Security issues are at long last gaining a more prominent place in relations between the European Union and China. The EU-China communiqué of late last year set out a raft of security challenges the two sides acknowledge they face, so has the relationship - long labelled as one of "primacy of trade and tyranny of distance"- finally become as strategic and comprehensive as the two sides claim?
The EU and China find themselves face-to-face in militarised areas from Afghanistan to the Gulf of Aden, yet EU expertise on China's strategic intentions and security policies remains fragmented and limited. The EU has joined the U.S. in calling on China to become a "responsible stakeholder", yet it has little to show for recent attempts to influence China - last December is Copenhagen climate change summit being a case in point. We still know far too little about the motivations and processes that shape Chinese decision-making, let alone about Chinese security strategies, aims and capabilities. By contrast, the U.S. National Security Strategy is hotly debated in Europe, yet discussions about China's security policy are confined to a small circle of experts.
So what exactly are China's security aims, and why should we care? Security policy in China is closely linked to regime security - meaning the survival of the state and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). With communist ideology losing its appeal, the CCP's claim to power rests on its promise to deliver continuous economic development and national unity so China can recapture its rightful place among the great powers after what the Chinese call "a century of humiliation". Chinese leaders have long followed Deng Xiaoping's advice to lay low and bide their time, while focusing on development, internal stability and national unity.
Territorial issues concerning Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, as well as increasing dissatisfaction with inept and corrupt governance in local areas, are potential powder kegs, but solving border issues through mechanisms like the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation and promoting regional integration through initiatives such as the East Asia Summit have reduced the potential sources of regional instability. There is nevertheless growing concern about instability spreading from troubled North Korea, Myanmar or Afghanistan. Access to energy resources and raw materials in Africa and the Middle East, as well as open maritime trade routes have been key to China's economic development, so Beijing naturally seeks a stable external environment and ready access to trade, technology, commodities and capital.
China's economic development for the last decade has been accompanied by an overhaul of its armed forces, the People's Liberation Army (PLA). In 2004, three months after President Hu Jintao became commander-in-chief of the PLA, he announced the "Historic Missions of Our Military in the New Period of the New Century". He announced that these four missions of the military are to safeguard CCP rule and China's historic window of opportunity to develop economically, to provide a powerful strategic tool to protect national interests; to contribute to world peace and to promote mutual development. And after conducting its own study of U.S.-led wars ranging from the Gulf War of 1991 to Iraq and Afghanistan, the PLA is itself becoming a smaller, more flexible and "informationised" force. It is being shaped by a doctrine called the "Revolution in Military Affairs with Chinese Characteristics", and up until this year it has been funded by annual double-digit increases in the defence budget. In 2010 China's defence budget growth rate slowed because of the impact of the financial crisis. But last year China is reckoned to have increased its military budget last year by almost 15% to $30.7bn, making it the second-largest military spender in the world after the US.
May-Britt Stumbaum is the head of the EU-China project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)