On Friday 22 November 2013 a delegation from EU Naval Force’s flagship HNLMS Johan de Witt visited the Chinese Force Commander and his staff on board the Chinese flagship CNS Jing Gang Shan in the Gulf of Aden. The visit was an opportunity to discuss counter piracy operations.
28th November 2013 by Daniel Fiott* - europeangeostrategy.org
One of the consequences of China’s increasing international power and presence is its necessary interest in actors such as the European Union (EU) and the United States (US). It is no great secret that the Chinese have cultured relations with the EU in order to sure up export markets and trade relations, plus to learn from European best-practices in policy areas related to welfare, health, the environment and technology. The EU is largely positive about its Strategic Partnership with China. Accordingly, more than fifty EU-China initiatives and dialogues have emerged to jointly focus on policy areas from urbanisation to human rights. Yet beyond policy areas that relate to working for ‘mutual’ economic benefit, there are a number of highly political areas such as defence that tend to fall under the policy radar.
Indeed, when one thinks of security relations between the EU and China the arms embargo, China’s opaque military build-up, Taiwan and broader Asian security come to mind. Yet one must not overlook China’s long-standing interest in the development of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). This is important because Chinese scholars have been writing on CSDP since at least 2001; since 2003 China has been calling for more military-to-military exchanges and closer defence industrial and technological cooperation with the EU; and since 2005 the EU and China have held regular strategic dialogues. While Gill is correct to state that EU-China military-to-military relations are for the time-being restricted to soft military tasks rather than strategic-level operations, one should nevertheless be interested in how the Chinese perceive and understand the CSDP.
The Military Balance
One of the key aspects to Chinese thinking about the CSDP is the Policy’s potential to help the EU, help China, balance against the US. It should be noted that both China and the EU are comfortable with the notion of a more multipolar, balanced, world; although the EU is – for now at least – only comfortable if this world is managed through multilateralism rather than the balance of power. China sees the Europeans’ recognition of multipolarity as a foundation stone for its relations with the EU; if the Europeans desire a more multipolar world, the argument goes, then their policies should be geared to fostering and managing such a world. The role of Europe as a pole in the maintenance of such a global balance is not a new idea, of course. One should not forget that during the 1970s some quarters in China saw European Defence Cooperation (EDC) as a way to help China balance against the Soviet Union – some Europeans, such as Bennett, had held similar hopes about China too.
Following Beijing’s weariness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) expansion to include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999, and the repugnance with which China viewed the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade in the same year by the Alliance, many viewed the CSDP as a means to balance against NATO and American hegemony in Europe. With the American-led effort in Iraq in 2003, and the divisions it caused in Europe, some Chinese felt confirmed in their view that the CSDP had only emerged as a way for Europeans to gain control over their continent and ensure greater autonomy, with less dependence on the US.
In this regard, one of the major Chinese criticisms of Europe is that they do not view the CSDP as part of the broader geopolitical context. Indeed, Zhang Li, Researcher at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University, states that the greatest theoretical and political defect facing the CSDP at present is the ‘focus on the discussion of European internal factors, and not giving due attention to external factors’. This puzzles Zhang Li. He sees the Policy as a European response to the nation-state’s weakening monopoly over military allegiance and the de-nationalisation of defence policy in Europe. In other words, Zhang Li views the CSDP as a way to re-align the individual defence policy efforts of member states at the European-level so as to respond to the post-Cold War era.
Many Chinese commentators take a structuralist perspective of why the CSDP came to fruition and why it continues to survive. As Zhang Yinghong, Director of the Center for European Studies, Shanghai Institute for International Studies, argues, for example, the emergence of the CSDP is a direct result of the changing nature of Europe’s strategic position and culture from, during the Cold War, territorial defence against the Soviet Union, to, afterwards, a focus on international interventions and tackling non-traditional security threats. It appears to be a mainstay of the majority of Chinese writing on the CSDP that the Policy is a mere function of international politics and systemic pressures. These writers are puzzled as to why the CSDP is dogged by internal European discord. If the CSDP is a function of the international system, the argument goes, then why do the Europeans not understand the relevance and consequence of this fact.
However, it would be wrong to assume that all Chinese thinkers are completely sold on the idea that the CSDP is a European tool to assist China balance against the US. Indeed, while some were initially enthused about the prospects of the CSDP after Iraq, they recognised that the pace of European defence integration has slowed in more recent times. It has been claimed by some commentators that while the CSDP’s focus on achieving the ‘Petersberg Tasks’ and undertaking crisis management tasks is innovative, this does nothing to lessen the Europeans’ dependence on NATO and the US. Others remark how the common interests of the EU Member States and the US will maintain the relevance of the Alliance for the foreseeable future.
Alternatively, certain authors problematise the EU-NATO relationship by stating that there are numerous frictions impacting the Alliance, and that it cannot be taken for granted that the EU and NATO are even close to having a strategic partnership. Indeed, a number of Chinese writers recognise that internal divisions over CSDP in the EU impacts on the unity and effectiveness of NATO. As one commentator remarks in a study of the NATO operation to oust Qaddafi, the British and French played a significant political and military role on behalf of Europe but Germany effectively hampered an EU response. While remarking that these Member States largely undertook the intervention to help support the democratic transition in North Africa, Wu Xian understands that British and French reliance on the US did nothing to advance CSDP or indeed NATO. In other words, the lack of political will by a number of EU and NATO member states stymied cooperation in these two fora.
Some Chinese writers therefore understand that the greater Europeanisation of national defence policies in Europe does not necessarily imply greater convergence between the member states. Interestingly, some see this defence disunity as a source of lessons to be learned for their own defence and security arrangements. For example, they believe that the lack of real progress in integration under the CSDP has theoretical value that can help explain the difficulties associated with institutionalised security cooperation. In this regard, China may learn lessons from the EU for the security integration arrangements it is involved with – for example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Furthermore, cooperation with the EU on defence matters can help the Chinese with one major problem facing their armed forces: namely, that ‘most of today’s [Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA)] forces have no combat experience’.
Making military in-roads
These diverse views may tell us something noteworthy about the future of European-Chinese security cooperation. Indeed, there have already been moves to increase defence cooperation between the Chinese and Europeans. For instance, on 10 July 2012 the EU’s High Representative, Catherine Ashton, met with China’s Minister of Defence, General Liang Guanglie, in Beijing. The discussion mainly centred on crisis management and anti-piracy, but the EU and China agreed to develop bilateral cooperation on defence. Not only was a High-Level Orientation Seminar on Security and Defence organised in March 2013 with European and Chinese diplomats, defence staff and academia but on an operational side joint training is being investigated and meetings between Chinese and European officers is being encouraged.
For example, on 17 July 2012 the then Force Commander of the EU’s Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) Atalanta, Rear Admiral Jean-Baptiste Dupuis, and the Commander of the Chinese task force in the Gulf of Aden, Rear Admiral Yang Jun-Fei, met onboard the Atalanta flagship as part of the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) meetings. SHADE meetings were established in December 2008 as a means of sharing ‘best practices’, conducting informal discussions and deconflicting the activities of those nations and organisations involved in military counter-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa region. SHADE meetings include the participation of the EUNAVFOR Atalanta mission, NATO and other navies from China, India, Japan and Russia.
Such defence meetings and cooperation are seen by some as important because they could eventually help determine where and how EU-led military missions are deployed. If partners see a role for the CSDP in their neighbourhood then the Europeans would have to consider the option. However, in the case of China it is perhaps fair to assume that the Chinese would not welcome a European military presence in the Asia-Pacific region anytime soon. Indeed, there is little chance that a mission under the CSDP will deploy to Asia in the short-term, but there is nothing guaranteeing that European states will not be politically – if not militarily – engaged in Asia through NATO as the US further pivots to the Pacific. As China can do nothing to alter Europe’s symbiotic connection to the Alliance, this again hinges on the balance question raised by many Chinese scholars.
China’s specific relations with the EU’s CSDP are likely to be marked by a large degree of paucity. As European Geostrategy Associate Editor, May-Britt Stumbaum, argues, security cooperation between the EU and China is likely to be focused on environmental disasters and pandemics, rather than on more political issues. As with many other areas of China-Europe relations, China is interested in learning-lessons from the EU. China can certainly learn much from the EU’s civil-military operations in places such as Africa; important if one considers China’s greater political and economic presence on that continent.
Another Terracotta Army?
China is interested in the CSDP as one way of developing it own military. As was once claimed by China’s Defence Ministry: China is ‘seeking to benefit from the experiences of other countries and institutions by sending PLA officers abroad for exchanges and training’. CSDP is not, of course, the only means through which China is attempting to learn important lessons for its own military development. Here one should also think of China’s engagement with NATO through the recently agreed annual staff exchanges, and the attempts to deepen cooperation in anti-piracy operations. China also engages with the United Nations (UN) and the country has up until 2011 ‘dispatched about 21,000 personnel on 30 UN peacekeeping missions, which is the highest number among the permanent members of the UN Security Council’. China’s recent UN peacekeeping role in Mali is indicative of the country’s military engagement.
However, given ‘the country’s traditional position on matters of national sovereignty and championing of non-interference in states’ internal affairs’, China is restricted in what it can ‘learn-by-doing’ in the field. NATO countries have learned by actively intervening and deploying in third-countries such as Afghanistan; China is unlikely to intervene militarily in this way for the foreseeable future and will thus have to learn through different means. As Kane argues, ‘China’s leaders have been eager to cooperate with outside powers as long as they favour the terms under which such cooperation takes place’.
It is partially for this reason that any EU-China cooperation on defence is likely to be modest for now. Indeed, bar the occasional officer-to-officer meetings China will learn what it can from CSDP and also use cooperation with the EU to boost its public image as a nascent military actor. This has already begun. For example, in March 2013 the 13th Chinese naval escort task force comprising three vessels and 787 crew-members visited the EU Member State Malta for a five-day trip. The task force stopped in Malta after concluding its four-month mission in the Gulf of Aden as part of the anti-piracy missions. While moored the vessels were open to public viewing and played host to workshops between the Chinese PLA and the Maltese Armed Forces. Malta was the first stop in a longer visit in the Mediterranean to countries including Algeria, Morocco, Portugal and France.
Whether CSDP is a mere stepping-stone for greater Chinese political dialogue with NATO remains to be seen, but what is clear is that engaging with the CSDP gives China the opportunity to learn European military best practices. It also allows the Chinese military to be able to claim that they are engaged in more transparent military dialogue with partners such as the EU. Indeed, for China the CSDP is the acceptable face of European military power; this may say more about the CSDP than it does the Chinese. CSDP is a relatively youthful defence integration process, and can to some degree be seen as a mirror for China’s own nascent military aspirations. All of the debates being held in Europe related to CSDP right now – deployability, capability development, defence industrial fragmentation, the comprehensive approach, etc. – are also being debated in Beijing as part of China’s own emergence as a global power.
* Mr. Daniel Fiott is a Senior Editor of European Geostrategy. He is also a Researcher at the Institute for European Studies at the Free University of Brussels. He writes here only in a personal capacity.