Country Report: China (October 2023)


In mid-2023, Chinese analysts evaluated the role of US minilateralism in US Indo-Pacific policy, most notably the Quad and AUKUS, arguing that it was likely to produce systemic effects that China must be prepared to address. Chinese experts offered an in-depth analysis of US efforts to offer strategic reassurance to ASEAN countries, while noting the fundamental challenge of trying to address ASEAN anxiety without alleviating the China–US competition that they identify as the root source of ASEAN concerns. Other Chinese analysts assessed the changing role of nationalism in South Korea–Japan relations, arguing that the greater salience of historical issues since the Cold War can be explained by the confluence of two forms of nationalism, intrinsic nationalism and modernization nationalism. Their analysis was at least partly called into question, however, by other research which finds that the Yoon administration has prioritized security and economic relations with Japan, while downplaying tensions over history and territorial disputes, leading to a rapid improvement in bilateral relations. Other Chinese researchers explored the Yoon administration’s recent outreach toward Southeast Asia, noting the tension between South Korean efforts to both align with the United States and seek greater strategic autonomy, the ongoing challenges posed by US–China competition, South Korea’s limited capabilities as a middle power, and wariness on the part of some Southeast Asian countries.

US Minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific

In Dongnanya Yanjiu, 2023, no. 3, Bao Guangjiang and Rao Jinshan argue that the United States has adopted a distinct form of minilateralism to advance its goals of hegemony and influence over the emerging Indo-Pacific order. US minilateralism is transregional, bringing together important US allies in the Indo-Pacific and Europe to compete with China. In this sense, Bao and Rao argue, the United States seeks both the “NATOization of the Indo-Pacific” and the “Indo-Pacificization of NATO.” US minilateralism is also targeted. It identifies China as the key opponent or “strategic competitor;” it promotes countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia as key allies; and it elevates traditional and non-traditional security issues as key priorities. In this way, Bao and Rao contend, US minilateralism challenges the expansion of Chinese maritime power and the establishment of a “21st century Maritime Silk Road.” While US minilateralism excludes China, its overall character is one of integration: it incorporates many countries, which retain the flexibility to pursue their own interests while benefiting from US security guarantees. Finally, US minilateralism is fundamentally a traditional security mechanism, which emphasizes defense cooperation, joint military exercises, military exchanges, and other similar activities. Consequently, Bao and Rao assert, US minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific promotes the “Indo-Pacific strategy” and US efforts to maintain hegemony while containing China.

One key example of US minilateralism is the Quad. Bao and Rao argue that in 2007–2017, when the Quad was first floated and then paused, transregional cooperation, defending against China’s rise, and cooperation on both security and infrastructure were central to discussions about restarting the mechanism. From 2017–2020, the Quad underwent further integration, both in terms of the increasingly high-level four-party talks and the expanded issue areas under consideration. At the same time, the Quad expanded to include a Quad + mechanism, which includes various East Asian and Southeast Asian countries as well as European countries, the UK, and Canada. In 2021, the Quad was upgraded to a summit and foreign ministers’ meetings underwent further institutionalization. The agenda expanded to include working groups on the Covid-19 response, climate change, and critical and emerging technologies (the number of working groups continued to expand in subsequent years). While traditional security issues have remained a key focus of Quad cooperation, the United States has also attempted to counter China and weaken China’s soft power through minilateral cooperation in other domains.

A second key example of US minilateralism is AUKUS, announced in September 2021. AUKUS is clearly transregional, bringing together the United States, Australia, and the UK (in a common Chinese refrain, Bao and Rao refer to AUKUS as a linkage of “Anglo-Saxon countries”). Bao and Rao also contend that AUKUS is directed against China as a “common imaginary enemy.” At the same time, they argue that AUKUS demonstrates the characteristics of integration and a security focus through its emphasis on “integrated deterrence,” a key US defense concept, which refers to the use of both military and non-military measures through collaboration with various allies and partners. AUKUS embodies this principle in the submarine deal and through comprehensive cooperation among the three countries on issues including cyberspace, AI, and electronic warfare. AUKUS also goes beyond traditional security issues to encompass areas like industrial development and global supply chains.

Bao and Rao conclude that the United States’ distinct version of minilateralism advances its objectives of maintaining US hegemony and shaping Indo-Pacific regional order. The Quad and AUKUS differ in some regards—the Quad is broader in scope—but complement each other as efforts to respond to a perceived threat from China. In their view, minilateralism is a tool that will cause systemic changes to the Indo-Pacific order; Chinese policymakers must be prepared to respond.

US Strategic Reassurance of ASEAN Countries

In Dangdai Yatai, 2023, no. 3, Jin Xin and Han Haojie evaluate US strategic reassurance of ASEAN countries in the context of US–China competition. Jin and Han define strategic reassurance as “words or actions carried out by an international actor toward other international actors, aiming to eliminate the latter’s fears and doubts and thereby demonstrate [the former’s] good intentions.” Actors experiencing fears and doubts exhibit what Jin and Han describe as “prospect anxiety,” a reference to prospect theory. This means that an actor’s anxiety is influenced by their framing of the situation as one involving loss and by their identification of a reference point. There are two types of prospect anxiety: material anxiety, in which the subject fears damage to material interests (such as those related to security or development) and social anxiety, in which the subject fears harm to its “social existence” (encompassing its “national role, identity, and status”). Given the two types of prospect anxiety and the possibility of signaling strategic reassurance through either words or actions, there are four possible types of strategic reassurance: interest commitment, in which an actor uses words to ease material anxiety; resource supply, in which an actor uses actions to ease material anxiety; status recognition, in which an actor uses words to address social anxiety; and institutional arrangement, in which an actor uses actions to address social anxiety.

Jin and Han argue that US–China competition has increased ASEAN countries’ anxiety, particularly since the introduction of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Especially since 2017, they contend, US–China competition has negatively impacted both regional security (for example, through the creation of AUKUS) and the regional economic environment (for example through supply chain policies and the establishment of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF), and has challenged ASEAN centrality through the creation of the Quad and other regional institutional structures that exclude ASEAN. As a result, Jin and Han assert, ASEAN countries have experienced both forms of prospect anxiety. Material anxiety has increased because ASEAN perceives losses related to both its security and development interests. Social anxiety has also increased because of concerns about the loss of ASEAN centrality, and because of additional concerns about ASEAN unity and neutrality. Most ASEAN countries have responded by refusing to pick sides between China and the United States, while promoting their own economic and security interests and the continued viability of ASEAN. This desire to balance between China and the United States has imposed some limits on ASEAN countries’ embrace of US strategic initiatives. For example, some ASEAN countries have decided not to participate in IPEF, while others that have joined have nevertheless been cautious regarding their involvement. Jin and Han also argue that the arousing of ASEAN anxiety has limited the effectiveness of US competition with China (presumably because they believe that one indicator of US success would be for countries to reject China and align with the United States).

Jin and Han assert that the United States has responded to ASEAN countries’ prospect anxiety by implementing the four forms of strategic reassurance. The United States has implemented interest commitments by making many promises to improve cooperation. For example, at the two 2022 US–ASEAN summits, the United States promised to strengthen health systems’ capabilities to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, advance maritime cooperation, promote infrastructure and interconnectivity initiatives, and cooperate on climate change responses, among other initiatives. The United States has also addressed material anxiety through resource supply, which includes increasing trade and directing over $4.3 billion in financial assistance to five Mekong countries between 2009 and 2021. The United States has responded to ASEAN countries’ security concerns through joint military exercises (such as those between the United States and the Philippines) and through US naval deployments in the South China Sea. At the same time, the United States has also addressed ASEAN countries’ social anxiety. The United States has publicly reiterated its support for ASEAN centrality and ASEAN unity in many key speeches and reports and has reassured ASEAN countries that it does not expect them to pick sides. Importantly, this includes many joint public statements by the Quad. Furthermore, the United States has promoted ASEAN centrality through rule arrangements in various institutions. For example, it has increased coordination between the Quad and ASEAN, and high-level US officials frequently participate in key ASEAN-led meetings.

Jin and Han contend that US efforts to implement strategic reassurance have had some success. However, these efforts are limited by some obvious contradictions and the limitations of verbal assurances. Moreover, US efforts to reassure ASEAN countries are fundamentally incompatible with its ongoing competition with China, which Jin and Han see as the very source of ASEAN countries’ anxiety. Jin and Han point out that China’s rise is also a source of anxiety for ASEAN countries, and that, consequently, China must also adopt strategic reassurance. China can accomplish this by continuing to promote the official policy of “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness” in Chinese relations with ASEAN countries and by affirming ASEAN centrality, as well as by remaining measured when responding to US competition. Interestingly, the authors do not mention concrete measures such as financial aid and infrastructure investment, even though China’s various BRI projects would seem to be a clear example of strategic reassurance according to the authors’ framework.

Japan–South Korea Relations

In Guoji Zhengzhi Yanjiu, 2023, no. 3, Wang Guangtao and Yu Jiaru evaluate the changing nature of nationalism and its impact on the “history problem” in Japan–South Korea relations. Their key question is why history disputes intensified only after the 1990s. Wang and Yu argue that development of nationalism in East Asia is linked to its particular historical context. East Asian nationalism can be divided into two varieties: intrinsic nationalism, which identifies particular traits, derived from narratives of shared historical experiences, as fundamentally linked to the nation, and modernization nationalism, which focuses on future development. These two nationalisms have often combined, as East Asian states have participated in a “modernization race” in which they seek Western-style modernization, while also maintaining their cultural identities. Wang and Yu argue that during periods in which modernization nationalism was dominant, as during the Cold War, countries focused more on the future and the relevance of history decreased; by contrast, since the Cold War, as intrinsic nationalism has increased, the role of history has become more salient. Those that identify as victims seek to uncover and remedy historic harms, while those they name as perpetrators react defensively to protect the “dignity” of their own citizens. This tendency becomes more pronounced when countries experience challenges in their race to modernize.

Wang and Yu assert that during the Cold War, modernization nationalism was dominant in both South Korea and Japan. In South Korea, Syngman Rhee’s initial focus was on building an independent, unified, and anti-communist Korea. In the wake of Japanese colonialism, Rhee’s government also adopted anti-Japanese policies. Subsequently, Park Chung-hee promoted a version of modernization nationalism, “motherland modernization,” that emphasized economic development, while also continuing to emphasize reunification of the peninsula and national autonomy. Economic development became a key way in which South Korea could demonstrate its superiority over the government in North Korea and ensure its national security. Although the Park regime recognized the importance of a defined national identity and understanding of cultural heritage, as evident in the shift to Hangul and away from Chinese characters, Wang and Yu argue, his willingness to abandon cultural traditions that he believed to stand in the way of modernization demonstrates the dominance of modernization nationalism over intrinsic nationalism during this period.

In Japan, Wang and Yu contend, modernization nationalism dominated, but intrinsic nationalism persisted as an “undercurrent.” In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the principles of pacifism and democracy became dominant. Under the Yoshida Doctrine, conservative Japanese politicians emphasized economic development, while relying on the United States for security. Nevertheless, some Japanese conservatives continued to believe that Japan should remilitarize. In a 1953 meeting between Japanese and South Korean officials, Japan’s chief representative argued that Japanese colonialism had promoted modernization in Korea through Japan’s investment in infrastructure, a position which South Korean officials strongly rejected. Despite these undercurrents, however, modernization nationalism—and the attendant emphasis on economic development—remained dominant.

During this period, with modernization nationalism dominant in both South Korea and Japan, both countries handled issues of historical understanding in a “pragmatic” way. Faced with a shortage of foreign aid to fund Park’s “modernization of the motherland” plan, South Korea turned to Japan. In 1965, the two countries normalized relations in a treaty that did not include any written apology, and which left many historical issues ambiguous. Although South Korean students and opposition members protested the agreement, Park suppressed these protests in the name of modernization. Smaller protests in Japan did not prevent the ratification of the agreement. Wang and Yu argue that the clear emphasis during this period was on modernization, and on material issues such as economics and security, over resolving historical injustices.

Wang and Yu contend that problems of history began to increase in salience in the 1980s as the dominance of modernization nationalism over intrinsic nationalism weakened. Faced with a domestic legitimacy crisis, Chun Doo-hwan began to emphasize intrinsic nationalism and advocated learning from and surpassing Japan in the modernization race. At the same time, Japan experienced a resurgence in intrinsic nationalism, most evident in the rise of Nakasone Yasuhiro, which built on pride in Japan’s status as the world’s second largest economy. Some began to argue that Japan’s economic modernization should be accompanied by global political influence, which would require Japan to become a “normal” country and rearm. Nevertheless, both countries were restrained in their responses to specific incidents, such as the two textbook disputes, in 1982 and 1986, and Nakasone’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in 1985.

However, following the end of the Cold War, the rise of intrinsic nationalism and its convergence with modernization nationalism triggered increasingly contentious disputes over historical issues. After South Korea democratized, its leaders could no longer suppress popular concerns in the interest of economic development. South Korea citizens began to connect democratic principles and human rights to their country’s historical experiences under Japanese colonialism. Simultaneously, a series of blows to Japan’s economic growth and great power aspirations resulted in the merging of intrinsic nationalism and modernization nationalism. Japanese leaders increasingly relied on intrinsic nationalism to promote a view of modernization in which Japan would become a “normal” country and a great power. As Japan faltered in the modernization race, intrinsic nationalism played an increasingly important role in shoring up Japanese self-confidence. These trends are evident in the two countries’ contentious discussions over a Japanese apology for its colonial actions and the issue of “comfort women.”

Wang and Yu argue that after the Cold War the two countries became mired in a model of “mutual criticism”: in particular, right-wing elements in Japan often provoke negative South Korean sentiment, and the South Korean demands for an apology in turn arouse Japanese nationalist sentiment. Furthermore, various issues of history are often conflated with each other, or with other contemporary issues such as sports competition. Although public attitudes, no longer suppressed by government officials, bring intrinsic nationalism to the fore, Wang and Yu assert that modernization nationalism still plays an important role. As Japan’s status declines and it questions whether it can maintain its leading role in the modernization race, Japan feels more pressure to defend its past actions. Meanwhile, as South Korea seeks to catch up, it defines the resolution of historical issues associated with the colonial era as central to its ability to achieve full modernization. Wang and Yu conclude that the solution to this dilemma lies in reexamining “the relationship between oneself and the world from the perspective of more universal human values,” rather than emphasizing essential values (as in intrinsic nationalism) or modernizing according to Western standards (as in modernization nationalism).

Yoon Suk-yeol Administration Policy toward Japan

In Dangdai Hanguo, 2023, no. 2, Liu Shuai evaluates the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s rapid improvement of security and economic relations with Japan in the context of ongoing concerns about nuclear and missile threats from North Korea and other security concerns. The resumption of the bilateral security dialogue in April 2023 and the normalization of trade relations indicate the decision to emphasize security and economic cooperation over unresolved territorial disputes and divergent historical understandings. Liu’s argument challenges the broader post-Cold War trend identified by Wang Guangtao and Yu Jiaru, and perhaps indicates at least a temporary return to the more pragmatic approach characteristic of earlier decades.

Liu argues that Yoon’s administration has adopted a “multi-speed structure,” which refers to a diplomatic method used to break through economic and social differences that hinder cooperation among member states, and which uses cooperation in one issue area to promote cooperation in other areas. (This is a broader application of the concept of “Multi-speed Europe.”) Cooperation in various issue areas may progress at different speeds: for example, South Korea–Japan security cooperation has accelerated at a faster rate than bilateral economic cooperation. Nevertheless, closer security relations have spurred the normalization of economic relations. This is particularly evident with Japan’s decision to eliminate restrictions on the export of three raw materials necessary for semiconductor production. Given the importance of semiconductors for the South Korean economy, the security of South Korean supply chains directly impacts its national economic security, which in turn directly impacts its overall security. At the same time, however, the increasingly competitive nature of South Korean and Japanese exports since the 1990s suggests inherent limits to bilateral economic cooperation. Yoon has argued that the two countries should move forward with security and economic agreements even though historical issues, such as apologies or compensation to forced laborers, and territorial disputes remain unresolved.

The Yoon administration’s pursuit of this “multi-speed structure” in its diplomacy toward Japan has been informed by a confluence of factors. One key determinant is the perception that closer South Korea–Japan relations are in South Korea’s national security interest, given the East Asian strategic environment. In recent years, South Korea has sought to balance close economic ties with China and a stronger South Korea–US alliance, while also enhancing cooperation with other US allies in the Asia-Pacific. Another key factor is the perception of North Korea as a major threat, which South Korea and Japan share. This threat perception has strengthened as North Korea has developed its missile and nuclear capabilities. A third component is the Biden administration’s management of its alliances in East Asia. The Biden administration has emphasized its alliances with South Korea and Japan, as well as trilateral relations among the three countries. The United States believes that encouraging closer South Korea–Japan relations will better enable the United States to respond to competition from China and threats from North Korea, and will decrease the kinds of disagreements that have sometimes interfered with military operations.

Liu concludes that Yoon’s diplomatic approach will help South Korea more effectively respond to regional security threats in the short term. In the long term, however, the different levels of cooperation among various issue areas could create problems. The stability of the bilateral relationship may become dependent on cooperation in a single issue area, rendering the entire relationship vulnerable to a shift in South Korea’s strategic environment. Nonetheless, the “multi-speed structure” is likely to persist.

Yoon Suk-yeol Administration Policy toward Southeast Asia

In Dangdai Hanguo, 2023, no. 2, Jin Xin and Zhai Kuo evaluate the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s policy toward Southeast Asia in the context of South Korea’s efforts to establish itself as a “middle power.” Jin and Zhai argue that Yoon has adopted a geopolitically informed Southeast Asia policy that has three key objectives. The first goal is to promote cooperation through the Korea–ASEAN Solidarity Initiative, which underlies the Korean version of an Indo-Pacific strategy announced in 2022. While continuing to expand economic and trade cooperation with ASEAN, an important export market, South Korea also views Southeast Asia as a region of strategic importance and seeks closer political, military, and cultural ties. The second goal is to better align with the United States and its Indo-Pacific strategy, given the key role of the US–South Korea alliance in Yoon’s security policy. To this end, the Yoon administration supports the US vision of a liberal, rules-based regional order in Southeast Asia and has joined the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). The Yoon administration has also strengthened its security partnerships with a variety of Southeast Asian and Pacific island countries, consistent with the US approach to security in the region. The third goal is to increase South Korea’s strategic autonomy relative to the United States by positioning South Korea as a “global pivotal state.” Although South Korea, as a middle power, cannot compete with Chinese and US influence, it can exert influence through trade and soft power. The Yoon administration also sees the support of Southeast Asian countries as a potential source of strength in the context of the ongoing North Korean nuclear threat. These second and third goals are somewhat in tension: South Korea both pursues closer alignment with the United States and seeks to establish more autonomy within the bilateral relationship.

Jin and Zhai argue that the Yoon administration has taken several important steps to implement this new foreign policy toward Southeast Asia. Since taking office, the Yoon administration has prioritized strategic relations with Southeast Asia through bilateral summits and through participation in ASEAN-led forums, demonstrating its support for ASEAN centrality. The Yoon administration has also continued to promote economic and trade relations, long the strongest aspect of South Korea–Southeast Asia relations. Under Yoon, South Korea has promoted free trade and investment, increased loan assistance, enhanced supply chain security (particularly regarding energy and raw materials), and strengthened cooperation in the digital economy. The Yoon administration has also emphasized both traditional security issues (for example, joint military exercises and high-level defense talks) and non-traditional security issues (including public health, cybersecurity, disaster response, and environmental concerns). Echoing the Biden administration’s early emphasis on shared democratic values, the Yoon administration has adopted “values diplomacy,” highlighting the role of key aspects of “Korean democratic values,” such as human rights, rule of law, and freedom, in its foreign policy. The Yoon administration has also promoted cultural exchanges and the export of Korean culture (an important source of soft power).

Despite the emphasis the Yoon administration has placed on strengthening ties with Southeast Asia, Jin and Zhai detect potential limitations to the success of this policy. Although there are many economic complementarities between South Korea and Southeast Asia, South Korea remains economically dependent on China. This will constrain the amount of economic influence that South Korea can have in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, some Southeast Asian countries are skeptical of the IPEF and therefore remain cautious about South Korean efforts to strengthen economic cooperation under this framework. In addition, Jin and Zhai argue that, bilateral outreach notwithstanding, South Korea has sought to pull Southeast Asian countries into the US “camp,” an effort that will arouse concern among Southeast Asian countries and which, in conjunction with South Korean efforts to position itself as a “global pivotal state,” fundamentally challenges South Korean promises to abide by ASEAN centrality. While Southeast Asian countries may affirm their support for a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, they do not want to get involved in this dispute. Finally, Yoon’s policy faces several foreign and domestic pressures. South Korea’s efforts to increase its influence in Southeast Asia sometimes conflict with its goal of strengthening its alliance with the United States. South Korea must navigate between its close relations with the United States and its important ties to China in the context of China–US competition. Furthermore, Yoon faces domestic constraints, most notably from the Democratic Party of Korea, which controls the National Assembly, and from negative public opinion. Jin and Zhai conclude that the Yoon administration’s policy toward Southeast Asia is more ambitious than that of the Moon administration, but they are skeptical about its long-term prospects.

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