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Framing China’s National Security

Apr 23 , 2014

Fulfilling the great expectation, China’s Central National Security Commission (NSC) convened its first meeting, on April 15, with President Xi Jinping giving his inauguration speech as the NSC Director. 

Shen Dingli

President Xi has clearly framed China’s national security as such, that political security is at the core of national security, while comprehensive security shall constitute the substances. He has, unambiguously, indicated that the government will still perceive domestic factors to pose the most substantial challenge to national security for decades to come. 

Many have thought that external security issues are what China’s newly created NSC would primarily focus on. It is true that with its rapid growth China is facing ever complicated peripheral environment that entails this new NSC to address. However, Beijing is coolly aware of its main threat coming from within, especially from what has emerged to threaten its institutional security. Indeed, external threats could disrupt China’s national interests and undermine the legitimacy of the government. Nevertheless, various internal barriers to development and reform would be more prone to destabilize the nation, weakening the foundation of China’s peaceful rise. 

At this inaugural meeting, an array of eleven security areas has been identified to form an integral system of national security – political security, homeland security, military security, economic security, cultural security, social security, science and technology security, information security, ecological security, resources security, as well as nuclear security. It looks that most key security areas, especially with pressing challenges, have been included. Therefore the new NSC shall have a big mandate and daunting task to tackle. 

Among all the eleven national security areas, only military security is within the scope of traditional security, with all the remaining elements falling into domestic security category, which, for a long time, has been perceived as part of the non-traditional security sphere. For instance, political security has been long phrased as institutional security or ideological security, neither of them belonging to traditional military security. And, homeland security is a relatively new term that refers to anti-terror related security, which is different from national defense against foreign aggression. At present, this kind of internal, non-traditional threat has been increasingly on the rise, harming peace and stability at home. 

Due to China’s fast integration into the world system, a number of non-traditional threats, for instance, in the economic, cultural, information and resources sectors, have developed their international links. China’s economy, finance, science and technology, as well as resource development, obviously, have great exposure to the world and hence have been increasingly vulnerable to external environment. Nevertheless, China still has leverage in managing its dependence on the rest of the world. For instance, China has not made its currency fully convertible, yet under capital account. This not only allows its RMB exchange rate to be micro-managed, but also makes Beijing more or less immune from western financial crisis. As for ecological and nuclear security, they are even more of domestic nature, and are far more insulated from the outside world. 

To a large extent, China’s national security notion is incrementally comprehensive. On the one hand, this country is rising to a great power stature; but on the other, it is ever more vulnerable than before because of a far more complicated environment. It is noted that China has now, probably for the first time, proposed national security with a component of “nation’s people.” Such human-based security is of crucial value for national security and institutional security. For pollution of all kinds to deteriorate rapidly, one cannot blame external factors but to hold domestic rudimentary and predatory development mode to be responsible for environmental degradation. 

That being said, China is being sensible in identifying and addressing various contemporary threats from largely within. The Third Plenum of the party’s eighteenth congress last November ushered a new era of deepened Chinese reform. Not only in the economic arena, but more importantly, in its cumbersome institutions, in particular its national security decision-making system. For a big country with a long tradition of significant internal resistance from various interest sectors, such reform has entailed strategic farsightedness and significant courage than in the past, and now, requires meticulous planning and implementation. 

While addressing those rising domestic sources of insecurity, China will spare no effort to refurbish its defense security through the build up of its military. Being next only to political security and homeland security – or regime security and anti-terror security – military security has secured its third highest place among all eleven-security entries. Despite China’s development, the country is finding its maritime environment seriously challenging. Its sovereign disputes with quite a few neighbors have intensified over the recent years and the US “rebalancing” policy toward Asia has obviously eyed Beijing. Though such “rebalance” has claimed to cover economic and trade area, its primary tool is still military redeployment with 60% of US naval assets to concentrate in the Asia Pacific. Such offensive defense approach, to say at least, has invited China’s counterbalance, and Chinese NSC has been a timely creature to make an appropriate response. 

Though China has set up its NSC and leadership, and has defined its core mission as well as substances of the commission, much remains to be seen as how to organize this “authoritative and efficient” apparatus. As a new comer to employ NSC in the contemporary national security decision making, China shall develop, over time, its own approach to its unique circumstances, and render its own experiences to be shared. 

Shen Dingli is a Professor and Associate Dean Institute of International Studies at Fudan University.

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