Rivals look on China's new security body with hope, and caution

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 27, 2013 3:26 PM
Rivals look on China's new security body with hope, and caution

By Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) - When Chinese leader Xi Jinping met U.S. President Barack Obama at the "Sunnylands Summit" in California in June, Xi's aides peppered their American counterparts with questions about the inner workings of the National Security Council (NSC) in the White House.

Just months later, Xi has announced the creation of a Chinese version of the body, to be called the national security commission, and said it was a "top priority".

Amid growing maritime tensions with neighboring nations and increasing rivalry with the United States, this commission would increase coordination among the various wings of China's security apparatus, split now among the police, military, intelligence and diplomatic services.

Diplomats and officials in Japan, India and the United States are hoping that when the body is fully set up, it would dial down tensions over various flashpoints, including territorial disputes in the East China and South China Seas.

"It would be nice if there were a structure that would accelerate and coordinate Chinese foreign policy and national security decision-making and facilitate the kind of collaboration and deconfliction than we enjoy here most days in the United States," U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said last week.

China's creation on Saturday of a controversial air defense zone across a vast swathe of East Asian airspace is the latest flashpoint in regional tensions.

Two unarmed U.S. B-52 bombers on a training mission and Japan's main airlines defied the Chinese edict and flew through the zone this week without informing Beijing.

Mainland academics say Xi is determined to add more coordination, organization and discipline to China's diplomacy and security. It will be patterned on the NSC, the principal forum for the U.S. president to decide on national security and foreign policy matters.

The heads of the Pentagon, the State Department, the Treasury and intelligence agencies are on the NSC.

In China's case, however, the commission will also deal with domestic security issues.

But while foreign envoys and analysts hope the new Chinese commission will mean less risk of accidents or miscalculations, they say it may also serve to choreograph increasing assertiveness by Beijing.

"Already we can see evidence of the way China increasingly orchestrates campaigns when Beijing wants to assert its core interests, particularly when it senses a challenge," said one Asian diplomat. "We are assuming that trend will only increase if Xi's new body succeeds."

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Zhang Baohui, an expert on China's diplomacy based at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, said the goal was a foreign policy that was both coherent and more easily understood by the outside world.

"That's the desired outcome, but whether they can get it done is a separate issue," he said.

"People inside China and outside China all point to the same problem - that Chinese foreign policymaking is kind of fragmented. The Foreign Ministry is definitely not in charge, that's why occasionally on some issues Chinese policies can be chaotic or self-contradictory."

Tokyo-based researcher Bonji Ohara, who once served as a Japanese navy attaché in China, said the leadership could more easily rein in the military through the new body.

"China's security priority at the moment is not to cause clashes around the country," said Ohara, of the independent Tokyo Foundation.

One Beijing-based academic who advises the government on policy said internal debates had yet to be resolved over the body's composition and where it would sit within China's system of party, state and military institutions.

Currently, China's specific foreign policy challenges are dealt with by so-called "leading small groups" within the party structure but Xi wants more efficient coordination. Xi himself will likely head the commission, the academic said.

"These things are immensely difficult to create within the Chinese system because there are always entrenched interests who face a loss of power," the academic said, adding that setting up such an institution had been considered for decades.

"It is the same this time, but now there is an even greater sense that this new commission is vital to better control and enhance China's growing power."

Officials in India, China's neighbor and regional rival, are hoping the new body will help them decipher often confusing signals from China.

They say they have been troubled by apparent inconsistencies as the number of transgressions rise across a disputed border despite booming economic ties between the world's two most populous countries.

One Indian foreign ministry official said New Delhi is still puzzled, for example, by Chinese troops advancing 19 km (12 miles) into territory claimed by India earlier this year. A three-week standoff followed before the troops withdrew.

"We have our theories but we have not been told what actually happened," the official said. "We asked but we didn't get an answer."

(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Sanjeev Miglani in New Delhi, Manny Mogato in Manila and Mark Felsenthal in Washington; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)