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Why Confidence-Building Measures Don't Work with Revisionist China

Confidence-building efforts with China have been futile. It continues to preach peaceful coexistence while repeatedly violating other nations' sovereignty.



China's President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang attend the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5. (©Kyodo)

Empirical research reveals that in the case of Asia, especially in China's relationship with Japan and India, a peculiar case of "constrained cooperation" is displayed. Namely, economic convergence of interests tends to artificially overlook deep-rooted prevailing strategic differences. Many attempts to overcome these differences have focused on confidence-building measures (CBMs), which originated in the West.

However, the fact remains that these very divergences hold the potential of upstaging bilateral ties at any given point. Of these divergences, territorial and boundary disputes are foremost. They can impose a knee-jerk impact on the entire region's peace and security.

Confidence-building measures germinated essentially as a framework of planned procedures to prevent hostilities and avert military escalation between adversarial countries. Most CBMs owe their origins to the Final Act of the Helsinki process of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) concluded in 1975. These CBMs were launched under the Document of the Conference on Disarmament in Europe held in 1986 in Stockholm, Sweden. 

There are multiple obstacles in the challenge of implementing CBMs. These include political and technological constraints. As well, they include the complex methods involved in verifying information exchanged between adversarial countries.

Beijing's Rhetoric Versus Actions

CBMs with China time and again have reiterated mere symbolism, admitting no tangible progress on the ground. This is the case whenever China deals with a nation with whom it shares a long-drawn history. The problem is especially pronounced when territory or borders are involved. 

Beijing's position remains well-rooted in its theory that "the issue could be frozen as an obdurate problem left over from history" and be resolved "once the conditions are ripe." These were the words of China's first Premier, Zhou Enlai. He was referring both to India and later Japan, when Beijing and Tokyo normalized diplomatic relations in September 1972.

Delving deeper into history, ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu famously stated, "Engage people with what they expect […] It settles them into predictable patterns of response while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate." This was practically demonstrated by China when it attacked India, followed by the Sino-Indian War of 1962. 


Employing CBMs with revisionist China remains particularly problematic, especially in terms of the status quo-revisionist binary. For instance, Zhoul Enlai first put forward the "Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence" in December 1953 when he met with the Indian Government. Some of the principles included were

  • mutual respect for sovereignty,
  • territorial integrity, and 
  • mutual non-aggression.

However, there have been, as history has recorded, inevitable disconnects between words and actions, as explained above.

In this handout photo provided by the Philippine Coast Guard, a Chinese coast guard ship uses water canons on a Philippine ship near the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal, South China Sea, during its re-supply mission on Aug. 5, 2023. (©Philippine Coast Guard via Kyodo)

CBMs and Territorial Disputes

Beijing is persistent in its intent to keep the territorial and border disputes alive. For Beijing, they are tactical pressure points, be it against Japan, India, or many nations in Southeast Asia. 

The strategic thinking behind China's actions remains that any territorial or border settlement, without major concessions/gains from the other side, could potentially augment the other nation's power position. Beijing believes that, in turn, this will prove detrimental to China's rise and dominance within Asia. 

Impact on Asia

China makes banal and routine statements on the importance of sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference, mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence during diplomatic summits with their counterparts. Thereafter, it indulges in violating the very sovereignty of those neighboring nations.

Through land and maritime territorial grabs, Beijing extracts warped and inequitable economic benefits at the cost of pushing smaller nations into a dangerous economic debt trap. This recurring Chinese practice has resulted in usurping the peace and existing status quo across different pockets of Asia. 

Efforts of global democracies to promote liberal democracy and neoliberal economics across the Global South are challenging and problematic for Beijing. Each subregion of Asia finds itself placed in a unique strategic environment. Moreover, for each, China's revisionist approach to territorial and border issues is the primary impediment to beginning discussions on the employment of CBMs. Beijing's approach spans from its flawed advocacy of the concept of the Middle Kingdom and unilateralism to the precepts of forcing "Chinese sovereignty."

China's "rise" appears almost complete in terms of its economic and military power. And these have become the foundation for Beijing to employ its authority and pressure to dominate its neighbors. 

Beijing's desperation to wield such revisionist influence cannot be more visible. It is seeking to expand its sphere of influence over other states, revising the rules of international politics and altering existing regimes. Asian nations should be well advised to approach any future negotiations with China, be they in any sphere, with a great deal of caution.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Learn more about Dr Chansoria and follow her column "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which she is affiliated.


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