Country Report: China (February 2018)

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

In late 2017 to early 2018, Chinese analysts explored Modi’s Indian Ocean policy and evaluated the construction of the Indo-Pacific as a region and its implications for quadrilateral security cooperation between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. They also analyzed the security dilemma on the Korean Peninsula and China’s security relations with the states of Northeast Asia. They evaluated Japan’s pursuit of autonomous self-defense capabilities and examined how the Abe administration’s approach to the Okinawa base problem strengthens the proactive pacifist approach.

Modi’s Indian Ocean Policy

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 1, 2018, Shi Hongyuan analyzes substantial changes to India’s Indian Ocean policy since Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014. Modi seeks to create a maritime environment that will support India’s rise, improve India’s global status as a powerful country, and maximize its national interests. Consequently, Modi perceives its neighbors in the Indian Ocean as crucial targets of Indian diplomacy and highlights the importance of secure transit through the Indian Ocean to support India’s foreign trade. In March 2015, Modi articulated the concept of “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR), which expresses India’s commitment to increase its capacity to protect its territorial and maritime interests, its pursuit of greater cooperation with its maritime neighbors, its commitment to coordinated responses to traditional and non-traditional security threats and to ensure sustainable regional development, and its commitment to developing a rules-based order for resolving maritime disputes. Under Modi, India has committed to a vision of India, first suggested in 2009 by the United States, as a “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean.

To strengthen India’s position in the Indian Ocean, Shi argues, Modi has promoted five key measures. First, India has improved its relationships with the island-states of the Indian Ocean, namely Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. Although these states are quite small, Shi argues that their positions along important sea lines give them strategic importance. Second, under Modi, India has strengthened Project Mausam, a cultural outreach initiative that emphasizes the shared values among the countries of the Indian Ocean and seeks to improve Indian understanding of the various regional cultures. Shi stresses that Project Mausam is not limited to increasing cultural understanding; rather, he argues that it is part of Modi’s ambitious efforts to strengthen India’s regional influence. Third, India has sought to increase the effectiveness of three key governance mechanisms related to the Indian Ocean: the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and the Milan military exercises. Fourth, India seeks closer relations with countries in the Persian Gulf, a region that provides much of India’s energy, trade, FDI, and remittances. Finally, India pursues deeper maritime cooperation with the United States, Japan, and Australia, as well as with Bangladesh and the states of Southeast Asia.

Despite Modi’s efforts, Shi argues that his ability to achieve his objectives in the Indian Ocean faces major challenges. India’s navy is not yet strong enough to support Modi’s ambitious goals. Although it can handle coastal affairs, it is weaker than those of other great powers and is unable to prevent their navies from entering the Indian Ocean. India’s military expenditures are dwarfed by those of the United States and China. Consequently, Modi’s best bet is to continue to develop its capabilities and enhance its influence under the guidance of the United States. India’s maritime disputes with Pakistan also limit Modi’s strategy. Although Pakistan is much weaker than India, it can potentially obstruct India’s objectives by cooperating with other great powers or deploying asymmetrical tactics. Small states in the region may also oppose India’s policies when they interfere with those states’ abilities to ensure their security by balancing among the great powers. Left unstressed by Shi is China’s role in obstructing Modi’s plans as China increasingly competes with India (and the United States) for influence in the Indian Ocean.

Shi concludes that Modi’s Indian Ocean plans pose a potential threat to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Given India’s important position on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, its reluctance to participate could constrain China’s plans and might induce other states in the region to similarly withhold their support. As a result, Shi argues that China must work to improve its relations with both India and its neighbors in the Indian Ocean.

The Indo-Pacific and US–Japan–India–Australia Quadrilateral Cooperation

In Waijiao Pinglun, No. 1, 2018, Lin Minwang assesses the construction of the “Indo-Pacific” as a region and the implications for China of quadrilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. The four countries held quadrilateral talks in Manila on November 12, 2017, a decade after the creation of the short-lived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Lin interprets this meeting as an indication of official support for the concept of an Indo-Pacific region and a resumption of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

Lin perceives the construction of the Indo-Pacific as a region and its official acceptance by the governments of major states as the result of a game of concept creation that parallels the game of power politics. He believes that the goals of the concept are clear: to restrain China’s naval ambitions and prevent it from gaining influence in the Indian Ocean, to maintain the dominant US role, and to increase Indian capabilities. However, he argues that the boundaries of the Indo-Pacific region are vague and will be determined through the power that each state brings to bear. Success in defining the boundaries of the region will, in turn, generate further power for the winning states.

Although the term “Indo-Pacific” was used as early as the 1950s by researchers in Australia, it did not gain popularity until the mid-2000s. By then, it better described the dynamics of the region than the more common “Asia-Pacific” because it captured the interaction between the increasing naval ambitions of China and India. In addition, “Indo-Pacific” better conceptualized the strategic interests of East Asian states in the Indian Ocean as a pathway for their energy imports. According to Lin, Australians have been the most eager promoters of the term, though it did not enter their official language until May 2013. Indians first heard the term in a 2007 speech by Abe Shinzo, during a state visit. After a vigorous domestic debate, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh adopted the term in 2012. Abe himself formally proposed a “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” for Japan in 2016. Under Obama, the United States gradually expanded its concept of the Asia-Pacific to the broader Indo-Pacific and began using the term in October 2010. Lin argues that the term has been fully accepted and even more strongly supported by the Trump administration. The rapid acceptance of the Indo-Pacific region in official government discourse, Lin argues, has directly impacted the resumption of quadrilateral security talks.

Lin asserts that the November 2017 quadrilateral talks are a response not only to the North Korean nuclear crisis, terrorism, and maritime security and communication challenges, but are more fundamentally a result of the four states’ shared interests in the Indo-Pacific region. This cooperation was made possible by improvements in the bilateral relations among the four states, especially between India and the United States, India and Japan, India and Australia, and Japan and Australia. These improved bilateral relations have supported the creation of deeper bilateral dialogue mechanisms, rising to the level of 2+2 talks between each state’s foreign and defense ministers (the first 2+2 between India and the United States will be held in Washington, DC in April). The states have also developed robust trilateral dialogues, including those between the United States, Japan, and Australia (held since 2006); the United States, Japan, and India (held since 2011); and Japan, India, and Australia (held since 2015). The institutionalization of these bilateral and trilateral dialogue mechanisms made the resumption of a quadrilateral mechanism inevitable, Lin argues.

To determine its policy response, Lin contends, Chinese analysts must understand the internal tensions within the “Indo-Pacific” quadrilateral security dialogue. Lin notes that the four states did not issue a joint statement following the November 2017 meeting, which he sees as a reflection of internal differences on how to understand the Indo-Pacific and the level of support for the quadrilateral security dialogue mechanism. He perceives the United States and Japan as the most enthusiastic supporters of the dialogue mechanism, and Australia and India as harboring more doubts. Unlike the other three states, India’s public statements about quadrilateral cooperation do not refer to shared values, a commitment to international law and global norms, or a desire to deepen the dialogue, and India seems more interested in economic cooperation than in security cooperation. India opposes including China in the Indo-Pacific because it does not want to legitimize its presence in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, Australia does not want the Indo-Pacific concept to be used to constrain China, with which it has important trade relations.

Despite these internal tensions, Lin concludes that the Indo-Pacific is a powerful concept that is motivating greater quadrilateral cooperation. This has the potential to harm Chinese interests in the South China Sea and with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative. Consequently, he argues that China must be wary of the formation of a semi-alliance among the four states and should consider taking an active role in the construction of the Indo-Pacific regional concept.

The Korean Peninsula

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 1, 2018, Yang Xiyu argues that the development of mutual deterrence capabilities by North Korea and the US–South Korean alliance has trapped them in a security dilemma that increases tensions and the risk of war. Yang highlights the increasingly tense military competition between the two sides. He cautions that qualitative and quantitative improvements in each side’s deterrence capabilities are propelling the United States and North Korea toward mutually assured destruction. Although North Korea cannot develop a nuclear arsenal to rival that of the United States, its geographical position makes it hard to attack and allows it to develop asymmetric power. Meanwhile, the US–South Korean OPLAN 5027, a military plan developed to guard against North Korean invasion of the South, evolved from its original defensive approach to an increasingly offensive strategy. The new plan, OPLAN 5015, signed in June 2015, is even more aggressive, including such measures as a decapitation strike and destruction of key military facilities. Furthermore, the South Korean decision to deploy the US THAAD system has greatly complicated regional affairs. Like many Chinese analysts, Yang sees THAAD’s radar as a direct threat to China’s second-strike capability and worries that the North Korean crisis is just an excuse for the United States to deploy a global missile defense system.

Yang contends that the North Korean nuclear crisis is the key driver of the security dilemma on the peninsula. If North Korea and the United States were able to implement an agreement on the nuclear crisis, they would be able to stabilize the situation on the peninsula. However, when the nuclear crisis is aggravated, as it is now, it causes the security situation on the peninsula to deteriorate. North Korea, facing a military threat from the United States and a strangling blockade, sees its nuclear weapons program as a way to ensure regime survival, defend its national security, and gain leverage vis-à-vis the United States. Of course, the more advanced North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities become, the more preparations South Korea and the United States make for a potential military attack. These preparations only further North Korea’s commitment to its nuclear weapons program.

Based on the dark history of the North Korean nuclear crisis, Yang argues that a deterrence strategy cannot work. North Korea has dramatically increased its nuclear capabilities while the United States and South Korea have strengthened their alliance and deployed more weapons, but all parties are less secure than they once were. Given mutually incompatible security interests, the situation is continually worsening and unsustainable. Yang asserts that the only way out of the security dilemma is through “common security,” as described by Xi Jinping in his 2014 speech on the new Asian security concept, which must rest on the basis of a nuclear-free peninsula. “Common security” reflects the view that security must be universal, equal, and inclusive. What this means, in effect, is breaking apart exclusive US alliances, forging a system for security universal enough to put China at the center, and treating North Korea and South Korea equally as legitimate states whose security interests should be respected.

Yang’s concrete proposal to achieve common security and overcome the security dilemma is the well-worn “dual suspension” proposal, under which North Korea would agree to halt its nuclear and missile testing and the United States and South Korea would agree to halt their joint military exercises. This would be accompanied by two-track negotiations, which would include a restart of the Six-Party Talks to pursue a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula and a second set of negotiations on achieving long-term peace. The legal and institutional arrangements established by these two-track negotiations would ensure common security, solve traditional and non-traditional security problems on the peninsula, establish a multilateral cooperative security framework in which all could participate equally, and protect the right of both North and South Korea to peaceful development. Such a policy, Yang concludes, offers the best way out of the security dilemma.

China’s Strategic Challenges in Northeast Asia

In Guojia Anquan Yanjiu, No. 1, 2018, Shi Yinhong assesses the current state of China’s relations with its three East Asian neighbors, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea. Despite continued tensions, Shi argues that China and Japan are still operating under the 2014 four-point consensus. China and Japan are both implementing “two-track” policies. On the one hand, the two states seek a limited improvement in their bilateral relations, especially as it pertains to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute and other tensions in the East China Sea. At the same time, however, China is establishing a stronger strategic, military position that allows it to expand its influence, while Japan has overturned its ban on collective self-defense and is strengthening its position in the US–Japan alliance. This two-track policy will continue for the foreseeable future.

In recent years, Chinese tensions with Japan in the East China Sea have worsened. China’s coast guard routinely patrols the waters and its military planes routinely approach Japanese airspace, causing Japan’s Air SDF to scramble planes in response. Japan has also been spooked by two episodes in which Chinese frigates traversed waters surrounding the disputed islands, most recently in January 2018. Such an aggressive Chinese policy in the East China Sea, Shi contends, undermines China’s best strategy toward Japan. By stabilizing bilateral relations and reducing tensions, China can better contain the impact of Japan’s decision to lift the ban on collective self-defense and limit its involvement in hot spots outside the East China Sea at the behest of the United States. In addition to dialing back its patrols near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Shi argues that China should support regular high-level official meetings and expand bilateral diplomatic channels. Reminiscent of Shi’s advocacy of “new thinking” fifteen years ago, he continues to seek ways to reduce Sino–Japanese tensions and to take advantage of a period when China’s leaders are inclined to take a softer line toward Japan, but he is again likely to arouse a backlash.

Turning his attention to China’s relations with South Korea, Shi focuses on the impact of South Korea’s decision to deploy the US THAAD system. Although South Korea’s decision was driven most directly by North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016, Shi places some of the blame on Chinese reluctance until March 2016 to agree to UN sanctions proposed by the United States. Like Yang Xiyu, Shi highlights the negative impact of THAAD, especially the radar system, on China’s nuclear deterrent. He further argues that the introduction of THAAD will drive a strategic arms race in the region between China and the United States. In this light, China needs to return to the view of North Korea as a “strategic security buffer” and prevent US or US–South Korean control of the northern part of the peninsula. To prevent the United States from using the Korean Peninsula as a “fort” aimed at China, China also needs to maintain friendly relations with South Korea. Although China should continue to oppose THAAD, it should use the election of the progressive president Moon Jae-in as an opportunity to improve bilateral relations and ensure that Sino–South Korean relations are not held hostage to the North Korean crisis.

Finally, Shi considers China’s relations with North Korea. China has six core interests that relate to North Korea and the Korean Peninsula: a commitment to peace and stability on the peninsula, opposition to chaos in North Korea, a desire for North Korea to view China with amity, opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and support for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, a desire to maintain flexibility in China’s North Korea policy, and a need to maintain friendly relations with South Korea to prevent the United States from using the peninsula as a dagger pointed at China’s throat. These interests must all be given equal weight. Usually, analysts list just two or three national interests in assessments of how much weight should be given to each. This longer list gives more nuance to China’s policies and the argument that equal weight be given to all—at least half of which are favorable to North Korea—casts doubt on how much cooperation Shi believes China should provide to US “maximum pressure” on the North.

Given these interests, Shi argues that China must strictly implement the March 2016 UN sanctions—for now. These sanctions punish North Korea for harming Chinese interests, prevent the further deterioration of South Korean perceptions of China, and forestall a falling out with the Trump administration. However, China should eventually seek to change the UN Security Council’s policy and avoid instituting unilateral sanctions on North Korea. Shi seems particularly concerned that China avoid antagonizing North Korea because he believes that a hostile North Korea will pose a much larger threat to Chinese interests. His bitter recollection of what he sees as a litany of US failures to reciprocate Chinese cooperation on the North Korean crisis (for example, in August 2017, shortly after China approved tighter UN sanctions against North Korea, Trump signed a memorandum on investigating Chinese trade practices and the US Navy conducted a freedom of navigation operation near Mischief Reef in the South China Sea) suggests a profound frustration with the United States. Clearly, he accepts linkage between any Chinese cooperation on North Korea and US policies toward China, economic and strategic.

Although Shi’s frustration predates the Trump administration, he is clearly unimpressed by the current administration’s policies, which he considers to be “a mess.” Shi argues that a lack of attention to strategy has resulted in a reductionist approach to China that turns the complicated, multifaceted Sino–US relationship into a prisoner of the North Korean crisis. Shi blames Trump’s “crazy and wild,” “volatile,” and Machiavellian nature for a deterioration in Sino–US relations since the April 2017 Mar-a-Lago summit. He insists that China has little to no diplomatic sway over North Korea, suggesting that the United States is wrong to blame China for not doing enough to halt North Korea’s nuclear program and that China should not be punished in other aspects of the Sino–US relationship for its failure to do so. Shi concludes that the sanctions approach has failed: it has neither decreased North Korea’s capabilities nor its determination. Meanwhile, its direct and indirect costs are non-trivial, and it has worsened North Korean animosity toward China, giving China less room to maneuver. Although Shi rejects the utility of the sanctions approach, it is unclear what measures, other than appeasement to improve North Korea’s image of China, he would suggest in their place.

Japan’s New Security Policy

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 1, 2018, Zhu Haiyan analyzes Japan’s rapid embrace of “self-defense,” or an autonomous defensive capability. Since becoming prime minister for the second time in 2012, Abe has promoted a security policy that strengthens Japan’s self-defense capabilities. To this end, he has sought to increase defense expenditures, improve equipment, strengthen the SDF, and strengthen “patriotic” awareness and the will to defend oneself among members of the SDF and even civilians. Abe has succeeded in creating an institutionalized defense policy that transcends political parties and rises to the level of a national consensus. Meanwhile, at the international level, Abe has sought to build support for Japan’s self-defense policies by strengthening the US–Japan alliance, increasing security cooperation with Southeast Asia and seeking to create a Japanese-led maritime security partnership, and building security partnerships with European states (which also helps to decrease Japan’s reliance on the United States). Zhu also argues that Abe has used UN peace-keeping operations as an opportunity to demonstrate Japan’s capabilities and will, promote a positive image, and “desensitize” others to the sight of the once militarist Japan again exercising the use of force.

Zhu argues that Japan’s self-defense policy is motivated by the evaluation of its external security environment as “grim.” The instability created by the North Korean nuclear crisis creates the most effective excuse for strengthening Japan’s defensive capabilities; the need to respond to China’s rise provides another. Japan is also concerned about adjustments in US strategy: despite Trump’s assurances, Japan is no longer convinced that the United States is truly committed to guaranteeing Japan’s security. Furthermore, by bearing more of the burden for its own self-defense and sharing in regional security duties, Abe can demonstrate Japan’s support for Trump’s “America First” policy. Heightened self-defense capabilities also strengthen Japan’s ability to respond to the power vacuum that is emerging as the regional order shifts in response to Trump’s retreat from the Asia-Pacific.

Although the establishment of the self-defense concept faces some challenges—including institutional hurdles to constitutional revision, post-war pacifism, and the SDF’s inexperience—Zhu contends that Japan will have increasing space to pursue self-defense in the years to come. The embrace of self-defense will change Japan’s postwar image of itself as a “pacifist” nation and will reshape the regional order. A greater Japanese self-defense capability will increase the deterrence capacity of the US–Japan alliance, but will also make it more likely to be drawn into conflicts. For the United States, a stronger Japan is a double-edged sword: Japan will play a key role in the US Asia-Pacific strategy and allow the United States to reallocate resources elsewhere in the world, but Japan will also gain more leverage in the alliance, making bargains costlier for the United States. For China, the outcome is only negative. Even though Japan will not be able to block China’s rise, it will be able to harm China’s image and erode its soft power by spreading “China threat” theory. Japan’s efforts to build relations with other states based on “common values” will drive a wedge between China and its neighbors. Furthermore, Japan’s self-defense capabilities will spur a regional arms race, which will further complicate China’s regional security environment and hinder its pursuit of peaceful development. Zhu concludes that while a war between Japan and China is unlikely, smaller conflicts over the East China Sea, the South China Sea, or the Indo-Pacific are more probable. She offers little in the way of solutions beyond a routine call for a “new form of great power relations” and promoting a win-win relationship.

Japan’s Okinawa Base Policy

In Riben Xuekan, No. 6, 2017, Song Ning’er argues that the Abe administration’s approach to the debate surrounding US military bases on Okinawa serves to construct the meaning of “proactive pacifism.” Drawing on Robert Putnam’s “two-level games” approach, she highlights how the interplay between domestic and international politics allows the administration to define and institutionalize the proactive pacifism approach.

After assessing the way previous administrations have addressed the Okinawa base problem, Song analyzes the multiple games that are currently being played. At the international level, the negotiations are between the United States and Japan. The questions they face over when, where, and how to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in particular are the same as those considered by previous administrations. Nevertheless, Abe has adopted a riskier “small steps, fast walk” approach that seeks a series of “fine cuts,” or small gains. By being more proactive, the Abe administration is better able to gain the approval of citizens in Okinawa prefecture. At the domestic level, there are two games. The first is between the national Japanese government and the Okinawa prefectural government, which have often resorted to litigation to resolve their disputes over base plans. With regard to the prefectural government, Abe’s strategy has three main parts: he “keeps pushing forward,” he repeatedly places the ball in the Okinawan government’s court and portrays them as the problem if they delay matters, and he uses the courts to limit the prefecture’s independence. The second game is between the national Japanese government and the citizens of Okinawa. Even though a third of the public wants the bases to be returned, Abe’s administration is firm in insisting that Japan must ensure the US military deterrent capability and that US forces will not be able to leave Okinawa, even though Futenma can be relocated.

According to Song, the Okinawa base dispute offers Abe a chance to execute his proactive pacifism strategy and achieve objectives beyond those narrowly related to relocating Futenma. Abe uses the base problem to transform Japan’s demands of the United States. Over the past decades, the Japanese government has used the base to achieve different strategies; today, Abe seeks to use base negotiations as leverage to enhance Japan’s position relative to the United States and help Japan to become a “normal” country. The Abe administration also uses the base issue to accelerate the integration of Okinawa with the rest of Japan. Given Okinawa’s geographical position between East and Southeast Asia, it plays an important role in strengthening Japan’s position in both the East China Sea and its ability to intervene in the South China Sea. Finally, the Abe administration integrates the base issue into other policy issues, such as Japan’s East China Sea strategy and its efforts to link disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

Song concludes that proactive pacifism has become a widely accepted approach in Japan that guides both domestic and foreign affairs. The acceptance of this concept means that people no longer question whether “ensuring Japan’s security” and “becoming a military-political great power” are necessarily linked and helps to solidify support for the Abe administration.

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