Confirmed as the head of the Chinese Communist Party and of its military in November 2012, Xi Jinping took little time to make clear his grandiose aspirations for China’s “rejuvenation.” Adding the office of president in March 2013, he devoted his inaugural address to promoting the “China Dream,” a clarion call to greatness. In articles covering the four years of Xi’s initial tenure from 2013 through 2016, we scrutinize his foreign policy from three angles: (1) an overview of his strategic thinking, with close attention to the US role in the Indo-Pacific region; (2) a closer look at strategic thinking toward Northeast Asia, differentiating China’s approach to Russia, the Korean Peninsula, and Japan; and (3) a similarly closer look at strategic thinking toward Asia’s Southern Tier, offering a breakdown into Southeast Asia, India, and Australia. By 2016, the contours of a more assertive foreign policy were unmistakable.

Yun Sun, “China’s Strategic Thinking toward the US Role In the Indo-Pacific, 2013–2016”

Under Xi’s new leadership, Chinese foreign policy demonstrated an undisguised tendency to assert its positions, flex its muscle, and expand its geopolitical and geo-economic interests. Key initiatives included the Periphery Diplomatic Working Conference of October 2013, the introduction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the fall of 2013, the beginning of land reclamation in the South China Sea in 2014, and the founding of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015. One of the constant themes of Xi’s new foreign grand strategy centered on the role of the United States in the region and more broadly in the global system. At the Fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) held in Shanghai in May 2014, Xi introduced a new regional security architecture for Asia, replacing the US alliance system. Nicknamed China’s “Monroe Doctrine,” Xi’s appeal was “Asia for Asians.” China attempted to declare Asia as its own sphere of influence and drive the US out of the region.

China’s primary view of the US role in the Indo-Pacific originates from Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy. Perceiving military pressure from the US in the western Pacific on the four contentious issues—the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, Taiwan, and the South China Sea—China’s foremost reaction was to develop an alternative theater of influence, the foundation for Xi Jinping’s BRI. China’s answer to the increasingly competitive relationship with the US in the region was the proposal of a “new model of major power relations,” designed to manage the “peaceful transition of power between a status quo power and a rising power.” The original thinking on the new model was the gradual displacement of the US leadership role in the region with a new China-led regional order.

China’s strategic thinking about the US role in the region is heavily imbued by the conviction of an ongoing ideological context. Democratization in Southeast Asia led by Myanmar’s political reform, following the Arab Spring and Jasmine Revolution, rang the alarm bell that “color revolution” remained a high priority in the US regional agenda and that China was by no means immune. The Sunflower Movement in Taiwan and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014 fundamentally shook the foundation of Beijing’s desired reign in these territories. If China never came to see the Obama administration as China-friendly, from 2013 to 2016, it did assume that engagement was the primary US strategy toward China, but it miscalculated that the timing had matured for China to rise and challenge the US in the international system, a mistake that Beijing came to regret and pay dearly for in the following years.

China’s most direct reaction to the “Pivot to Asia” strategy was the BRI, which coincided with the rise of Xi Jinping. Defining his mission to lead the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi formally abandoned China’s diplomatic path of “keeping a low profile.” Beijing began to adeptly utilize economic rewards and sanctions to influence other countries’ policy decisions. Starting with the Periphery Diplomacy Working Conference held in October 2013, China’s foreign policy officially made a strategic shift from prioritizing relations with the United States to emphasizing China’s relationship with its periphery. In Xi Jinping’s original design, this most contentious relationship would be addressed by developing a “new model of major power relations” between China and the US, a proposal was made during his meeting with Obama in June 2013. A fundamental assumption in China’s proposal is the continued decline of the United States.

Four significant developments took place in the fall of 2013, two internal and two external. Internally, Xi hosted the Periphery Diplomacy Working Conference in October, which shifted China’s foreign policy priorities from the United States to focus on China’s neighborhood. He also established the State Security Commission in November, which reorganized decision-making processes and the policy coordination processes within the Chinese Communist Party and the government. Externally, China introduced the BRI that fall and declared the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ECS ADIZ) in November.

2014 witnessed the elevation of China’s pushback of the US role in the Indo-Pacific region through two main events. By October of 2015, China had reclaimed more than 3,000 acres of land in the disputed waters. For China, South China Sea disputes would not have been an issue between China on the one side and Vietnam and the Philippines on the other, except that the US decided to intervene on their behalf. The second event was the CICA message, widely interpreted as “Asia is Asians’ Asia” and because China is the single largest power in Asia, by the same token Asia is China’s Asia. The CICA statement is seen as the first official declaration of China’s intention to push the US out of Asia. Chinese analysts have argued that the external power is welcome to develop economic and political relations with Asian countries under the condition that it will subject itself to the rules made by the regional powers.

China’s effort to displace the US traditional role in the region was taken to a new level in 2015, when China formally established the AIIB. From the beginning, the Chinese narrative described it as an alternative to the traditional multilateral development banks, serving China’s national interests without subjecting themselves to the rules and norms set by the West. The two major battles China fought with the US in the last year of the Obama administration focused on the South Korean deployment of the THAAD system in the first half of 2016 and the international arbitration case over the South China Sea in July of that year. The THAAD case is the best example of China’s strategic thinking about the US alliance system in Asia and China’s phased efforts to dismantle it in China’s periphery. Beijing vehemently criticized both South Korea and the US for the decision and imposed infamous unofficial economic and trade sanctions on South Korea. The THAAD episode contributed to China’s assessment of a long-term struggle with the US over the future of South Korea’s external alignment choices.

In the Chinese view, democratization and human rights have always been an important tool of US foreign policy. The Sunflower Movement in Taiwan and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014 fundamentally shook the foundation of Beijing’s desired reign in these two territories, leading to the Democratic Progressive Party’s return to power in Taiwan in 2016 and sowed the seed for the escalation of conflict between Hong Kong and Beijing in the following years. There is no doubt in China that both the Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement were created and supported by the United States. Beijing’s belief that the US had instigated the democratic movement in the region to undermine China’s internal stability greatly contributed to the distrust and hostile perception of US intentions under the Obama administration.

The four years between 2013 and 2016 might represent the last era of a relatively stable relationship between China and the US. China’s new leader Xi Jinping did see the US as China’s main competitor and the most consequential national security threat, but he also believed in the rise of China and the possibility of peaceful displacement of the United States. The perception of enhanced US pressure from the “Pivot to Asia” strategy prompted Xi to pursue an alternative theater of influence spearheaded by the BRI. And US adherence to a largely engagement-oriented strategy gave China the hope that perhaps a new model of major power relations would avoid a military conflict for the power transition. The emboldening China experienced during this period resulted in the grave miscalculation that the timing was ripe for China to rise and challenge the US in the international system, a mistake that Beijing came to regret significantly and pay dearly for in the following years.

Gilbert Rozman,China Cleaves Northeast Asia in Two, 2013-2016”

Xi’s 2013 call for a “new model of major power relations” implied a G2 understanding that left Northeast Asia under China’s sway, particularly by combining outreach to South Korea to draw closer and pressure to drive a wedge between it and the United States as well as to gang up on Japan by revving up the “history card.” At Xi’s disposal were Obama’s delayed recognition of China’s strategy, limited awareness in the region of the consequences of rising economic vulnerability to China, overoptimism that the post-Cold War order’s peace and stability mantra would stick, and wariness of bringing ideological issues to the fore as if that would lead to a new cold war.  

China’s position in Northeast Asia was weak as Xi took power. Relations with Japan were at their nadir. Relations with South Korea remained poor, as China kept demonizing Lee Myung-bak, while the new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stayed aloof from Chinese aspirations. Even the Sino-Russian relationship seemed to fall far short of China’s expectations, as Vladimir Putin had recently reclaimed the presidency with talk of a “Turn to the East” showcasing multipolarity rather than the bilateral relationship. The idea that Beijing could bring Northeast Asia into its fold seemed far-fetched, however much Xi sought a Sinocentric order to realize his “China Dream” and set aside “passive diplomacy” in favor of “equal dialogue” with the US.

South Korea loomed as the lowest hanging fruit in Northeast Asia. Kim Jong-un had alienated Xi by murdering his uncle, who had operated as a liaison with China. Overtures to Seoul would put him on guard. In turn, Park Geun-hye was inaugurated in Seoul, trumpeting her Sinophile credentials and promising “trustpolitik” with North Korea requiring Xi’s help. Xi chose to: engage Obama further, be patient with Kim, pressure Putin by raising the stakes, pin down Abe, and tantalize Park with a “honeymoon” but no marriage.

Three keywords served Xi’s outreach strategy. For Park and Obama, “denuclearization” gave the impression that China prioritized the removal of nuclear and missile armaments from North Korea, even to the point that if Pyongyang resisted it would apply pressure and tilt toward Seoul. Left obscure was the hierarchy of China’s objectives for the North and the South. For Obama, “global challenges” served as an enticement for working together on climate change, while downplaying concerns over the regional and bilateral issues that could have sent relations onto a downward spiral. Finally, for Putin, “multipolarity” gave him face to set aside asymmetrical bilateral relations. Such language concealed China’s agenda.

By the end of 2016, the hollowness of the three key terms had been exposed, revealing what Xi really wanted from Seoul and how “denuclearization” remained a secondary objective with Pyongyang. Modest cooperation on “global challenges” no longer obscured the seriousness of China’s assertive behavior, recognized by Obama and by the mainstream in both US political parties by 2016. And Xi continued to pay lip-service to “multipolarity” with Russia, accepting Putin’s “Greater Eurasian Partnership” as a vehicle for it, even as he undermined its essence. Xi had made substantial progress in separating the old socialist camp from the US alliance network, in effect cleaving Northeast Asia into two while appealing for economic integration with all as the basis for eventual China-led regionalism. No area had higher priority for China.

China reinforced its economic centrality, while also acknowledging a Eurasian framework. Steeped in assumptions about increasing bipolarity and enduring contrasts of Chinese and Western historical logic, China plotted how to become the center of Asia as US policies failed. Key to its geopolitical reasoning was an essentialist contrast of Chinese and Western civilizations. Denying that China had any strategy for altering the status quo, unlike the US, Japan, and South Korea, its spokespersons proceeded to outline precisely such a strategy for Northeast Asia, state-by-state.

Under Xi Jinping, diplomacy with Russia grew more active than with any other country, a sign of its significance. China strongly welcomed Russia’s “Turn to the East,” counteracting the Obama “pivot.” Xi Jinping in September 2013 proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) as China’s new strategy, building infrastructure and removing trade barriers, while hoping to avoid conflict with Russia and keeping cooperation the dominant framework. The SREB was initially a gamble as were efforts to strengthen the SCO, in light of Russia’s goal of retaining control over Central Asia. Despite tensions over regional policy, security ties were advancing well in 2013. Xi, however, appeared impatient to steer Putin toward a shared regional agenda. Putin at first appeared hesitant, fearing asymmetry. In 2014 Putin’s gambit in Ukraine gave Xi precisely the opening he had been seeking. Only with the resultant sanctions from the US and its allies coupled with alarm in Central Asia over Putin’s move could China feel confident about the path forward.

Beijing preferred Moscow to be anti-West, keen on its civilizational prerogatives, and distracted from Central Asia, as was happening in 2014. Chinese writers used Russia’s aggression to depict a globe split into spheres of influence, where security mixes with economics and culture, all three operating in tandem. Moscow acted to demarcate its “natural” sphere. If Ukraine goes to the West, the US is the winner. If to the East, Putin’s Eurasian agenda is boosted (as is China’s). The May 2015 decision to join the EEU and SREB produced many Chinese concessions in awareness that Putin had already made the biggest ones. This declaration said the two would work jointly in bilateral and multilateral frameworks, above all the SCO, which would greatly strengthen its economic role—something China long had sought. The May 9, 2015, victory parade revealed the shared legacy of WWII, linking the historical fight against fascism to pursuit of a more just order.

Next to driving wedges between the US and its allies, China preferred to cleave Northeast Asia into two, steering Russia away from Japan and South Korea as well as the US and keeping North Korea aloof from overtures other than its own. Its principal success in this time period was corralling the Russians, which had more to do with Putin’s thinking than Xi’s adroitness. Just months after Xi had challenged Putin with his SREB announcement, Putin opted to attack in Europe rather than push back in Asia, accepting a new division of labor in Central Asia. Xi outbid Obama, Abe, and Park for Putin’s favor by understanding and sharing a worldview steeped in traditional communism. He assuaged Putin’s concerns with assurances that bipolarity in Northeast Asia paved the way to multipolarity in Asia, that Eurasianism will prevail despite signs of Sinocentrism, and that energy power plus military power could translate into equal relations with China despite a widening gap.

Whereas a harsh tone toward Japan predated Xi, writings turned more explosive in the spring of 2013. The crux of the charges against Japan—whether about China, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, or Russia—was it was not a status quo power. Given rightist thinking about territory, history, military power, and neighboring countries, Japan threatened the region, reminiscent of its war record. It is striving to break out of the postwar system, while China defends the regional order. Turning facts on their head obscured China’s own agenda for Northeast Asia. Hope lingered, however, that strong economic ties could mitigate political frictions. Bilateral trade was poised to reach $300 billion, and Japan could not ignore China’s market if it wanted to remain competitive. As Sino-US ties grew tenser, China responded to Abe’s desire for renewed summitry with a change of tone. The Xi-Abe summit of November 2014 was considered to have broken the ice.

Although the year 2015 turned out better than feared, given China’s restrained response to Abe’s historical statement and the China-Japan-South Korea (CJK) summit in Seoul in November, the shadow of history could not be dispelled. Chinese recalled the “anti-Japanese war” in the September anniversary celebration and linked it to the long-term imperialist designs of the US and the prospect of imminent “fascist revival” in Japan. Establishing a CJK FTA is one example cited of constructing a regional system, in which economics lead to politics and then to cultural and regional identity. Not only South Korea but Japan loomed as a target in Northeast Asia, leading to economic regionalism led by China.

Chinese coverage was positive for Park Geun-hye’s June 2013 visit, seen as a snub to Japan, which usually is the second destination of a South Korean president. She was greeted as an “old friend” of the Chinese people, who emphasized emotional linkages. Xi sought to drive a wedge between the ROK and the US as well as Japan, while Park unmistakably aimed to drive a wedge between China and North Korea. The post-summit period in 2013-14 was seen as a “honeymoon” in the Sino-Korean relationship. Economic interdependence was noted as a positive factor, but more efforts to deepen mutual trust were sought. Park’s policy of aligning with the US and harmonizing with China was seen as an indicator of her promotion of middle power diplomacy, but Chinese said a “middle power” had to prove itself by being more assertive in challenging US policies. Pressure aimed at drawing closer in views of history; seeking an agreement on a multilateral approach to North Korea, different from the US one; staying silent on values that reinforce the US approach to the region; keeping away from joint military actions that strengthen the US alliance system; and not cooperating with Japan that could be construed as helping it to elude the isolation Beijing is seeking. The tone had changed from maintaining stability to pursuing China’s national interests. Chinese recognized the huge success of Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul on July 3-4, 2014, while focusing on challenges that remained, especially due to US efforts in security related to China and North Korea and US blocking of East Asian economic integration.

THAAD served as a dividing line for policy toward South Korea, demonstrating that courtship of Park had failed. Xi had not driven a wedge between the ROK and US, and Park had failed to win China’s cooperation on North Korea. Blinded by its own propaganda that Seoul had shifted to equidistance between it and Washington, China felt a need to react strongly to this “betrayal.” Abandoning North Korea could lead to it being tossed into the arms of a third country; collapsing under political, economic, and military pressure; or becoming isolated without assistance, possibly causing a conflagration on the peninsula. All of these results would allow the United States to achieve the strategic victory it failed to win in the Korean War. The Cold War is still under way in East Asia, China must proceed in accord with its zero-sum logic, and North Korea is an asset. Rather than finding common ground with Seoul or pressuring Pyongyang, Beijing insisted that the Six-Party Talks are the best forum for negotiating a resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Danielle F. S. Cohen,China’s Relations with Asia’s Southern Tier, 2013–2016”

The emergence of a new, more assertive Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping had enormous implications for China’s relations with Asia’s Southern Tier—India, Australia, and ASEAN. Three themes were particularly prominent, though they carried different weight in each case. The first was each party’s bilateral relations with the United States, as Chinese warily assessed whether each party was engaged in “balancing” or “hedging” behavior against China. The second was the South China Sea disputes, which dominated assessments of relations with ASEAN, particularly as the Hague Tribunal reached its conclusion in 2016. The third theme was China’s BRI, rolled out in the fall of 2013. The BRI was a major theme in Chinese assessments of Sino–Indian relations, as China struggled to persuade India to support the initiative.

As Xi established his new foreign policy direction in 2013, China seemed eager to portray Sino–Indian relations as standing on stable ground, despite historical tensions. Chinese observers pointed to seeming commonalities between China and India to support their view that interests could be made compatible. Both were ancient Asian civilizations with long, proud traditions. Both had been wronged by Western imperialists, who bore responsibility for the ongoing border disputes. As emerging economies and the world’s two most populous countries, the future of global economic growth rested with them. And as rising non-Western powers, they could work together to create a multipolar world order and reform a system dominated by the United States and the West. One author writing in 2013 believed that China and India were aligned in the international arena, and that India had become “a strategic partner that China can rely on” as they worked toward shared goals in economics, energy security, and climate change. In fact, relations headed in a significantly different direction in 2014 for two important reasons: the introduction of the BRI, which amplified China’s interests in the Indian Ocean, drawing India’s concern, and the election of Narendra Modi of the BJP in May, which took India in a nationalist direction.

Project Mausam, launched in June 2014, was ostensibly designed to rebuild India’s cultural ties to other countries along the Indian Ocean; however, this initiative drew the attention of Chinese observers because it focused on many countries with which China was seeking closer ties. Then, at the November 2014 India–ASEAN Summit, Modi announced his “Act East” policy, upgrading India’s “Look East” policy, established in 1991, by refocusing on Southeast Asia and East Asia. As China was pushing westward into the Indian Ocean, India began to push eastward toward the Asia-Pacific. Yet, Chinese observers’ perceptions of Sino–Indian relations remained largely positive. Even if India’s quest to become a great power caused it to unreasonably perceive China’s actions as potential threats and to use US power to push back against China, one Chinese analyst argued, the bilateral relationship would remain stable because of the two countries’ many shared interests, India’s longstanding non-alignment policy (which would limit its cooperation with the United States), and the trend toward more frequent high-level exchanges and cooperation in multilateral organizations. In September 2014, Modi greeted Xi’s official visit with a new slogan of “Inch towards Miles,” explaining, “INCH that is ‘India–China’; towards MILES—‘millennium of exceptional synergy.’”

In 2015, as implementation of the BRI advanced and India’s resistance became apparent, the attention of observers turned to how to build India’s support for the initiative. Some observers were optimistic that India could be persuaded to accept the policy because of its compatible interests. Others anticipated more significant challenges, such as competition for the support of ASEAN, and advocated making the BRI and “Act East” compatible. With Modi’s visit to the United States in September 2014 and Obama’s visit to India in January 2015, observers grew more concerned that the United States and India would coordinate against China. Although Modi’s May 2015 visit to China earned praise, the BRI soon dominated analysis. Observers noted challenges that might negatively impact Chinese efforts to implement the BRI. Many of these were geopolitical. India had a “great power dream.” As one observer argued, China needed to “normalize” its strategic position in the Indian Ocean to ensure the security of its sea lanes of communication, but India viewed that as a threat to its own energy and maritime security, and as a dangerous intervention in its own “backyard.” Other challenges included China and India’s long history of disputes regarding their border and Tibet, India’s persistent trade deficit with China, and India’s feelings of insecurity provoked by close relations between China and Pakistan and the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. These factors all suggested that it would be difficult to convince India to accept the BRI. A second major theme in Chinese writings on India in 2016 was India’s cooperation with the United States, Japan, and Australia. Yet, these concerns were tempered by confidence in India’s long tradition of non-alignment.

Implicit in Chinese narratives on Sino–Indian relations were the two most obvious questions: First, should China treat India as a great power, recognizing the rise of nationalism under Modi and accommodating India’s quest for a sphere of influence—as Xi accommodated Russia’s quest and made plans for expanding China’s own sphere? Second, how could China modify the BRI and other plans to win India’s acceptance as a partner? The first four years of Xi Jinping’s leadership proved to be a critical time for setting the long-term agenda in Sino–Indian relations. Candor about dealing with a similar “rising giant” on the world and regional stage fell short. Chinese strategists engaged in intensive debates about India, but they failed to grasp India’s potential as a rival or China’s capacity to alter India’s trajectory. Although they recognized the danger of losing India, key issues were omitted from discussion.

On the heels of Australia’s October 2012 “Australia in the Asian Century” White Paper, Sino–Australian policy from 2013–2016 reflected Australia’s interest in strengthening relations with China—and countries in the Asia-Pacific more broadly—while also maintaining its longstanding relationship with the United States. One Chinese analyst anticipated that Tony Abbott, who took office in September 2013, would adopt a “pragmatic and prudent policy” that recognized China’s key role in Australia’s “Asia-first policy” without damaging the traditionally close relationship with the United States. In 2014, Abbott met with Xi in Beijing in April, and returned to Beijing in November for the APEC summit. Xi then flew to Brisbane for the G20 summit, followed by a state visit to Australia, during which he gave a speech to the Australian Parliament. Australia and China continued to pursue closer economic relations in 2015, as Australia joined the AIIB. In February 2016, Australia’s Defence White Paper pointed to closer strategic ties too. Writing in 2016, one Chinese analyst predicted that the China policy of the new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, would remain stable and focused on closer economic cooperation, but that tensions in the South China Sea would complicate Australia’s efforts to balance between China and the United States. Analysts were quite consistent in their assessments of Sino–Australian relations between 2013–2016, seeing the bilateral trade volume climb to 20 percent more than Australia’s volume with the United States and Japan combined. Yet, they warned about its policy toward the East China and South China seas and its tightening ties with Japan and India, as well as its embrace of the “Indo-Pacific” concept.

Chinese observers recognized a good opportunity in Australia’s orientation during 2013–2016, but they leaned toward a zero-sum approach, weighing whether Australia was straying too far from China’s desired thinking rather than accommodating Australia’s alliance ties, closer relations with Japan and India, South China Sea concerns, and conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific. There was no sign of a Chinese strategy to build on the positive tendencies in bilateral relations over this period; instead, Chinese analysts persisted in taking China’s policies as a given.

China’s overtures to ASEAN in 2013 were marked by major efforts to strengthen relations and infrastructural connectivity. In a major speech to the Indonesian parliament in early October, Xi applied the new concept of a “community of common destiny” to Sino–ASEAN relations. Shortly thereafter, Li Keqiang laid out the “2+7” Framework, which urged China and ASEAN to seek stronger cooperation through strategic trust and mutually beneficial economic development in seven issue areas. China launched a “diamond decade” of China–ASEAN relations in 2014 with further initiatives to increase economic integration and cooperation. Despite these major policy initiatives, trouble was brewing in the South China Sea. China’s South China Sea policy took on a more militarized character and greater emphasis on artificial island-building beginning in 2014. In 2015, China continued to pursue closer economic ties with ASEAN, while tensions in the South China Sea simmered. By 2016, the South China Sea issue dominated Chinese analysis of its relations with ASEAN. China continued to promote the BRI through economic development projects, as all parties awaited the decision of the Hague Tribunal and China persistently worked to peel off ASEAN members by persuading them that maritime disputes should be handled through direct, bilateral negotiations rather than between China and ASEAN. After the unfavorable Hague ruling was released that July, China’s strategy was initially helped by new Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s surprising decision to set aside the ruling and pursue bilateral talks.

The South China Sea cast a dark shadow on strategic thinking toward Southeast Asia. Given Chinese insistence that the various South China disputes were bilateral issues with individual states, ASEAN centrality stayed on the sidelines. In contrast, the BRI was just emerging as a concern, leaving more room for a degree of flexibility in China’s approach to the region. Never far from sight was the argument that ASEAN had to be turned away from the United States as China used its economic clout to impact strategic views.

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