The 2010 Munich Security Conference: China Enters the Scene

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The atmosphere at this year’s Munich Security Conference seemed stressful: Probably too many sticky security problems internationally – not to speak of the financial and fiscal problems within the “West”. And, on top of this, new, rising powers are joining the premier league of global security actors. While speaking softly in Munich, the Chinese Foreign Minister put forward new rules of the game for global security.
by Michael Liebig


The 46th Munich Security Conference (MSC), occasionally still dubbed “Wehrkunde“, had a rather strange motto: „No more excuses“. 2010, said MSC chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, has to be “a year in which we act”. German Defense Minister zu Guttenberg said, that “there is too much talking, and too little action”. I got the impression that the MSC motto was a kind of clinical symptom for a simple reality: The trans-Atlantic “strategic community” is under great deal of psychological pressure. This strain seems to translate into a distinctive desire for “quick fixes” for long-standing security problems like the “Iran nuclear file,” Afghanistan or NATO’s “new strategic concept.” But, I’m afraid this will prove to be wishful thinking.

The Dual Impact of the Financial Crisis on NATO

The United States are still the sole military superpower and NATO is still the mightiest military alliance in the world. Yet, the very foundations of the US-led NATO alliance have become shaky. The self-induced financial and economic crisis has laid bare both dysfunctional core structures – not limited to the financial sector – within the West and simultaneously a profound shift in the global-strategic correlation of forces. The crisis has severely weakened the West’s economic and fiscal base and has also put into question its system of “values”. Assuming that the “multi-dimensionality of security” is taken for granted nowadays – even NATO SACEUR Admiral Stavridis said, “security is not coming out of the barrel of a gun” – one might have expected that the crisis and its security implications would be discussed adequately at the MSC.

Even the fact that, as a consequence of the crisis, defense budgets will be squeezed down was brought up only in accessory sentences. No one raised the question, how the giant US defense budget should be sustained, while US public debt is literally exploding? Admittedly, there was panel on “resource security”. The panel, which included the CEOs of the German and French energy giants Areva and RWE, was quite interesting, but it covered just one aspect of the eco-security nexus.

NATO is not only facing severe “internal” problems deriving from and/or being accentuated by financial-economic crisis. Eleven years after formally adopting its “out of area” doctrine, NATO’s international position is being challenged in unprecedented ways. Not only NATO’s military operation in Afghanistan stands at the brink of failure. Russia has rudely drawn a “red line” in the Caucasus. Ukraine’s NATO membership is off the table, because the majority of Ukrainians don’t want it. The Baltic states, tottering at the brink of state bankruptcy, are taking a very low profile in security policy. Poland’s relations with Russia are normalizing. NATO’s newest member – Croatia – has sent half its army into “forced vacations” because of lack of funds.

The “Iranian nuclear file” is not NATO’s business, but it’s a matter in which the four biggest NATO member countries are heavily involved. The Iranians remain stubborn, they don’t bend to Western demands. And they can do so, because China and Russia don’t really back the Western policy stance on Iran. And the same goes for India and Brazil.

Iran is merely one example illustrating the new strategic constraints, the West – and notably NATO – has to reckon with. No security issue of any international significance can be effectively tackled without the involvement and consent of the new rising powers, notably China. And this new global-strategic reality did manifest itself at the 2010 Munich Security Conference.

China’s Position on Global Security

At the 2007 MSC, Russian President Putin stood up and declared in unambiguous terms that the era of unipolar hegemony in world politics was over. This year, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi addressed the Munich conference. Unlike Putin, the Chinese Foreign Minister spoke softly, but the content of his Munich speech was as straightforward. Yang Jiechi said:

“Looking back at the first decade of the 2lst century, I am convinced that the enormous and profound changes the world has experienced will leave indelible imprints in the long annals of human history. And China is without doubt an important part of the changing landscape… History is the best teacher and keeps a fair record of the paths that all countries have travelled. “Harmony without sameness“ has been a much cherished value of the Chinese people since ancient times. The argument that a strong nation is bound to seek hegemony finds no supporting case in China‘s history and goes against the will of the Chinese people. China today is committed to a path of peaceful development. We pursue a defence policy that is defensive in nature and a nuclear strategy solely for self-defence. We adhere to the policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstance… China‘s military development has a clear purpose, that is, to maintain national security and unity and ensure smooth economic and social development.

All of us should embrace a diverse world with an open mind. We must respect the values and independent choice of the development path of other countries, respect other countries core concerns and refrain from interfering in their internal affairs. In the same vein, China, like any country in the world, will stick to principles on issues affecting its core interests and major concerns, and defend its hard-won equal rights and legitimate interests.

That is why while focusing on its own development, China is undertaking more and more international responsibilities commensurate with its strength and status. We have taken an active part in the international cooperation on the financial crisis. We promoted the establishment of an Asian foreign exchange reserves Pool worth 120 billion US dollars and signed with other countries currency swap agreements totalling 650 billion Renmimbi Yuan (RMB). We have cancelled the debts of 49 heavily indebted poor countries and least developed countries and provided over 200 billion RMB Yuan assistance to other developing countries.

How should we read the changes our world has gone through in the past decade? The way I see it is this: as multipolarity and globalization gather momentum, the call for peace, development and cooperation, which represent the trend of the times, has become stronger than ever. The destinies of all countries have never been so closely linked as they are today, and multilateralism and democracy in international relations have won even greater popular support. But there is also the other side of the coin. Globalization, while generating rapid growth, has brought forth various problems and challenges. The impact of the financial crisis is continuing, the prospects of the world economic recovery are unclear. Climate change, food security, energy security, public health security and other global issues have become more acute.

The parties concerned [with Iran] should, with the overall and long-term interests in mind, step up diplomatic efforts, stay patient, and adopt more flexible, pragmatic and proactive policies. The purpose is to seek a comprehensive, long-term and proper solution through dialogue and negotiations and uphold the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and peace and stability in the Middle East. China will make concerted efforts with the international community and play a constructive part in settling this issue.

United actions and win-win cooperation represent the call of the day and offer the only viable pathway to security and development for all. China will work in concert with other countries to advance common security and build a splendid future of prosperity and progress.” [emphasis, M.L.]

Security in a Multipolar World

Yang Jiechi’s subtle and diplomatic language should mislead no one. In a nutshell, his message was: China will constructively cooperate on the major international security issues – provided that China’s core interests are fully taken into account. On international security, there is no way to circumvene China.

I’m quite sure that Yang Jiechi ’s speech will become a landmark in the 46-year history of the Munich Security Conference. Most mainstream media seem to have missed the point, but it seems to me that Yang Jiechi’s message was indeed heard in Munich.

Notable – and maybe surprising – is what Catherine Ashton, the new High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs said:

“I intend to invest a lot in strengthening partnerships with what we somewhat misleadingly call the ’new powers‘: China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and Turkey. For too long we have seen these countries mainly through an economic prism. But it is clear that they are major political and security players too, with increasing political clout. Our mental map has to adjust — and fast.”

Similar formulations were used by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and his Spanish colleague Miguel Angel Moratinos, who said:

“Indeed, the world has changed. Geopolitics is back. We see a new ‚multipolar world‘, with the emergence of new powers looking for international recognition. China, India, Brazil have emerged as economic and increasingly also political and military powerhouses… And, yes, Russia is back, with important – and potentially positive – repercussions for European and international security.”

Noteworthy is also what the US National Security Advisor, General James Jones had to say:

“Europe today is our indispensable partner… Working through the G-8 and G-20, we coordinated our approaches and helped pull the world back from economic catastrophe and agreed a new framework for growth that is both balanced and sustained. We are forging new partnerships with key centers of global influence, including Russia,China, India and Brazil … President Medvedev‘s proposals on European security contain important views. The United States welcomes a substantive and constructive dialogue, even as we believe that existing institutions – such as the OSCE, the NATO-Russia Council, the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the NATO-Georgia Commission – provide a sound foundation for even greater security and cooperation in the future.”

Rasmussen: Make NATO the World Security “Hub”

A peculiar twist on the question of the new multipolar world security architecture came from the NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who said:

“To me, transforming NATO into a globally connected security institution is not a matter of choice – it is a matter of necessity… That is why, to carry out NATO’s job effectively today, the Alliance should become the hub of a network of security partnerships and a centre for consultation on international security issues — even issues on which the Alliance might never take action. NATO can be the place where views, concerns and best practices on security are shared by NATO’s global partners… What would be the harm if countries such as China, India, Pakistan and others were to develop closer ties with NATO? I think, in fact, there would only be a benefit, in terms of trust, confidence and cooperation.”

Rasmussen wants to make his “NATO world security hub” scheme a central feature of NATO’s new “Strategic Concept”, which is to be adopted at the next NATO Summit in Lisbon in Autumn. The “Strategic Concept” is being worked out by a “panel of experts,” headed by Madeleine Albright. However, she gave a rather sobering report on the work of the expert panel, pointing to the financial crisis, declining defense budgets, eroding public support for NATO in member countries, and noting how difficult it is to design a strategic concept that fits the realities of the coming decade.

I doubt very much that China, India and Brazil feel any urge to link up with NATO as a “globally connected security institution”. International security issues will get on the agenda of the G-20 and other smaller consultation formats among leading powers – and, after all, there are still the United Nations. A the Munich conference, German Defense Minister zu Guttenberg threw a bucket of cold water over Rasmussen’s scheme, saying Germany “has no intention to turn the [NATO] alliance into a global security architecture”. At the same time zu Guttenberg strongly emphasized the importance of China, India and Brazil as new actors in global security.

Other Players in Global Security

The Russian presence at the Munich Security Conference was again at a high level: Foreign Minister Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and Konstantin Koschev, head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, among several others. The Russians were critical, sometimes sarcastic, but relaxed. They were certainly not worried, probably sensing that NATO is currently not exactly in great shape. Asked about the latest military-strategic document of the Russian Defense Ministry, Ivanov bluntly said that Russia doesn’t see NATO as an adversary nor does it feel threatened by NATO. It seems that Russia doesn’t think that Medvedev‘s proposal on security in Euro-Atlantic is being chocked off in the West and expects further deliberations on it. The START follow-on treaty with the USA seems a done deal. And not only the Russian listened with great attention when General Jones announced: “The Nuclear Posture Review that we‘ll release in the coming weeks will strengthen deterrence as we reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

In spite of signs of psychological strain among European and American participants of the Munich Security Conference, there was much less pomposity and hype compared to previous conferences. In my memory, never have American conference participants been so factual and unpretentious. Of course, there were some exception like Senator Joe Lieberman who lectured the audience and prophesied war with Iran. Another case was Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon, who – on top of blasting “dysfunctional” Arabs – rudely attacked the former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al Faisal, for allegedly refusing to share the podium with him. But Turki al Faisal had not done so – it was Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu who refused to be on the panel with Ayalon because the latter had publically humiliated the Turkish Ambassador in Israel in January.

By the way, Davutoglu gave an outstanding strategic review on the Middle East situation, pointing to the opportunities for political and economic cooperation and cultural co-existence, and contrasting that to the prevailing “Orientalist” view of Middle East in the West. On the “Iranian nuclear file,” Davutoglu strongly urged a proactive diplomatic approach, adding that a lasting solution must be found by creating “Nuclear Weapons Free Middle East,” including Israel. Davutoglu’s calm self-confidence is an indicator for Turkey’s growing weight as a rising power. Also, India’s former National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan, made a constructive proposal on the “Iranian nuclear file,” by pointing to “proliferation-resistant” civilian nuclear technologies, being developed in India, France and Russia. India has had a high-level representation at the Munich Security Conference for some years. The one BRIC country not represented at the MSC was Brazil. One wonders whether this will change next year.

Instead of the eerie official motto of this year’s Munich Security Conference, I think, a quote by Bertholt Brecht would fit better. Ironically it was General Jones who quoted Brecht: “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.“

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