Security in China’s Neighborhood: Challenges, Opportunities and Prospects

By Sun Zhuangzhi

China has 14 neighbors along its land borders and faces Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei across the seas. The multitude of neighbors, with their diverse cultures and complicated relations, presents a grave security situation for China. The growing competition between major countries in recent years, especially the military and political alliances revitalized by the United States against China and the Indo-Pacific Strategy it has peddled with the attempt to contain its competitor, have all added geo-political tensions to China’s neighborhood. In such context, China has pursued the policy of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness in its neighborhood diplomacy as it engages in good neighborliness and friendly cooperation, promotes multilateral cooperation, and makes unique contribution to stability and development in the region. 

I.Neighborhood security in troubled times

China’s neighborhood can be divided into six parts: Northeast Asia, Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, South Asia and Southeast Asia, with notable geopolitical and geo-economic disparities among them. Some enjoy stable situation and are friendly to China. Some have yet to emerge from longstanding conflicts and confrontations, which have been made worse by the infiltration and interference of external forces and the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic. The situation has become more complicated with increasingly growing uncertainty and instability, posing real challenges to China’s security interests.

i. Major-country strategic competition puts China under strategic containment  

The world is facing profound changes unseen in a century. The international political and economic landscape has been transformed in drastic way. The global and regional governance “deficit” has become increasingly prominent. In order to maintain its leading position in the world, the US regards China and Russia as strategic rivals, introducing regional strategies against the two countries, putting together anti-China and anti-Russia alliances and looking for new proxies in Asia, especially around China. As such, neighboring countries are compelled to take sides between China and the US, and some regional powers take this opportunity to seek maximized national interests. Global powers and middle powers are locked in escalating competition in the hinterland of Eurasia, which inevitably poses a threat to China’s development and increases the security pressure around China.

Major-country competition exerts a more prominent impact on the security in the Asia-Pacific, as evidenced by the emergence of more US-led military and political alliances against China, from the US-Japan-ROK partnership to the newly created US-Japan-Australia and the US-UK-Australia (AUKUS) mechanisms. The US has also launched the “Indo-Pacific Strategy”, drawing India to form the Quad and putting in place broader and stronger strategic containment against China. Major countries are stepping up competition around China, competing with China for political, economic and security influence in the surrounding areas. The US is using its strong military delivery capabilities to build an Asian version of NATO and plan its moves in China’s proximity.

ii. Escalating tensions in adjacent seas harm China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity

With no regard to China’s maritime rights and interests, the US and its Western allies choose to challenge China’s bottom line on the South China Sea issue and the Taiwan question. The US has sent military vessels to the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits to maintain so-called “freedom of navigation” and instigated anti-China forces in some Southeast Asian countries. It stands alongside the Tsai Ing-wen authority in Taiwan in their pursuit of Taiwan independence through military means and by relying on the US. The continuous US arms sales to Taiwan have escalated tensions across the Straits. Japan has picked up pace in militarization and substantially increased national defense spending, creating more security risks in China’s neighborhood. The frequent dispatch of aircraft carriers by the US has added tensions in the South China Sea, damaging the atmosphere for cooperation between China and ASEAN countries as well as the tranquility in the East China Sea. Japan, the UK and other US allies have also stepped up their presence in the South China Sea, aiming to embroil the East China Sea, Taiwan, and South China Sea issues to contain China at sea, raise the cost for China to break through the first chain of islands, and set back China’s cooperation with relevant countries. All these moves have undermined peace and stability in the South China Sea. 

iii. Political instability and inter-state conflicts in the neighborhood threaten border security

In China’s neighborhood, there are many developing countries and newly independent ones. They are confronted with challenges such as inadequate political and social development, limited national governance capabilities, inefficient administration, diverse political factions and interest groups, complicated ethnic and religious issues, and even political turbulences. In some countries, political strife and xenophobia pose direct threats to Chinese investments and the life and property of Chinese businessmen and workers. In some other countries, the rule of law is not well-established. Corruption is rampant among government officials and law enforcement officers. Their policies are subject to constant changes. Seeking bribes is commonplace. The unfriendly investment and business environment have led to interference and even hindrance to China’s economic and trade cooperation with these countries. Some of these countries have long-standing conflicts and confrontations with their neighbors, which have caused casualties and harmed normal state-to-state relations. Though limited to some countries and regions, these issues are all in China’s neighborhood and affect China’s border security. 

iv. Non-traditional security issues create long-standing challenges in China’s neighborhood

Since the end of the Cold War, there have been more non-traditional security issues around the world. Extremist, terrorist, and separatist forces have frequently caused troubles in China’s neighborhood, posing common threats to countries in the region. With the diffusion of terrorism around the world and in some regions in recent years, especially the rise of extreme terrorist forces such as the ISIS, security and stability in all these countries are facing more severe challenges. 

Afghanistan, China’s neighbor on its western border, has been mired in a civil war for half a century. In the wake of the 911 attacks in 2001, the US and its allies started the war on terror in Afghanistan. For 20 years, they fail to eradicate the breeding ground of terrorism, but aggravate the security situation in the country due to the hasty withdrawal of forces in August 2021. Transnational crimes, such as terrorism and drug smuggling, remain to be non-traditional security threats to countries in the region.

II.Good neighborliness and cooperation help to maintain regional stability

For all these challenges, the security situation in China’s neighborhood remains stable on the whole. This is in large part attributed to China’s commitment to developing good relations with its neighbors, as evidenced by its policies of “promoting friendship and partnership with the neighbors” and “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness”. China has established stable strategic partnerships with most of its neighbors to build a belt of “good-neighborly and friendly relations”. It has also enhanced bilateral and multilateral interactions with these countries in security, and developed effective mechanisms and platforms. This way, China has made unique contributions to regional stability and peace.

i.Strategic partnership with Russia and Central Asian countries for a new era

Among its land neighbors, China has established a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination with Russia, and comprehensive strategic partnerships or strategic partnerships with Central Asian countries. After 30 years of development, bilateral relations have entered the fast track of healthy development. Practical results have been achieved in political, security, economic, trade and people-to-people exchanges. Russia was sanctioned by the West after the Ukraine crisis in 2014, and has since pursued a new foreign policy of “turning East”, which places more emphasis on cooperation with China. Despite the negative impact of sanctions and COVID-19 on its economy, Russia has maintained political stability by and large, and identified China and India as the most important partners through its National Security Strategy adopted in July 2021. When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited China in February 2022 and attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, the two countries issued a Joint Statement on International Relations in the New Era and Global Sustainable Development, emphasizing that there is no limit to China-Russia friendship. Central Asian countries have also maintained basic political stability and sustained economic development. Although unrests occurred in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in the past two years, domestic order was restored in a short period of time, without having a major impact on or harming regional stability. Central Asian countries are generally friendly to China and carry out cooperation with China in all fields and at various levels. In January 2022, a virtual summit on the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the five Central Asian countries was held, which set the tone for and added new impetus to bilateral cooperation in the new era.

China, Russia and Central Asian countries have thoroughly resolved the boundary issues left over from history, turning the common border of more than 7,000 kilometers into a bond of peace and friendship. The signing of the treaties of good-neighborliness, friendship and cooperation with countries in the region lays a solid legal foundation for the development of bilateral relations. Head-of-State diplomacy has played a guiding role to the full. China and these countries cooperate in international and regional affairs, jointly combat the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism and transnational crimes such as drug smuggling that threaten regional stability, and actively deal with various non-traditional security threats.

ii.Active steps in cooperation with Northeast Asian Countries

China and Mongolia have made steady progress in their relations and developed close economic ties. Mongolia, which is geographically located between China and Russia, has risen above differences in systems and cultures and chosen the policy of friendly coexistence with its two neighbors. The generally stable political situation and the commitment of the Mongolian government led by the People’s Party to developing relations with China have enabled China-Mongolia relations to withstand the test of the changing international landscape.

China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) forged a solid friendship with blood. When tensions are running high on the Korean Peninsula, China takes an active part in the settlement of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and supports the DPRK government in developing the economy and improving people’s livelihood.

Japan and the ROK rely on the US for security. Their policies toward China are subject to influence from the US. And their political relations with China have been negatively affected by the growing frictions between China and the US in recent years. Nevertheless, the two countries have managed to maintain high-level contacts with China, instead of completely following the steps of the US in their relations with China.

iii.In pursuit of stable and good-neighborly relations with South Asian countries

India and Pakistan, China’s neighbors in South Asia, have been in a state of antagonism for a long time, and their policies towards China are completely different. The intervention of external forces has resulted in a capricious situation in South Asia and undermined the stability in the neighborhood of southwest China. The Modi government of India pursues a shifting policy toward China and aims to take advantage of the strained relations between China and the US to secure a more favourable international standing. It increased military presence in the disputed areas of the China-India border, provoked conflicts between border soldiers of the two sides, and caused casualties. Though the policy of the Modi government has weighed on the normal development of China-India relations, India does not turn itself into a strategic “vassal” of the US, and still boasts an independent foreign policy. Pakistan, on the other hand, has stood firm with a friendly policy toward China as China’s “all-weather strategic partner of cooperation”. And it places high hopes on the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Other South Asian countries are making difficult diplomatic choices between China and India. If China and India can properly manage their differences and disputes, large-scale conflicts around China’s southwest are unlikely to break out. 

iv.Economic ties as the anchor of relations with Southeast Asian countries

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), to which China is a party, was officially launched on January 1, 2022. In the world’s largest free trade area, China, Japan, the ROK and ASEAN countries are all beneficiaries, and the 10 ASEAN countries have played an important role. ASEAN has become China’s largest trading partner, and most ASEAN members have close and friendly ties with China. Traditional friendship and realistic economic interests have ensured general stability in the strategic relationship between the two sides.

Since China and ASEAN established the “10+1” cooperation mechanism in 2001, economic cooperation has been continuously expanded and bilateral political relations have been relatively stable. China supports ASEAN centrality in East Asian cooperation and a greater role of ASEAN in international and regional affairs. The 10 ASEAN countries follow divergent policies toward China, and most of them pursue the strategy of balancing among major countries. Yet, China has multiple geographical, cultural and economic advantages. ASEAN countries also have a strong desire to get aboard the express of China’s development. In recent years, there have been political disputes within some ASEAN countries, and external forces have also actively infiltrated into the region and competed with China. Some people still buy the “China threat theory” and there are often twists and turns in China’s relations with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines.

III.Building a community of common security to maintain long-term stability in the region

In recent years, security cooperation between China and its neighbors has entered a new stage, and multilateral mechanisms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have played an important role. China has developed innovative visions on security and cooperation under a series of multilateral frameworks. The Belt and Road Initiative has not only been welcomed by countries in the region, but also created unprecedented historical opportunities for building a community of common security.

i. The founding of the SCO and its security efforts

The predecessor of the SCO, the “Shanghai Five” mechanism, originated from the negotiation process of China, Russia and Central Asian countries in resolving mutual trust and disarmament issues in the border areas, and evolved into a multilateral mechanism concerned with regional security after relevant agreements were signed. In June 2001, the establishment of the SCO was proclaimed and the Shanghai Convention was signed to combat the “three evil forces” of extremism, terrorism and separatism. Multilateral security cooperation within the framework of the SCO adheres to the concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, promotes a comprehensive security governance model that addresses both symptoms and root causes, and focuses on cracking down on the “three evil forces” and transnational crimes. A permanent regional anti-terrorism body was established in Tashkent in Central Asia.

Guided by the “Shanghai spirit” of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diverse civilizations and seeking common development, the SCO has signed documents such as the Anti-Extremism Convention, the Anti-Terrorism Convention and the Anti-Drug Convention, which has laid a solid legal foundation for multilateral cooperation. At the same time, member states have launched meeting mechanisms for defense ministers, secretaries of security council, and public security (interior) ministers to carry out joint military exercises and law enforcement cooperation, which has raised the level of military mutual trust and interaction in security fields. As a result, the SCO has become an important force in maintaining regional stability. Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward the initiative of building an SCO community with a shared future at the SCO Summit in Qingdao in 2018, and later put forward the idea of building a community of common security for regional countries.

ii. Important platforms for multilateral cooperation

While promoting the rapid development of the SCO, China and its neighbors also carry out security cooperation within a series of other multilateral frameworks, the most important of which is the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and “China and Central Asian countries” (C+C5) foreign ministers’ meeting mechanism.

CICA is a regional security dialogue mechanism initiated by Kazakhstan’s first President Nazarbayev. China has held the presidency for four consecutive years since 2014, rapidly expanding its international influence. CICA is committed to creating a new platform for security consultation in Asia, calling for the settlement of differences and disputes through negotiations. China and many neighboring countries are CICA members.

The C+C5 foreign ministers’ meeting mechanism was established in July 2020, and the second meeting was held in Xi’an in May 2021. A number of documents were issued and broad consensus was reached on maintaining regional stability and strengthening cooperation, especially in the joint fight against COVID-19 and large project security. China provides assistance to Central Asian countries and the two sides join hands to maintain long-term stability in the region.

In addition, despite their focus on economic cooperation, the China-ASEAN “10+1” mechanism, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and East Asia Summit also discuss some non-traditional security challenges of common concern, such as aviation security, information security, and financial security.

iii. Playing an active part in the Afghan peace process

Afghanistan is a close neighbor of China. Although the border line is not long, China, Central Asia and South Asia all have a stake in Afghanistan in terms of security. For a long time, the war in Afghanistan has had a direct or indirect impact on China’s neighborhood. Together with other Afghan neighbors, China has provided humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, and,  at the same time, actively promoted reconciliation among various factions in Afghanistan, creating conditions for the peaceful reconstruction of the country. China has also made its own contribution to the recovery of the Afghan economy. In the meanwhile, China has made use of multilateral mechanisms such as the SCO to provide help and support in resolving the Afghan issue and to deal with new threats to regional security caused by the changing situation in Afghanistan. In September 2021, the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization held a joint summit on Afghanistan in Tashkent to exchange views on promoting the sound development of the situation in Afghanistan.

iv. Making joint responses to new security threats

As a result of COVID-19 and the continuous escalation of the geopolitical competition among major countries, new security problems continue to emerge. Because of the geographical location, geo-environment and resources endowment of the regions around China, as well as development disparities among countries, security challenges are becoming increasingly trans-regional and cross-sectoral, and the “deficit” in security governance is more prominent. For example, energy security, food security, ecological security, cyber security, social security, as well as humanitarian crises related to regional hot spots, may affect regional stability under the new situation. As a responsible major country, China should live up to its responsibility, promote security through cooperation, and, by building an extensive network of partnerships, oppose any attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and politicize security issues that need to be tackled together, so as to safeguard true multilateralism and international fairness and justice.

The combined impacts of changes unseen in a hundred years, the once-in-a-century pandemic and major-county competition have led to rapid changes in the external security environment faced by China. In particular, hegemony and the Cold War mentality have continuously disrupted the normal development of countries in China’s neighborhood. In this context, China’s neighborhood security has entered a new stage, with unprecedented challenges and opportunities.

Generally speaking, by following a new security concept, China has the confidence and ability to deal with security threats from different directions and fields on the premise of establishing good-neighborly relations and even comprehensive strategic partnerships with most of its neighbors. However, some security problems can only be well controlled and resolved through close cooperation with neighboring countries. In the process of maintaining regional stability, bilateral strategic cooperation between China and its neighboring countries and the multilateral platforms and mechanisms they have jointly built are playing a more and more active role.

Sun Zhuangzhi is Director of the Institute of Russia, East Europe and Central Asia Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.