that will go long way towards strengthening political cooperation and economic integration in the region in the future. Last but not least, China began to play a central if not critical role in helping solve the regional disputes in the Asia-Pacific. Due to China's strenuous efforts, the nuclear crisis in North Korea was brought to a halt through the six-party talks. Although many obstacles remain, the six-party talks have offered a ray of hope to eventually solve the nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsula, and bring about long-term stability and peace in North East Asia.

China's new security concept

The Chinese leaders as well as pundits in China's defense community invariably stress that Beijing's new diplomatic posture has been derived mostly from its new security concept ever since the end of the Cold War. In fact, the successive generations of China's leadership have all attached importance to the changing concepts in light of the changing situation in order to protect China's national interests and to contribute to the world and regional peace and stability. Thus, it is essential to have a grasp of the rationale of this security perception of China's before one is able to have a better understanding of Beijing's security agenda in the future.

When Deng Xiaoping took power as the second generation of leadership in late 1970s, he and his colleagues demonstrated a great vision for the future situation which was very unconventional at the time when the two superpowers were still engaged with the fierce competition in the Cold War. Deng stressed that despite the military competition between the two military blocs, it was possible to avoid a large scale war, and that peace and development would become the primary concern of the world nations in the future. Under the circumstance, Deng went on to point out that China's security would boil down to one basic fact, that is, whether it will be able to insure a sustained economic development so that the Chinese people would continue to improve their living standard and to achieve social progress. Deng's vision opened up the way for China's opening-up and reform, which were to change fundamentally China's future fate.

When Jiang Zeming became the third generation of the leadership, the Cold War was behind us. The bilateral world structure was crumbling, and the multilateral trend became increasingly discernable. Globalization and the rapid development of high technology had made the nations more interdependent and mutually constrained in their actions. Against this backdrop, Jiang and his colleagues further developed China's security concept, building on Deng Xiaoping's theory.

First of all, security has greatly expanded in terms of its content in China's new perception. No longer does security only mean military security as in the cold war years. On the other hand, security does not remain in its traditional sense. While guarding against the military invasion by an external hostile force is still regarded as the chief preoccupation of security, greater attention is paid to address issues, which, if mishandled or neglected, may also endanger the quality of people's life and undermine the security of a nation. In addition, to cope with threats from environmental erosion, rampant maritime piracy, drug smuggling, and even Aids, etc., is now increasingly knitted into a country's security agenda. Finally, security will have to encompass a stable and propitious domestic environment.

Secondly, China believes that security of a country in the future should no longer be based on a confrontational approach. In the cold war years, international relations used to be taken as a zero-sum game. Confrontation was the hallmark of international relations. Now for the first time, an approach based on greater cooperation and mutual trust is not only possible but also feasible.

Finally, China holds that security of a country would be sustained only by insuring adequate sense of security of others. This requires the concerted effort of all the members of the international community to seek a propitious framework in which all these nations rather than just a group of nations feel adequate security.

Based on the above-mentioned understanding, China was trying to put its security concept into a more expressed form. In 1999, it produced a working paper, describing its security concept in a few succinct words: mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination(6). General Xiong Guangkai, Deputy Chief of the Department of General Staff, PLA, once gave his explanation of the gist of these expressions. He stressed:

"Mutual trust means that all countries should transcend differences in ideology and social system, discard the mentality of Cold War and power politics and refrain from mutual suspicion and hostility. They should maintain a frequent dialogue and mutual briefings on each other's security and defense policies and major operations.

Mutual benefit means that all countries should meet the objective needs of social development in the era of globalization, respect each other's security interests and create conditions for others' security while ensuring their own security interests with a view to achieving common security.

Equality means that all countries, big or small, are equal members of the international community and should respect each other, treat each other as equals, refrain from interfering in other countries' internal affairs and promote the democratization of the international relations.

Coordination means that all countries should seek peaceful settlements of their disputes through negotiation and carry out wide-ranging and deep-going cooperation on security issues of mutual concern so as to remove any potential dangers and prevent the outbreak of wars and conflicts."(7)

The fourth generation of leadership headed by Hu Jingtao has evidently stressed it will continue to abide by the new security concept in pursuing its foreign and defense policy. Meanwhile, one could perceive an effort by the new leadership to further rationalize this conception. In recent months, for example, Beijing's authoritative theorists have been enthusiastically expounding and discussing some new concepts about China's future development. One of the catch phrases has been "China's peaceful rise". According to the theory, China's future development will be bound to be peaceful as it is in the best interests of China as well as the world. The reasons include: 1). China will chiefly rely on its own strength to carry out its economic development. It has no interest in expansion abroad. 2). Being a developing country with its huge population and uneven development nationwide, China is going to be largely inward-looking and be preoccupied with its domestic affairs for a long time to come, and will have little time, energy or interest to take a provocative posture towards the outside world. 3). China will continue to take advantage of the ongoing trend of globalization and to embed its sustained rapid development in the common development and prosperity of all the other members of the world. It has far greater interest in cooperation than confrontation. 4). China will have to continue to insure a long-term peaceful and stable international environment for its sustained rapid development through its further integration into the international community. 5). China will have to become a more proactive and responsible member of the community in order to achieve this desirable aim(8).

All these ideas being advanced in Beijing are not mere sloganeering, but will be the important guidelines to China's security policy(9). Under the context of peaceful rise, the new leadership of China has put forward a number of principles specifically to guide its behavior in the international relations.

With regard to its relations with the major powers, the U.S. in particular, China advocates that future increasing common interests will be the firm bedrock for the cooperation among these powers, and that they will all gain from peaceful coexistence, and lose from conflicts. Differences among the major powers will be inevitable and normal but are not insurmountable. As Wen Jiabao put it when he was referring to the Sino-American relations: "due to various reasons, there exist estrangements, misunderstandings, and even frictions of one sort or another between China and the United States. In case of differences and contradictions, both sides should keep cool and be sensible. We should try to increase communications, reduce mistrust and seek common ground while shelving differences with a view to properly handling our differences and contradictions. For issues we cannot settle for the time being, let us put them aside and consider them later. The least we want to see is the break of the bond of friendship and cooperation between China and the U.S. We are friends, not adversaries"(10). Wen Jiaobao used a quotation from Confucius to highlight his vision of an ideal constructive partnership among major powers, namely, "Harmony without uniformity". He explained this concept on one occasion: "the Chinese nation has rich and profound cultural reserves. 'Harmony without uniformity' is a great idea put forth by ancient Chinese thinkers. It means harmony without sameness, and difference without conflict. Harmony entails co-existence and co-prosperity, while difference conduces to mutual complementation and mutual support. To approach and address issues from such a perspective will not only help enhance relations with friendly countries, but also serve to resolve contradictions in the international community(11)."

With regard to its efforts to build a long-term peaceful and stable peripheral environment, the new leadership of China also likes to use a catch phrase to summarize the gist of its future policy towards its neighboring countries, that is, "treating neighbors as friends and partners". Again, this simple phrase will underpin China's future policy in the Asia-Pacific.

China's security agenda in 2004

In light of these guidelines as well as the changing international situation, three major tasks can be perceived on China's security agenda in 2004 and beyond.

The first is China will continue to focus on further consolidation of the constructive partnership relations with countries in its immediate neighborhood. as the top priority.

Secondly, China will continue to stress the improvement of its relations with major powers as the key to its efforts in strengthening a peaceful and stable international environment.

Finally, China will continue to endeavor to promote its traditionally cooperative relations with developing countries. In Beijing's perspective, this strategic cooperative partnership with the developing countries will continue to highlight the fact that China is part of them, and will provide fundamentally China's power basis for its actions at the international arena.

Related to these three major missions, a number of specific issues will loom large that require Beijing's painstaking as well as creative efforts in particular for their solutions in 2004.

1. The war on international terrorism. China is also a victim of this world common threat and thus shares broad common interests with the international community to combat terror in all its manners through close international cooperation. Like many other members of the international community, China stresses the multilateral approach. "We all call for the leading role of the United Nations in the fight against terrorism and the strict compliance with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and the recognized norms of international law. We all agree that terrorism should be completely uprooted through a comprehensive approach featuring political, economic, diplomatic and other means and efforts to address both the symptoms and root causes of the problem. We also believe that linking terrorism with any particular country, ethnic group or religion will be counter-productive; instead, we should recognize and respect the diversity of cultures and civilizations and go for enhanced mutual understanding through inter-civilization dialogues(12).".

The invasion of Bush administration into Iraq, however, has thrown havoc to the international cooperative anti-terror efforts. Instead of reducing the threat of the international terrorism, the war on Iraq has created a safe heaven for all sorts of terrorist activities owing to the chaotic instability as a result of the American-led occupation. As a consequence, the terrorist attacks in 2003 have dramatically increased both in intensity and frequency(13). Thus the prospect of the world war on terror will largely lie in the success in the speedy stabilization of Iraq and putting that country onto a normal track for reconstruction. To China, the correct and appropriate solution of Iraq war will have far-reaching implications beyond Iraq as per se because it will also signify the success of a multilateral approach, the restoration of a world order based on the respect of basic principles and norms in the international relations.

Good news is that Washington seems to have reluctantly started to shift its stance towards enlisting the international support. In addition, the international community has also seen an overlapping interest with the U.S. in helping Iraq come back to its normal shape. There seems a high probability for a solution in Iraq, provided the Bush administration shows adequate political wisdom as well as courage to exercise an exit strategy and let the U.N play the central role in the rehabilitation of Iraq. As permanent member of the UN Security Council, China is expected to play a proactive and constructive role in urging the U.S. to transfer sovereignty back to the Iraqi people at an earliest date reasonably possible. China will also stress that the solution of the Iraq issue will take into consideration the interests of all the parties concerned. But on the other hand, much will depend on the extent to which the Bush administration will modify its rigid unilateral approach to its combat on terror in the future. Considering that the neo-conservatives have still a dominant role in the decision-making process within the Bush administration, the future evolution of the situation in a better direction in Iraq is not automatically guaranteed.

2. Non-proliferation. The issue will equally require China's particular attendance. As in anti-terror campaign, China shares fundamental interests with the international community on non-proliferation. One recent indication of its determined dedication on the efforts is the release of a White Paper on its policy and practice in this field. Thanks to its efforts, China's laws and regulations have practically encompassed all the obligations required by the international non-proliferation regime(14).

What the world has been expecting as a unique contribution that China is to make though is its continuing vital role in seeking a satisfactory solution to the nuclear crisis in the DPRK in the form of six-party talks. The prospect seems now mixed. There have been positive developments since the first round of these talks in Beijing in August, 2003. Both the DPRK and the U.S. have shown flexibility in order to meet the security concern of the other side. Pyongyang has now offered to freeze its nuclear programs (including not manufacturing, testing, transferring nuclear weapons and not developing peaceful nuclear energy) to trade for some form of security assurance from Washington, which the Bush administration said that it was interested to consider. On the other side, serious differences still remain. The top obstacle appears to be the continuing quarrel on whether these steps should be taken simultaneously by both sides as called for by the DPRK or the DPRK will have to disarm with some adequate verification first before the U.S. granting the security assurance and other obligations as the Bush administration insisted. Related to the debate is the real motivations of both the U.S. and the DPRK as whether they really wish to see a settlement or just to use the six-party talks as a buying-time strategy for something else. Again, China's effort for the success of its mediation is by no means guaranteed.

3. Economic security. The issue will become an increasing concern on China's security agenda in 2004 as its economic development will require even greater efforts in reforms. The fact that its economic growth reached a seven-year high at 9.1 percent in 2003 is an indicator of China's good economic health. Some argue that the record growth rate in 2003 is indeed a milestone for China's future development as the surge of industrial output turns out to be the major driving force behind the rapid economic growth. That signifies the start of a comprehensive upgrading of the economy, meaning the Chinese economy is on a new stage of development. Further, on the demand side, the dramatic increase in the capital investment and the rise of the consumer demand have both served as the main factors for the sustained rapid development.

But multiple problems remain in China's economic performance. The economy has seen continuing overheating in some sectors and areas of the country; structural problems are still around in the economy; the gap in income growth between urbanites and rural residents widened last year, just to name a few. Thus, how China pursues inclusive, balanced and sustainable development, instead of seeking growth at any cost will remain the great challenge for China's new leadership in the future. This task will become even more complicated and harder as various contradictions in the world economic field are to be more intensified despite an unmistakably upbeat trends this year. Many unpredictable factors will continue to develop like the global uneven development, including the widening gap between the North and South, the rise of protectionist sentiments, and the lack of effective international mechanism to manage the economic competitions and frictions. All these will certainly affect China's economic performance in the future, particularly with its rise in economic strength. Already, China has been feeling some unilateral or even joint pressure from the developed countries to demand some modification of its trade and financial policy. Economic frictions with these countries will markedly arise.

In this connection, one of China's particular vulnerabilities in its future economic development will become more conspicuous, that is, its growing demand for energy. China is now the second largest consumer of energy; the third largest for oil consumption. In 2003, it imported over 90 million tons of oil. The figure will reach 100 million tons in 2004, with half of it coming from the Middle East. By 2015, China will become the second largest importer of oil only after the U.S. If one puts this increasing demand of China's into the international context, the picture looks very bleak as major powers have been already engaged in a tough competition for energy resources. China has now begun to take a series of measures to insure its energy security, which includes diversifying its energy resources, and increasing the oil strategic reserves. China also hopes to strengthen international cooperation in meeting the growing demand of energy resources. All these tasks will be increasing uphill efforts in the future.

4. Continuing efforts for the eventual peaceful reunification of the nation. This task seems to be particularly challenging in 2004 as the independence elements led by Chen Shuibian and Li Denghui in Taiwan have made steps that increase the split of the country, claiming to start a "peace referendum" together with the upcoming election in the island on March 20, 2004. While the Bush administration does not support such a position, it is questionable if the move is not only meant for Chen to win the votes from the pro-independence people, but also to create a venue for further independence movement, which would bear the risk of changing the status quo across the straits.

In the same vein, Beijing will also be watching closely the recent development in Hong Kong, that was returned to China based on a formula of "one country, two systems" since 1997. The coming back to the motherland, however, is coincided with the start of the financial crisis in Asia. The administration headed by Mr. Tung Chee-Hwa in Hong Kong has had very difficult time, though Hong Kong seems now finally to have pulled out of the depression and embarked on the recovery. At the same time, democratic elements increased their call for greater democracy and demonstrated against proposed antisubversion legislation. A more tense political struggle seems to get momentum.

None of the above said issues is easy to tackle. But answers to these issues will have important bearings on the world and regional peace and stability as well as on China's vital security interests.


(1) The views expressed are entirely of the author's. They not necessarily represent positions of any official organizations or research institutions in China.

(2) Ted Anthony, "China to Slaughter Animals in SARS Case", Associated Press, January 5, 2004,

(3) See Chinese National Bureau of Statistics, "9.1% Surge Epitomizes Sound Growth of Chinese Economy", Xinhua News Agency January 21, 2004, According to Mr. Li Deshui, head of the Chinese National Bureau (NBS), China's consumer price index was 1.2 percent for 2003. Newly created jobs in urban areas totaled 8.5 million, exceeding the envisioned annual target of 8 million. Meanwhile, the country ma naged to retain a slight trade surplus and increased its foreign exchange reserves to US$403.3 billion.

(4) "China's nuanced diplomacy", New York Times, December 15, 2003,

(5) For more detailed discussion on the Change of China's foreign policy, for example, see Evan S. Medeiros and M. Taylor Fravel, "China's New Diplomacy", Foreign Affairs, November/December 2003 issue, Published: October 22, 2003,

(6) "China's Position Paper on the New Security Concept", China's working paper submitted to the ARF foreign minister meeting, July 31, 1999.

(7) Xiong Guangkai, "The New Security Concept Advocated by China", International Strategy and Revolution in Military Affairs, Tsinghua University Press, Beijing, October 2003, P. 51.

(8) For detailed discussion on "the peaceful rise of China", see, for example, Wen Jiabao's address "Working Together to Write A New Chapter In China-US Relations", At Dinner Hosted by nine American organizations, New York, December 9, 2003, In his speech, Wen pointed out that "the Chinese nation has always cherished peace and harmony. The rise of China is peaceful. It relies on itself for its progress. .. China is a developing country and will remain so for many years to come. China has a population of 1.3 billion, which is the primary factor of our national conditions. China's GDP ranks the 6th in the world, however, its per capita GNP ranks 111th. China is still faced with such problems as unemployment, poverty and uneven development, which we cannot afford to ignore. These problems are enough to keep us busy. It calls for arduous endeavors of generations for China to catch up with developed countries. China will never seek hegemony and expansion even when it becomes fully developed and stronger."

(9) For the importance of the theory of China's peaceful rise, see Yi Ming, "The Theoretical Implications of Peaceful Rise", Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore, January 7, 2004,

(10) Wen Jiabao's address "Working Together to Write A New Chapter In China-US Relations", At Dinner Hosted by nine American organizations, New York, December 9, 2003,

(11) Wen Jiaobao, "Turning Your Eyes to China", Speech at Harvard University, December 10, 2003,

(12) Speech of Shen Guofang, Assistant Foreign Minister of China, at the Opening Session of ASEM Seminar on Anti-Terrorism, 22 September 2003,

(13) According to one estimate, the year of 2003 saw 260 terrorist attacks, an increase of 45% than 2002. The attacks resulted in over 1600 deaths and over 5200 wounded, an increase of 23% and 68% respectively than 2002.

(14) "China's Non-Proliferation Policy and Measures", Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, December, 2003.

The Author:

Major General Pan Zhenqiang (retired) is Professor and Deputy President of the Shanghai Institute for International Strategic Studies.

Frühere Ausgaben des Online Info-Dienstes siehe unter:

China's Non-Proliferation Policy and Practices (Nr. 1)