Country Report: China (December 2018)

In late 2018, Chinese experts assessed China’s relations with India and India’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean under the Modi administration. They examined the revival of the quadrilateral security dialogue between the United States, South Korea, India, and Japan, evaluated the impact of South Korean citizens’ views toward the United States and China on South Korea’s relations with these two countries, and analyzed the recent improvement in relations between China and Japan.

China–Indian Relations

In Nanya Yanjiu, No. 3, 2018, Hu Juan draws on an explicitly realist framework to argue that India is engaging in soft balancing against China, which India perceives as its largest threat. In Hu’s view, India prefers soft balancing, which refers to the use of non-military measures such as economic and diplomatic tools to counter a potential adversary, because it allows them to avoid directly provoking China. Hu argues that India sees China as its biggest threat because the two rising states have fundamental differences regarding a host of issues, including territorial claims, relations with Pakistan, the status of Tibet, and maritime interests in the Indian and Pacific oceans. At the most basic level, India does not feel safe, and regards China as both a current and future threat. The power gap between China and India further aggravates India’s concerns: India worries that China’s rise will unbalance power in Asia, and might even lead to a bipolar Chinese–US regional order, rather than the multipolar arrangement India prefers.

Hu sees soft balancing as a strategy that is consistent with India’s historically pragmatic approach to foreign policy. As the importance of economic factors in international affairs increased following the Cold War and India’s status in the international system declined, India forged strategic partnerships with other countries to counter China’s influence. Nevertheless, Hu asserts, India has been cautious, and has tiptoed around issues that it knows to be sensitive to China. Furthermore, Hu contends that soft balancing is a strategy that makes the most of India’s global environment. As a democracy, India is well regarded by the democracies of the West, many of which are also nervous about the implications of China’s rise and are happy to join with India in response.

Drawing on a typology first proposed by the Indian analyst C. Raja Mohan, Hu maintains that India’s soft balancing strategy is apparent at three levels of analysis: along India’s periphery, within the region, and on the global stage. As the only large state in South Asia, India is a hegemon in its immediate neighborhood. It pressures smaller states, such as Nepal and Bhutan, to manage their relations with China in ways that are advantageous to Indian interests.

At the regional level, India hedges. In the early years of the twenty-first century, India enmeshed itself in the Asia-Pacific by strengthening multilateral mechanisms and economic cooperation. As India’s relations with the United States improved and its “Look East” policy emerged, India began to combine economic measures with political ones. Most recently, India has begun to incorporate security measures, involving their military, and maritime cooperation. For example, 
India’s increased security cooperation with Vietnam, has, much to China’s dismay, brought India into the South China Sea affair. Similarly, Hu sees India’s Project Mausam, announced in 2014 as a program of its Ministry of Culture, as a direct response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India’s objective is to prevent the emergence of a China-centered regional order.

At the global level, India acts as a “swing state,” which aligns itself with other powerful actors to protect its national interests against the perceived threat posed by China. To this end, India has strengthened relations with the United States, Japan, Australia, and ASEAN, all of which share concerns about China’s rise. India has also taken steps to increase its strength in the Indian Ocean, which it sees as its natural “backyard,” particularly as China’s BRI has brought it into the region.

Hu argues that although soft balancing is an effective, low-cost strategy, it has inevitable limitations. First, Hu points out that India pursues soft balancing because it lacks the internal capabilities to balance China on its own. Therefore, soft balancing is inherently a strategy pursued out of weakness. Furthermore, a soft balancing strategy accepts the existing distribution of power, rather than attempting to fundamentally reshape it. Finally, the success of soft balancing depends on the willingness of other states to align with India, which in turn depends on their perception of China as a potential threat. If other states become less concerned about China’s rise, they will be less likely to partner with India. This observation points to a potential Chinese strategy: by sharing the gains from development and providing public goods, Hu asserts, China can lessen anxiety about its rise and reduce the motivation for soft balancing behavior. Hu concludes on an optimistic note by recognizing the potential areas for Chinese–Indian cooperation and cautioning China not to overreact to India’s behavior.

India’s Security Strategy in the Indian Ocean

In Guoji Anquan Yanjiu, No. 5, 2018, Liu Lei assesses the evolution of India’s Indian Ocean strategy under the Modi administration. In Liu’s view, India’s traditional focus on continental Asia started to shift in the 1980s. In the twenty-first century, as India seeks to become a regional leader and a great power, control of the Indian Ocean has become an increasingly important strategic objective. Liu places a lot of weight on the linguistic shift from a 2007 Singh administration report that addressed the need for the “free use of the sea” to a 2015 report produced by the Modi administration, which prioritizes “ensuring a safe ocean,” arguing that the change in language reflects both India’s perception of greater security threats and the heightened strategic significance of the Indian Ocean.

India’s geography makes it well situated to take advantage of the Indian Ocean, but also vulnerable to security threats. India’s rapid economic development, which has been driven largely by the overseas trade in goods, has increased its dependence on the ocean, across which these goods must travel. India is also dependent on the ocean for energy transport and to maintain its status as the world’s second largest fish-producing country. Consequently, the Indian government now sees the Indian Ocean as critical to ensuring India’s continued economic development. These changes have occurred against the backdrop of broader global changes, which include a shift in the world’s geostrategic focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the emergence of non-traditional security threats. Consequently, India’s understanding of its security interests in the Indian Ocean has expanded significantly since the beginning of the twenty-first century.

To this end, the 2015 report defines India’s maritime interests as having four key components: protection of India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and its ability to respond to maritime threats; protection of India’s maritime activities, including fishing and the transport of energy, resources, and goods; ensuring peace and stability in India and its neighborhood; and protecting other national interests related to the oceans. Although the Indian Ocean creates many opportunities for India’s development, its government also recognizes the security threats the ocean poses. These include terrorist threats, the vulnerability of key ocean passages, and illegal maritime activities, particularly smuggling.

The Indian government’s maritime strategy defines the scope of its activities by dividing “areas of maritime interests” into “primary areas” and “secondary areas.” Importantly for China, the Indian government classifies the South China Sea and the East China Sea as “secondary areas.” Within the areas of concern, the 2015 strategy lays out five explicit objectives: to deter conflict; to obtain the military capabilities to end a conflict promptly; to create a secure maritime environment that ensures India’s maritime interests; to protect people and property in coastal areas from attacks and threats; and to develop the necessary naval capabilities to meet these demands. Of particular note to Liu is the Modi administration’s emphasis on strengthening the navy, in conjunction with the coast guard, through a number of programs to improve its equipment and its operations capabilities. Liu also highlights India’s efforts to build regional security frameworks, including its promotion of the “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR) concept in 2015 and its renewed focus on the Indian Ocean Rim Association. In addition, India has pursued stronger relations with its neighbors, as well as with ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Underlying Liu’s analysis is the understanding that India’s focus on enhanced naval capabilities and strengthened ties with other concerned states is likely to conflict with China’s increasingly expansive naval objectives.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 5, 2018, Zhang Jie assesses the implications for China of the 2017 revival of the quadrilateral security dialogue between the United States, Australia, Japan, and India. Zhang contends that the Trump administration’s decision to abandon Obama’s “Asia-Pacific rebalance,” combined with China’s recent success in implementing the BRI and creating the AIIB, has raised concerns in Japan and Australia that there will be no choice but to accept a new Chinese-created regional order. Consequently, Japan and Australia have pushed for the revival of the quadrilateral security dialogue as a way to keep the United States involved in the Indo-Pacific. India has been happy to cooperate because the quadrilateral dialogue aligns with its interests vis-à-vis China and supports India’s pursuit of a bigger regional and international role.

Although the quadrilateral security dialogue first emerged in 2004 as a response to the catastrophic tsunami, China’s rise has become an increasingly important driver for cooperation. Abe’s initial efforts to revive the dialogue in 2012 were unsuccessful, as US attention was then focused on the “rebalance.” It was only in 2017, when Trump abandoned Obama’s strategy and the growth in Chinese regional influence relative to that of the United States became apparent (in Zhang’s view), that the four countries turned back to the quadrilateral dialogue. Two important meetings followed. At the first, in November 2017, the parties promoted the importance of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Later, in June 2018, the four parties recognized the central role of ASEAN in maintaining regional economic cooperation.

Zhang argues that the dialogue has three key objectives. First, by bringing in India, it shifts the area for cooperation from the Asia-Pacific to the broader Indo-Pacific. Significantly, the area of focus overlaps with areas China has identified as part of its BRI, increasing the likelihood of competition. Second, the dialogue is rooted in a shared emphasis on security in order to preserve a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” region.  Finally, the four parties hope to increase economic cooperation, especially as it pertains to regional infrastructure, by providing capital and technical support. The four countries portray this as an “alternative” to BRI, rather than as a “rival,” but Zhang is suspicious of their intentions. She argues that the economic cooperation aspects of the quadrilateral dialogue are aimed both at connecting with China and containing it (the security aspects, on the other hand, are clearly targeted against China, in her view).

Although there is significant disagreement about whether to categorize the quadrilateral dialogue as an alliance or a strategic partnership, Zhang argues that it is currently best understood as a mechanism to coordinate policy. Whether the mechanism becomes more formalized in the future will depend on the preferences of each party, particularly those of India, and on how the countries perceive regional developments related to China. Zhang also takes care to distinguish the quadrilateral dialogue from the US “Indo-Pacific strategy,” emphasizing that Japan and Australia are the key movers behind the quadrilateral dialogue, not the United States.

Zhang contends that the revival of the quadrilateral dialogue resulted from global changes brought about by China’s rise. Given China’s increased strength, she asserts, existing global governance structures are no longer appropriate and the existing global order will fall sooner or later. This is particularly true in the Asia-Pacific, where Chinese and US interests intersect most directly. The quadrilateral dialogue is an attempt to build a new order that recognizes the more diverse and competitive landscape, but that maintains the four parties’ interests as the US weakens. In its commitment to a free, open, rules-based order, the dialogue attempts to extend the deteriorating US-based order to a broader area. Zhang is critical of the four countries’ perception of China as an opponent or an enemy that is seeking to replace the United States and rewrite the rules of the international system, resulting in a “new Cold War” (nevertheless, her contention that the existing global order must inevitably change to reflect China’s stronger position suggests that China does, to some extent, want to remake the global system).

In Zhang’s view, China’s response to the quadrilateral dialogue should be premised on the broader backdrop of US–China relations and a shifting regional order. She takes a generally conciliatory position. First, China should emphasize that it wishes to preserve the regional and international order by avoiding gratuitous challenges to US interests at the global level, and should avoid provoking small and medium-sized countries to attempt to balance China. Second, China should promote cooperation and dialogue among the various regional mechanisms, including the quadrilateral dialogue. On economic matters, there is significant room for cooperation. For example, Zhang argues that the BRI and the quadrilateral dialogue’s infrastructure proposals are mutually compatible. On security matters there is less obvious room for cooperation, but Zhang argues that China should show, through its actions, its commitment to a peaceful rise and to building regional trust, while also advancing its core national interests. Finally, Zhang argues that China should pay attention to the views of other regional actors, particularly ASEAN, which has decided not to pick sides for now. The parties to the quadrilateral dialogue see ASEAN as playing a key role in the construction of a new regional order, which aligns well with ASEAN’s interest in maintaining a central position; China should continue to support ASEAN as well.

South Korean Citizens’ Views of the United States and China

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 10, 2018, Wang Xiaoling evaluates recent survey work on South Korean citizens’ views of the United States and China. She cautions that the tendency of the South Korean public to feel more positively toward the United States than toward China produces a weak foundation for China–South Korean relations at the government level. Based on survey evidence, Wang highlights several key aspects of South Korean views. First, she argues that the South Korean preference for the United States over China has limits. Even though there is more support than opposition for THAAD among South Koreans, THAAD provides only a limited sense of security. Furthermore, South Koreans have not abandoned their tendency to balance between China and the United States. In Wang’s October 2017 survey, a majority of respondents said that they would abandon the US–South Korea alliance if the cost of the alliance was becoming enemies with China. If China and the United States were to go to war, the majority would prefer neutrality to siding with the United States. Second, South Koreans tend to have confidence in the United States over China, although their confidence in both is limited. According to Wang’s survey, less than half of respondents are confident the United States will resolve the nuclear crisis or support unification, but a far smaller number are confident in China on these two issues; other research suggests that South Koreans are vague on whether to consider China to be a friend or an enemy. Third, with regard to economic relations, respondents to Wang’s survey ranked the importance of economic relations with the United States higher than economic relations with China. Finally, even though South Korea and China share similar cultural traditions, South Koreans prefer the United States to China. According to Wang’s study, this rests in part on a perception that the United States is more “free and open” and more “fair.”

Wang contends that while Chinese opposition to the deployment of THAAD has had a sharply negative effect on South Korean views of China, its preference for the United States rests in large part on long-term factors. These preferences are evident in surveys conducted as far back as 2004, and reflect, in part, the enduring influence of conservatives who seek to expand the US–South Korean alliance in order to improve South Korea’s global position. According to Wang’s survey, feelings of amity toward the United States are highest among the young (in their 20s) and the elderly, and the young also report the least amity toward China. She also identifies a number of secondary factors, including the continued influence of Cold War thinking on a divided peninsula, the role of nationalism, and the prevalence of “China threat theory.”

Wang concludes by assessing the implications for Chinese policy. Importantly, weaknesses in China–South Korean relations are not limited to military issues, but rather are grounded in a fundamental lack of mutual trust between their populations. Although there is the potential for China–South Korean relations to improve in the near term, she cautions against blind optimism and warns that US–South Korean relations are likely to strengthen further. In her view, it is vitally important to build stronger support for China within the South Korean population in order to improve the two countries’ relations at the government level. She suggests this might be achieved by improving the quality of civil exchanges between China and South Korea, with a focus on the young, and by promoting cooperation between the two countries’ cultural industries to increase the appeal of Chinese culture relative to that of the United States.

Japan–China Relations

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 10, 2018, Fan Xiaoju evaluates the recent improvement in Japan–China relations and identifies the prospects for full normalization of their bilateral relations. According to Fan, recent Japanese elections reflect the political and social situation in Japan. The LDP’s continued dominance in the Diet after the October 2017 elections suggests that, despite recent changes among many of the other domestic political parties, Japanese voters continue to trust the experience of the LDP. In the near term, Fan anticipates that the LDP will maintain power and the influence of liberal parties in Japan will remain limited. Abe’s reelection to a third term as LDP president in September 2018 reflects his ability to harness Japanese-style populism. To maintain his position as prime minister, Abe’s best strategy is to avoid thorny problems with China and focus on easier issues. Japan’s revisionists remain firmly in control and have taken significant steps toward throwing off the limitations of the postwar system.

Although domestic politics have been a major driver of Japan’s policy toward China, the United States is a significant external factor. Japanese conservatives seek to balance Japanese autonomy with strong alliance relations with the United States. Under Obama, they tried to use the US “return to Asia” to advance Japanese objectives. Trump’s rejection of Obama’s strategy, and his preference for bilateral relations over multilateral ones, has disrupted Japanese policy. Fan argues that the Obama administration’s emphasis on multilateral relations allowed Japan and the United States to paper over their differences. Now that the United States is emphasizing bilateral relations, it sees Japan as less strategically useful.

These shifts in US foreign policy have produced two major changes in Japanese policy. First, it has emphasized an Indo-Pacific strategy in an attempt to keep the United States involved in regional affairs. Second, Japan has become more receptive to the BRI and to economic relations with China, now that it is no longer focused on the Obama-era Asia-Pacific “rebalance.” At a broader level, Trump’s “America First” policy has shaken Japanese confidence that the United States will be a dependable partner in the future. Nevertheless, Japan remains concerned about China and continues to follow the United States’ lead on a range of issues and in its relations with third parties.

Fan concludes by assessing the prospects for complete normalization of Chinese–Japanese relations. In her view, Japan has always been to blame for the periodic deteriorations in bilateral relations. To achieve a healthier, more stable relationship, Fan argues that the countries should focus on increasing the predictability of their actions. Greater mutual trust and more robust communication mechanisms will allow them to better weather political problems when they arise, without riling up public sentiment. At the diplomatic level, Fan asserts, China has consistently maintained principled positions, while Japan’s approach changes depending on the needs of its domestic and foreign policies. Therefore, while Japan drives deteriorations in bilateral relations, it also drives periodic improvements. By contrast, Fan portrays China as taking a more reactive position. Fan believes that it is important to break this cycle by shifting from the more passive position of “hoping Japan will not stir up trouble” to a more active position of “preventing Japan from stirring up trouble.” Finally, recognizing that the shadow of history causes Chinese citizens to respond differently to Japanese actions than they do to actions by other countries, Fan contends that academics and the media play an important role in providing Chinese citizens with objective information.

In the same issue, Lü Yaodong asserts that the Abe administration’s formerly hardline policy toward China has softened substantially because of a number of different developments. The revival of the Japan–China Ruling Party Exchange Mechanism in 2015 has increased opportunities for cooperation and communication, and provides a venue for the pro-Chinese faction within the ruling coalition in Japan to push for improved relations. Business interests in Japan have supported greater cooperation with China under the BRI framework. The two countries’ leaders have also sought opportunities for bilateral exchange in multilateral settings, such as APEC. Furthermore, in 2017–2018, the two countries restarted high-level dialogue mechanisms, such as those on maritime affairs and economics.

Lü argues that domestic factors play an important role in the softening of the Abe administration’s position. Abe must accommodate the position of politicians within his ruling coalition, who believe that his hardline policies harmed Japanese diplomatic relations in Asia. Likewise, Abe must respond to Japanese business interests, who believe that participation in BRI can help Japan escape from its economic stagnation and who demand a government policy that does not interfere with their economic projects abroad. While the importance of domestic factors predominates, in Lü’s view, the Trump administration’s turn toward protectionism has also brought China and Japan together in a shared commitment to global free trade.

Despite these encouraging trends, Lü argues that there are significant constraints on the potential for improved relations. In particular, it is unclear whether Japan will implement the four political documents and the four-point consensus, which China stipulates as the basis for bilateral relations. Furthermore, the two countries still have significant conflicts with regard to security, politics, and values that limit the prospects for warmer relations. There is limited scope for cooperation among the politicians who participate in the Japan–China Ruling Party Exchange Mechanism. The priorities of business interests are limited to their ability to profit from participation in BRI. Though US protectionism under Trump has drawn Japan and China together, Japan is still a formal ally of the United States, and this alliance has expanded beyond security relations to encompass economic ties as well. Abe has attempted to separate out economic issues from political ones in order to improve bilateral relations, but the old problems persist. Lü contends that Abe’s efforts to coordinate Japanese policy with that of China remain limited and strategic.