20 May 2015

More Willing and Able: Charting China’s International Security Activism

Ely Ratner, Elbridge Colby, Andrew Erickson, Zachary Hosford, and Alexander Sullivan, More Willing and Able: Charting China’s International Security Activism (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, May 2015).

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Asia-Pacific Security Program has released a new report, More Willing and Able: Charting China’s International Security Activism. The report examines China’s increasingly robust foreign policy and makes a series of recommendations, ultimately concluding that managing China’s expansive security policy “call[s] for the United States to widen the aperture of its hedging policy to seize the benefits and manage potential instabilities associated with a more active China.”


Dr. Ely Ratner is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS.

Elbridge Colby is the Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow at CNAS.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College.

Zachary Hosford, at the time of writing, was an Associate Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS.

Alexander Sullivan is a Research Associate in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS and a prospective Ph.D. student in political science at Georgetown University


China’s external behavior has entered a period of profound evolution. The rapid expansion of Chinese economic, political, and security interests around the world, backed by greater capabilities to advance and defend those interests, is driving Beijing to become increasingly active in international security affairs. Although the ultimate character of China’s future foreign policy remains uncertain – including to leaders in Beijing – China has already begun deviating from long-standing foreign policy practices in ways that reflect its changing constellation of interests and capabilities.

Part I of this study considers what we assess to be the three most significant and transformative trends in Beijing’s international security activism. Taken together, these developments portend a China increasingly willing and able to play a prominent and decisive role in international security issues:


Although China’s noninterference principle continues to serve a variety of foreign policy goals, it is under considerable strain from demands to protect China’s growing overseas interests. We catalog how China is taking a more flexible approach to noninterference when key national interests are at stake, engaging in a range of economic, diplomatic, and military activities that depart from traditional definitions of noninterference.


The globalization of China’s national security interests has also led Beijing to embark upon efforts to develop deeper security relations around the world. We describe how over the last decade China has enhanced its security ties across the spectrum of defense activities, including military diplomacy, combined training and exercises, and arms exports.


While still facing considerable limitations, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is becoming more sophisticated across the spectrum of power projection capabilities. In the next 10 to 15 years, we assess that China will likely be capable of carrying out a variety of overseas missions, including major international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, noncombatant evacuation operations, securing of important assets overseas, defense of sea lanes, counterterrorism strikes, and stabilization operations.

The expanding scope and scale of China’s international security activism demand that Washington widen the aperture of its hedging policy toward China in several domains. Part II considers the implications for U.S. strategy and offers policy recommendations.

U.S. military-to-military engagement with China should continue focusing on developing operational safety and crisis management mechanisms, expanding existing agreements, and finding ways to ensure they will be used effectively when needed. The Department of Defense should also seek measures to reduce the likelihood of incidents and accidents between China and U.S. allies and partners.

U.S.-China security cooperation will continue to be limited by legal and political constraints, although there may be opportunities for cooperation on nontraditional security challenges and possibly new areas to include counterterrorism, maritime security, and arms control. Within existing engagements, the United States should pursue with China more interagency interactions, at lower levels and with third countries.

To shape the environment in which China’s international security activism occurs, the United States should seek to increase U.S. military access and presence in areas where the PLA is most likely to operate away from China’s shores, particularly in the Indian Ocean region. As China increasingly has both the political will and the military capability to serve as an important security partner, the United States should also take measures to sustain and deepen its alliances, as well as augment its diplomatic engagement on China-related issues with countries that could be strategically significant for Chinese power projection.

Supporting the development of more capable and effective multilateral institutions will also be critical to managing China’s international security activism in a number of regions, including Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, Central Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Arctic. As part of these efforts, the United States should consider ways to engage and shape Chinese-led multilateral initiatives and organizations.

Maintaining a competitive military balance in the Western Pacific will be a crucial element of limiting the potentially destabilizing effects of the PLA’s expanding partnerships and power projection capabilities. Failing to do so would enable China to field greater capacity for extraregional power projection more quickly, render it able to focus more resources on deploying to a broader set of regions, and allow it to operate more effectively and decisively across a greater set of domains.

As a result, even as the United States and its allies and partners must take due account of the military challenges posed by a more globally active PLA, it still makes sense for Washington to concentrate on maintaining key advantages over Chinese military power at its leading edge in the Western Pacific. This argues against military strategies that cede the near seas and the airspace above them to China.

Finally, U.S. defense cooperation in areas of expected PLA activism should be geared in part to assist countries in developing their own defensive counterintervention capabilities. This should reduce China’s ability to project power in destabilizing ways by making such efforts more difficult and costly for Beijing.

These recommendations and more are discussed in greater detail herein.