Country Report: China (February 2014)

In the shadow of the pretense that Sino-US relations were improved by the Xi-Obama summit and are now guided by an understanding to pursue a “new type of great power relations,” Chinese writings convey a darker tone about security in the region. In spite of the overtures in Susan Rice’s Georgetown remarks in November and that were expected from Joe Biden’s visit to Beijing in December, Chinese continue to demonize Japan and express no inclination to find a way forward on trouble spots. The US government posture noticeably hardened with statements by Daniel Russel and later by John Kerry when he held briefings in Seoul and Beijing. After the Kerry visit to Beijing, a TV interview transcript ( on February 14 quoting Song Xiaojun at CCTV and Phoenix Television) explained that Kerry had to react to China’s call for a “new type of relationship by which China understands a relationship in which a rising power would not contend the existing power for global leadership,” while Kerry pressed for China to play a bigger role in pushing North Korea, “given that the Obama administration needs to show some progress on this issue prior to the upcoming midterm election and the Nuclear Security Summit.” It is as if China is willing to do favors for Obama by being more active on North Korea and not seeking global leadership, but this leaves unsaid what China expects in return in a regional context. Over the two months between Biden and Kerry’s trips, there had been negative fallout from Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and his Davos comments comparing China’s current posture to that of Germany pre-WWI. In this deteriorating atmosphere, Chinese sources were, on the one hand, claiming that US relations were still on track, and on the other, criticizing the US regional approach. It is becoming ever more essential to study Chinese thinking closely.

Chinese publications have moved beyond the debate from late 2010 following the sharp backlash against Chinese actions that year to emphasize that the international order is changing as the center of power is shifting to Asia and to Asia’s center, China. An article by Yan Xuetong in Issue 6, 2012 of Dangdai Yatai forcefully argued that point as one signal of the pushback from earlier uncertainty. Since taking charge, Xi Jinping has set a clear direction for a confident, assertive China, whose coverage of Japan is the centerpiece in analysis not only of historical humiliation but also of efforts to overturn the postwar order by military policies aimed at containing China. Coverage of Japan’s foreign policy is most revealing.

Views of Sino-Japanese relations are less about the dynamics in bilateral relations than about the regional framework from which to evaluate the course of these relations. In the December 2013 issue of Zhongguo zhoubian, Liu Jiangyong chooses a quadrangular great power format, relegating the Korean Peninsula and ASEAN to lesser priority. Noting that each decade since the 1930s has seen a major change in this great power balance, Liu depicts a constantly changing scene that naturally can expect further change. Instead of a Japan clinging to the status quo, Liu sees it as an assertive power. In 1996 after signing UNCLOS, it designated the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands within its exclusive economic zone and declared that no territorial dispute exists. In 1997 when Lee Teng-hui was pushing for “Taiwan independence,” Japan joined the United States in new defense guidelines concealing the Taiwan Strait within “surrounding areas.” In 2004 the first defense guidelines of Japan targeted China and North Korea. In 2010 Japan moved to the right, targeting China, and in 2012 it nationalized the islands. Even before Abe, a pattern is detected of Japan, without indication of any provocation, moving away from friendship toward China. The article describes Abe as hardening Japan’s posture on the islands, making a rightist shift in the “Japan model,” changing its military posture, and striving to contain China with its neighbors. He would go further, but the Komeito is more cautious as a coalition partner and even the United States is alarmed about the impact Abe could have in East Asia and his plot to drag it into the territorial dispute, and the comprehensive national power of Japan has fallen as that of China has risen, restraining Japan some. These are reasons he is bound to fail, we are told. Given Xi Jinping’s successful meetings with the leaders of the United States and Russia in 2013 and China’s positive relations with many neighbors, Abe is facing strategic isolation, and Japan will have to change course by the time of the Tokyo Olympics or the event will be marred. This is a typical recent view of Japan, using Abe’s negative image to make a broader point about a threat to China.

Other articles clarify aspects of the quadrangular approach of isolating Japan, drawing Russia closer, and keeping the United States engaged enough to delay a strong response. They are consistent with the tone after Kerry’s visit, and they are most clearly supported in new analyses of how to handle North Korea.

In the fifth issue of Guoji anquan yanjiu of 2013, Zhang Tuosheng recognized that the North Korean nuclear problem has entered a critical period that could lead to military conflict or even war. If North Korea were to test a missile or nuclear weapon, the military confrontation with United States, Japan, and South Korea would worsen, destabilizing the peninsula. Zhang indicates that China’s policy is being adjusted. It should become more actively involved in resolving the problem, avoid being dragged around by another state’s mistaken approach, and prepare for emergencies that might arise. He makes it clear that China’s basic position remains security guarantees and diplomatic recognition in return for denuclearization, making possible economic reform and, after a long transition, the autonomy and reunification of the peninsula. While the Six-Party Talks framework is mentioned, the emphasis is on US-North Korean relations with China, as the mover in the talks, having a role as well. Zhang recommends steps that China can take in this context. The North Korean issue is isolated from maritime security issues elsewhere.

Zhang’s six recommendations include: 1) completing a process begun in 1992 of shifting from special bilateral relations with the North to normal relations, which help to prevent the revival of a cold war, avoid policy that does not serve China’s national interests, and serve the image of China as a responsible great power; 2) adjusting its balance of the goals of stability and denuclearization as conditions change, China in the circumstances that have prevailed since North Korean tests in 2009 should put denuclearization first, thereby applying sufficient pressure on it; 3) although China’s influence is not as great as some foreigners contend, striving harder to increase its influence and show the value of its model, using the economic tools at its disposal; 4) championing a multi-stage approach, including support for North Korea’s pursuit of a peace treaty in place of the armistice and a freeze in its nuclear program; 5) preparing for military conflict, China should start crisis management dialogue with concerned countries; and 6) putting nuclear or Korean Peninsula questions in the context of a “new type of great power relations” to be approached with “new thinking.” This article differs from many earlier ones with its stress on China as a driving force, not a reactive state insisting that the United States has to change, and as a willing partner of the United States in achieving shared objectives, to the point of implying that in 2009 and afterwards China’s response was insufficient. Yet, its agenda for pressing North Korea at this stage falls far short of overlapping with the US and ROK agenda for dealing with the long-term challenge from North Korea.

The concept of “China Dream” still featured in China’s official discourse over the past two months. A good example is the article by Cong Bin, member of the NPC Standing Committee, published in the fourth edition of Minzhu yu kexue. Cong Bin offers four ways of interpreting the China Dream. First, he argues that it is not an emotional slogan, but a historical necessity, which should be treated with reason. He further contends that the China Dream is inevitable due to the improving governance of the CCP, making enormous progress in the nation’s development, and being capable of managing the remaining challenges. Third, Cong Bin argues that the dreams of Chinese citizens are inseparable from those of the nation. As the nation becomes more prosperous, so will the individuals. The author, therefore, urges citizens to express the solidarity needed for realizing the China Dream by accepting the existing organizational structure with the CCP as the ultimate leader of the masses. Finally, the China Dream cannot be achieved without strong leadership, and the CCP is uniquely suited to undertake this responsibility with occasional consultation with other parties. This article echoes the past official discussions on the China Dream, as a concept legitimizing the party’s rule by facilitating public unity in striving for the nation’s dreams. The author here does not specify the exact achievements to be expected, but rather stresses the certainty of the CCP’s ability to lead the nation. The dream showcases the party more than the state and the state more than the nation.

The fifth issue of Guoji wenti yanjiu included an article on the Taiwan factor in the China-US new great power relations. Guo Zhenyuan argues that Taiwan’s role as a US strategic bargaining card is weakening and that the Taiwan issue is generally becoming increasingly less important in shaping the US-China relationship. The diminishing influence of the Taiwan factor in US strategic thinking toward Asia signifies a less hostile US attitude toward China. This development is a result of the closer collaboration between the two states, as well as the improvement in cross-strait relations. As for the former, the author notes the widening scope of US-China shared interests, including cooperation in non-proliferation, environmental protection, and anti-terrorism domains. Guo also notes that China’s peaceful rise diminishes the likelihood of conflict over Taiwan. Drawing a parallel between China’s rise and the peaceful shift of power from Britain to the United States, the author argues that China will manage to successfully avoid any direct confrontation with the United States, including that on the Taiwan issue. Unlike others who argue that US-China relations would worsen once the United States engages Taiwan more actively in containing China’s influence, Guo believes that Taiwan’s closer relations with China make it difficult to pursue this strategy. The improved cross-strait relations, therefore, can reduce the impact of the US pivot on China’s regional interests, thereby stabilizing US-China relations in Asia. While generally striking a positive tone, the author warns about potential tensions in Sino-US relations if Taiwan independence forces were to regain power.

In late November Guangzhou Daily published an in-depth interview with two Russia experts on Russia’s recent reorientation of its foreign policy towards Asia and what that means for China. The experts argued that Russia’s Asia strategy is a balanced one, aiming to engage a number of states, including Vietnam, China, South Korea, and Australia, among others. The driver of its reorientation is mainly economics. Russia wants to develop its Far East, but also to benefit from Asia’s economic opportunities more broadly, as Europe’s financial crisis demonstrated the need for diversifying economic relations. Asian countries, in turn, benefit from Russia’s resources, including imports of military equipment and natural resources. The experts note, however, that Russia’s shift toward Asia is still in its early phases and does not yet represent a coherent long-term strategy. When asked how Russia’s Asia approach differs from that of the United States with respect to China’s interests, the scholars note that Russia’s approach is more accommodating to China’s interests. The two countries have many shared interests in Asia, including economic and security ones, such as a shared approach to managing the North Korea threat. Unlike the United States, Russia does not attempt to contain China by establishing a strong military presence and promoting democratization in the region. Russia’s actions thus far appear as mainly collaborative towards China. These opinions reflect the broader discourse on China-Russia ties in China’s official media. The stress is placed on collaboration with little hint of concern about Russia’s more active engagement with countries whose relations with China are troubled. Tensions in Sino-Russian relations continue to be downplayed by specialists and journalists.

Recently, Kerry’s visit to Beijing aroused some lively discussion in the Chinese media. Kerry’s statement about the United States not trying to contain China caught the attention of the Chinese commentators. A popular editorial published in Huanqiu shibao welcomed this statement, saying that it helped win over China’s public opinion. At the same time, the editorial conveyed a wary tone about the US pivot toward Asia, drawing links between China’s recent tensions with Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and the US repositioning in the region. The author warned that the United States would not succeed in containing China’s rise, but would benefit from its peaceful ascendance. While actions are more important than words in building bilateral ties, positive statements, such as the one made by Secretary Kerry, are constructive in bringing the two countries closer together. The editorial also argued that China needs to be more attuned to the complexity of US policymaking toward China and be proactive in shaping the bilateral relationship, while not abandoning its overall domestic and regional objectives. China should avoid any confrontation and pursue peaceful development, thereby not giving other countries reason to embark on containment policies. This statement, of course, runs contrary to the recent escalation of tensions between China and Japan and China’s generally more assertive foreign policy, as discussed at the beginning of our report. The editorial also reflects this assertiveness as it frames the United States and China as equal partners, defending China’s ambitions and indirectly cautioning the United States against infringing on China’s interests in the region. Another editorial about Kerry’s visit written by a military scholar is more direct in highlighting China’s regional interests and discontent with some US policies. The author argues that the US approach towards China is riddled with double standards, as it wants to collaborate with China, but yet it keeps using its “small allies” (referring here especially to Japan) to cause trouble in the region, hurting China’s interests. The author writes that China cannot ignore the US provocations in the region and has to remain assertive, but at the same it should not fall into the trap of its adversary and allow these developments to influence China’s fast economic development. Perhaps, this final note is indicative of one reason China’s posture toward the United States has been cautious of late: concern that its economy is now slowing at a time when the US economic position has been improving.