China has dramatically expanded its global presence as a security actor. China projects its military power far beyond the Asia-Pacific region, it shapes the security agenda in international organizations and it forges its own security partnerships in different parts of the world. The Chinese leadership has abandoned its decades-long international restraint and today claims a major share in the design of the 21st century global security order.
In their new study “China’s Emergence as a Global Security Actor – Strategies for Europe,” researchers from the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) examine the ways China establishes itself as a major global security actor and what this means for Europe. They argue that China’s activities increasingly affect core European interests. In Europe and its immediate neighborhood, in Central Asia and Africa, China has the potential to become a partner, but it will also act as competitor and adversary to Europe.
The MERICS paper focuses primarily on China’s security activities outside of East Asia. Even though China’s role in regional disputes, e.g. in the South China Sea, receive more global attention, China’s activities outside East Asia will turn out to be more consequential for Europe. Based on consultation with experts and European foreign and security policy decision makers, the authors identify 15 trends underpinning China’s global security efforts, many of which have high relevance for Europe.
China’s growing clout as a global military actor
The People’s Liberation Army is developing the capability to deploy far beyond Chinese borders and neighboring regions. In Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, China is establishing its first overseas military base. Others will follow along the so-called “Maritime Silk Road.” Beijing is developing advanced weapons systems and is reinforcing its military and security cooperation with partner countries. China is increasingly interested in collaborating with Europe in military operations other than war. China also wants to play a significantly larger role in UN peacekeeping missions and to expand its training of UN soldiers.
China wants to shape the international peace and security agenda
China is actively shaping the international peace and security agenda. Beijing has the potential to play a more visible role in global crisis solution and is increasingly willing to act as a conflict mediator. However, China tends to play a less constructive role in international organizations, where it pressures other states to adopt its own authoritarian views of issues such as terrorism and internet security. As a counterweight to Western security alliances, China is attempting to upgrade regional alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
China uses economic means to advance its security interests
Beijing underlines its international security activities through massive investments abroad. China’s growing economic clout in Africa and Asia has been well documented. But growing financial dependencies also strengthen Beijing’s influence in international security politics and help the Chinese leadership to develop new alliances.
China will be a powerful global player by 2022
According to the MERICS authors, China will be a powerful global security actor by 2022. It will have forged new partnerships to tackle cross border security issues such terrorism, drug trafficking and people trafficking. Militarily, China will seek to be on par with the United States, it will be capable of operating outside its borders and it will have solidified its power in both cyberspace and outer space.
Challenges for European foreign and security policy decision makers
For Europe, China will be a unique – and at times difficult – partner to deal with. European decision makers therefore have to put greater efforts into identifying areas that warrant deeper security cooperation and those that require a more cautious approach.
On the one hand, there are opportunities to collaborate with China in third countries, for example within the framework of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative.” The authors also see potential convergence of European and Chinese interests in development policy in Africa.
On military issues, the authors argue for a cautious approach when collaborating with China on military R&D. But they recommend that European governments use China’s growing interest in military cooperation to engage Beijing more actively in joint operations that are in Europe’s interest, such as the fight against piracy around the Horn of Africa.
At the UN level, China should be encouraged to play a more constructive role. European nations should demand specific suggestions from China for tackling global challenges and should push for these to go beyond general statements of principles. European governments should be prepared to accommodate some Chinese interests in order to promote their own agenda, including human rights and compliance with international law within the UN Framework.
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