"We cannot harm the security of other countries in pursuit of our own"
Leaders from China, its Pacific neighbors and the West came together on 2 & 3 November 2016 for an intense strategic debate about China’s global security role, the security situation in the Asia-Pacific as well as other key issues during the Munich Security Conference (MSC) Core Group Meeting in Beijing, held under the chairmanship of Wolfgang Ischinger.
**Click here for additional info on the event, including selected photos and an opinion piece by W. Ischinger.**
"In times of numerous crises, it is essential not to forget the fundamental, longer term issues," Ischinger said in the opening session. "And I am convinced that China's (re-)emergence as a world power remains the most important strategic development of our time."
In his frank opening remarks, which set the tone for the day's vigorous discussions, China's Executive Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui argued that "compared with economic integration in the region, the construction of the security architecture is lagging behind, and it is getting harder and harder to effectively manage security issues." He argued that Chinese construction of islands in the South China Sea was "peaceful and necessary." These measures were "completely defensive" aimed at defending the Chinese territory. He criticized the behavior of a "certain country from outside this region," which could give rise to accidents and incidents. Except for the opening session, the meeting was held under Chatham House Rule.
Other speakers also defended Beijing's position, stating that the South China Sea ruling by the International Court of Arbitration would never be accepted and that, at the very least, international law was much less clear cut than the court argued. Others, however, stressed that the importance of rules as basis of order could not be overemphasized. Agreements and rules had to be binding, and the countries of the region had to come together more often to talk about rules. Moreover, China was hardly able to claim that a rule-based international order was essential if it completely dismissed a part of it.
Discussions also touched upon the current state of China-US and China-Philippines relations and on the overall quality of security cooperation in the region. Several participants stressed that the term "security architecture", so often used for European affairs, was not suitable for the Asia-Pacific. Instead, "it is more about agile, flexible networks of connections", one participant stressed – some of them bilateral, some multilateral. As a first step, confidence-building measures were considered crucial. Those could include better functional cooperation on marine conversation and navigation, for instance, as well as more agreement on the path towards a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. In addition, as one participating leader argued, there was a need to enlarge the common circle of friends – countries who are friends with both China and the US: "If we get to a point where small countries need to choose [between the two], everybody loses."
Another session focused on the emerging global security role of China. One participant stressed that not only did China's strong peacekeeping commitment show its dedication to common security, but that this issue may well become China's major contribution to international peace. More Chinese involvement in global security would be a good thing, another leader emphasized. After all, China had been a very constructive actor in the nuclear negotiations with Iran as well as concerning other issues. "But where is China in the Syria conflict?", one participant asked. China should play a much bigger role in conflict prevention. "We know the value and fragility of security," Wu Hailong, President of the co-hosting Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, argued. "We cannot harm the security of other countries in pursuit of our own."
Meeting participants also explored the current security situation on the Korean peninsula. Discussants disagreed on the extent to which outside pressure on the North Korean regime would aid in curbing its nuclear ambitions – some thought it would never give up its nuclear pursuits. One participant wondered what policy a potentially incoming Clinton administration might pursue, including whether there might be an additional push for imposing sanctions on companies doing business with and in North Korea, many of which are Chinese – and what that might mean for the US-China relationship. Another participant stressed that a key step for both China and the US would be to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty so they would both have more legitimacy in attempting to thwart North Korea's nuclear program. Several discussants agreed that while China and the US may have different priorities in their North Korea policy, they both had a big interest in being prepared for what might happen should the regime collapse – and that this could be a field for US-China joint discussion and planning.
A final debate focussed on the economic and geopolitical implications of China's "Belt and Road" initiative, an enormous and ambitious infrastructure program with projects throughout Eurasia and Africa, including a large maritime component. One discussant argued that infrastructure in Asia was still very inefficient and often hampered by corruption or a lack of harmonization of practices; thus, a focus on improving infrastructure was very timely, and should also be seen as an important element of China assuming global responsibility. Participants disagreed whether the initiative had in fact a clear geopolitical and strategic component or not. If anything, one discussant argued, the strategic element of the initiative was to enhance regional stability, from which China would greatly benefit. Another participant pointed out that many projects in rather unstable countries were long-term propositions without hope for big revenues. The economic feasibility of the initiative, thus, would still be very much in question. One leader emphasized that, while the West should view the initiative positively and see it as a sort of pivot towards the West, more connectivity and more market access were essential – and still lacking. In addition, more economic connectivity would bring more connectivity of ideas, including exposure to ideas one might not like.
In closing, MSC Chairman Ischinger expressed his hope that the successful meeting would also lead to a senior Chinese participation at next year’s annual Munich Security Conference (February 17 to 19, 2017).
Chinese participants of the MSC Core Group Meeting included Li Yuanchao, the Vice President, Zhang Yesui, Executive Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fu Ying, Chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress, Jin Liqun, President of the Asian Infrastucture Investment Bank, and many others. Among the meeting's participants were also Araz Azimov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and National Security Advisor from the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ambassador Sorin Ducaru, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, as well as Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. The Deputy Minister of National Defence of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Senior Lieutenant General Chi Vinh Nguyen, and the Foreign Minister of Rwanda, Louise Mushikiwabo, were also attending the Core Group Meeting in Beijing, as well as Markus Ederer, German Deputy Foreign Minister, Airbus CEO Thomas Enders, and several German members of parliament.