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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 18, April 24, 2010

China’s Policy towards Non-Military Threats

Saturday 24 April 2010, by Simi Thambi


A nation’s security is no longer the “traditional national defence” but has economic, environmental, and human dimensions as well. All three dimensions are often subsumed under the rubric of “comprehensive security”, a new umbrella concept that grew out of the post-Cold War debate over the ramifications of security and over security studies as a field of inquiry.1 This essay presents a coherent exposition of some non-traditional threats in the context of China which have become especially relevant: they include ethnic minority issues, environment and energy issues, water security, cyber security and economic security among others and these have been discussed below.

The PRC has adopted several policies to deal with its ethnic minority regions. Winning the minorities’ acceptance of Chinese sovereignty over these regions; depriving recalcitrant minorities of foreign support; encouraging Han Chinese migrants moving into minority territories, for the purpose of diluting the local population and integrating these areas firmly into China are some of the actively pursued policies.

To crush separatism, the government has extended the “Strike Hard” campaign to Tibet and Xinjiang since 1997.2 The Party has also tried to “cash in’’ on the multi-ethnicity of China by promoting tourism in these remote and ‘‘exotic’’ regions. However, the acceleration of infrastructure development in favour of modern precincts in these areas often leads to the destruction of the traditional distinctive architecture, which often becomes the reason for riots. The Chinese Government has realised that poverty breeds discontent. In Xinjiang, vast sums of money have been allocated to build up basic infrastructure ‘‘double-opening’’ or “dumbbell approach”; and simultaneously integrate Xinjiang with Central Asia and China proper in economic terms. However, this is often viewed with suspicion due to the region’s history of trans-border ethno-religious movements such as the ‘‘Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’’ (IMU) and the Taliban. The contradictory nature of this position compelled China to seek a broader regional approach to issues of regional economic cooperation. This culminated in the creation of the ‘‘Shanghai Five’’ in 1996 and its eventual transformation into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in June 2001. China, along with Russia, played a leading role in shifting the forum’s original focus on confidence-building measures and border demarcation towards issues of transnational security. Moreover, China has also entered into bilateral alliances with many of its Central Asian neighbours which include joint military exercises and extension of military aid to Kyrgyzstan (July-2-3), the conclusion of a Sino–Kazakh Mutual Cooperation Agreement in December 2003, the opening of the Regional Anti-Terrorism unit of the SCO in Tashkent in 2004, and bilateral agreements on cooperation in combating
‘‘extremism, terrorism and separatism’’ with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in September 2003. The Urumqi riots of July 2009 brought China’s ethnic minority issue to the forefront. The international response to these riots was mixed. While the SCO took a defensive stand in favour of China, Turkey on the other hand called it genocide and boycotted Chinese goods.


Driven by the need to sustain a booming and energy-hungry economy, the Chinese Government has made securing access to the largely untapped reserves of oil and natural gas in Central Asia a cornerstone of its economic policy for the next two decades. Thus, it seems, the PRC authorities are carefully crafting a fine balance between playing up and playing down the threat of separatist violence. For Beijing, playing up the issue would discourage foreign trade and investments in Xinjiang or Tibet, but playing it down would deprive the authorities of excuses to initiate actions against separatists and religious radicals.

On the environment front, China faces the growth versus energy efficiency debate. An unprecedented need for resources is now driving China’s foreign policy. Twenty years ago, China was East Asia’s largest oil exporter. Now it is the world’s second-largest importer. Now that China is the workshop of the world, its hunger for electricity and industrial resources has soared. Beijing’s access to foreign resources is necessary both for continued economic growth and, because growth is the cornerstone of China’s social stability, for the survival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After three decades of near two-digit economic growth till 2009, China still has immense developmental needs. There is no doubting China’s justifiable right to development,3 but development is dependent on growth and growth is fuelled by energy which leads to GHG emissions and sustainability problems. China faces a trade-off between energy efficiency and growth. Until recently China had pursued an inflexible stance with respect to the climate change negotiations. Negotiators argued along with the G-77 countries that it is unfair to compare among different countries ignoring their size in terms of population; China alone makes up one-fifth of the world’s population and the per capita emission in China was low compared to the emission in the industrialised world.

The PRC’s negotiators argue that China’s share of the global CO2 emissions that have accumulated in the atmosphere over the last 100 years is a mere eight per cent, whereas the industrial nations, whose greenhouse gas emissions have been building up in the atmosphere for more than a century, bear the historical responsibility for climatic change, a fact that should be borne in mind at the climate negotiations. Chinese sources also argue that approximately a quarter of the emission currently caused by China originate from carbon leakage or Surrogate Emissions.4 Overtime the Party has realised the adverse impact of climate change not only in terms of its large ecological impact but even greater negative economic repercussions through agriculture, a great threat for a rapidly growing China. So China was one of the nations that signed the agreement made in June 1992 at the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change in Brazil and it also ratified the Convention in December 1992. China signed the Kyoto Protocol on May 29, 1998 and ratified it formally on August 30, 2002. As a non-Annex I country, China does not have any quantitative obligations to reduce its emissions in line with the Kyoto Protocol; all it has to do is report on its emissions in a national communication, stating the steps the country is taking in order to implement the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

It participates in projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), an instrument of the Kyoto Protocol which entails Annex I countries conducting greenhouse gas reduction projects in non-Annex I countries. Prior to the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009, in November 2009 Hu and Obama cooperated for a pact in the upcoming summit that will include binding emission cuts for developed nations and “nationally appropriate” emission cuts for others. However, it seemed more of a rhetoric on the United States’ part given the fact that the US Congress had not cleared the ACES (American Clean Energy Security Act) 2009.At COP15, as expected by some, there was an absolute lack of consensus among the leaders, the outcome “Copenhagen Accord” being the product of personal negotiations between Obama and the political leaders of BASIC. The accord promises a mobilisation of $ 100 billion in annual funding for developing countries to meet the challenges of climate change from 2020 and also pledges about $ 30 billion by 2012 but has no deadline for the finalisation of the negotiations and no figures for the emission reduction targets by developed nations by 2020. Even the combined pledges will lead to a reduction in temperature rise by only three degrees Celsius which is less than the targeted two degrees Celsius required for mitigation.

The birth of BASIC and decline of G-77 is anticipated to provide strength for the rapidly developing countries like China and India to pursue their case together. Nonetheless, it is too early to judge the success of the COP15. The results will only be seen if the leading nations of the COP15 match their words with actions. Many, including, the AOSIS argue that China’s commitments to emission cuts are not ambitious enough and do not transcend the BAU5 scenario. As for China, no doubt climate change is moving up on the political agenda, but it is unlikely that the government will agree to any climate mitigation actions that compromise the national targets of sustaining economic growth, maintaining social stability and alleviating poverty as was reiterated by the Chinese Ambassador to India, Zhang Yang, prior to COP15.

On the economic front, Chinese efforts to deal with the Recession 2009 have been commendable. As external demand had shrunk considerably, spurring domestic demand was essential for China to maintain economic growth. China set the goal of achieving a roughly eight per cent economic growth this year, which was of paramount importance for creating jobs and maintaining social stability. To counter the economic crisis and achieve the goal of economic growth, the government has announced several policy packages, including the four trillion-yuan (about $ 580 billion) economic stimulus plan unveiled in November 2009, and the plan to revitalise 10 critical industries announced successively in the past two months. China’s stimulus measures are also part of the global campaign to stave off the financial crisis, as maintaining its own relatively fast economic growth is China’s largest contribution to the world economy. China’s effort to stoke domestic demand would benefit the world economy as well. Tokyo Shimbun, a Japanese daily, said in a recent editorial that the Chinese market has substantial room for further growth, saying that China’s move would be vital for Japan’s economic recovery. In this context China’s efforts have borne fruits for the world.


China’s water supply, vital to the country’s sustainable development, is likely to be stretched to its limit by 2030 as the population climbs above 1.6 billion with an urbanisation rate of about 60 per cent. Given China’s water shortages, water has the potential of becoming a security threat between India and China. Judging by latest actions, China is set to embark on a series of river diversion plans along the lines of Yarlung Tsangpo, Indus and Satluj. The Yarlung Tsanpo diversion is set to begin in 2010. As Brahmaputra is one of the major Indian rivers, this can pose a great threat to India. Most projects in Tibet are undertaken by big Chinese construction companies known for their secrecy and lack of transparency and accountability. China has rarely bothered to share information with India despite the treaty signed in 2006 on exchanging trans-border flood season data. China has the potential to leverage Tibet’s water as a politico-military tool vis-a-vis other riparian states.

On the cyber front, officially Chinese military and diplomatic officials say they have no policy of attacking other governments’ systems. But computer hackers in China, including those working on behalf of the Chinese Government and military, have penetrated deeply into the information systems of US companies and government agencies, stolen proprietary information from American executives in advance of their business meetings in China. The Chinese make little distinction between hackers who work for the government and others, that is, the so-called patriotic-hacker groups. Patriotic-hacker groups have launched attacks from inside China, usually aimed at people they think have offended the country or pose a threat to its strategic interests. The Chinese Government has done little to shut down these groups. In China, fears of US cyber threat mirror American fears of Chinese cyber threat. President Barack Obama’s efforts to “find back doors into the digital fortresses of potential enemies” could pose a risk. As a non-traditional security specialist claims, “in a worse-case scenario, a security breach could result in the breakdown of the energy supply and collapse of the financial system, not to mention a collapse of the national defence capability”. China needs its computer systems-security to be supported in order to be protected from cyber attacks.

In conclusion, non-military threats to security do have an impact on a nation’s foreign policy, and China is no exception. With respect to China, for it to rise rapidly on the international front all the above aspects also need to be taken care of, while the other countries should be wary of these tactics to ensure that the steps China takes for its security do not adversely affect theirs.

[This article was written during the author’s intership for a month at the IDSA from December 2009 to January 2010.]


1. William T. Tow, “Introduction”, in William T. Tow, Ramesh Thakur, and In-Taek Hyun, Asian Emerging Regional Order (Tokyo and New York: United Nations University, 2000), pp. 1-10; James C. Hsiung, Twenty-First Century World Order and the Asia Pacific (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 19; 26-34.

2. By tightly observing religious activities monitoring Muslims who return from studying in the madrassahs of Pakistan or the Middle East and by establishing a number of anti-terrorist surveillance centers in sensitive regions since September 11, 2001.

3. Given that almost half of China’s estimated 1.3 billion citizens still live on less than US $ 2 (PPP) a day.

4. Surrogate Emissions or carbon leakages arise from the production of goods destined for export.

5. BAU (Business As Usual) scenario in terms of GHG emissions refer to the amount of GHGs’ discharged in order to maintain the current socio-economic development path.


Chien-peng Chung, May 2006, “Confronting Terrorism and Other Evils in China: All Quiet on the Western Front?”, The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly.

Climate Change in China – The Development of China’s Climate Policy and Its Integration into a New International Post-Kyoto Climate Regime, 135-164, 3/2009, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs.

Liang Chao, April 2005, “Experts warn of water crisis”, China Daily.

Li Dongyan, China’s Approach to Non-Traditional Security (NTS).

Michael Clarke, April 2008, “China’s ‘War on Terror’ in Xinjiang: Human Security and the Causes of Violent Uighur Separatism”, Griffith Asia Institute, Online Publication.

Steve Kelman, July 1, 2009, “China’s cybersecurity fears sound very familiar-In China, fears of US mirror American fears of China”.

Shane Harris “China’s Cyber Militia” 6948.php

“Commentary: China actively fights economic crisis”, March 2009 10978077.htm security_to_be_advanced

Simi Thambi is an MA student in the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.

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