Country Report: China (February 2017)

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

In late 2016-early 2017, Chinese analysts examined state-level decision-making on the Korean Peninsula. In the first batch of articles written after the Hague tribunal’s decision, they explored China’s approach to ASEAN, interpreted Duterte’s new China policy, and assessed ASEAN maritime management. They also considered the origins and implications of Abe’s nationalism and the prospects for improved Japanese-Russian relations. Assessments of Donald Trump’s impact on East Asia are too much in early flux for consideration here, but they will be a major theme in the next Country Report: China.

Korean Peninsula

In Dongbeiya Luntan, No. 1, 2017, Liu Xuelian and Meng Xiangchen argue that North Korea and South Korea’s increasing state autonomy since the end of the Cold War has made state-level domestic and foreign policy decisions the driving factor behind peninsular affairs. This stands in marked contrast to the Cold War period, during which peninsular politics were subsumed by great power relations. Peninsular affairs in 2016 were very unsettled, with two North Korean nuclear tests and the South Korean-US decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system despite Chinese and Russian objections. These developments, together with the unique geopolitical position of the Korean Peninsula and the unusual relationship between the ROK and the DPRK, draw global attention. Nevertheless, the authors criticize existing analyses for their excessive focus on great power relations and lack of attention to state-level policy choices in the ROK and the DPRK. Instead, they advocate for a state autonomy approach, which stresses the state’s ability to advance its own interests, while recognizing the constraints imposed by the domestic consequences of unpopular policies and the international system.

At the domestic level, the DPRK has pursued one-party, hereditary rule and a “military first” approach to governance. The DPRK’s foreign policy is an extension of the domestic pursuit of absolute state sovereignty. Its closure to the outside world is an attempt to maintain policy autonomy in an era of increasing globalization. At the international level, the DPRK has used nuclear tests and brinkmanship to maintain independence from the great powers. Liu and Meng argue that the nuclear tests are designed to achieve self-defense, without depending on other countries, by increasing the costs of an attack on North Korea. At the same time, North Korea seeks increased security and economic assistance from South Korea and normal relations with the United States. North Korea’s isolation means that it is not constrained by international norms.

State-level policy choices are likewise the main driver of South Korean behavior, although this takes a very different form than in the DPRK. As a stable democracy, the popular will serves as an important check on South Korean policy choices. At the international level, South Korea’s relations with the United States, Japan, China, and Russia influence its behavior, with the US-South Korea alliance as the foundation. South Korea has sought to balance between the United States, with which it seeks security through an upgraded, more equal alliance, and China, with which it has greatly expanded economic cooperation, especially after Park assumed office in 2013. Liu and Meng are critical of South Korea’s reliance on the alliance and, especially, the decision to deploy THAAD. They argue that such actions provoke the DPRK to further develop its nuclear weapons and worsen peninsular tensions. Even if it is not possible to separate peninsular tensions from great power relations, Liu and Meng believe that South Korea can choose between two regional coordination mechanisms. The first, among South Korea, the United States, and Japan, was especially useful after the third nuclear test, but brings with it the challenges of asymmetrical US power and lingering tensions with Japan. Instead, they advocate the use of the South Korean-United States-China mechanism, which will allow South Korea to address the nuclear issue without sacrificing state autonomy.

Liu and Meng conclude with two recommendations for addressing peninsular tensions. First, they advocate efforts to build the North Korean economy. In their view, if the DPRK can be persuaded to replace the current “military first” approach with an “economy first” policy, it will be less interested in nuclear weapons, and long-term regional peace will become more likely. To this end, they encourage efforts to increase the priority the DPRK places on economic development as part of its national development strategy and to build more interdependent, normal economic relations between the DPRK and its neighbors. They believe the DPRK will be receptive because it realizes that it cannot maintain its political rule without long-term economic success (this sounds a bit like transference from the Chinese case). At the international level, by breaking the “threat-response” model and instead providing security guarantees and development opportunities, neighboring countries can remove the incentive for the DPRK to develop nuclear weapons. This would entail the normalization of relations, a focus on diplomacy over sanctions, and a shift from economic assistance to trade. Liu and Meng’s engagement approach is in line with official Chinese views, which favor carrots over sticks.

Second, Liu and Meng argue that South Korea should shift from acting as a “balancer” to acting as a “coordinator” among great powers. In their view, its commitment to the US-ROK alliance forces it to remain in a subordinate position and sacrifices its interests to the more dominant preferences of the great powers. Instead, as a coordinator, South Korea can contribute to regional governance and achieve more autonomy. To achieve this transformation, however, South Korea must rely less on its alliance with the United States, including the THAAD deployment.

China-ASEAN Relations

In Waijiao Pinglun, No. 1, 2017, Shao Jianping argues that China supports ASEAN integration and community-building, and is not trying to divide its members against each other. Shao argues that international observers perpetuate two misunderstandings about China-ASEAN relations. First, focusing on the power asymmetry between China and ASEAN, they argue that China’s rise threatens ASEAN members’ interests. Shao criticizes at length a 2010 piece by Geoff Wade, which argues that China is using the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) cooperation mechanism to split ASEAN into two parts. Second, they argue that China is trying to prevent a unified ASEAN position on the South China Sea, noting in particular the neutrality of non-claimants like Laos and Cambodia, the four-point consensus China reached with Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos in April 2016, and the June 2016 decision by Malaysia to quickly withdraw a joint ASEAN statement. Rather, Shao criticizes the Philippines and Vietnam for trying to turn their disputes with China into an ASEAN issue, and Japan, India, and the United States for trying to force ASEAN members to pick sides. Shao asserts that these interpretations of China’s intentions are “misunderstandings,” but does not provide an alternative explanation for the specific instances he describes.

Instead, Shao argues that China actively promotes ASEAN integration because it realizes that a stronger ASEAN community benefits China’s economic and security interests by creating a stable environment in which it can peacefully rise. China seeks to reduce trade barriers with ASEAN, while supporting its increased regional influence. Shao offers five lines of evidence to support his contention. First, closer relations over the past 25 years, including Xi’s 2013 proposal for a “Community of Common Destiny,” demonstrate the value China places on the institutionalization of its relationship with ASEAN. Second, official Chinese statements demonstrate its public support for the integration process. Third, China supports ASEAN’s efforts to seek a central role in regional economic and security governance through mechanisms like 10+1, 10+3, the East Asia Summit, and RCEP. Fourth, China’s enthusiasm for the GMS mechanism, which it sees as the most successful of its regional cooperation mechanisms, shows its support for the ASEAN Community. Shao argues that the GMS mechanism actually helps to counteract the biggest risk of a split in ASEAN, which would occur because of the development gap between its old and new members. Finally, Shao asserts that China values cooperation with ASEAN regarding the South China Sea. Faced with ASEAN concerns after the Mischief Reef Incident, China shifted over two decades ago from a bilateral approach to cooperation within the ASEAN framework, as evident in the 2002 DOC and the ongoing negotiations on the COC. Shao’s belief that management of the South China Sea should rightfully occur within the ASEAN framework, but sovereignty disputes should be addressed through direct, bilateral negotiations underlies this argument.

With China’s increasing power and the festering of the South China Sea dispute, ASEAN has become more mistrustful of Chinese intentions. Currently, it attempts to hedge by seeking closer economic ties with China, while pursuing greater security by keeping the United States involved in the region. To combat this mistrust, Shao advocates a three-part policy. First, China should continue to pursue the dual-track strategy, by which claimants directly negotiate their disputes and China cooperates with ASEAN to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea. Shao takes recent conciliatory Philippine and Vietnamese measures as signs that the dual-track policy is working. Second, China should promote the community of common destiny, which supports China’s broader OBOR initiative and ASEAN’s connectivity efforts. This includes cooperation on specific infrastructure and connectivity projects, as well as increased trade. Third, China should promote more comprehensive cooperation with ASEAN on issues like illicit drugs. Shao concludes that China should further expand cooperation with ASEAN while alleviating fears that it seeks to divide ASEAN, noting that a strongly integrated ASEAN advances regional objectives. The key weakness of Shao’s argument is that China might value ASEAN integration (which he sees largely in economic terms), while still seeking to split its members’ positions on a specific issue like the South China Sea, so long as it does not think doing so will undermine the entire integration project.

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 12, 2016, Zhang Yuquan and Hong Xiaowen evaluate Duterte’s new policy toward China. Duterte seeks the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute through bilateral negotiations; greater economic cooperation with China, including more Chinese investment; and greater military independence from the United States. By tamping down tensions in the South China Sea, Duterte hopes to shift his focus to domestic development and resolving security threats in the south.

According to Zhang and Hong, Duterte’s friendly China policy has three characteristics: First, it is pragmatic. Recognizing China’s superior military and the economic resources it has to offer, Duterte has deemphasized the Hague tribunal ruling in order to promote better political and economic relations. In their view, Duterte is eager to “catch the China development express.” Second, Duterte seeks greater military independence from the United States. To this end, he announced plans to end joint patrols in disputed waters and cancelled two planned joint exercises. Third, Duterte seeks to balance between great powers by pursuing stronger economic relations with China as he maintains security relations with the United States, despite his more independent posture. Zhang and Hong note that the warming of bilateral relations with the United States, as evidenced by Duterte and Trump’s December phone call, demonstrates that Duterte knows that stronger US-Philippine relations will garner Chinese investments and attention. Duterte has also sought economic support from Japan.

Zhang and Hong identify four motives for Duterte’s adjustment of the Philippines’ China policy. First, Aquino’s hardline policy had reached an impasse. With Sino-Philippine relations rocky and the internationalization of the South China Sea dispute, Chinese investment and tourism had fallen, damaging the Philippines’ economy. China’s success at reaching the four-point consensus with Brunei, Laos, and Cambodia, its MOU with Vietnam, and progress with ASEAN on COC negotiations, early harvest measures, and the emergency hotline, have all put pressure on the Philippines. Second, Duterte has an extensive domestic reform agenda that requires significant foreign investment. He seeks to benefit from China’s “going out” and OBOR infrastructure initiatives. Third, a stable diplomatic environment will allow Duterte to better manage separatist and terrorist threats in the southern Philippines. Finally, Duterte’s own experience drives his diplomacy. He lacks a strong personal relationship with the United States, and governed Davao City with an “iron hand.”

Duterte’s policy adjustment is highly consequential. China has promised that it will reward the Philippines for the recent improvement in the bilateral relationship with greater access to trade, investment, and infrastructure construction initiatives. The Philippines now stands to benefit greatly under OBOR. In addition, improved Sino-Philippine relations lessen the negative impact of the United States on Chinese interests in the South China Sea. Duterte’s unwillingness to continue to serve as the “fulcrum” of the US effort to balance China will weaken the US position in the South China Sea. Furthermore, Duterte’s policy will weaken ASEAN unity on the South China Sea, which benefits the “dual track” approach and helps to advance Chinese interests. (By praising the weakening of ASEAN unity, Zhang and Hong’s argument stands in clear contrast to Shao’s assertion that China does not seek to divide ASEAN.)

Nevertheless, Zhang and Hong remain wary that Duterte’s policy adjustment may cause the United States to become more directly involved in the South China Sea. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam are all unwilling to serve as the US fulcrum in the Asia-Pacific, and China is sternly criticizing Singapore for drawing closer to the United States. As a result, the United States may try to find a new pivot, such as Taiwan (this seems less likely after Trump’s recent restatement of the “one China” policy), or assert itself more aggressively with naval patrols. Despite the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s Asia-Pacific policy, Zhang and Hong expect the United States to continue to try to prevent China from expanding its maritime interests in the South China Sea and maintain its naval deployments. They conclude that the United States must walk a fine line: a hardline policy will incentivize China to deploy its own forces and could lead to heightened rivalry, but a weak position will harm its reputation among its Asian allies.

In Guoji Luntan, No. 1, 2017, Wang Guanghou and Wang Yuan assess ASEAN’s efforts to strengthen regional maritime governance mechanisms and cooperation with great powers, while largely sidestepping the conflict in the South China Sea. They begin by describe the challenging situation ASEAN faces. Southeast Asia’s position on one of the world’s most important maritime trade routes makes it the site of great power competition. It also faces several difficult challenges, including piracy, maritime terrorism, natural disasters, smuggling, and environmental pollution. These problems are international in nature and require multilateral solutions. Furthermore, domestic political and economic situations within the various ASEAN countries limit their ability and willingness to cooperate. Some countries, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia, have low levels of development that prevent them from fully cooperating. In addition, resource and border conflicts between some ASEAN members limit mutual trust and prevent policy coordination.

In light of these challenges, Southeast Asian states rely on ASEAN to manage maritime issues because each state is too small to solve them on its own. ASEAN has recently achieved a good deal of success in developing the specialized management of maritime threats from piracy, terrorism, and natural disasters. ASEAN has also developed a more institutionalized governance process, through the creation of the ASEAN Maritime Forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum. Finally, ASEAN has sought greater cooperation with the United States, Japan, and China. By cooperating on less contentious political areas, the members increase each country’s willingness to cooperate and ability to share collective responsibility for risk, while lessening conflicts with external great powers.

Wang and Wang conclude by identifying three characteristics of ASEAN maritime governance. First, it holds fast to the principle of consensus decision-making. Second, the functional cooperation required by less politically sensitive issues like disaster relief and piracy enhances regional integration. Finally, ASEAN balances among China, Japan, and the United States in order to maintain a leading role in regional affairs and advance its interests. After a year in which the South China Sea disputes drew global attention, this analysis is a useful reminder of the expansion of ASEAN maritime cooperation mechanisms in less controversial areas.

Japanese Nationalism

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 12, 2016, Wang Shan carefully traces the origins of Abe’s nationalism and its implications for his domestic and foreign policies. Wang begins by noting that nationalism is not monolithic; rather, it changes over time. The return of nationalism in the 1990s has links to the past, but is not the same as the pre-war version.

Wang begins by deriving Abe’s view of nationalism from his own writing. Abe sees nationalism as a “love for the homeland.” The basic commitment is to the ancient lands and traditions of Japan, not to the current government. Abe also privileges the role of the emperor. Abe’s nationalist thinking is manifested in his long-standing connections to nationalist factions. These factions, which gained strength in the 1990s, are deeply nostalgic for Japan’s earlier era of economic growth. Nationalism serves as a way for people to overcome their sense of crisis about Japan’s international role and its stagnation. Wang details Abe’s close ties with notable right-wing nationalist groups and individuals, including Nippon Kaigi, the late Okazaki Hisahiko, and Sakurai Yoshiko of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. This right-wing nationalism takes two forms: the racially discriminatory “Japan that can say no” variant and the “liberal view of history” variant, which re-envisions a history in which Japanese people can feel proud and is closely linked to the textbook revisionist movement. Wang argues that this thinking influences Abe as he seeks to throw off the postwar system and use nationalism to mobilize Japan to become a political and military great power.

Wang traces the origins of Abe’s nationalism to three main factors. First, Abe’s nationalism is a political manifestation of Japan’s “new nationalism” movement. Abe believes that Japan is lost and must be restored and defended. In this sense, he seeks to restore pre-war beliefs, cultural traditions, and even social structures, and has legitimized some of the views of the right-wing nationalist groups. Second, Abe’s nationalism reflects the Japanese people’s desire for national-level solutions to domestic social and economic problems and the sense that Japan is losing its international competitiveness. Finally, Abe’s nationalism is deeply influenced by his grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, and by his father, Abe Shintaro. Abe seeks to achieve Kishi’s dream of making Japan into “a self-confident country.”

Wang then considers the domestic and foreign policy manifestations of Abe’s nationalism. At the domestic level, Abe seeks to revise the education system to teach patriotism and “great power consciousness.” He is working actively to revise the Constitution and has expanded the power of the prime minister while, allegedly, suppressing media opposition. He has lifted the ban on the right to collective self-defense and advocates self-defense. Abe’s nationalism drives his conservative views and his pursuit of a more active military posture. In terms of foreign policy, Abe seeks “strategic diplomacy” and “strong-minded diplomacy” to advance Japan’s national interests. He wants Japan to write international rules, values the strengthening of the US-Japan alliance, and seeks to balance China. Abe justifies his “proactive pacifism” with allegations of a grim East Asian security situation (Wang is skeptical) and uses this policy as a cover for his attempts to throw off the constraints of the Constitution while seeking to remilitarize. This policy is fundamentally incompatible with Japan’s postwar pacifism. Finally, Abe takes a revisionist view of history that seeks to strengthen national pride. Wang asserts that Abe employs this revisionist view during elections and major policy launches, but hides it in international settings.

Wang concludes by contrasting Abe’s nationalism with previous postwar variants. In terms of domestic policy, Abe’s version is more far-ranging, systematic, and radical in breaking through taboos. With regard to foreign policy, Abe seeks to be a moral voice in the international arena, and subverts the international order through targeted and aggressive measures. Wang warns that the Japanese political system has failed to contain the new right-wing movement, and only weak constraints on Abe’s nationalism remain.

Japan-Russia Relations

In Shijie Zhishi, No. 23, 2016, Jiang Yi assesses the marked improvement in Japanese-Russian relations over the past year. 2016 brought a flurry of high-level bilateral interactions. Abe met with Putin during two visits to Russia, in May and September, and Putin traveled to Japan in December (a meeting that had not yet occurred at the time of the article’s publication). In October, Japan’s vice foreign minister and Russia’s first deputy foreign minister held the first Japan-Russia Strategic Dialogue in more than three years, a meeting that had been halted after Japan jointed Western sanctions against Russia. There was also talk in Japan of resuming 2+2 talks between the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers, which had similarly been halted (the meeting has now been set for March 20). Abe has expressed his desire to improve bilateral relations and his belief that only high-level talks can achieve this goal. Jiang argues that the two countries’ improved relations is made possible by the fact that neither sees the other as its major security threat, leaving unsaid Japan’s interest in building stronger relations with Russia as a check against China.

Japan’s outreach to Russia is reversing the long-standing lull in bilateral relations. Japan has long insisted that resolving the two countries’ territorial dispute over the four islands that make up the Northern Territories/southern Kurile Islands must precede enhanced economic cooperation. As a result, the level of trade between the two countries is low, in absolute terms, and Japanese investment in Russia is minimal. Russia has been dissatisfied with Japan’s preconditions for bilateral cooperation and wary of Japan’s commitment to negotiating the territorial issue given the pressures the Japanese public places on its leaders in this regard. Nevertheless, since becoming prime minister for the second time, Abe has promoted “new thinking” on Russia that advocates more extensive government interaction and prioritizes economic cooperation. In May, for example, Abe presented Russia with an eight-point cooperation plan. Japan sought to create a 100 billion yen investment fund for Russian projects (the article mistakenly reports this as 1 trillion yen). Russia has been very receptive to Japan’s economic diplomacy, and has offered its own multi-point proposals for possible economic cooperation projects.

A second component of Abe’s “new thinking” is his adjustment of Japan’s policy regarding its territorial disputes with Russia. Japan has long refused to sign a peace treaty with Russia to formally end World War II until the Northern Territories/southern Kurile Islands dispute is resolved. Abe has altered the previous Japanese policy, which insisted that the sovereignty of all four disputed islands must be resolved at once, with a more flexible approach that would allow Japan and Russia to negotiate the timing and form of their return. Under Abe’s new proposal, Russia would first return Shikotan and Habomai, which the USSR previously agreed to return to Japan in the 1956 joint declaration, with the sovereignty of the remaining two islands to be resolved at a future date. Abe has also appointed a former Japanese ambassador to Russia to pursue negotiations, under his direct supervision (rather than that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). To prevent domestic uproar, both countries have kept these negotiations quiet, although the Japanese have issued trial balloons. (The negotiations actually grew much noisier as the date of the Abe-Putin summit in December approached.)

Despite this progress, Jiang identifies three potential hurdles to the continued progress of relations, resolution of the territorial dispute, and signing of a peace treaty. First, even with Abe’s “new thinking,” a final resolution for the islands dispute remains difficult. Domestic opposition in both countries limit their leaders’ ability to offer concessions. In Russia, for example, 56 percent of citizens oppose returning any territory to Japan. Second, the two countries’ seeming agreement on the plan to return Shikotan and Habomai obscures a fundamental underlying disagreement. The Russians believe that returning the two islands should completely resolve the territorial dispute. By contrast, Japan believes the return of these two islands should be followed by negotiations on the remaining two. A 2009 law that asserts that all four islands are Japanese territory further constrains Abe’s position. Finally, expanded economic cooperation will require Japan to break with the US policy of containing Russia. In a February 2016 phone call with Abe, Obama expressed his displeasure with improved Japanese-Russian relations in defiance of G7 unity. Japan’s continued dependence on its alliance with the United States means that it must take US concerns seriously, and decreases Russian confidence that Japan will follow through on its initiatives. The most immediate problem is that Japan’s investment and energy development proposals may conflict with the sanctions currently imposed against Russia. (The Trump administration, however, is presumably less concerned with warmer Japanese-Russian relations.) Consequently, the future of Japanese-Russian relations depends not only on the success of territorial negotiations, but also on how Russia fits into Japan’s broader diplomatic strategy, Jiang concludes.

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