MSC Core Group Meeting in Beijing (2011)

Munich Security Conference in Beijing: Jointly into the Pacific Century

From November 20 to 21, 2011, the Munich Security Conference (MSC) continued its new Munich Security Conference Core Group series in Beijing (Photo: Hou KaiYu).

By Benedikt Franke and Oliver Rolofs


Just two days after the surprising proclamation of an American change in strategy in the Pacific region and midway through the ever more aggravating financial crisis, high-ranking members of the Core Group of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) convened in Beijing to discuss the peaceful integration of the region into global power and economy structures. It hereby turned out that the challenges of the 21st century were not to be met without a close and fair cooperation between aspiring Asia and the Euratlantic community.


Like in the two preceding years the Core Group of the Munich Security Conference under the chairmanship of Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger held their meeting on 20 and 21 November 2011 this year again far-off the Bavarian capital in order to provide an opportunity to an exclusive and top-class group of participants to tackle current issues of international security policy. After the previous events in Washington, D.C. (2009) and Moscow (2010), the travel to the evolving superpower China was "a logical step", Ambassador Ischinger said.


This meeting in Beijing, which was organized in cooperation with the Körber-Stiftung and the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA), pushed the incipient Pacific Century further to the focus of the Munich Security Conference. At last the global financial crisis has clarified the shifting of global power relationships and demonstrated the limits of Western political creativeness. While the European states are more and more concerned with their own problems of coping with the consequences of the debt crisis and the inherent risk of the European Union’s political disintegration, new power and growth centers with increasing geostrategic claims are going to develop in Asia. "It is in particular China that owing to its growing economic and military power has achieved a world-political importance that we must increasingly take into account in our considerations", Ischinger said.


It should also be recognized that China was a permanent member of the UNO Security Council. Without the voice of China not very much would happen in the future. Any discussion about global security-political issues in the 21st century would no longer work without the involvement of China. Here would be a considerable lot of catching-up to do, Ischinger pointed out. While the German and European industries had since long discovered Asia as a large growth and sales market, the European foreign and security policy so far failed to recognize these new dimensions. "Europe is about to disappear as a foreign and security-political player from the radar screen of the Asian governments", Ischinger warned in the run-up to the Core Group meeting. While the U.S. were ever more adjusting their policy towards Asia, Europe was still lacking an overall strategic concept.


With this meeting in Beijing the Munich Security Conference intended to bring out new main points in order to foster prospectively extensive strategic relations to both China and the new power centers in the region. Also China's interest in Europe and the Munich Security Conference has visibly increased in the past few years: In February 2010 the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi appeared for the first time in Munich with a speech in which he championed China's increasingly self-assured foreign policy. In his welcoming speech before this Beijing Core Group meeting Yang Jiechi appreciated the decision of the Munich Security Conference to have this year's expert meeting take place in Beijing. The MSC so ascribed to China special importance in building up trust and cooperating more closely in the field of global security. The international community’s need of coping jointly with security-political challenges was more urgent than ever before, China's foreign minister said. China pursued a peaceful development and actively supported a deepened exchange and closer cooperation with other nations.


High-ranking participants

Like in the main conference in Munich, worldwide considered to be the most important independent panel for international security policymakers to maintain an exchange of ideas, the participants in the smaller event format of Core Group meetings are primarily positioned at the strategic decision-making level. Among this year's attendees were, among others, Javier Solana, former Secretary General of NATO and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; Ruprecht Polenz, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the German Bundestag; Emily Haber, secretary of state in the Foreign Office; Christian Schmidt, parliamentary secretary of state in the Federal Ministry of Defense; Andrej Denissow, the Russian deputy foreign minister; the financer George Soros; Sir David Wright, Vice-chairman of Barclays Capital; Sir Ronald Grierson, Chairman of Blackstone’s International Advisory Board; and Jay Ralph, CEO Allianz Asset Management. The MSC expert meeting was attended on the part of the Chinese by, among others, the former state councilor Tang Jiaxuan, the deputy foreign ministers Zhang Zhijun and Fu Ying and the former Deputy Chief-of-Staff of the People's Liberation Army Xiong Guankai. The end of this year's Core Group meeting was highlighted by an appointment in Zhongnanhai, the central headquarters for the Communist Party of China, with Dai Bingguo, the state councilor for foreign and security policy issues within the Chinese state leadership.


No Cold War in the Pacific region

The growing geopolitical significance of the region, its peaceful integration into global structures as well as approaches to problem solutions were but a few of the variety of topics discussed by some 60 participants. The agenda included other items like questions about the security of energy, resources and environment and about asymmetrical threats such as piracy, terrorism and cyberspace risks. Both sides discussed with great interest also the necessity of worldwide financial stability in conjunction with sustained economic growth to support global security. The discussion in Beijing was clearly animated by U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech held in the Australian capital Canberra just two days before the meeting in Beijing in which he publicly proclaimed a strategic change of course of his administration in the Asia-Pacific region. Already one week before that Obama had intimated in a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) that the United States intended to rebuild a significantly stronger presence in the region. But only in Canberra he disclosed the significant military implications of this change in strategy. Although his administration is preparing drastic budget cuts he attributed "top priority" to the U.S. military presence in Asia, underlining this with the announcement to station up to 2500 American elite soldiers in the Australian city of Darwin and to intensify the American use of Australian ports and airbases.


Despite this change in strategy and occasional differences in opinion arising once and again over the past few years about, for instance, the real value of the Chinese currency, the Chinese participants rated the development of the relations to the United States rather better than worse. It would however be crucial to recall permanently to the mind that harmonic coexistence was China’s central leitmotif in foreign policy. China, as the Chinese participants stated, would certainly not strive for hegemony in the region but vehemently speak out against any interventionism by third countries. In particular, so the unanimous tenor, one should now less than ever revert to an obsolete Cold War mentality. As Ambassador Ischinger put it, the American change in strategy formed an "animating element" in the discussions but was by no means a cause for the Chinese side to depart from the actual issues of the meeting.


Some of the European participants however were concerned about the announced intensified U.S. commitment in the Asia-Pacific region as this shift in the American policy was more than an electoral campaign strategy of Obama and might in the long term go to the disadvantage of the current transatlantic relations. Ambassador Ischinger said, it could be neither in the German nor in the European interest that the U.S. turned their attention more to the Pacific, thus inevitably neglecting crises and centers of conflict in different areas. The forthcoming years would show which strategic responses to Washington's shift of geostrategic targets would be found by Europe in the global context as foreign and security-political player and by the European NATO members within the Alliance. According to some European voices in Beijing, in Europe's own interest also approaches to a Eurasian-Atlantic security architecture should be considered.


China: Development country or superpower?

During the vivid discussions a central perceptual discrepancy kept surfacing every now and then. The Chinese self-understanding as an aspiring development country was diametrically opposed to the Western view of China as a full-fledged superpower. While the West often envisioned itself downright threatened by China’s meteoric boom and at the same time found China lacking in assuming global responsibility, the Chinese participants requested instead to understand the growth of their country as an opportunity for common development, progress and prosperity and not to overestimate China’s previous development.


So state councilor Dai Bingguo said during his reception of the MSC Core Group that China had every reason to be proud of its previous achievements but would not be led to be arrogant on account of them. „We all know that we have walked only a few small steps on our long march and that huge obstacles are still ahead of us until we will have caught up with the developed countries of the West.“ Until then, the Chinese leaders will attribute the highest priority to the holistic development of their country especially under the aspect of further alleviating social differences. Here it turned out that the Chinese leadership takes the social question very seriously and regards it as a security-political factor. Dai pointed out that in the context of the peaceful development of China the improvement of the standard of living of the 1.3 billion people would occupy center stage in governmental efforts. Possible instabilities in this heavily populated China would directly affect the entire Asian continent, the state councilor warned.


Interest groups are also alliances

Despite the pointed Chinese modesty and restraint all participants agreed that the central challenges of today, be it the peaceful and sustained expansion of world economy, the control of the climate change or the overcoming of global imbalances, could successfully be met only in cooperation with China and other aspiring powers like India and Brazil. Then mutual dependencies and interweavements might further increase and perhaps lead to a consonance of interests, some participants expressed their hopes. To that effect two approaches would be required in addition to a coincident assessment of the actual problem, i.e. the build-up of mutual trust and effective institutional mechanisms and the provision of instruments for preparing and coordinating mutual problem solving. The great majority of the participants felt that a considerable backlog and need for improvement still existed in this respect. Nevertheless they came more and more to realize that „we’re all in the same boat and pursue the same targets“. Fair and transparent interest groups would promote and facilitate the formation of future alliances.


Cooperation with Europe: Two districts of one big village

China’s interest consists primarily in an intensified cooperation with Europe that is figuratively understood as the western district of the same village. Here one would see good opportunities for so-called "win-win situations", from which both parts could benefit. First, however, Europe would have to overcome its present loss of form and concentrate on its strengths rather than its weaknesses, the Chinese participants made clear. They would anxiously observe the current debt crisis in the European states that, if it was going to exacerbate, would cause dramatic consequences also for the world economy and lastly for Chinese exports. One was firmly convinced that Europe was able to manage the present crisis on its own, but as dweller in the same village one felt, of course, obliged to help. However, state councilor Dai said, this must not mean that China should be requested to invest their means unjustifiably. First of all, the state was answerable to the Chinese people for the security and reasonable use of their savings. "So China should neither be expected to rescue Europe nor to waive own interests." Eventually, Dai's advice to the Europeans regarding their efforts to eliminate the debt crisis was straight and frank: "Make up your mind quickly and bow yourselves off the past".


An encouraging signal towards Munich

The meeting in Beijing should have made clear that the organizers of the Munich Security Conference do not view the future relationship between the Pacific region and the transatlantic community under the aspect of rivalry but of increasing cooperation. The Core Group meeting contributed once again to inspiring mutual trust in the scope of a dialog. For state councilor Dai the way ahead to deepening the relations among China, Europe and the U.S. was already predetermined in his conversation with the MSC Core Group: "The development of mutual relations has already advanced so far that they can no longer be stopped but only be improved." And to the chairman of the meeting Ambassador Ischinger it was clear: "Talking about the status quo alone is not enough any more. A lot more must be done in several respects." Beijing has shown that the participation of high-ranking Chinese decision-makers and their willingness to answer openly and positively the questions and arguments of the western participants represent an encouraging signal for the main conference in February 2012 to which Ambassador Ischinger expects again the visit of a Chinese delegation of prominent representatives. In the end, all participants of this year’s Core Group meeting agreed that security-political discussions were meaningless without the involvement of China and that the complex challenges of the 21st century would not be met without a close and fair cooperation between Asia and the Euratlantic community.


Dr. Benedikt Franke is the Director of the Development and Foreign Relations Division and Chief of Protocol of the Munich Security Conference. Oliver Rolofs is the press spokesman of the Munich Security Conference.


This article was first published in January 2012 in the German magazine Europäische Sicherheit&Technik 1/2012.