Chinese writings in the late summer appeared in the shadow of the Ukraine war and of deep strains in Sino-US relations. Often, they raised a triangular context, usually of Sino-US ties and one other country. The Sino-US-Russia triangle held the most prominent place. Yet, relations with Japan and South Korea were also covered in the context of worsening Sino-US challenges.
Although the analysis is triangular, the usual conclusions in such coverage are left vague. That China’s position in three key triangles has seriously worsened is only indirectly indicated. On the Sino-US-Japan triangle, the year 2021 is deemed decisive, undercutting a positive trend raised for 2017-20. Just a whiff of hope is offered by recommending that China be watchful for a gap opening between Tokyo and Washington, as if US ideology and internal divisions and Japan’s past search for some autonomy could produce what is clearly not foreseen from any policy shift in China. On the Sino-US-South Korea triangle, the first half of the 2022 appears decisive, given a new leader in Seoul tilting toward the US after an upbeat atmosphere in Sino-ROK relations from late 2017 to 2020. Although the tone is pessimistic, triangular analysis is less so than for the Japan triangle since economic interests are better recognized for Seoul and the Pyongyang factor looms. Divisions in South Korea are deemed more promising than in Japan. Finally, the Sino-US-Russia triangle, while at first glance appearing more complicated, also offers testimony of China’s worsening situation. Russia’s all-out assault on the US in the context of the Ukraine war puts China in a bind, leaving it with a rasher and weaker partner and extrapolating alarm in Washington to China as well. As the pivot in this triangle, its leverage has been badly undercut.
Writings never discuss US grievances with China. The explanation for alleged US aggressive behavior is a hegemonic power that cannot tolerate a rising power encroaching on its turf. Allies, in turn, respond to US pressure, but they remain hesitant, owing to national interest at odds with US interests. China, in this narrative, is a defensive actor, just defending its core interests against interference in its internal affairs. Yet, in 2022 Russian behavior complicated the narrative. Chinese were silent on why they are not defending sovereignty and territorial integrity. Chinese articles have found it hard to explain the events of 2022. Yet, a divide is seen between authors who foresee ways to avoid a cold war in Asia and those who anticipate it.
The three triangles covered below fit into a broader Chinese narrative on multilateralism in US regional thinking. As in all of the triangular discussions, the recognized starting point is the loss of US relative power and its need to turn for support to allies and security partners. Depicting China as a defensive state just protecting its core interests, articles treat the US as desperately attempting to keep its hegemony with simplistic arguments about how it perceives China. On the level of multilateralism, the conclusions are not so pessimistic. US success with the ASEAN states or India is left in doubt. The Biden shift from bilateralism is worrisome, but it does not appear to be a gamechanger. The tone in articles on triangles in Northeast Asia is more dire.
In Guoji Anquan Yanjiu, No. 4, Ling Shengli and Wang Yanfei analyzed the multilateral transformation of the US Asia-Pacific security strategy, linking a shift from bilateralism to multilateralism to the logic of hegemony as the US power advantage shrank. US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation, the AUKUS trilateral security partnership, the Five Eyes, and the Quad are examples of the US shift. The authors say these groups have a solid foundation, a common identity, and a variety of flexible cooperative forms that help to mobilize strategic resources and unite other countries to address threats of common concern, enhancing US security mobilization capabilities and exerting a huge impact on the regional order while putting greater security pressure on China. The shift is traced from Obama, who started it but did not institutionalize it much, to Trump, who was positive and focused on a China threat and 5G restrictions, to Biden, who intensified an Indo-Pacific strategic competition. The article ends by saying that disunity is seen and the cooperative process is unstable. After all, the aims of the various multilateral entities are disparate and even in each one there are contradictions, as in thinking about China. US-Japan-ROK security cooperation is mainly versus North Korea, but Biden is keen on drawing South Korea into Indo-Pacific cooperation with a China focus. In the short term, this entity cannot turn into a multilateral alliance, readers are told. As for the US-UK-Australia triangle, it has developed rapidly with a high degree of shared consciousness toward the Indo-Pacific and China “threat.” Britain’s focus elsewhere, however, limits Indo-Pacific security cooperation.
The article also explores the Quad system, recalling the “spirit of the Quad,” including democratic values. Multilateral economic cooperation is aimed at the Sino-US competition. On security, all view China as a security threat. The US goal is to gain more support for US strategy, but divisions exist in the way of a multilateral alliance inclusive of India. Exclusive multilateralism is not beneficial to regional stability and exacerbates Sino-US competition. Yet, these groupings greatly strengthen US security capacity in the Indo-Pacific and boost various bilateral security ties apart from the US, putting greater pressure on China. All these entities are led by the US are raise its security mobilization capacity, aggravating the competition with China, including political and economic. The possibility has risen a lot of a turning into a real alliance system, but difficulties are great due to conflicting interests. ASEAN states cannot accept a weakening of ASEAN centrality or opposition to China. In the Quad, although the other three all seek to balance China with US strength, none want to damage economic ties with China due to security. US-Indian relations lack a strong security cooperation foundation. As seen in the Ukraine war, India does not follow the West. Quad Plus expansion is greatly doubted. Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea seek to avoid being dragged into great power competition. Yet, in some areas the US-led multilateralism can strengthen with possible alliances. China needs to be attentive, not overreacting and even cooperating on some agenda while selecting countermeasures where alarm is warranted.
The Sino-US-Japan Triangle
Chen Zheng and Wang Guangtao in Shijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi, No. 6, traced the evolution of Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy in the context of triangularity. Shifting from gestures of cooperation with China to subordination to the US Indo-Pacific strategy, it has been influenced by both the US alliance management strategy and China’s foreign strategic posture. It is even described as at times swaying back and forth between the other two. Why did Japan and the US join against China after the Cold War? The answer given is differences in political systems and ideology. No mention is made of China’s actions. In the 2000s as Sino-Japanese power grew more balanced, history and a territorial issue as well as the East China Sea kept tensions in the forefront. Again, China is not an actor but passively affected. In 2012 relations hit bottom. Then divisions over the regional order dominated, as changes in relations with China were foremost in Japan’s foreign policy. Japanese saw two possibilities for Sino-US relations: a G2 or complete confrontation, political, economic, and military. Fearing marginalization, Japanese also found it hard to accept excess tension leaving their country on the front line. Therefore, Japan sought an equilibrium, but it also sought to be a political and military great power in the Asia-Pacific. The Sino-US strategic competition raised its importance as the third force. A declining US sought to raise Japan’s role. Tokyo also was emboldened to seek more autonomy, arousing strategic suspicions in Japan. It was important to stabilize relations with China, especially in economics, where common interests are great. Japan had some space to operate between the two others, and it strove for a regional democratic alliance with the US along with balance through economic cooperation with China.
For Japan, the Indo-Pacific is a super-regional area with a geopolitical and economic framework. It has two primary considerations: to protect the maritime order relying on both the Japan-US alliance and a multilateral platform of the Quad; and to expand the base of operations for its firms in competition with the BRI. Yet, the Indo-Pacific strategy is exclusive and intended to balance China. Its uncertainty rests on Japan’s tenuous position between China and the US, whose relationship has shifted over time, requiring Japan to seek space for its own benefit. In August 2016 Japan proposed the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” responding to the BRI, whose beginning can be traced to the fall of 2013 and which Japan took as an effort to limit regional space for Japan and the US and damage its economic interests. The new strategy was also a product of concern over the relative decline of US power and investments. Obama’s ideals were not backed by concrete actions in the region. Japan sought to fill the gap with multilateralism.
From the start, the FOIP had a very strong security component versus China, although the BRI and FOIP had considerable space for cooperation, as in infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia, as recognized in October 2018 when Abe visited China. Japan’s positive stance on the BRI propelled improved bilateral relations, beginning with Nikai Toshihiro’s May visit to China. In 2019 and 2020 Japan echoed the 2018 recognition of a “new era” in Sino-Japanese relations in its bluebooks. This shift to China is attributed to a contracting alliance with the US and altered the spirit of containing China. “Trump’s collision” impacted Sino-Japanese relations, but the new mood between the two could not resolved deep-seated problems, while the triangular ties including the US had not fundamentally improved. Under US pressure, Japan shifted from 2021 to be the US sidekick. The US government was key to altering Japan’s approach. Biden faced questions on how to restore US leadership, deciding to strengthen the alliance system, unlike Trump, and to make the US the core of the “democratic camp.” He sought to persuade others that the US had the capabilities and will to renew its leadership of the international order. He went further in containing China, making the Indo-Pacific strategy and Quad the focus and taking Japan as the principal supporter. Japan would be used as the front line and satisfied that its “great power” psychology would be reinforced. Japan’s sense of a “China threat” grew. For the Biden administration, drawing on Japan’s support, one focus became supply chains with China excluded. Putting new pressure on China, the US sought to reduce its technological advance, which was advantageous to Japan. It was Biden who pressed for a “battle of systems” with politics, human rights, and ideology involved. After Suga replaced Abe, Japan also made human rights and the Taiwan question matters for pressuring China. Thus, Japan’s FOIP went through stages, first to draw the US into it, then under Trump pulling back by not calling it a strategy and seeking cooperation with China, and finally, following Biden’s direction without an autonomous thrust. China also has shifted, taking a more confrontational view of ties to Japan.
The article ends, however, by arguing that Japan cannot ignore China and is has a muddled approach toward and “Indo-Pacific strategy.” Abe thwarted more tense Sino-US relations, and readers are led to think it could happen again since Japan is always adjusting between the other two states. The US is treated as unreliable under its ideological emotions and party struggles. In the end, the argument rests on Japan still not having completely abandoned its cooperative view of China and has strong economic interests at stake. The advice to China is to follow Japan’s thinking and look for an opening between Japan and the US. This article completed at the end of 2021 could not anticipate the impact of the Ukraine war. For a piece on triangularity, it is stunning in treating China as never making any mistakes or causing changes in the positions of the other two and not recommending any moves except watchfulness to appeal to Japan.
The Sino-US-South Korea Triangle
In the August Guoji Luntan, Lu Ping and Jin Xiangdan focused on how South Korea is dealing with the intensified strategic competition between Washington and Beijing, arguing that the status of middle power is decisive. Details of Yoon Suk-yeol’s tilt toward the US in economic policy are presented, but confidence is expressed in continued close Sino-ROK economic ties and common interests. He has no way to overlook China’s economic influence and the pull of its market. Yoon is trying to balance “lean to the US” and “not abandon joining with China in cooperation.” He is urged to deepen supply chain cooperation, jointly press for integration of East Asia, and limit US interference in Sino-ROK economic cooperation. Under Biden, Seoul has made ROK-US cooperation the focus of global economic policy along with the “New Southern Policy” to reduce dependence on China. It is conscious of increased industrial competition with China, too, defending its firms. Victor Cha wrote of three difficulties facing South Korea: geopolitics, economic dependency, and the unification question. Security interests are seen as more important than economic ones. Security dependence on the US can limit room for improved Sino-ROK relations, readers are told, but there is also reassurance about Seoul.
From the Lee Myung-bak era, Seoul has defined itself as a middle power, and Moon Jae-in often stressed this. As Yoon seeks relief from pressure due to Sino-US strategic shifts, the primary interest for a middle power is to maintain economic autonomy. An FTA with the US was followed by closer cooperation with the EU and China. Competitive superiority of core industries is crucial. A middle country can make use of great power competition to gain advantage, avoiding leaning to one side and playing a role in regional cooperation as a bridge.
Since 2015 both conservative and progressives have pressed for economic autonomy, reducing economic dependency on China. In trying to stabilize Sino-ROK relations, Moon extended steps to build a framework for “strategic economic diplomacy” and protect competitiveness. The US push for supply chain security and competition for technological hegemony have hit South Korean firms’ operations in China. In 2020, China accounted for 26% of ROK exports and 23% of imports. For electric car batteries, semiconductors, and other high-tech products, Seoul has boosted its production capacity and expanded investments into Vietnam, leading firms to move some from China. Yet, South Korea strives to avoid one-sided dependence under US leadership even as it reduces market dependency on China. It is diversifying, seizing the opportunity of Sino-US competition. South Koreans have feared that China has the intention and ability to use their country’s dependence, even more so from the 2017 THAAD crisis. The Sino-US strategic competition has deepened these concerns. Joining the US semiconductor alliance to exclude China, Seoul seeks to maintain its technological edge. In December 2021 it announced a strategy for protecting technology. Whereas China joins multilateral, open trade regimes, the US has reverted to bilateral and small-group agreements for “high-level” trade rules and sought to exclude China. It aims to reduce South Korea’s role as a bridge between China and the US, but South Korea aims to avoid such marginalization in regional cooperation. To keep a balance Seoul has been vague about joining the US effort to ban China’s 5G equipment. It is different from Japan and Australia in this vagueness. Given its strategic dependence on the US, it must accept the US-led regional economic framework, making it different from Malaysia and Indonesia as a middle power and increasing the uncertainty about Sino-ROK economic ties.
In the short run, there is no escape from dependence on China or even from semiconductor supply chain ties to China, the article says. Advising China, it calls for taking a long-term view of South Korea and its economic ties to the US, not rushing to evaluations and strengthening bilateral free trade. Dependent for security, South Korea is limited in autonomous economic cooperation space and will follow US controls on China, influencing the stability of cooperation with China. Yet for its own development it cannot go far from maintaining balance. For this China should intensify strategic dialogue and lead relations in a favorable direction.
Wang Fudong in issue no. 3 of Heping yu Fazhan wrote a preliminary analysis of the foreign policy of the Yoon Suk-yeol government, finding a huge difference from the Moon Jae-in administration. Prior “strategic ambiguity” is being replaced by priority for a comprehensive ROK-US alliance. Important effects will be felt in the Northeast Asian regional structure, the North Korean nuclear issue, and Sino-South Korean relations, but Wang argues that the internal logic of South Korea’s domestic politics, geopolitics, geo-economics, and diplomatic strategy all are marked by inconsistencies. Thus, anticipating Yoon’s policies, Chinese authors hesitated to predict far-reaching changes although acknowledging Yoon’s intentions differed from Moon’s.
The Sino-US-Russia Triangle
In Guoji Guancha, No. 3, Bi Hongye examined the new state of the China-US-Russia triangle. With Russia’s revival in the 21st century and China’s rise, we are back to three-sided ties driving international relations. Post- Cold War thinking was a fantasy, now utterly exposed by the Ukraine crisis. The reality now is double containment of the United States. Both geopolitics and values are driving bilateral ties. Every indication is of strengthening Sino-Russian strategic cooperation, while the US is the one containing and causing worse ties with the other two. Compared to the Cold War strategic triangle, some say the logic is different or we have a new type of triangular relations. Trump’s early aim, it seems, was to forge more balanced triangular ties with the US in the pivot. Sino-US competition is to establish a new global order. With Russian ties to the West destroyed, China is in the advantageous spot, and Sino-Russian ties add a stabilizing element. The classic strategic triangle theory is hard to use for analysis of today’s relations among the three. Yet this is still the core of international relations with decisive importance, even more so after the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The axis of the triangle is Sino-US relations. China does not want to be a competitor of the US, preferring to be a cooperative partner with a new type of great power relations, readers are told, but confrontation of political systems and ideology is rising due to Washington. Russia is in the position China occupied in the Cold War, not in the forefront. The Ukraine war has not stopped the deepening of Sino-Russian ties, while it has worsened Russo-US ones because NATO sought to weaken Russia. This is not simply two against one. China-Russia ties do not completely balance the US.
The war accelerated adjustments in the triangle, exacerbating disequilibrium. Also, Obama’s rebalance to Asia strategy damaged Sino-US relations. In neither case did the US gain more leverage in this triangle. Both moves boosted Sino-Russian ties, notably military and energy breakthroughs. Now the US conducts a trade war, technology war, ideological confrontation, and military provocations. Such US moves drive China closer to Russia. While Biden sought to stabilize ties with Russia, the Ukraine war has shown the futility of the US adjusting its “dual containment” and keeps increasing disequilibrium in the triangle. Russia’s previous capacity for a bargaining approach to China is gone. The article says that China and Russia should not form an alliance or else the world will enter a new Cold War and China’s rise will be interrupted, while it would cause a struggle over who is the leader and result in other non-harmonious elements. It could limit each side’s autonomy and freedom. Neither wants to lose that or to be drawn by the other into full-scale confrontation with the US. Yet Russia’s need has risen. China and Russia can cooperate to build a new Eurasian order, using the SCO, and prevent the US from linking the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia. China and Russia can also deter India from joining a Quad security system. Sino-Russian relations have their own logic and must avoid becoming totally a response to the struggle with the US.
Given Russian technology and other limitations, it hardly could be a reliable support for China. China must avoid becoming a pawn in Russian opposition to the US, which is the biggest corner in the triangle, and to avoid a zero-sum outcome. Sino-US systematic contradictions play out in the global market, geopolitics, and differing systems. All have a confrontational nature but much room for cooperation. This is a long-term competition. China should avoid the position of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Biden says the goal is not to change China and seeks cooperation in some areas. China’s power is not strong enough, and it needs support from others, while using economic globalization. The EU wants to work with China. ASEAN states could choose the US-led security order and a China-led economic order. Japan, South Korea, and Australia have extensive trade ties to China and resist a full cold war. India insists on continuing cooperation with Russia and will not blindly follow the US on China. China can boost the China-Russia-India triangle to limit US hegemony and guard against India joining the US-led camp. No matter how the Ukraine war ends, Russia’s national power will be weakened, sanctions of Russia will alter supply chains, polarization will accelerate, and China’s international environment will grow more complicated. Sino-US relations have room to ease up. The US had a strategy to “unite with Russia and oppose China,” and Biden still prioritizes containing China. China still finds strategic value in Russia even if it is weakened. It cannot get involved in the Russia-US clash, and Russia cannot strategically rely fully on China and be marginalized.
In Eluosi Yanjiu, No. 3, Wang Zhan and five other authors discussed the influence on China of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the transformation of global politics and economics. They use the Russian language of a “special military operation” instead of a war, while recognizing that this is a big event affecting global politics and economics—even something not seen in 100 years. The authors blame it on the results of a longstanding danger in the world, as the balance of international power changes, the international system and order changes, and development models and values grow complicated in ways not seen before. It is not explained why these forces led Russia to start a way except that somehow the US used Ukraine to maintain its hegemonic position and provoked Russia and European states into the war to weaken Russia, bind “friends” more closely, and frighten China. The result is a more ideological, militarized, and bloc-based global order. Minimizing Ukraine’s role, the article insists that this is a great power conflict waged by the US against Russia. Clearly, China stands with Russia in this narrative.
In Heping yu Fazhan, No. 3, Zhang Jian focused on Russia-US relations, while noting the impact on China. After the Cold War the US was obsessed with being the lone superpower, dealing with Russia in different ways. Russia’s conflict with Ukraine was a big blow to Biden’s Russia policy. In this time of once-in-a-hundred-year change, China is seeking advantage from shifting great power relations. It has long been difficult to overcome Russo-US contradictions. Various forms of US support for Ukraine ignore Russian core interests, and Biden repeatedly challenged Russia in Ukraine. Now bilateral contradictions are severely exacerbated. Unavoidably, Asia and China are affected. The US considers China its most important strategic opponent and plots to completely contain it through its “Indo-Pacific strategy.” Although the Russia-Ukraine clash can to a degree divert US forces to Europe, but it is insufficient to alter the long run eastward focus. By officially cooperating as an “Asian Pacific partner,” NATO is also expanding its influence there. The US plan is aimed at both China and Russia and will not succeed. The US should reflect on its own responsibility in the Ukraine conflict. In this great crisis, China should seek an opening such as to boost an integrated global market and do more to protect Asian peace and stability. The core issue in the Russia-Ukraine clash is the quarrel of Russia and the US, and any plan to resolve it starts there. Russia can find hope in differences between the US and Europe and in the contradiction between the US Atlantic and Indo-Pacific strategies. Stopping the expansion of NATO is critical for great power architecture.
Similarly, Zhao Minghao wrote in Heping yu Fazhan, No. 3, on the impact of the conflict on Sino-US relations. The conflict is due to geopolitical contradictions in the wake of the Cold War, not Russian aggression. It reflects a strategic game between great powers, not imperialism in Russia or responses to Ukrainian internal developments. The US is using the conflict as a pretext to elevate the “China threat” and “binding China and Russia,” disrupting the global economy. The war is being used to intensify US pursuit of its Indo-Pacific strategy and express “strategic clarity” over Taiwan. The US ignores Russia’s core interests as it does China’s. In this narrative, Zhao is identifying negative consequences for China of the war but avoiding any blame to Russia for starting the conflict. Indeed, Ukraine is marginal in such narratives. It is NATO and the United States, which are treated as the adversary of Russia in a long-brewing clash.