Country Report: China (October 2017)

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

In the summer of 2017, Chinese analysts continued to evaluate Chinese policy toward North Korea and attempted to understand the Trump administration’s policy toward China and the broader Asia–Pacific. They also evaluated the lessons of Japan’s public diplomacy toward ASEAN and examined worsening China–India and China–South Korea relations.

North Korean Nuclear Crisis

In remarks summarized by Zhongpingshe (September 10, 2017), Jia Qingguo offered sharp criticism of North Korea’s aggressive nuclear posturing to the Seoul Defense Dialogue 2017, just after North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. Jia views North Korea’s decision to conduct the nuclear test on the first day of the Chinese-hosted BRICS Summit 2017 as an indication that China was a target. He cautions that continued North Korean nuclear provocations will hurt Chinese interests and that China must prepare for possible conflict. Recognizing the diversity of views on the nuclear issue in China, he argues that there is a growing consensus that North Korea’s nuclear weapons threaten regional and global security, and asserts that China will cooperate with other countries and participate in the UN’s sanctions regime in order to manage this threat.

Jia insists that China must take a tougher position on North Korea, while continuing to promote dialogue and negotiations. In particular, he urges bilateral discussions between China and the United States, China and South Korea, and the United States and South Korea, as well as contingency planning among five members of the Six Party Talks (China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Russia). Jia also supports dialogue with North Korea as a way to express concerns, but not as a negotiation that would lead to accepting their demands. Through this dialogue, the concerned parties must make North Korea aware of the consequences of its provocations and talk to Pyongyang about alternatives to nuclear development.

In an article on East Asia Forum, Jia argues that China needs to work with the other concerned parties to prepare for the possibility of military action on the Korean Peninsula. Although Jia continues to support the Chinese government’s “two suspensions” proposal, under which the United States and South Korea would agree to temporarily halt their joint military exercises and North Korea would agree to pause nuclear and missile tests, his frustration with North Korea’s resistance to Chinese efforts so far leads him to conclude that contingency plans are necessary. These contingency planning talks, which the US and South Korean governments have previously encouraged and the Chinese have rejected, should cover five main issues that would arise if the North Korean regime were to fall: First, which state should take control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons? Second, how should China manage the refugee crisis that would likely occur? Third, which state or international organization would bear responsibility for reasserting order in North Korean territory? Fourth, who would determine the political status of the Korean Peninsula? Fifth, would South Korea and the United States agree to immediately remove THAAD from South Korea once the threat from North Korea is overcome? In posing these questions, Jia is sensitive to the political sensitivity of any discussion of the United States re-crossing the 38th parallel.

Jia’s open contemplation of these questions is remarkable given official Chinese opposition to regime change in North Korea and the general sense that these types of discussions should be avoided because they might legitimize that possibility. In a year in which observers like Shen Zhihua and Zhang Liangui have questioned China’s loyalty to North Korea and highlighted the threat its nuclear program poses to Chinese national interests (see Country Report: China, June 2017), Jia’s comments further suggest some change to formerly ossified Chinese positions. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Jia’s comments were made to foreign audiences, first in South Korea and then on an Australian-run website.

Despite the Chinese debate suggested by Jia’s comments, these remarks are far from uncontroversial. In a Chinese-language post on the US–China Perception Monitor on September 11, 2017, Zhu Zhihua castigates Jia for blaming North Korea and China for the nuclear crisis. Much of Zhu’s criticism rests on Jia’s transgression of the boundaries of official socialist foreign policy and his “subversion” of the official bottom line of “no war, no chaos” on the Korean Peninsula. Zhu views Jia as too sympathetic to the South Korean and US positions.

Although Zhu is willing to criticize North Korea for the timing of the sixth nuclear test, he argues that the United States is ultimately to blame for the crisis. Repeating a common line, he argues that the US failure to remove its troops following the Korean war and its joint military exercises with South Korea make North Korea feel insecure and have provoked this response. In addition, he contends that the United States has created the crisis through its hostility to socialist states, because it sees an opportunity to strengthen the US–South Korea–Japan military alliance, and as an excuse to deploy THAAD and its far-reaching radar. In his view, the Chinese government has worked hard to prevent conflict by proposing “two suspensions” and should not bear the blame if a military conflict ensues.

Zhu rejects a stricter sanctions regime, asserting that such measures are likely to produce regime collapse and a refugee crisis, and could hurt Chinese national interests by turning North Korea into an enemy. He adamantly opposes contingency planning because it indicates an acceptance that military options are on the table. He also condemns Jia’s tone, arguing that he treats North Korea as if it is a naughty child. As a neighbor and a fellow socialist state, North Korea deserves China’s support, in Zhu’s view, even if the Chinese do not agree with its domestic policies. As an alternative, Zhu recommends that China coordinate its policy with Russia, stick firmly to its promotion of a non-nuclear peninsula, resume dialogue with North Korea, try harder to persuade the UN to push to remove THAAD from South Korea, and make preparations for a military response to a potential conflict.

Zhu is a relatively unknown observer who launched a vicious, personal attack on a well-known Peking University professor. It is not surprising that other well-known observers, such as Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the conservative Global Times, came to Jia’s defense. However, while Jia’s comments indicate a widening space for criticism of North Korea and a broader debate over the content of Chinese foreign policy, Zhu’s rebuke indicates the continuing strength of more conservative positions.

US–China Relations Under the Trump Administration

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 8, 2017, Song Guoyou argues that Trump’s conception of the US national interest will hasten the arrival of parity between China and the United States. According to Song, previous Republican and Democratic administrations have defined the US national interest in the following order: security interests, economic interests, promoting US values, and maintaining the US-led world order. By contrast, as part of his “America First” approach, Trump prioritizes economic and security interests, while neglecting the world order and “universal” values. In Song’s view, Trump believes that the current world order is harmful to the United States and that the costs of maintaining it exceed its benefits. In this sense, “America First” is not about continuing to lead the world order but about prioritizing US interests. Trump also shows no interest in spreading traditional US values like democracy and human rights. Although the definition of US national interests has shifted significantly, Song argues, the Chinese conception of its national interest has remained consistent. China prioritizes ideology and regime stability, sovereignty, security, and development.

Song argues that China–US tensions arise when their respective national interests conflict. In this light, he does not expect much threat to China’s interest in regime stability and ideology because Trump has not shown much interest in promoting US values. Likewise, he believes that the United States has taken a relatively mild position on issues that impinge on Chinese sovereignty, such as the South China Sea, Tibet, Xinjiang, and, after a scare, Taiwan. Similarly, he does not foresee much conflict over the world order because the United States is no longer trying to take a leadership role and because China sees itself as a responsible participant in the existing order. Although Trump’s nationalistic approach to economic policy is most likely to provoke tensions, Song believes that there is ample room to bargain and that these disagreements are unlikely to destabilize the overall bilateral relationship.

As Trump has altered the US national interest, the role of the US vis-à-vis China has changed as well. First, Song argues that the United States has shifted from an external orientation to an internal one, as indicated by Trump’s immigration policy and trade protectionism, while China has moved in the opposite direction. China has become increasingly involved in global economic governance through initiatives like BRI and institutions like the AIIB. Second, the United States increasingly emphasizes its economic interests over its security interests. Trump has demonstrated a willingness to destabilize long-standing alliances in pursuit of economic deals that are more advantageous to the United States in the short term. By contrast, although China has long prioritized economic development, it increasingly emphasizes the importance of comprehensive security. Third, while US foreign policy has become more pragmatic and transactional, Chinese foreign policy has become more idealistic as it promotes its soft power abroad. Fourth, the United States has shifted from promoting multilateral cooperation to a focus on bilateral relationships because Trump believes his bargaining position is stronger in bilateral settings. Meanwhile, China is increasingly interested in multilateral institutions, such as the enlarged SCO and the G20. Finally, Trump’s dissatisfaction with the current world order leads him to take a more revisionist position, while China is more protective of the current world order.

Song predicts that the changing conception of US national interest under Trump will accelerate the trend toward parity or “balance” between China and the United States with regard to their relative strengths, ability to achieve their national interests, relative influence, and willingness to bear responsibility for the world order. For example, the United States has traditionally been willing and able to bear significant responsibility for global stability, but is now “shirking” its responsibilities. Meanwhile, China is taking a greater role in maintaining stability through measures such as ODA, peacekeeping operations, global governance, and the provision of regional public goods.

In Song’s view, domestic polarization and internal political battles in the United States, when contrasted with Chinese domestic stability, will weaken the United States and lessen the gap in strength between the two countries. At the same time, Trump’s inward focus creates a strategic opportunity that China will seize. In the vacuum created by the US retreat in global leadership, other states will turn to China as a natural alternative. China is ready and eager to play this role. Even if a future US administration returns to a globally-focused approach, China will maintain the international influence it gains during the Trump era.

The Trump Administration’s Asia–Pacific Policy

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 4, 2017, Liu Qing identifies a great deal of consistency between the Asia–Pacific policy of the Trump administration and that of previous Republican administrations, even as he argues that Trump has made his own mark. Given this consistency, Liu argues, Trump’s Asia–Pacific policy is not particularly controversial. In his view, it has three main characteristics. First, like much of Trump’s foreign policy, it is problem-oriented. Trump focuses on responding to discrete situations like the North Korean nuclear crisis and seeks to rewrite global trade rules in ways that favor US economic interests. Second, Trump has revived Reagan’s slogan of “peace through strength.” Trump is promoting a large expansion of the military, which will strengthen US efforts to control the Asia–Pacific order, and has attempted to consolidate US military alliances (after some initial missteps). Trump also promotes an isolationist “America First” strategy, which stands in marked contrast with Obama’s internationalism. Like Song, Liu finds that Trump has subordinated “universal” values to more narrowly-defined US interests. Trump focuses largely on strengthening the US bargaining position.

Despite his initial, disruptive steps, Liu argues that Trump’s Asia–Pacific policy has settled into the pragmatic, traditional pattern associated with “cautious conservatism.” In his several months in office, Liu contends, Trump has realized the complexity of the situation he faces in the Asia–Pacific, including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the nuanced Sino–US relationship. In addition, Liu believes that Trump now recognizes the limits of unilateralism. He has realized that the US bargaining position is weaker than he thought and that the alliances he once questioned play an important role in maintaining US hegemony. Finally, Liu asserts that domestic resistance to Trump’s policy from the Democratic and Republican establishment plays an important role in maintaining a more predictable policy. Liu’s assessment is perhaps a better description of the way the group of advisors and officials surrounding Trump has somewhat stabilized US Asia–Pacific policy; Trump’s own views, as indicated by his tweets, seem to remain as erratic and emotional as before.

While acknowledging that the future of Trump’s Asia–Pacific policy remains uncertain, Liu bravely offers some predictions. First, the Trump administration is likely to pursue selective multilateralism when it deems such an approach will advance US interests. For example, ASEAN may play an important role in fighting terrorism and maintaining maritime security. This selective approach stands in contrast to the Obama administration’s broad embrace of multilateralism. In addition, the Trump administration will focus on preventing regional crises like the North Korean nuclear crisis or tension in the South China Sea from damaging US interests. Furthermore, Trump will try to reshape regional economic relations in ways that advance domestic interests. Although he has abandoned TPP, he remains interested in shaping the economic order through bilateral negotiations.

Nevertheless, Liu recognizes that much of Trump’s Asia–Pacific strategy remains unsettled. Trump faces a significant amount of domestic opposition that may limit his policy effectiveness. US allies are nervous about Trump’s commitment to US alliances and are formulating alternative plans. ASEAN states remain wary of US intentions. Furthermore, extra-regional factors, such as instability in the Middle East, have the potential to harm regional affairs. As Trump’s policy continues to evolve, these factors may prove challenging.

Japan’s Public Diplomacy toward ASEAN

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 4, 2017, Zhou Ying and Tang Xiaosong assess Japan’s public diplomacy strategy toward ASEAN since Abe retook office and evaluate its implications for Chinese policy. Japan’s public diplomacy seeks to shape the views of international society and foreign publics so that they develop policies that are favorable to Japan’s national interests. Although Japan has long promoted public diplomacy, Zhou and Tang argue that its efforts accelerated when Abe returned to power.

Abe’s public diplomacy has involved a large number of high-level talks. Abe makes frequent visits to ASEAN member states and the Japanese government holds regular high-level meetings with its neighbors. A major media initiative, involving numerous press conferences by Abe and the publication in many languages of pamphlets presenting the Japanese view on sensitive issues like the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, complements this approach. Meanwhile, Japan uses ODA to promote infrastructure projects and broader social development, including disaster preparedness and medical training. It promotes cultural and educational exchanges, and encourages students from ASEAN states to study in Japan. Abe’s public diplomacy strategy has focused in particular on women, youth, and opinion-shapers as key targets who can help to build mutual trust. At the same time, Japan has portrayed China as a potential threat to regional security and territorial integrity and has attempted to build alliances in East Asia and the broader Asia–Pacific region with states that share its values. Zhou and Tang contend that Japan has deliberately used ODA to compete with China over infrastructure and investment projects, while promoting its soft power through cultural products likeanime and by increasing funding for Japanese-language instruction abroad.

ASEAN states have long seen Japan as an important partner in regional development and Abe’s strategy has been largely successful. Public opinion toward Japan within the ASEAN states has strengthened as the number of tourists and students traveling to Japan increases and Japan exports its language and popular restaurant chains. Nevertheless, Japan’s economic morass makes its domestic political situation seem unstable and limits its ability to contribute to ASEAN. This has led some in ASEAN to view Japan as weaker than China. In recent years, feelings of trust toward Japan have decreased while those toward China have increased, even though ASEAN respondents still narrowly favor Japan. Abe’s proactive pacifism and his more assertive military posturing worry many Southeast Asians given the history of Japanese aggression in the region. Although Zhou and Tang argue that Abe’s support for ASEAN maritime capacities reflects a deliberate attempt to pull these states away from China’s orbit, they also believe that interwoven ASEAN–Chinese economic interests will limit the effectiveness of these efforts.

Zhou and Tang contend that China has much to learn from Japan, especially given the importance of ASEAN to its interests. Like Japan, they argue, China should focus on building its public diplomacy capacity. Given the doubts as to how many in Southeast Asia might feel about official government channels, China needs to employ a more diverse array of actors as its messengers. China also needs to build its relationships with grassroots groups in ASEAN member states. They urge China to expand its approach beyond the infrastructure projects central to BRI to include issues like gender equality, health care, and disaster relief. Finally, they argue that China should use a more innovative and diverse array of tools to spread its message, noting how effective anime has been as a transmission mechanism for Japan. As China and Japan compete for influence in Southeast Asia, public diplomacy will play an important role.

China–India Relations

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 4, 2017, Lin Minwang cautions that China–India relations are headed in an adverse direction. Despite high hopes when Modi took office in 2014, relations deteriorated in 2016 as China blocked India’s attempt to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Nevertheless, the two states’ strong dialogue mechanisms are capable of managing disagreements as long as both states work hard to resolve their differences.

According to Lin, the two states’ strong, institutionalized high-level dialogues allow for the stable development of their bilateral relationship. Building on an extensive framework of existing dialogue mechanisms, in 2015 the two countries launched the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayong–DRC Dialogue, which brings together the Indian government’s NITI and the Chinese State Council’s Development Research Center. In 2016, the two states held their first Maritime Affairs Dialogue and their first High Level Dialogue on Counter-terrorism and Security. These new dialogue mechanisms indicate the priority the two states place on cooperation, particularly in technical areas.

Nevertheless, Lin argues that third parties threaten the stability of the bilateral relationship. India’s warmer relationship with the United States complicates Chinese attempts to balance between India and Pakistan, while the China–India territorial dispute in Arunachal Pradesh creates an opening for third-party states to intervene. Meanwhile, India worries about what it perceives as China’s new tendency to favor Pakistan. In 2016, Lin argues, the United States and Japan encroached on the China–India territorial dispute. Lin is particularly critical of India’s decision to play the “Dalai Lama card” by allowing him to visit Arunachal Pradesh in April 2017. He also highlights the negative impact of worsening India–Pakistan relations since Modi’s election. In 2015, many Indian observers became upset with China when it failed to support their protests to the UN over Pakistan’s decision to release the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack. (Liu contends that China views both India and Pakistan as victims of terrorism, and does not believe India had sufficient evidence to support its claims.) More recently, India has objected to the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor as a violation of its national sovereignty because it passes through disputed parts of Kashmir. In May 2017, India issued its first clear statement on BRI in which it praised connectivity, but asserted that such initiatives must adhere to international norms regarding rule of law, transparency, environmental protection, and territorial integrity.

Under Modi, Liu contends, India’s confidence in its domestic and international positions has led it to take a firmer stance toward China. India has taken a more active role in the South China Sea disputes and sides with the United States, Japan, and Vietnam against China. India has spoken out at multilateral meetings and increased maritime cooperation with the United States, Japan, and Australia. Liu asserts that this trend has been particularly pronounced since China blocked India’s attempts to join the NSG in June 2016 (although journal articles on India over the past few years suggest that Chinese observers have been concerned about India’s strengthening position since before this development). Liu believes that India sees its position on the South China Sea as a bargaining chip, which it will be more inclined to use when bilateral relations are difficult. At the same time, India blames China for blocking India’s attempt to join the NSG. Liu asserts that China is following the “impartiality principle” to assess new states’ applications. However, India believes that China has been more supportive of Pakistan’s application because of their closer bilateral relationship.

Liu concludes that these negative trends indicate the challenges that China–India relations now face. Modi’s distrust of China has led him to pursue closer relations with the United States and Japan, rather than continuing to balance between China and the United States. Liu also believes that India has overestimated its influence over the South China Sea issue and therefore miscalculated by getting more involved. To improve China–India relations, Liu urges the two states to focus on better understanding the other side’s strategic intentions. India’s entry into the SCO in June 2017 should help to strengthen the bilateral relationship. Nevertheless, here as elsewhere, the United States remains a wildcard, with uncertainties regarding its regional and global strategy challenging Indian and Chinese decision-makers alike.

China–South Korea Relations

In Yatai Anquan yu Haiyang Yanjiu, No. 4, 2017, Zhang Xizhe and Liang Yabin offer a pessimistic analysis of the future of China–South Korea relations. Zhang and Liang see the two states as stuck in a security dilemma. North Korea’s 2016 nuclear and missile tests spooked South Korea and led it to agree with the United States to deploy THAAD over Chinese and Russian objections. China objects to THAAD because it believes that China is the real target and views THAAD’s radar system as a threat to China’s nuclear deterrence strategy. Furthermore, many in Chinese view the 2016 South Korea–Japan agreement on military intelligence sharing as an indication that the two US alliances will evolve into a trilateral Japan–US–South Korea alliance that will constrain China. As US–North Korea relations worsen, Zhang and Liang argue that other states must choose sides, which increases pressure on the China–South Korea bilateral relationship.

Zhang and Liang contend that maritime disputes, particularly those regarding Ieodo/Suyan Rock and fisheries, are equally responsible for worsening China–South Korea relations. China and South Korea disagree about the boundaries of their respective EEZs. Meanwhile, the past decade has brought many clashes over their respective fishery claims, sometimes resulting in casualties. After South Korea agreed to deploy THAAD in 2016, the fisheries issue came to the fore again. That November, a South Korean patrol boat fired on two Chinese fishing boats, although no one was injured. Zhang and Liang argue that nationalist pressures push the two governments to take a harsher line. Although China cannot yield on issues of sovereignty, Zhang and Liang assert that the two states must rely on international law and shape domestic opinion in both states to accept a negotiated solution.

Zhang and Liang conclude with several recommendations for improving China–South Korea relations. First, the two states must strengthen mutual strategic trust and increase policy coordination. Given their shared interests in achieving denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, they must avoid becoming the pawns of North Korea or the United States, or being forced into competition with each other. Zhang and Liang blame the United States for triggering Chinese feelings of insecurity by using the North Korean nuclear crisis as an excuse for the US return to Asia and a stronger regional military position. Nevertheless, they believe that China can use Trump’s insistence that South Korea bear more of the costs of THAAD as an opening to resolve the THAAD issue in China’s favor.

Second, Zhang and Liang argue that China and South Korea must strengthen institutions and mechanisms for crisis management. Drawing on IR theory, they argue that international crises must satisfy three conditions. First, two or more states must believe that they face a threat to their basic values. Second, decision-makers must have only a limited time to respond. Finally, there must be a high likelihood that a policy response will trigger a hostile military event. Given that the first two conditions have already been satisfied in the case of North Korea, the two states need to begin a crisis management process. Zhang and Liang see the North Korean nuclear crisis as a mixture of Richard Ned Lebow’s “justification of hostility crisis” (in which one party uses a crisis as an excuse to provoke a war) and a “brinkmanship crisis,” in which both South Korea/the United States and North Korea are playing a risky hand. Given the high likelihood that the crisis could lead to war, China and South Korea need institutionalized rules for information sharing and communication to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.

Finally, China and South Korea must work hard on other issue areas so that cooperation on security concerns will become easier. By managing their maritime disputes on the basis of international law, they can demonstrate adherence to a shared set of norms, which will constrain their behavior in other areas. Adherence to international law will also demonstrate their desire to cooperate with the international community and set an expectation that others should also comply with international law.

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