You are on page 1of 8

Defining Non-Traditional Security and

Its Implications for China

Yizhou Wang *

Non-traditional security, often abbreviated to NTS, is a popular but rather ambiguous
concept within and outside academic circles. How to accurately define this term? What
should be considered in prioritising the needs to curb various NTS threats, given a country's
limited resources and capacities? By raising thought-provoking questions, the author tries
to explain the perplexity concerning IVTS issues, arguing that NTS is important in economic,
political and security sense, but that more efforts are neededfrom the academics in order to
reach a consensus in understanding and dealing with NTS issues.

I. Introduction

Since September 11, 2001, Non-Traditional Security issues have become increasingly
common in almost all parts of society, both domestically and internationally:in the policy
and the research agendas of governments, in non-governmental organisations, in academic
circles, as well as in the general public and the media. Traditionally, security has been
defined in geo-political terms and confined to relationships among nation-states, dealing
with issues such as deterrence, the balance of power, and military strategy. However, the
traditional understanding of security has increasingly been questioned in terms of how
security (and non-security) should be explained, and by what kind of approach. We see an
increasing number of NTS threats, nationally and internationally, arising from very different
fields, such as financial turmoil, internet hacking, ecological degeneration, drug-trafficking,

* Yizhou Wang, senior fellow, Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences. E-mail:
nuclear proliferation, new terrorism and even SARS, all of which have never before in the
course of human history had such serious impact on any individual country or international
community. What makes it worse is that governments and research agencies do not know
how to define these threats, let alone cope with them. In China, for instance, academics and
government bureaus are both interested in and puzzled by NTS issues, and they are
beginning to put more natural and human resources into dealing with them. Yet, they find
it very difficult to prioritise in solving or easing NTS threats given so many different needs,
and the relatively limited resources that are readily available.

11. NTS: How to Define It?

There are some fundamental points that must be clarified before we further study the issue
of NTS. For example, what is the exact definition of NTS, where is the bottom-line of NTS
issues, and what should be the focus of our theoretical studies? However, both at home
and abroad, there is now a tendency to lengthen the list of NTS issues, and to lump almost
everything into the basket of NTS. The book On Non-Traditional Security, published by
Institute of China Contemporary International Relations, covers up to 17 phenomena that
can be regarded as NTS issues (Lu, 2003).In addition, within the few months from August
to December 2003, nearly 30 NTS issues were referred to in the papers collected for the
seminar "NTS and China" which was organized by journal of World Economics and Politics.
At conferences in which I have participated on this subject, both at home and abroad, more
issues were raised, such as the shortage of water resources, fishery conflicts, traffic
congestion, extinction of species, poverty relief, interruption of fiber optic cables, identity
ambiguity, loss of language standardization, etc. It seems that almost all issues can be
included in the "big basket" of NTS once they are regarded as serious enough. We can
imagine that, if the current hot topics in China like globalization, new century, strategic
opportunity, development in the West and rejuvenation of the North-East Region are set as
different context', from the UN organizations (such as office for refugees, peacekeeping
and rescue organizations, let alone the UN Security Council) (UN, 1994) to every department
of China's central government (from the Ministry of National Defense, the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Information Industry, the Ministry of Communications, the
Ministry of Agriculture, All-China Women's Federation and even to the National Children's
Work Coordination Committee) and finally to each province and city, to each community

'See, for example, Non-traditional Securiiy threats in Southeast Asia, a Policy Bulletin issued irregularly
by The Stanley Foundation, Oct.16-18, 2003, ppl-7.
and to those individuals (such as unemployed workers, migrant laborers, homeless elderly
and people in poverty), everyone can identify and list varied NTS issues.
Then, we need to ask: Is there an end to the list? If the answer is yes, where does it lie?
Who will be able to identify which issues belong to NTS and which not? What is the evidence,
and who can offer and distinguish this evidence? Is there anything in common among the
various NTS issues? For the same phenomenon, under what conditions can it be identified
as a security issue and under what conditions should it be excluded from the security field?
Let's take SARS as an example. If it had not been so widespread and out of control as we have
seen in effect, then few would regard it as a NTS issue. Take another look at the shortage of
water resources in the Middle East and China's city of Beijing respectively. Why is the same
issue considered a threat to NTS in the former region while not in the latter? These examples
actually point to which phenomenon can be "securitized"and which can not be, and how to
define the subject, object and process of "security cognition" in contemporary security
theories, i.e. who threatens, who are threatened, and under what conditions it can be identified
as a real threat. It is urgent for us to know whether there is a certain rule to follow with regard
to the definition and transformation of NTS, whether there is a certain limit to distinguish from
its overlapping with traditional ones. As far as I am concerned, this should be the focus of our
academic research on NTS. In essence, "security" as a special term always has its extraordinary
implications. Once termed as a security issue, anything would have a special "political"
meaning, and government interference becomes possible (or necessary). It would then have
to be at the top of the agenda for decision-makers, and become the focal point for the general
public and the mass media. As creators of words for everyday use and guides of public
perception, researchers of security issues must be very prudent and careful in defining what
can be included as a "security" issue, looking for rules and correlations. For theoretical
researchers, the most important thing is not to focus on specific phenomena, but to identify
their common characteristics, hence offering a relatively clear direction for the study of specific

Ill. NTS: A New Research Paradigm

Does the term "non-traditional" point only to phenomena that have never appeared in the
past, or does it imply a new research paradigm and dimensions? The former here is
chronological, referring to security issues which have appeared recently, such as large-area
ecological pollution, global financial turmoil or high-tech crimes that could not occur prior to
the information age. The latter could mean security issues other than military security or
national security, such as some global security threats (e.g. ozonosphere destruction),
transnational security threats (e.g. various crimes at high seas) or security threats to minorities
(e.g. oppression of vulnerable groups, extinction of rare or endangered species, or
marginalization of ethnic minorities in terms of language and culture). I used to define NTS
mainly in the chronological sense. But I have increasingly felt that it is not enough, because
it could only explain certain phenomena while incapable of explaining others, especially
incapable of explaining the nature of some new issues and new trends. Therefore, I now
believe the research on NTS must be based on new concepts and ideologies, integrating
new perspectives. In particular, we need to build up a relatively balanced and harmonized
relationship between "national security" and varied "non-national security" (e.g. global
security, interstate security and intrastate security at different levels). On one hand, national
security is the center and foundation, but it is never unchangeable and can never take the
place of all others. On the other hand, non-national security has aroused such concern
recently that it has become an inseparable and complementary part of security studies.
It should be noted that current studies of NTS in the international community tend to
highly emphasize "human security" (Evans, 2004). "Human" here not only refers to human
beings in general, but also includes individuals. It highlights the idea that everything should
be subject to the human's benefits and needs. Thus, issues such as the rights of "weak
groups" (e.g. women, child labor, immigrants, and ethnic minorities), the public's right to be
informed and to appeal when in dispute with the government, and the right to speak for
different groups within the anti-globalization campaign, have aroused increasing concern
and intensive study from world academic circles. In the past, most researchers and government
officials frequently put threats to national security as top priority among all security issues,
for example, military conflicts, terrorism, separatism, religious extremism, interstate drug
smuggling or marine crimes. Consequently, this point of view is still, and will continue to be,
dominating; nonetheless new perspectives such as human security have gained so much
attention in academic circles that scholars tend to bridge the gap between the two. In my
opinion, their difference is obvious from the academic point of view. Therefore, it is essential
to further investigate such difference and look for ways of offsetting the divergence.
When conducting studies on NTS, we must keep our minds open, take it as a dynamic
process, and avoid being extreme and simplistic. Since different countries have different NTS
issues (Acharya, 2000),we should treat them respectively in order of importance and urgency.
For example, the US government now gives priority to international terrorism and proliferation
of weapons of mass destruction among the list of NTS issues, while, on the other hand, the
Palestinians are most concerned about the lack of fixed income, or water resources, or whether
they can return to their own land. Even for the same country, there will be different NTS
issues or different priorities at different stages of development (Alagappa, 1988). Today's
problems might not be tomorrow's issues, and vise versa. For example, with a large percentage
of the suburban population and being at the same time a fast industrializing and urbanizing
country, China does have such issues as food security and ecological environment. Years of
academic research have taught us a lot of lessons: never speak too absolutely, do not refuse
to consider others' points of view, and never regard any views as dogma that can't be
criticized or modified. Since we all agree that NTS embodies new issues and a new trend, we
should learn to adopt new approaches and a new attitude in our research work.2

IV. Implications for China

As Chinese scholars, we should first consider how to deal with China's own NTS issues. In
my opinion, at least the following points need to be investigated.
First, given our existing resources and capabilities, how do we prioritize in order of
importance and urgency, a seemingly endless list of non-traditional issues that China has
faced? What are the criteria for assigning different weights to various issues? For example,
some people have long ago put forward five major NTS issues based on China's domestic
needs, that is: economic security (including energy security, financial security, food security,
etc.), ecological security (or environmental security), information security, population security
and the so called three "evil forces" - religious extremism, separatism and terrorism. In
October 2003, at an intra-departmental conference on NTS issues held by an institute under
the international bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for the sake of international
cooperation, a group of scholars advanced six kinds of non-traditional issues, namely
money trafficking, piracy, excessive poverty, refugees and immigrants, AIDS and
environmental security (Xu, 2003). In addition, other researchers, such as Professor Liu
Jiangyong of Qinghua University, by combining both national and international factors,
have brought forward non-traditional issues in the following seven fields: economy, anti-
terrorism, information, illness, drug trafficking, crimes at high seas and ecology. In my own
papers published several years ago (see Wang, 1998a, 1998b, 1999),by studying the difficult
situation of some Asian countries (such as Indonesia) after the 1997 Asian financial crisis,
I have analyzed the new security concept in economic, social and political dimensions (the
so-called Security Concept in Trinity). Thus, among all the varied analysis and points of
view, how do we compare, distinguish and integrate? Regarding the different orders of

In terms of research innovation, one can witness some fruitful efforts on securitization studies by
ASEAN scholarship represented perhaps by Amitav Acharya and certain leading think-tanks in Southeast
Asian countries. Comparing with ASEAN counterparts, the Chinese are processing rather slowly both in
academic discipline and policy level.
importance suggested, how do we properly measure and assign to them due weights?
What points of view should the government and the public follow? What should be included
as key projects by the Chinese academia?
Second, if we take into account not only the NTS but also the traditional security issues,
then would there be any adjustments in the order of importance and urgency? For example,
some people (including strategic analysts in the fields of national defense and foreign affairs)
argue that, no matter from the traditional or from the NTS perspectives, the Taiwan issue
should be placed on the top of the agenda, and then we can address various NTS issues
relatively at ease. Some believe that the threats of the so-called"three evils" (namely separatism,
terrorism and religious extremism) in the West of China are not so serious as people have
imagined or the media have publicized, therefore China need not to be too concerned in the
campaign of anti-terrorism and anti-religiousextremism led by the US and some other Western
countries, thus avoiding a worsening of our relationship with the Muslim world. In addition,
given the vast territory and geographical characteristics of China, people from different
provinces or regions will possibly have completely different opinions about NTS issues. For
example, the Northeast region would be more likely to regard environmental pollution,
unemployment and other related problems as non-traditional issues; the Western provinces
might give more priority to issues such as how to deal with the relationships among different
ethnic groups or how to develop its economy; the Southwest would probably include drug-
traf5cking, AIDS and small-scale weapon transaction as the most dangerous non-traditional
issues; the Southeast provinces would possibly place issues like pirate rampancy, oil tanker
leakage, money trafficking, refugee and illegal immigrants on the top of the list; and most
provinces in the hinterland and the central region would be more willing to emphasize economic
security issues like population migration, poverty or social security issues like deteriorating
conflicts among villages or clans. If viewed from the national perspective as a whole, placed
in the large plate of decision-makingof the central govenunent, and set against the complicated
and volatile backdrop of global environment and peripheral security environment, how can
we deal with and integrate all of the above NTS issues?
Third, we should also bear in mind the Chinese characteristicsof our academic studies. In
the fields of both traditionaland NTS research, most of the terminology and paradigms actually
used by academia were originated in the Western developed countries (North America, West
Europe, Japan and Australia), and then spread to other regions in the world. For example, the
former mainly includes comprehensive security, cooperativesecurity, common security, human
security, new security concept, globalization, regional integration, mutual interdependence,
prisoners' dilemma, sustainable development, Peace research, Strategic studies, Security studies,
Game theory, theory of Mirror images, Deterrence theory, etc. The paradigms include realism
(neerealism),liberalism (neeliberalism),globalism, radicalism, constructivism,institutionalism,
multilateralism,regionalism (neo-regionalism),theories of integration and the currently popular
security theory created by Bary Buzan (Buzan, et al., 1997). In contrast, Chinese scholars have
made few contributions, the well-known and frequently quoted are even less. However, being
an emerging power and occupying one fifth of the world population, China has increasingly
shown a responsible image in dealing with the UN and other world affairs. Thus, in front of us
is a great and serious challenge: when conducting both traditional and NTS studies, how could
Chinese scholars make up their disadvantages,examine the problemsexisting in research systems
and ideologies, and creatively develop and utilize our ancient resources and modem and
contemporary experiences?Given China's territory and national structure, how could we set up
our own systems of research into NTS with Chinese characteristics, encompassing different
levels and incarnating reasonable divisions and comprehensive balances? Above all, how to
develop the true China version, China sense and China terminologies?

V. Theory and Practice

Finally, how can we combine theory with practice? Recently, a positive tendency occurred
in China, that the government has attached more importance to NTS studies and more and
more scholars have chosen this field as their research interest. For example, many important
party and government documents have reiterated that NTS has become a serious issue for
China; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs specially organized some inter-departmental
conferences; Chinese senior leaders have repeatedly lectured abroad that international
cooperation is urgent due to the menace to NTS. In particular, the SARS epidemic which
spread in China and other countries in 2003 taught a profound lesson to leaders at all levels,
and to the public in China. The Chinese people have finally realized that under certain
conditions the threats caused by some NTS issues to a country, a nationality or a society
could be even more dangerous than the traditional security issues such as small and
medium wars or regional conflicts. The concerns of government, and relevant policy
adjustments, have provided a primary guarantee for responding to NTS issues. From the
many papers and outlines collected for the "NTS and China" conference, we find that
Chinese academia has already come to regard NTS as one of the hot issues and one of the
focal points affecting the overall situation. Among all those papers, there are analyses on
"perplexities" of NTS studies, overviews of "sustainable development", discussions of
"human security", philosophical investigations on "security concept in the broad sense",
special reports in such fields as food security, the status of women, information security,
drugs, the national image, peripheral environment, unemployment, neo-terrorism and security
union, introductions to academic research in the UN, the US, Canada, China's Taiwan and
other overseas regions, as well as papers tracing NTS issues from different dimensions in
terms of modernity, features of our age and various new schools of thought of international
relations theories. They represent the latest efforts of Chinese academia, and reflect a
positive trend in NTS studies. It is a very good sign and at least a very good start. However,
the problem is how to make theoretical studies and the needs of government dovetail.
Chinese public and government departments complain that researchers have always been
engaging in idle theorizing, far from China's real situation and the considerations of the
decision-making. Meanwhile, some people blame the government departments for paying
little attention to academic research, with little financial input and without adopting some
reasonable suggestions. It is disturbing to see such contradictions. Therefore, facing new
NTS challenges, researchers and teachers should have new approaches and make new
contributions to mutual adaptations.


Alagappa, Muthiah, 1988. Comprehensive security: Interpretations in ASEAN countries, in Robert

A.Scalapino eds, Asian Security Issues: Regional and Global. Berkeley: University of
California, Institute of East Asian Studies, pp.56-58.
Acharya Amitav and Arabinda Acharya, 2000. Human security in the Asia Pacific: puzzle, panacea
or peril? Cancaps Bulletin (Canadian Consortium for Asia Pacific Security), December.
Buzan, Barry, Ole Waever & Jaap De Wilde, 1997. Security: A New Framework for Analysis.
Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.
Evans, Paul, 2004. Human security &d East Asia: a mid-tern review, World Economics and Politics
(Shijie jingji yu zhengzhi), Vo1.6.
Lu Zhouwei, eds. 2003. On Non-Traditional Security. Beijing: Situation and Trends Press.
United Nations, 1994. Human Development Report 1994. New York: United Nations Development
Xu Jian, 2003. Non-traditional Security issues and international security cooperation, Contemporary
Asia-Pac@c, Vo1.3.
Wang Yizhou, 1998a. On comprehensive security, World Economics and Politics.Vol.4. April.
Wang Yizhou, 1998b. Some points on economic security, Academic Information (Xueshu dongtai),
30th June.
Wang Yizhou, 1999. New concept on security in the era of globalization, World Knowledge (Shijie
zhishi), Vo1.2.

Published by

(Edited by Xiaoming Feng)