Country Report: China (August 2017)

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

In mid-2017, Chinese analysts were preoccupied with the North Korean nuclear crisis and the South Korean decision to deploy THAAD. They identified uncertainties in the South Korea–China relationship and defined an emerging East Asian regional structure. They also assessed the Trump administration’s foreign policy and criticized Japan’s public diplomacy efforts.

North Korean Nuclear Crisis

In Shijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi, No. 6, 2017, Zhu Feng identifies the Trump administration’s “roller coaster” of a North Korean policy as a form of coercive diplomacy, under which the United States seeks to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program by threatening the use of force. Zhu argues that this policy approach, often used by the United States in the post-Cold War era, has been unsuccessful in this case because regional power dynamics have led the DPRK to believe that possession of nuclear weapons is the only way to protect the regime and have created a political opening for them to pursue such capabilities. At the same time, Zhu blames the United States for being insufficiently determined to solve the problem and for failing to coordinate its strategy with its regional partners. With North Korean capabilities advancing much faster than anyone expected, the Trump administration has doubled down on coercive diplomacy. The success of this policy, Zhu contends, will depend on the extent of US–China cooperation and the DPRK’s response to international pressure.

Zhu argues that the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy was a form of coercive diplomacy, but failed because it did not sufficiently prioritize North Korea. Under “strategic patience,” Obama refused to enter diplomatic talks with North Korean leaders unless preconditions were met, increased pressure on North Korea to further isolate the regime, and strengthened military deterrence. Citing the ineffectiveness of this policy, Trump announced the end of strategic patience (in an August op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson called this policy “strategic accountability”). The Trump administration leaned heavily on China to take a more active role by imposing unilateral sanctions and cooperating with the United States, and placed a much higher priority on the North Korea problem (arguably the latter is less because of differences between Trump and Obama and more due to rapid advances in North Korean capabilities). In addition, the Trump administration seeks to mobilize its regional allies, strengthen the role of the UN, and persuade other states to isolate North Korea through UN and “secondary” sanctions. Although the United States is increasing its regional military capabilities to deter and defend against North Korean aggression, Zhu believes—Trump’s bellicose language aside—that longstanding US reluctance to launch a military attack on North Korea reflects its assessment of the high costs of such a measure. North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities only increase these costs. However, this article was published before the North Korean ICBM tests and Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks, and Zhu stipulated that the verifiable existence of a long-range missile might provoke a US attack. Given the DPRK’s seeming imperviousness to external pressure, Zhu notes that US analysts question whether Trump’s new policy is all that different from that of Obama. Indeed, Trump’s aggressive language aside, the key elements of Obama’s policy—a return to dialogue if North Korea halts tests, international sanctions, and military deterrence—remain intact.

Zhu contends that the success of Trump’s North Korea policy will depend on whether China, the United States, and South Korea can successfully coordinate their policies. Zhu, like many in China, believes that the nuclear crisis cannot be resolved without addressing the legacies of the Cold War that split the Korean Peninsula. He notes, however, that China’s leaders are rethinking their North Korea policy given the risks to Northeast China and regional stability posed by North Korea’s tests and the militarization of the region they have provoked, including the deployment of THAAD and increased South Korean–Japanese military cooperation. (Among those Chinese analysts challenging the government’s policy are Zhang Liangui and Shen Zhihua, as discussed in the June 2017 Country Report: China). Zhu is optimistic that the Mar-a-Lago summit laid the groundwork for close communication and cooperation between China and the United States. Unsurprisingly, he opposes an active role for Japan, arguing that Abe is using the crisis as an excuse to remilitarize. (Russia, the other member of the Six-Party Talks, plays no role in Zhu’s analysis.) Ultimately, however, Zhu concludes that North Korea’s response to Trump’s policy will largely determine the next developments in the nuclear crisis.

In Heping yu Fazhan, No. 3, 2017, Zhou Xiaojia offers a useful overview of various Chinese perspectives on the North Korean nuclear crisis and China’s policy response. Chinese analysts attribute the nuclear crisis to a number of different causes. Some argue the crisis results from cooperation failures, whether between China and the United States or within the Six-Party Talk framework. Others blame the United States for its failed policies, such as George W. Bush’s deterrence policy that, in their view, made North Korea feel insecure and caused it to pursue nuclear capabilities for self-defense and Obama’s “strategic patience” policy that failed to halt North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities. A third group (in which Zhou places Zhu Feng) blames North Korea, arguing that its perception of strong threats to its national security has led it to seek nuclear capabilities to ensure its self-sufficiency or to trade for a security guarantee. A final group blames China for propping up the DPRK, which ultimately harms China’s economic and security interests.

Chinese analysts similarly disagree on how China should respond to the crisis. The most popular view, according to Zhou, is that China should provide conditional, limited support. Proponents of this view believe that China should prevent regime change and limit interference by the United States, Japan, and South Korea, while adhering to a bottom line that protects Chinese national interests. To this end, China should punish North Korea when it carries out nuclear and missile tests, and use its influence over North Korea to shape its actions in accordance with Chinese preferences. Others argue that China should continue to protect North Korea because of its importance as a strategic buffer zone. Proponents of this view argue that China should not participate in the sanctions regime and should provide North Korea with a nuclear umbrella to ensure its security. A minority view holds that China should cut ties with North Korea, whose risky behavior harms Chinese interests.

In Zhou’s view, three main factors drive Chinese analysts’ assessment of China’s North Korea policy. The first factor is the shift to a non-ideological foreign policy based on China’s national interests. Shen Zhihua’s recent work has played an important role in altering the longstanding perception of a special relationship between China and the DPRK, rooted in their common socialist history, by exposing early fissures in China’s relations with the North Korean regime. In the past five years, Zhou argues, China has taken a firmer position toward North Korea by criticizing its failure to adhere to non-proliferation norms and implementing UN sanctions. Second, Chinese analysts believe that China has responsibilities as a leading member of the international system. Its obligations as a member of the UN Security Council and the global non-proliferation regime and as a major regional power require it to temper its traditional support for North Korea. Finally, some analysts stress increased China–US security competition as China’s relative power grows. This development heightens their concern that DPRK regime collapse would allow South Korea to unify the peninsula, which, given the South Korea–US alliance, would place the United States on China’s border. In their view, North Korea serves an important role (perhaps more psychological than real) as a buffer zone and saps US strength.

Zhou concludes that Chinese observers are increasingly calling for a stricter approach in light of the worsening crisis. They worry that North Korea’s behavior is threating Chinese interests, and fear that failure to counter its actions now will result in China being dragged into a peninsular war. Such an assessment is consistent with the increasing visibility of Chinese critics of China’s traditional North Korea policy.

South Korea’s THAAD decision

In Heping yu Fazhan, No. 3, 2017, Lyu Chunyan and Xu Wansheng assess domestic South Korean debates over THAAD deployment. Arguing that South Korea shifted from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity” when it agreed to deploy THAAD in 2016, Lyu and Xu trace the concurrent debate over this decision among the various political parties, which continued through the 2017 presidential election. Supporters of THAAD deployment include the military, the base of the Liberty Korea Party, the elderly, and those who prioritize the US–South Korea alliance. These supporters see THAAD as a necessary response to North Korean provocations and as a way to strengthen US–South Korean cooperation. Opponents include local residents of the initial deployment site, supporters of President Moon’s Democratic Party, young people who prioritize economics and those with business interests in China, and many intellectuals. They worry about the potential damage to China–South Korean relations, the possibility of provoking North Korea, and the high costs and limited capabilities of the system. Public opinion regarding THAAD deployment remained sharply split through the spring of 2017 (perhaps reflecting the polarization of an election cycle), with over half of respondents supporting continued deployment, but a substantial minority (ranging from 37.5 to 42.2 percent in the two polls cited) opposing this decision. Lyu and Xu conclude that these strong domestic disagreements place pressure on the South Korean government and influence its policy, but concede that they are not sufficient to determine the government’s final decision. As Moon’s decision to “temporarily” deploy additional THAAD units in response to North Korea’s ICBM tests this summer demonstrates, with public opinion split, North Korea’s actions are a far stronger driver of South Korean decision-making.

China–South Korea Relations

In Dongbeiya Luntan, No. 4, 2017, Men Honghua and Liu Xiaoyang assess complications in China–South Korean relations, but argue that these “uncertainties" are partly counteracted by the two states’ shared economic and political interests and cultural values. They identify five key indeterminacies that challenge bilateral relations. First, there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding US strategic intentions in East Asia. During the Obama administration, the United States sought closer economic and security ties with South Korea, which weakened China–South Korean trust. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will reverse these policies. For example, Men and Liu argue that Trump’s decision to leave the TPP may reflect his ambiguous China policy and his policy inexperience, rather than a total rejection of the Asia-Pacific rebalance. Second, it remains unclear whether North Korea will continue its nuclear tests. The nuclear crisis has exposed differences in Chinese and South Korean responses: Men and Liu argue that South Korea has been overly dependent on sanctions, while China has also sought to resume a dialogue (Moon’s overtures to North Korea suggest a new priority on at least bilateral talks). Third, there is uncertainty regarding the extent to which South Korea will rely on the United States for its security. China feels threatened by South Korea–US joint exercises. Men and Liu also offer the obligatory critique of South Korea’s agreement to deploy THAAD, which they see as further provoking North Korean security concerns, a threat to China, and a useless measure against North Korean nuclear capabilities. Fourth, they worry that closer South Korea–US relations might undermine the existing balance of power in East Asia. Finally, they highlight worsening levels of trust and understanding between the Chinese and South Korean people, driven in part by disagreements over THAAD.

Although many uncertainties pose challenges to the future of China–South Korea relations, Men and Liu identify several other aspects of the relationship that offer reason for optimism. China and South Korea have close regional and historical ties. They are increasingly economically dependent on each other, and have worked to link their economic development plans and entered a bilateral FTA. The two countries also share mutual political interests; they face common threats from North Korea and are dedicated to ensuring regional peace and stability and continued economic development.

Men and Liu conclude by offering a set of policy recommendations designed to manage uncertainty while building on shared priorities. They argue that the two states should recognize the strong common interests that draw them together, while working to increase mutual understanding. They should both commit to achieving a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. South Korea should refrain from using sanctions to achieve regime collapse in the DPRK and advocating military attacks, while China should encourage multilateral cooperation and the resumption of the Six-Party talks (the likelihood of this latter suggestion seems dim at present). In addition, the two states should build on their close economic ties and develop effective mechanisms for bilateral cooperation. Finally, they should encourage mutual trust among their populations by promoting various types of exchanges.

Asia-Pacific Regional Order

In Shijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi, No. 6, 2017, Wu Xinbo argues that changes in relative power and states’ regional strategies are shifting the Asia-Pacific regional order toward a more “pluralistic and complex regional community.” In recent years, the scope of the Asia-Pacific region has expanded and the number of actors has increased. Among them, four key actors will influence the future regional structure: China, which, as a rapidly rising power is the main driver of structural changes; the United States, which faces declining influence and seeks to contain China in order to maintain its influence over the existing order it created; ASEAN, which influences regional institutions and norms; and Japan, which seeks greater regional security and political influence, but whose position is limited to that of a secondary actor by the constraints of its longstanding economic malaise and commitments under the US–Japan alliance. Other states like Russia, India, and South Korea cannot change the order, but can influence it. Increasing interactions and integration among regional actors also drive structural changes. The resulting structure will be both pluralistic, referring to the increased number of important actors and power structures, and complex, referring to the coexistence of competitive and cooperative relations between various sets of actors.

Transformations of relative power between the largest actors are a significant driver of these structural changes. China’s increased power relative to the United States gives it increased global influence, allows it to threaten the US regional alliance system, and marks the new regional dominance of an Asian state (as opposed to external states like the United States or the former USSR). China’s increased power relative to Japan has diminished Japan’s role as the leading state in Asia, drawn attention back from maritime Asia to the Asian continent, and posed further challenges to the US-led alliance system.

Meanwhile, China and Japan are shifting the emphasis of their relations with other actors from economics to security, while the United States is moving in the opposite direction. Although China’s economic influence is still greater than its military influence, it has taken a stronger position on sovereignty issues in the East and South China Seas. Under Abe, Japan has sought to establish itself as a regional political and military great power, though these efforts are still limited by its declining power relative to China, its commitments to the United States, and domestic pacifism. By contrast, the United States, fearful of being marginalized by East Asian economic integration, pursued the TPP as part of Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalance. Wu believes that US emphasis on regional economic influence will continue under Trump, even as the US is weakened by his anti-globalization policies, and insists that it is too soon to know if the TPP is really dead.

Like most observers, Wu argues that China–US relations hold the key to the future of the regional order. In pursuit of its new geopolitical objectives, China is emphasizing maritime power, the support of states along its periphery, and increased coordination with Russia in order to counter the US–Japan alliance. Meanwhile, the United States has increased its military presence in the Asia-Pacific and military cooperation with its regional allies, while further developing relations with states like Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and Myanmar and intervening politically in East Asian maritime disputes. Faced with China’s increasing strength, some states are choosing to balance China by cooperating with the United States and with each other. As the geopolitical strategies of China and the United States compete, drawing in other regional states, the risk of conflict and the likelihood of structural changes to the regional order increase.

Nevertheless, Wu argues that China–US conflict is unlikely because of their close economic relations, the high costs of a military conflict, and China’s limited objectives. Instead, he argues the states are far more likely to reach a “compromise” as the power balance increasingly shifts in China’s favor and the United States is unable to maintain its Asia-Pacific rebalance. (Wu’s view of a “compromise” involves the United States acquiescing to China’s position because of its weakened condition; it is unclear what China will give up.) The United States, Wu predicts, will accept China’s increased regional influence and the two states will work to clearly communicate their strategic intentions and coordinate particular security measures. While such a compromise will lead to increased balancing behavior by states like Japan, Wu anticipates that other states will cease to balance China, either because they do not fear China or because they believe that stronger economic ties with China are a better strategy. Overall, Wu optimistically foresees less geopolitical instability.

Wu is similarly optimistic that the future will bring more economic integration. Since 2010, there have been enormous changes to the geoeconomic structure. The TPP negotiation process, despite Trump’s withdrawal from the final agreement, strengthened US involvement in regional economic affairs while weakening China’s influence and lessening cooperation among East Asian states. Meanwhile, China’s efforts since 2013, including One Belt One Road, the establishment of the AIIB, and negotiations on trade agreements like RCEP and the China–Japan–South Korea FTA, have strengthened China’s role in regional economic cooperation. Although Chinese and US visions compete with each other, many states have chosen to sign agreements with both states. Wu anticipates that the region will move toward partial integration during the next decade as geoeconomic competition weakens.

Wu contends that the emerging regional order will result from the interaction of Chinese, US, and ASEAN preferences. China wants an inclusive, non-hierarchical, pluralistic order centered on economics. By contrast, the United States wants to maintain the current hierarchical US-led order, which is focused on security and structured around alliances and partnerships. Meanwhile, ASEAN seeks an ASEAN-centered pluralistic structure that emphasizes both security and economic cooperation; its promotion of economics, inclusiveness, unanimous decision-making, and non-hierarchical structures largely overlap with Chinese objectives. The resulting order, Wu believes, will emphasize economics, deemphasize US hegemonic power and hierarchy, and be more pluralistic and complex. This shift will be gradual and peaceful, and will offer a bigger role for developing countries and for non-Western states.

Wu concludes that the shifts in the regional order are occurring as a result of both China’s rise and other states’ responses. Although the Trump administration, unlike the Obama administration, is more concerned with particular problems than with the macrostructure of the region, Wu is unwilling to reject the possibility that US policy will revert to that of the Obama administration, whether during Trump’s term or after. US policy will strongly influence the future of the regional order, both directly and indirectly through the responses it provokes from other states. Meanwhile, if China wishes to play a leading role in reshaping the regional order it must continue to increase its comprehensive power over the next 5–10 years and pursue a geopolitical strategy that supports its geo-economic objectives.

Trump’s Foreign Policy

In Heping yu Fazhan, No. 3, 2017, Shen Yamei evaluates the foreign policy of the Trump administration’s first hundred days. Shen argues that Trump’s foreign policy inevitably reacts to Obama’s earlier policies. Consequently, Shen first evaluates the legacy of Obama’s foreign policy, arguing that it has received very mixed reviews in the American press. (This section is omitted from the English translation that accompanies the Chinese-language article.) The key weakness of Obama’s foreign policy, according to Shen’s review, was his resistance to the use of force, which prevented the United States from maintaining its global leadership and resulted in a destabilized world order, weakened US bilateral relations, and increased the likelihood of domestic terrorism. Obama’s weak foreign policy left the United States unable to meet the challenges posed by the Russian occupation of Ukraine, global terrorism, and Syria, and unable to successfully support its Asia-Pacific rebalance. Shen seems less convinced by more positive assessments, although he dutifully notes the difficulty of the challenges Obama faced, the improvement in the international image of the United States that occurred, and Obama’s understanding of the limits of power as he sought to maintain the US-led liberal world order.

American assessments of specific areas of foreign policy, Shen argues, reflect elite concerns about the future of US foreign policy. Shen is critical of Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalance, arguing that it worsens the security dilemma in East Asia (she blames this for the worsening Korean nuclear crisis) and worries traditional US allies in the Middle East and Europe by drawing US attention away from those regions. The dim prospects of the TPP suggest to Shen that US commitment to the rebalance is sorely lacking. Furthermore, Shen sees Obama’s failure to effectively manage tensions in the Middle East, namely in Syria, as an indication of his decision to back away from serving as the world’s policeman. Nevertheless, the domestic criticism of Obama’s Syria policy suggests the continued relevance of those who support foreign intervention. In addition, Shen argues that Obama leaves behind weakened alliances due to his “shilly-shallying” on issues of mutual concern. Finally, Shen cites criticism of Obama’s tendency to use elegant and inspiring words, while failing to follow through with actions.

Turning to Trump’s foreign policy, Shen is dismissive of US analysts’ concerns that Trump’s inexperience and nationalism might lead to a sharp break with established policy. She argues that Trump’s rapid “learning curve” on alliance relations, trade, and bilateral relations with Russia and China suggest that he will not make significant changes to existing policy. Throughout her analysis, Shen tends to give Trump the benefit of the doubt by treating him as a typical new president. Possibly, the upbeat mood about Sino–US relations after the Trump–Xi summit was influential when this article was written in mid-spring.

Based on her evaluation of Trump’s first hundred days, Shen identifies four main characteristics of his administration’s foreign policy. First, Trump will pursue an “America First” policy that is less engaged in international affairs than that of earlier administrations, while still taking a hard line against the Islamic State. Nevertheless, Shen recognizes that domestic pressures may drive Trump to take more “rash” actions, such as the military strike on Syria in April in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Second, domestic economic concerns will drive anti-free trade measures and a “transactional” approach to foreign policy, while the Trump campaign’s reliance on support from the defense industry and the appointment of retired generals to key administration positions will drive a policy of military expansion. Third, although Shen expects some broad changes to occur—notably the relative decline of US power and influence, the weakening of its alliances, and more isolationist positions—she also expects broad consistency in areas such as efforts to maintain US global leadership and the advance of democratic values. Most notably, she expects that Trump’s foreign policy will pursue more “proactive” measures in the Middle East, while maintaining strong bilateral relations with the major states of the Asia-Pacific and with the EU. Shen argues that Trump’s policy is focused on great powers rather than small and medium-sized states, in contrast to Obama’s policy, which sought to improve relations with small and medium-sized states to balance against great powers. Finally, Shen identifies the chaotic factional conflicts among Trump’s advisors, including the ultra-conservatives led by Bannon, the more liberal positions of his daughter and son-in-law, and the mainstream Republican stance represented by Pence (and formerly Reince Priebus). Shen believes that the policies of the previous administration, assessments of US power and the international environment, and the influence of his advisors will all constrain the impact of Trump’s individual beliefs and style on his administration’s foreign policy. She optimistically concludes that the need to balance among these factions will make Trump more “self-disciplined and prudent” as he seeks compromise positions.

Shen concludes by evaluating the prospects for Trump’s foreign policy, especially with regard to China. She believes Trump is tending toward a more pragmatic approach to China focused on practical results rather than confrontation and discursive disputes. She is consequently optimistic that short-term tensions will give way to stable bilateral relations in the longer term. Nevertheless, she recognizes the challenges posed by Trump’s opposition to free trade and globalization, his unfamiliarity with the nuances of the bilateral relationship, and negative views of China among many US strategists. Furthermore, as a post-American world order emerges, China’s policy toward the United States will inevitably shift as well.

Abe’s Public Diplomacy

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 6, 2017, Huang Dawei sharply criticizes the Abe administration’s public diplomacy efforts, arguing that Japan has waged a “propaganda war” against China through its Western-focused efforts (the Chinese term, 宣传 or xuanchuan, is variously translated as “propaganda” or “publicity”). Although Japan has incorporated foreign publicity into its foreign policy strategy for nearly one hundred years, Huang asserts that Abe has placed the most emphasis on it of any of Japan’s prime ministers. Japan’s 2013 National Security Strategy stressed the importance of diplomatic efforts to promote international understanding and support for Japanese policy. Huang argues that this is evidence of a “strategic” publicity effort, which contains three main parts. First, Abe uses his international remarks and the resources within the prime minister’s office to advance these goals. Second, Japan uses the Internet and popular social networking sites to advance its positions in a variety of languages, including English, Chinese, and Spanish. Third, Japan has strengthened its bureaucratic capabilities. In recent years, Japan has increased the budget for foreign publicity, offered greater support to its foreign diplomats, and decided to open three “Japan Houses” to promote its culture abroad.

According to Huang, Abe’s foreign publicity focuses on two key issues. The first is promoting Japan’s territorial and sovereignty claims. To implement this policy, Huang argues, Japan has worked to strengthen the capabilities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by producing foreign-language publications on issues including the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute and increasing embassy and consulate staff. In 2013, Japan established the Office of Policy Planning and Coordination on Territory and Sovereignty within the cabinet secretariat to promote Japan’s claims (the office maintains a sleek website in Japanese, Chinese, English, and Korean). Huang asserts that Japan has also advanced its claims through international remarks and by cloaking its position in the language of common democratic values.

The second main focus is on the history issue, on which Japan has taken a harder line since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Abe tried to ease the tensions provoked by his 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine with a “Pledge for Everlasting Peace” released the same day. The incident provoked an organized critique by Chinese embassy personnel in approximately 73 countries and international organizations, which was met by public responses by Japanese diplomats. (This is a curious example of Abe’s successful public diplomacy; the United States urged Abe not to make the visit and was certainly not convinced of its innocuousness by Abe’s pledge. It does, however, point to how organized Japanese diplomats were in responding to global criticism by the Chinese.) Huang also cites the mainstream denial of the existence of “comfort women” that became apparent in 2014 when Asahi Shimbun retracted a series of stories that had been based on the discredited testimony of a single individual. Huang argues that the right-wing media’s ability to seize this opportunity to push their revisionist views points to their growing strength against more liberal voices and means that there will be fewer domestic forces left to question the Japanese government’s rightward trends. Huang criticizes the Japanese government’s request to alter portions of a 1996 UN report that refer to “comfort women.” (This also seems like a public relations misfire.) Finally, Huang charges that Abe’s 2015 speech on the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II was a calculated effort to evade responsibility while indirectly criticizing China as a challenger to the existing world order and announcing Japan’s intention to throw off its postwar shackles and resume its position as a “normal” state.

Huang concludes that Abe’s public diplomacy strategy seeks to improve Japan’s global image and increase international support to advance its foreign policy goals. Chief among these objectives are Japan’s efforts to persuade other states to help it contain China. By using public diplomacy to promote its views of the history and territory problems, Huang argues, Japan seeks to portray China as a threat and itself as a peaceful country, in order to create the political space to become a “normal” country. Huang urges China to respond, but offers no suggestions of how to do so.

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