Country Report: China (April 2023)


In early 2023, Chinese analysts devoted significant attention to India’s maritime policy, assessing its impact on China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative and linking it to recent border conflicts between China and India. They expressed concerns that increased Indian naval capabilities could threaten China’s economic development and enable India to impinge on China’s core interests. Chinese analysts also argued that South Korea’s deepening ties with NATO will bring NATO into the Asia-Pacific and negatively impact Chinese interests, an analysis that must be read against Russia’s similar claims about the eastward expansion of NATO in Europe. A notably evenhanded assessment of Russia’s diplomatic strategy following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 identified how Russia’s actions have worsened its external environment and assessed the strategic culture that undergirds its foreign policy. Another analyst offered a strident critique of a US “public opinion war” against China, arguing that the United States has undertaken a comprehensive effort to attack China and turn the international community against it.

India’s Maritime Policy

In Guoji Luntan, 2023, no. 2, Li Xinya and Shi Yinhong evaluate how India’s maritime policy impacts China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative. Li and Shi contend that Indian observers view China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative as both an effort to advance regional economic development and a broader strategic effort to increase China’s maritime strength. Consequently, India has adopted a hedging strategy toward China, which has three main components.

First, Li and Shi argue, India supports the Quad and is strengthening its military and political relationships with the United States, Japan, and Australia to counter China. Although India has historically been an advocate of the non-alignment movement, Li and Shi assert, after China announced the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative, India decided that tighter cooperation with external powers was necessary to maintain its maritime position. As the cooperation of the Quad has deepened, bilateral military cooperation among its member states has grown. Li and Shi detect a shift in India’s attitudes following the 2020 Sino–Indian border clash; while India had previously resisted Australia’s requests to join the Malabar military exercise, India agreed to allow Australia to join in 2020. Li and Shi interpret India’s military cooperation with the members of the Quad as an attempt to deter China. Furthermore, India has sought support from the United States and Japan to provide alternative infrastructure development plans to those offered by China through the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, something India lacks the resources to do on its own. Despite India’s support for the Quad, Li and Shi argue, India will be unlikely to agree to a formal NATO-like alliance because of the value it places on its autonomy and because of differences among the four countries (for more on India’s ambivalence toward the formalization of Quad relations, see Yang Fei and Fang Changping’s assessment, summarized in the December 2022 Country Report: China and Huang Jie, Zheng Yingyu, and Huang Lili’s analysis, summarized in the February 2023 Country Report: China). By hedging, India can cooperate with external powers while also advancing its own interests.

Second, Li and Shi contend, India has attempted to limit China’s regional military presence by deploying its forces to key international waterways and strategic locations in the region. Since 2015, India has promoted the strategic concept of “peace and prosperity” in the region; the operationalization of this concept involves greater strategic cooperation between states in the region and addresses India’s security, economic, and environmental concerns. To this end, India’s navy has identified specific international maritime chokepoints to which India must control access to avoid harm to its commercial or strategic interests. Li and Shi argue that India’s insistence on controlling these shipping lanes—either by protecting them or by blockading them—is an “implicit warning” targeted at China because China is uniquely dependent on these waterways. At the same time, Li and Shi argue, India has strengthened its military deployments to two overseas territories, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India’s efforts to build a military base on Assumption Island in the Seychelles have been met with significant local resistance, but India has had more success in developing an airport and port on North Agalega Island in Mauritius. These efforts to strengthen ties with island states in the Indian Ocean parallel India’s outreach to countries in Southeast Asia on issues of maritime security.

Third, Li and Shi assert, India has tried to persuade neighboring countries that have already adopted pro-China policies to adopt neutral or pro-India positions instead by offering alternative political and economic aid packages. India’s influence in the Maldives was weakened in the mid-2010s when the Maldives’ then-president sought closer cooperation with China but improved after the election of President Ibrahim Mohammad Saleh in 2018. With renewed military cooperation and significant commitments of Indian foreign aid, Li and Shi assess that the Maldives has shifted from a “pro-China” to a “pro-India” diplomatic stance. Likewise, Li and Shi blame India for influencing the Sri Lankan government to obstruct Chinese infrastructure projects and for disrupting military cooperation between Sri Lanka and China, resulting in a more “neutral” Sri Lankan diplomatic position.

Li and Shi argue that India perceives China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road as a strategic threat because Indian analysts believe China to be encircling India, creating a maritime “string of pearls,” and replacing India’s regional influence through infrastructure programs. As a result, India has adopted this hedging policy. Although hedging is a less severe policy than containment, Li and Shi assert, this policy negatively impacts China’s economic and military security by strengthening India’s participation in the Quad, exposing China to greater commercial and military threats in the Indian Ocean, and disrupting China’s infrastructure deals with regional partners. Left unstated in this piece is any explanation of why China perceives the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road to be so essential to its own strategic interests and how that might impact India’s strategic response.

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, 2023, no. 1, Lei Dingkun and Feng Renjie evaluate India’s efforts to exert military power on land and sea in the context of Sino–Indian border disputes and general competition. Lei and Feng assert that since the 2020 border skirmishes, two camps have formed in India. The “radical” camp urges the Indian government to act aggressively against China in the Indian Ocean to increase India’s leverage over the territorial dispute. By contrast, the “rationalist” camp is wary of escalating the conflict and provoking Chinese retaliation and argues instead that India should adopt a denial strategy in the Indian Ocean to “check and balance” China’s advantages on land. Fundamentally, however, both positions advocate the “use of the sea to control the land.”

“Using the sea to control the land” refers to Indian efforts to compensate for India’s military weaknesses relative to China on land by increasing India’s maritime capabilities, both through Indian investment in the navy and by developing stronger relationships with the United States and other partners. Although the Indian government has not formally announced this strategy, Lei and Feng contend that it is apparent that it underlies discussions over strategy. Moreover, they argue, this strategy has informed actual Indian behavior, as evident by retaliatory measures India has taken in its maritime strategy in response to flareups in the border disputes in 2017 and 2020. The Indian navy is likely to benefit from this strategy, which will result in greater funding and strengthening of its capabilities.

India’s strategy of “using the sea to control the land” is rooted in concrete factors, including India’s territorial disputes with China and Pakistan. The 2020 Galwan Valley skirmishes exposed India’s military inferiority vis-à-vis China and encouraged the Indian government to strengthen its naval capabilities to compensate for its army’s weaknesses. Furthermore, the 2020 joint air drill between China and Pakistan raised Indian fears that the two countries could collaborate against India, and further increased the motivation to improve India’s maritime capabilities. At the same time, increasing Hindu nationalism within India has also spurred further attention to India’s naval capabilities as Modi has politicized security issues to distract from economic weaknesses and to support his carefully burnished image as a “guardian” of India. While Indian strategists rarely drew the connection between navy power and border disputes in the 2000s, this shifted in the 2010s as strategists began to advocate “horizontal escalation.” Horizontal escalation refers to the practice of expanding a conflict geographically to gain an asymmetric advantage. For example, blockading maritime channels (a strategy Li and Shi also discuss) could cut off China from important energy resources and other important imports, and force China to compromise on a territorial dispute.

India has gradually implemented the strategy of “using the sea to control the land,” Lei and Feng argue, both in the Indian Ocean, where India has a geopolitical advantage, and through its cooperation with Southeast Asian countries and extra-regional powers. Lei and Feng contend that Indian policymakers recognize that India can best leverage its maritime advantages by encroaching upon China’s core interests, such as the South China Sea. In recent years, India has accelerated its naval modernization programs and shifted its funding priorities from the army to the navy, while also taking advantage of the US embrace of the Indo-Pacific strategy and its support for a leading role for India in the region. India has operationalized the “using the sea to control the land” strategy through its more extensive military deployments in the region and through its cooperation with both extra-regional countries and island countries in the region, which allows India to better threaten China’s access to sea lanes and deter China’s navy from the Indian Ocean. India’s growing cooperation with the technologically advanced US military and its growing access to advanced military technology have enhanced its navy’s ability to contain China. At the same time, India has made diplomatic overtures and offered concrete assistance to small island countries like Mauritius and Seychelles and deepened cooperation with regional organizations to gain their support for India’s efforts to contain China. From this starting point in the Indian Ocean, Lei and Feng argue, India has moved eastward by deepening its cooperation with countries in ASEAN and its member states, and through its participation in the Quad. This eastward movement brings India’s navy right up to China’s core interests, such as the South China Sea.

Despite India’s significant implementation of this strategy, Lei and Feng argue, this strategy faces three major obstacles: First, an Indian attempt to shift the venue of conflict from land to sea is likely to escalate any crisis because China will counterattack if it views an Indian maritime measure as threatening its sovereignty. Second, India’s long-standing preference for “strategic autonomy” and its wariness of the motives of extra-regional great powers may undermine this strategy, which requires it to stay aligned with the United States. Third, there may be interservice rivalries between the army and the navy, as well as differences between the government and the military, that limit the implementation of this strategy.

Lei and Feng attribute India’s shift toward a maritime focus to its border disputes with China, but there are many other contributing factors, including US support for the Indo-Pacific strategy and China’s own behavior, which, typically, Lei and Feng do not assess. (Lei and Feng’s assertion that India’s strategy posits China as a “strategic imaginary enemy” demonstrates an unwillingness to give any validity to Indian security concerns.) China’s border skirmishes with India are seen by Indian observers as just another example of a broader expansionist tendency of China in the region.

South Korea’s Relations with NATO

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, 2023, no. 1, Zhan Debin assesses South Korea’s motivations for pursuing closer relations with NATO and argues that these closer ties will negatively impact regional stability. South Korea’s historical relations with NATO are fairly brief. In the 1990s, NATO started to build ad hoc relations with states that share similar values, such as South Korea and Japan. South Korea and NATO initiated formal official exchanges in 2005 and have held regular director-level policy consultation meetings since 2008. South Korea joined the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in 2009, which lay the groundwork for the 2012 launch of an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme between South Korea and NATO (subsequently renewed in 2017 and 2019). The partnership focuses on issues including cyber security, non-proliferation, counterterrorism, disaster relief, interoperability, and military and political connections. In June 2022, newly elected President Yoon Suk Yeol traveled to the NATO summit in Madrid, and South Korea announced the establishment of a permanent representative office to NATO, which opened that November.

South Korea’s initial work with NATO was focused on Afghanistan: South Korea participated in ISAF, established local reconstruction teams, and provided economic assistance. Building on the ISAF mission, NATO and South Korea have continued to expand their military cooperation and interoperability through personnel exchanges, joint training exercises, and other programs. High-level military exchanges have helped to build mutual trust between the two parties. South Korea has also supported NATO’s maritime security and anti-piracy efforts. In April 2022, South Korea became the first Asian country to join the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. South Korea has participated in several projects coordinated through the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme, including the development of sensors that can detect neurotoxic agents and a counterterrorism initiative to detect firearms and explosives in crowds of people.

Zhan argues that South Korea has many motivations for strengthening its relationship with NATO. First, a closer relationship allows South Korea to emphasize its identity as a country that supports Western values, such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Yoon has repeatedly expressed South Korea’s determination to actively promote “freedom,” and has clearly placed South Korea in the liberal democracy camp with the United States and NATO. In addition, South Korea’s cooperation with NATO allows it to enhance its international status. Historically, South Korea’s diplomacy was limited in scope: it focused first on the Korean Peninsula; then, during the Cold War, added relations with the United States and Japan; and then, in the post-Cold War period, expanded its attention to include China and Russia. Throughout this time, South Korea’s diplomatic focus remained limited to Northeast Asia. During the Lee Myung-bak administration (2008–13), however, South Korea’s ambitions began to expand with the vision of a “Global Korea” that would play a greater international role. South Korea’s increasing cooperation with NATO is a concrete step toward realizing this vision. The Yoon administration’s description of South Korea as a “global pivotal state” and its references to South Korea as a “great power” demonstrate their commitment to this vision of South Korea’s expanded global role.

Closer to home, the North Korean nuclear issue also motivates South Korea’s efforts to deepen relations with NATO. NATO supports the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and condemns North Korea’s provocations. In light of North Korea’s repeated missile launches, South Korea views NATO as an important source of support in the event of conflict. South Korea’s partnership with NATO gives the South Korean military an opportunity to learn about NATO military doctrines and technologies, which are useful for responding to the North Korean threat. Zhan also detects an economic motive: the Russian war in Ukraine has created opportunities for South Korean companies to export arms and to build nuclear reactors in Europe.

Zhan contends that stronger relations between South Korea and NATO will help NATO to expand its reach in the Asia-Pacific and will damage China’s diplomatic and security environment because NATO is increasingly directed against China. Since 2016, NATO has increased its political and military connections with four Asia-Pacific partners—South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand—and has gradually expanded the scope of cooperation from non-traditional security issues to traditional security issues. This is likely to pose increasing challenges for China in the future.

As Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand have deepened their cooperation with NATO, they have also strengthened their connections with each other. Zhan argues that this cooperation is clearly directed against China and will turn into the “Asia-Pacific version of NATO” or, at a minimum, that these countries will function as NATO’s Asia-Pacific branch. Although Zhan does not draw a direct connection to NATO’s eastward expansion in Europe, this analysis clearly parallels Russian claims of a threat posed by NATO expansion. Taken together with the Quad, the Five Eyes alliance, and AUKUS, Zhan asserts, the development of closer relations among Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand will result in the further fragmentation of the regional security architecture. (Zhan is presumably less concerned with ‘fragmentation’—a proliferation of different security mechanisms—than with the fact that these are US-led security mechanisms. China would prefer to lead an integrated regional framework.) Zhan argues that Japan and South Korea will seek to use this new four-country cooperation mechanism against China, resulting in a new Cold War centered in the Asia-Pacific. Japanese and South Korean efforts to contain China call into question the future of leadership meetings and regional free trade agreements. Nevertheless, differences among Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand may prevent them from solidifying into a new group.

South Korea has significant economic ties with China and, Zhan asserts, is the only US ally that has not yet formally joined the multilateral security architecture developed by the United States in the Asia-Pacific. Consequently, Zhan views South Korea’s ties with NATO and its participation in the new four-country cooperation mechanism as a sign that South Korea is trying to join the Western anti-China bloc. These concerns are reinforced by NATO’s 2022 depiction of China as a source of “systemic competition” that challenges NATO’s shared values and seeks to undermine the rules-based international order. Zhan concludes that China should encourage South Korea to promote peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, rather than adopting a Cold War mentality by pursuing closer relations with NATO.

Russian Foreign Policy

In Eluosi Dongou Zhongya Yanjiu, 2023, no. 1, Li Yonghui assesses Russia’s diplomatic strategy in the context of the “Ukraine crisis.” Li argues that Russia launched its “special military operation” against Ukraine for three key reasons. The first reason is the geopolitical conflict of interests between the United States and Russia. The two countries disagree about the future of the European security architecture, particularly the eastward expansion of NATO. At the same time, the United States and Russia have different views of the future of the post-Soviet republics, with the United States arguing that they should be able to choose their political direction, while Russia seeks to maintain its sphere of influence. A second cause is the economic, cultural, linguistic, and political differences between eastern and western Ukraine. Li asserts that Ukraine lacks a unified national identity, with eastern Ukraine more industrial and culturally tied to Russia, and western Ukraine more agricultural and reliant on tourism and more connected to Europe. Third, Russia saw an opportunity to resolve questions of the European security architecture in its favor at a time when the United States wanted to shift its attention to the Indo-Pacific region.

Li argues that the “Ukraine crisis” has rapidly worsened Russia’s external environment by creating a hybrid war between Russia, the United States, and NATO and putting Russia in conflict with a unified West, resulting in a new cold war in Europe. The existence of a shared enemy has unified NATO members and elevated NATO’s status in Europe. The conflict has also brought together France and Germany and convinced Germany to invest in its military at a level unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. The United States benefits geopolitically from the reunification of the West, a more unified Europe, and a stronger Germany military. Echoing Zhan Debin, Li predicts that NATO will expand its vision to include the Asia-Pacific region (to the detriment of both Russia and China).

Russia has been isolated by the international community as a result of its actions in Ukraine (here, Li’s position differs from that of Lin Sixian, who emphasizes that non-Western countries have been less unified in their willingness to sanction Russia.) In response, Russia has combatted US and European sanctions and taken countermeasures against its growing list of “unfriendly countries.” Putin has made official visits to more sympathetic countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. Russia has also hosted multilateral conferences to demonstrate its continued international influence and has attempted to counter Western containment by shoring up relations with countries to its east, such as North Korea and India, and with ASEAN. Meanwhile, relations between China and Russia have remained strong, and their economic and trade cooperation has continued to grow.

Li contends that the shifts in Russia’s diplomatic strategy since the beginning of the “Ukraine crisis” reflect the underlying characteristics of its foreign strategic culture. Russia and the West are in an ideological, geopolitical confrontation, with Europe welcoming Central and Eastern European countries into the European Union, and Russia, under Putin, seeking to restore the historical Soviet sphere of influence. Russia’s ambition to be a global power and to reshape the world order threatens US hegemony. Furthermore, Li argues, Russia’s foreign strategy is driven by Putin’s view of history: Putin believes that Ukraine is a historical part of Russia that lacks true sovereignty, and his repeated references to Peter the Great demonstrate his efforts to restore the legacy of the Russian Empire. In the ongoing debate over whether Russian actions in Ukraine have been motivated more by geopolitical concerns, such as the expansion of NATO, or by imperialist dreams, Li’s answer seems to be “both.” Another facet of Russia’s strategic culture is its desire to construct a multipolar world order composed of relatively independent regional powers that do not have to abide by any externally imposed order (namely the rules-based international order created by the United States and its allies after the Second World War). Li also views Russia as relatively uncommitted to globalization, with an economy that is built instead on natural resources. Western sanctions have cut off Russia from much of the global economy, and Li anticipates that Russia’s focus will shift to exporting oil and natural gas to Asia.

Implementing this diplomatic strategy will be difficult. Li expects geopolitical competition to outlast the conflict in Ukraine. Russia’s earlier attempts to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe and to become a reliable energy supplier to Europe have been destroyed by the conflict; Europe now perceives Russia as its biggest security threat. Meanwhile, Russia perceives Europe as unwilling to accept the validity of Russia’s traditional values. Consequently, Russia is shifting to the east, a term it uses to refer to all non-Western countries, regardless of their geographic location. However, Russia’s efforts to construct a new Eurasian regional order conflict with the US “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” most notably the formation of the Quad (which Russian analysts see as an attempt to turn India against Russia) and AUKUS. Another key challenge to Russia’s shift to the east is that the major powers in Eurasia—Turkey, Iran, and Russia—have complex relationships with each other. For example, Turkey is both a partner and a competitor to Russia. Russia must also manage the economic repercussions of the sanctions regime for its continued modernization and development. An economic downturn will limit the resources Russia has to implement it diplomatic objectives.

Li concludes that these basic elements of Russian strategic culture will outlast the Russia–Ukraine conflict. Russia’s efforts to build a Russia-centered regional order grounded in Russian values place it in confrontation with the West. However, Li argues that because many Russians still support cooperation with the West, Russian dialogue with Europe and the United States is likely to continue. Ultimately, Li argues, Russia’s strategic culture will change only if Russia comes to see its traditional values and security interests as a tool for its national development, rather than as the main objective of its national development—a possibility Li finds unlikely. Instead, Li anticipates that after the Ukraine–Russia conflict ends, Russia will continue to stand in opposition to the West and will seek to restructure the world order, while pursuing stronger relationships with non-Western states.

US Public Opinion toward China

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, 2023, no. 1, Lin Sixian charges that under the Biden administration the United States has launched a comprehensive “public opinion war” against China. Lin contends that the United States has attacked China on issues related to China’s domestic politics, economy, social stability, and national unity through a “human rights” and “democracy” frame. (Lin puts these terms in quotes, indicating skepticism), particularly with reference to Xinjiang, Taiwan, and the East China Sea and South China Sea. These are all issues that China views as core national interests. Lin also criticizes the Biden administration for framing China as a “systemic competitor” and exaggerating China’s economic strength and military capabilities, as well as the threat China poses to US interests. Lin is skeptical of US claims that China is a technological competitor that poses a threat to the US high-tech sector, intellectual property, and supply chain security. Lin further criticizes the United States for portraying China as a threat to the Asia-Pacific regional order and for describing Chinese diplomacy as “coercive” and “aggressive.” Lin also rejects the Biden administration’s portrayal of US–China competition as a “struggle between ‘dictatorship and democracy’” and for the future of the rules-based international order.

Lin further condemns the Biden administration for initially refusing to accept the results of the WHO investigation that ruled the “lab leak” theory of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic to be “extremely unlikely,” although Lin acknowledges that US opinion shifted in the wake of US intelligence reports that cast doubt on the lab leak theory. Lin also rejects the United States framing of China’s provision of Covid-19 vaccines to other countries as “vaccine diplomacy” through which China sought policy concessions from weaker states. The issue of the origins of the pandemic is considerably more complex than Lin describes; within the United States, the lab leak hypothesis has become a subject of partisan rancor, with Republican officials more likely to lend it credence. Among scientists, there is a widespread belief that the virus originated from animals, but frustration with a lack of transparency and cooperation from Chinese officials that would allow researchers to better learn how to prevent future animal-to-human transmissions.

Lin asserts that the Biden administration has deliberately created a comprehensive anti-China agenda and is using public opinion warfare to mobilize the American public, domestic interest groups, business, and broader Western society against China in order to support its charge of “systemic competition” between China and the United States. (Lin never addresses how the Biden administration came to this assessment of China, but seems to assume ill intent.) Lin views the Biden administration’s strategy as comprehensive, both in terms of the wide range of issues it encompasses, and in many other ways. Lin maintains that the Biden administration has adopted a whole-of-government approach and achieved a high level of consensus despite political party and intra-agency differences. Lin also contends that this public opinion war has been carried out across a range of media, including newspapers, policy journals, radio and television broadcasts, social media, and think tank reports, and argues that the internet makes it easier to deliberately spread misinformation to “stigmatize” or “demonize” China. Furthermore, Lin argues, the Biden administration has gained the support of Western media, particularly regarding issues like Xinjiang and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, and US claims are repeated and amplified by other Western media outlets. Channeling Donald Trump, Lin attacks the mainstream media for failing to provide objective information and asserts that it promotes an agenda that has been created by the US government, interest groups, and non-governmental organizations.

Lin contends that the Biden administration’s public opinion war has already negatively impacted China, Sino–US relations, and international relations more broadly. By stigmatizing and demonizing China, the Biden administration has undermined the foundations for US policymaking toward China and made the process less rational. Lin criticizes the Biden administration for continuing Trump’s anti-China approach, rather than seeking more productive bilateral relations, and blames it for both the deteriorating US views of China and the corresponding worsening of Chinese public opinion toward the United States. Lin further asserts that the Biden administration’s anti-China public opinion war has worsened international public opinion toward China. Not surprisingly, Lin is intensely critical of the Biden administration’s efforts to build an alliance of democracies, which Lin views cynically as an attempt to reunify the Western world and reassert US hegemony after the damage wrought by the Trump administration. Lin blames the US public opinion war for damaging China’s relations with key countries in Europe and Asia and condemns the United States for launching a “New Cold War” in which China and Russia are unfairly pitted against the West. Channeling a recent focus in the Chinese state media on racism in the United States, Lin further blames this US public opinion war against China for anti-Asian violence in the United States, although the particular incidents Lin cites are from the early weeks of the Biden administration and reflect a deeply disturbing, continuing trend.

Lin concludes that global challenges require Sino–US cooperation but blames the United States for the poor state of bilateral relations. Arguing that the United States created this situation, in part by launching an anti-China public opinion war, Lin contends that the United States also must take responsibility for improving bilateral relations by ending its public opinion attacks on China.

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