Security challenge in 2013

Updated: 2013-01-10 01:11

By Zhang Jie and Li Zhifei (China Daily)

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The United States' move to bolster its strategic presence in the Asia-Pacific region to contain China's rise and Beijing's response to it will define the security environment in the region in 2013. If Washington is expected to continue exploiting maritime disputes in Asia-Pacific to strengthen its security ties with its allies in the region, China is likely to be more determined to safeguard its maritime territories and sovereignty and resolve the islands disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

The US rebalancing in Asia-Pacific, irrespective of whether it succeeds or not, will create security uncertainties in China's neighborhood. It is too early to say whether John Kerry, who succeeds Hillary Clinton as the US secretary of state, will bring in the astute diplomacy of his predecessor to push forward Washington's "return to Asia" strategy. Also, it is uncertain whether the US, with fiscal budget cuts, can strengthen its military presence and hold more large-scale military drills in the Asia-Pacific.

But come what may, China has to work on three fronts in 2013. First, China has to prepare for a new period of Sino-US relations, especially because its foreign policy will need time to adjust after the leadership transition.

The report of the 18th Party Congress says that China will strive to establish relationships of long-term stability and sound growth with other major countries. As the most important world power, the US will continue to be a priority on China's diplomatic agenda. The two countries will enter a period of policy adjustment and adaptation this year, during which it will be a challenge for China to find ways to deal with the US' new Asia-Pacific strategy.

Second, China has to respond to the challenges from the Indochina Peninsula. Since Indochina is the meeting point of the Pacific and Indian oceans, the US has been bolstering its strategic presence there. That US President Barack Obama chose Myanmar, which is undergoing political transition, as the first foreign country to visit after his re-election is of more than symbolic significance.

For China, the Indochina Peninsula is of great security importance, because it is contiguous to the country's southern and southwestern regions and vital for China-Myanmar energy cooperation. The Myanmar-China oil and gas pipeline, which can help China overcome the "Malacca Dilemma", is likely to be completed by the end of this year. But political changes and ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, and the debate on the oil and gas pipeline combined with Washington's changing policy toward Myanmar could make Myanmar's political landscape more complex and uncertain, create new challenges for China-Myanmar energy cooperation and threaten China's energy security.

In short, an unstable Indochina Peninsula will weaken the security environment in China's neighborhood. Therefore, Beijing should prepare for the challenges ahead.

Third, China has to meet the challenges posed by maritime disputes. The Diaoyu Islands dispute has become a major diplomatic thorn in China-Japan relations. Now it is up to the new leaders of the two countries to handle the issue. At a meeting of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping, China's top political leader and head of the military, told the military to always give priority to the country's sovereignty and security, and improve its deterrent capacity and capability of real combat to protect China's sovereignty, security and development interests. This shows the determination of the new Chinese leadership to safeguard national territory and sovereignty.

The Japanese government's scheme is to occupy the Diaoyu Islands permanently. The "nationalization" of the Diaoyu Islands by the Japanese government is a move aimed at strengthening its "actual control" over the islands in an attempt to turn its illegal occupation into "legal possession".

It is highly likely that the new Japanese government will continue with the "nationalization" policy to "legalize" its occupation of the Diaoyu Islands and refrain from reaching a compromise. As a result, the continued confrontation between China and Japan in the East China Sea could become a permanent concern with uncertainty writ large over it.

So China has to devise ways to strengthen its legal protection mechanisms and grasp the initiative in dealing with the dispute.

With China moving on the road to national rejuvenation, its relations both with the US and neighboring countries will pose huge challenges. On one hand, despite its rising influence overseas, China must adopt a calm, rational and objective attitude to assess its power projection. On the other hand, it must know that it cannot necessarily transform all its strength into "positive energy" to safeguard its interests.

This makes using its growing strength positively and convincing the US and neighboring countries of China's commitment to peaceful development a comprehensive project beyond the diplomatic realm.

The year 2013 not only signifies a major point on the road to building a moderately prosperous society in all respects for China, but also the beginning of a difficult period for China and its neighboring countries. And China has to see the new situation more prudently with an eye to seizing the initiatives to decrease the risks for a long-term and interactive resolution to the disputes.

The authors are with the National Institute of International Strategy under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The article is an excerpt from China's Regional Security Environment Review: 2013.