Country Report: China (August 2023)


In mid-2023, Chinese analysts explored India’s long history of balancing among great powers, arguing that its “triple deviation” from the norms of strategic credibility have important implications for India’s relations with the United States, Russia, and China. The Philippines’ alliance relations also drew close attention, given continuing tensions in the South China Sea. Chinese analysts considered the implications of strengthening defense coordination between the United States, Japan, and the Philippines for Chinese interests in the South and East China seas and Taiwan, arguing that this trilateral relationship merits vigilance. They also assessed the expanding scope of the US–Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty to include the South China Sea, raising the possibility that a conflict between China and the Philippines over a Philippines-claimed island or reef might draw in the United States. Another key area of focus was the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Chinese analysts examined the emergence of the SCO out of the interplay between Chinese interests in a multilateral framework in Central Asia and Russia’s declining power and considered the implications of the war in Ukraine for the future of the SCO. They argued that the war creates an opportunity to expand the influence of the SCO and, by extension, advance China’s vision of a new form of diplomacy.

India’s Foreign Policy

In Nanya Yanjiu, 2023, no. 2, Li Liang argues that India’s long history of hedging between the United States and Russia (previously the Soviet Union) is characterized by a “triple deviation” from the norm of strategic credibility. Strategic credibility—keeping the promises that a country makes to its partners and acting in a way that matches its words—is central to most states’ reputation and international authority. By contrast, Li asserts, India’s behavior has violated the norm of strategic credibility in three key ways.

First, Li argues, India’s actions have often contradicted its expressed positions. For example, during the Cold War, when India championed non-alignment, it nevertheless reached out to the Soviet Union and the United States when assistance from these countries was in its interest, even forming a de facto alliance with the Soviet Union in 1971. Following the Cold War, India again promoted a non-alignment strategy, but tilted toward the United States. Nevertheless, India’s commitment to its relationship with the United States remains ambiguous. Although India and the United States signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in 2016, India has stated that the agreement is limited to logistical support and that the two countries will not establish joint military bases. Furthermore, India’s support for the Indo-Pacific strategy remains unclear, with India promoting a different agenda than that advanced by the United States, Japan, and Australia.

Second, Li contends, India has consistently played both sides, violating the usual expectation that a country will be exclusively loyal to its allies. This was evident during the Cold War, when India sought food aid and military assistance from both the USSR and the United States, and has continued in the post-Cold War era, with India seeking defense cooperation with both Russia and the United States and participating in multilateral mechanisms led by each country (for example, India is a member of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Quad).

Third, Li asserts, India has promoted non-alignment in its relations with countries outside its region, while pursuing regional hegemony within South Asia, as demonstrated by its relations with Sikkim (now part of India), Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Li questions India’s commitment to ASEAN centrality given India’s participation in the Indo-Pacific strategy, which emphasizes great power relations over relationships with small and medium-sized countries.

Li traces this “triple deviation” to three underlying causes. India’s great power aspirations are not, at this point, matched by its actual national strength. Although India would prefer non-alignment to allying with either the United States or Russia/the USSR, Li argues, it is actually a middle power that is rising, and must sometimes seek help from great powers. India is unwilling to become a subordinate in its relationship with great powers, however, so even after seeking help it fails to maintain consistent cooperation with its would-be ally. At the regional level, however, India does not face a similar gap between ambitions and capabilities, and can pursue regional hegemony.

A second cause of the “triple deviation” is the contradiction between India’s pursuit of strategic autonomy and its pragmatic, realist tendencies. Historically, India emphasized strategic autonomy and non-alignment when the situation allowed, but was willing to pursue closer relations with either the USSR/Russia or the United States when crises occurred. More recently, some Indian scholars have encouraged India to pursue closer ties with the United States to advance India’s national interests, even though this closer partnership undermines India’s traditional pursuit of strategic autonomy and non-alignment. Other Indian analysts have argued that India’s strategic autonomy is strengthened when it pursues relationships with multiple great powers, particularly when it can leverage its relationship with certain great powers against others.

The third cause of the “triple deviation” is the presence of both cooperation and mistrust in the Indian–US relationship. During the Cold War, the United States tried to woo India away from Soviet influence with various forms of aid. More recently, the United States has pursued closer ties with India to advance its “return to Asia” and Indo-Pacific strategy. Nevertheless, mistrust has long characterized the relationship. The United States has protested India’s non-alignment (and, consequently, its unwillingness to ally with the United States), while India has protested closer US relations with Pakistan. India and the United States also hold substantially different views of the Indian Ocean: India sees the Indian Ocean as its rightful sphere of influence, while the United States seeks to use India’s position in the Indian Ocean to advance US objectives of regional and global dominance. Furthermore, policy frictions have often arisen between the two countries on specific issues.

Although Li claims that India’s lack of strategic credibility is “not deliberate,” other aspects of Li’s argument suggest that Li sees India’s “triple deviation” not merely as an objective discrepancy between India’s actual and expected behavior, but as morally problematic. Li describes India’s behavior as “dishonest” and ascribes an Indian “contempt” for strategic credibility. Notably, Li’s concept of strategic credibility rests on the work of Yan Xuetong and moral realism, which argues that “strategic credibility is the minimum standard of international morality and a prerequisite for a major country to establish international authority.” India’s disregard for strategic credibility therefore indicates a disregard for global morality. Li further believes that India’s pursuit of a non-alignment strategy is disingenuous: while India prefers non-alignment to reliance on a great power, its real preference is to possess enough power to compete directly with countries like the United States and Russia/the USSR. In this sense, India’s behavior in South Asia, where it has regional dominance, better reflects its true preferences.

Li concludes by considering the prospects for India’s great power strategy, particularly considering the challenges presented by the Russian war in Ukraine. The United States has pressured India to join the West in condemning Russia’s invasion, but India has hedged. Although some Indian scholars have urged India to turn against Russia, India has long benefited from its strategy of balancing among multiple great powers and has so far resisted US pressure. A key question is how long the United States will tolerate India’s limited partnership and its continued relations with Russia. Furthermore, given India’s history of multidirectional hedging and lack of commitment, Li is not convinced that India and the United States will unite against China.

US–Japan–Philippines Relations

In Heping yu Fazhan, 2023, no. 3, Li Chunxia and He Shihan argue that increased defense cooperation between the United States, Japan, and the Philippines is a key example of the “minilateralism” that characterizes Biden’s approach to the Indo-Pacific strategy. This “alliance modernization” includes the construction of a new Japanese base on Mageshima Island (which will be used by the US military) and the Philippines’ 2023 decision to expand the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to give the United States access to four additional military bases. It also includes efforts to strengthen Japanese and Philippine military capabilities, joint military exercises and maritime patrols (including US–Philippine plans to jointly patrol the South China Sea), and enhanced defense coordination. Defense coordination among the three parties is supported by stronger bilateral coordination, including the 2015 Guidelines for US–Japan Defense Cooperation, the 2014 EDCA and the 2021 “Joint Vision for a 21st Century United States–Philippines Partnership,” and the 2023 joint statement affirming the Philippines and Japan’s commitment to defense and security cooperation, as well as by a robust 2+2 dialogue mechanism. (In June 2023, soon after this article was published, the national security advisors of the three countries met for the first of a planned series of regular meetings.) Within this trilateral relationship, Li and He argue, the core US–Japan relationship and the strengthening Japan–Philippine relationship reinforce the relatively weaker US–Philippine relationship, and increase the stability of trilateral defense cooperation.

The United States, Japan, and the Philippines all have their own motivations for pursuing stronger trilateral defense cooperation. Li and He argue that the Biden administration relies on minilateralism to resurrect the Cold War-era “island chain strategy,” in which Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines play key roles in determining access to the Western Pacific. Interestingly, Li and He portray the Biden administration’s alliance-focused foreign policy—in contrast to Trump’s unilateral approach—as a sign of weakness and US decline, rather than as a return to Obama-era foreign policy. Meanwhile, Japan has acted as a key link in the trilateral relationship, based on its strong ties with the United States and its reputation as a trustworthy economic and security partner in the Philippines. By functioning as a deputy to the United States in the region and serving as a bridge between the United States and the Philippines, Li and He argue, Japan can increase its discursive power and gain strategic autonomy. Stronger trilateral defense coordination also helps Japan to advance its own objectives in the South and East China seas. The Philippines is primarily concerned with its own security and, particularly, with the South China Sea. Although there is substantial domestic opposition to the US military presence because of the legacy of US colonialism (in the early 1990s, the Philippines shut down two large US bases, Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base), Filipino trust in the United States is quite high overall. Since Marcos’s 2022 election, US–Philippine ties have warmed, while Philippine concerns about China’s actions in the South China Sea have grown.

Strengthening trilateral defense cooperation has both international and regional impacts, Li and He contend. At the international level, it worsens great power tensions. Leveling the familiar charge that the United States has unfairly portrayed China as a “shared threat” to unite its allies and maintain US hegemony, they assert that the United States seeks to contain China. Through enhanced trilateral defense cooperation, the three countries can link the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea—all areas of key concern to China. Their actions, Li and He argue, have forced China to respond, leading to worsening US–China relations with negative global consequences. Consistent with much Chinese analysis, Li and He portray China as a passive actor that is “forced to respond,” rather than as an active player whose strategic choices have consequences. At the regional level, stronger trilateral defense cooperation threatens ASEAN centrality and unity. Li and He argue that despite US claims to support ASEAN centrality, it repeatedly meddles in Southeast Asian affairs and has pursued minilateral diplomacy. ASEAN, they argue, is better off when China and the United States balance each other and does not want the United States to contain China. They criticize US policy for pushing countries to choose sides, leading to the formation of “camps” reminiscent of the Cold War era, and leading to a fragmentation that threatens ASEAN unity.

Although trilateral defense cooperation has strengthened significantly, Li and He detect some limitations. Crucially, the strategic objectives of the three countries are not fully aligned. In their view, the United States seeks to contain China, while Japan is more focused on expanding its security and military capabilities beyond their post-Second World War constraints and the Philippines wants to use external powers to ensure its national security and its interests in the South China Sea. Importantly, the Philippines is not willing to completely follow the US and Japanese approach to China because it does not want to choose sides between China and the United States. Moreover, domestic opposition to the US military presence persists in the Philippines. As a result, even as the Philippines increases its military coordination with the United States and Japan, Marcos has also rejected a military solution to the South China Sea issue. In addition, ASEAN countries have sought to maintain strategic space and to develop a strategy that allows them to balance between China and the United States. China, in turn, has responded by seeking to promote economic and security cooperation in the region. Li and He conclude that China should remain vigilant, despite these limitations to trilateral defense cooperation.

In Meiguo Yanjiu, 2023, no. 3, He Weibao examines the history of the 1951 US–Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty as it pertains to the South China Sea and the islands and reefs claimed by the Philippines. According to the treaty, the mutual defense agreement encompasses attacks on either country’s homeland, “island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific,” or “armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” The meaning of “in the Pacific” is ambiguous, however. Moreover, although the South China Sea is geographically part of the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines did not occupy the contested islands and reefs until after the treaty was signed. This ambiguity led to a longstanding disagreement between the Philippines and the United States over whether the treaty applied to the South China Sea and the islands and reefs claimed by the Philippines. The Philippines took the position that it did and urged the United States to clearly state this, but the United States was unwilling to do so.

During the Cold War, the United States took an ambiguous position on whether the defense treaty applied to the South China Sea, while making it clear that it did not apply to the islands and reefs claimed by the Philippines beginning in the 1960s. The United States did not want to get involved in disputes over the sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea, some of which were subject to competing claims by US allies like South Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Furthermore, taking a position on these territorial disputes would have hindered Sino–US rapprochement and would have risked drawing the United States into a conflict. After the Cold War, the United States continued to resist Philippine efforts to persuade the United States to explicitly affirm that that the South China Sea and Philippine-claimed islands and reefs were covered by the mutual defense treaty, even as Sino–US relations became more competitive and the United States took a greater interest in the South China Sea.  As during the Cold War, taking a position on the sovereignty of the contested territory would complicate US relations with the multiple claimants. Furthermore, the United States was concerned that an explicit statement would create a moral hazard and lead to more assertive Philippine behavior.

The United States finally overcame its reticence on this issue during the Trump administration. In March 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly stated that the mutual defense treaty applied to any attack on the Philippine armed forces, aircraft, or public vessels. In July 2020, Pompeo stated that the Philippines has sovereignty over Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal. Although the United States has not explicitly stated that the treaty applies to them, He Weibao argues that, logically speaking, if these features belong to the Philippines, then they must be covered under the defense treaty. He argues that this shift in US policy resulted from a desire to team up with the Philippines against China and to deter China from taking more assertive actions in the South China Sea and from concern about Duterte’s efforts to build closer relations with China and create more distance from the United States. The 2016 Hague tribunal’s conclusions gave the United States some cover for making this policy shift. He argues that this policy shift created some risks for the United States. Taking a position in favor of Philippine claims puts the United States at odds with Vietnam and Malaysia, which both have disputes with the Philippines in the South China Sea. Furthermore, it increases the odds that the United States will be pulled into a conflict. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has maintained this position.

Not surprisingly, He concludes that this policy shift harms Chinese interests by threatening its claims in the South China Sea. This situation is particularly alarming to He given the shift in Philippine policy since 2022 under Marcos. With Philippine relations with the United States, Japan, and Australia warming and the Philippines’ continued activity in the South China Sea, He raises the possibility that the outbreak of armed conflict between the Philippines and other claimants (by which He is clearly referring to China) might bring in the United States under the mutual defense treaty.

China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

In Eluosi Yanjiu, 2023, no. 3, Zhu Jiejin and He Yue argue that increasingly institutionalized multilateral cooperation in Central Asia—as seen first in the Shanghai Five and then in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, has occurred both because of China’s increasing demand for multilateral cooperation and because of the conditions created by Russia’s declining veto power in the context of a regional power transition. Zhu and He claim that rising regional powers will become dissatisfied with the status quo and seek to alter the regional situation through multilateral cooperation, which ultimately leads to a demand for the creation of a regional intergovernmental organization. Dominant regional countries will view these efforts to change the status quo with suspicion, but as their relative power decreases compared to that of the rising power, their ability to prevent the creation of such an organization—through both their direct and indirect influence over the rising power—will decline.

The emergence of multilateral cooperation in Central Asia began in the early 1990s. China found that its border negotiations, previously a bilateral negotiation with the Soviet Union, could best be handled through multilateral negotiations with various former Soviet republics. Furthermore, in the context of a power vacuum in Central Asia, China prioritized building multilateral mutual trust between regional militaries.  Russia’s declining veto power created the conditions for China to realize its goals of establishing multilateral cooperation. Russia’s direct influence over China was declining as China’s economy began to grow and Russia’s stagnated, and as Russia’s influence over Central Asian countries diminished. China’s strengthening relations with Central Asian countries allowed it to resolve many border disputes, and economic and trade ties blossomed. The result was the establishment of the Shanghai Five mechanism.

During the mid-late 1990s, China’s demand for multilateral military cooperation grew as it feared greater instability in Central Asia due to the “three forces” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. This coincided with China’s increased interest in developing western China (particularly Xinjiang), which had lagged behind central and eastern China in its economic growth, and which was home to a large non-Han population with close cultural and religious ties to the populations of Central Asia. Meanwhile, Russia’s veto power had continued to decline. China’s rapid economic growth, beginning in the early 1990s, further increased the gap between Chinese and Russian power. Central Asian countries began to pursue independent development strategies that were not reliant on Russia and that included much more extensive economic cooperation with China. Furthermore, Zhu and He argue, China’s “new security concept” proved more attractive to Central Asian countries than Russia’s approach. The result was the upgrading of the Shanghai Five to a formal regional intergovernmental organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in 2001. Since 2001, they contend, the interests of China and the Central Asia members of the SCO have become more integrated, and the SCO has become more institutionalized. They conclude that the challenge for the near term will be to improve coordination between the SCO and Russia-dominated regional intergovernmental organizations, such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, as Russia seeks to reassert its influence in Central Asia.

In Eluosi Dongou Zhongya Yanjiu, 2023, no. 3, Deng Hao argues that although the “Ukraine crisis” has presented challenges for the SCO—now expanded to include the original six members plus India, Pakistan, and (shortly after the publication of Deng’s article) Iran—it has also created new opportunities to expand the SCO’s influence. In effect, Deng argues that Russia’s influence over the SCO’s agenda and its members has weakened further in the wake of Russia’s war with Ukraine. Consistent with Zhu and He’s argument, this creates the conditions for China to advance its own interests through enhanced regional multilateral cooperation and a more institutionalized and expanded SCO.

In the context of the Russia–Ukraine war, the SCO faces significant challenges. Russia’s relationship with the United States and the West has completely broken down, resulting in significant geopolitical tensions and talk of a “New Cold War.” Russia finds itself in a difficult economic and strategic position, facing Western sanctions and the “cautious neutrality” of most of the SCO member states, while the United States and Europe have overcome their previous differences and adopted a more unified position against Russia. As countries like Turkey, India, and Saudi Arabia vie for greater regional influence, SCO member states have sought increased strength through enhanced cooperation. Although Russia imagined that the SCO could become an anti-Western organization, Deng argues, its member states are not willing to line up against the United States and the West. Russia efforts to push this line would result in a fracturing of the SCO.

The SCO also faces increasing security challenges, arising not only from the conflict in Ukraine, but also from internal instability in some of its member states, escalating border conflicts, and energy, food, and financial security crises spurred on by the war in Ukraine. Moreover, sanctions aimed at Russia have had spillover effects: Russia’s sluggish economy has led to Russia’s decreased investment in Central Asia and reduced demand for Central Asian labor (which, in turn, has decreased remittances to Central Asia) and regional trade routes have been interrupted. As it faces this regional turmoil, the SCO has limited influence over the direction of the Russia–Ukraine war. Deng argues that the SCO’s virtual absence in the wake of Kyrgyz–Tajik border clashes further weakens its reputation.

Nevertheless, Deng sees the war in Ukraine as an opportunity for the SCO to expand its influence—and, by extension, for China to advance its foreign policy objectives. As Russia’s global position has weakened, its reliance on the SCO has increased: the SCO provides an important forum for Russia to negotiate with India and China, as well as a way to break its diplomatic isolation and pursue new trade relationships. Furthermore, Deng believes that by aggravating anti-Russian sentiments, the war in Ukraine has made countries more receptive to the “Shanghai Spirit”—the shared values, consistent with Xi’s overarching foreign policy approach, that China believes to underpin the SCO. The SCO is expanding, with Belarus in the process of becoming a member (Deng does not discuss Belarus’s close ties to Russia) and a growing number of dialogue partners. Deng sees this expansion as an affirmation of China’s core foreign policy values and vision of a new approach to international relations.

As Russia has become more reliant on the SCO, Central Asian countries’ interest in the organization have also increased. Resisting Russian efforts to create an anti-US organization, Central Asian states instead want to maintain neutrality and avoid picking sides. They hope that the SCO will help to ensure their security and promote economic growth. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan see the SCO as a useful mechanism for addressing security concerns like terrorism and Afghan instability and for improving their respective relationships with countries in Central Asia.
Deng clearly sees the current juncture in the development of the SCO as an opportunity for China to gain regional influence and advance its alternative view of a new world order. Channeling standard Chinese diplomatic language, Deng argues that the SCO can advance “major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” and the “construction of an SCO community with a shared future.” The SCO’s biggest challenge, Deng contends, is how to persuade its member states to internalize these values.

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