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China and Its Neighbours

Date: Monday, 15 August 2011
Time: 10.30am – 12pm
Venue: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)


Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.

Speaker: Professor Zha Daojiong, Visiting Senior Fellow, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies; and Professor, School of International Studies, Peking University.
Chairperson: Associate Professor Ralf Emmers, Acting Head, RSIS Centre for NTS Studies.


Given China’s expanding national power and its rising profile in international affairs, its foreign-policy intentions have attracted wide attention from policy and academic communities across the world, and in particular, from the Asia-Pacific countries (which are often directly affected by China’s policies). Over the past year, China’s handling of regional hotspot issues such as the Cheonan incident has led to more questions – than answers – regarding its relations with its neighbours.

In this seminar, Professor Zha Daojiong sought to share with the audience his personal observations of, and explanations for, China’s reactions to those headline events, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region. Themes covered in the seminar included the government of China’s national security considerations, the puzzles arising from its policy behaviours and the answers, and the likely role that the academic community can play in relation to China’s engagement with its immediate neighbours.



Prof. Zha began by recapitulating China’s general national security considerations, quoting China’s defence white paper – China’s National Defense in 2010. The paper conveys China’s strategic concerns, both traditional and new. The former includes the profoundly changing international situation, the intensifying international strategic competition and challenges, the increasingly complex security threats (i.e., non-traditional security (NTS) issues) and the stable but intricate regional security situation. In view of these dynamics, China needs to accelerate its military modernisation and assume its responsibility to maintain world peace and security.

In addition to those routine expressions, Prof. Zha noted the emergence of new dynamics, including the deployment of the military for non-combat purposes such as development and crisis management. For instance, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been tasked with new missions; protecting the interests of national development both at home and abroad, and cooperating with the paramilitary and police forces in maintaining domestic social harmony and stability.

Based on its understanding of the regional situation and the challenges to its national security, China has conducted extensive consultations and dialogues on various fronts with regional stakeholders, with the aim of maintaining a peaceful and stable environment for its continuous domestic development. China has established a mechanism for regular bilateral strategic dialogues with the US, Japan and India. It has also deepened its engagement with regional organisations on a range of issues, such as China-ASEAN cooperation in NTS, dialogues on maritime security at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and regional security cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

Given that the military force has been assigned new tasks in addition to its conventional responsibility, the PLA has widened and deepened exchanges with its foreign counterparts on disaster rescue and relief, maritime escort and international humanitarian rescue, as well as held joint military exercises. In order to defuse suspicion over the expansion of the PLA’s role, China has instituted measures to increase its military transparency, such as regular press briefings by the Ministry of Defence and more up-to-date information on the Ministry’s website.

After reviewing recent developments in China’s strategic considerations, Prof. Zha attempted to answer the puzzles surrounding its international behaviours. China’s tolerance towards North Korea over the Cheonan incident has been criticised by related countries, as it had been expected that China would use its traditionally close bilateral relationship with North Korea to pressurise the country. Prof. Zha noted that policymakers in Beijing have reached a consensus on how to deal with North Korea, and China’s central government is now less generous in providing aid than in the 1990s. Provincial governments and private companies have stepped in to fill the gap; some of these private companies have provided sub-standard food and commodities to North Korea, and the bilateral relationship has soured to some extent.

China’s disputes with its neighbours over competing territorial claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea were also a focus of interest during the seminar. The Sino-Japanese dispute over exclusive economic zones has caused spats, for example, when a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese warship, and over the development of the offshore Chunxiao gas field. Although China has put in a set of resolution mechanisms, its handling of the recent disputes with Japan was heavily influenced by geopolitics and nationalism. At its southern maritime border, China faces similar disputes with its Southeast Asian neighbours. However, China’s policymakers and academics are still divided over how to resolve these disputes.

As China expands its economic engagement in other countries, its government faces increasing pressure in managing its large overseas labour force and the overseas operations of Chinese companies. The massive evacuation of Chinese workers after the onset of the Libyan crisis reflects such challenges. Also, Chinese companies have been accused of cheating in countries such as Tanzania and Cambodia. Prof. Zha noted that Chinese companies that operate overseas vary greatly in terms of ownership and financial sources, and that that complexity has made it more difficult for China’s government to regulate them. In some cases, though, the ill-behaving companies are actually local companies pretending to be Chinese. Although China’s government has implemented some measures to regulate companies and individual behaviours, the improvement is still limited.

In view of China’s increasing engagement in international politics and the global economy, there arises the need for more exchanges between China’s scholars of international studies and their foreign peers. Regular and extensive academic communications contribute to stable bilateral relationships as in the case of Sino-US and Sino-Japanese relations (despite there being sporadic friction). Prof. Zha noted that insufficient academic research and mutual understanding could make bilateral relations more difficult in times of crises. For instance, China was surprised when, during its crackdown on the Uighur separatist movement in 2009, the Turkish government’s rhetoric was sympathetic towards the separatists. Academic exchanges would also inspire the development of indigenous theories in international studies which could inform policymaking.



The issue of Sino-ASEAN relations was a focus of discussion. Among China’s academic community, the research interest in Southeast Asia still lags far behind that of major bilateral relationships such as Sino-US relations. At the government level, China’s engagement with ASEAN relies heavily on ethnic Chinese communities in these countries as a linkage, a situation which is detrimental to the further development of relations. The need to reach out to the wider part of Southeast Asian societies has been recognised by some such as Prof. Zha himself, and efforts have been made to promote communications on various fronts.

The domestic dynamics in China was also of interest to the audience. Given the continuation of China’s opening-up policy, one participant raised the question of the relevance of the Communist Party in decision-making at various levels. On the economic front, the footprint of the party has been greatly diluted since China started economic reform in 1979, while for government officials party membership is still important.

In addition to its increasingly close ties with Southeast Asia, China now has a more prominent role in Central Asia. Thus, Central Asia is another crucial area in terms of observing China’s policy behaviours. Prof. Zha pointed out that the final delineation of the Sino-Russian border was a remarkable achievement of China’s diplomacy in the 21st century as this has greatly released it from the fear of future border disputes with its most powerful neighbour. Yet, the two countries are not fully free of friction. One source of contention is the lead role in Central Asia. China wants to strengthen economic cooperation with Central Asian countries while Russia is afraid of the erosion of its predominant influence in the region.


About the speaker:

Prof. Zha Daojiong is Professor of International Political Economy at the School of International Studies, Peking University. He is currently a Visiting Senior Research Fellow with the RSIS Centre for NTS Studies (July–August 2011). Prof. Zha focuses on political-economic relations between China and its neighbours. He is also interested in energy, food and water issues, with particular focus on how these pertain to China. His publications include Building a Neighbourly Community: Post-Cold War China, Japan, and Southeast Asia (Manchester University Press, 2006) and The International Political Economy of China’s Oil Supply Security (in Chinese, 2005). He also edited Chinese Scholars View the World: Non-Traditional Security (in Chinese, 2006). He is a frequent contributor to refereed academic journals both within and outside China. Prof. Zha holds a doctoral degree in political science from the University of Hawaii, and has held university teaching posts in the US, Japan, Hong Kong and Macau.


Posted on: 15/8/2011 10:30:00 AM  |  Topic: Other NTS Issues

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