Country Report: China (April 2014)


Chinese writings in the past two months reveal a somewhat restrained, but dark, tone about regional security dynamics, especially with regard to China-Japan and China-US relations. The nationalistic coverage of Chuck Hagel’s visit to China, during which Chinese counterparts conveyed that they would not compromise when it comes to territorial sovereignty issues and expressed disapproval at what they perceived as the Americans siding with Japan, showcases the flaring tensions in Sino-US relations. China’s ambiguous position on the Ukraine crisis combined with its increasingly assertive stance in territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines further complicates these ties. Chinese writings especially emphasize regional dynamics and Sino-Japan relations, but also address Sino-US relations, cross-strait ties, including Japan’s role in compromising them, Park Geun-hye’s evolving regional foreign policy, and China’s positive role in Central Asia.

Coverage of China’s position on Ukraine has been tightly controlled, allowing the official line to remain ambiguous, as China abstained in the UN Security Council vote condemning the pro-Russia referendum in Crimea, while declaring support for international diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis and for maintaining the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine. While Russia interpreted China’s abstention in the UN vote as a sign of its support, Chinese Russia analysts, such as Ping Shaolei, interviewed by China’s official outlets, denied this interpretation, noting that China is highly cautious about the Crimea referendum, given its domestic issues with ethnic separatism. A detailed report in Nanfang zhoumo further decries what it calls the misconstruction of China’s stance on Ukraine by Russia, the United States, and Asian countries. The report argues that the growing perception of China as the “Russia of East Asia” has aggravated the already tense security situation in the region. Moreover, the inability of the United States to protect Ukraine signals to its Asia-Pacific allies that they need to rely on their own self-defense in facing the “China threat,” which produces more mutual anxieties. The report, however, does little to debunk the Russia analogy or to explain how China is addressing the security concerns of its Asian neighbours, sticking to a defensive stance on “misperceptions” of China’s intentions in the Asia-Pacific.

Addressing regional dynamics, Zhao Gangcheng’s piece in Yafei zongheng argues that the Asia-Pacific region is currently in the process of “power rebalancing.” This is a result of such factors as China’s rapid development and its regional repercussions, the involvement of more Asian nations in shaping the region, and the recent US pivot towards Asia. The author argues that these factors are all interconnected, as China’s rise brought much economic benefit to the region on the one hand, but also escalated some security concerns of Asian nations, on the other, some of which, notably Japan, welcome the US pivot as an attempt to balance China’s growing influence in the region. Zhao is critical of these efforts, noting that US policy towards Asia has lately been largely reactive, with Obama being unable to attend the APEC summit, and with Kerry urging Southeast Asian nations to defy China’s recently established ADIZ zone. The author further suggests that it is time for China to initiate the establishment of a regional security framework, as the US decline offers an impetus for stronger regional cohesion and cooperation in the security domain, and tensions with Japan require more effective regional mediation mechanisms. The prospects for implementing such a security framework are weakened by a number of challenges, especially the growing conflict between China and Japan. According to Zhao, Japan has difficulty in accepting China’s rise, and the Diaoyu dispute is just a manifestation of a larger drift between the two nations. Maintaining “the major power relationship” with the United States will be another key challenge, since its “rebalancing” clearly conflicts with China’s goals in the region. This is particularly important when it comes to the US support for Japan. China will have to address its frictions with Japan, but also manage the differences with the United States to succeed in implementing a regional security framework. The author does not specify how China will go about addressing these obstacles, and whether it will be feasible to work on improving relations with Japan and the United States at the same time.

Zhou Yongsheng’s review of regional dynamics in the same journal highlights the North Korea crisis, Sino-Japanese escalation, and China’s closer relations with Southeast Asia as driving regional developments. As for North Korea, Zhou argues that at the end of 2013 domestic political conflicts in the DPRK have intensified, with the international community getting concerned about the fourth nuclear test. Zhou explains in detail the damage that DPRK’s nuclearization brings to the country, including further economic slowdown and environmental degradation. As other Chinese authors, he attributes the DPRK’s pursuit of nuclear weapons in part to US threats, arguing that the international community has not managed to make it feel secure enough to pursue alternative modes of development. Zhou does not explain China’s role in the denuclearization process, except for its continued strong opposition to harsher sanctions. On Japan, Zhou expresses some hope that strong economic ties can mitigate political frictions. In 2014 bilateral trade is supposed to reach USD 300 billion, and Japan cannot ignore China’s market if it wants to remain globally competitive. The failure of “Abenomics” to revive Japan’s economy could also translate into weakening popularity of the nationalist forces, which could have positive implications on Sino-Japan relations. Zhou, however, still concludes on a cautionary note, arguing that mutual economic needs would be unable to improve the relationship if serious bilateral conflicts were to arise. As for Southeast Asia, Zhou stresses the significant improvement in economic collaboration. Despite territorial conflicts and security tensions, the Chinese leadership managed to implement a productive framework for fostering trade and financial exchanges. Sino-Vietnamese relations particularly stand out, as the two nations worked hard on establishing closer maritime ties, with three joint working groups set up to regularly meet and discuss this goal. An improvement in Sino-Vietnamese maritime relations benefits China not only economically, but also geopolitically, as it takes Vietnam away from the US-Japan orbit, and could also serve as a model for resolving other South China Sea territorial disputes. China will continue seeking win-win cooperation with ASEAN, while defending its territorial sovereignty. Though territorial conflicts persist, Zhou argues, active economic ties can help to diffuse the tensions in the long-term.

Looking more closely at Sino-Japanese relations, writings analyzed Abe’s shifting security policy. Sheng Xin and Xu Lili in Yafei zongheng raise an alert about Japan’s new National Defense Program Outline, arguing that it is more aggressive than the 2010 edition issued by the DPJ government. While the new outline stresses non-traditional and global security threats, it puts stronger emphasis on regional threats coming from North Korea and China. The accentuation of China is more pronounced, clearly portraying it as an adversary and outlining its recent use of force to attempt to overpower Japan in the territorial dispute. At the same time, the terms “sober” and “calm” are used throughout the report when discussing how to manage Japan’s territorial disputes with China. The tone on Russia, however, has softened in the latest security outline, and Japan appears to empathize with Russia’s strengthening military capability, seeing it as advantageous for balancing the China threat. In addressing the regional and global threats, Japan’s security outline calls for strengthening the alliance with the United States and expanding regional and international security cooperation frameworks. The continuing focus on the US alliance signifies that it is still the pillar of Japan’s security policy. The framework of the United States, Australia, Japan, and South Korea is also addressed as bolstering Japan’s regional security position. The authors note that upholding the security of maritime and air space in the periphery and preparing for a possible attack on the Diaoyu Islands are Japan’s top priorities.

In the latest issue of Guoji luntan, Chen Zhe also presents a cautionary account of Japan’s evolving defense strategy. He argues that there are worrying signs of Japan potentially eroding its non-combat principle, and China has to pay close attention to this development, as Japan’s recent militarization is largely aimed at China. In 2012, for instance, Japan, scrambled 567 planes in response to possible violations of its air space, with 306 of these launches directed at China. Japan has also been increasingly relaxing its regulations on arms exports. Chen Zhe concludes that although there is still significant domestic opposition to the revision of the no-war principle, Japan’s approach to security has been shifting in recent years under Abe’s nationalistic government, which has been employing vague domestic and international regulations to its advantage.

In Zhengzhi xuebao, Zhu Haiyan presents an even more wary conclusion about Abe’s defense strategy, arguing that since 2012 he has forcefully engaged in “recasting the postwar system,” as evidenced by moves to strengthen the military and lift the ban on collective self-defense. According to Zhu, Abe’s goal is to change Japan’s postwar strategic position, seeking to acquire an “ordinary country” status, and establish itself as a regional leader. This can have very dangerous repercussions for Asia’s security. Zhu argues that a number of factors influenced this shift, including the changing regional dynamics, the role of the United States, and Japan’s domestic conditions. As for regional shifts, Zhu points to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula and the rising military strength of China. Japan has been closely watching North Korea’s developments in the past decade, and following the DPRK’s third nuclear test, Abe openly proclaimed the need for lifting Japan’s ban on the right to exercise collective self-defense. The “China threat” discourse has also become prominent in Japan, as manifest in both Japanese official statements and the mass media. As for the United States, Zhu argues that it is facilitating a more militaristic Japan, as its pivot towards Asia calls for a stronger ally in Japan, while its declining influence in the region and weaker capacity to protect Japan in Asia further induces Japan to pursue stronger measures of self-defense. Abe’s nationalistic agenda and more nationalistic public opinion are other factors at play in Japan’s evolving security policy. Zhu sees Abe as fuelling nationalistic public opinion to help him change the Constitution, as part of his drive to reassert Japan’s international stature and especially its regional dominance.

Ni Shixiong in Zhengzhi xuebao examines the “new type of major power relationship” framework by responding to three questions: whether the United States and China are willing and capable of establishing this relationship, and how they are going to go about doing that. As for willingness, Ni remains optimistic, stressing that this relationship is a product of historical necessity and global conditions, and it rests on a strong foundation of bilateral interactions in the past three decades. Yet, he notes pending challenges. Such a relationship is unprecedented, as historically, major powers tend to have adversarial rather than cooperatives ties. Moreover, there are tensions overshadowing China-US relations, which Ni defines as the “T’s”: the Taiwan Issue, TMD, theft (intelligence and copyright issues), Tiananmen, and trust. The declining mutual trust is the most important barrier to establishing the new type of relationship, according to Ni. He refers to the tensions over the Diaoyu dispute, but also to intensifying mutual suspicions, with America perceiving China’s rise as a threat, and China viewing the US strategy as aimed at haltering China’s peaceful development. The author’s frequent research trips to the United States uncovered a sharp decline in bilateral trust since 2010, leading Ni to conclude that letting go of mutual suspicion and building up trust through closer cooperation are the key tasks.

A more optimistic tone was conveyed on China’s relationship with Taiwan. Lu Cuncheng in Liangan guanxi reviews the development of cross-strait relations in 2013, arguing that it was a productive year in building closer bilateral ties, as manifested by active collaboration in high-level politics, as well as in the economic, civil society, and cultural spheres. A mutual understanding about maintaining the “one China principle” is evident from the meetings held between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, as well as among other high-level officials from the mainland and Taiwan. The two sides are also headed for closer economic integration. Bilateral trade increased by 21 percent last year, reaching USD 200 billion. Signing the agreement on service industries in June under the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement—which will open up Taiwan’s service economy to China’s investors and competitors—will further facilitate tighter economic ties. The two sides have also carried out more exchanges between civil society actors and intellectuals with the purpose of building frameworks for peaceful cross-strait relations. Finally, developments in tourism and education also reflect improvements in the Taiwan-China relationship. The number of mainland visitors to Taiwan increased by 12 percent in 2013, reaching 2.4 million, and the number of Taiwan visitors to the mainland doubled, reaching 540,000 tourists last year. Taiwan’s efforts to attract more mainland students raised its earnings from mainland undergraduates by 84 percent last year. Lu, therefore, sees 2013 as a steppingstone in cross-strait relations. The recent student demonstrations in Taiwan against the trade deal with China, however, cast a shadow, showing that popular opinion in Taiwan does not necessarily coincide with that of the ruling government.

Sino-Japanese tensions have implications for Taiwan, according to the latest Chinese writings on these triangular relations. Zhong Houtao’s article in Redian toushi argues that while the majority of Taiwan’s public and politicians do not see China’s ADIZ zone as having any influence on Taiwan, a minority perceives it as a potential threat. Zhong notes that Ma’s official statements supported China’s efforts to restrain Japan, while at the same time revealing Taiwan’s communication with Japan and the United States about China’s ADIZ. Overall, the government line treats the ADIZ as a measure aimed at Japan, having few implications for Taiwan. The DPP, however, framed it as an infringement on Taiwan’s sovereignty. The author argues that this reaction is due to the party’s agenda to sidetrack the otherwise peaceful trajectory in cross-strait relations and to use the ADIZ as an opportunity to attack the Ma government, and to win US and Japanese support for Taiwan.

Wang Haibing’s piece in Guoji luntan argues that in the past few years with the deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations, Japan has actively tried to pull Taiwan into its orbit. Specifically, the number of visits by Japanese parliamentarians to Taiwan significantly increased in recent years. From 1999 to 2012, there were 1,116 visits, involving 442 parliamentarians, and the pace was increasing in 2010-2012 with a majority from nationalist forces. The visits involve bilateral forums set up by Japan, focused on building tighter security cooperation. The rhetoric of “protecting Taiwan” and the “Japan-US-Taiwan alliance” featured prominently in bilateral talks. Wang further argues that Japan’s more proactive engagement with Taiwan has a number of negative implications for regional stability. First, it escalates the Sino-Japan conflict. For instance, the recent fishing accord between Taiwan and Japan in the waters surrounding the Diaoyu islands can escalate the already tense territorial dispute. Second, Japan’s efforts have yielded a so-called “pro-Japan complex” in Taiwan. Third, they foster “Taiwan independence” rhetoric and movements, as they create a perception amongst pro-independence activists of having Japan and the United States on their side. Finally, Japan’s growing economic ties with Taiwan impede economic relations between Taiwan and the mainland. Wang calls on Chinese authorities to carefully counteract Japan’s efforts in Taiwan, to closely research Japan’s activities there, and to foster public diplomacy in order to strengthen the mainland-Taiwan bond but also to improve Sino-Japanese relations.

Zhang Huizhi and Yu Ting’s latest piece in Dongbeiya luntan argues that President Park’s policies are mainly focused on the trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula and the diplomacy of confidence. During her first year in power, she managed to ease the confrontation with the DPRK, and her visits to the United States and China successfully consolidated South Korea’s relations with the two major powers. Though Park achieved great accomplishments in foreign affairs, the two authors outline four challenges for her Asian policy in the future: further improving DKRK-ROK bilateral relations and opening the process of trust building on the Korean Peninsula; establishing China-US-ROK cooperation mechanisms and maintaining a balance between China and the United States in Asia; reaching historical reconciliation among the ROK, China and Japan; and finally, achieving peace in Northeast Asia in light of the existing security dilemmas.

Finally, Zhao Changqing’s article in Xinjiang shifan daxue xuebao positions China as a positive influence in Central Asia, arguing that it only rivals Russia and the United States in the economic sphere, but not in the political or security domains, noting that this is a shared opinion held by Chinese and Central Asian academics alike. Zhao notes the focus of the Chinese government on “win-win” collaboration and economic development of the region. He further argues that while Central Asian states are clear about China’s intentions in the region, they are conflicted about Russia’s involvement—on the one hand being unable to separate themselves from Russia’s military, cultural, and economic influence, but on the other fearing Russia’s imperialist objectives in the region. Central Asian states are also conflicted about the US regional engagement—on the one hand valuing its cooperation, but on the other, remaining wary of its support for democratic revolutions in the region. The author’s account, therefore, presents China as the most favorable partner for Central Asian states, as it brings them obvious benefits without infringing on their territorial sovereignty and domestic political processes.


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