China has put out a White Paper on its policy on security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific for the first time, in what is seen as a reflection of its growing interest in reshaping the regional security order.
At a press conference yesterday, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin made it clear that the document was about security cooperation and not security issues.
But he also said: "The current security structure in the region is not satisfactory, which has led to mistrust among the nations."
The release of the White Paper came as China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning sailed into the Taiwan Strait yesterday for the first time since it was declared combat-ready in November 2016.
Included in China's vision for the region's security is the improvement of the regional security framework. The paper stated: "China promotes the building of a security framework in the Asia-Pacific region, which does not mean starting all over again, but improving and upgrading the existing mechanisms."
The future framework should be "multi-layered, comprehensive and diversified" and "based on consensus". The paper noted the diversity of the current framework, with Asean-led security cooperation mechanisms, and platforms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, both Chinese initiatives.
But there was no mention of the Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit, held annually in Singapore, where the Chinese often find themselves the target of criticism.
Associate Professor Li Mingjiang, an expert on Asia-Pacific security, said the White Paper showed that China has become "more serious about reforming and transforming the regional security architecture". This is as the current one, which China did not play a major role in creating, has elements not to its liking. Among these are the United States-centred security alliances and partnerships such as those between the US and Japan, South Korea, the Philippines or Thailand.
While China is a member of several Asean-related multilateral institutions such as the Asean Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, Beijing does not play a leading or dominant role in them and thus cannot expand its influence through them.
On what China can do to reshape the regional security architecture, Prof Li said it has to begin with cooperation in non-traditional security areas such as disaster relief, anti- piracy, and search and rescue.
"It is less sensitive and many countries have the need to work with China and, increasingly, China may be the only major power to offer resources (in these areas)," he said.
Chinese international relations expert Shi Yinhong said the White Paper is in part meant to reassure neighbouring countries of China's intentions, and that it is peace- loving. But it is also to remind countries not to be too focused on their core interests to the detriment of overall regional peace and stability.
The paper, while noting that the region was, by and large, stable, said it "still faces multiple destabilising and uncertain factors".
These include the Korean peninsula nuclear issue and disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.
In what is seen by experts as a reference to almost all the countries in the region, the paper said: "Small and medium-sized countries need not and should not take sides among big countries."
The paper also touched on the South China Sea issue, noting that China has "indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and their adjacent waters". But it also said China was committed to resolving the disputes over these islands peacefully.