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China and Non-Traditional Security: Towards What End?

Date: Thursday, 17 March 2011
Time: 3 pm – 4.30 pm
Venue: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)

Speaker: Dr Katherine Morton, Senior Fellow, Department of International Relations, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University (ANU).
Chairperson: Assoc. Prof. Ralf Emmers, Acting Head, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies.


In the Asian regional context, it is now difficult to argue against the proposition that non-traditional security (NTS) matters. The intensification of economic globalisation and its associated political, social and environmental risks, non-state inflicted terrorism, demographic shifts, complex natural disasters and climate change have in combination reinforced the need for an expanded security vision.

The more germane question then is whether the securitisation of such threats is likely to lead to more secure outcomes. In practice, does the pursuit of an NTS agenda lead to greater cooperation among states, or is it the case that transnational security threats can also reinforce border security and ultimately exacerbate rather than alleviate instability?

In China, the NTS concept is now widely debated among academics and government officials. Many of these debates have focused on the boundary between non-traditional and traditional security, the relevance of NTS threats to China’s domestic stability and the importance of identifying security priorities on the basis of limited resources. Far less attention has been given to China’s response to NTS problems in practice.

In the seminar, Dr Katherine Morton sought to fill the gap through analysing China’s response to a specific NTS threat – the case of climate change and its impacts on water security in the Tibetan-Himalayan region. She sought to highlight that, in this case, sovereignty concerns, development imperatives and pre-existing border disputes severely constrain the potential for cooperative action. Furthermore, she argued that in the absence of institutional mechanisms for responding to the unfolding crisis, it is difficult to envisage a secure water future for the region.

The lesson that she drew from the disputes surrounding resources in the Tibetan-Himalayan region is that, under certain conditions, tackling non-military threats may not necessarily lead to cooperation but instead amplifies pre-existing tensions.


NTS Threats in Asia: A Rallying Point or A Source of Discord?

Dr Morton began her talk with a general overview of the current debates regarding NTS issues in Asia. She noted that there is a widespread belief that NTS issues have the potential to unite, rather than antagonise, the states involved. Yet, Dr Morton’s experience and extensive research suggest that this might not always be the case. She reminded the audience that NTS threats are often highly politicised, complex and internal. In this context, she argued, it is possible to imagine NTS threats carrying a potential for aggravating the pre-existing tensions.

China and NTS Threats

Dr Morton argued that, in the recent years, there has been a visible discursive shift in China regarding NTS issues, which has raised expectations of China playing a positive role in enhancing regional cooperation. Her position is that, in China, NTS is seen today as a complement to rather than a substitute for traditional security. China seems especially interested in exploring the ways in which NTS threats could have negative effects on domestic stability. At the same time, China’s government seems ambivalent about the concept of human security, as it is seen to be embedded in the Western liberal ideology that runs against the interests of regime. Nevertheless, China finds that NTS can play a useful role as a legitimisation of China’s development.

In general, Dr Morton observed that, in the case of China, NTS primarily serves the state’s internal security agenda. Hence, China is mainly interested in looking at such NTS issues as separatism and water security which Beijing views as being integral to the future stability and prosperity of the state. By the same logic, climate change is not high on the list of China’s security priorities. In fact, it is not perceived as a security threat at all. Dr Morton finds this situation paradoxical; while China does not seem concerned with climate-induced security challenges, it does see the need to tackle such issues as water scarcity or natural disasters.

At the same time, Dr Morton expressed an understanding that the reluctance to securitise climate change stems out of the political considerations. In general, domestic political considerations hinder efforts to better tackle NTS issues. Among the main obstacles are problems with engaging non-state actors and issues related to territorial integrity.

The Himalayan Region, China and NTS

Dr Morton argued that the complexities related to NTS issues and their impact on domestic and foreign policies will be particularly visible in the Himalayan region. This is not only because of the region’s size, but also because of its importance from the water security and climate change perspectives. Dr Morton highlighted the fact that the Himalayan glaciers (which are increasingly affected by climate change) feed the large regional rivers that shape the lives of nearly 800 million people living in a number of different states. Dr Morton also observed that most of these rivers originate in China’s territory and, therefore, China’s active engagement in responding to potential crises would be central to any future political and diplomatic solution to the problems related to the Himalayan water resources.

At the same time, according to Dr Morton, China might not be interested in region-wide cooperation as it is constrained by its development imperatives and strong focus on national security and sovereignty. Regional cooperation, which currently is strikingly low, may also be constrained as a result of mistrust among neighbouring states. Dr Morton argued that any attempt to develop collective approaches may likely be seriously undermined by the realities of territorial disputes and economic competition.

The NTS Paradox

Dr Morton concluded by asserting that there is in fact a great paradox related to the existence of NTS threats in the region. In the presence of pre-existing political disputes, NTS issues can actually aggravate tensions and lead to more severe conflicts – even though they have the potential to engender cooperation.


A number of important issues were discussed during the discussion session that followed Dr Morton’s presentation. All participants seemed to agree that transparency and cooperation are of great and pressing importance. Dr Morton clarified that she is not against dam constructions or other infrastructure projects per se, but rather that she would like to see climate change being considered during project development.

A participant noted that it might be possible to imagine a situation in which NTS issues become part of the geopolitical domain. He also suggested that perhaps presenting certain NTS threats as dangers to national security could be quite effective in convincing China to act. Dr Morton agreed that indeed traditional and non-traditional security issues are very often interlinked. At the same time, she noted again that China’s thinking is dominated by its development imperative and this can often work against regional cooperation.

Another participant was interested in the question of whether securitisation can lead to more cooperation. He noted that this had been ASEAN’s strategy towards China. Dr Morton argued that,  with regard to China’s response to securitisation, it will be cooperative only when it is ready to see a certain issue as a security problem. For instance, she believes that it is possible that within the next five years China will consider climate change as a security issue.

Dr Morton also observed it is natural for China to be more involved in South Asian activities as it is a vital part of the Himalayan region, and that such involvement will likely become more dynamic and important in coming years.

About the speaker:

Dr Katherine Morton is a Senior Fellow in the Department of International Relations, College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University (ANU). She is a specialist on China and international relations with particular research interests in non-traditional and human security, environmental governance, and the role and influence of civil society. She has spent the past seven years conducting fieldwork on the Tibetan Plateau.

Posted on: 17/3/2011 3:00:00 PM  |  Topic: Other NTS Issues

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