Country Report: China (April 2020)

As 2020 began, Chinese authors were busy not only summing up the far-reaching results of 2019 but also putting them in broad analytical perspective. China’s other bilateral relations had slipped as a focus, secondary to the telling impact of the transformative core of the international order—the Sino-US nexus. Sino-Russian relations paled in significance. Relations with both Japan and South Korea were mostly derivative, subject to adjustment if the core nexus shifted. Yet the big question remained to be answered: Given the challenges from Trump’s policies as well as defiance from Taiwan and Hong Kong, would Xi opt for a hardline response or seek to calm tensions in 2020? As the pandemic raged in the first part of 2020, would Xi feel chastened about China’s role or see an opening to be more aggressive to drown out criticism at home and take advantage of US self-isolation and weakness while others remained preoccupied?

The most basic question asked by Chinese writers was: would the downturn in Sino-US relations continue into a downward spiral leading toward conflict or would it settle into a competition that could be stabilized, even if ups and downs were inevitable? Some writings suggested that a soft posture would be advisable, proposing that cooperation could be renewed with the US, albeit in more uncertain circumstances; that Russia had erred in allowing false security consciousness to trump rational calculation of national interests; and that China still needed to be guided to some degree by Deng’s “taoguang yanghui.” Yet they failed to capture Xi’s thinking and mainstream trends. Renewed confidence in the spring of 2020—as in the fall of 2008—fueled new assertiveness.

The intensified assertiveness could be discerned in publications in early 2020. On North Korea, there was a call to replace the failed North-South dialogue and stalled US-DPRK talks with a trilateral framework of China and the two Koreas leading to six-party talks, a regional security system, and the extension of BRI through Northeast Asia. On South Korea, there was a warning that relations had reached their ceiling and could worsen unless Seoul revisits China’s role in security, revises its fear of control by a great power, and recognizes that as Sino-US competition keeps intensifying it cannot continue to lean to the US side. Finally, on Japan, the emphasis was on staying the course for Xi’s historic visit in 2020, while striving to fix the imbalance due to public skepticism in Japan about China and avoid any encouragement of that from the leadership. Much could be done to boost trust such as deepening exchanges. Running through Chinese writings is the impression that Beijing is ready to reorganize Northeast Asia into a Sinocentric orbit through CJK integration, three-party Korean talks, a six-party security structure, a joint pushback against Trump’s unilateralism and protectionism, or a civilizational understanding. 

Sino-US relations

Ni Feng in Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 1, 2020, identified May as the turning point when talks broke down and contradictions in Sino-US relations exploded into view. Rapidly, tensions expanded into additional areas until on December 13 agreement was reached, but that did not alter the realization that relations had changed fundamentally. The competitive nature of the relationship has intensified on seven dimensions according to Ni. First, trade is mentioned with US decoupling in technology fields. Second, ideological competition is growing more intense, illustrated by the case of Hong Kong where the US keeps interfering, and Xinjiang, which has also become a target of severe US congressional pressure. The relationship has an increasingly “cold war-like flavor.” Third, notice is taken of worsening public opinion. 2019 is called the year of a full-blown public opinion war, spurred by Pompeo and Pence. Issues surrounding Taiwan, trade, and religion are raised. Chinese diplomats and officials forcefully counterattacked. Suffering a big drop, the rate of friendly feelings toward China fell to 26 percent in the US. Fourth, dialogue has turned into a free-fall. Fifth, despite many common interests, since May 2019, problems have overridden any efforts to manage them, propelling relations into rapid descent, including over North Korea. Sixth, whereas prior to Trump there were areas in the relationship that served to limit ruptures elsewhere, extreme anti-Chinese forces in the US are now playing every card against China in a manner that just compounds their impact. Strategic circles have concocted a “grey zone” view to succeed in one arena by invoking conflict in others. Seventh, both sides were conscious about not crossing the line to all-out opposition. Military ties were a stabilizing influence, but in 2019 in advance of the 2020 US elections and against the background of Trump’s approach to Iran and North Korea he stopped paying much attention to China. Agreements reached were no more than ceasefires. The key factor is that the US side has already reached an ideological juncture toward China. No more are politics and economics separated. Instead linkages are emphasized. This will not readily change until the US suffers an unacceptable defeat. This is the concluding message in a pessimistic assessment of the state of relations at the end of 2019, justifying a harder line.

In Guoji Anquan Yanjiu, No. 2, Li Yan and Da Wei assess security contradictions between China and the US in the Asia-Pacific region, describing a situation that has already worsened into all-out opposition and influenced peaceful coexistence between the two. This can be traced back to fundamental changes in the balance of forces. There had been a dual regional framework: China serving as the regional economic center and a continental power, while the US was the security center and a maritime power. This balance is being broken by China’s maritime rise, as new developments in technology arouse military alarm and ideological competition to the point conflict may ensue in this region, where contradictions are greatest. In the first period after the end of the Cold War, Sino-US security contradictions in this region were minor and did not influence bilateral relations much. In 1995-96, however, China could objectively evaluate the US strategic military threat, while the ensuing acceleration of China’s military modernization was awakening the US to the fact China would soon challenge it for regional military superiority. Obama’s rebalance exacerbated the security contradictions, and Trump went even further in aggravating them, raising two key issues: doubts over the regional order and questions about hot spots.

Hub and spokes alliances persist from the Cold War era and have been enhanced and aimed at China’s rise. They stand in the way of bilateral Sino-US ties, interfering with the quest for expansion into triangular arrangements involving US allies. Meanwhile, the US keeps pushing for linking its bilateral alliances into a multilateral network, arousing China to suspect an “Asia-Pacific small NATO.” Increasingly, US security proposals target China’s rise, readers are told, with no mention of any behavior by China except for the concern that China might try to drive the US out of the region and US alarm over Sino-Russian security ties. As for hot spots, the first is Taiwan, as the US alters the status quo and “plays the Taiwan card,” while it gradually voids the “one-China” principle. The second involves the maritime question, visible most of all in the South China Sea, where the US aims to contain China and deny its rise as a maritime power, especially under Trump’s “Indo-Pacific strategy,” which could result in a clash. The third is the Korean nuclear question—the most threatening security hot spot in the Asian-Pacific. While the US prioritizes denuclearization, China leans to peace and stability. No matter how big the North Korean threat to the US grows, the article implies that this should not be a concern, insisting that dialogue is the answer even after talks broke down (implying that the answer lies in more US concessions on the North’s unstated objectives). Opposing sanctions and military pressure, the source makes no mention of the North’s excessive demands or of flexibility in the shifting US diplomatic posture.

The article ends by asking if China and the US can avoid conflict. The elements of security conflict are here to stay. Questions linger: Will economic interdependence play a limiting role or its reduction, as is occurring with “decoupling,” be a force for conflict? Will new technologies reduce the effect of mutual military fear or heighten it? Will ideological factors add new contents to the competition, leading to mutual demonization, having been boosted under Trump? Or will non-traditional security cooperation counter the forces of contradiction? While the article stresses structural reasons for changes leading toward conflict, which avoids the need to take note of any Chinese behavior, the thrust is to fault US ideational factors in a pessimistic manner.

In Guoji Guancha, No. 2, Han Zhaoying and Huan Zhaolong analyze the logic of Sino-US relations shifting from strategic coordination to strategic competition as a new normal but not the basis full confrontation. The cause is not Trump; long-term forces are at work. Strategic security brings negative interests to the fore, but for some time ahead more positive ones will also operate. Things changed with the December 2017 “National Security Strategy” followed in March 2018 by Trump’s declaration of a trade war. Although under Obama, relations faced many challenges, a broad range of positive interests meant that there would be no crisis and balanced development would continue. Under Trump, as the balance between the two countries’ power (economic plus military) kept narrowing to 52.5 percent (economics alone at 66 percent), with the large US trade deficit and Trump’s rejection of climate change as well as switch on Korean policy, the positive interests largely ceased to exist. First, China was labelled a strategic competitor and the “Indo-Pacific strategy” meant more naval build-up. Then, intermediate-range missiles were selected as a means of countering China, as the Quad drew strong interest. Economic dialogue replaced the earlier strategic and economic dialogue with no interest in exchanges. High tech came under the crosshairs, as tariffs were imposed with the goal of forcing China over the long run to accept an imbalance in economic and trade relations. The US pressed other states to reject Chinese 5G, as it also demonized BRI, gave new support to Taiwan, and played the “Tibet card.” Anti-Chinese sentiments were fanned. Yet there were limits to what Trump did, still needing help on Korea, as in the Singapore and Hanoi summits when China had provided assistance, and not wanting to provoke a military clash over Taiwan. The article is a little more hopeful than some of the others.

The future of relations depends on the shifting correlation of positive and negative interests. In some spheres relations can grow more competitive, but the positive role of economic interests will persist for the short run, denying the possibility of either decoupling or full-scale strategic confrontation or even conflict. Cooperation will continue, but China will have to remain on high alert. Threat perceptions may change; one assessment is that China ranks fourth for the US public after Iran, North Korea, and climate change; another that China is only 11th. One-sided US hostile acts are not so easily advanced. China should continue to stay on the road of peaceful development, adhering at least partially to “taoguang yanghui” and assuaging US internal calls for using the “China threat” as a pretext. Factoring in diverse US interests, China can accelerate reform and openness to boost common interests. More can be done too to win over US friends without sacrificing China’s core interests, which lessen the chance they join in containment.

An overview of Northeast Asia

Hu Jiping in Xiandai Guanxi Yanjiu, No. 1, point to two key questions regarding the changing situation in Northeast Asia. Xi Jinping asserted that the world at present is facing a great change not seen in 100 years. The outstanding questions in Northeast Asia—territorial disputes, historical reconciliation, the division of the two Koreas, etc.—can all be traced back to the weakness of Qing dynasty China and the looting by the Western powers along with Japan’s colonial invasions. The first question is the development of the situation on the Korean Peninsula after two years of relaxed tensions leaving it at a critical juncture. It is very hard to put the responsibility on any one side for the complexity there. Only when North Korea achieved the capability of striking the US with a nuclear weapon did dialogue begin, but one cannot be optimistic. Trust has not increased; the positions of the two sides are not drawing closer. The US side maintains strategic patience 2.0, unwilling to compromise first or to lessen strict sanctions. It is in no hurry, and North Korea has lost all patience, acting to counter US pressure, while posing new pressure (at China’s border) and arousing possible debate in South Korea and Japan about developing nuclear weapons. Blaming the US for not building trust with North Korea, the article obscures what that means and what the US has offered to do.

The second looming question is Sino-Japanese relations. Since Trump took office, Sino-Japanese relations have notably improved, as leaders have acted from reason not emotions. Yet lots of problems persist—territorial, historical, Taiwan, and low political and security trust. Attitudes of the public on both sides have still not fundamentally changed. However, with the international situation changing rapidly and US policies newly destabilizing, demands are growing for a joint response by China and Japan. Most suitable for Japan’s national interests are a good relationship between China and the US, maintaining regional strategic equilibrium. Trump’s “America First” policy has shaken this alliance, which could continue to be further aggravated. China’s exports to the US are curtailed, reducing China’s imports of parts from Japan, and Trump’s demands for China to greatly expand imports from the US could damage Japan. Both China and Japan face intense economic pressure, while agreeing on support for global free markets and on establishing RCEP. An FTA of China, Japan, and South Korea is urgently needed. Xi told Abe in December that a timely opportunity exists and that Xi’s planned state visit to Japan will set the tone for the new era. It is clear that economics is in the forefront, China is facing a difficult environment with the US, and Xi has calculated that Japan is under pressure and could boost ties for the long run without expecting to resolve other problems that persist between the two countries.

Sino-Japanese relations

Gao Hong in Riben Xuekan, No. 1, assesses the new era of Sino-Japanese relations, achieved after several years of effort by the leaders in a top-down pattern. The Japanese society is divided, creating an imbalance in diplomatic efforts, which needs to be overcome as Xi Jinping awaits a state visit to Japan and bilateral ties face a sensitive period in 2020-22. The new era is fragile but offers a once in a century opportunity for China and Japan to forge a beautiful world. Quoting Marx and Engels separately, the author holds out hope and praises the 48 years of past bilateral relations of overcoming obstacles from a honeymoon stage to a frozen period as their balance of comprehensive national power was reversed to the disappointment of Japanese society. Demands of the new era require a joint response, the article suggests.

It distinguishes three ways of framing outlooks on this new era in bilateral ties. One accentuates the new historical conditions; another the development of this relationship; and the third points to the demands of the new era on this relationship. Examples of cooperation range from technology to health care and care of the elderly to tourism, each promising a win-win outcome. Yet many in Japan view China’s “peace and friendship” as having passed with using history as a strategy to bash Japan and some in China see it as just Japan’s “honeymoon” approach in the 1970s-80s. It can be renewed as the basic spirit of relations with new contents. Obstacles must be overcome readers are told, especially through the first state visit in eight years. Mentioned first are the voices inside Japan casting a shadow on the visit and spoiling its atmosphere., stressing that China is scrambling to take Japan’s land with inflammatory talk of an invasion by force. Warning that drawing closer to China endangers the alliance with the US is another theme raised to block the state visit, supported by references to Sankei’s Komori. Others are also striving to interfere with improvement in Sino-Japanese relations. Stress in the article is put on striving to improve the unbalanced state of relations: an imbalance in tourism, indicative of less interest by Japanese; a lack of depth in exchanges, which leaders have agreed to address; and a lack of objectivity in reporting, as on Hong Kong and Taiwan. Leaders in June agreed not to threaten the political common consciousness in the four documents that guide relations. The knot of common historical culture should be deepened, sensitive questions should be managed with care, Japan should refrain from revising the peace constitution and from forming the Quad to contain China, it should not follow the US in deploying intermediate-range missiles. It should not stealthily support “Taiwan independence,” and it should not interfere in Hong Kong. All such actions are antithetical to improving bilateral relations. No mention is made of what China should not do.

Former prime minister Fukuda is cited for his July visit to a Tokyo conference for saying that Confucianism is the foundation of Japanese society amid exchanges to strengthen both Asian civilization and regional peaceful development, approving of China’s leaders’ concept of “common human destiny.” Civilization is raised as a basis for deeper understanding. Barriers all stem from the Japanese side, for instance, the words of its leaders, which are followed closely and have lately avoided prior negative choices. Yet in late December in China, Abe was positive, even in welcoming a “new three kingdoms era” with South Korea included. Stabilization of Sino-Japanese ties is good for Japan-South Korean ties as well. The message is that relations need to stay on track.

Li Yang in Guoji Guancha, No. 2 assesses Japan’s attitude toward its alliance with the US, saying that even as Japan in the post-cold war period has continuously strengthened the alliance it has reaffirmed its autonomous great power status while feeling dissatisfied with an imbalance in US ties. As its economic power grew, it increasingly sought political great power status. As the US position weakened, it further anticipated more room to maneuver, including in the new environment of Sino-US competition for regional leadership operating outside the alliance. In light of this policy contradiction, the article asks: Can the balance be sustained, and if not, what will be Japan’s choice?

The alliance is viewed as the US leading and Japan following, but that does not apply as well of late, given Japanese aspirations. Nakasone sought political great power status as the waning Cold War and the shifting East Asian environment offered new opportunity. The US needed Japan more, especially in light of North Korea’s nuclear weapons plans and the goal of maintaining maritime supremacy, even as Japan felt less threatened and more enabled to express its dissatisfaction with dependency. Now Japan could also pursue strategic goals outside the alliance. China’s rise boosted the US-Japan alliance, while making Japan more important for the US, albeit at times feeling neglected by US approaches to China. Japan boosted its military power, flexed its muscles over Okinawan bases, and broke out of the postwar system. In order to develop Japan-US relations Japan had to sacrifice its relationship with China.

As tensions with China rose, Japan was further driven into the arms of the US at the cost of political great power aspirations. Abe embodied the contradiction, more competitive against China with “values diplomacy” and more opportunistic to assert Japan’s autonomy with US acceptance or tacit approval. The result, however, was a more isolated Japan losing out on political ambitions in East Asia, even as the US position was weakening. The article poses a question about what lies ahead without raising the obvious question of how China can avail itself of Japan’s quest for a more autonomous foreign policy from the US. The very framework of the analysis supposes that the alliance is not sacrosanct for Japan, and it is open to regional initiatives to express its own national interests, but the article fails to specify those interests and how China might satisfy them. As Xi Jinping continues to woo Abe in 2020, this kind of framework suggests one likely reason.

On February 29, Renminwang reported Abe’s statement that Xi’s visit this year is extremely important. Under Xi’s leadership China has had notable success against the virus, and Japan is recognized as highly evaluating China’s success. Cooperation on this can deepen bilateral trust. China is deeply grateful for Japan’s valuable assistance. Leaders are ushering in a new era in bilateral relations. China is keen on a win-win relationship. The significance of Hu’s visit is great. Thus, the delay in the summit only allows room for closer cooperation on the key issue of today. This article offered hope that the delay will not be a problem and the pandemic will not arouse accusations but will bring the two East Asian countries closer together in 2020.

The Korean peninsula

Qi Tongxuan in Guoji Guanxi Yuce in January analyzes the limits of improvement in Sino-ROK relations. After the downturn in relations in January 2016, which kept plummeting to the fall of 2017, ties began to improve in light of Moon’s two aims: to boost the South Korean economy and advance denuclearization and peace on the peninsula. Yet Moon relied mainly on US pressure for the second goal, keeping the strategic gap with China wide. Seoul’s two strategic objectives clash—it relies on China for its economy and on the US for its security—which limits the space to improve ties with Beijing. However, Trump’s recurrent pressure for more host-nation support undercuts alliance trust. Still, Moon keeps relying on the US, partly to build domestic support, as he mainly boosts ties to China for market access. The key takeaway is that South Korea will not be able to maintain equal-distance diplomacy between the two powers, as the powers are more strategically competitive. Seoul preferred less rivalry in order to be able to exert its influence and did not want to abet a US containment strategy. Although a Sino-ROK defense and strategic dialogue took place in October 2019, right after, in November, South Korea reached a level of agreement with the US on the “Indo-Pacific strategy.” Moon is finding it ever more complicated to navigate between the two states. A small country complex makes Moon wary of China and stands in the way of improving bilateral ties. History has left South Korea fearful of control by a great power. Burdened by this psychology, it does not see straight. For relations not to deteriorate, Seoul must fundamentally change the character of its strategic relationship to China, not just viewing ties from an economic angle. Ties will continue, but the effect will be a limited ceiling for relations.

Zhang Chi in Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 1, evaluates the situation on the Korean Peninsula, saying that in a short time a huge change had occurred toward denuclearization and regional peace, but the process is windy, given low mutual trust and divergence among the main players on both denuclearization and a peace system. Countries do not want to revert to the earlier tensions, and there is room for the US and North Korea to keep talking. South Korea’s role as a go-between has declined, and China should play a more positive role toward the dual goals. Clear from this is the significance of transforming the regional order in China’s calculus, but nothing is said about North’s Korea’s ideal order and if it differs from China’s, only about the faults of the US order. In China’s priority for maintaining peaceful stability, the focus is more on preventing the US from aggravating the North than on pressuring the North to halt its missile tests.

The article proceeds to advocate ways to increase trust: normalizing relations; changing US policy toward Iran that evokes threats such as those seen in US policies toward Iraq and Libya; reducing moves and talk the other could deem to be threatening; agreeing that building trust comes first with the burden on the US with actions such as sanctions reductions; recognizing that at stake are concern for the interests of neighboring countries; requiring the involvement of six parties and awareness that the line-up on sequence is three versus two in favor of Pyongyang’s proposal and South Korea stymied in the response to it by the North and the US. On a peace mechanism, the North seeks a deal with the US first, and the US opposes a multilateral security framework in place of the US alliance relations in Northeast Asia, while South Korea favors a North-South arrangement first and then the US first and China later. In contrast, China refuses to be excluded by a three-way approach and has resumed calling for a Northeast Asian security system based on six parties, asserting that Russia and Japan also do not want to be excluded. Disagreements among the six exacerbate suspicions and interfere with cooperation. The North Korean issue, however, is not as important for Northeast Asia as it was. Trump’s focus on using the “North Korean card” for his reelection greatly weakens cooperation on the nuclear issue. In China’s call for denuclearization, also included are steps for South Korea, albeit ones often left vague.

China stands for regional cooperation in opening the Tumen river region, in CJK free trade talks, and in the BRI initiative. North-South moves are difficult. China is necessary to prevent reversals. The article calls for China to make clearer its commitment to denuclearization, but in the process, to insist on security guarantees to assuage North Korean concerns. It has smooth ties to both North and South when everything else is at an impasse. Thus, in a triangular way, progress can be made. BRI can also serve to stimulate Northeast Asian regional cooperation at a time of US unilateralism and protectionism. Since the US position for the peninsula is unstable and North-South talks fail, a new approach is required from a regional security perspective. China is uniquely positioned to contribute to the path forward is the message found in this article.

Russo-US relations

Song Wei and Yu Youjuan in Guoji Anquan Yanjiu, No. 2, analyzes the evolution of Russia’s strategic perceptions of the US and their impact, identifying three stages over three decades.  Russian perceptions were not just determined by interests. Historical and psychological factors were at play, even as the US overlooked them. Realist theory suggests that Russia would eschew direct confrontation. Yet in the second stage from 1998 to 2012, cultural factors came to the fore, including historical memories and great power emotions. Serbia evoked such feelings first. From 2012 to the present the mood shifted more to violent confrontation. Russia has been determined to restore its great power status in international society, inserting itself into various regional disputes. Despite having a GDP about 8 percent of that of the US, Russia was intent on closing the military gap, spending $84 billion in one year, putting it third in the world before falling back to sixth due to economic duress. Although in some cases Russia has felt threatened, in others it has acted when its core interests have not been at stake or the US has refrained from a military response, leaving itself in a more disadvantageous international environment, imposing serious economic costs. Russia has only doubled down at greater cost, even as Putin and Trump have both wanted to improve ties. There is no prospect for the foreseeable future of a turnaround.

Russia has not acted in accord with its actual power; since 1998 it has kept intensifying its confrontation with the West. This is a puzzle, the article finds. Strategic consciousness does not only reflect national interests but also historical memories and great power emotions. The US side steeped in the thinking of the “Cold War victor” cannot respect equality and just overlooks Russia’s emotional needs, as it keeps pressing on Russia’s strategic space. Irrational elements in Russian strategic consciousness became dominant, however. Recalling 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 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. Weakness brought adherence to memories, if understandable, at a high cost.

Striking in this article is its departure from earlier insistence on realist explanations for how the West had threatened Russia and it had responded under duress. The article also recounts cases of deteriorating ties dispassionately without defending the Russian side. At a time when some saw Chinese as doubting whether their 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 wonders whether there might be a hidden domestic message here. If so, it is flying in the face of the mainstream affirmation of increased Chinese assertiveness.