Even though the Coronavirus crisis will probably hinder some high-ranking Chinese officials from attending the MSC, China will be very present in most discussions about the international security landscape. In a declaration issued at the end of its December summit, NATO recognized the challenges posed by the rise of China – a first for the western defence alliance. Why did it do that?
The statement by NATO leaders was the culmination of a process of assessing China’s growing international role and its rise as a global security actor. Asia is normally outside the alliance’s area of operations. But issues like Huawei and 5G, China-Russia relations, China’s rapid military modernization and NATO more frequently encountering the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) overseas have brought China into focus. Although the language of the statement is careful – it notes China presents “both opportunities and challenges” – its mere existence is hugely significant as it shows that China has become a point of concern for the alliance.
Many European governments are currently struggling to deal with China’s determination to participate in Europe’s 5G infrastructure. They view the possibility of Chinese infiltration as a serious threat to their national security. Do you expect the Chinese delegation to address this issue in Munich?
The issue of Europe’s 5G networks and Huawei’s role in supplying them is very likely to come up at the Munich Security Conference. There are delegates from China, the US and Europe, so the war of words over the security implications of using Huawei equipment in 5G networks will most likely continue, especially as most European countries, including Germany, have not finally decided the issue (as we highlight in our contribution to the Munich Security Report, page 31f.). We can expect the US delegation to continue making the case for a Huawei ban, while the Chinese delegation will push for Europe not to exclude Huawei, possibly threatening consequences if countries choose to ban the Chinese telecommunications giant.
New research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) suggests China is the world’s second-largest arms producer, behind the USA but ahead of Russia. Does China want to dominate the market?
The arms-sales figures of China’s defence companies aren’t very transparent, so it is difficult to exactly determine their position in the market. But it is quite clear that China overall is currently a net global arms exporter, having left behind its traditional position as a net importer. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reckons China exported about EUR 14.4 billion worth of conventional weapons between 2008 and 2018, making it the fifth largest arms supplier in the world. But China is working to increase its global arms sales by moving beyond its traditional buyers in Asia, in particular Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. China is increasingly intent on strengthening its foothold in new markets in Africa and the Middle East, where Russia and the US have traditionally been much bigger players. China’s advantage is that Chinese weaponry – although sometimes less advanced – tends to be cheaper than the Russian and especially the American alternatives.
How do you expect China’s participation in arms-control regimes to develop?
The collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) has lent a new sense of urgency to the issue of arms control. Developing a new arms-control regime that includes China and other global powers like the US and Russia has become a priority for many governments. Both Washington and Berlin have repeatedly invited Beijing to help negotiate a new treaty, be it trilateral or multilateral. But China has rejected these calls and argued that Moscow and Washington must take steps to reduce their nuclear arsenals before they ask other countries to do the same. Beijing is reluctant to embrace full transparency when it comes to its arsenal and assigns its missiles an important role in its military strategy and global ambitions, so including China in a new regime that is similar to the INF Treaty will be an uphill battle. But incremental steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of an arms race.
At the next National People’s Congress (NPC), China is expected to announce new military-spending plans. Do you expect a big increase in expenditure?
This year’s National People’s Congress was supposed to meet on March 5, but it is likely to be delayed by the coronavirus outbreak, so it may be some time before China’s defense budget for 2020 is published. But it does seem likely that this year’s budget will grow by about 7-8 percent, as it has over the last few years. This would continue the upward trend of China’s military expenditure, which has almost doubled since 2010. The growing military budget and other national policies like Made in China 2025 and the Civil-Military Integration strategy have clearly contributed to the PLA’s modernization. Beijing has rapidly developed increasingly advanced platforms – the first domestically made aircraft carrier, stealth UAVs, fifth-generation fighter jets like the J-20. China’s ultimate goal is to have by 2049 a military that can fight and win wars – even if the PLA still has a number of big hurdles to clear to get there.
“Westlessness” is the slogan of this year’s MSC. Is China a cause of this condition?
This year’s MSC report defines the concept of “Westlesness” as a trend by which not only the world is becoming less Western, but the West itself may become less Western too. When looked at it like that, China could definitely be seen as a driver of “Westlessness”. China’s rise and its growing influence in global economic, political and security matters is having a clear impact on the Western-led liberal world order. China is using its growing influence in international organizations, its economic clout and its expanding global military footprint to present itself as an alternative to the West for many non-Western countries – and as an alternative to the United States for European states. This has created fault lines in the transatlantic relationship, as some countries try to balance close economic ties to China with political ties to Washington.
This interview or excerpts may be quoted with proper attribution.
Helena Legarda together with Meia Nouwens (IISS) will discuss at the MSC side-event “The future of China's participation in arms-control regimes”, followed by a policy comment by Sebastian Groth (Director of Policy Planning Department of the German Federal Foreign Office). The event will take place at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof on February 15.
- MERICS China Global Security Tracker, July-December 2019, by Helena Legarda.
- "Westlessness" - Western restlessness at China's ascent. Blogpost by Helena Legarda.
- Munich Security Report 2020: Westlessness