Country Report: China (April 2021)

  • Danielle F. S. Cohen (assisted by Dong Jiaxin)

In early 2021, Chinese analysts assessed new directions in US foreign policy under the Biden administration, with particular reference to China and Russia. They examined the impact of China’s “community of shared future for mankind” concept on South Korean public opinion. They also examined the future of the Quad, which was reinvigorated by the Trump administration’s emphasis on the Indo–Pacific region and gained further strength with the first leaders’ summit in March 2021.

Sino–US Relations under the Biden Administration

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 2, 2021, Wu Xinbo contends that the Biden administration, like the Trump administration, views the Sino–US relationship as characterized by strategic competition. Since 2016, China has continued to narrow its economic gap with the United States, weathered Trump’s trade war, and successfully combatted COVID-19. By contrast, Wu argues, the United States’ global position diminished during the Trump years, as the administration backed away from its traditional allies, engaged in a Cold War-like competition with China, and undermined the international order it once created. Faced with this deteriorating global environment and an array of domestic pressures, the competitive aspects of Sino–US relations will continue under Biden, and any improvement in the bilateral relationship will be gradual and limited.

In the early public statements of the Biden administration, Wu finds ample evidence that the United States will continue its fundamentally competitive posture, although the nature of that competition may differ from that which existed during the Trump administration. He expects Sino–US competition to center around five key issues: First, the United States will try to maintain a technological advantage over China. Second, the United States will seek to define international economic rules, particularly as they relate to technology and to labor and environmental standards. Third, the United States will pursue a values-oriented diplomacy that advances global democratic principles. While the Trump administration targeted the CCP and China’s political system, Wu expects Biden to place more emphasis on rights issues in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Fourth, Biden will continue Obama’s “Asia–Pacific rebalance” and Trump’s “Indo–Pacific Strategy,” and will increase US military presence in the region and its cooperation with the Quad. Finally, the Biden administration may continue the Trump administration’s restrictions on Chinese companies and may also work against the internationalization of the renminbi.

Although Wu expects the Sino–US relationship to remain rooted in competition, he believes that the nature of this competition will differ under Biden from the competition that occurred under Trump. While the Trump administration sought to contain and weaken China, Wu predicts that the Biden administration will focus more on strengthening the United States. Wu also anticipates that the United States will coordinate more closely with its allies and use multilateral mechanisms to advance its interests, in contrast to the Trump administration’s unilateral “America First” approach. The Biden administration will pursue “smart competition,” taking care that policies directed at China do not increase costs to Americans (as Trump’s tariffs did). Finally, the Biden administration will continue to cooperate with China in areas in which their interests align, such as climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, and global health.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration faces some important constraints as it develops its China policy. At the moment, it is distracted by domestic political, social, and economic challenges and by the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the Biden administration will be lobbied intensely by interest groups, particularly those in finance, technology, and manufacturing that have strong preferences regarding the United States’ China policy. Because the Biden administration seeks to coordinate its policies with those of its allies, including Europe, it will need to develop a China policy that can accommodate their concerns as well.

Reflecting a common sentiment among Chinese analysts, Wu asserts that China’s position relative to the United States has strengthened over the past four years, leaving China well positioned to resist pressure from the Biden administration. China’s increased relative power will allow it to resist US pressure on Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet and to oppose US attempts to reframe its struggle to maintain hegemony as an ideological battle reminiscent of the Cold War. China’s continued economic development will enable it to remain attractive to foreign business partners, including those from the United States. While transnational challenges like climate change and nuclear non-proliferation offer opportunities for China and the United States to cooperate through global institutions, Wu is wary of US efforts to use those same institutions to advance US interests at the expense of those of China. Overall, Wu is optimistic that China’s increasing global influence will strengthen its ability to shape the trajectory of Sino–US relations.

The trajectory of these relations, Wu argues, will depend largely on two factors. First, the Biden administration must decide whether to maintain or reverse the Trump administration’s China policies. The Biden administration faces Congressional pressure to maintain a hard line, and must also contend with a host of domestic voices that variously stress values, strategic considerations, business interests, and global governance priorities. At the same time, the Biden administration must choose which issue areas to prioritize and rebuild dialogue mechanisms that atrophied under Trump.

Wu hopes that the United States and China will combine their persistent competition with greater cooperation on shared concerns, as the two countries have done in the past. However, he cautions about two less optimal possibilities: that the relationship will become mainly competitive, or that competition spirals into a primarily conflictual relationship as occurred at the end of the Trump administration. Wu is optimistic that the policy experience of Biden’s team will allow the two countries to ease their tensions. In the long run, he argues, the stability of the bilateral relationship will depend on whether the United States can accept China’s rise and the resulting changes to the global order. Such a perspective places all the blame for the difficult relationship on the United States.

US–Russian Relations

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 2, 2021, Liu Fenghua argues that US–Russian relations will likely remain confrontational under Biden. Despite several short periods in which bilateral relations appeared to improve after the Cold War, Liu argues, the US–Russian relationship is characterized by long-term structural contradictions. The first of these is the two countries’ competition for dominance of Central and Eastern Europe, which came to a head with the 2014 Ukraine crisis. As a result, Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States deteriorated rapidly and NATO strengthened its position in Eastern Europe. Liu argues that the United States is currently trying to undermine Russia’s traditional influence over the Commonwealth of Independent States by encouraging democracy movements in its member states. The second key structural contradiction relates to US efforts to democratize Russia itself. Liu contends that the United States is committed to undermining Putin’s regime and creating a “color revolution” in Russia. The third structural contradiction is the security dilemma that exists between the two countries. The Ukraine crisis sparked military posturing by both sides; competition has centered around strategic weapons, particularly missile defense technologies, that are not restricted by existing arms control agreements, raising fears of a new arms race. Russia is particularly angry about NATO’s deployment in Eastern Europe, which it views as an effort to contain Russia. These structural contradictions have driven bilateral relations to their lowest point in the post-Cold War era.

According to Liu, the Biden administration views Russia very negatively. Although Biden believes that Russia can no longer compete with the West, he also views it as a significant threat to US national security and to its allies. Biden’s values-based diplomacy, which emphasizes cooperation among democracies to defeat authoritarianism, permeates his Russia policy. Nevertheless, given the diplomatic experience of Biden’s foreign policy team, Liu expects his administration’s policy to be more pragmatic on issue areas like nuclear disarmament than that of the Trump administration, even as the overall policy becomes stricter. Under Biden, Liu expects the United States to continue its sanctions regime against Russia and its military and political containment of Russia in Eastern Europe. To contain Russia, the United States will seek a strategic military advantage, strive to reduce Russian influence in Eurasia by increasing its own support for the region, and back Russia’s pro-democracy opposition. At the same time, Liu anticipates that Biden will be pragmatic in pursuing arms control agreements with Russia and working toward multilateral solutions on transnational challenges, such as the Iranian nuclear issue and climate change.

Russia is pessimistic about the future of the bilateral relationship under Biden, recognizing that the United States has no intention of recognizing Russia as an equal or major power, accepting its claims to influence over Eurasia, or refraining from intervention in its domestic political affairs. Liu expects Russia to continue to seek partnerships with third parties to circumvent US sanctions, while also trying to persuade the United States to ease them. Russia will also continue to respond to the military and security threat it perceives from the United States and NATO by strengthening the military forces it has deployed in its western region. While Liu expects Russia to pursue strategic arms control agreements with the United States, he also expects it to continue to develop weapons technologies not covered by these agreements. Russia will continue to assert its dominance in Eurasia and resist the influence of Europe and the United States. In addition, Putin will implement domestic political reforms to ensure the stability of his government and prevent his opponents from using domestic weaknesses as an argument against his continued rule. In short, while Putin is willing to cooperate with the United States when doing so is in accordance with Russian interests, he also recognizes that the bilateral relationship will be predominantly characterized by confrontation.

US–Russian relations have a significant impact on regional and global affairs. Shared concerns about Russia bring the United States and Europe closer together, on the one hand, and weaken Russia’s relations with Europe, on the other. Nevertheless, Russia and Europe continue to cooperate on energy and trade, and this economic interdependence will limit how far the relationship deteriorates. The sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and Europe are a major motivation for Russia’s pursuit of strategic cooperation with China. As China rises and China and Russia cooperate to jointly fend off the United States, Liu expects the positions of Russia and China in the US–China–Russia strategic triangle to improve. At the same time, the complexity of the US–Russia arms race—with the two countries engaged in arms control talks relating to some technologies, while simultaneously developing new weapons technologies to better compete with each other—may be destabilizing, not only to the two countries, but also on an international level. The continued rivalry between Russia and both US and NATO forces in Eastern Europe, and the decisions each party makes about the deployment of missiles and missile-defense technologies, will greatly impact European security. The tense bilateral relationship will also continue to impact the stability of Eurasia, where Liu blames US support for Ukraine and for political change in Belarus for unsettling the region. Finally, the two countries’ rivalry is likely to spill over into a host of other hot spots, including Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Liu concludes that US–Russian relations will remain tense, but will stop short of direct military conflict, and that Russia will find that Sino–US strategic competition creates opportunities for Russia to improve its position in its bilateral relationship with the United States.

Sino–South Korean Relations

In Guoji Luntan, No. 1, 2021, Zhou Xiaolei assesses the general receptivity of the South Korean media to the Chinese concept of a “community of shared future for mankind” (renlei mingyun gongtongti; Zhou’s preferred English translation) and the impact on South Korean public opinion and policy. The South Korean media plays an important role in shaping public understanding of China and influencing South Korean foreign policy. The media is split into conservative and progressive camps, with the conservative media having more market share and influence. These camps have staked out somewhat different positions on South Korea’s “balanced diplomacy” approach. In a narrow sense, “balanced diplomacy” refers to South Korea’s efforts to pursue closer relations with China, while also strengthening its longstanding alliance with the United States. More broadly, “balanced diplomacy” refers to South Korea’s pursuit of regional and multilateral policies. The conservative camp has long tended to favor the United States over China for ideological reasons, which has led it to support the deployment of THAAD, much to China’s chagrin. The progressive camp has a friendlier, less ideological perception of China and places more emphasis on maintaining South Korea’s autonomy.

Based on a discourse analysis of four conservative news sources, two progressive news sources, and four economic newspapers between September 6, 2011 (when the Chinese government first proposed a “community of common destiny” (minyun gongtongti) and May 31, 2020, Zhou finds that the South Korean media have interpreted China’s “community of shared future for mankind” concept in five main ways. First, they perceive it to be an adjustment of the Chinese diplomatic line. When South Korean media sources first began to focus on the phrase, in December 2017, many connected it to China’s desire for a “new type of great power relations” and its emphasis on regional diplomacy, and therefore believed the concept might provide an opportunity to improve the bilateral relationship, which had deteriorated sharply due to the THAAD dispute. Second, media reports have tried to link the Chinese concept to other concepts that are more familiar to the South Korean audience, such as the “China Dream” and “Belt and Road Initiative.” Zhou worries that the conflation of these terms has led South Koreans to see the “community of shared future for mankind” as a manifestation of Sinocentrism. Third, after 2019, when souring Sino–US relations shrunk South Korea’s room for diplomatic maneuvering, the media interpreted the concept in the context of a new international order and the “Sino–US struggle for hegemony.” Fourth, South Korean apprehension about what they see as China’s desire to rewrite the rules of the international order led to the belief that the “community of shared future for mankind” is connected to the pursuit of a new tianxia or tributary order, particularly as the THAAD dispute reached its peak. However, South Korean public opinion also recognizes the connection between the Chinese concept and the South Korean emphasis on an “East Asian Community,” which promotes regional integration. Finally, in the past two years, as public attention has turned to air pollution and the pandemic, South Korean public opinion has begun to see the concept as one that can promote the cooperation necessary to address transnational challenges. Nevertheless, some have argued more cynically that the phrase is a Chinese attempt to avoid responsibility for its role in the pandemic’s early spread.

Zhou contends that Moon adopted a similar phrase, the “China–Korea community of common destiny,” to demonstrate his support for warmer relations with China and to pursue more autonomy from the United States during the Trump administration. Conservative South Korean media outlets have tended to criticize this phrase as demonstrating the willingness of South Korea to follow along with China’s quest for greater global influence. Conservative media opposition to this phrase is tied to their general opposition to the progressive camp’s more pro-China approach, and intensified after the pandemic began. Zhou worries that, because of the similarities between Moon’s phrase and the Chinese phrase, these conservative criticisms of the “China–Korea community of common destiny” will negatively impact South Korean views of China’s “community of shared future for mankind.”

While Zhou believes that South Korean public opinion is generally more supportive of the Chinese concept of a “community of shared future for mankind” than that of Europe and the United States, she worries that misunderstandings have arisen over the meaning of the concept because discussion has so far been limited to government statements and media reports. To combat these misunderstandings, Zhou argues that Chinese academics should promote the phrase and link it to mainstream South Korean values. The most obvious link is to Moon’s preferred phrase, the “China–Korea community of common destiny,” which, properly understood, reflects the desire for “balanced diplomacy” and an autonomous South Korean foreign policy. (It is unclear how doing so would sway conservative voices, which already dislike Moon’s approach). Another key link is to South Korea’s desire for regional integration and multilateralism, as embodied in the concept of an East Asian Community. A third tactic is to connect the phrase to the desire for a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis. Finally, academics can tie this concept to shared transnational challenges like climate change and the pandemic. By creating these linkages, Zhou argues, Chinese academics can make the concept of a “community of shared future for mankind” less abstract and persuade South Koreans of its value (thereby advancing the Chinese government’s official line).

 The Quad

Stressing agreement between Japan and Australia, an article in Shijie Zhishi, No. 2, 2021, asserted that they have the same strategic aspirations: to become political great powers and to take precautions against China because its rapid rise is seen as a strategic challenge that will lead to the overturning of the regional and global order. Having each turned politically more conservative, Japan and Australia are highly suspicious, even hostile, to different political systems. Their similar security strategies molded, to a large extent, the development of a Quad under US leadership, with a strong values orientation. One cannot exclude the possibility that they will shift from a quasi-alliance to a true alliance, but internally in Japan pacifist forces are still strong, and even an alliance would lack effectiveness, be very limited, and rely on US leadership. The Quad is targeted at China, Russia, North Korea, and other rivals, but it has limitations, concludes the first of a series of articles on the subject.

Another article in this issue of Shijie Zhishi discussed India’s fulsome embrace of the Quad. Lou Chunhao argues that India is the weak link in the Quad, not being a US ally, having a traditional approach to international relations, and belonging to the SCO and BRICS. In 2018, Modi seemed to downplay completely joining as if it meant following the United States, but he shifted his position in 2020. Trump’s February visit to India boosted bilateral ties, echoed in closer Indo–Japanese relations and entry into the US-led Quad and a values-based Indo–Pacific with stress on security. The economic side is weak in the face of the BRI’s growing influence near India, leading India to welcome an extended regional perspective with the Quad. It cannot compete with China on its own. China seeks stable bilateral relations with India, but it is prepared to make India pay an almost unbearable price for choosing full-scale competition with China, warns Lou.

 

In the same issue of Shijie Zhishi, the impact of the Quad on regional order was explored by Zhang Jie, who anticipated that Biden would move to institutionalize the Quad with an impact on China’s security. It would gradually become the blueprint for a US-led regional order. Even before the virtual summit of March, Zhang had seen the October 6 meeting of foreign ministers as a big step toward institutionalization, although the United States has yet to achieve its goal of an “Indo–Pacific NATO.” Malabar exercises in November were followed in December by steps testing the waters for Quad Plus. In place of bilateral 2+2 talks, 4+4 talks can be anticipated, one reads. What has led to the big momentum of 2020? Key are unified US perceptions of China. Next is Japan’s way of thinking, but Australia and now India have swung in support. Nervous about the inclination of Trump to pull back, Japan and Australia grasped the Quad as a way to keep the United States committed. In 2020, Australia and India grew more alarmed about China’s rise, pressing harder. Biden is preparing, Zhang warns, to seize on this opportunity and institutionalize the entity, while advancing the Quad Plus as well. The Quad, the G7, and the Five Eyes are among the bodies that could be joined. Already the major European states have shown an interest in the South China Sea. Yet Vietnam and South Korea have made clear that they will not join the Quad Plus. ASEAN is deeply split and fears its impact on causing rising great power competition and on trying to contain China. The pandemic and attendant economic needs along with RCEP give China more space to respond. It can use its economic influence, stress support for ASEAN’s centrality, emphasize how this grouping is the new NATO, and warn against a zero-sum choice. China can also strengthen BRI and present itself as the defender of the current regional order.

A subsequent article in the journal by Lu Hao concentrates on Japan as a driving force for the Quad, notably so even in 2020, leading to the October foreign ministers’ summit—a follow-up to their September 2019 meeting at the UN. Japan advocates for the overall concept and the Indo–Pacific concept, for a Japan–US core, for values, for a maritime focus and rules of navigation, and for economic cooperation in various forms. While the Trump administration grew more eager for the Quad in 2020, Abe and then Suga kept pushing for this grouping, to real effect.

Chen Qinghong in Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 6, 2020, offered a detailed assessment of the Quad, differentiating three stages in its evolution while anticipating a fourth. Quad 1.0 in 2006 was the brainchild of Abe, but the United States was cautious, still riding high before the 2008 crash and confident it could turn China into a “responsible stakeholder” under its leadership, while its strategic center was the Middle East and South Asia. As a rightist prime minister, Abe led the way then, but Australia balked for strong economic reasons and India’s interest was limited. Abe resigned, and the idea faded. 2017 saw the start of Quad 2.0 after a new foundation had been built through strengthened bilateral and trilateral relationships and Abe’s ideas.  This time the United States jumped on Abe’s initiative. The US realization that its power did not suffice to contain China, now much stronger than a decade earlier, was critical, as security dominated this pursuit. Yet Modi in 2018 did not want to give the impression of surrounding China, while US eagerness exceeded that of Australia and Japan, which were supportive but more cautious. The US stance toward China had shifted sharply since 2010, and ideology was a more significant force. Now containment was the principal objective. Dialogue restarted in 2017 has a certain continuity thanks to the other three countries’ responses to China’s rise, the adjustment of US policy towards China, and the development of their relations over the past decade. Although the Quad still faces challenges, the cooperation among the four countries will continue and have a major impact on the evolution of regional security, Chinese had decided.

A third stage of the Quad could be detected in 2020 with signs it was being supplanted with a fourth stage under Biden. Articles to early 2021 only anticipated the Biden impact, but those in March and April 2021, especially in Global Times, left no doubt it was occurring with greater urgency and strategic design than had been anticipated. With mention of China’s policies that could have led to this undesirable outcome off limits, stress is placed on other causes mounting into 2021. The failure to cope with the pandemic while China was emerging quickly only gave more proof that not only had China not become a Western-style democracy as the West sought, it had become a great power in technology, increasingly shedding its role as factory to the world. Also, it acted to defend its sovereignty, recently with India and as early as 2012 with Japan. With the BRI, it had advanced into South Asia as well. Finally, in ideology, China was viewed as at odds with some states, giving them further cause to organize against its rise, prominent in 2020.

 

 

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