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6. China’s new security multilateralism and its implications for the Asia–Pacific region



I. Introduction

II. China’s engagement in regional security multilateralism

III. Regional multilateral security negotiations, diplomacy and dialogues

IV. Active military engagement

V. Obstacles to China’s security multilateralism

VI. Conclusions: implications for Asia–Pacific security


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The People’s Republic of China has engaged more fully in, and even taken initiatives for, regional and global multilateral security processes since the late 1980s. What are China’s motives, and how complete and durable is this reversal of an earlier strategy?


Regionally, China was at first cautious about giving a security dimension to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), but by 1997 Beijing came to see that the group could help it to balance its neighbours, enhance stability and find advantageous multilateral solutions. China has welcomed ARF collaboration on various technical military issues and is now more open to addressing conflict prevention within the ARF framework. In 1996, China co-launched the ‘Shanghai process’ for cooperation and confidence building in Central Asia with Russia and several newly independent states of that region. Institutionalized as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001 and now with six members (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), this grouping has made progress in military confidence-building measures and cooperation against ‘new threats’, and has held at least two multilateral military exercises.


China has also fostered multilateral approaches to specific security issues in its region, such as the concern over a North Korean nuclear weapon programme. China has hosted a growing series of ‘six-party’ talks on this issue, including Japan, Russia, and the USA. Besides the ARF, China has also engaged in bilateral talks with the ASEAN group leading inter alia—in 2002—to a declaration aimed at reducing tension over conflicting territorial claims to islands in the South China Sea. China has sought formal dialogues with both NATO and the EU and offered to sponsor conflict prevention efforts elsewhere, for example, between India and Pakistan.


Chinese armed forces have engaged since the mid-1990s in joint international exercises, not only in the SCO framework, but also, for example, with Hong Kong, India and Pakistan. China has exchanged military observers and ship visits with neighbouring and more distant powers. It has been a constant contributor to UN military peacekeeping missions since 1992 (in Cambodia) and more recently contributed to a police mission in East Timor (Timor Leste). It currently contributes to about half of all UN missions worldwide and is the 27th largest national contributor.


Notwithstanding progress in region-wide security relations, there remain important unresolved tensions in China’s bilateral relations with Japan and in the special field of China–Taiwan relations. The China–USA bilateral relationship also has elements of tension, competition and fundamental strategic disagreement. For China, multilateralism is partly a means to ward off US hegemony, while the USA would be wary of China gaining influence through the growth of regional security communities.


Multilateralism is now not only entrenched in China’s new ‘security concept’, but also a proven technique for China to enhance its own security and temper US influence while soothing smaller neighbours’ concerns. China has every reason to pursue this approach, but the outcome—and impact on general security—still depends greatly on how well the ambivalent China–USA relationship and China’s other remaining bilateral preoccupations can be handled.



Bates Gill (United States) is Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Previously, he served as a senior fellow in foreign policy and the inaugural director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. He has also directed East Asia programmes at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and at SIPRI. He formerly held the Fei Yiming Chair in Comparative Politics at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Chinese and American Studies. A specialist in East Asian foreign policy and politics, his research focuses primarily on North-East Asian political, security and military–technical issues, especially with regard to China and China–USA relations. He contributed to the SIPRI Yearbook in 1994 and 1996.