Country Report: China (December 2014)

The prevailing Chinese narrative is zero-sum, blaming Japan unsparingly and the United States, if in a less vitriolic manner, for regional fragmentation when a path to integration is within reach. Not only is there no hint of any mistakes made by China at any time since the 1949 revolution, there is no indication that compromise is part of resolving problems. The voices of the small group of academic experts known for interpreting Chinese foreign policy at international conferences are rarely heard and, when heard, not directed at contradicting the mainstream narrative. In this respect, little has changed in the overall picture presented in Chinese sources since 2009. Yet, differences of opinion can be discerned on South Korea and India, seen by some as swing states still not locked into a hardening bipolar environment, and on defiant North Korea. Such divisions do not indicate that the zero-sum framework is losing hold—it also prevails in covering these cases—, but they do suggest that how to apply the framework is subject to debate in today’s circumstances, especially due to uncertainty over Xi Jinping’s sporadic pursuit of engagement with Barack Obama.

Li Kaisheng in the September issue of Taipingyang xuebao bemoaned the fact that Northeast Asia is one of the most backward regions in cooperation as a result of fragmentation in interests and traditional culture, historical memory, and ideology. Even economic institutionalization was slowed when plans for a China-Japan-South Korea FTA were overtaken by the US push for a divisive TPP. The remnants of the Korean War are blamed rather than the failure to join against North Korea from 2009. The onus is placed on Japan for territorial and history disputes that fragment the region rather than on China, Russia, or North Korea for their approaches toward cooperation. Li argues that on the North Korean nuclear issue, a big gap is between China and North Korea on one side and the United States, Japan, and South Korea on the other. Dismissing five-country cooperation against North Korean nuclear weapons and Sino-ROK cooperation on history as temporary, unable to overcome the conflicting relations responsible for regional fragmentation, Li defines the basic problem in zero-sum terms that cannot be altered by these steps. He sees North Korea as a factor in blocking regional integration because it contributes to alliances that enable the United State to apply strategic pressure and use Japan and South Korea to contain China. For Li, the fault is not North Korea’s, but the way others are using it.

Northeast Asia is now only a geographical concept, not a political, economic, and cultural one, Li regrets. The US-ROK alliance makes it very difficult for the close economic interdependence of China and South Korea to lead to commensurate political and security ties. Li points the finger at the United States, Japan, and South Korea, not North Korea, Russia, and, of course, China for interfering with the natural course of regional integration. China’s security posture, values, and attitudes toward its neighbors are only perceived as positive for integration. Obama’s “rebalance” is conveniently interpreted as alliance-building for the purpose of containing China, as if he has not made a strong effort to increase engagement with China and agree on common interests and has no legitimate concern about North Korean actions.

The key issue supposedly is the legacy of WWII, not the rise of China. Thus, Abe’s historical revisionism plays nicely into Li’s effort to shift the focus from sources of instability in security in recent years. Li further explains TPP as a US effort to grab the regional lead before China may be allowed to join. With regard to culture, the US and also Russian traditions are seen as alien to shared regional culture, which is at last recognized by some in South Korea as a force, leading it to rely on China over the long-term instead of the United States. As to historical memory, respect for China’s culture buttressed the tribute system centered on it before nationalism interfered as well as did fear of reviving a system that could lead to unequal relations. Finally, discussing ideology, Li puts China and North Korea together as socialist (despite sharp differences), Japan and South Korea as states under the sway of Cold War ideas about the Western democratic model, and Russia as in between. Deepening alliances and Obama’s rebalance are increasing fragmentation, excluding China. Li calls for an inclusive approach, but the thrust of his remarks is how to lessen the US presence in order to forge regionalism with it on the margins. Leaving vague the central role of China, Li posits integration of the region as a common interest and one that would prove beneficial in what is vaguely depicted as global competition.

A Huanqiu shibao article on November 27 explained that, despite the “abandon North Korea theory” (qichaolun) in Chinese public opinion and even its endorsement by some Chinese strategic thinkers, sharp differences of opinion exist. Those who advocate abandonment have two reasons, which the article is quick to dismiss: 1) the first reason is that traditional geopolitical thinking no longer applies, but, the fact that the United States thinks this way with Japan and South Korea and is strengthening alliances with them contradicts this view; and 2) the second reason is that there are many contradictions between China and North Korea, and the North often does not listen to China and has become a burden; but, this is a superficial reason since allies have different interests and the contradictions with North Korea are far less serious than those with Japan or earlier with the Soviet Union. After all, the article asserts, North Korea has a socialist political system. The North Korean question is a relic of the Cold War, as is the US-ROK alliance. Until this legacy is fundamentally changed, China and North Korea have the same basic geopolitical interests. Abandoning North Korea could lead to one of three results. It could be tossed into the arms of a third country. It could collapse under political, economic, and military pressure. Or it could be isolated without assistance, possibly causing a conflagration on the peninsula. All of these results would not be in China’s interest, even to the point of again opening the door to maritime states (now the United States rather than Japan) gaining control over the peninsula, while allowing the United States to achieve the strategic victory it failed to win in the Korean War. This article is steeped in the view that the Cold War is still under way in East Asia, and China must proceed in accord with its zero-sum logic. North Korea is perceived as on China’s side or, at least, hostile to the other side, making it a valuable asset.

In Dangdai Hanguo No. 2, Tan Hongmei blamed alliances for the continuing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In the past, Tan sees the US-Japan-ROK alliances as containing North Korea along with China and the Soviet Union, but with the growing strength of the Soviet Union and the US retreat from Vietnam, the US and Japanese shifts toward China opened the door for South Korea to relax its anti-communist outlook and consider improving ties to North Korea. The thrust of the article is that the Cold War was driven by anti-communism, which was only hesitantly reduced in conditions of weakness. In contrast, North Korea was driven to reduce the interference of international powers in the unification of the peninsula. Polarization was still the dominant mode due to the US-Soviet confrontation, while the United States did not end its antagonist view of North Korea. In these circumstances, China could not change its posture on the peninsula. No attention is given here to North Korea as anything but a besieged socialist country helplessly caught in great power tensions.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War did not end in Northeast Asia due to the absence of unification on the Korean Peninsula and China, conflicts which were ideologically blocked from being resolved, readers are told. Under the impact of US-Japan and US-ROK alliances, Cold War thinking persisted, causing the peninsular issue to be unsettled. Having lost “northern triangular” protection, but faced with pressure from the “southern alliance triangle,” North Korea had no choice but to turn to nuclear weapons for its protection. China could not abandon North Korea, so it kept striving to change the US approach. Meanwhile, opposed to unification, the United States kept interfering to halt South Korean moves leading in that direction. When South Korea dared to introduce the Sunshine Policy, this was seen as against US interests. Finally, after 9/11, the US attitude hardened, provoking the second nuclear crisis. Roh Moo-hyun was more defiant of the United States and had some effect in softening the US approach, but could not prevail. Lee Myung-bak just sided with the United States, setting back the efforts of those in the region who would challenge US leadership and its strategy. Tan finds that Park Geun-hye is strengthening the US alliance, as Japan’s alliance role is growing. Accordingly, using the Cheonan incident as a pretext, Obama intensified the strategy of affirming the US role and reinforcing the alliance with South Korea. US opposition to North Korea endures, US refusal to resume the Six-Party Talks is blocking progress, and the US continues to defy China’s calls for restraint, as in military exercises. Tan makes clear that this is the main problem to be addressed not only for solving the North Korean issue but conflict with China. It is the barrier to resolving the problem with North Korea, whose behavior is in no way faulted in the article.

In an October 24 interview with Nanfang zhoumo, Yan Xuetong argued that Sino-ROK relations are ready to draw much closer. So far, China has been slow to forge relations of strategic military cooperation with its neighbors. If it achieves this breakthrough with South Korea, it can neutralize one of the US alliances. This would tighten cooperation against Japan’s historical denial, contain Japan, and block its attempts to take the path of militarism, while also serving to steer North Korea. In July, Yan raised the idea of an alliance with South Korea and stirred considerable attention. He elaborates on it in this piece, finding a parallel to the Cold War—again the world is heading toward polarization, leaving states with three choices. Pakistan after 9/11 chose to join the United States, while being close to China. South Korea could do the same, electing equidistance. India, Yan suggests, is now doing that with Japan and China. Yan proposes a ten-year transition, in which political ties advance through frequent summits, shared positions on international issues, and a common attitude toward Japan. South Korea would stop helping the United States and be better off in facing North Korea. While Yan is convinced that the United States would resist this, he argues that some people in the South Korean government are amenable to it. Yet, he ignores that such South Koreans seek not to accommodate bipolarity, but to forge a bridge for increased regional cooperation.

Yang Lei in the September Taipingyang xuebao analyzes the Sino-Russian-Japanese triangle, looking specifically at each of the dyads. The focus is on Japan’s pursuit of Russia, due to domestic economic needs and a desire to balance China, but Yang sees Russia’s interest as limited. Given Japan’s close alliance with the United States and the strengthening ties between China and Russia, little is expected from the pursuit of Russia in Japan. Polarization, not multilateralism, is where the region is heading.
Yang explains that China and Russia are victors in World War II, which defend the status quo, as opposed to defeated Japan, which denies its history of invasions and seeks to overturn the current order, beginning with territorial disputes with China and Russia. Depicting Japan as a tiny island state with an inflated crisis mentality and a persistent compulsion to enter the continent, he sees a continuous historical mission. Although its expansionist dream was extinguished, it harbors the desire to destroy the postwar international order. That is why it keeps disputing over history and territory with neighboring states. The article asserts that Putin is willing to transfer two islands, but Japan refuses. Looking back from the point of view of strategic triangular theory, Yang argues that Sino-Japanese relations were strong until Japan was alarmed by China’s growing power. According to the theory, there should be an impact on Japan-Russia relations and on Sino-Russian relations. This is seen in Japan’s pursuit of Russia since Noda began seeking energy supplies after the Fukushima disaster and was responding to Japan’s worsening relations with China and South Korea. Meeting with Putin at the Vladivostok APEC summit, Noda made clear Japan’s interest in using capital and technology to reach a deal on the territorial dispute. While Russia could not compromise on territory, it was keen on closer economic ties. Talks intensified that fall and again after Abe took office.

Describing Sino-Russian relations, Yang mentions calls for an alliance, but says that they are still not accepted by the two sides. At this stage, China welcomes a more active role for Russia in the Asia-Pacific region in helping China. They have common interests in Northeast Asia, against Japan’s historical challenge, even if Russia seeks to draw on Japan’s economy and encourages competition among China, Japan, and South Korea to develop the Russian Far East and Siberia. Yang argues that Russia’s self-interest in this regard does not suffice to influence the overall course of Sino-Russian relations. Yet, he focuses on triangular logic, in which Japan seeks to balance China and to split the Sino-Russian dyad, as Russia is more contradictory in light of some politicians and academics seeking more room to maneuver, even to the point of neutrality on military and political matters, while securing China as a market. Yang notes these concerns, but concludes that on key issues Russia and China agree. Critically, after Russia had wavered in 2012-2014 on the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute, once Japan had applied sanctions in 2014, Russia agreed to military exercises in the East China Sea, which indicated its support for China’s view. While Russia continues to seek balance in securing economic gains with both states, this is temporary, adds Yang, emphasizing the bipolarity of the US-Japan alliance as the main threat to Russia and fundamental reality of the region. The contradictions between Japan and China and Japan and Russia will prevail. Japan serves in place of the United States in containing China and extending the West’s interests at the expense of East Asia’s own interests. Even if Russia were to give Japan the islands it seeks, Japan’s ambitions would not be satisfied, Yang insists, making the case widely found in Chinese sources that Japan is still driven by expansionist, militarist aims.

In the August issue of Xiandai guoji guanxi, Zhu Haiyan focused on the shift to an alliance between Japan and Australia. For Japan, this alliance is an important link in breaking out of the post Cold War order as well as in deepening the containment of China. For Australia, it reinforces the US “rebalancing to Asia,” while also positively responding to Abe’s initiative. Although relations will keep drawing closer, they are limited by the state of Sino-US relations as well as by the Chinese and US impact. In 2007 when Abe was in office, the alliance process began and, in an exchange of visits in April and July 2014, it accelerated with emphasis on values and strategic interests, giving a prominent place to military cooperation. The article points to agreements on containing China in the East and South China seas. In boosting these ties, Japan will reduce its one-sided dependence on the United States, while gaining support for its shift to collective self-defense. It serves Abe’s goal also of bypassing South Korea.

In 2006-2007, readers are informed, Abe proposed a four-country league of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. At that time, India and Australia were hesitant, but he is renewing this pursuit, intensifying the effort to surround China with links to maritime democracies. In turn, Australia finds Japan useful in establishing itself as a middle power of the Indo-Pacific region, while sustaining US global leadership and intensifying its effort to “enter Asia.” Japan-Australian alliance ties are strongly backed by the US push for trilateralism. Zhu foresees limits on the relationship due to different views of China, with Japan leading the “containment of China” school and Australia in the middle school welcoming its peaceful rise and benefiting from its prosperity, i.e., Japan’s zero-sum reasoning is fanning the “China threat” theory, while Australian public opinion looks upon China in a much friendlier manner. Since Japan seeks to change the postwar order, Australia is likely to follow the US lead in keeping some distance from Japan, even as it hesitates also due to uncertainty about the US commitment to rebalancing and the ups and downs of Sino-US relations. With improved Sino-US ties, centering on global issues, Australia need not feel obliged to side firmly with the United States and Japan’s concerns will be heightened as ties with Australia are limited. This is the strategy for China that Zhu seems to endorse.

In the September Guoji luntan, India’s policy toward China is examined closely by Wu Lin. He sees its thinking regarding China as a latent strategic opponent changing in the context of the “look East policy.” The main focus is on how to seize opportunities over the next 10-15 years to develop the country’s economy. Becoming increasingly dependent on the outside world with more diverse national interests, India cannot avoid becoming involved while also seeking to use strengthened national power to forge a more just global system. In this context, it seeks to position itself in the Sino-US competition independently, while controlling China’s influence and maritime “expansion” by making use of US, Japanese, and Vietnamese strategic cooperation. Particular notice is given to India’s military ties with Japan, possibly opening all its ports to Japanese ships. Ties to Vietnam in the South China Sea will add an uncertain element to China’s geostrategic environment. With Modi’s election and the Obama rebalance of 2014, there are new elements in India’s approach to China combining challenges and opportunities. To respond, China should work to reduce mutual criticisms and advance strategic trust, while being wary of India’s strategic cooperation with the United States and Japan and “look East policy.” Mostly, the article calls for strengthening bilateral ties and cooperation or regional and global issues, indicating that more outreach is likely to alleviate causes of concern.