Country Report: China (April 2022)
In the first months of 2022 Chinese international relations coverage examined how the Biden agenda was affecting Japan and South Korea. Chinese relations with both US allies had lost the vitality of 2020. Was it because of US pressure? Was it due to developments inside these two countries? Certainly, it was not because of China’s own behavior, Chinese authors insisted. Given Biden’s pursuit of a multilateral, regional agenda, considered strategically more at odds with China’s agenda, discussion centered on how US allies would respond. In Seoul Moon Jae-in was struggling for a “hail Mary” appeal to Kim Jong-un. In Tokyo Kishida Fumio was beginning his tenure still under the shadow of Abe Shinzo’s regional interventions. Chinese writers looked at recent developments and anticipated how the regional environment would soon develop, as the Russo-Ukraine war was beginning, and South Korea awaited the Yoon Suk-yeol presidency.
What stands out in this period is the sense that Japan and South Korea were slipping out of the reach of China after years of insistence that they would keep their distance from the United States. Both had been awaiting summit visits from Xi Jinping. Economic ties with China were considered strong enough to limit security dependence on the US. Tensions with Washington had received close scrutiny as recently as 2020. The loss of South Korea stung more since it was assumed to be balancing ties to the two great powers, although Moon Jae-in had already begun to tilt further to the US even before a conservative replaced him. Suddenly, the line between security and economics was being blurred by the US focus on economic security. Publications in China found it difficult to explain why Tokyo and Seoul were changing course, but they could not avoid acknowledging this in a critical transitional period, often qualifying their arguments by insisting that the shift would be limited, especially in Seoul, due to restraining factors.
Economic security strategies drew Chinese attention. They focus on exclusive arrangements and critical technologies. Encouraged by the US, they link security and economics more closely and obstruct China’s rise. Chinese sources are candid in noting that the impact will be to undermine the quality of China’s economic growth. Yet, articles are certain to leave doubt that expectations will not be met without clarifying to what degree they actually may succeed. At the center of coverage were policies adopted by the Biden administration, affecting allies.
The United States
Wei Zongyou wrote about Biden’s “Indo-Pacific strategy” and its impact on China in Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, arguing that the strategic vision and orientation are close to Trump’s, taking China as the key challenge, but that Biden’s impact will be more negative for China, given the focus on alliance-building and the comprehensive range of issues raised. Despite challenges in the US and in allied cohesion, this will pose further challenges for China. Biden is forging various mini-lateral groups, all with the aim of defending US regional hegemony and containing China’s influence. Besides, the Russo-Ukraine war combined with US partners intensifying involvement in Sino-US strategic competition, as the US regards China as the main strategic challenger, means that regional tensions will intensify. China’s neighborhood strategic environment will worsen. Great Britain also is tilting to the Indo-Pacific, as seen in AUKUS. The EU will boost its role there as part this turn to the region. The Chinese assessment of the regional environment was growing more dire in the spring of 2022, not seeing the war in Europe as a diversion.
In Heping yu Fazhan, No. 2, Xing Ruili assessed Biden’s Southeast Asian policy, suggesting that its traditional strategic viewpoint has resumed. Exacerbation of great power competition in the area is anticipated, which China should not overlook. On the one hand, this can further damage Sino-US relations, since confrontation far exceeds cooperation there. On the other, it is leading to an exclusive US “Indo-Pacific economic framework,” seeking to get “economic decoupling in Sino-Southeast Asian relations. This could undercut China’s economic edge in this area. Xing proposes steps China can take to cope: analyzing the effectiveness and shortcomings of the Biden regional policy, advancing many limiting factors, and taking advantage of contradictions. China must struggle against mini-lateral anti-China groups, while also looking for space to cooperate with the US in the area. It should deepen cooperation with Southeast Asian states, using BRI and striving for a community of common destiny. The Biden administration will have great difficulty shaking this peaceful and stable situation. The article takes hope also from the limited resources the US has to invest, the tensions between US Southeast Asian policy and its China policy, and the wariness in the region toward Washington. Yet, the overall message is that China will be facing a more complicated regional security situation in the coming years.
In Riben Xuekan, No. 1, Zhu Feng claimed to be reanalyzing the basic trends in Sino-Japanese relations. He argued that relations deteriorated under Suga and even more so under Kishida. In 2022, a critical 50th anniversary year, key tests will be faced in managing relations. The US factor will be decisive since Japan is one of a just a few Asian states completely on the US side. Zhu posited that Japan faces a duality: political and security ties with the US; economic and trade ties with China, from which it gets ever more benefit. The article suggests that Japan can join China in steering change toward stability in this transformative era. Japan can focus on the regional order with economics in the forefront and cooperate with China, which it needs more than the US does. While stress is put on why Tokyo should cooperate more with Beijing, the hidden message may be that Beijing has an opportunity to cooperate more as well, recognizing greater prospects with its neighbor and averting an even greater Japanese shift toward the US.
In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 3, Meng Xiaoxu analyzed the Kishida administration’s increasingly close security relationship with Australia, which targets China. Yet, the article’s stress on the constraints in forming a formal military alliance is somewhat reassuring to Chinese. Emphasis is put on ties second only for Japan to the Japan-US alliance and on US encouragement for them as part of an Indo-Pacific strategy targeted at China. In regard to the Taiwan Strait question, the impact could accelerate Japan becoming a “military great power.” The US had switched from protecting its friends to boosting its friends’ capabilities, including their security cooperation with each other, and joining them in an Indo-Pacific framework. There are voices in the defense community on both sides calling for an alliance. They are both US allies, have similar strategic cultures, and closely overlapping regional interests. Japan could be in danger of entrapment and loss of autonomy; however, while it is focusing more on strengthening the US military presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Alone, Japan and Australia without US support would not be able to cope with threats. Thus, triangularity is much more likely than a bilateral Japan-Australia alliance.
Even so, there are many arenas where bilateral ties can increase, notably in regard to economic security, which is the new US Indo-Pacific strategy focus. At the center of the Indo-Pacific region is Southeast Asia, where Japanese and Australian interests closely overlap. Both stress ASEAN centrality in the region. Under Biden’s framework in opposition to China, their economic security ties are further strengthening. Yet, Diet approval is uncertain for steps Japan could take with Australia. North and South Korea will be wary of them as well. With ASEAN nervous about exclusive security arrangements at odds with its centrality, it is unclear how Japan and Australia will win its trust. Inside Australia there are voices calling for balanced ties to China and the US in a natural process of a transition of power. The historical question also influences Australian cooperation with Japan. The US needs the Japan-Australia leg of the desired triangle with it as the center to be stronger, but this is proving difficult. The triangle is vital to the Quad, enabling it to become a more military entity. Japan seeks to draw Australia into the East China Sea question. In the South China Sea, Japan seeks to draw on Australia’s influence with both jointly supporting US-led “freedom of navigation” actions. Strategic ties can have even more influence on the Taiwan Strait, as both sides consider intervention behind the US. Entering a new era and facing a world in great transformation, China must take account of this shifting regional security environment is the vague message left at the end by this article.
In the March issue of Dongbeiya Xuekan Zhang Boyu looked at issues the Kishida administration is facing. Zhang traces the disruptive periods of LDP rule to a 15-year cycle: 1976-82, 1991-96, and 2006-12. This cycle bodes badly for Kishida. Zhang notes Abe’s interference in Kishida’s China policy, as in the diplomatic boycott approach to the Beijing Winter Olympics. The initial plan of Kishida was hardened, but not enough to avoid dissatisfaction from the LDP faction of conservatives, who wanted clearer language and an explanation that the action was due to the “human rights situation” No optimism is registered about upcoming relations with China.
In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 3, Yue Fusheng discusses the new conditions for the US-ROK alliance and its limits. Under Trump’s “America First” policy, the alliance was shaken. Biden renewed shared values and broadened the regional scope, but from a long-term perspective, the two are split on North Korea and strategic autonomy. Thus, there are limits to relations. Yet, the article states that cooperation in 2022 is deepening and showing subtle changes. It is one Northeast Asian link in the US Indo-Pacific region’s extension into Northeast Asia. After troubled times for the alliance under Trump. Also, China’s rise was contributing to rifts between the allies. Biden valued the alliance’s functions, and Seoul took Biden’s arrival as an opening to improve the relationship. It hoped for a change in US policy toward North Korea. Increasingly, South Korea felt like a “second-level ally,” watching as US-Japan relations took precedence. By agreeing to support US strategy globally, Seoul sought to overcome this. Some specialists even foresee Seoul joining directly in Indo-Pacific military duties. Evidence of this is Moon Jae-in’s visit to Australia, agreeing on large-scale miliary cooperation as well as Yoon Suk-yeol’s views as candidate on the Quad and on THAAD. The alliance’s containment of China is ever more obvious. Moon’s reasoning toward the US is to pursue great power standing on US coattails. In the Japan-South Korean trade frictions, the US clearly leans to Japan, seen in Pompeo’s open criticism of Seoul on Dokdo exercises damaging Japan-ROK ties and pressure over the near withdrawal from GSOMIA.
Contradictions befuddle US-ROK relations. With or without Trump, US global influence is seen in Seoul is continually declining as is its will to support allies. Biden lacks energy to restore allied relations. There is some renewal of cooperation on certain issues. Yet, Biden’s insistence that Seoul become an instrument for strategic competition with Beijing across the Indo-Pacific faces South Korean wariness. The US is pushing, and South Korea keeps resisting. Moon cannot fully support Biden, although he needs Biden for any chance to move North Korea. Concessions are necessary, but they will be limited. Seoul seeks a middle power’s voice and is using Biden’s pursuit as a way to boost its own. Although the alliance is changing, there are limiting factors. Although after the Hanoi summit Pyongyang shifted to focus on economic construction, in response to the growing military clout of the US-ROK alliance and exercises, it refocused on nuclear deterrence. The strengthening of the alliance will further arouse a military response from North Korea, adds the author. THAAD deployment ahead threatens the regional security environment and responses from China and Russia. In order to scare China and Russia, the US may in the next few years install missile defenses in Japan and South Korea, worsening the regional arms race and driving the Korean Peninsula into turmoil. The impression is clearly conveyed that the US is responsible for the tensions on the peninsula.
As for Sino-ROK relations, they are unstable thirty years after normalization. The THAAD impact remains despite gradual recovery in relations in recent years, but a tightening US-ROK alliance going beyond the regional needs for security and clearly targeted at China, especially on the South China Sea, Taiwan, and so-called “human rights,” as well as other core interests, will cross China’s red lines. The 2022 election has caused China increasingly to discuss peninsular issues and red lines. Yoon’s election positions tilt the balance sharply to the United States.
Until 2020, regional cooperation in Northeast Asia was proceeding well. RCEP was signed. The CJK economic framework was advancing. Yet, Biden moved to “decouple” high tech areas. The Quad plotted to exclude China, and the US intensified cooperation with South Korea in semi-conductors, pressing it to join the camp reducing supplies to China and to order companies to leave China for reasons of economic security. Supply chains “leaving China” gained priority, while Tokyo and Seoul had to play a positive role in the “Indo-Pacific” economic framework.
Having warned of many developments, the article cautions that gaps exist: in positions on denuclearization of the peninsula (citing the Moon era and reductions of tensions as equal in importance to denuclearization), on regional issues (where Biden is trying to force Seoul to pursue US interests, and Seoul does not see balancing China as a top objective. Against the background of the Russia-Ukraine war, South Koreans are ready to possess nuclear weapons.
Japan-ROK differences on the North Korean nuclear issue and on Sino-US competition make three-way cooperation difficult, as do bilateral history issues. China strives for a regional security framework and CJK three-way cooperation, jointly forging a Northeast Asian community of common destiny. To resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and to achieve economic prosperity, South Korea needs China. To lean completely to one side would do harm to South Korea’s security interests. Balance is required, as is avoidance of China’s core interests. For its national interests Seoul should upgrade strategic autonomy is the last-ditch warning.
In Taipingyang Xuebao, No. 3, Zhao Yihei wrote about US-ROK maritime security cooperation in the context of the US “Indo-Pacific” strategy. Maritime security is the core area of this strategy as well as an important dimension of bilateral cooperation, which has been deepening. Seoul has cooperated but is unwilling to join the power struggle in the region. Even if objectives differ, there is very strong complementarity, and future mutual support is very likely. Zhao traces the US focus on linking the western Pacific and Indian Ocean to Hillary Clinton, through Trump, and now to Biden. She points to four US aims: to guarantee freedom of navigation, to use its regional force disposition to frighten off any outburst of war, to intervene rapidly in a crisis to prevent it from spreading, and to win great power competition. On protecting stability on the Korean Peninsula, the two have complementary strategic aims, and South Korea depends heavily on freedom of navigation, especially in the South China Sea. Voices in Seoul call for working more closely with the US on this. Between South Korea and China exists a dispute over an island and demarcation of exclusive economic territory, and Seoul fears that as Chinese influence grows, the result will not be beneficial to resolving these issues. Losing power, the US relies more on allied navies. In balancing China, it sees growing complementarity with South Korea as vital. Considering China’s influence on the peninsula, Seoul cannot openly join in the strategic competition of the US and China and sticks with strategic ambiguity. Yet, in a regional conflict, Seoul’s military strength can be utilized by the US for its “Indo-Pacific strategy,” and its assistance to Southeast Asian states in building up their maritime forces can give the US a great deal of support. Even so, due to South Korean distrust and pressure over North Korean issues, Seoul is stressing “autonomous defense,” but this could redound into more reliance on the US and support for it. Not only this, but Japan-ROK joint activity can grow, Conservatives are more inclined to boost US-ROK maritime cooperation, but Moon Jae-in took steps to do this too. Such cooperation does not depend on the party in power any more.
Zhang Chi wrote about South Korean responses to Sino-US relations and recent trends in Sino-ROK relations, noting the increasing pressure to choose sides. Reviewing thinking in Seoul, the article points to five schools in a fierce debate from balance leaning to the US to riding the China wagon to seeking autonomy to maintaining the status quo to diplomacy above it all. Earlier, Moon avoided taking a stand between the two powers, but later, Moon grew closer to the US. Yoon’s shift to the US is likely to be clearer, given his North Korean policy and the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war in boosting domestic conservative tendencies. However, in light of tight Sino-ROK economic relations and the long-term hold of the progressives in the National Assembly, there is also a possibility that the tradition of stable development of Sino-ROK relations will continue. Since Trump’s tenure, the US view of China as a strategic competitor has posed an unprecedented challenge, e.g. to the foreign policy of “security with the US, economics with China.” Thinking in South Korea has begun to change. On the one hand, awareness of China’s economy and North Korea’s nuclear weapons in regards to ROK core interests have an important effect. On the other, it has sought more autonomy within the scope of the ROK-US alliance, leading Kim Yong-san to increase ties to China while strengthening traditional ties to the US. Roh Moo-hyun went further by calling South Korea a “Northeast Asian balancer,” including China along with the alliance. Lee Myong-bak and Park Geun-hye advocated “join with the US and China,” energetically maintaining a balance between the two. Moon Chung-in, advising Moon Jae-in, sought a diplomacy of a middle power surpassing the Sino-US split, and becoming a balancer cooperating with other middle power states in forging a new multilateral order. Yet, Moon Jae-in recognized that Seoul lacks the diplomatic influence for this. He mainly combined following the US and strategic autonomy. The article reassures Chinese that even as Yoon maintains closeness to the US as the foundation, he will avoid clearly choosing sides.
Moon in 2017 sought to keep the current situation, giving US and Chinese relations almost equal stature, avoiding a choice. His support for the “three nos” was in that vein. Trump put enormous pressure on Moon for security ties, but Sino-ROK relations were also growing more important, and China must use its influence on the peninsula to make the case to Yoon. Trump’s pressure on Moon, e.g. to pay much more for host nation support, raised doubts about the US. Yet, Moon showed a growing tendency to side with the US even as he kept an overall balance between the two powers. Yoon is ready to go further to the US side under the impact of conservative ideology and the Russia-Ukraine war, but close economic ties to China, a progressive majority in the National Assembly, and longstanding pragmatic traditions increase the possibility of steady Sino-ROK relations. There is not so much to worry about, readers learn.
Moon in 2017-18 reassured China and put relations back on track while also responding to US critiques on trade, investments, and military cost-sharing. He found a way to achieve balance, avoiding creating the impression he was tilting toward China. Advancing his “two new policies,” he managed to find common ground with both BRI and the “Indo-Pacific strategy,” again striking a balance. Yet, in late 2019, Moon stressed more the overlap with the US side, even as he kept his distance from the Quad, avoiding arousing China. After the failure of the Hanoi summit and the worsening of Sino-US relations, Moon made a subtle shift in dealing with balancing, despite maintaining the status quo as a principle, tilting more to the US. He began to link up on values, asserting that more than security bound the alliance and boosting economic ties at the expense of China and through diversification of export markets. After Biden took office, this tilt became more pronounced. On disputed areas between Beijing and Washington, such as the Taiwan Strait, the Asia-Pacific, economics, technology, and the international order, Moon made some adjustments. A few reasons are given: aggravation of Sino-US relations left less room to maneuver for a middle power, at a time of Trump’s growing pressure on Moon; a quest for US support to break the logjam with Pyongyang and, at the same time, not lose US support in the widening rift between Seoul and Tokyo despite Trump’s lack of interest in this matter. When Biden took office, Moon shifted further on values and the “Indo-Pacific strategy.”
As prospects for North Korean talks collapsed in contrast to Sino-North Korean relations, the tilt to the US increased. Also, falling approval ratings for Moon and falling public opinion toward China persisting since the THAAD deployment and deepening with the pandemic and again in the response to the Beijing Winter Olympics, it became harder for Moon to stick to a balance. In May 2021 at the summit with Biden, he referred to the Taiwan question, touching on China’s core interests. A linkage was also drawn between the “New Southern Policy” and freedom of navigation as well as the “Indo-Pacific strategy.” A positive reference was made to the Quad. US approval for longer-range ROK missiles killed two birds with one stone, winning public approval in South Korea and threatening China and Russia. High tech cooperation grew closer as in the area of semi-conductors, serving US aims to damage China. Thus, the Moon period saw a shift from strategic ambiguity toward leaning to the US despite Moon’s insistence that balance was still in effect. Emphasis is put on the limits of Moon’s tilt rather than on how far he went.
As a conservative, Yoon’s view of the Sino-US strategic paradigm differed from Moon’s. In his campaign he clearly signaled a tilt to the US in areas including supply chains, and a broadening of alliance cooperation to regional and global issues from peninsular ones. He supported the Quad, criticized Moon’s strategic ambiguity, and warned that not choosing sides leaves people thinking erroneously that Seoul keeps leaning to China. Only by stabilizing the alliance with the US can Seoul gain China’s respect, his camp argued. The upshot was a shift from late Moon’s stabilize as main and balance leaning to the US as next to balance leaning to the US as first. New challenges for Sino-ROK relations may follow: (1) Yoon’s North Korea policy—sharply at odds with Moon’s—could upset Sino-ROK ties, as through THAAD expansion, development of intermediate missiles, and taking denuclearization as a precondition for dialogue; (2) under conservatives, views of China could harden, dropping the “three nos” of Moon, joining the Quad; and (3) the Russo-Ukraine war could test Sino-ROK relations, as the US uses it as a pretext for creating an atmosphere of polarization and putting values in the diplomatic forefront. Yoon repeats the word “freedom,” pushing Seoul to the US side and away from China. Hinting that China assists Russia could lead to secondary economic sanctions, as the US seeks ROK support. Yet, the article also notes persisting elements of stability in Sino-ROK relations. Close economic ties are an unbreakable anchor even if Seoul is intent on reducing economic dependency, which could cause losses difficult to bear. With the Sino-ROK FTA and RCEP coming into effect, there is wide, latent room to expand economic ties. The opposition party opposes damaging Sino-ROK relations and for the next two years can prevent foreign policy leaning to the US. Another factor in China’s favor is the Confucian tradition of pragmatism, backed by common interests on trade and North Korean nuclear issues. Campaign rhetoric often is contradicted once in office. Mutual interests are likely to prevail. With these caveats, Yoon’s likely shift to the US is downplayed.
The overall impression left from coverage of Yoon Suk-yeol as he was taking power rested on two iffy assumptions: (1) South Korean national interests will restrain further tilting to the US (no mention is made of Chinese national interests that could lead to restraint); and (2) China is essentially a bystander, whose behavior does not influence how South Korea acts. The negative outcome of ROK policy shifts is left rather obscured by the emphasis on qualifying circumstances that will keep Yoon constrained. The force of the Ukraine war is also left vague by stopping at the mere mention that this works against Sino-ROK cooperation. Hesitation to specify red lines Seoul must not cross contrasts with other publications.