Country Report: China (December 2017)

In late 2017, Chinese analysts explored Japan’s response to the North Korean nuclear crisis, its warmer relations with Russia, and conciliatory economic cooperation with the United States. They also analyzed South Korea’s foreign policy strategies, the implications of the Malabar exercises for Chinese interests in the Indo–Pacific, and the prospects for repairing Sino–Indian relations in the aftermath of the summer 2017 crisis in Donglang (Doklam/Zhoglam).

Japan’s Response to the North Korean Nuclear Crisis

In Heping yu Fazhan, No. 5, 2017, Xu Wansheng and Jiang Mingchen evaluate Abe’s policy response to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Like other Japanese leaders, Abe perceives the North Korean nuclear crisis as a threat to the security of both Japan and the entire international community. In response, Abe has sought to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities. He has also pursued greater international cooperation through bilateral and trilateral cooperation with the United States and South Korea and by coordinating with other states. As early as 2006, Abe pushed China to put pressure on North Korea, a position similar to that held by the United States. At the same time, Japan has itself put increasing pressure on North Korea, most notably through its participation in the sanctions regime. Although Abe shares global concerns about the nuclear crisis, Xu and Jiang argue that he has prioritized North Korean kidnappings of Japanese citizens, arguing in 2016 that the abductions issue should take precedence over the nuclear issue because of its threat to Japanese sovereignty and public safety. (Abe continues to face domestic pressure to resolve the abductions issue, but the openness he has expressed to a potential US military response to continued nuclear provocations in 2017 complicates the situation.)

To support these broad policy responses, the Abe administration has undertaken a number of concrete measures. Abe has sought to mobilize various bureaucracies to develop systematic responses to nuclear and missile tests. With regard to missile tests, for example, he has developed a decision-making process that first distinguishes between attacks and tests, and then further distinguishes between test missiles that are likely to hit Japan and those that will not. At the same time, Abe has revised defense guidelines governing domestic decision-making and the US–Japan alliance to eliminate potential hurdles to military action. These include, most notably, the revision of the security laws to include a right to collective self-defense. Abe has also increased military preparedness, with particular attention to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and to stronger missile defense. Furthermore, Abe has pursued stronger alliance relations with the United States by promoting high-level exchanges, adopting US anti-missile technology, and participating in joint military exercises in order to deter North Korean aggression. Likewise, Japan has expanded international cooperation with other states, like South Korea, and, in remarks directed at international organizations like NATO and ASEAN, has portrayed North Korea as a common threat. Abe’s policy response has emphasized pressure and harsh sanctions over dialogue. Japan took a leading role in drafting several UN security resolutions and has taken a leading role in creating unilateral sanctions. Finally, Xu and Jiang fault Abe for using provocative language, including his April 2017 assertion (not yet proven) that North Korea has the capability to launch sarin-tipped missiles.

Xu and Jiang contend that Abe’s response is driven less by immediate concerns about North Korea than by a desire to advance Japan’s more deep-seated strategic motivations. In their view, Abe is using the North Korean nuclear crisis as an opportunity to push for military normalization. They argue that Abe sees an opening to persuade the domestic public to revise the constitution and allow the SDF to strengthen its capabilities, and contend that Japan’s externally-oriented, aggressive military capabilities extend beyond what is reasonably necessary to defend against North Korean threats. At the same time, they argue that Abe is using the crisis as an opportunity to shore up the US–Japan alliance, which Trump publicly criticized during the presidential transition, and to move beyond the comfort women issue to seek greater cooperation with South Korea. Xu and Jiang further suggest that Abe’s vocal condemnation of North Korea in international settings increases Japan’s discursive power by allowing it to frame the nuclear issue in a way that strengthens other states’ identification with Japan. By doing so, they argue that Abe gains international trust and creates support for Japan’s quest to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as the disjuncture between its status and its contributions to global security become clearer. Furthermore, by linking the hostage issue with the nuclear crisis, Japan demonstrates its commitment to human rights. Finally, they assert that Abe seeks to strengthen Japan’s position relative to China through enhanced defensive capabilities and a sanctions regime directed against North Korea that has also affected Chinese companies and individuals. Xu and Jiang conclude that these deep-rooted strategic interests complicate the regional situation and make the prospects for Sino–Japanese cooperation on issues like the North Korean crisis extremely challenging.

Japanese–Russian Relations

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 5, 2017, Yan Dexue and Sun Chao assess what they characterize as increasingly close Japanese–Russian relations. Although the two countries continue to dispute the sovereignty of the South Kuril Islands/Northern Territories, Putin and Abe have recently adopted a pragmatic approach. Abe has invested in a personal relationship with Putin because he believes this offers the best chance of a breakthrough on the issue. Although Putin is unwilling to compromise on territorial issues, he does not treat the contested islands as a barrier to improved relations. Consequently, although the two sides have yet to sign a peace treaty or formally resolve the issue, they have found a way to sidestep the issue for now as they discuss joint economic projects in the contested area. Difficulties in reaching agreement on such projects and their legal framework are overlooked in this assessment.

The authors argue that recent years have seen an expansion of Japanese–Russian economic cooperation, downplaying setbacks. What they call Russia’s nearly two decades of economic decline (despite an economic spurt under Putin), they charge, has worsened in the face of Western sanctions in response to the Ukraine crisis. Abe recognizes that economic recovery is important for Russia’s ability to regain its national strength, and that Japanese investment in Russia is valuable to the leadership. Consequently, Abe pursues economic cooperation (in talk of plans more than actual agreements) with Russia to create a basis for resolving the territorial dispute in Japan’s favor. Moreover, as Japan attempts to alleviate the pressure it faces from China’s rise, it has tried to strengthen Japanese–Russian security dialogue mechanisms. The two countries’ first 2+2 meeting between defense and foreign ministers, held in 2013, seemed to mark the beginning of an era of closer cooperation on security affairs, but the framework was paused after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea and did not restart again until March 2017.

Both Abe and Putin believe that closer bilateral relations will advance their respective national interests, argue the authors. In the absence of a regional security architecture and given a rising China, Japanese leaders believe that their national security will depend on their own capabilities and the strength of their alliances. By strengthening economic and political relations with Russia, the Japanese see an opportunity to constrain China. Nevertheless, the Sino–Russian strategic partnership places limits on the potential of this strategy. Meanwhile, Russia faces a difficult domestic and international environment, which has persuaded its leaders to pursue closer ties with Japan. In light of Western sanctions, Russia is diplomatically isolated and in need of friends. Improved relations with Japan offer Russia a chance to diversify its partners in its Far East and to obtain valuable investment and technology, should there be agreement. Aside from these state-level concerns, regional changes in East Asia have also encouraged the two countries to pursue closer relations. Closer Japanese–Russian relations strengthen each side’s position in trilateral relations with the two biggest regional powers, the United States and China.

Despite the recent closeness of Japanese–Russian relations, there are potential roadblocks ahead. Failure to reach a final resolution on the island dispute threatens the two sides’ ambitious development plans. The structure of East Asian regional affairs constrains opportunities for cooperation. The strength and stability of Sino–Russian relations limits Japan’s ability to use its bilateral relationship with Russia to balance China’s rise. Meanwhile, the poor state of Russian–US relations means that Japan must tread carefully in its relations with Russia as its balances its economic interests in possible joint Japanese–Russian oil exploration with its participation in the Western sanctions regime and its commitment to the US–Japan security alliance. Furthermore, Abe and Putin’s enthusiasm for closer ties is not always matched by public support. Recent Japanese polling finds significant doubts about security and progress in the bilateral relationship, despite support for joint Japanese–Russian economic development of the contested area if it comes without harm to Japan’s sovereignty claims. Likewise, the Russian public is skeptical about the domestic benefits of improved Japanese–Russian relations and maintains a strong commitment to Russia’s territorial claims to the islands. Yan and Sun conclude that Japanese–Russian relations offer another source of uncertainty for China that it must keep in mind as it navigates the East Asian strategic environment.

Japanese–US Economic Cooperation

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 9, 2017, Chen Youjun assesses Abe’s willingness to go along with Trump’s “America First” economic policy approach as a calculated decision to prioritize Japan’s political objectives ahead of its economic interests. Chen first identifies several recent trends in Japan’s approach to economic cooperation with the United States. The two countries have strengthened high-level communication on economic matters, including through the introduction of a new vice presidential-level economic dialogue in Tokyo in April 2017. Japan is one of the largest holders of US debt (in October 2016, Japan surpassed China as the largest holder of US debt, but China regained its title in June 2017). The Abe administration has encouraged Japanese companies to invest in the United States, especially in manufacturing and infrastructure. The two countries’ energy cooperation includes Japan’s imports of US shale oil and gas and joint research on the safe use of nuclear power. The two countries have also sought to cooperate in new areas of economic interest, including the Arctic and exploration for new sources of resources like copper and zinc.

Chen argues that Abe’s willingness to make economic compromises with the United States reflects a realist, utilitarian attempt to use economic means to achieve political and security ends. Abe believes that Japan benefits from the continuation of pax Americana, and therefore seeks to support US foreign policy. To this end, Abe supports a stable US–Japan alliance, which he views as best ensuring Japan’s national and regional security. Abe is also willing to give up some economic interests to expand Japan’s political influence, and sees support for the United States as its best opportunity to obtain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and gain stronger influence over global governance. Finally, Abe seeks US support for his attempt to push domestic measures like constitutional revision.

Meanwhile, Abe also seeks to play down trade frictions in order to avoid a revival of historical tensions. This approach partly reflects a pragmatic attempt to focus on big issues while dismissing smaller ones. Abe can harness US pressure to push the domestic economic reforms he desires. Abe is also optimistic about his ability to expand Japanese exports to the United States; his optimism is reinforced by talk of Japan’s participation in major high-speed rail projects in California, Texas, and between Washington, DC and New York. At the same time, Abe is conscious of the complicated historical legacy of Japan’s investment in the United States and wary of provoking renewed alarm among the US public.

A third set of strategic considerations revolves around Abe’s efforts to use closer economic ties with the United States to check China’s rise. In Abe’s view, US–Japanese economic cooperation draws support from three main sources: the two countries’ shared democratic values, the bilateral security alliance, and a shared capitalist economic approach. In all three aspects, similarities between the United States and Japan stand in contrast to their respective differences with China. Abe believes that stronger economic cooperation with the United States will protect Japan from being marginalized as China’s power continues to grow.

Despite Abe’s willingness to concede to US demands, Chen still perceives some limitations to US–Japanese economic cooperation. First and foremost are Japanese doubts about Trump’s leadership. Japanese leaders worry that Trump’s pursuit of economic unilateralism will result in strict trade restrictions against Japan as he attempts to decrease the US trade deficit. Japanese leaders also doubt the feasibility of Trump’s economic policies, especially those related to employment. In addition, Japan stands to lose from the renegotiation of NAFTA, particularly given its large auto-related investments in Mexico. Second, some in Japan are wary of economic cooperation with the United States, especially given Trump’s renunciation of the TPP, which Japan supports. Many in Japan are hesitant to pursue the bilateral FTA the United States is pushing as a consolation prize. Finally, some worry about the long-term implications of greater cooperation for Japanese industries, which lack the productivity to compete with US industries, and therefore have a lot to lose from greater integration.

Chen concludes that Abe’s decision to subordinate Japan’s economic interests to its political and security objectives means that Japan will continue to accept Trump’s unilateral economic policies. However, Japanese doubts will lead to a two-speed approach. While Chen expects breakthroughs in technical issues like energy and agriculture, he anticipates that issues surrounding TPP and the proposed bilateral FTA will take a long time to resolve.

South Korean Foreign Policy

In Heping yu Fazhan, No. 5, 2017, Ge Hanwen and Lin Jiaxuan assess historical changes in South Korea’s approach to foreign policy. Ge and Lin argue that South Korean strategic thought has long been characterized by a tradition of submission, which dates to the founding of the Chosun dynasty in 1392. This strategy reflects the Korean understanding that its power is far weaker than that of its neighbors. In pursuit of this strategy, Korea submits its interests to those of its most powerful neighbor (initially China). By doing so, Korea protects its economic interests by gaining access to trade with the dominant power. Seeking the support of the regional great power also strengthens the Korean regime’s domestic political legitimacy. Most importantly, however, the Korean regime prevents an attack by the dominant power and ensures that the dominant power will protect it against third party threats. Consequently, in exchange for its submission, Korea ensures its autonomy and independent survival. Although a shared ideology, such as China and Korea’s shared Confucian heritage, provides a source of support for Korea’s submissive strategy, it is not an essential factor. Even when Korea has not perceived ideological similarities with the dominant power, it still pragmatically recognizes that a large power gap makes submission the optimal strategy.

A second important Korean strategic tradition is that of balancer. In this approach, Korea tries to manipulate differences among multiple powerful neighbors so that they will balance against each other and ensure Korea’s security. Given Korea’s geopolitical position and its relative weakness, this strategy has been difficult to achieve. Ge and Lin argue that Korea’s attempt to balance in the late 19th century resulted in it becoming an object of contention among the regional powers and its loss of autonomy.

Since World War II, Ge and Lin argue, South Korea has oscillated between these two strategic traditions. During the Cold War, South Korea pursued the submission strategy as it subordinated its interests to those of the United States. South Korea’s submission to the United States extended to its deployment of an expeditionary force to support the US war in Vietnam. By subordinating its interests to those of the United States, South Korea gained military and diplomatic support, which ensured its national security, and obtained access to economic assistance that propelled it into the ranks of the advanced, industrialized countries. A shared ideological commitment to capitalism and to “democracy and freedom” further strengthened this approach.

As the Cold War ended, however, South Korea shifted to a balancing strategy in which it aimed to carve out a position as a “middle” power that could balance among the United States, China, Japan, and Russia. By pursuing this strategy, South Korea hoped to ensure its own autonomy, while also increasing its influence in regional affairs. However, in contrast to many other Chinese observers who stress South Korea’s current position as a “middle” power, Ge and Lin argue that South Korea has started to shift back to the submissive strategy in recent years, particularly since North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. In their view, South Korean leaders realized that their balancing strategy was not working and that their national interests would be better served by strengthening the alliance with the United States (which they equate with a decision to subordinate South Korea’s interests to those of the United States). South Korea’s recent decisions to hold joint military exercises with the United States and, particularly, to deploy THAAD against the wishes of China and Russia, illustrate this transition away from a balancing strategy to a submissive strategy.

From a historical perspective, Ge and Lin argue that despite Korean efforts to maintain autonomy and project regional influence, external powers have always played a decisive role in determining its security. Likewise, the resolution of today’s divided peninsula depends mainly on the actions of more powerful states. As South Korea seeks the best policy to respond to the North Korean threat, Ge and Lin urge it to move past the binary decision between the submissive and the balancing approaches. Instead, they urge South Korea to adopt a more flexible approach that relies on a diverse array of strategic measures and existing international institutional mechanisms.

The Malabar Exercise and Great Power Relations in the Indo–Pacific

In Heping yu Fazhan, No. 5, 2017, Rong Ying analyzes the implications of cooperation between India, Japan, and the United States for China’s strategic objectives in the Indo–Pacific. The United States paused the Malabar naval exercises, which began as small, bilateral exercises between India and the United States in 1992, after India tested its nuclear weapons in 1998, but revived them after the September 11th attacks. The exercises, which have occurred annually since 2002, have increased in scope and become multilateral. Japan first participated in 2007 and became a permanent member in 2015.

According to Rong, the Malabar exercises reflect the competing strategic objectives of the three parties. Rong argues that the Trump administration is continuing Obama’s global strategy, while also trying to use limited US resources more effectively and avoid unconditional security commitments to third parties as the United States declines as the world’s sole superpower. Meanwhile, India seeks to translate its growing economic power into greater influence over the Indian Ocean. To advance its objectives, it has pursued increased maritime cooperation with the small states lining the Indian Ocean and is continuing to develop its Andaman Islands base in the Bay of Bengal. At the same time, Japan under Abe has pursued “Indo–Pacific diplomacy,” which links its interests in the Pacific with its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, and has pursued closer ties with Modi’s India to advance these objectives.

Rong contends that the evolving relative power and strategic interests of India, Japan, and the United States in the Indo–Pacific make regional affairs complex and uncertain. The United States has long provided stability and security to the Indian Ocean, but in light of its declining power, the exhaustion of two wars, and its increased energy independence (which may decrease its dependence on regional SLOCs), Rong questions its long-term ability and willingness to continue to do so. In this context, the broadening regional interests of India and Japan, as well as those of Australia, which participated in the 2007 Malabar exercises, have become increasingly important.

Although the United States continues to have, by far, the world’s largest defense budget, Rong highlights growing budgets and ambitious modernization plans in India, Japan, and Australia. Rong does not explicitly discuss the implications for China, but these increased capabilities and strong coordination among these states clearly portend a strategic threat to China’s regional ambitions.

While the United States, India, Japan, and Australia all have their own strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, these interests are largely compatible. The United States seeks to maintain its hegemony and regional leadership, while developing a partnership with India. India wants to build India-centered multilateral mechanisms that will give it more control over the Indian Ocean and develop its image as a “‘provider’ of regional security.” Japan and Australia both worry about the future security of SLOCs, now protected by the United States, should the United States step aside from its current commitments. Abe is using this as an opportunity to “normalize” Japan, while Australia seeks to increase its strategic autonomy.

Rong concludes that China must carefully follow these developments as its strategic interests expand beyond East Asia to the Indian Ocean and to its new naval base in Djibouti. At the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, Hu Jintao announced China’s intention to become a strong maritime power, but this is still a work in progress, and China must contend with the stronger naval capabilities of regional powers as it attempts to achieve this objective. At the same time, Rong argues that China should pursue regional maritime cooperation that can help it to achieve goals like the success of the Belt and Road Initiative and an easing of sovereignty disputes. As China pursues peaceful development, its ability to develop a strong navy while maintaining regional peace and stability will be crucial to its long-term success.

In Heping yu Fazhan, No. 5, 2017, Ma Jiali largely parrots the official government line in his assessment of the Sino–Indian dispute at Donglang (Doklam/Zhoglam) in the summer of 2017. In June 2017, Indian troops intervened to prevent the Chinese from building a road in Donglang to support their border troops in a region contested by both Bhutan and China. Although India is not a claimant to the disputed territory, it maintains strategic interests in the region and stated that it was acting on behalf of Bhutan.

Ma strongly condemns the Indian intervention as an illegal border-crossing and blames their misperception of China’s strategic intentions and the resulting military escalation for the ensuing crisis. He claims that China notified the Indian government about the road building project in advance and points to China’s small military presence on the border and its commitment to a negotiated solution to the border dispute as signs of its peaceful intentions. Ma recognizes that India fears becoming encircled by China, perceives the Belt and Road Initiative as an excuse for Chinese force projection into South Asia and the Indian Ocean, and feels threatened by the development of the China–Pakistan economic corridor. Nevertheless, he blames the Indian media for stirring up popular anti-China sentiment, which, together with the government’s decision to arm up, turned the “confrontation” into a “crisis.” Ma applauds the Chinese government for its flexible approach, which upheld Chinese territorial integrity while allowing India to save face, and praises the Indian decision to withdraw its troops in late August.

In the aftermath of the crisis, Ma proposes three approaches to improving damaged Sino–Indian relations. First, he argues that the two sides must strengthen their management of border issues, including the borders that China and India directly contest with each other. The two sides need to ensure timely communication through existing mechanisms to prevent conflict from erupting, while also trying, in the long-term, to achieve a final resolution of the disputed borders. Second, China and India should pursue closer economic relations. Ma points to the potential for mutual gains from the export of China’s infrastructure building expertise to India, highlighting cooperation on railroads and industrial parks. He anticipates that greater Chinese investment in India will bring about closer bilateral relations. Finally, Ma emphasizes the importance of more people-to-people exchanges to improve public perceptions and prevent misunderstanding. He worries that the Indian public is too prone to being misled by the media because of their insufficient understanding of Chinese intentions, which leads them to place pressure on their leaders to pursue policies that are not in Chinese interests. Ma concludes that India and China must cooperate to achieve their strategic objectives in the changing international environment.