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The Impossible Quest for Absolute Security

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This article was originally published by YaleGlobal Online in July 2017.

Demands for perfect security by one nation, without regard for others, heighten anxiety and prompt unnecessary weapons buildup

The G20 summit in Hamburg, the Russian-Chinese presidential meeting, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization leadership summit underline new concerns driving such public gatherings of world leaders. Among the major obstacles to great power cooperation that preoccupy leaders is how they perceive one another as selfishly advancing their individual national security heedless of others’ concerns.

At the G20 summit, some delegates criticized the US policy of putting American economic interests first above the need for global cooperation to limit climate change or to sustain international free trade. German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly said that Europeans would have to assume the mantle of climate change leadership from what she depicts as a security-selfish US.

This security dilemma impeding great power cooperation is also evident in how the presidents of China and Russia approached North Korea’s latest missile tests, an action underpinned by Pyongyang’s own quest for absolute security from US military threats by acquiring a nuclear deterrent. At their July 4 presidential summit in Moscow, China and Russia urged Pyongyang to suspend missile testing in return for a US–South Korean freeze on major military activities, which the US rejected as a Chinese-Russian attempt to exploit the North Korean threat to weaken the US–South Korean alliance.

For a decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has denounced an alleged US quest for “absolute security” at Russia’s expense. In his May 2014 keynote at the Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, or CICA, Chinese President Xi Jinping alluded to how the United States treats China and Russia, stating that, “We cannot just have the security of one or some countries while leaving the rest insecure, still less should one seek the so-called absolute security of itself at the expense of the security of others.” Most recently, in his June 27 keynote address at the 2017 Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security, Henry Kissinger, a frequent visitor to the Kremlin, concluded that the Russian government’s views “have evolved to what amounts to a definition of absolute security (and) absolute insecurity for some of its neighbors.”

Yet, troublesome security dynamics apply even within the Eurasian region, where Sino-Russian cooperation is greatest. Although rarely openly discussed at Eurasian meetings, member states value the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a means of enhancing mutual reassurance among members to reduce regional security dilemmas. SCO documents and statements repeatedly renounce the logic of absolute security, and members overly commit to eschewing actions that could harm others’ security. For example, they pledge not to join alliances or other actions that would “undermine the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of the other member states.”

The SCO held its latest annual heads-of-state summit in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Of the dozen collective documents signed in July, the most important was the Astana Declaration. As is typical with such communiques, the Astana Declaration calls for a multipolar world order – one not dominated by the United States, in which the United Nations rather than Washington – makes all major international security decisions.

The SCO governments engage in a number of reassuring security activities, ranging from military confidence-building measures, including notification requirements for large military exercises and troop deployment ceilings in border regions; timely consultations during “emergencies that threaten regional peace, stability, and security”; as well as meetings and data exchanges among defense, intelligence and other national security agencies.

Of particular importance, SCO militaries and law enforcement agencies regularly engage in joint anti-terrorist exercises. Both India and Pakistan have signaled their intent to join future SCO exercises, which, in a multilateral format, may be more acceptable to these regional rivals than bilateral drills. These activities already allow China and Russia to reassure one another through mutual transparency and simultaneously assure other members about Beijing and Moscow’s capacity to protect them.

In terms of regional balance, the SCO provides an institution in which Beijing and Moscow can promote their joint interests in Eurasia while managing differences within a structured framework. By depicting its regional projects, including some One Belt, One Road initiatives, or OBOR, as falling under the SCO, Beijing can dampen Eurasian fears of Chinese domination. For Moscow, partnering with Beijing to share Eurasian economic opportunities remains more attractive than any available alternative, given strained Russian-EU relations and Russia’s limited economic power in Asia. It also offers Beijing’s Eurasian partners some visibility into China’s myriad economic projects in their region. Meanwhile, Russian and Central Asian support for the SCO demonstrates recognition of Beijing’s legitimate security role in Eurasia.

Still, the Eurasian regional order remains tenuous. While supporting SCO objectives, Beijing and Moscow prioritize their bilateral relations with individual Eurasian states and other regional multilateral structures such as the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union; the Russian-ran Collective Security Treaty Organization; and the OBOR, which Beijing tightly controls even while characterizing its projects as supporting these and other multinational structures.

For now, China is dominant in the regional economy. The collective potential of the SCO, with only a few poorly resourced structures, derives almost entirely from bilateral and multinational projects that Moscow and Beijing channel through it, but also by other means. For example, the Russian foreign policy concept adopted in November 2016 calls for deepening ties not only with the SCO, but also the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa BRICS bloc; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN community; and even the tense Russia, India, and China trilateral in support of a broader “Greater Eurasia” initiative that strives to align the SCO and other institutions on behalf of Russia-friendly policies. Despite decades of effort, Moscow has failed to reconcile Beijing and New Delhi behind Russian leadership. In May, India stood out as the one major Asian state that boycotted the inaugural Beijing Belt and Road Forum, contending that the OBOR project running through territory contested by Pakistan and India violates Indian sovereignty.

Russians likely view India’s full membership in the SCO as a means of diluting Beijing’s influence within the organization. Over the years, Moscow has exploited the SCO’s unanimity rule to withhold support for Chinese proposals to establish a SCO-wide free-trade zone, energy club and development bank. But China has proved its ability to circumvent Moscow’s opposition through bilateral deal-making, throwing more money into partnerships than Russia could ever match. Beijing has also constrained SCO military activities and ties with Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization alliance. Diverging Sino-Russian priorities have also delayed the elevation of India and Pakistan to full SCO membership and still constrain Iran’s membership candidacy.

The SCO remains highly dependent on sustaining benign relations between China and Russia. So far, Beijing has assigned less strategic priority to Eurasia than Moscow. Furthermore, Chinese leaders appreciate how Russia pursues many regional policies favorable to their interests. But over the next decade, China’s growing interests in Eurasia could lead Beijing to reconsider its policy of regional deference if Moscow seems incapable or unwilling of sustaining a favorable Eurasian order.

Whether operating through the G20, the SCO or bilateral partnerships, global leaders must understand that striving for absolute security creates insecurity dilemmas for all.


About the Author

Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia and East Asia as well as US foreign, defense and homeland-security policies.

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