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Ripples of Change in Chinese Foreign Policy? Evidence from Recent Approaches to Nontraditional Waterborne Security

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange


This article examines China’s approaches to nontraditional security in the Gulf of Aden and on the Mekong River and explores the extent to which its behavior reflects a broader trend toward increasing flexibility in Chinese foreign policy.

Main Argument

How China’s foreign policy is evolving in the 21st century remains strongly debated. The maritime component of these discussions often focuses on traditional security issues such as disputes in the Yellow, East, and South China seas. Yet the two major cases to date of Beijing’s involvement in international nontraditional waterborne security—the Gulf of Aden and the Mekong River—reveal broader context and important trends: China’s decision-making in these regions is based less on traditional ideologies and principles than on pragmatic calculations of its national interests. This shift has potentially positive implications for the future of security governance in the maritime commons. Although China’s approaches to nontraditional waterborne security represent a small sample of the country’s foreign policy behavior, they nevertheless offer indications of China’s incremental foreign policy evolution, particularly concerning its interests abroad.

Policy Implications

  • As China’s stake in international maritime and riverine waterways grows, other states should convey that China will be recognized in ways commensurate with the means and scope of its provision of public goods in each region.
  • Given that protracted ambiguity can generate uncertainty and suspicion, states should encourage China to reveal more specifics about its intentions and capabilities in various maritime regions abroad.
  • In order to institutionalize coordination mechanisms in the maritime commons and other waters, China, the U.S., EU, and regional states can draw lessons from the Gulf of Aden and, to a lesser extent, the Mekong River.


Although debate persists over the precise extent to which the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has actually changed in recent years, it is clearly evolving. [1] Outside of the “near seas,” where China is largely perceived as increasingly assertive in its pursuit of core national interests, are Chinese foreign policy approaches becoming more flexible? [2] Some related discussions focus on the PRC’s voting behavior on UN resolutions involving humanitarian intervention as well as its contributions to international security. [3] Its actions in waters abroad have also generated high levels of domestic and international interest, given their connection to Chinese politics, economics, military development, and diplomacy. Yet there is relatively little systematic analysis of whether Chinese foreign policy behavior is becoming more flexible with respect to nontraditional security challenges in the aquatic domain. [4] This makes it difficult to address questions about how Beijing’s behavior here is related to broader Chinese foreign policy trajectories. Specifically, are Chinese approaches to nontraditional waterborne security indicative of a larger shift in the country’s foreign policy toward greater flexibility and idiosyncratic dynamism?

This article offers two case studies on Chinese participation in nontraditional waterborne security since 2008: the Gulf of Aden and the Mekong River. [5] These cases have presented critical tests for Beijing, not only operationally but also in terms of policy and symbolism. The Gulf of Aden and Mekong River differ fundamentally in their geographic characteristics and proximity to China, China’s relative regional position, the degree to which Chinese foreign policy interests are threatened, the nature of China’s involvement in operations, and the legal opportunities and constraints. These disparities are precisely why examining the cases together is helpful for understanding Chinese foreign policy trends. China’s behavior vis-à-vis these two regions illustrates that Beijing is exploring flexible foreign policy tactics responsive to manifold factors in order to protect its interests. Addressing security challenges in these regions offers China opportunities to protect its economic interests abroad; allows Chinese military, paramilitary, and security forces to accrue experience and improve operationally; enables China to enhance its political image by performing successful missions and engaging in friendly diplomacy with other states before, during, and after operations; and lets China participate meaningfully—if thus far modestly—in the construction of a 21st-century architecture for nontraditional security governance that is commensurate with the country’s relative power in a given region. Dynamic approaches to nontraditional waterborne security provide vital flexibility for a Chinese regime facing complex internal and external pressures while the PRC continues its ascent from a developing country to a global power. China will continue to expand the ability of its military and security infrastructure to perform nontraditional waterborne security missions outside China without necessarily altering the core framework of global maritime governance. This development should be welcomed by other states in the maritime commons. Further, while admittedly a small sample, China’s security contributions in the Gulf of Aden and Mekong River demonstrate that the country’s foreign policy approaches to nontraditional waterborne security are potentially compatible with, rather than inherently threatening to, existing security frameworks.

China’s international economic, political, and social connections are unprecedented. The PRC relied on foreign trade for just under half of its 2012 GDP. [6] People flows are an outgrowth of economic interdependence: over 80 million Chinese citizens now travel abroad annually, a figure that...

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[1] For notable contributions to this debate, see Alastair Iain Johnston, “How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?” International Security 37, no. 4 (2013): 7–48; Thomas J. Christensen, “The Advantages of an Assertive China: Responding to Beijing’s Abrasive Diplomacy,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 2 (2011): 54-67,; Suisheng Zhao, “China’s New Foreign Policy ‘Assertiveness’: Motivations and Implications,” Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI), Analysis, no. 54, May 2011,; Linda Jakobson, “China’s Foreign Policy Dilemma,” Lowy Institute, Analysis, February 2013 u; and Minxin Pei, “An Assertive China the ‘New Normal’?” Diplomat, November 24, 2010 u

[2] China’s concept of the “near seas” encompasses the Yellow, East China, and South China seas, as well as the Taiwan Strait and the Gulf of Tonkin. On this issue, see Michael A. McDevitt and Catherine K. Lea, “China and the Yellow Sea Overview Essay,” in McDevitt et al., “The Long Littoral Project: East China and Yellow Seas,” CNA, September 2012, 11,

[3] In particular, some scholars have recently examined China’s views on foreign intervention. For example, see Yun Sun, “How China Views France’s Intervention in Mali: An Analysis,” Brookings Institution, January 23, 2013,; and Johan Lagerkvist, “China’s New Flexibility on Foreign Intervention,” Yale Global Online, May 29, 2012,

[4] In one of the few relevant examples of this analysis, Erik Lin-Greenberg finds that “coupled with increasing contributions of military observers and troops to United Nations peace operations, China’s antipiracy deployment signals a shift in Chinese foreign policy behavior toward an increased willingness to employ PLA forces in military operations other than war (MOOTW) in regions distant from China’s borders ostensibly to secure Chinese interests. These missions stand in stark contrast to past operations, which rarely saw forces deployed beyond China’s periphery.” However, he offers no systematic evidence concerning China’s behavior in nontraditional waterborne security. Erik Lin-Greenberg, “Dragon Boats: Assessing China’s Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden,” Defense & Security Analysis 26, no. 2 (2010): 213-30.

[5] “Nontraditional security” in this article refers broadly to “soft” security threats. By contrast, in traditional concepts of security, military threats constitute the principal danger for states.

[6] “2012 nian Zhongguo waimao yicundu xujiang zhi 47%” [China’s Reliance on Foreign Trade Declined Continuously to 47% in 2012], Caixin, February 7, 2013,

Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center. He runs a personal website ( and co-runs the website China SignPost (, both of which offer China-related research from open sources.

Austin M. Strange is a Researcher in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and a Research Associate at the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations. He is also a graduate student in nontraditional security studies at Zhejiang University in China.