Country Report: China (October 2013)

Chinese writings on international relations in the Asia-Pacific region continue to be the most prolific and informative in comparison to Japanese, Korean, and Russian writings. Despite censorship and huge gaps in the analysis, there is a lot of interesting material. In recent weeks coverage of each of the principal bilateral relations in the region has offered new insights on Chinese debates and on the prospects for cooperation or further tensions. We learn about divisions on whether there should be an alliance with Russia, what should be the balance in relations with North and South Korea, what is the nature of the Japanese challenge to China, how to assess China’s maritime strategy both in historical context and in relation to India’s strategy, and how to interpret the US “rebalancing” toward Asia.

On July 24 in Renmin luntan, Zhao Huasheng candidly discussed an alliance, noting that Putin is turning to the East and finds China his best strategic choice, while Obama and Abe are putting more pressure on China. As the world grows more polarized, an alliance with a great power reduces pressure on one’s country. Arguing that China and Russia are status quo powers, seeking to maintain the Yalta system that contained Japan as opposed to the new US-Japan strategy, Zhao notes that alliance advocates do not see it leading to a new cold war or worse Sino-US relations. Because Russia is ahead of China militarily, it also would not result in an unequal alliance. Yet, Zhao points to factors that caution some against this move. First, despite arguments that overlapping interests suffice, the absence of trust, as the role of public opinion is growing, suggests that mutual suspicions can be readily aroused, even leading to conflict. Recalling that in the 1950s, inequality was the driving force of Chinese discontent, Zhao notes that Russians fear becoming subordinate, despite the fact that relations are equal. He concludes that things are fine the way they are without straining what is a high level of cooperation and 17 years of stable, close ties. In light of Russian psychology, he warns against tampering with success, risking long-term relations for short-term aims, and dragging Russia into Sino-US conflicts, which would underestimate its intelligence and overlook that its response would be unreliable. Further, Zhao warns that, while Chinese view the Chinese and Russian territorial disputes with Japan in a similar light, Russians, who control the territory in dispute, do not. The article is forthright in acknowledging Russian anxieties about China: its hard-line methods, the potential that nationalism will become its political foundation, and real concerns about China’s direction and Russia being dragged into struggles. These warnings come with a clear message that China’s policy should be based on in-depth understanding of Russia, not on relying on emotionalism, substituting Chinese logic, or taking a short-term view.

Reading between the lines of the Zhao article and others, we find a basis for insights on at least four issues raised by observers of Sino-Russian relations. First, there is no expectation of serious problems ahead in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). To be sure, the SCO changes as China’s influence rises, and there are different views about whether Russia retains the leading role in Central Asia because of its security and cultural ties or China has achieved parity due to its economic role, reducing the need to show deference. Yet, the resulting balance, whatever its impact on further weakening leadership in the SCO, is not seen as a cause of escalating tension. Second, prolonged debates over oil and gas pipelines and pricing should not be seen as a sign of troubled relations. They are a reflection of diverse interests in both countries, whose disputes are more open in Russia. China’s pricing is complex, given the need to transport the energy further down the coast and the lower domestic prices useful for social stability. Russia is at last satisfying China’s request for increasing the volume of oil through the pipeline, and China expects more lines to be built, even if the timing and scale remain unclear.

The third and fourth issues are tests of current geopolitical thinking. The gap in how Beijing and Moscow are dealing with Tokyo in 2013 puts a more serious strain on relations than many have recognized. Beijing wants Moscow to see equivalence in its territorial dispute with Tokyo and Moscow’s, leading to backing for the push in 2013 to pressure Tokyo to change its posture on the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute. Yet, at this critical time, Putin is taking the initiative to woo Abe. At stake is not just the island disputes, but also the more active Japanese role in regional security in sync with the strengthening of the alliance with the United States. Some in China argue that Russia should tighten its ties to China as a counterbalance and are troubled by signs that a more active Russian regional strategy means more overtures to Japan, as if it is a pole in a multipolar region rather than a US ally against which the slogan of multipolarity is directed. The fourth, related issue is the growing disconnect in the broad regional strategies of China and Russia, including responding to the US rebalance to Asia. Beijing wants to make this a case for bipolarity, joining forces in opposing US actions throughout the region. Yet, Beijing realizes that it would be counterproductive to press Moscow about its defiant moves. Those pushing for an alliance are ready to offer Russia a division of labor, economizing forces, but many in Russia suspect that China’s plan for integration of East Asia, even Northeast Asia including the Korean Peninsula, leaves Russia on the margins. Most important of all is the degree of overlap in responding to US policies and rhetoric. In 2013, this was at a new peak, as Putin’s crackdown on civil society and support for Assad in Syria brought differences to the fore in ways Xi sought to exploit for closer relations.

Other articles wrote approvingly of Sino-Russian joint maritime exercises and a counter-terrorism drill, as well as the importance of Russia’s Asia-Pacific strategy in partially counteracting the US rebalancing strategy, while raising strategic coordination with China to a new level. If Shen Tao also noted conflicts of national interests, as in Russia’s return to Cam Ranh Bay, the usual emphasis was on how China and Russia are working together to build a new type of great power relations, safeguarding peace and stability.

On the Korean Peninsula, coverage was positive for Park Geun-hye’s late June visit, seen as a snub to Japan, which usually is the second destination of a South Korean president. She was greeted as an “old friend” of the Chinese people, as she emphasized emotional linkages in a “trip of heart and trust” by someone who speaks Chinese and sings songs in the language. Visiting Xian in Xi Jinping’s political home province and speaking at his alma mater Tsinghua Univerisity, she aimed for a personal relationship. Whereas China welcomed the “trust-building process” she was adopting toward North Korea, authors noted that China is much less important than the United States to her country and that the DPRK is of great importance as a strategic buffer to China. Indeed, Huang Fengzhi and Li Boran in Guoji luntan focused on the strengthening US-ROK alliance and its negative impact on China’s security, but suggested that China could break the chain aimed at its containment as its most vulnerable point by cooperating more closely with the ROK. In August articles there was acknowledgement of revised ideological principles in the North that reinforced juche family authority replacing communism, but argued that China must respect this owing to the North’s geopolitical importance. This contrasted to an article by Deng Yuwen, which drew wide interest abroad although it was an exception in the media, on damage to China’s international image from siding with a threat to civilized society.

The case that Japan is becoming a threat to peace and stability in the region was strongly argued in response to developments in Japan. Aso Taro’s ill-chosen words about learning from Nazi Germany provided one occasion to charge that Japan was challenging the postwar order and human conscience, as if this were linked to its value diplomacy. News in August led to warnings against its military build-up and the end of expressing remorse over past aggression. Various articles analyzed why it did not reflect on its war crimes, how the Yasukuni Shrine issue arose, and what accounts for its leadership deficit over “20 lost years.” Zhang Yaohua’s analysis of Abe’s diplomacy identified his political philosophy as ridding Japan of the postwar system and raising its stature to that of a leading global power. First, Abe seeks to build up Japan’s dominance in the Asia-Pacific region with the help of the US alliance and US strategy. Second, he seeks to use this alliance to overcome the restraints of the Peace Constitution and realize Japan’s dream of becoming a political great power. Third, Japan is pressing to contain China, gain military independence, and achieve co-dominance over the region with the United States. Keeping containment of China in the foreground, analysis pointed to three “frontlines.” One is the US-Japan-South Korea military triangle in the north. Two are the US-Japan-Australia and US-Japan-India security triangles in the south. Three is the frontline with ASEAN states. In each direction Abe is trying to rope in countries, lobbying them jointly to promote the “common values of democracy and freedom” and treat China as a political “heretic”; using security issues and so-called freedom of security and navigation, especially in the South China Sea, to frame China as a common security threat; and suppressing China’s “going global” economic strategy through economic and monetary diplomacy. Zhang considered these policies doomed to fail, arguing that they conflict with Japan’s interests.

When India launched an aircraft carrier, just days after Japan showed off its new flat-top destroyer, Chinese coverage observed that it sees as its sphere of influence the Indian Ocean as well as the subcontinent, driven by a world power dream and a kind of Monroe Doctrine. It even wants to project its power into the Pacific Ocean, especially the South China Sea, which clashes with China’s strategy, including its “toward the west” stress on the importance of the Indian Ocean. While Shen Dingli argued that India’s behavior was not targeting China, others took the opportunity to call for speeding up China’s aircraft carrier role in transforming it into a sea power with offensive and defensive capabilities. Sun Xingjie sees the impetus for sea power deriving from the fundamental transformation of Chinese history, as past threats from nomadic peoples were replaced by danger coming from the ocean and then by expanding overseas interests. Sun warns of three challenges. First, the maritime hegemon, the United States, can no longer ignore the development of China’s navy and will take measures to prevent its rise. Second, eight of the nine states on China’s maritime borders have territorial disputes with it, and rising nationalism is fueling greater competition. Finally, a lack of regional security institutions and complex geopolitics hinder China’s naval ambitions. Citing Zheng He’s voyages across the Indian Ocean, authors argue that China’s sea power will be exercised differently than Western sea power, in a more civilized fashion not encroaching on others’ territory or interests.

In the aftermath of the Sunnylands summit, writings on the US role in the region raised further hope for an “equal dialogue,” as both Yang Jiechi and Wang Yang expressed in articles published in US newspapers. On explanations of a “new type of great power relations,” see the article by Ren Xiao in the Open Forum. On US rebalancing toward Asia, Liu Feitao closely examined Obama’s second-term policies, concluding that he was prepared to abandon the leapfrog shift to the Asia-Pacific region and instead manage ties to China in a stable and balanced manner. As a shift to the Middle East proceeds, US rhetoric has been toned down. It is more cautious on Asian territorial disputes, both in instigating and managing them, and more positive toward China. Although one cannot expect the general direction of US policy to change, the pace, priority, manner, and gestures related to rebalancing are changing in a positive fashion. It has become more difficult for some countries to borrow the “wings” of the United States to advance their own interests. China sees more opportunity for joining with the United States in search of regional security, and in forging the new type of great power relations that it proposed.

The rather optimistic attitude toward cooperating with the United States, but not Japan, had ramifications for attitudes about economic regionalism. The Xi-Park summit saw a push for a bilateral FTA, even if the proposed trilateral FTA with Japan included is on hold. As China and ASEAN are marking the tenth anniversary of strategic partnership, there is recognition that China has increased its political influence through economic means and raised the prospects of regional economic institutionalization, despite concern recently the results have been unsatisfactory. Gao Cheng proposed differentiated economic diplomacy, observing that many states do not like to choose sides between China and the United States, welcoming economic benefits from China but using US political/military influence to balance China while signing FTAs with other states to reduce asymmetric dependence on China. Small states are trying to profit from competition among the great powers. Gao proposes that China revise its economic diplomacy, aware that economic diplomacy does not work with states relying on the United States to contain China, taking a stratified approach instead. In the background is the Chinese debate over TPP and now the TTIP, which Ni Yueju calls an “economic NATO.” Together these would reshape the rules of international trade, allowing the United States and developed states in general to regain leadership, as other states comply in order to maintain their market shares in the United States and EU. Such alarming views did not convince some, who argued that the United States prefers China’s integration into the world economy and interdependence.