An Evaluation of China’s Overall National Security Environment

China International Studies | 作者: Liu Jianfei | 时间: 2014-11-14 | 责编: Li Minjie
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 Liu Jianfei



      China’s external environment primarily includes two components: its development environment and security environment. From an evolutionary perspective, China’s external environment now faces new challenges, but also clear opportunities. From a security perspective, China’s external environment now faces numerous opportunities, but it is also encountering more prominent challenges. With an emphasis on overall national security, the following essay will evaluate China’s external security environment from the perspective of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.


National security and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics


      Proposed by President Xi Jinping during the first session of the National Security Council, “overall national security” is a concept that integrates politics, economics and military affairs into one, singular mechanism. Compared with other major powers, China is unique in its practice of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. This uniqueness is important when observing China’s external environment, especially its national security. A perspective of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics has more distinct features than a pure national perspective.

First, it highlights the “one country, two systems” and reunification.

Though Hong Kong and Macao have returned to the People’s Republic of China, these territories’ capitalist systems and high degrees of autonomy could be used by Western powers to interfere in China’s domestic affairs and attempt to spread Western values. Just as Taiwan is an integral part of China – and the unchanging fact that both Taiwan and the mainland belong to China – the potential risk of Taiwanese separation still exists, not to mention the fact that Taiwan still maintains close ties with Japan and the United States in terms of security, and it practices a different ideology from the mainland. If Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan do not pose serious challenges to China’s external environment, then they still pose clear challenges to the external environment of Socialist China.

Second, it helps to build a more objective and sober understanding of China’s external challenges.

From the perspective of China’s external environment, we tend to see China only as a rising power and focus on conventional international relations, such as security and economic issues. What we neglect are the ideological factors in international politics, factors that are always included in the considerations of Western countries. For example, in the realm of economics, Western countries prevent China’s state-owned enterprises from going global and restrict hi-tech exports to China. In the military sphere, they guard against China while encouraging and supporting India. It is fair to say that a rising China may only be of concern to the United States, Japan, India and other powers that have geopolitical conflicts with China. However, a rising Socialist China may concern many other countries, because many Western states do not accept Socialism for various reasons.

Third, it gives China a more rational understanding of itself.

From the perspective of China’s external environment, many people tend to focus only on hard power and related international politics. This perspective exposes more opportunities than it does challenges. For instance, in economic and military affairs, it can be easily seen that the gap between China and the United States is narrowing; in the hard power world of international politics, it is easy to think that as multi-polarization advances, China, as one of the new poles, will have more international influence.

Things are quite different from the perspective of the external environment of Socialist China. First, though some gaps are narrowing between China and the United States, the United States still enjoys apparent advantages for its value-based alliance. Second, the United States often suppresses China with the excuse that it is “promoting democracy” or “universal values.”

Such behavior is understood and supported by Western allies and other developing capitalist countries. As put by Thomas Carothers, the vice chairman of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “[A]lthough the relative power balance between the West and ‘the rest’ is shifting, many of the major new non-Western powers are in fact democracies. The socioeconomic dynamism of Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey, and other rising democratic powers is giving a boost to global democracy both through their example and through their increasing efforts to support democracy in their neighborhoods.”[1] Finally, universal values are used by the United States as a major soft power tool to restrict China from building its own.

The external environment of Socialist China and the external environment of China are not separate. On the contrary, they are two sides of the same thing: the former is the essence and the latter is the carrier. Without the carrier, the essence would cease to exist; without the essence, the carrier would undergo fundamental change. If the external environment of China goes wrong, the environment of Socialist China will not remain safe and sound and China’s Socialist cause will not proceed smoothly. From this perspective, the challenges of the external environment of China are also the challenges of the external environment of Socialist China. Likewise, if China’s Socialist cause does not proceed smoothly, the external environment of Socialist China will deteriorate and further impact China’s overall external environment.


Political Security Under Challenge


When proposing the concept and system overall national security, President Xi Jinping emphasized the central role of political security. This is an appropriate proposition, given China’s conditions and the new features and trends of China’s security environment. Compared with other countries, China prominently features socialism with Chinese characteristics, a feature that is meant to bring more challenges to national security.

Though military threats loom large for small and weak nations, they do not weigh that much for big and strong powers. Take the Soviet Union for example: each time it was invaded, it was able to recover and settle; military strength was untouched when the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States and NATO did not fire a single shot. Likewise, economic security is not able to dissolve a nation. The Soviet Union struggled through numerous economic downturns throughout its 70-year history and was not hopeless in economy before it collapsed. The most prominent security problem that the Soviet Union faced was its political security and especially ideology security. Changes in the Soviet Communist Party made it impossible to sustain the regime and Socialism and a lack of national cohesion encouraged the independence of some republics. With this, political factions sprung up in the Soviet Communist Party and finally resulted in the breakdown of the Party.

History demonstrates that for socialist countries besieged by capitalism, the most subversive threat the political security one. Despite the remarkable progress and worldwide attention that China has brought to the socialist cause, China remains besieged by capitalism. National political security, in particular ideological security, is thus of critical importance. Ideology is therefore deemed an “extremely important task of the Chinese Communist Party.

China’s ideological security faces double challenges – from within and outside.

From within, China’s Socialist ideology has been challenged by the following factors: first, it is challenged by rightism, people attempting to replace scientific socialism with Western democracy; second it is challenged by leftism, those who forget that we are still at the primary stage of socialism and mistakenly emphasize the confrontation between socialism and capitalism and disregard the fact that we must still learn from developed economies. If any of these gain too much prominence, Chinese Socialism may lose its Chinese characteristics and go backward to the old line. This past February, President Xi Jinping spoke at the Special Seminar for Provincial and Ministerial Cadres, stating that China shall “neither go back to rigid closed-door policies nor go astray to abandon socialism.” For Chinese socialism, either way threatens to harm ideological security.

From outside, the United States and other Western countries still maintain a Cold War mentality and are largely anti-Communist.[2] They are even more frightened by China’s Socialism and its rapid rise, and they fear the rising influence of the “China model.” The United States has tried everything it can do to “Westernize” China: it has promoted democratic strategy and universal values, attempted to build a “League of Democracies” in Asia, interfered with China’s domestic political affairs in Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, supported overseas anti-Communist and anti-China forces and schemed against mainland China the development of Hong Kong’s constitution. Moreover, these strategies and policies tend to be supported by other Western countries. Such actions pose severe challenges to China’s ideological security.

The challenge brought by the United States’ “universal values” is particularly noteworthy. Since Obama assumed office, “universal values” have been promoted as the main vehicle of American ideological diplomacy. The 2010 National Security Strategy clearly listed “Respect for universal values at home and around the world” as one of the main goals of global strategy.[3]

Universal values fall into two categories. First, there are values shared and promoted by all countries around the world, including peace, development, good governance, harmony, justice, equality, cooperation and environmental protection. And second, there are values promoted by the West and accepted by most countries, including freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law. That is to say, universal values do not equal Western values. That said, the values in the second category could be misleading. These values may have been created in the West, but they are by no means unique to the West. Many developing countries and socialist countries also adopt these values in governance.

The West, however, assumes that it is the example of democracy and disseminates “universal values” as if they were missionaries. China must be aware of the fact that they are only doing this for their own good. The West is promoting a form of democracy and freedom that they have defined.

For instance, in the Western sense, democracy must come with a multi-party system, separation of powers and general elections. This false equates representative governing systems with democracy, and wrongly assumes that Western democracy is democracy for all. Some Western countries that replaced universal values with values defined by them have confused the public and caused grave consequences. Some democracy promoters incorrectly believe that in order to develop democracy, China must copy the Western model.

On the contrary, others who stand against liberalization to safeguard China’s ideology misinterpreted that universal values are exclusive to the West and China will not have democracy, freedom or human rights. The United States and other Western countries often adopt double standards when promoting universal values, using “universal values” to undermine other countries and protect their own interests. Such behavior only pushes people farther away from “universal values.” Universal values are thus prone to causing ideological disputes and endangering ideological security.

China’s political security faces a complicated external environment, particularly with economic globalization, market economics, information technology penetration and other factors that discourage China from maintaining political security. These factors, however, are indispensable and unavoidable in the pursuit of development. All of them have made the external political environment more challenging.


Evaluation on national security and the external environment


From the perspective of overall national security, security threats vary largely in China’s national security system.

Political security faces a grim situation in which major threats come from within and external threats come from the United States and other Western countries. The history of the international Communist movement has shown that any external threats to political security only come into play via internal factors.

Military security factors are subversive. In evaluating the international landscape and external security environment, China must first consider military security. Such considerations center around the question of whether peace and development will remain the theme of the era and whether China will become involved in large-scale wars. At the moment, there are only potential threats to China’s military security that mainly come from Japan and Japan-United States alliance. Meanwhile, internal factors are also of great importance. Weak strength and low security awareness will give opponents the chance to transform potential external factors to real threats.

Economic security can be maintained despite major potential threats coming from within. China’s past experience in handling the international financial crisis has demonstrated that when the domestic economy is healthy and the government takes quick and effective action against external crises, the economy will remain secure.

Such is also the case with territorial, social, cultural, technological, environmental and security issues in which domestic threats are dominant and external threats are secondary. Even though there are many adverse factors, they remain well under control. The Wikileaks and Snowden cases demonstrated the urgency of information security, with threats mainly coming from the United States and its allies. Information threats, however, come into play through military, political, economic and technological areas. Information itself will not pose any subversive threats to China’s national security.

To effectively face the above security challenges and safeguard the country, China must focus on efforts both inside and outside of its borders. China must grasp domestic and international issues, improve its ability to maintain security and create a sound external environment. Diplomacy must be improved to as to ensure a good security and development environment and good relations with other countries. The most challenging and concerning relations in China’s diplomacy are the China-United States relationship, the China-Japan relationship and China’s relation with some other neighboring countries.

From an external perspective, the United States is the only country capable of stopping China’s peaceful development and interrupting China’s peaceful rise. It should be China’s priority to make an accurate judgment and evaluation on the United States’ will, determination and strategy. For its own good, the United States is unwilling to directly confront China, and instead it seeks cooperation in competition. It is still possible, however, that the United States will try everything it can to hamper China’s rise. The United StatesChina strategy can be summarized as shaping China into a partner through cooperation and convergence and preventing China from becoming an enemy.[4] As China gains strength, the United States is becoming all the more motivated to curb China. As the United States’ strategic center moves eastward, its conflict with China has only increased. Therefore, good China-United States relations are of great importance to China’s security environment.

From a general perspective, Japan is not an East Asian country or China’s neighboring country. Even though China-Japan relations are no longer big power relations on the global stage, the relationship remains important in East Asia and China’s neighborhood. In recent years, China-Japan relations have deteriorated due to Japan’s rampant right-wing shift. The Abe regime has held fast to wrong historical stances and lifted the ban on collective self-defense rights, despite encountering strong opposition of China and Korea. A more important factor in China-Japan relations is United States-Japan alliance. Due to its global strategic interest, the United States will not tolerate China-Japan relations to be closer than United States-Japan relations. Former leader Yukio Hatoyama and his DPJ government once tried to establish closer ties with China and build a Japan-United States-China triangle. He was forced to step down shortly afterwards, however, and it has become an open secret that the United States was behind this development. The stalemate between China and Japan will only make both sides suffer while benefiting the United States.

Looking forward, the China-Japan relationship faces the following risks: first, there is the risk that Japan’s right-wing forces continue to gain strength and win the public by being harsh towards China; second, that the United States is determined to curb China, and Japan will be ready to follow their lead. Japan’s willingness is fully demonstrated by Shinzo Abe’s enthusiasm in building the so-called “League of Democracies in Asia”. This enthusiasm garnered even more passion than it did in the United States. If China and Japan engage in a military confrontation, the United States will most likely join Japan, meaning that China will have to confront Japan and the United States simultaneously. If that is the case, China’s military security and overall security will deteriorate sharply.

China has numerous disputes with a number of countries regarding territory and marine rights and interests. Territorial disputes between China and India have been a critical factor in the two countries’ bilateral relations. In recent years, disputes involving China in the South China Sea have been exacerbated. One contributing factor is the United States’ adjustment on Asia-Pacific strategy, in which the United States hopes to contain China and rebuild its influence in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, relevant Southeast Asian countries are attempting to profit from United States’ strength. The Chinese government thus faces a dilemma when dealing with South China Sea disputes: if the government sets the issue aside, the Chinese people will be dissatisfied and the credit and image of the government will be negatively impacted; but if the government overreacts, relations with relevant countries will deteriorate sharply. Such circumstances will harm the stability of borders, impact the international acknowledgment of China’s peaceful development and ultimately benefit Japan and the United States while worsening China’s strategic environment.

Even so, the above external factors will only exert a partial influence and will not reverse China’s external security environment, including its border security. During this era of peace and development, most neighboring countries have been unwilling to provoke ideological confrontations with China; even the United States and Japan do not take ideological stances against China as a major policy.

From the perspective of overall national security, the often discussed “C-shape Encirclement” only exists in certain areas. Economically, there is no encirclement against China. All neighboring countries are willing to promote their close economic and cultural ties with China. Militarily, there is at most an encirclement against China in East Asia, namely the United States-led Japanese-American alliance. However, in North Asia, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia, there is no such willingness or behavior that poses a military threat to China. Politically, the “encirclement” does exist. Since most neighboring countries practice different social systems from China, some countries either support or welcome the United States’ strategy to “promote democracy” or “universal values.” Such a peripheral environment poses grave challenges to China’s political security.




In order to properly evaluate China’s external security environment, one must start by viewing Chinese Socialism as the core and the external environment of political security as the most major challenge.

Evaluation of China’s overall national security shows that despite facing some complex security areas, the fundamentals of security and external environment remain good. Even though there more prominent challenges and risks – such as more frequent conflicts between China and Japan, China and the United States and between China and other neighboring countries – these external factor are still manageable and will not subvert China’s external environment if they remain under control. Security has not yet surpassed development as a top priority. China faces strategic opportunities for development, and development remains the priority for the Party and the government.







[1] Thomas Carothers, “Reenergizing Democracy Promotion,” November 29, 2012, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,


[2] Liu Jianfei, A Study on the U.S. Strategy of Democracy Alliance, Contemporary World Press, 2013, pp. 3-48.


[3] The White House, National Security Strategy, May 2010, p. 7 & p. 17,


[4] The U.S. strategic perception of “shaping China” was most clearly revealed in the Quadrennial Defense Review Report(2006).