Country Report: China (August 2016)

The Hague tribunal’s adjudication of the South China Sea dispute between China and the Philippines dominated Chinese foreign policy discussions in mid-2016. Chinese analysts also assessed relations with Russia and India, suggested structural reforms to encourage the resumption of the Six-Party Talks, and considered the implications of Japan’s new security laws.

Hague Tribunal on the Sino–Philippine South China Sea Dispute

In a series of journal articles published shortly before the Hague tribunal released its final decision on July 12, Chinese analysts considered the implications of a ruling they correctly expected to be unfavorable to China’s claims. In Taipingyang Xuebao, No. 7, 2016, Jin Canrong attempts to delegitimize the arbitration tribunal, arguing that it can only issue an “arbitration opinion” and lacks the full legal standing of a court of international law. This is a risky position, because it undermines China’s commitment to international arbitration, as China adopts bilateral investment treaties that rely on international arbitration as an enforcement mechanism (this stance is also, in the view of many international legal experts, factually incorrect).

Jin argues that the South China Sea case is a political matter masquerading as a legal matter, and that the United States helped the Philippines to file the case in order to achieve its own political objectives. Consequently, he argues that China must prepare for diplomatic pressure and negative international public opinion that accuse China of disregard for international law. He predicts that the United States will pursue economic sanctions against Chinese companies involved in island and reef construction if diplomatic pressure proves insufficient, and might further intervene militarily using the legal outcome as justification.

Jin anticipates that tensions in the South China Sea will continue for the foreseeable future because of US actions. He rejects what he perceives as the US tendency to define China’s foreign policy objectives from its behavior in the South China Sea, arguing that China’s South China Sea policy is one, among many, aspect of a varied strategy, not a microcosm of its grand strategy. Jin insists that China is concerned only with its territorial claims and ensuring freedom of navigation, and has no desire to control the South China Sea or restrict access to trade routes. Nevertheless, he postulates that “Anglo-Saxons are a very pragmatic race,” who focus on capabilities rather than verbalized intentions, and as a result, the United States is unlikely to believe China’s claimed intentions. Furthermore, he recognizes that the United States views the South China Sea as possessing important naval, strategic value and is concerned about its outposts in the West Pacific and Indian Oceans, particularly Guam and Diego Garcia.

Despite the anticipated loss at the tribunal, Jin contends that China need only bide its time. He predicts that China’s power will match that of the United States in ten years, at which point the United States will be forced to withdraw from the South China Sea and challenge China elsewhere. In his view, China has natural superiority in the region, and US strategists have chosen a poor location in which to take a stand. In the meantime, however, China must remain firm against US efforts to exert legal and military pressure, and turn ASEAN countries, as well as third parties like Japan, Australia, India, and Europe, against China. Jin’s insistence that China will dominate the region in the medium term undermines his claim that China has no intention of controlling the South China Sea.

Jin asserts that US suspicions of China are increasing. China believes that the United States applies a double standard by condemning China for its island construction, even though other countries, such as Malaysia and Vietnam, have also taken such actions (albeit on a smaller scale). He recognizes, however, that US concerns arise from its belief that China’s actions will have more negative implications for US national interests than those of other, smaller countries. These fears are linked, in turn, to the United States’ growing view of China as a competitor that wishes to replace the United States at the center of the international system, rather than rise within the existing US-led order. These concerns have made the United States amenable to attempts by the Philippines and Vietnam to draw it into regional disputes.

Jin concludes that China must prevent the South China Sea problem from spreading. He warns that the United States will encourage other countries to file similar suits at The Hague. He encourages China to manage Sino–ASEAN and bilateral relations to prevent other countries from intervening. Most importantly, China must strive to avoid the “Thucydides Trap,” in which the fear of a rising power causes a status quo power to start a war (this concept currently enjoys a broad revival in China). China must prevent the dispute in the South China Sea from impacting other aspects of the Sino–US relationship and remain committed to creating a new model of cooperative great power relations envisioned by Xi Jinping.

In anticipation of an unfavorable ruling, Yatai Anquan yu Haiyang Yanjiu, No. 3,2016 hosted a forum on the implications of the Hague decision. Amid heavy criticism of the arbitral proceedings by other Chinese experts, Lu Peng presents a uniquely liberal, theoretical argument that focuses on the need to fundamentally rethink China’s South China Sea policy. While other analysts repeat arguments about jurisdiction that the tribunal has already rejected, Lu argues that it does not matter whether China is correct about questions of jurisdiction; either way, the decision will negatively impact international perceptions of Chinese diplomacy.

Consequently, Lu contends that the case forces China to reconsider two key aspects of its South China Sea policy. First, the case demonstrates that China’s current South China Sea policy is ineffective: support for the United States is growing, while support for China is fading. In Lu’s view, China will be unable to peacefully rise if it continues to pursue a policy that increases regional opposition. Second, China must consider whether its South China Sea policy is consistent with its overall diplomatic strategy. He argues that China’s current policy would make sense if its objective were to challenge the United States for leadership of the global order. However, if China does not seek global dominance, then a policy focused on regional power and control makes little sense.

While acknowledging the view that China’s global interests have broadened as it has gained increased strength, Lu, nevertheless, insists that China’s diplomatic strategy exhibits more continuity than change. In particular, China continues to focus on the pursuit of economic development in a peaceful international environment. China seeks to join international society, as is evident by its concern for international legitimacy and global norms. (This view stands in stark contrast to the official Chinese position, mirrored in most analysts’ writings on the topic, which claims that China does not have to abide by the decision of a tribunal regarding an international treaty to which it is a party).

Lu recognizes that China’s South China Sea policy has changed significantly since 2014. After the 1988 conflict with Vietnam, China exercised restraint for many years. It focused on political negotiations and avoided the use of military strength. This policy mitigated concerns about China’s rise. Since 2014, however, China has used military strength to resolve regional disputes and pursued an island-building strategy to increase its relative power. At the same time, China has opposed the resolution of disputes through international law, as in the Philippines case. Lu argues that this demonstrates Chinese policymakers’ fundamental distrust of international rules.

Lu concludes by juxtaposing China’s recent distrust of international regulations and use of strength with its traditional pursuit of global legitimacy, and defining this disjuncture as a conflict between regional South China Sea policy and China’s global strategy. This divergence has made it too easy for countries to view China’s South China Sea policy as reflecting China’s overall foreign policy approach (a rare point of agreement with Jin Canrong). Consequently, Lu argues that China must reorient its South China Sea policy to be consistent with its overarching objective of peaceful development by emphasizing the importance of international law and pursuing peaceful resolution with the various disputants.

In contrast to Lu’s article, other contributions to the forum are far more defensive of China’s position, in keeping with the editor’s introductory note that attributes the unfavorable opinion to the tribunal’s rigid adherence to precedent and the West’s discursive superiority. Many analysts offer detailed predictions of the court’s rulings on the various claims, which have turned out to be largely on the mark. In his essay, Zhu Feng argues that the case was a “legal trap” designed by the Philippines and the United States. He laments the Philippines’ “ingenious” use of prominent international legal experts, its global image as a small country standing up to a bully, and its support from the United States and Japan. Zhu soundly rejects the West’s position that China must abide by the tribunal’s decision, arguing that the case would not resolve questions of sovereignty. Like many others, he takes issue with the court’s unwillingness to consider “historical” issues and its narrow focus on legal precedent. He concludes that the case was an inappropriate use of international law to limit China’s sovereignty, rather than to promote “cooperative diplomacy and political relations.”

Kong Lingjie lays out a strategy for opposing the decision. Politically, China must continue its rejection of the case. (In support of this argument, Kong repeats the official formulation: “do not accept, do not participate, do not acknowledge, do not implement.”) Diplomatically, China must reject the court’s jurisdiction and disregard the decision. Instead, it should focus on creating a South China Sea Code of Conduct and continue to pursue direct bilateral negotiations, while preventing other countries from filing their cases. Legally, China should seek to identify and expose holes in the decision. Finally, China should seek to win over public opinion through the use of experts and domestic and foreign media.

Liang Yunxiang warns that China has become accustomed to pursuing its international interests through military strength and diplomacy, rather than through legal means, which left China unprepared for a legal fight. Although the tribunal’s decision will not remove China from the South China Sea or end its disagreements with the United States and the Philippines, it will still have a negative impact on China’s international image. Liang anticipates similar cases from Japan or Vietnam, and persistent Western attacks on China for its alleged failure to respect international law. Liang argues that China’s current South China Sea policy rests on the use of strength (the physical control of islands and reefs) and diplomacy (the ability to persuade other countries of the validity of China’s stance). By contrast, China’s legal claims to historical possession have proven unsuccessful. Liang contends that neither strength nor diplomacy is the right tool to resolve the South China Sea problem; instead, China must learn to use international law to achieve its objectives. Directly challenging the political rejection of the case as championed by Kong Lingjie and official Chinese rhetoric, Liang argues that China should learn to use international law to achieve its objectives in order to achieve its peaceful rise and maintain its global stature.

Sino–Russian Relations

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 3, 2016, Liu Fenghua assesses the “strategic coordination” between China and Russia. Liu first highlights the two countries’ successful cooperation on politics, diplomacy, military technology, energy, and trade in the twenty years since they signed their strategic partnership agreement; nevertheless, he notes three problems the two countries face. First, they lack mutual trust. Russian observers are concerned about China’s influence over Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Eurasia, especially in light of the “One Belt, One Road” policy, and are unnerved by China’s superior capabilities. Second, bilateral trade and economic cooperation lag behind political cooperation. Finally, the United States complicates the bilateral relationship. Although mutual distrust of the United States can bring Russia and China together, as has occurred since the 2013 Ukraine crisis, the United States can also play the two countries against each other.

Liu then elaborates on the “strategic coordination model,” carefully contrasting it with alliance relations. The post-Cold War Sino–Russian relationship is strategic in nature, focused on long-term issues of high politics. As defined in the 1996 agreement, these include the establishment of a new world order, regional security, and “strategic stability.” In contrast to a formal alliance, the relationship is not solely directed against a third party. Liu distinguishes the two countries’ cooperation against a problem, such as a hypothetical Japanese attempt to change the status quo in the region through military means, from cooperation against another country. (This, however, is a weak distinction because it is impossible to separate a situation from the actors that produce it.) Furthermore, given historical disagreements between China and the USSR, China and Russia have kept their relationship non-ideological. Finally, the scope of the partnership is wide and deep, encompassing not only security and trade, but also issues like agriculture and space policy.

Liu argues that the key benefit of this type of relationship is that it provides a loose structure through which the two countries can coordinate their foreign policies, without the rigidity of a formal alliance. He rejects calls by some in Russia and China to upgrade the relationship to a formal alliance, asserting that the security challenges the two countries face can be adequately handled by the existing bilateral structure as long as the two countries expand its scope.
Liu concludes by evaluating the 2015 agreement to link China’s Silk Road Economic Belt plan with Russia’s pursuit of a Eurasian Economic Union. The two countries must prioritize the coordination of their respective infrastructure construction plans, cooperate financially, and coordinate their industrialization plans. Liu concedes that the Russians are concerned about China’s OBOR policy infringing on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Eurasia and recognizes their fears that China will one day exert political influence beyond its economic power. Nonetheless, he claims that the two projects are highly compatible.

Sino–Indian Relations

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 6, 2016, Qiu Meirong analyzes the deterioration in Sino–Indian border relations since 2009. She attributes the Indian decision to strengthen its military deployments in the contested portions of Arunachal Pradesh (“South Tibet” to the Chinese) to their “misinterpretation” of China’s 2008 efforts to increase the control of the border in order to prevent infiltration by Tibetan separatists. As a result, the Indian government built up its military presence and intelligence capabilities in the eastern section of the disputed border. In September 2015, it built new headquarters for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, while also increasing the number of sentry posts. Qiu charges that these developments violate China’s border and challenge its control of the disputed areas where it is most vulnerable to infiltration by foreign agitators into Tibet, and recalls that similar actions led to the 1962 border war.

Furthermore, India has built air bases and deployed planes along the border. This contrasts with previous Indian policy, which avoided infrastructure construction in the area out of fear that China would benefit if it seized the territory. Qiu charges that the Indian military will deploy the advanced fighter planes that it has recently bought (or made arrangements to buy) from France, the United States, and Russia to the border, although she concedes that the destination of these planes has not yet been announced. Unsurprisingly, Qiu opposes India’s military buildup, arguing that it violates the two countries’ previous agreements and increases the likelihood of a military conflict. She predicts frequent, low-intensity encounters.

Along with its military buildup, Qiu points out that India has taken steps to increase its control of the disputed territory. Settlement in the disputed areas is a major component of this strategy; India has long argued that any transfer of territory should exclude populated areas. Qiu estimates that only one-third of the area’s inhabitants are of Tibetan descent; the remaining are composed of migrants and their descendants. At the same time, Qiu charges that India has been trying to “Indianize” the region through its education system (a charge with sharp parallels to the Sinification of Tibet and Xinjiang). The creation of English-language Indian schools threatens Chinese claims by undermining Tibetan culture. Furthermore, Qiu claims that India has developed infrastructure in the disputed region to make it a more appealing place to live, with financial support from Japan. She asserts that the Modi administration has encouraged people to live close to the Line of Actual Control. These developments harden India’s commitment to the region.

Qiu criticizes the Indian government’s support for Tibetan separatists’ claims against China. She argues that India’s support for Tibetan exiles is an attempt to gain leverage over the border situation: the Indians have argued that they will support China’s claims to Tibet if China recognizes India’s claims to Arunachal Pradesh. Qiu recognizes the logic of the Indian position. First, they view Tibet as an important buffer zone and have historic ties to Tibet dating back to the colonial times. In exchange for recognition of China’s sovereignty over Tibet, they expect China to recognize their strategic interests in the Himalayan countries and their demands about the border. Furthermore, India knows that it has leverage because it would play a key role if a foreign power were to intervene in Tibet, because of both its geographical position and ability to coordinate with Russia and the United States. Nevertheless, Qiu cautions that India’s actions are only likely to increase border tensions.

Finally, Qiu considers India’s efforts to draw third parties into the border dispute. According to Qiu, India has applied for foreign aid for development in Arunachal Pradesh in an attempt to persuade organizations like UNESCO and the World Bank to recognize its territorial claims. It has also targeted foreign governments, such as Japan and the United States. Qiu even claims that India’s attempts to promote international tourism in the disputed areas are part of an attempt to solidify its claims. India’s physical control of the disputed territory and sympathetic media and public opinion constrain China’s options, but Qiu concludes, rather optimistically, that India and China’s desire to maintain positive bilateral relations create room to address this problem in a way more favorable to Chinese interests.

Restarting the Six-Party Talks

In Waijiao Pinglun, No. 4,2016, Cheng Xiaohe contends that the Six-Party Talks are the best forum for negotiating a resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis and proposes several improvements to the negotiation framework. The talks have been halted since 2009, when North Korea pulled out (a development Cheng blames on an overly rigid US position). Nevertheless, Cheng argues that the talks established agreement on the need for peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, developed the useful “6+2+2” model for dialogue, in which bilateral North Korean–US and North Korean–Japanese talks supplement the Six-Party Talks, and aimed to build mutual trust by asking each side to match “a promise with a promise, and an action with an action.” They also produced several foundational documents and led each country to assign personnel to liaise with the Six-Party Talks, which created important institutional capacity. In short, Cheng argues that despite their obvious limitations, the Six-Party Talks are an impartial and effective mechanism for pursuing dialogue.

Nonetheless, Cheng identifies several imperfections in the Six-Party Talks structure. The five parties, excluding North Korea, disagree about how best to achieve denuclearization. In addition, Cheng argues that North Korea is not given enough control over the agenda. Specifically, North Korea wants the agenda to include peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula. Cheng supports the North Koreans on this point, arguing that the talks should adopt an agenda of “parallel advances” that integrates discussion of the nuclear issue with careful consideration of North Korean concerns about their own security. In particular, North Korea seeks a formal peace treaty to replace the existing ceasefire on the Korean Peninsula so that the United States will withdraw its troops from South Korea and the North–South tensions will ease. Cheng’s advocacy of “parallel advances” is similar to the “dual-track” solution promoted by many Chinese analysts, including Wang Sheng and Ling Shengli (Country Report: China, June 2016). Furthermore, Cheng argues that the failure of the negotiations, despite the 2008 agreement in principle on matters of inspection and verification, demonstrates structural weaknesses in the Six-Party Talks framework. These include the lack of a fixed schedule for meetings and binding guarantees, and the inability to punish behavior that violates agreements.

Cheng’s suggestions for structural improvements fall into two key categories. First, Cheng argues for a more flexible mechanism that allows for negotiations between various combinations of the six parties. He cites approvingly South Korea’s proposal to hold five-party talks that exclude North Korea. These larger multilateral discussions should be supplemented by trilateral talks (for example, US–Japan–South Korea and US–China–South Korea) and bilateral talks. Cheng envisions a structure that is flexible both in terms of the number of parties and the scope of topics that can be discussed—no subject should be off limits. Furthermore, these talks should be open to North Korea if it wishes to join them, in any bilateral or multilateral configuration. Cheng hopes that these talks will provide an interim opportunity for countries to continue their dialogue in preparation for restarting the Six-Party Talks.

Cheng’s position on making agreements more binding remains ambiguous, however. He acknowledges the sensitivity behind creating binding mechanisms and the reasons that they have not been pursued thus far. At the same time, he repeatedly highlights the lack of binding mechanisms as a major structural weakness. He concludes that binding mechanisms are a double-edged sword: they would increase the costs of violating an agreement, but the very discussion of creating binding mechanisms would make the resumption of talks less likely. Consequently, Cheng tries to have it both ways, arguing that each country should be able to decide for itself whether to adhere to binding mechanisms (which, of course, makes the adoption of binding mechanisms much less likely and much less binding).

With this in mind, Cheng considers the likelihood that the Six-Party Talks will resume. Pessimists, mainly located in South Korea and the United States, think resumption of the talks is highly unlikely. They point to the difficulty in backtracking on prior behavior, North Korea’s “byungjin” policy to jointly pursue economic development and nuclear proliferation, and North Korean fears of both US forces in South Korea and ending up like Libya or Iraq. By contrast, Cheng identifies with the optimists, a largely Chinese group, who view the resumption of talks as far more likely. They argue that the North Koreans have not completely abandoned dialogue and that room for further negotiation still exists, despite strong international pressure and sanctions. While they expect the process to be difficult, they anticipate that North Korea will eventually return to the talks.

Cheng concludes that the Six-Party Talks are irreplaceable as an institution, despite their weaknesses. Although he recognizes that North Korea’s political will and the potential deals on the negotiating table are the main determinants of whether the talks will restart, he argues that structural improvements to the Six-Party Talks will help to make resumption of the talks more likely.

Japan’s New Security Laws

In Heping yu Fazhan, No. 3, 2016, Lü Yaodong launches a familiar attack on Japan’s new security laws. Lü castigates the legislation for destroying Article 9’s renouncement of war and introducing a right to collective self-defense, and warns that the next step will be a revision of the Constitution to allow for militarization and the right to self-defense. Lü first highlights the political process by which the new legislation emerged, arguing that it dates back to Abe’s first term as prime minister in 2006. Like many others, Lü sees the legislation as part of a long-standing strategy by Abe to ultimately alter the Constitution.

Lü then considers the lifting of the ban on collective self-defense as it relates to three types of situations. The first is the poor state of regional affairs, particularly regarding the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and China’s maritime disputes in the South China Sea. These tensions hover in a grey area between war and peace. If a situation occurs that does not constitute an armed attack, but the Japanese police are unable to adequately respond, the prime minister must decide whether to deploy the SDF.

The second type of situation relates to those scenarios that have “important influence,” a category that expands upon the earlier, more restrictive designation of peripheral affairs. These are situations that have the potential to negatively impact Japan’s peace and security, and which could ultimately lead to an attack on Japan. Lü argues that the new security laws allow Japan to intervene anywhere in the world and dramatically lower the threshold for the Japanese use of force.

The final type of situation involves those in which Japan may face an existential crisis. This would entail a military attack on a country formally allied with Japan or with which Japan has very close relations, with potential threats against Japan’s security. These three scenarios exist along a continuum and are interrelated; together, they become the justification for the decision to lift the ban on collective self-defense.

Finally, Lü contemplates the implications of the new security laws for Chinese interests. Lü states that the legislation gives Japan the ability to declare war on its own accord. Furthermore, he argues that pacifist protests convinced the Abe administration to make constitutional revision a campaign issue during the July 2016 parliamentary elections in order to enshrine the right to collective self-defense in the Constitution. Despite domestic objections to the new security laws, Lü is very concerned that Japan will try to use its right to collective self-defense to intervene in the East and South China seas. Citing a recent Abe speech, he warns that the new legislation would allow Japan to use military force if countries like the Philippines or Vietnam were attacked (presumably by China), and notes Japan’s military commitment to the two countries. Lü concludes that Japan is actively creating opportunities to exercise its newly declared right to collective self-defense.

  • Godfree Roberts

    ‘He predicts that China’s power will match that of the United States in ten years’. That long?
    I’m not a military expert but it appears that China can exclude the US from the Western Pacific tomorrow, if it wishes. Though US defence authorities and numerous Congressional panels have made public their concerns about China’s weapons buildup, no-one has publicly put the pieces together, as far as I know.
    Anyone interested can check out China’s remarkable defensive suite, of which this is only a partial list:
    West Pacific Surveillance and Targeting satellite
    Song Type 039 ‘Black Hole’
    Type 65 wake-homing torpedoes
    J-20 and J-31 fighters vs. F-35 and F-22
    DF-ZF Prompt Global Strike
    200,000 ocean-going fishing boats and 4,000 ocean freighters, all members of China’s merchant marine, manned by experienced sailors and equipped with direct communication links to the PLA Navy and tasked with reporting the movements of all combatants 24×7.

    • Chris

      They could make the US suffer losses, sure, but I doubt they could completely exclude it yet. 10 years sounds about right to me.