Country Report: China (April 2018)

China’s foreign relations are under extraordinary flux. Sino-US relations are viewed as more perilous than at any time since 1989 with some even going further back to 1979 or 1972. The often-troubled Sino-Japanese relationship has suddenly appeared to stabilize, as long-sought summits by Japan are presumed to be on track. The Sino-North Korean relationship abruptly normalized, leading to three summits in three months and unknown agreement on how best to manage diplomacy. Sino-South Korean ties were upgraded in late 2017 and appear to still be improving, but there remains underlying uncertainty over Chinese pressure against the US-ROK alliance, including THAAD’s continued presence in South Korea. Resistance to the BRI as a debt trap has riled some bilateral ties in Southeast Asia and keeps Sino-Indian relations on edge, even if Trump’s cavalier treatment of many countries limits hedging against China. Meanwhile, Putin remains a prized partner of Xi Jinping, casting doubt on any who disparage Sino-Russian ties.

Chinese articles provide background for understanding these fast-moving developments. They indicate how overseas Chinese are being mobilized on behalf of the BRI and other foreign policy objectives, while ASEAN centrality plays a desirable role as long as it does not challenge China’s goals. They express strong confidence in the enduring closeness of Sino-Russian relations and rebuke Western writings for repeatedly misjudging this reality. Obviously, their coverage of North Korea is particularly noteworthy. Chinese sources vindicate China’s approach, claim to understand Kim Jong-un’s strategy while largely justifying it, and insist that the key to a real resolution of the crisis on the peninsula is to reach a great power understanding on regional security. South-North dialogue is welcomed but not taken very seriously, as Sino-US dialogue with Russia sometimes added as the third great power of consequence is deemed most critical. There is no ambiguity that denuclearization is just one of Washington’s—and Beijing’s—goals, and it is in contradiction to the US goal of sustaining predominance in the region and in South Korea. Washington will have to abandon its hegemonic plans if it is serious about pursuing denuclearization. After all, readers are informed, military and political pressure on the North is really part of US strategy to contain China (and Russia), as seen in the critique of THAAD. As for Indo-Japanese relations, they are viewed as drawing closer over shared maritime security concerns, but unable, in the long term, to stabilize as an alliance due to India’s reservations.

South China Sea and Overseas Chinese

Liu Ruonan in Waijiao Pinglun, No. 4, wrote about measures ASEAN could take and its limitations in dealing with the crisis in the South China Sea. After long being recognized for its centrality in economics and politics, lately as great power strategic competition as intensified and ASEAN’s leadership core has weakened, it is challenged in dealing with the South China Sea crisis and in asserting its central position in the regional order. Individual states may reassert ASEAN’s key role, but they cannot overcome divisions in how to deal with the maritime question. China views ASEAN as performing a useful role in managing regional great power relations or systematizing multilateral cooperation. It considers itself first in supporting ASEAN centrality and its role as driver of regional cooperation, but this is a limited notion requiring, implicitly, acceptance of China’s aims for the South China Sea and on other regional issues.

In issue No. 3 of Guoji Anquan Yanjiu, Cui Shoujunand Zhang Zheng discuss overseas Chinese communities and the BRI. They argue that foreign Chinese (huaqiao and also huaren, who have received foreign citizenship) are an important force supporting China’s national interests and advancing its development. This diaspora, including descendants, is seen as a bridge between countries, especially in Southeast Asia, where they are most numerous and their organizations are most concentrated. The article argues that some 27,000 existing associations have reached a juncture with many new features. They are becoming more interlinked, international in scope. In BRI they are natural allies and direct beneficiaries. Much is made of the personal characteristics of these overseas Chinese—educated, in key professions, well-positioned, and well-respected in local societies; of their ties to China—strengthened cultural and language ties, networking with less of the old localist (tongxiang) link back to China, more nationalism, and still embedded in guanxi with Confucian morality; of their political support of China—striving to gain local influence in the mainstream and not the periphery, supportive on the South China Sea and unification issues, opposed to talk of any China threat, and finally, with the BRI, they are a bridge in pursuit of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” as well as in the smooth implementation of ongoing and future cross-national projects.


In Guowai Lilun Dongtai, No. 3, Liu Ying evaluates Western studies of Sino-Russian relations, at a time of declining US power, deteriorating Russo-US ties, and booming Sino-Russian relations. Responding to China’s rapid rise, Russia’s rising nationalism, ever-worsening Russo-US relations, US analysts have tried to decipher the impact of the closer Sino-Russian relationship in politics, economics, culture, military ties, and international affairs on the Western-led international order. Writings now differ from before. Liu sees his article as a follow-up to a 2015 study by Hu Bing with a broader timeline and to a 2015 Huanqiu Shibao editorial, which attacked the one-sidedness and subjectivity of such Western writings. The Trump period is given special attention, including coverage of new thinking on triangular ties with the United States. The chronology cited is Sino-Soviet reconciliation from 1985, rapid development of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership in 1991-96 (which Westerners largely overlooked due to Russia’s weakness), and blossoming ties from 2001 (which were missed because of the weight of “traditional” thinking in the field, underestimation of Russia’s emergence, and disciplinary blinders) Until about 2014 this situation prevailed, underestimating the possibility of an “alliance” against the West before governments and academic circles were startled by Russian moves and tightening ties between China and Russia, including a massive energy agreement. The field came alive and became more diverse—realism remained the mainstream with stress on energy, military affairs, and Central Asia. While viewing 2014 as a turning point, a picture is drawn of authors in the West still being too negative about the relationship—unequal with a crisis of trust and lack of support for each other’s actions, while each still needed the West too much to draw very close to the other and Russia remained wary of the challenge of China’s rise to the point relations were not so strong.

As coverage shifts from separate studies of China and Russia to combined analysis, Liu divides US writers into groups: one favoring China as critical to the US economy; another eager to stop China from gaining the pivot in the triangle; and many at last viewing the impact of the two states as complementary but not leading to a zero-sum outcome with the West or an attack on the US-led order. One question raised is whether the rapidly tightening ties of Beijing and Moscow is a failure of US policy, e.g. due to Obama’s weakness. Another question is what is propelling Sino-Russian ties. Some doubt the staying power of these forces, citing historical animosities, geopolitical competition, and opportunism rather than mutual interests. On the question of what the future holds in store, the article sees continued disparagement of the prospects of this relationship, as people ask if they can ally and in what ways can they impact the West. The conclusion drawn is that Western analysts see relations heading toward a “soft alliance” but not a formal military one, and they are searching for a theoretical and systematic framework to better answer a myriad of lingering questions, on which there is no consensus.

In Shijie Taishi, No. 10, Long Dapeng looked to the future of Putin’s policies. Although the foreign situation has changed, Putin’s basic thinking has been consistent. He seeks a strong power and good neighborly relations. He has an independent foreign policy, transparent and predictable in support of national interests. Given Russia’s economic and technological needs, Long expects steps to limit bad relations with the West. China is left unmentioned. Criticism of Russia is absent. This kind of unmitigated simplicity devoid of examples of any challenging nature is becoming more common. Yet, it does suggest wariness of Russia’s turn to the East.

In issue No. 3 of Guoji Anquan Yanjiu, Ma Jianguang and Li Youren discuss Russia’s geopolitical goals, drawing on the case of Syria. They credit Russia’s military role in Syria with blocking the advance of terrorist elements and elevating Russia’s international influence. Through military action as well as diplomacy, Russia has achieved success, using its “smart power” to achieve some geopolitical goals. Yet, they note, this leaves it with a burden, in relations with the West and in struggling to pull troops out, as it grasps for new thinking in the face of sanctions and difficulty boosting its economy. While the article centers on the Middle East, it raises broader issues in Chinese thinking about Russia. One theme is Russia’s resentment at US efforts to use nationalism and territorial issues to weaken the national identity feelings of Russians, damage its economic development, and force Russia mainly to develop relations with the West. After facing a split among Greater Atlanticism, neo-Slavophilism, and middle ground neo-Eurasianism, Russia found its way with neo-Eurasianism as the middle ground with a mix of neo-Slavophilism, as Putin goes sometimes one way and sometimes the other. The move into Syria is treated as a means to be taken seriously as a great power, and it is linked to turning to the East to counter the “maritime civilization” of the West, advocated by Dugin and also Karaganov. The Syrian situation is an outgrowth of the “Arabian spring,” where Russia erred in cooperating with the West on Libya’s “democratic spring.” Taking over in 2012, Putin turned to the Syrian crisis differently as well as to the East, reasoning that the United States is not the only power that can use military force. It rejects “color revolutions” in favor of sovereign democracy. As anticipated goals were realized, including quadrangular ties with Iraq and Iran as well as Syria, and US regional strategy was thwarted, the problem arose of the end game when the West is not cooperating and Russia has economic needs to withdraw its troops. Opportunism does not beget a strategy versus the West or the divided factions in Syria, and Russia may have to pull out its troops, as it keeps promising. There is more insecurity around its border: an unending Ukraine crisis, North Korea blowing hot and cold, and Japan’s increasingly hard line on the “Northern Territories,” all of which demand that Russia increase its military forces for balance, apart from further danger from the Islamic state in and near Russia. For Russia border security and stability comes first, and Putin’s reelection means that neo-Eurasianism will continue to prevail, leading to even closer ties to Asia. Putin faces a lot of problems, and he is likely to keep announcing withdrawals from Syria without actually doing so, as Russia’s national power slips due to economic challenges.  No mention is made of China as a force either assisting Russia in these challenges or constituting any kind of challenge itself.

In Dangdai Zhongguo Shi Yanjiu, No. 3, Shi Shantao reviewed Sino-Russian relations since the 18th party congress, praising the results and predicting an even stronger relationship ahead. While the international setting is complicated and changing a lot, relations with Russia remain a priority, deepening in every respect with an unprecedented level of trust. Bilateral trade rose 21 percent in 2017 to $84 billion and is almost precisely balanced. EEU trade with China is rising even faster, with exports to China in the lead. As world dangers mount, as in protectionism and the Korean question, Sino-Russian strategic cooperation is intensifying, internationally and on regional issues. Exchanges are intensifying. Now Russia is teaching Chinese in 123 elementary schools and about 200 universities. There are more than 70,000 long- or short-term exchange students. There were 1.98 million visits by Russians to China in 2016, a 25 percent increase with further growth in early 2017, and 1.29 million by Chinese, a rise of 15 percent. Distinctive about this relationship is the close bond and frequent meetings of Xi and Putin, the diversification of strong ties, the comprehensive and strategic nature of ties without an ideological element or the targeting of any third country. Remarks of this sort are reminiscent of the stilted rhetoric of traditional communism, ignoring anything that is not consistent with the overall, one-sided conclusion and offering no hint of challenges lying ahead in Sino-Russian relations.

Korean Peninsula

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 5, Li Jun wrote about the North Korean diplomatic initiative and challenges it poses after Kim Jong-un’s second visit to China on May 7-8. The aim is to alleviate strategic pressure and allow development to resume. Without acknowledging China’s weighty role in imposing sanctions, Li argues that Kim is keen on reducing their impact so that economic gains can be touted. So far, he has ended diplomatic isolation, conducted historic summits, and managed to get considerable sanctions relief, while greatly improving the strategic security environment. A breakthrough was achieved courtesy of Moon Jae-in’s strategic thinking. Moon had sought it in order to hold a successful Olympics and local elections in June and regain at last a situation where Koreans are in control of Korean affairs. North-South contacts before the Olympics had convinced Kim of the opportunity, including the first secret contacts in Kunming, China, in December at an international youth soccer tournament, where the North was invited to participate in the Games. Kim saw an opportunity to split international society’s united front in its tough line on sanctions. China, Russia, and South Korea agreed on focusing on diplomacy and ruling out military action. The July 2017 double freeze proposal of China and Russia was a move in that direction, calling for a comprehensive approach to the peninsula and a Northeast Asian peace and security system. Li asserts international society cannot accept North Korea as a nuclear state, but he adds the situation, unlike in Iran, is such that North Korea cannot one-sidedly be expected to freeze or abandon its nuclear weapons given that it is faced with a US nuclear threat and hostility, and this is a necessary means for sovereignty and survival. The clear assumption is that a different US policy would bring a fundamental change, including perhaps denuclearization. The article adds that unless there is great power agreement, the situation on the Korean Peninsula could acutely worsen. Japan is ignored. The understanding needed is among China, the United States, and Russia. An opportunity is said to exist, but this article is not particularly optimistic that it will be seized, downplaying the prospect of diplomacy between the Koreas or with the United States resolving the issue or a narrow approach to it.  

In the same issue of Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, Zheng Jiyong assessed the Korean Peninsula and its prospects. The about-face was due in part to Moon’s election, resurrecting policies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun with secret contacts, and in part to Kim’s decisions that improved relations with China as well as South Korea. The driving force is North Korea, as Kim consolidated his hold on power, especially by bringing the military under control, and gave priority to economic growth after “completing” his nuclear program with sufficient threat to the United States to be effective. Also, North Korea was isolated with trade collapsing; so a way had to be found to reduce the pressure. Another factor was a shift in thinking toward South Korea, which had under two presidents left the North with little option. Important too was a change of thought toward China, which had covered the North’s “back.” Uneasy in the face of Trump, Kim reconsidered his policies that had driven China away. Moon’s primary intent was to avoid war on the peninsula and send his messages to both the North and the great powers, making sure that relations with all of them were on the upswing. This happened while Trump pursued a strategic transformation, reverting to “Cold War” thinking and disrupting institutions, while also beginning to think that success with the North would give him great political capital at home.

A driving force has been China’s stabilizing influence. The great transformation on the Korean Peninsula puts China at an important juncture of historic change. In the process or resolving the peninsular question China has unique influence, seizing on traditional friendship and renewal of common values, sharing a common historical destiny with North Korea and a 1,340 km border as well as unmeasurable strategic input. On the big strategic questions there is tacit agreement of mutual understanding and a deep political foundation. Yet, the impression was left that only to address bad things does China intercede and it remains aloof otherwise, due to its excessive historic and present responsibility, resulting in an imbalance among responsibilities, rights, and interests. In a situation where relations diverge between the two extremes of being a protector and an antagonist, it should clarify its interests and reestablish an equilibrium. North Korea can draw lessons from China’s path, its system and experience in social control, since in new international and national conditions the two states have even more similarities. China’s reform and opening shows the way on political and economic questions, and China’s recent international role creates a new environment and opportunity for North Korea, for investments, trade, and exchanges. There is great latent potential for cooperation. Yet, the article also stresses the need to denuclearize as the core issue on the peninsula, avoiding a repetition of “one step forward, two steps backward.” The new North-South mutual respect is an important positive step, as great power influence on the peninsula is weakening; however, without an agreement among them the situation would become more acute. What is needed is not to allow great power disputes or other international issues to become entangled in the peninsular question. For China, the United States, and Russia—the three powers that count in the region—there is still basic logic in favor of denuclearization and no proliferation, but if this opportunity is loss it may forever be gone. Stress is on them working together, not on what the two Koreas decide between themselves. This suggests that the two are secondary actors.

In addition, Trump is faulted for wanting to keep up the pressure without giving the North a respite, while Washington is seen as bringing up human rights, including the issue of Japanese abductees, and pressing for flooding the North with information. Such moves are disruptive and need to be coordinated with China and Russia for progress to occur. Mention is made of Kim’s meeting with Xi Jinping, where there was agreement on a stage-by-stage approach with simultaneous concessions by both sides, as South Korea favors, too. In the process, North Korean security anxieties must be addressed, eliminating any military threat to it and protecting its regime. The logic is that denuclearization is almost irreversible, while security protection for the North is easy to reverse. The article leaves no doubt that Chinese demand great power support for the North Korean stance apart from insisting on denuclearization as one objective of negotiations.  

In the same issue Yang Wenjing analyzed the US factor in the “transition period” for the DPRK nuclear issue. Yang makes clear that US goals—denuclearization and regional predominance—are contradictory. Adding that China’s seeks an outcome that serves its interests, Yang appears to make cooperation with denuclearization conditional on China achieving the goal of reduced US regional predominance and to express doubt that a deadlock can be avoided, while adding a warning that a US-North Korean agreement could be at the expense of China. The main theme, however, is that a large gap separates Trump and Kim, and it is not Kim but Trump who is the key to finding common ground. One can assume that as Xi and Kim kept meeting in the spring, concern about a deal behind China’s back diminished as the gap only seemed wider.

While some observers had grown more optimistic by China’s intensified criticism of Kim and willingness to impose stricter sanctions, Chinese sources had kept the emphasis on US policies as the most critical factor in the nuclear crisis. Yang stresses US disregard for stopping military exercises and other conciliatory steps in 2017 and warns that Washington is against a multi-stage approach with deals along the way, assuming that past relaxation of sanctions has only encouraged Pyongyang to keeps its nuclear weapons. A crossroads will arrive where choosing denuclearization will require not only abandoning THAAD, accepting the fact that the security guarantees sought by Pyongyang include a reduction of the US troop presence, and acknowledging that the forces posted against North Korea also are arrayed against China and Russia, including missile defenses. At stake is not only the state of US forces, but the nature of US-ROK relations. The article leaves little doubt that they must be transformed for the North to agree to denuclearize. Indeed, the concept of denuclearization is posed as just some distant outcome that follows the strategic realignment implicitly favored by China. It is not a primary goal, but instead a means to the long-cherished objective China has pursued. It would follow that the intensification of the nuclear threat against the United States has been much in China’s interest, making a US retreat from Northeast Asia more likely. The article argues that China can do things to facilitate denuclearization: oppose Pyongyang violating the existing anti-nuclear agreements, support IAEA inspectors, not allow the sanction system to be weakened, and make common cause with Pyongyang on the US strategic presence on the peninsula. The peninsula should be neutral with political autonomy, and China should press for that.

Japan-India Relations

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 5, Wang Jingchao reviewed Japan-India maritime security cooperation and its limiting factors. Wang argues that Japan is responding to changes in the traditional regional security framework, while both take China as their putative enemy and view ties as avoiding China posing a threat. The two are described as regional great powers, which at the end of the 1990s started cooperating on piracy, in 2008 signed a strategic agreement, and from 2014 with Modi in office have intensified their strategic ties. Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy and India’s “look East” strategy have already become interlocked. The article predicts further strengthening as part of a triangle with the United States and of an expanded containment maritime circle against China, while the two capitalize on their substantial complementarity in military assets. Yet, their potential for economic cooperation is limited; bilateral trade fell in 2016, and it is less than 5 percent of Sino-Japanese trade, while Sino-Indian trade is 5.7 times as much. Abe has boosted ODA and state projects, but they do not raise the level much. India rose in 2016 to 5th in GDP ahead of Great Britain, but the rich-poor gap is huge and other problems interfere. India seeks to use Japan’s capital, technology, and expertise to overcome its problems and realize its great power dream; however, there are many uncertainties in its model of economic cooperation with Japan, and security cooperation cannot be long sustained. Arms exports from Japan will be limited, as export plans have already failed. Long-relying on Russian maritime exports, India is bound to be cautious about switching. Moreover, India is autonomous and not inclined to an alliance. It vaguely responds to Abe’s value appeals. Meanwhile, China and India’s shared interests are growing, even to the degree that India might draw closer to China, not Japan. While Indo-Japanese maritime security cooperation is steadily increasing with Japan seeking more and the United States strongly encouraging it, India remains cautious, partly from concern for China’s response. Abe is seeking the Quad as an alliance to contain China, eager to challenge Japan’s postwar peace system as part of a great power dream including “moving west” through an “Indo-Pacific” strategy, but he needs India’s cooperation as it “acts east.” For a time, ties will grow stronger, but limiting factors mean that there is no way to forge long-term, stable security alliance relations. The article omits any impact of Chinese behavior as if it will be of no consequence; after all, China’s ongoing behavior is never a response to any actions it is taking but a consequence of such driving forces as a “great power dream.”