Country Report: China (February 2024)


During the winter of 2023–4, Chinese analysts devoted significant attention to developments in the Indo-Pacific, with particular attention to the role of India. One analyst examined the relationship between India’s increasingly expansive maritime strategy and Modi’s “Act East” policy, arguing that both pose threats to Chinese strategic interests and that China must push back before it is too late. Another analyst explored warming economic and security relations between India and Japan in the context of the two countries’ participation in the Quad and their shared interest in containing China. A third analyst assessed the evolution of India’s Indo-Pacific concept, asserting that India has increasingly advanced a unique “Indo-Pacific” vision that aligns with its national interests, but that domestic and international constraints will limit its implementation. A key point of debate among Chinese analysts is whether India seeks to maintain strategic autonomy by balancing between China and the United States, or whether its fears of China have led it to “pick sides” and align with the United States. Other Chinese analysts compared the gray zone tactics used against China by Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea and evaluated the implications for China of a strengthened US–Japan–South Korea trilateral cooperation mechanism.

India’s Maritime Strategy and the “Act East” Policy

In Dongnanya Zongheng, 2023, no. 6, Shen Qinyu argues that India’s “Act East” policy has taken on increased significance for China’s strategic interests as India’s focus on maritime security has expanded. Shen asserts that India’s May 2023 joint maritime military exercises with seven ASEAN member states—several of which have disputes with China in the South China Sea—marked a significant advancement of India’s naval capabilities into Southeast Asia and, perhaps, a new willingness of Southeast Asian states to invite intervention by extra-regional powers.

Shen contends that, since the end of the Cold War, the strategic constraints imposed by India’s tensions with its land neighbors, Pakistan and China, have encouraged it to prioritize a maritime strategy that allows it to protect its sovereignty, pursue economic development through trade, and expand its blue-water naval capabilities. Since the mid-2000s, India’s maritime objectives have become more assertive and now encompass three main goals: “military security, political diplomacy, and economic development.” Shen asserts that the “Act East” policy is based on the concept of a “security circle,” in which India is the center and its strategic interests radiate out in concentric semicircles. Of particular importance to Chinese observers is India’s decision to include the South China Sea in its secondary interest area; Shen argues that Indian involvement is welcomed by ASEAN member states, but also increases the complexity of China’s disputes with various Southeast Asian states. India has backed these increased security aspirations by strengthening its navy, which now has the capacity to reach Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, India’s political diplomacy focuses on extending its influence on the basis of its sea power in South Asia. To this end, India focuses on achieving control of the Indian Ocean and creating an image of itself as a “friendly security provider” by expanding its participation in ASEAN-led mechanisms and by creating maritime governance institutions, such as the Indian Ocean Rim Regional Cooperation Alliance and the Indian Ocean Naval Forum (in which, Shen notes, India eventually grudgingly allowed China to have observer status).

The economic development aspect of India’s maritime strategy focuses on its control of trade routes in the Indian Ocean, which is essential to India’s own security and allows India to influence regional economic development and even, potentially, global supply chains.

Tracing the evolution of India’s policy toward Southeast Asia from “Look East” to “Act East,” Shen argues that India’s strategy has shifted from land to sea. This shift not only reflects the strong strategic positions of Pakistan and China, but also a more global shift in the locus of power toward the sea as a source of resources and means of trade and interaction. By controlling key sea lines of communication (SLOCs), India can exert influence over other countries. Although the “Act East” strategy originally focused on Southeast Asia and the expansion of India’s diplomatic and economic opportunities, Shen contends, India has expanded the scope of the strategy to counter China as India has become alarmed by what it perceives as China’s “string of pearls” strategy. Shen points to India’s joint military exercises with South Korea and Japan and its participation in the Quad as evidence of this strategy. In a sense, Shen argues, India is using its cooperation with China’s neighbors to create its own “string of pearls.” India’s “Act East” policy consequently combines a focus on maritime security with an emphasis on the “blue economy.”  Modi’s pursuit of a “free, open, prosperous, and inclusive Indo-Pacific” has spurred India to expand military cooperation with ASEAN and various ASEAN member states, while also working with ASEAN on issues such as maritime governance, maritime connectivity, and the development of maritime resources.

As a result, Shen argues, India’s maritime strategy and “Act East” policy are intimately connected. Military diplomacy allows India to expand its maritime influence into Southeast Asia, as evident, for example, by the May 2023 Samudra Shakti-23 joint military exercise between India and Indonesia in the South China Sea and the August 2023 memorandum of understanding between India and the Philippine Coast Guard on maritime cooperation. Not surprisingly, Shen raises concerns about the threat that Indian control of the key SLOCs in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca could pose to China given China’s dependence on trade that passes through these SLOCs. Furthermore, Shen asserts that Indian intervention in the South China Sea provides India with “political capital” that, in turn, supports its efforts to strengthen its maritime influence. India’s shift from neutrality to active support for the Philippines’ position on its South China Sea dispute with China and the findings of the 2016 Hague tribunal may reflect an effort to curry favor with the members of the Quad, with which India has deepened relations. Meanwhile, “blue economic cooperation” strengthens India’s maritime influence in Southeast Asia, particularly through efforts to upgrade Indian ports and reach port cooperation agreements with ASEAN member states that will strengthen connectivity.

Shen is concerned about the implications of India’s “Act East” policy for Chinese interests. In addition to the threats perceived to these interests in the South China Sea, Shen argues that India’s objectives have expanded beyond Southeast Asia to include the entire Asia-Pacific in a clear effort to contain China (interestingly, Shen uses the term “Asia-Pacific,” rather than “Indo-Pacific,” throughout the analysis). Meanwhile, ASEAN, while still attempting to balance among major powers and maintain autonomy, has strengthened its relations with India and “welcomed” its “Act East” overtures. As a result, Shen urges Chinese policymakers to push back against India’s strategy before it progresses any further.

To this end, China should continue to expand its trade and investment relations with ASEAN, for example, through BRI projects, because closer economic interdependence is likely to raise the costs of conflict and lead to more peaceful relations. In addition, China should work with ASEAN and its member states to resolve the South China Sea issue because such progress would prevent India from using it as a tactic in its relations with Southeast Asian countries. Furthermore, China should increase bilateral mutual trust with India, which would undercut the geopolitical motivations that Shen believes underlie India’s “Act East” policy and promote peaceful relations through increased economic interdependence. Finally, China should improve its relationship with the United States, which would change ASEAN’s calculus about how best to balance among great powers and reduce the attractiveness of India’s “Act East” outreach. By increasing the costs of India’s “Act East” policy for India and ASEAN member states, Shen concludes, China can stifle the implementation of this strategy.

India–Japan Relations

In Nanya Dongnanya Yanjiu, 2023, no. 5, Mao Yue explores the strengthening of strategic and economic relations between India and Japan in the context of the Quad and the two countries’ shared efforts to contain China. The bilateral relationship has been formally upgraded twice in recent decades: to a “strategic global partnership” in 2006 and a “special strategic and global partnership” in 2014. Since 2005, the heads of state have made annual visits to each other, with relations particularly warming after Abe began his first term. Japan has come to see India as crucial to its strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, Modi has emphasized closer relations with both the United States and Japan. As political relations have grown stronger, economic ties have expanded significantly. Although the trade volume remains low, Japan is India’s fifth largest investor and has launched infrastructure and nuclear power projects. Japan has particularly focused its investments in northeastern India, which has geopolitical significance and immense resources, but underdeveloped infrastructure.

In recent years, bilateral Japan–India relations have warmed, particularly in the context of the institutionalization of the Quad. Japan sees India as a crucial partner in its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy and is hopeful that India will join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The two countries maintained frequent high-level interactions through the Covid-19 pandemic and have continued to expand their cooperation despite their disagreements over the Russia–Ukraine conflict. Areas of cooperation include economic development, disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation, the environment, cyber security, and maritime navigation, among many other issues. During the pandemic, India cooperated with Japan and Australia to strengthen supply chains, an effort that many see as an attempt to reduce dependence on China. Furthermore, India and Japan have expanded their military cooperation through joint military exercises, an agreement to provide services and supplies to each other, and an Indian agreement to purchase military communications equipment from Japan. Mao notes that Japan has deep respect for Indian cultural traditions, which have further strengthened the bilateral relationship. Overall, the two countries have built a stable relationship built on mutual trust.

In addition to the economic benefits of closer cooperation, Mao argues that Japan and India have moved closer together because of their shared, but “mistaken,” perception of a China threat, which looms over all aspects of their cooperation. India and Japan prioritize the security of SLOCs: both countries rely on maritime trade for their energy security and continued economic growth, and India views maritime security as essential for its great power dream. These shared interests have motivated the two countries’ naval cooperation. At the same time, Japan’s interest in expanding its economic relationship with India is driven both by opportunities to profit from access to India’s labor force, resources, and large export market, and by the geopolitical advantages of closer relations. Even as Japan has reduced its overall official development assistance (ODA), it has increased its ODA to India. Furthermore, the two countries have cooperated on the development of energy infrastructure, with Japan agreeing to export civilian nuclear technology to India and pursue a “clean energy partnership” that encompasses electric vehicles, solar energy, and other green technologies.

Mao concludes that China’s rise and China–US competition are the drivers of India–Japan relations. Japan’s economic and geopolitical interests in northeast India and close diplomatic and military relations between Japan and India align with the US Indo-Pacific strategy and help to contain China. Meanwhile, India sees closer relations with Japan, a key US ally, as a way to strengthen its relationship with the United States. Mao argues that India is no longer seeking to balance between China and the United States, but rather has chosen to side with the United States and its allies. Given the geostrategic importance of India, China should try to break up the relationships that have formed between the United States, its allies (Japan), and its “quasi-allies” (India) and pay close attention to the impact of bilateral Japan–India relations and the Quad on Chinese interests.

India’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

In Nanya Yanjiu, 2023, no. 4, Xie Chao assesses the evolution of India’s Indo-Pacific concept and Modi’s implementation of this strategy. Xie argues that India is advancing a concept of the “Indo-Pacific” that promotes Indian interests as it plays a complex geopolitical game and balances between the United States and China. From this perspective, the Indian version of the Indo-Pacific vision has three main characteristics: India sees itself as a great power and seeks to advance its interests through diplomacy, India focuses on its competitive and cooperative relations with other great powers, and India seeks to balance among existing great powers and promote a multipolar world. Consequently, although India has drawn close to the United States in an effort to contain China, India also seeks to maintain its strategic autonomy and pursue its great power dream, which limit its alignment with the United States. Xie’s view therefore contrasts with that of Mao Yue, who believes that India has picked sides; this disagreement over whether India is balancing between China and the United States or aligning with the United States against China marks a fundamental debate among Chinese analysts of India.

Xie asserts that India’s “Indo-Pacific” vision has developed through four stages. During the initial acceptance stage (2012–4), high-level Indian officials began to use the term “Indo-Pacific” in domestic and international discourse, demonstrating their support for the basic concept. However, the concept was not yet defined; Indian discussions of the term tended to focus on regional economic development and cooperation, rather than on the geopolitical elements emphasized by the United States. During the second stage, active integration (2015–7), the Modi administration began to define the contents of the concept as India rolled out the “Act East” policy, the 2015 update to India’s naval strategy, and the “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR) policy. By broadening India’s foreign policy to encompass both regional economic cooperation and security issues and highlighting the importance of maritime security in the Indian Ocean for India’s economic development, these policies both reflected the increasing influence of the concept of an “Indo-Pacific” on Indian foreign policy and gave substance to what had previously been a relatively empty concept. During the “callback and construction” stage (2017–9), India rejected Trump administration efforts to develop an “Indo-Pacific” strategy that united US allies and partners against China. Modi sought to create more diplomatic space for India by developing a version of the “Indo-Pacific” concept that better aligned with Indian’s strategic objectives. Importantly, India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017, demonstrating that it saw itself as having a geopolitical role in Eurasia, as well as in the Indo-Pacific. Modi’s vision of the Indo-Pacific as an inclusive grouping that was not directed at any country (implying China) demonstrated India’s emphasis on regional cooperation over geopolitical competition and India’s conditional support for the newly restarted Quad. During the active shaping stage (2019–present), Modi has more aggressively sought to redefine the Indo-Pacific concept in ways that advance Indian interests. For example, the 2019 Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative demonstrated Indian efforts to take a leading role in maritime cooperation with regional partners. Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s 2020 publication of The Indian Way articulated a realist approach to regional politics in which India should manage its relations with other major powers to maintain its influence and achieve a multipolar Asia.

Xie highlights four key aspects of India’s implementation of the Indo-Pacific concept in its foreign policy: strategic competition with China, strategic cooperation with the United States, the institutionalization of the Quad, and support for ASEAN centrality. Although there has been some variation as the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” has evolved through the four stages, Xie argues, overall, the Modi administration has pursued cooperation with the United States to contain China, competed with China to win over ASEAN, and challenged US dominance in the Indo-Pacific framework. By developing bilateral and multilateral relationships within a broader conception of an “Indo-Pacific,” Xie asserts, India has strengthened its regional influence.

Despite these advances in India’s Indo-Pacific strategy, Xie believes that India faces both domestic and international constraints. At the domestic level, Hindu nationalist voices, particularly from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have pushed the Modi administration to adopt a more confrontational economic policy against China since 2017, although bilateral China–India trade continues to grow. This strong economic nationalism also makes it harder for Modi to negotiate regional trade agreements and more fully integrate India into the regional economy. Furthermore, India’s economy continues to trail the much larger economies of the United States and China, and its manufacturing industry, which Modi portrayed as a potential engine for Indian economic growth, has shrunk as a proportion of GDP. Moreover, China continues to attract a substantially higher proportion of global foreign investment than India. Taken together, these economic trends suggest that India may not have the comprehensive strength to enact its Indo-Pacific vision.

At the international level, Xie contends, the Biden administration has continued Trump era “America First” policies that limit US investment in the Indo-Pacific. US direct investment in India has declined, and the US has maintained trade barriers to protect domestic manufacturing. Some Indian analysts view the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) as a US effort to restore regional economic dominance. As a result, Modi’s efforts to implement an Indo-Pacific strategy that promotes shared prosperity and prevents a single country from dominating the region run up against the constraints imposed by US policy. In addition, India and the United States sometimes have conflicting foreign policy interests. Most notably, the United States has criticized India for its unwillingness to condemn Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.

Xie concludes that although India views stronger cooperation with the United States under an Indo-Pacific strategy as a key mechanism to balance China, it has persistent doubts about whether the United States is a reliable partner with objectives that fully align with those of India. As a result, India and the United States may cooperate on specific issue areas, while competing in other areas. This complexity means that it is unlikely that an alliance among powerful Indo-Pacific states (that excludes China) will form in the next 5–10 years. Xie sees India’s participation in both China-led organizations (like the SCO) and US-led organizations (like the Quad) as evidence that India is not fully in the US camp. Consequently, Xie is optimistic that China can engage in “pragmatic cooperation” with India.

Vietnamese and Philippine “Gray Zone” Strategies in the South China Sea

In Dongnanya Yanjiu, 2023, no. 5, Luo Xiao argues that Vietnam and the Philippines have deployed a variety of “gray zone” tactics, which have harmed Chinese interests in the South China Sea. Gray zone tactics, which do not rise to the level of war, are particularly useful for small states that seek to compete with more powerful states but must do so on an asymmetrical basis. Luo argues that the South China Sea disputes currently center around four key issues: control over specific land features and waters, the legality of various claims and the legitimacy of the Hague tribunal’s ruling, disagreements over how best to resolve the South China Sea issue (for example, China’s preference to resolve issues separately with each claimant state as opposed to efforts by Southeast Asian claimant states to internationalize the issue), and competition for discursive power as various actors seek to shape global opinion by labeling other actors as the source of trouble. In this context, many medium-sized Southeast Asian claimant states compete with China, a rising power, using a gray zone strategy, which has led China to make concessions to avoid reputational and geopolitical costs. Curiously, Luo stipulates that “maritime disputes do not involve the fundamental interests or strategic priorities of neighboring rising countries”—an odd admission for a Chinese analyst given China’s emphasis on the South China Sea—reasoning that if fundamental interests were involved, then the rising power would put intense pressure on the medium-sized claimants to quickly squash the issue. Instead, rising countries like China need to avoid overreactions that would push medium-sized states into the arms of established countries (the United States) in the opposing camp or encourage the medium-sized states to allow their more powerful partners to deploy weapons or troops on their territory.

Luo argues that Southeast Asian claimant states have adopted five main types of gray zone tactics. First, through narrative warfare, states can gain both domestic and international support for their positions. Through this tactic, smaller states might contest the “legitimacy” of competing rights claims, portray themselves as an “unyielding victim” to gain the sympathy of third parties, threaten international arbitration to demonstrate their willingness to “depoliticize” the issue, or try to directly shape global public opinion. A second gray zone tactic is to signal deterrence through the development of asymmetrical military capabilities and by strengthening military cooperation with more powerful states. A third tactic is civil intervention, which involves “maritime militias,” such as fishing boats, which are seemingly operated by civilians, and the use of official ships in support capacities. Fourth, Southeast Asian claimants build global support to “defend peace and the rule of law,” which invites the intervention of established powers and heightens global concerns about rising states. Finally, smaller states test the bottom lines of rising states by seizing control of islands and reefs, pursuing the unilateral development of oil and gas extraction in contested waters, and forcing international arbitration. This is the riskiest of the five strategies because it can most easily generate a crisis. Luo argues that each claimant state implements these five strategies to different extents and in different ways, but that each state also plays off the tactics of other claimants (for example, by using the Philippines’ win at the Hague tribunal to support its own claims).

Luo contends that Vietnam’s overall strategy was more cautious before the 2014 China–Vietnam oil rig crisis near the Paracel Islands that tested China’s bottom-line but has been more aggressive since then. Between 2009 and the start of the crisis, Luo alleges, Vietnam used narrative warfare to “stigmatize” China by falsifying and manipulating historical information about the disputed islands (such as their names and the history of their possession), misapplying international law, and portraying Vietnam in both media and academic circles as a state that was determinedly enforcing its “legitimate” claims against an “arrogant” China. Vietnam also signaled deterrence and implemented civil intervention by expanding military cooperation with the United States and Japan, purchasing weapons systems to strengthen its military capabilities, and dispatching “fishing boat militias.” Furthermore, Vietnam sought to “internationalize” and “ASEANize” the crisis through outreach to countries like Japan, the United States, and the Philippines, and by using ASEAN meetings as a forum to pursue its interests.

Although the 2014 crisis subsided, Luo contends that Vietnam became more convinced that China posed a threat and consequently adopted a more aggressive gray zone strategy that persists. Vietnam’s narrative war has become more extensive (and more multilingual), and Vietnam has become more insistent on using UNCLOS as the only standard by which to adjudicate claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam has further strengthened its naval capabilities and deepened its cooperation with the United States, Japan, Russia, and India. Luo charges that Vietnam deploys its “fishing boat militia” at critical junctures to stand between Chinese bases in Guangdong and Hainan and the open sea, and that these fishing boats sometimes intentionally cause collisions (presumably to attract global support). Furthermore, Vietnam has gained strong diplomatic support for its position in the South China Sea from countries such as the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, as well as from ASEAN.

Turning to the Philippines, Luo argues that the Philippines adopted more cautious gray zone tactics before and after the elevated tensions brought about by the 2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis and the 2016 arbitration ruling. Between 2009 and the eruption of the 2012 crisis, the Philippines engaged in narrative warfare, sought to unite ASEAN against China, and strengthened its military deterrence. Even during the Scarborough Shoal crisis, Luo asserts, the Philippines continued to implement gray zone tactics by defending the legitimacy of its legal claims, using its alliance with the United States to pressure China, and seeking to shape global opinion by advancing the notion of a shared “China threat.” Similarly, Luo characterizes the arbitration process as a “high-intensity narrative war” that portrayed the Philippines as law-abiding and China as an “immoral” aggressor. As the arbitration process progressed, the Philippines signaled deterrence by expanding its military cooperation with the United States and Japan and by forming a “quasi-alliance” with Vietnam. Since the Hague tribunal ruling, the Philippines has pursued gray zone tactics to contain China while trying not to provoke a crisis. It has pursued narrative warfare by citing its legal victory in the arbitration, portraying China as a threat, and prioritizing a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. It has also continued to strengthen military relationships with the United States and Japan (notwithstanding Duterte’s efforts to appease China and create some distance from the United States in the immediate aftermath of the ruling).

Compared to the Philippines, Vietnam has adopted a more sophisticated approach to global propaganda by using multiple, major global languages and targeting neighboring states. By contrast, the Philippines’ global propaganda efforts are more limited, targeting only English-speaking audiences. In addition, Vietnam has put greater emphasis on developing asymmetric military capabilities by strengthening its coast guard and maritime militia. The Philippines’ strategy relies more on the United States, with which it has an alliance, while Vietnam declines to choose sides. This alliance relationship has given the Philippines the flexibility to take more risks in its approach to China, resulting in more variation in the intensity of its confrontation with China. Despite these differences, however, both countries seek to limit China’s exercise of hard power and gain global support, maximize their asymmetric advantages, and take advantage of opportunities provided by great power competition. Moreover, both countries have had substantial success in pushing back against China’s South China Sea objectives and have contributed to a growing “trust deficit” between China and ASEAN.

Luo concludes that China needs to work harder to advance the legitimacy of its rights claims in the South China Sea. To this end, Luo suggests that China consider the strategies of “participating in but not necessarily accepting arbitration” and “using arbitration to oppose arbitration and guide (new) arbitration.” By arguing that participation in international arbitration is an important way for rising powers to gain international influence and improve their global image, Luo implicitly criticizes the Chinese decision not to participate in the previous Hague tribunal.

US–Japan–South Korea Trilateral Cooperation

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, 2023, no. 6, Yang Yanlong and Zhang Yunling assess the development of a trilateral US–Japan–South Korea cooperation mechanism for China’s strategic interests in Northeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific, in the context of the historic August 2023 meeting among the three countries at Camp David. The United States has longstanding alliances with both Japan and South Korea, but relations between Japan and South Korea have been more volatile due to disagreements over Japan’s history of wartime aggression and territorial disputes. After the Cold War, the focus of trilateral cooperation was on the North Korean nuclear crisis. However, under the Biden administration, the United States prioritized stronger trilateral relations as a mechanism for implementing the US Indo-Pacific strategy (and containing China). After coming into office in 2022, Yoon Suk-yeol supported efforts to strengthen South Korea–Japan relations, long the weak link in the trilateral relationship, which allowed for the formalization of the trilateral cooperation mechanism.

Assessing the three joint documents released after the Camp David summit—“The Spirit of Camp David,” “Camp David Principles,” and “Commitment to Consult”—Yang and Zhang contend that the three countries have formed a “quasi-alliance.” They argue that the trilateral cooperation mechanism has four main characteristics. First, the United States promotes the institutionalization of trilateral cooperation to better integrate military operations and to prevent abrupt shifts in the relationship due to leadership changes in South Korea (and, perhaps, in the United States). The three countries seek to “pressure North Korea,” “contain China,” and “resist Russia” through a US-led trilateral mechanism grounded in the US–ROK and US–Japan alliances. Second, the creation of the trilateral mechanism demonstrates the US shift from bilateral alliances to minilateral arrangements to promote its Indo-Pacific strategy (other examples of such minilateralism include the Quad, AUKUS, and IPEF). The US–Japan–South Korea trilateral mechanism can be connected to other minilateral mechanisms to build a US-led “minilateral+” network of partners. Third, the trilateral mechanism encompasses a wide range of issue areas, ranging from security and military affairs to economics, infrastructure, and technology, encompasses the broad Indo-Pacific region, and is based on the regularization of leadership summits and ministerial-level meetings. Fourth, the trilateral cooperation mechanism is directed against China and is an important component of the Biden administration’s “small yard, high fence strategy” that seeks to protect key strategic technologies from perceived Chinese threats.

Yang and Zhang expect that the formalization of the trilateral cooperation mechanism will advance military, economic, and security cooperation and advance US strategic interests. The institutionalization of comprehensive cooperation between South Korea and Japan makes the bilateral relationship less susceptible to leadership changes in South Korea and creates a foundation for closer security cooperation. At the same time, Yang and Zhang charge, the trilateral mechanism will weaken regional stability and aggravate the formation of competing regional camps. Meanwhile, the mechanism supports US efforts to “decouple” from China and seek alternative partners to develop strategic technologies and source key resources, while establishing regional trade rules and technical standards that advantage the United States. By wooing Japan and South Korea to the trilateral cooperation mechanism, Yang and Zhang allege, the United States threatens the revival of the China–Japan–South Korea dialogue and cooperation mechanism.

Nevertheless, Yang and Zhang believe that the US–Japan–South Korea trilateral mechanism will face several constraints. The Biden administration’s construction of an “alliance plus” system is overly ambitious, in their view, given declining US capabilities and the likelihood that a second Trump administration would dismantle such policies. South Korea and Japan presumably know enough to doubt the US commitment to this trilateral cooperation mechanism. Furthermore, anti-Japan policies might reemerge in South Korea at any moment, particularly were Yoon to lose power. Although Japan is not likely to face instability in its policies because of domestic leadership changes, pacifist voices remain strong, and many Japanese oppose strengthening Japan’s offensive capabilities and signing agreements that might draw Japan into conflicts. Meanwhile, Japan–South Korea bilateral relations remain the weak link, with low levels of strategic mutual trust and differences on key security issues.

At the same time, Yang and Zhang assert, Japan and South Korea will be unwilling to follow the US lead in fully opposing China. Both Japan and South Korea have significant economic relations with China: China is the largest trading partner for each country, accounting for approximately one-fifth of all foreign trade, and “decoupling” would be devastating. Furthermore, the 2008 “Joint Statement for Tripartite Partnership” among China, Japan, and South Korea demonstrates a commitment to cooperative relations that Japan and South Korea are unlikely to simply toss aside. South Korea also needs Chinese support to achieve a resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis and to achieve peace and stability on the peninsula. Consequently, Yang and Zhang conclude that South Korea and Japan will seek to maintain stable and cooperative relations with China despite their concerns about China’s rise. As a result, the Asia-Pacific is likely to be characterized by competition and balancing among various mechanisms, giving China plenty of room to maneuver.

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