Mainland Chinese Southern security policies


Europe is a relatively calm, unified and peaceful place nowadays. It's necessary to look at history or other places if one wants to get case studies for strategic thought.

One such example is mainland China (People's Republic of China, PRC). It's obvious that China's relative and absolute strengths and needs evolve quickly due to its growing population and rapidly growing wealth.
This holds the potential for major changes in national security topics.

I assume two main interests of China in National Security affairs:
(1) Self-protection
(2) Security of import and export
(almost entirely maritime trade)

There are further interests that get some attention:
(3) Re-unification with Taiwan
(4) Protection of what calls itself a "socialist" system in North Korea
(5) Prestige

The most interesting and most difficult interest is likely the security of imports and exports in maritime trade.
The only reasonable threats to this are naval power (ships) and air power (land-based aviation), but it's very difficult to provide effective defence for maritime trade.

The Chinese Navy isn't well-suited for protecting Chinese maritime trade by offensive action or convoys yet. Convoying would likely be pointless for economic reasons (inefficiencies) and the sheer volume of trade (quantity of ships on different sea lanes). Offensive protection of maritime trade would require much better air defence and land attack capabilities.
The only thing that the Chinese navy can accomplish in its current state in regard to maritime trade protection is effective deterrence against small powers. Malaysia wouldn't dare to face them on its own, for example.

The costs of a military strategy for maritime trade security would be huge. China has plenty domestic problems that cry out loud for funds and attention. A very costly approach to security problems should therefore be scrutinised.
A political approach to the national security issue of maritime trade may be vastly superior due to its much lower price.

Such a cheap approach would not launch an arms race. It would aim at not alienating, but befriending foreign powers. Such a friendship needs to be based on common interests. It's possible to create common interests where none are yet - by alliances and economic/political structures.
China has a great hunger for resources and could be seen as a competitor to the ASEAN countries in regard to many raw materials. That could be changed by cooperation.
Europeans very rarely see a competitor for raw materials when looking at the U.S., and rarely so if looking at Japan, but they do so when looking at China. Cooperation and good relations make the difference.
Competitors can build a "we" feeling through cooperation.

I would greatly prefer such a cooperative approach between China and the ASEAN countries. The lingering conflict over the Spratly islands looks to me like both a great opportunity for the future and a stupid move so far.
China moved itself into a rival and almost enemy position by insisting on its claim on those islands. It could alternatively use the conflict as a great entry into a cooperative future in regard to ASEAN (by dropping its claim in negotiations). The moves in that direction were so far quite half-hearted.

Military bases on the islands and an expensive Chinese navy could never secure the Western trade sea lane as well as a friendship with Malaysia and Indonesia could. Potential raw material riches on the seabed in that area are likely not worth a conflict either.

China would need to dominate those countries completely in order to secure its sea lane as well as it could through cooperation. Complete domination is a much too expensive approach for the problem.

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The Chinese-Indian border 'disagreements' and 'violations' at the inadequately defined border of both states is another quite puzzling story.

A rivalry between China and India is likely in the long term because of their size and somewhat similar economic levels. They will likely compete for the same raw materials for decades to come - and both will have a huge demand.

There's nevertheless nothing to gain from conflict on top of that competition.
hat could be gained? A few mountains and maybe a pass or two*.
What could be lost? The same - plus a disproportionate amount of wealth as well as the chance to have India on its side on other issues.

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A policy of embracing neutrals nearby would serve China's national security needs much more than a pedantic and uncooperative behaviour in relatively tiny disagreements.

There are some conflicts around China, but they shouldn't be considered as being exclusively roots of conflict. The could also be bargaining chips to be used for a peacful future.

Look at India's border problem, for example. The Indians could approach the Chinese in a high-level, strategic discussion (not nitpicking about a few acres here or there). Some grand strategic decisions could lead to a Chinese-Indian cooperation, even at the expense of Chinese-Pakistani relations.
It's all about grand strategy decisions - their future path is not carved in stone yet.

Europe is - luckily - too far away and has few formal links with that region (UK: Commonwealth). Others have more interest in Eastern and Southeastern Asian security affairs (Australia, for example). There are many hawks in those countries who raise the alarm over supposed Chinese ambitions, roots for conflict and such.
Maybe they should be more in horror about a rivaling Chinese adept at cooperation and maybe they should talk and write less about future war scenarios or about what to buy in preparation for future East Asian wars.

Sven Ortmann

*: I understand the regions aren't exactly small. Its rather their relative unimportance that made me dismiss them as a few mountains.


  1. Dear Sven,

    I liked your recent blogs on China. With regards to Chinese Maritime Security, the Chinese Central Government could take a cue from the South Koreans who are still a major player in the maritime industry. Please refer to the attached link for an example.



  2. The question of a "a few passes" between India and China is all about water and thereby very decisive for both of them as both lack water sources.

  3. Water resources that far away from their population centers?

    That may be hyped up, but it's not "decisive".

  4. Perhaps you are right, but I wouldn't dismiss the Chineses' enamoration with mega-engineering just out of hand:



    The Soviets were of course pretty adept at dabbling with this sort of stuff as well. Most of the time it all ended with disaster of course, a natural extension of the failings of Economic Planning (which, among others, the Aral "lake" bears testament of).

    But the Chinese are some stubborn buggers.

  5. Two things come to my mind:

    * there are a lot of Chinese having moved and still moving into Russia in the border regions

    * China did solve 1/2 to 2/3 of its long standing border conflicts and claims in the past decade - that is a lot. What remains is the "tough stuff", it appears.

  6. I think perhaps it is too general and broad to say China is uncooperative. They seem to be balancing conciliation with firmness, neither favoring one approach or philosophy, but seeking the harmony of both.

    Like in the Spratleys. You said they should have DROPPED (?) their claims. Dropped as in simply relinquished their claims? But claiming the islands is what all other nations there are doing, and China is not more loud or threatening in action or speech. They send ships and planes too, as do their neighbors.

    Or in the case of disputes with India, while China speaks for its claim, so does India, and China is not deploying troops any more than India to their border. If India speaks, China does, and if India sends a few troops, China sends a few.

    If anything, China seems conscious that it's very success and size means it must tread more lightly than others, lest equal moves be labeled aggressive, even when to be objective, they are not.

    So I think the case of an uncooperative China is a weak one.

  7. I wrote "by dropping its claim in negotiations" - this means to sell these chunks of rock in exchange of trust and an advantageous formal shaping of the relations.
    It's basically a trade from a position of strength - dropping claims is exactly how parties arrive at a contract conclusion. It's just not that popular a tool in regard to territorial sovereignty.

  8. Many thanks for your nice posting , I like it.