Special Forum Issue

“Chinese Vigorous Parrying of Foreign Thrusts: 2017-2020”

Repulsing Challenges to Sinocentrism in Northeast Asia, 2017-2020


Repeatedly, over the period 2017 to 2020, China’s leaders felt challenged over their agenda for Northeast Asia, with plans for other arenas also disrupted. The THAAD deployment, the Trump phenomenon, Kim Jong-un’s decisions to resort to unprecedented provocations followed by unprecedented diplomacy, the vague signs of a backlash in Russia against Sinocentrism, and the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and its handling all were regarded as disruptive forces. Xi Jinping navigated successive alarms not by passively waiting on the sidelines but by aggressively repulsing perceived challenges. Chinese strategic thinking grew clearer through such responses.    

In contrast to the strategic clarity characteristic of 2013-16, the following four years abounded in strategic disruptions. No one year was like another. Assertive leaders took unprecedented moves, putting China on the defense. Bilateral relations faced unusual flux, testing bipolarity. In these circumstances, Xi Jinping did not sit back as a passive observer. His diplomacy with each of the leaders of the five other states active in Northeast Asia played a huge role in shaping how the region rode out the disruptions. Among the landmark challenges were: the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017, the bellicose direction taken by Kim Jong-un in 2017 followed by a swirl of diplomacy over North Korea after the Winter Olympics of 2018, shockwaves from the failure of the Hanoi Summit of 2019, and the reverberations in 2020 from the COVID-19 pandemic and its management. Conditions never had time to stabilize under these repetitive disruptions. At the level of bilateral relations Xi faced lesser shocks that contributed to the sense of instability.

Northeast Asia has a special place in the legacy of Sinocentrism and geopolitical contestation. The Korean Peninsula stood first among areas regarded as critical for the “Middle Kingdom” to exercise sway, politically and as a civilizational offshoot. It served as the first testing grounds for the People’s Republic of China to resist foreign encroachment on its borders. Over thirty years the Sino-Soviet dispute loomed as a painful reminder of the price of not securing the northern border. While China has had to proceed cautiously with Seoul, Pyongyang, and Moscow given their entrenched memories, that did not diminish ambitions steeped in reviving Sinocentrism. The disruptive forces unleashed in 2017-20 arose against the background of soaring ambitions.

Overall, through the course of four years, Xi Jinping tested Trump and then crafted a strategy to counteract the United States. Xi pressured Kim Jong-un and then adopted an approach to keep him close without relenting on China’s demands toward North Korea. As for Putin, Xi conceded ground on symbolic matters while ploughing ahead with behavior at odds with Russian desires. Xi offered two-sided responses to Moon Jae-in and Abe Shinzo: dangling summit diplomacy as a lure, while reissuing warnings steeped in historical arrogance against crossing implied red lines.

Facing assertive leaders, Beijing struggled to understand the balance between their moves and the domestic currents behind them. It was easy to be confused by Trump, assuming he acted strategically, but eventually the resolve of the US security establishment drew primary focus. It was possible to overestimate the impact of Russian “nervous Nellies” warming of asymmetric dependency on China, even when the will of Putin and his animus toward the West was what mattered. Moments of uncertainty about Kim Jong-un needed to be put in the context of the military establishment he represented. Similarly reading Moon and Abe’s quest for autonomy correctly, as Beijing sought to drive a wedge between them and Trump, necessitated a closer look at surging public negativity toward China and enduring support for a strong US alliance. If Chinese analysis at times misread developments, it eventually grasped the challenges at hand.

In early 2017, China’s agenda for Northeast Asia appeared to be in danger. THAAD deployment, Abe’s strategic breakthroughs such as “collective defense, Trump’s defiance of past taboos over Taiwan, Kim Jong-un’s destabilizing bellicosity, and even strains in coordinating Putin’s “Turn to the East” and the BRI, all cast doubt on how Xi Jinping could regain the initiative. Priority over the rest of 2017 and first part of 2018 centered on cutting these losses. Yet, the 2018 diplomacy involving North Korea only deepened the impression that things were getting out of hand. In these circumstances, various options for China were aired before clarity was finally realized.

In 2017, there were also some pieces of positive news for Xi Jinping: a US president hostile to US allies; a South Korean president intent on reversing the unwelcome actions of Park Geun-hye; interest in strengthening security ties by Vladimir Putin, and signs of new cooperation from Abe Shinzo. If Kim Jong-un’s provocative militancy raised uncertain, destabilizing prospects or even could provoke Trump’s “fire and fury,” the US now more urgently sought China’s help. It was a more unpredictable environment, with rising concerns over Trump’s indifference to taboos over Taiwan and extreme demands for removing the trade imbalance. Yet, Xi tested Trump, gave up some ground to approve a tougher UN Security Council resolution on North Korea, and drew support for defending against Trump’s “America First” protectionism as even allies of the US found reason to hedge their bets against what Trump might do next. Japanese business looked to cooperation with China on BRI infrastructure projects, and Moon Jae-in was willing to make concessions to Xi as an essential step toward desperately sought diplomacy with Kim Jong-un. 

The 19th Party Congress in the fall of 2017 saw a triumphant Xi Jinping further consolidate his dictatorial power as he basked in the success of China’s international rise. There were signs of a G2 with the United States (peaking in Trump’s state visit of November 2017) despite uncertainty over the behavior of a tempestuous Trump, who had replaced a more patient Obama. Although trade was now in the forefront, Xi found hope in renewing his sphere of influence approach to the two sides of the Pacific. Prospects were improving of reeling in an ideological Putin, defiant of the West more than before despite Russian wariness of Xi’s regional ambitions. The focus was shifting from Putin’s quest for multipolarity in Asia to his determination to ally with Xi against the US and its alliances, giving somewhat freer rein to Xi’s BRI.

More complicated was how to manage a bombastic Kim Jong-un, shifting from a reclusive start to his reign as the god-like heir to a dynasty. Xi both tested drawing closer diplomatically, while coordinating more with Putin, and acquiesced to tougher UN Security Council resolutions, in the hope of winning Trump’s confidence. The election of Moon Jae-in as the president of South Korea opened the door to renewed diplomacy, recognizing that an obsessive Moon could be played for at least a partial reversal of Park Geun-hye’s affronts to China in her final initiatives. Xi dangled a summit in Beijing before Moon, succeeding in winning concessions unwelcome in the US. Finally, an Abe nervous about Trump’s transactional moves and the volatile Korean Peninsula offered a ray of hope for finding common ground centered on economic cooperation. Xi shifted his tone toward future-oriented summitry without backtracking on security as well as history. In late 2017 these leaders (with the lone exception of Kim Jung-un) were beseeching Xi to cut a deal, but none was inclined to give Xi everything he wanted nor was Xi in any kind of rush to grant their key wishes.

In 2013 to 2016, economics had taken primacy in rhetoric about Putin’s “Turn to the East” and the barriers to overcome in Sino-Russian relations, as well as in proof of South Korea’s need to strike a new balance between China and the US. Economic ties led naturally to wide-ranging integration in Chinese thinking about Northeast Asia and beyond. Russian aggression in Ukraine and its impact gave added weight to geopolitics, but the main test of the response in Asia was how economic ties to China were unfolding. In 2017-18 a transition was under way. Although Trump put trade in the spotlight, he rejected economic globalization and led an administration intent on geopolitical and ideological competition with China. Meanwhile, the North Korean whirlwind from 2017 to early 2019 turned the focus away from economics to instability and the danger of war. After the Hanoi Summit, there was no return to the old narratives. Chinese perceived a dramatically transformed regional and world order. With Trump and Kim Jong-un rocking the world order and Putin eager to put the spotlight on security, a new era had dawned. Rather than be a bystander slow to respond, Xi played an active role, steering Kim Jong-un as best he could, collaborating with Putin, and testing Trump with challenges to the existing order. China’s tone had shifted, manifested in “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Its diplomats demonstrated their ideological fealty and intolerance of diverse enemies.

Diplomacy over North Korea greatly transformed the dynamics in Northeast Asia in 2018. While it appeared to satisfy China’s longstanding demands, the immediate impact marginalized China. It had little leverage over Washington or Seoul, and its leverage over Pyongyang could not be ascertained for a time. On the surface, the lines supporting bipolarity had been crossed. Below the surface, however, the forces of bipolarity gained new momentum by the end of 2018. Alarm over how diplomacy could proceed tightened Russia’s ties to China and Japan’s to the United States, while Moon’s complete reliance on Trump and Kim Jong-un’s need to keep Xi fully in the loop broke with their autonomous behavior in 2017. Even before the Hanoi Summit of February 2019 confirmed the futility of US-North Korean talks, the divisive regional impact of a diplomatic process meant to reduce tensions had become difficult to ignore. China clearly preferred such a breakdown to the prospect of reconciliation on terms acceptable to Washington or even Seoul.

Polarization intensified in 2019 with Abe and Moon making last-ditch attempts to reverse its course. The very fact that Japan-ROK relations sank to their nadir since the 1980s muddied the waters, as did the perpetual roller-coaster of an impetuous, transactional Trump lashing out in unpredictable ways. Xi entertained Abe’s entreaties for summitry and feigned disinterest over Abe’s last-gasp overtures to Putin. Moon’s Hail Mary pleas to Trump for new incentives to offer Kim Jong-un drew some interest, especially as it divided the US and its ally. Yet, Kim’s decision to turn against Moon and stop sending “love-letters” to Trump was not unwelcome. Xi bolstered ties to Putin, fueling talk of an alliance for the first time, and kept up contacts with Kim without giving him the full sanctions relief he sought. As Sino-US relations deteriorated, Xi accepted that there would be no turnaround with the US, and bipolarity further intensified in Northeast Asia.    

The critical dividing line over four years came between mid-2018 and early 2019. Against the backdrop of China’s marginalization in North Korean diplomacy, the emergence of Indo-Pacific strategizing in the US, and Abe and Moon reaffirming US security leadership, Xi doubled down on his close partnership with Putin and put a floor under his relationship with Kim Jong-un. Xi could not make a lot of progress toward Sinocentrism in Northeast Asia, including spreading the BRI to the north as he was doing to the south. Yet, he managed to repulse the key threats to it. When the pandemic struck, he fended off accusations against his agenda.   

National identity trumped diplomacy in the widening divisions visible in the pandemic year of 2020. In-person summitry disappeared in 2020, when even the Tokyo Olympics were postponed as Xi Jinping closed China’s borders for all but trade as part of “Zero-COVID.” The pause did not mean shared recognition of a global threat. Instead, it evoked new manifestations of distrust or blame. Accusations related to the cause and responses to the pandemic exacerbated tensions, as Xi became the central focus of attack and the principal force for stoking even wider divisions.

The 2018-19 transition proved more significant than both the 2017 Trump impact and the 2020 pandemic effect. Why? Russians recognized a sharp shift in Chinese thinking toward the US with spillover to views of Sino-Russian relations. Reaction to the trade war, which intensified in 2018, appeared to be the cause, but it actually did not change commercial interactions much. Three explanations deserve attention: (1) the impact of US-North Korean diplomacy; (2) early signs of a US Indo-Pacific strategy; and (3) internal “wolf warrior” trends in China itself. Neither Japan nor South Korea figured much in the Chinese epiphany, but Northeast Asia as a whole, played a central role. Alarmed at China’s marginalization in the talks under way with North Korea, China saw the danger emanating from the United States in a new light and set a more hostile course.

The consensus reached in China held firm through 2020. It dismissed the notion that US power was greater than expected in favor of the conclusion that Trump and anti-China policies showed US weakness, in securing talks North Korea had forced the US to back down, and tightening ties to Russia as well as shoring up North Korean resolve best strengthened China’s hand. As values centered on anti-communism overcame Trump’s transactional inclinations, Xi kept reinforcing civilizational and socialist identity themes, drawing sharp contrasts. Modest improvements in ties with Tokyo and Seoul did not mean “new thinking” but keeping up the rhetorical pressure.

In retrospect, this four-year period of solidified Xi control over China reconfirmed the direction of Chinese policy toward Northeast Asia. If at times Trump, Moon, and Abe had raised hopes of some sort of breakthrough with Xi Jinping, they were soon squelched by the reality of sharp differences over economic relations, security concerns, and national identity orientations. The one issue with the greatest potential for finding common ground–North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs—became the symbol of the breakdown of security cooperation. By 2020 the lines between two clashing camps were firmly drawn, although on one side North Korea opted for self-imposed solitary confinement aided by continuing streams of Chinese energy, and on the other South Korea failed to improve Japan ties and longed for renewed talks with the North.

The period 2013-16 ended with China outraged over THAAD, and the inflexion point in 2018-19 saw it refocused on the challenges centered on the Korean Peninsula, symbolized by its reaction to the Hanoi Summit. Blaming Washington and Seoul, Beijing was alarmed not only by disregard for its core agenda for Northeast Asia but also by what it considered provocations launching a New Cold War. Arguing that Moscow is entitled to its civilizational sphere of influence in Crimea and beyond across Eastern Europe, Chinese analogously hinted that foremost in its own sphere of influence is the Korean Peninsula. Increasingly confident of corralling Russia at decade’s end, China perceived the diplomacy over North Korea along with signs of a US Indo-Pacific strategy (with, as in the case of the BRI, a major Northeast Asian component) as an attack on its agenda.

Chinese Strategic Thinking toward Russia, 2017-2020

The upward swing in Sino-Russian relations over the prior four years was not automatically sustainable given tensions over disparate regional plans and uncertainty generated by Trump’s confusing foreign policy signals. In 2017-18, Chinese observers delivered mixed messages about what was occurring. The prevailing theme downplayed Trump’s “reset” to Russia and heralded China’s continued march forward with Putin. It called for doubling down on a quasi-alliance vs, the shared threat of the United States. If acknowledging problems in the relationship, it cited security, economics, and national identity as reasons for unbridled confidence. Reviewing some 2018 Chinese publications on Sino-Russian relations, I wrote previously that “China had taken satisfaction that Putin agreed that closer bilateral ties, not Russia striving to become some sort of balancer, was critical to managing US power. China doubled down on insisting that—both globally and regionally in the Asia-Pacific—the stronger the Sino-Russian nexus, the greater the joint success would be in weakening US containment directed at both countries. Politically, the two needed an image of leaders in close accord. Strategically, they needed both tight ties and parallel action to keep the US from concentrating its pressure. Economically, they required energy ties to break US strangleholds and rapidly expanding trade with the prospect of forging a different order free of the US financial system. Finally, although they would eschew the kind of ideological alliance that Moscow and Beijing once had, they agreed to prevent any hint of the divisions that characterized the Sino-Soviet split and to keep the focus on their joint opposition to the US ideological threat to a just world order. The strategic triangle increasingly depicted the two close partners determined to work together to weaken the other party even if in bilateral diplomacy with Washington each would proceed separately.”1 Wariness of Trump bolstered Chinese appeals to Russia to draw closer.

The Putin-Xi summit of late November 2016 was perfunctory, coming amid continued talk of a relationship that could soar to another level but qualified by sober awareness that China and Russia differ on what that next level is, while high hopes for economic integration were not being realized.
Shaken by regional coordination issues and Russian asymmetry fears, ties awaited a new boost.

Two interrelated concerns clouded the overall level of optimism regarding relations with Russia. On the one hand, Chinese noticed a worrisome rise in Russian publications and discourse in warnings about becoming trapped in an asymmetrical dyad with hints that Russia should keep her distance. On the other, Russia was dragging its feet about moving ahead with projects sought by China. Putin was spared criticism, but there were unmistakable signs of a Chinese debate on how to respond.

Despite consensus on the overall message, thinking about how to deal with Russia diverged. The Chinese literature is rife with recognition that problems existed in the relationship. I discerned not only a school of thought to stay the course of building ever-closer ties, but three other viewpoints as well: (1) to seize the opportunity of Russia’s weakness and economic troubles to press for closer economic integration as part of BRI, even to hinting of collapsing the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU); (2) to show more sensitivity to Russian concerns, not pressuring it while reminding it of lines it should not cross; and (3) or to downplay geopolitical competition with the US while recognizing Russian weakness and seeking a “win-win-win” approach to the main strategic triangle.2 What was behind this diversity of approaches apparent in what became the pivotal years of 2017-18? This was a time of unusual uncertainty about Sino-US relations before the downward spiral became unmistakable in 2019. Thus, a few voices could speak in favor of “win-win-win” as a last breath of hope. Yet, many were dissatisfied with Russian resistance to the BRI, delays in economic ties in Central Asia, and psychological barriers to the kind of open-ended relations China was demanding. Unlike the first group’s impatience to press an advantage and the third’s global idealism, the group sensitive to Russian caution proposed greater accommodation to keep relations on track. A mix of the first and second approaches appeared to emerge, as policy was clarified toward decade’s end.

Chinese writings detailed the problems that still complicated relations with Russia. Feng Yujun and Shang Yue clearly recognized frozen Russo-US relations but saw the power gap between the two as so great and widening further that China would be well advised not to align closely with Russia.3 Instead, it should cast aside the traditional geopolitical model to prioritize cooperation on global challenges, arms control, and security arrangements on the Korean Peninsula.

Also, Li Yonghui warned against damaging China’s core interests by letting Russian hostility to the US drive Chinese policy.4 Despite deteriorating Sino-US ties, she saw a mix of cooperation and competition. US threats to the current order obliged China and Russia to respond together, but their relations lacked strategic depth and global range. Given the fact that the US remains the sole superpower, ahead in comprehensive power, the two lesser powers in the triangle must continue to work together to balance it and maintain relative stability. Li said Xi Jinping aimed to avoid spoiling Sino-US relations and was striving to put cooperation ahead of competition in a regional environment where most states support the US-led security order and where the US relied on China economically and for international affairs. At the same time, China sought to strengthen ties to Russia, aware that there is no way the US could use Russia to contain China.

Instead, Li said Russia could be driven to rely more on China. Russia was smarting as China kept rising quickly and could not view China squarely, requiring persistent attention to treating it as an equal and managing an unbalanced trade structure. On the Korean Peninsula and Syria, the need is great to take care to manage this triangle, Li advised, calling for care too in dealing with Central Asia due to Russia’s extreme sensitivity about China’s influence growing there. Finally, Li called on China to remind Russia from time to time about Japan’s historical view of WWII and its plans to become a military great power again to prevent Japan drawing Russia into balancing China. She welcomed more Sino-Russian large-scale military exercises, while railing against the Quad for weakening China regional influence and interfering with the BRI as well as with Sino-Russian plans for Eurasia. Li saw politics driving Sino-Russian relations and markets and society driving Sino-US relations; the former unable to replace the benefits of Sino-US cooperation for a long time ahead. Her conclusions are to keep the Sino-US relationship from turning downward, be sensitive to Russian national identity concerns while reminding Russia of Japan’s true nature and rely on multilateralism to ease recent Eurasian regional tensions between China and Russia.

At the start of 2018 one Chinese writer clarified that the BRI sought to draw China and Russia together, including in Central Asia,5 but bemoaned Russia’s resistance: its concerns about China’s economic superiority and many obstacles to Sino-Russian mutual connectivity. This was an appeal for closer ties in many economic arenas. Political relations were proceeding well between Moscow and Beijing, but they required economic relations to draw much closer if they were not to fall back. Moscow had agreed in principle, but its consciousness remained muddled. The BRI is the crux of the bilateral relationship. The appeal is for full-scale economic integration, not the EEU proceeding separately to its own electricity, oil, and gas markets, or other forms of exclusive integration under sole Russian leadership. China sought uniform regulations and one large FTA, but Russia strove to limit its economic influence even while drawing on it for maximum investment and technology. Putin’s plan in June 2016 for a Greater Eurasian Partnership would widen the scope, including India and Iran among others in order to contain China’s economic superiority, readers were warned. If only close Sino-Russian cooperation will achieve balance in triangular relations in the face of intensifying US pressure on both China and Russia and only economic integration will allow for such cooperation, then Russia must accept what is essentially the inclusion of the EEU into the Silk Road Economic Belt (part of the BRI). This sort of pressure on Russia helps to explain why there was a Russian backlash, which, in turn, put the onus on China by 2019 to overcome the malaise in relations with more accommodation. Another Chinese author had disagreed with those faulting Russia for wariness and untrustworthy behavior,6 despite observing that economics are cold and public attitudes are cold—problems China had to overcome. Again, the solution proposed was cooperation in economics centered on BRI. The burden was put on Russia to accept China’s economic integration plans with no hint of any Chinese need to adjust.

A third author insisted that Russians must accept China’s model of foreign relations with no reason to think Sino-Russian relations are a “big brother, little brother” relationship despite the enormous discrepancy in GDP.7 They must reject any “China threat theory,” equating it to the invocation in the West of a “Russia threat theory.” Similarly, they must reject the notion that buying heavily from China means excess dependency, just as they previously did not worry about buying heavily from the West as a danger to sovereignty. Arms cooperation was rising to new levels along with advancing high-tech cooperation, trade, and investment as well as financial cooperation. Yet, readers were warned of insufficient strategic trust due to bias among some Russians, who have been influenced by the West’s “China threat theory,” and enterprises lacking mutual trust needed for investments, which is blamed on Russians, as is Chinese hesitation toward investing in Russia, including in infrastructure. Noted were lots of oral targets of cooperation that are not realized, and the conjoining of the EEU and BRI remains just a discussion topic amid recent Russian accusations that China was taking advantage of troubled Russo-US relations to extract the maximum profit, essentially complying with US sanctions despite claiming otherwise, or using joint ventures to gain access to Russia’s core technologies with great loss to Russia. With such reasoning, quite a few Russians analysts were pessimistic about the outlook for Sino-Russian trade, doubting that China would shift much away from maritime trade, that Russia’s routes would be competitive, and that BRI would include Russia. Awareness of this mood spurred calls to build on improving political ties.

The above sample of Chinese writings demonstrates the uncertainty felt in China regarding ties to Russia in 2017-18. It stemmed from awareness of Russian wariness, dissatisfaction with the level of cooperation on regional issues, and wavering on how forcefully to join Russia against the US in light of varied assessments of the relative strengths of states in this Grand Strategic Triangle. The tide in mid-2018 was turning, however, with economics as well as geopolitics reinforcing trust.

Increased bilateral trade in 2018 and agreement on a litany of projects indicated that the economic doldrums were over. A new May 2018 agreement on docking was heralded as were big contracts on air defenses and plane engines. As the Sino-US “trade war” heated up, it was said that China needed Russia more, making it possible for Russia to obtain investments on more favorable terms. With the rise of a Sino-US technological conflict—Russia and China drew closer not only geopolitically but economically, involving major Chinese firms. In the eyes of Russians, China was freed of illusions about the possibility of peaceful coexistence with the US, fully recognizing the value of Russia and substantially upgrading their cooperation. Late in 2018 the strength of the Sino-Russia relationship was reaffirmed, appealing to the logic of international relations since the end of the Cold War.8 What changed to greatly solidify Sino-Russian relations? Chinese thinking about the US was critical. The “trade war” mattered, as did the idea that Washington was pursuing an Indo-Pacific strategic seen as containing China, and China now accepting the reality of a sharp divide in Northeast Asia on a timetable close to the urgency felt in Russia’s leadership.9 Xi and Putin found common cause.  

In early 2020, one assessment of security contradictions between China and the US in the Asia-Pacific region described a situation that had already worsened into all-out opposition.10 As the US kept pushing for linking its bilateral alliances into a multilateral network, China suspected an “Asia-Pacific small NATO,” citing the emerging “Indo-Pacific” strategy as well as the US stance on North Korea. Another early 2020 essay identified May 2019 as the turning point when talks broke down and contradictions in Sino-US relations exploded into view. Tensions expanded with a cold-war-like flavor.11 2019 became the year of a full-blown public opinion war. If the “free-fall” was blamed on Trump, it was Xi who asserted that the world is facing a great change not seen in 100 years, as Chinese traced back the outstanding questions in Northeast Asia—territorial disputes, historical reconciliation, the division of the two Koreas, and so on—to the weakness of the Qing Dynasty and then blamed the United States for refusing to reconcile itself to China’s entirely natural resurgence.12

Concerns about Russian behavior remained to be allayed even after the upturn in ties by 2019. One Chinese article blamed dominant, irrational elements in Russian strategic consciousness. Recalling past invasions, Russians felt that they should attack first. Soviet history was seen as Russia’s foundation. Political interference was treated as equal to loss of great power status. As in the US, the cold war logic had survived. There was a sense of humiliation in not defending one’s sphere of influence, thus enabling an extreme reaction. Crimea serves as a powerful symbol. A psychology of saving the world or of the “Third Rome” is present. National weakness now led to adherence to memories, if understandable, at a high cost.13 Striking is the departure from earlier insistence on realist explanations for how the West had threatened Russia and it had responded under duress. The article dispassionately recounts cases of deteriorating ties without defending the Russian side. At a time when some saw Chinese as doubting whether China’s own foreign policy toward the United States had accurately reflected the power differential or been swayed by historical thinking and insufficient attention to genuine national interests, one might wonder whether there might be a hidden domestic message here. If so, it was flying in the face of the mainstream affirmation of Russia’s just anti-US behavior and China’s just increased assertiveness.

In late 2019, Shi Shantao evaluated the Chinese–Russian strategic partnership as the two were celebrating the seventieth anniversary of their relationship and had reached what Shi saw as an unprecedented peak and new direction for the relationship. Since the 2012 18th Party Congress, Chinese leaders had prioritized relations with Russia, relying on mutual trust, steady progress in deepening economic cooperation, closer strategic cooperation on international affairs, and more fruitful person-to-person exchanges. Their bilateral relationship has been characterized by regular meetings between the countries’ top leaders, a multidimensional approach, and a comprehensive strategic relationship necessary to respond to a world in which the political and economic orders are rapidly changing, and in which many security problems require a global response.14 Chinese leaders were focused on finding new opportunities to further develop the bilateral relationship, and Russia should now commit, Shi argued, to achieving the “community of common destiny.”

In 2020, tensions over COVID-19 rattled relations with all of the countries active in Northeast Asia. As Yun Sun wrote, “COVID-19 has turned into a national mobilization campaign to defend China’s innocence and the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. Consequently, Chinese foreign policy as well as the propaganda apparatus unleashed unprecedented ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy to attack critics and rally support. During the early stage of the crisis, Chinese ‘warriors’ facilitated a narrative of China’s superior governance model in disease control. Later on, their priorities shifted toward defending China’s innocence and rallying support through attacks on the United States to blur the picture and aid diplomacy to buy good will, diffusing charges of responsibility and manipulating the prospects for an international investigation.” Grievances were primarily focused on two fronts, Sun noted. “The first is the Russian treatment of Chinese citizens in Russia. These include the ‘inhumane, forced quarantines and detentions’ of Chinese nationals in the early stage of China’s COVID-19 crisis, which provoked a major outcry in Chinese cyberspace among nationalist netizens. During the later stage of China’s COVID-19 crisis, when the attention of Beijing was primarily devoted to the prevention of imported COVID-19 cases, the forced ‘deportation and repatriation’ of infected Chinese nationals by the Russian government also aroused complaints and grievances from the Chinese side.” She clarified, “While the antagonism of the Chinese population toward Russia has increased significantly, the Chinese government’s official response has been highly reserved and de-escalation-oriented. In contrast to the ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy China has pursued towards both the West and its developing country partners such as Brazil, Beijing has very carefully managed the expression of social discontent and grievances toward Russia and prevented them from escalating into a major rupture of bilateral relations. That criticisms of Russia circulating on Chinese social media such as WeChat were scarce in quantity and moderate in quality reflected a deliberate effort to shape the content and the tone, closely guided by censorship authorities.”15

Closing its border but not to most trade, China sharply reduced contact with Russia in 2020. This came at a cost to the Russian Far East, which lost tourism and some important exports. No doubt, there were substantial costs to China as well, notably in the Northeast region. Yet, censorship on both sides allowed 2000 to pass with praise of far closer relations drowning out such frustrations. 

Chinese Strategic Thinking toward Japan, 2017-2020

At the start of 2017, despite the revival of Sino-Japanese summitry in 2016, relations were in the doldrums. Chinese vitriol toward Abe’s security and identity agenda continued at a high pitch. Yet, the tone changed in 2017 in the shadow of rockier Sino-US relations. In 2018 and even more in 2019, signs of a thaw grew more pronounced. Economic cooperation led the way, and summits served as markers of progress. Still, Xi’s June 2019 visit to Japan proceeded against the rumblings of a backlash against a superficial upswing at odds with troubling countercurrents. Although on the surface plans for Xi’s state visit to Japan in 2020 kept up momentum, signs were growing of a sharp downswing in all aspects of this bilateral relationship even before the troubles visible from 2021.

Chinese had few illusions of a sharp turnaround in relations during this four-year period, but they anticipated that economics could lead the way toward a more positive atmosphere. With Xi and Abe at loggerheads in their security agendas and their identity obsessions (socialist rejuvenation and constitutional revision), Xi’s priority on economic integration became the only hook for a new thaw in relations. Enticing Japan to cooperate with the BRI and to revitalize talk of a China-Japan-South Korea (CJK) FTA as the nucleus of integration in Northeast Asia appeared more promising in light of Trump’s protectionist agenda. In Northeast Asia China considered economic integration underdeveloped. Hopes shifted to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which centered on ASEAN and drew together many states in a low-level agreement, but that did not suffice. China sought to bypass the poor state of Sino-Japanese security ties by concentrating on a sharp jolt to economic relations.

Competing for contracts, China and Japan had enabled third countries to play one off against the other. Knowing how keen Xi has been to garner Japan’s support for his pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative, Abe made the decision in the late spring of 2017 to cooperate on a case-by-case basis, setting in motion diplomacy that accelerated in 2018. As stories spread about the debt trap that results from China’s loans for what many perceive as infrastructure beyond the means of developing countries, coordination with Japan could have been a source of reassurance to these countries. In turn, they recognize that Japan was keen on garnering a share of the infrastructure construction as vital to its plans for revitalization of companies with considerable clout. Abe had placed conditions on such cooperation—including transparency—but hope fueled better ties.

China had changed course in 2017 with talk of engagement until it ebbed in 2020. This approach took economic ties as the focus while at times hinting at the geopolitical potential of Japan’s quest for greater autonomy. Even so, mixed with a modicum of optimism were sustained attacks against Japan’s outlook on both history and security and reluctance to address Japan’s principal concerns. Chinese linked improving relations with neighbors to Trump’s foreign policy. Insisting that Abe had reconsidered his support for US policy, unable to rely on the US or to manage the negative effects of Trump’s trade policy, China was taking advantage of the opportunity with its greater outreach.16

After the 19th Party Congress there had been a notable shift in Xi’s hardline posture toward Japan as seen in his APEC summit with Abe. Xi had consolidated his rule. Xi’s hospitality toward Trump suggested that stability at home and acceptance abroad were leading him to be less aggressive. Ties to Japan improved significantly at the end of the year in response to Xi’s “smile diplomacy.” By the end of November, Japan was ready to make its support for BRI concrete in energy conservation, environmentalism, high-level industry, and transport, no longer regarding it as a plan for economic hegemony or at least recognizing it as a tradeoff for Chinese cooperation on North Korea, while anticipating a series of summits: CJK, Abe to China, and finally Xi to Japan in a diplomatic surge.

At the start of 2018 Zhu Haiyan analyzed Japan’s rapid embrace of an autonomous defensive capability, saying that the outcome is only negative for China, eroding its soft power by spreading “China threat” theory and using “universal values,” for driving a wedge between China and its neighbors, and fueling an arms race. Pessimism about Japan prevailed.17 Yet, writing at the same time, Shi Yinhong insisted that China and Japan are both implementing “two-track” policies: seeking a limited upgrade to relations while boosting their own, clashing military positions.18

In April 2018, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Japan confirmed that Xi’s priority in his second term is China’s neighborhood. A slowdown in China’s economy coupled with Trump’s protectionism had led to Wang’s call for more Japanese cooperation on BRI, warning that strong efforts are needed to prevent a setback to relations. Earlier, in May 2017, Tokyo had announced that Nikai Toshihiro, secretary general of the LDP, would lead a delegation to China’s Belt and Road Forum, where he met with Xi Jinping, who welcomed Japan’s participation, saying “The Belt and Road Initiative can be a new platform and an “experimental field” for China and Japan to achieve mutually beneficial cooperation and common development.” Abe’s speech in June that year where he discussed “Asia’s Dream” praised the One Belt, One Road vision of Xi Jinping, suggesting that it would meet up eventually with the newly concluded Transpacific Partnership as a means of integrating Asia. Effort was made to identify projects where the two visions—FOIP and BRI—might overlap.19 Li Keqiang’s visit to Japan in May 2018 brought talk of a new stage in bilateral relations.

Signs of China’s pursuit of Japan were hard to mistake. Relenting after years, China sent Premier Li Keqiang to a trilateral summit in Japan with Moon in May 2018 and finally agreed to a hotline to prevent military clashes, while taking satisfaction from new momentum to reach a three-way FTA. On May 4 Xi spoke with Abe for 40 minutes by phone—the first telephone exchange with a Japanese prime minister. In contrast to the recurrent appeals since the 1990s to bring relations back to where they had been after a rough spell, there is talk now of raising relations to a new stage, resuming reconciliation. A positive mood continued as Abe awaited a summit with Xi.

In late 2018, Wu Huaizhong evaluated Japan’s new, more autonomous foreign policy through which it is trying to become a “normal” power. In its “strategic independence approach,” it is pro-free trade (pitted against the US), an advocate of Indo-Pacific regionalism driven in part by US isolationism, and supportive of more positive relations with China, diverging from the US, not only over the BRI and free trade. Japan is both seeking to be a “normal” country through independence and filling a vacuum left by Trump to shore up the rules-based order. Thus, Abe switched course on China in the spring of 2017, while clinging to the alliance and rejecting a Chinese-led regional order. Wu concludes that Japan’s pursuit of greater military capabilities and involvement in regional maritime conflicts are likely to increase Sino–Japanese tensions, and it may seek to build relations with other great powers to balance against China. However, encouraging Japan to pursue its economic interests within the framework of East Asian cooperation holds promise for China.20

Li Kaisheng evaluated the effectiveness of the China–Japan–South Korea cooperation mechanism as it reached its twentieth anniversary and prepared for the eighth trilateral summit in China in 2019, arguing that there is a unique window of opportunity to advance it as all three component bilateral relations are relatively stable. China was clearly eager for far-reaching agreements.21

Chinese had noted improved Sino-Japanese relations after Trump took office despite problems—territorial, historical, Taiwan, and low political and security trust. More was sought in order to “maintain regional strategic equilibrium,” and in light of Trump shaking the alliance and reducing China’s imports of parts from Japan, some saw an opening for more. Momentum appeared to be building. Even as late as December 2019 Xi told Abe that a timely opportunity existed, and that Xi’s planned state visit would set the tone for a new era with economic relations in the forefront.22

After Li Keqiang participated in the CJK summit, showcasing the image of improved relations, Abe visited China in October. Then, Xi Jinping was set to come to Japan at the end of June 2019 to participate in the G20, and expectations were high that in the spring of 2020 he would return for a state visit. As summit exchanges gradually normalized, it was feared that improvement was nothing more than from minus to zero. The reasons the Abe administration sought to improve relations with China were: first, stabilization of relations with a neighbor; second, important economic relations; and third, China’s importance for the North Korean question and other regional issues. Notably, Abe’s October 2018 visit to China came right after Vice President Pence’s Hudson Institute talk, which sent a very different messag to China.

In October 2018, Abe made his first official visit to China since Xi became its leader, breathing new life into the relationship and raising hope that a return state visit would be transformative. There was talk that Japan should engage China more, finding the right balance with its hedging while seeking a win-win outcome. This means not giving the wrong impression that the notion of the “Indo-Pacific” or the Quad is intended to contain China. Yet, most were pessimistic, both about the prospects of Sino-Japanese relations in light of geopolitical trends and the long-term outlook for Sino-US relations. The momentum built with the October Abe-Xi summit was hard to sustain, however, amidst nervousness of where the trade war between Washington and Beijing could lead.

Chinese noticed Japan’s sense of isolation in 2018—over North Korean diplomacy, South Korean alienation, Trump’s on-and-off pressure—and saw an opening, notably on economic ties. The challenge was to associate Trump’s callousness to Japan with deepening pressure on China. Appeals to economic complementarity came at a time Japanese were unnerved by Trump’s zero-sum outlook on trade. Chinese said that bilateral economic ties had considerable room for expansion. Stemming the diversion of Japanese capital investment away from China, as some plants relocated, Chinese seemed intent on rekindling economic optimism in bilateral relations. Xi posed as the only serious alternative to Trump for keeping alive hopes for globalization.23

In 2019, Wang Jingchao noted that Japan has adopted a generally warmer policy toward China from 2017, becoming more willing to participate in China’s BRI. During Li Keqiang’s May 2018 visit to Japan, the two countries signed a memorandum on third-party cooperation. In Wang’s view, since 2018, the Abe administration has engaged in a deliberate effort to eliminate the political hurdles to stronger Sino–Japanese relations by weakening Japan’s commitment to the “Indo-Pacific strategy,” increasing its support for the BRI, and accommodating China’s concerns. Although the US–Japan alliance remains foundational to Japan’s foreign policy, Japan seeks to implement a policy of “limited independence” that will provide it with more autonomy from the United States. This has become increasingly important under Trump as bilateral trade tensions have risen and the United States has made decisions, such as its withdrawal from the TPP, counter to Japan’s interests. In the context of these trade tensions, China and Japan have found shared interests. Demonstrating some autonomy, Japan is able to avoid harmful competition with China in third-party markets. Japan’s cooperation with the BRI also reflects the demands of domestic interest groups.24

After his well-remembered “new thinking” appeals in early 2003, in the summer of 2018, Ma Licheng again was appealing to the Japanese. While Japanese progressives put priority on balanced great power relations that would limit the US alliance threat of entrapment and conservatives sought to “reenter Asia” through acceptance of a “normal Japan” having cleared away the onus of WWII, representatives of both groups signaled their desire to cooperate with China in forging a new regional order, even if the essence of that order would not be to side with China or break sharply with the United States. Yet, testing Japan’s intentions was of recurrent interest and again is so in Beijing. Ma Licheng in the July 11 Yomiuri argued that the image of Japan in the Chinese populace is changing and that improved relations are possible and necessary at a time a trade war with the United States is beginning and Japan too is facing US trade pressure and has reason to improve ties as part of diversification and not lean solely on its ally. Given the vast Chinese market, he says, Japanese business circles have strong expectations. Although ties to Japan are sensitive in China and bold leadership is needed, Xi has to proceed cautiously. Yet, he wants to boost ties. Plus, he has on his side the surge of Chinese tourists to Japan—perhaps 8 million this year—putting aside one-sided propaganda, as in war movies. This is a new foundation for long-term friendship. Yet, Ma calls on Japanese to understand the feelings born from wartime suffering and the danger of nationalists on both sides—but stronger in China—making use of such sentiments.25 He advises cooperating more now in the economic arena and proceeding with confidence that the Chinese people in this massive and growing wave of tourism to Japan are showing that they are ready to embrace a more positive outlook once they know Japan better.

Ma wrote in the August Chuo Koron that Chinese opinion of Japan has already been improving. Whereas Japanese who feel friendly to China numbered 11.5 percent in late 2017 as ties began to improve, Chinese satisfied with Japan rose to 31.5 percent—a jump of 21.7 percent from 2016. Yet, he warns against excessive nationalism in both China and Japan and urges prudence in managing it. In these two countries, Ma argues, young people in the wake of globalization share a lifestyle in common and cultural interests putting them in the forefront in reconciliation. He rests his case not on traditional culture but on Chinese youth enamored of Japan’s new culture.26

Kawashima Shin in the August Chuo Koron refuted Ma Licheng’s cautious optimism, arguing that Xi’s tightening control over speech and censorship of Chinese media over historical matters bodes poorly for relations with Japan. The idea that Chinese tourism will change attitudes and lead the government to alter its policies is unconvincing when China has switched from calling the war against Japan an 8-year war to a 14-year war and otherwise steers history narratives away from paths toward reconciliation. Kawashima sees shared national interests now leading to some improvement in relations, but not to the level of the 1980s and not to Xi giving Japan the priority it had under Deng or Mao.27 Given his thinking, Xi’s purpose in boosting ties is more constricted. 

The May 2019 Foreign Minister Kono Taro speech declared support for Taiwan entering the World Health Assembly (WHA) as an observer, which was turned into a sustained policy to support Taiwan entering the WHO. China’s response was harsh. Viewed from China, it was a matter of concern that mutual respect between Japan and Taiwan was building and that citizen-level exchanges had become so lively. The January 2020 election victory of Tsai Ing-wen drew more attention to the fallout of oppressing Hong Kong. Japanese anticipated deeper tensions over Taiwan and in Sino-US relations. There was no clarity, however, on how this impacted Japan’s relations to China and its Taiwan policy. As the pandemic spread, China intensified its military activity in border areas. Inside Japan, a “Taiwan incident” started to be discussed. Yet, there was not necessarily a positive response regarding national security as administrations had their hands full with dealing with the pandemic and the Olympics. Seen from China, the Japanese vaccine supply to Taiwan and the tightening of Japan-Taiwan ties it, as well as frequent remarks about a “Taiwan incident” by Japanese politicians, were clearly viewed as one connected phenomenon.

In 2019,on the 40th anniversary of signing the treaty between Japan and China it was recognized that while economic relations and exchanges had deepened, political relations had stagnated or worsened repeatedly due to clashes over historical consciousness and security. Chinese were focusing on taking economic ties to a new level, not on the sources of the most serious troubles.

In 2022, See-won Byun asked, “Why has China’s economic engagement with Asia lagged in the northeast despite geographic advantages, economic complementarities, and supporting policy initiatives?” Of course, she is not referring to the overall level of trade between either Japan or South Korea and China but to ties centered on Northeast China across its borders, pointing to the constraints within this part of China, although others have noted constraints in North Korea and the Russian Far East, all of which are heavily impacted by the socialist historical legacy and found it particularly hard to adapt to market forces.28 Japanese and South Korean initiatives did not fare well in such settings. Chinese went further, faulting insufficient economic integration of China as a whole with Japan and South Korea, referring to something more than trade volumes. Not only had Tokyo and Seoul not agreed to becoming part of the BRI, they had rebuked efforts to raise economic integration to a high level, as talk rose of vulnerability to economic pressure.

As US policy toward China hardened on security, trade, and Taiwan, Abe did not stop seeking improved relations with China. Chinese make no secret of the importance of this factor in their pursuit of Abe. Unlike the argument that Abe is being treated shabbily and should turn to Xi for some balance, the Japanese were also offering the argument that Xi Jinping is driven to pursue Abe more boldly because China is in a difficult situation. Moreover, the image is conveyed that this is not temporary—a major realignment is under way, and China will need Japan for a long time to come. Not only its economic interests will drive it to Japan, but Xi’s objectives in Asia for China’s rise could be pursued more easily, it was thought, if the two were able to find agreement.

China sought to win favor in 2019 with a “Japan boom.” Calling “Reiwa,” the new reign period in Japan, a name coming from Chinese tradition and countenancing a massive “cherry blossom” boom of as many as one million Chinese tourists, China made its strongest appeal yet, spurring a debate in Japan on how to balance the rapprochement and continued wariness of China. Was this another trick, as in 1991-92 persuading Japan to drop sanctions and send the Emperor before launching the “patriotic education campaign” and arousing intense criticism? As in the early 1990s, troubled Sino-US relations spur outreach to Japan, but many saw it as only a temporary tactic.

An interview with Chinese ambassador Kong Xuanyou noted that bilateral relations are moving in a good direction and building trust will continue with Xi’s visit. On July 30, 2019, Xi said that China should consider joining TPP after pressing for early conclusion of RCEP, both without the US. Meanwhile, China suppressed its longstanding anti-Japanese campaign, to the effect that only about half of Chinese respondents (down from over 90 percent at its peak) did not have a good image of Japan, while 85 percent of Japanese lacked a good image of China.29 Indicative of the sharp contrast, China began advocating a “Japan-China friendship mood.” China sought not only a state visit by Xi Jinping but also a fifth political document in support of “normalized” relations.

In May 2020, the G7 foreign ministers’ statement raised alarm about China’s assault on Hong Kong’s rule of law, putting Japan on the spot. An ambiguous response would risk its standing in the international community, but Japan refused to join in a joint statement criticizing China for its new law, anticipating Xi’s visit even at the risk of opening a rift with the United States or part of Europe.

By mid-2020, however, China’s engagement with Japan appeared doomed. Economic security worries, a greater focus on Taiwan, alarm about China’s stance on North Korea, and pandemic charges and countercharges were among the factors fueling a downturn. Also, the freefall in Sino-US relations left Japan with little room to maneuver. The spillover from worsening Sino-US to Sino-Japanese relations had become a growing concern in Beijing and Tokyo. While some in China made new appeals and the desire to keep open the chance for Xi’s visit and to smooth ties before the Tokyo Olympics led to Japanese self-restraint, as on the new security law for Hong Kong, many in China and Japan realized that relations were already poised for a sharp downturn.

Even before Taiwan became the focus of Sino-US confrontation, plans to strengthen ties between Japan and Taiwan were advancing with higher level officials meeting and a presidential candidate visiting before an election, as agreements were being forged indicative of relations leaping ahead. However, from June 2017 when Abe at the Nikkei Asia Future conference sent a comparatively upbeat message to China concerning the BRI, Japan’s positive policy toward Taiwan had paused. Yet, by 2020, China had decided that the pause was over, ignoring the impact of its own actions.

Su Ge saw 2020 as the deepening development of a great transformation in the world beyond anything seen in 100 years. The pandemic accelerated changes in economics, technology, culture, security, and politics, leading the world into a transformative period and setting back economic globalization. China’s foreign environment has been complicated with tenser ties to the US as the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” is posing greater regional challenges. Australia is singled out as the state following the US and challenging China in varied ways. As for Japan, there are right-wing forces trying to stir up trouble and interfere with the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations. As the US is playing the Taiwan card, the Taiwan issue has intensified, Su explains. Taiwan became a bigger concern in thinking about Japan in 2019-20. China intensified its pressure on Taiwan, beginning with Xi Jinping’s New Year’s speech, as the US offered more support, leaving Japan in a bind, observing “the situation facing Taiwan in the context of the Sino-US confrontation.30

In a last gasp to keep the gains in bilateral relations from unravelling, Shi Yinhong and others called for stabilizing ties against the fear of spillover from the downward spiral in Sino-US relations. As Suga began his tenure, these authors insisted that the pandemic offered a new opportunity to deepen economic cooperation, which Xi’s promised state visit could realize. Suggesting that Japan disagrees with the US on such issues as the South China Sea and Taiwan, Shi pleaded for preparations to keep illusions from taking root in Japan, while warning that the very foundation of the relationship is in jeopardy. Turning criticism of Japan’s aspirations to be a political great power on its head, the authors saw it as a plus limiting the likelihood it would wholeheartedly follow the US. Pressure on human rights differs. The US presses on the South China Sea, but Japan seeks more US focus on the Diaoyu Islands. Japan seeks political status and economic benefits, realizing that no decoupling is possible, concluded the authors. While from 2017 Abe had been countering Trump’s pressure by improving ties to China, in 2020 he had been edging closer to the US on the South China Sea and Taiwan.31 The authors clearly sought to reverse this trend.

As discomforting as Trump was for the Japanese, the reservoir of trust in US security relations remained strong. Chinese not only overstated the degree of Japanese readiness to pursue a new order in light of the Sino-US rivalry deepening, but also underestimated what China would have to do to create an attractive image for security, economic, and civilizational trust. The goal was to widen crevices in US-Japan ties or gain limited economic benefits, not any serious reconciliation.

China’s policy toward Japan seemed inversely related to the state of its relationship with the United States. Rather hopeful about US bilateral relations midway in Obama’s tenure, China applied more pressure on Japan. Increasingly pessimistic about Sino-US ties through the Trump period, Xi Jinping elected to boost ties with Japan. China leans to exerting pressure when there are no intervening factors, but it considers Japan a moderating influence on the US when Sino-US tensions are deeper.

“China approaches US allies to accelerate the break-up of the US-led world order, to boost what it deems to be economic globalization, and to impede the formation of blocs. Amid fragmentation into blocs, as regionalism reemerges, the US is seeking to exclude China economically while US financial globalization lingers, serving to isolate, contain, and beat down China’s rise. Whether one agrees with or defies China’s mainstream that the US is in sharp decline—citing its informal role in setting standards, its lead in technological capabilities, its financial market domination, its soft power, and its sense of crisis about its decline leading it to act—the search is under way to split the US and its key allies.”32 I drew those dire conclusions as relations spiraled downward in 2020-21.

Chinese Strategic Thinking toward South Korea and North Korea

In the period 2017-20, the Korea Peninsula rook center stage, revealing more clearly than at any other time since the end of the Cold War Chinese thinking about Northeast Asia. Responding to THAAD deployment, North Korean provocations, and a year of intense diplomacy, China showed its true colors. It insisted on its own security blueprint, proof of Sinocentrism, not stabilization.

In early 2017, as Trump began to cast a shadow over Sino-US-Russian relations, Feng Shaolei explained that the core issue is “how can they suitably allocate geopolitical elements to protect the space that each country should control, while preserving a degree of spatial comfort and avoiding excessive spatial expansion.” Key is the “Korean question—there is responsibility to strive together to achieve security on the entire peninsula and build a common safety control system in this region—a ‘neutral zone,’ as existed between Eastern and Western Europe during the Cold War.”33 Other Chinese authors framed the issue differently, posing two choices for South Korea. Insisting it must choose between the triangle with the US and Japan (asymmetrical with one and tense with the other) and that with the US and China, which would permit addressing the nuclear issue without sacrificing state autonomy. Seoul must rely less on the alliance and drop THAAD.34

Shi Yinhong at the beginning of 2018 argued that in light of THAAD China needs to return to the view of North Korea as a “strategic security buffer” and prevent US or US–South Korean control of the northern part of the peninsula. China also needs to maintain friendly relations with South Korea, using the election of Moon Jae-in as an opportunity to ensure that Sino–South Korean relations are not held hostage to the North Korean crisis. China has six related, core interests, Shi said: a commitment to peace and stability on the peninsula, opposition to chaos in North Korea, a desire for North Korea to view China with amity, opposition to the North’s nuclear weapons and support for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, a desire to maintain flexibility in North Korea policy, and a need to maintain friendly relations with South Korea to prevent the United States from using the peninsula as a dagger pointed at China’s throat. These interests must all be given equal weight.

Shi argued that China must strictly implement the March 2016 UN sanctions—for now. These sanctions punish North Korea for harming Chinese interests, prevent the further deterioration of South Korean perceptions of China, and forestall a falling out with the Trump administration. However, China should eventually seek to change the UN Security Council’s policy while avoiding antagonizing North Korea. His embittered recollection of what he sees as a litany of US failures to reciprocate Chinese cooperation on the North Korean crisis (for example, in August 2017, shortly after China approved tighter UN sanctions, Trump signed a memorandum on investigating Chinese trade practices and the US Navy conducted a freedom of navigation operation near Mischief Reef in the South China Sea) suggests a profound frustration with the United States. Clearly, he accepts linkage between any Chinese cooperation offered on North Korea and US policies toward China.35

In 2019, Yun Sun explained that the failure of the Hanoi Summit was not necessarily bad news for China. It underscored the long-term nature of a true solution to the North Korea issue vis-à-vis any abrupt change to the status quo, which would offer China more venues and opportunities to exert control and influence over such a solution. In the Chinese view, the failure of the bilateral approach between the US and North Korea illustrates the indispensability of Beijing to a future solution, as a participant or even a guarantor to facilitate the birth of a deal given the deeply embedded distrust between the two. Beijing recognizes an opportunity both to enhance its leverage in great power competition with the United States and to use North Korea as a catalyst for more cooperation with Washington. This tendency was particularly evident in Xi Jinping’s June 2019 visit to North Korea. 

Before the Singapore Summit, China’s concern transformed into anxiety over a scenario where China would be excluded from the dialogue. In the days leading up to the summit, speculation over a US-ROK-DPRK trilateral declaration of the end of the Korean War ran rampant in the Chinese policy community. Bold proposals were circulated of drastic measures China would/should adopt to counter the possibility of it being excluded from the future of the peninsula. For China, North Korea has always been the anchor of China’s role in the future of the Korean Peninsula, rather than South Korea or the United States. As long as North Korea feels insecure and remains distrustful of the negotiations with Americans, China’s strategic utility will be high on North Korea’s priority list, and North Korea is unlikely to abandon China as a useful point of leverage, Yun Sun explained.36

In Sankei Shimbun on June 24, 2019, there was mention of a new campaign parroting the slogan of the Korean War, “oppose the US and assist North Korea.” Unlike 2017 when China joined in sanctions, it was now not only pressing the North to follow a course of diplomacy antithetical to US demands but rallying the public against a “trade war” and more blamed on the United States.

Trade with the North dropped 51 percent in December 2017 upon the passing of the UN Security Council resolution, and during 2018 it fell a further 51 percent, imports dropping 88 percent.9  Yet, China opposed a bilateral US-DPRK solution, insisting on a multilateral one with it as the guarantor through a “phased, synchronized package deal,” i.e., the United States and North Korea  begin with bilateral talks on mitigating hostility, starting denuclearization and easing sanctions, followed by multilateral negotiations over the ending of the Korean War, diplomatic normalization between the US and North Korea, the eradication of hostility, the reentry of North Korea into the international community as a normal member, and the normalization of relations between North Korea and South Korea. The special relationship between China and North Korea and the latter’s dependence on Beijing for political support, economic assistance, and most importantly, security guarantees give China a decisive role. The failure of the Hanoi Summit alleviated China’s concern over a US-DPRK bilateral solution to the nuclear problem. Xi Jinping’s June visit to North Korea at the peak of the US-China trade war and one week before an expected showdown between Xi and Trump during the G20 summit in Osaka showcased China’s pivotal role in the North Korean nuclear negotiations. Through a vow to support North Korea’s “reasonable concerns,” China conveyed a thinly-veiled potential security guarantee for North Korea. By visiting Pyongyang, Xi signaled to Trump the essential role China has to play in the nuclear talks in the hope of luring him into a new mirage of great power cooperation. Yet, as soon as North Korea had been forced to the negotiating table, the Trump administration abandoned such linkage and began to escalate the trade war with China. Now reassured by the Hanoi Summit that the US and North Korea were not able to reach a deal independently, China had more reason than ever to stick to the status quo on North Korea.

South Korea jumped to the top as a target, ostensibly for becoming a security threat but perhaps more for defying the greatest expectations of Sinocentrism, having again been viewed as a vassal-state. Seoul was urged to clarify that it is against US alliances becoming more multilateral and that it will not participate in the US missile defense system, eschewing a trilateral alliance with Japan. On the South China Sea, Seoul’s caution in supporting freedom of navigation, except in principle, was welcomed; yet it was warned not to take a public position that might lean toward the US and told that it is time to reach a consensus with China precisely on freedom of navigation to increase mutual trust. Any sign of support for the position of Japan on the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute with China would have shown a lack of respect and lead to retaliation, Chinese had kept intimating.37

After the diatribes of 2017, the messaging by 2019 was reassuring to Chinese public opinion, but there was also an undertone that South Korea may be tempted to waver due to factors such as negative public opinion of China, the loss of political control by Moon Jae-in as a lame duck, or pressure from its ally, the United States. In the course of the 2020 pandemic, opinion plunged in South Korea, and Chinese reacted with assertions of rising mutual distrust, only blaming Seoul.

In 2019, See-won Byun explained both China’s perspective on regional integration in Northeast Asia and Chinese views of relations with the two Koreas as well as the impact of THAAD deployment. She argues that the Party Congress of October 2017 underscored China’s regional environment as the key factor in China’s transformation from a regional power to a global power,” but by the end of 2018, China’s external environment around its southern and eastern borders was confronting perceived “US attempts to contain China to ensure its own hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.” Also, she noted perceived resurgent forces of nationalism within neighboring states under the impact of US pressure, significantly undermining the stability of China’s surrounding environment as smaller regional powers adjusted their strategic alignment in response to the competitive turn in US-China interactions. Byun alluded to Northeast Asia’s “paradox of regionalization and security,” challenging the conventional wisdom on the security benefits of regional integration. Such integration was “associated with a deterioration in the regional security environment arising from differences in perceptions of regionalization, divergent economic and security policies, and competitive politics of alignment.  In particular, the lack of regional security mechanisms heightens the risks of conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the central focus of major-power interactions in Northeast Asia.”38 Byun proceeded to note Chinese skepticism toward Moon Jae-in’s regional initiatives except where they hold promise for inter-Korean economic integration, development of the Russian Far East, and the BRI. Yet, Chinese see Moon’s New Northern Policy as mainly diverging from BRI, e.g., taking Russia as the primary partner, not joining with China in a broader regional strategy. Moon’s initiative with Kim Jong-un in 2018 fell short too for ignoring China’s essential role on peace. Missing was what is called “mutual trust,” and consensus on the future of the regional order. Moon failed also to grasp the zero-sum nature of Seoul’s relationships with China and the United States. Despite some hope in Moon’s quest to pursue “autonomy and leadership” in shaping the peninsula’s future, at odds with the US agenda, this did not go far enough in recognizing China’s leading role in the region.

Byun recognized the pressure being put on Moon to distance Seoul from US strategy. She noted the perceived “US quest to ‘weaken China’s influence on the Korean peninsula’… it has severed China-DPRK ties by pushing for change through pressure, raising tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang…[tried] to weaken China’s economic partnership with South Korea… pushed for South Korea joining the TPP, and restrained South Korea from joining the AIIB.  The China-South Korea THAAD dispute is a clear outcome of Washington’s wedge tactic.” Treating Seoul as only playing a reactive role as Washington forces states to choose sides, Chinese blame it for caving to pressure due to three factors: “US interests in strengthening strategic advantages against China and Russia, North Korean military threats, and domestic political pressures in South Korea driven by conservative voices. In addition to satisfying the containment of China and Russia, US promotion of THAAD was part of wedge strategies of dividing China and South Korea. Not only did THAAD deployment reflect South Korea’s foreign policy dependence on the US alliance, but by linking it to the DPRK nuclear issue Seoul made it difficult for China to challenge the decision. The THAAD experience uncovered five characteristic weaknesses in China-ROK relations since normalization, including the lack of communication, weak crisis management mechanisms, limited security and military exchanges, third-party interference, and nationalism. Chinese call THAAD a major betrayal of China. South Korean preferences of aligning with the United States are attributed to Chinese threat perceptions, forces of nationalism, and a Cold War mentality further aggravated by the THAAD issue. While vaguely referring to lack of trust, Chinese treat the military alliance with the US as a core contradiction to the China-ROK partnership. Even as the regional security environment improved from late 2017, it only mitigated some tensions when viewed in a regional context.

Eun A Jo scrutinized Beijing’s parallel approaches to deter Pyongyang from nuclear proliferation and Seoul from an “encirclement” campaign. She called North Korea “Beijing’s most prized buffer, both geostrategically and ideologically. Geostrategically, North Korea provides a reliable bulwark in China’s northeastern corridor against the growing assertiveness of Washington’s rebalance toward Asia. While dwarfed by this geostrategic imperative, North Korea also shares China’s ideological foundation in communism and represents its surviving sphere of influence. The welfare and independence of North Korea is so intrinsically linked to the preservation of China’s established core interests that it may also be identified as such, even if that status might change in the long term. Beijing greatly fears and seeks to prevent a unified Korea, because it perceives that unification is likely to harm China’s core interests, given the conditions under which it would most likely occur. China has traditionally viewed Pyongyang’s nuclearization to be the least catastrophic. Unlike either the unification or collapse scenarios where Beijing was bound to lose, Pyongyang’s nuclearization has more nuanced implications for China’s core interests. For starters, Chinese officials do not see Pyongyang’s nuclear development as a direct threat to China, but rather, as a defensive posture countering Washington’s assertive behavior in the region.”39 More important, Beijing understands that nuclear status is central to the Kim regime’s legitimacy, and therefore, its survival. Jo recognizes that China’s priority is alliance disruption, not denuclearization of the North.


Conditions proved advantageous for Xi Jinping to indulge his arrogance and flex his muscles in 2017 to 2020. Donald Trump gave the impression that a G2 was on the horizon, undercutting one US alliance after another and seeking a grand bargain. If no deal was reached, the image of US decline only hardened. Vladimir Putin essentially forsook other Asian partners, pleading for China to embrace his Cold War thinking. If he still wavered on joining the BRI, boosting the SCO in Central Asia, and economic integration desired by China, Xi’s leverage only kept growing. Kim Jong-un’s belligerent turn in 2017 posed a risk of Trump’s “fire and fury,” and his diplomatic turn in 2018 could have left China on the margins, but as expected, Kim’s ambitions could not be met by Trump. The upshot was an upgrading of Sino-DPRK ties with Xi no longer inclined to consider US appeals. Moon Jae-in gave Xi further reason for optimism, not because of his wooing of Kim, which by 2019 had been exposed as hopeless, but due to his drag on Trump’s Indo-Pacific plans and on US-Japan-ROK trilateralism. Infusing one more jolt of confidence, Xi in 2020 saw Trump flail about in the face of the COVID pandemic, while Xi shifted blame for causing the outbreak into arrogance for proving superiority in controlling it. China appeared to be on a roll into 2021.

The United States shifted from efforts to bring China into the global order to a perception of China as a “strategic competitor” and “revisionist” power. Refusing to acknowledge any responsibility, Chinese in 2017 struggled to prevent this, in 2018 explored how to respond, in 2019 pursued a strong counterattack coupled with wedge-driving, and in 2020 chose an ideological struggle. The epicenter of the struggle was Northeast Asia, where China cultivated its closest partners, faced its principal, perceived security challenges, and tried out its most far-reaching diplomatic moves.

With the failure of the Hanoi Summit and the futility of Moon’s appeals to the US to accommodate Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping could be confident that no damage was done to his agenda for Northeast Asia. North Korea remained isolated, dependent on China economically and a convenient threat to the US security agenda. South Korea was at an impasse, still subject to Chinese pressure and at odds with Trump’s North Korean policy and economic pressure. China had gained little in dealing with the North or South, but it had fended off the two threats of marginalization in a reunification process and Seoul joining Washington’s Indo-Pacific regional security strategy as it was emerging.

At the beginning of 2019 Chinese were suggesting significantly improved economic relations with North as well as South Korea.40 Moon’s December 2017 visit to China had explored linkages between both the “New Northern Policy” and the “New Southern Policy” with the BRI, despite the negative post-THAAD mutual economic impact, and the simultaneous implementation of UN sanctions against North Korea, damaging to Chinese companies that had only recently invested in North Korean infrastructure. Also, in April 2018 Kim had floated constructive economic policies.

Chinese analysts pondered the prospects for BRI in Northeast Asia, eying improved chances in 2019 for infrastructure projects on the Korean Peninsula that could break the logjam, including Russia as well.41 Rather than denuclearization leading to this breakthrough, it would be Kim Jong-un’s newfound support for reform and opening up. Chinese investment, supplemented by South Korean and Japanese support, would make North Korea a key node. Insisting that this development would lead to denuclearization without explaining why, the analysis proceeded to argue that Japan and South Korea would join the BRI and link to other regions via China, as the BRI incorporated the Russian Far East and gave a huge boost to the cities of Northeast China. The core cooperation mechanism would be the CJK FTA, linking to Russia and Mongolia as well as North Korea, overcoming the serious hurdle of US resistance—just a longshot to be sure.

By the end of 2020, awaiting a new US president and testing Abe’s replacement, China stood closer to Russia than ever and tilted further to North Korea than at any time since the Cold War. Relations to South Korea and Japan had recently deteriorated—not just the pandemic stood in the way of the summits planned in 2020 with the leaders of these US allies—and Sino-US ties were in free fall.

While Chinese charged that the causes of these setbacks to stability were US Cold War mentality, Japanese historical revisionism, and the ROK-US regime change approach to North Korea, the response to diplomacy over North Korea demonstrated that the actual cause was China’s demands that North Korea’s nuclear program be the catalyst for a Sinocentric regional security framework, marginalizing the US presence, fraying US alliances, and serving China-led economic integration.

Whether the 2014 Crimean assault, the 2016-17 THAAD deployment, or the 2019 breakdown of diplomacy at Hanoi, the preponderance of Chinese sources concluded that the US had caused the crisis at hand due to infringement on natural civilizational spheres of influence. Tantamount to a cold war, the outcome warranted an aggressive response. Unlike Moscow’s crude methods of claiming its sphere, also steeped in historical justification and callous about sovereignty as legally defined, China followed a sequence of economic integration building leverage, identity pressure using hard-nosed tactics rather than soft power, and finally a new security framework. At the end of the 2010s, there was still some prospect of renewing economic integration tactics. If post-Trump uncertainty existed, economic ties to Japan and South Korea held out hope too. Yet, by 2019 driving a wedge between allies no longer appeared at all realistic to China analysts.

 Censorship of how China’s behavior impacted others and how universal values underscored ties between the US and its allies was a primary cause of overoptimism about China’s prospects in Northeast Asia. Not permitted to question China’s policies, authors reflecting official views did not adequately explain the motivations behind the policies of other countries. Moreover, when the mood turned pessimistic, realistic paths forward rarely drew attention. This did not matter much with Moscow or Pyongyang since their leaders’ intentions were correctly discerned, but it repeatedly affected relations with Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, when opportunities existed.   

Misreading the intentions or reactions of other states may have caused momentary confusion, but it did not play a major role in the evolution of Chinese strategic thinking over four, critical years. Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un, Abe, and Moon posed potential challenges to a Sinocentric agenda. One-by-one, they were managed in a manner that enabled Xi Jinping to regain the initiative. “Wolf warrior” belligerence picked up steam, starting with South Korea in 2017. The pursuit of a regional security framework undermining US alliances gathered force, especially with support for North Korea’s rejection of the US offer at the Hanoi Summit in 2019. Finally, China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic defied any prospect of seeking common ground. Having repelled challenges in 2017-2020, Xi would face a more concerted challenge from 2021.

1. Gilbert Rozman, “The Sino-Russia-US Strategic Triangle: A View from China,” The Asan Forum, February 19, 2019.

2. Ibid.

3. Feng Yujun and Shang Yue, Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 4, 2018.

4. Li Yonghui, “Zhongemei sanjiao guanxi: xianzhuang, tedian, chengin, ji yingdui,” Eluosi, Dongou, Zhongya Yanjiu, No. 5, 2018.

5. Yang Lei, “’Yidai yilu’ Beijing xiade Zhonge guanxi de fazhan,” Dongbeiya Xuekan, No. 1, 2018.

6. Li Xing, “Guanyu Zhonge guanxi de ruokan sikao,” Guoji Guancha, No. 1, 2018.

7. Zhao Wuwen, “Zhonge guanxi: chungman qiangda de neisheng dongli,” Heping yu Fazhan, No. 2, 2018.

8. Wan Qingsong and Wang Shuchun, “Lengzhan hou de guoji geju boyi yu Zhonge guanxi de fazhan luoji,” Dangdai Shijie, No. 11, 2018.

9. Gilbert Rozman, Ch. 1, “Tracking Russia’s ‘Turn to the East,’” in Gilbert Rozman and Gaye Christofferson, eds., Putin’s “Turn to the East” in the Xi Jinping Era (Abingdon: Routledge, 2023).

10. Li Yan and Da Wei, Guoji Anquan Yanjiu, No. 2, 2020.

11. Ni Feng, Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 1, 2020.

12. Hu Jiping, Xiandai Guanxi Yanjiu, No. 1, 2020.

13. Song Wei and Yu Youjuan, Guoji Anquan Yanjiu, No. 2, 2020.

14. Shi Shantao, Dangdai Shijie, No. 10, 2019.

15. Yun Sun, “China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ Diplomacy in the COVID-19 Crisis,” The Asan Forum, May 15, 2020.

16. Sun Xuefeng and Zhang Xikun, Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 5, 2019.

17. Zhu Haiyan, Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 1, 2018.

18. Shi Yinhong, Guojia Anquan Yanjiu, No. 1, 2018.

19. Sheila Smith, “A View from the United States,” The Asan Forum, November 8, 2018.

20. Wu Huaizhong, Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 6, 2018.

21. Li Kaisheng, Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 4, 2019.

22. Hu Jiping, Xiandai Guanxi Yanjiu, No. 1, 2020.

23. Gilbert Rozman, “Can China Seduce Japan? 14 Reasons for Its Overtures in 2018,” The Asan Forum, September 4, 2018.

24. Wang Jingchao, Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 3, 2019.

25. Ma Licheng, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 11, 2018.

26. Ma Licheng, Chuo Koron, August 2018.

27. Kawashima Shin, Chuo Koron, August 2019.

28. See-won Byun, “Regional Economic Integration on China’s Inland Periphery: The Jilin-Northeast Asia Case,” The Pacific Review Vol. 35, No. 5 (2022), 915-45.

29. “The Japan-China Joint Opinion Survey 2019,” The Genron NPO, October 24, 2019.

30. Kawashima Shin, “The Japanese Government’s Shifting Rhetoric about Taiwan and Its Significance,” The Asan Forum, October 18, 2021.

31. Shi Yinhong, Guojia Anquan Yanjiu, No. 6, 2020.

32. Gilbert Rozman, “China’s Strategies toward, South Korea, Japan, and Australia in the Biden Era,” The Asan Forum, March 2, 2021.

33. Feng Shaolei, “China-US-Russia Triangle,” The Asan Forum, April 26, 2017.

34. Liu Xuelian and Meng Xiangchen, Dongbeiya Luntan, No. 1, 2017.

35. Shi Yinhong, Guojia Anquan Yanjiu, No. 1, 2018.

36. Yun Sun, “China’s ‘Wolf-Warrior’ Diplomacy in the COVID-19 Crisis,” The Asan Forum, May 15, 2020.

37. Gilbert Rozman, The Asan Forum, 2021.

38. See-won Byun, “North Korea’s Regional Integration: An Enduring Dilemma for China, South Korea, and the United States, The Asan Forum, February 21, 2019.

39. Eun A Jo, “Limits of Chinese Patience toward North Korea and Prospects of Chinese Cooperation with South Korea,” The Asan Forum, April 13, 2017.

40. Zhang Huizhui and Jin Xiangdan, Dongbeiya Xuekan, No. 1, 2019

41. Huang Renwei and Fu Yong, Guoji Guanxi Yanjiu, No. 1, 2019.

Now Reading Repulsing Challenges to Sinocentrism in Northeast Asia, 2017-2020