Country Report: China (February 2016)

At the end of 2015 and the start of 2016, Chinese journal articles were assessing the foreign policy of South Korea to North Korea and Japan in fast-changing conditions, the impact of the Japan-US guidelines as this alliance was strengthening, and the Silk Road proposals’ prospects with both Russia and India deemed important for future success. More broadly, the regional security architecture was examined as the US-Japan ties were broadening to encompass Australia and India. We cover here views of the situation before the impact of the North Korean nuclear and missile tests had shifted attention to even more serious divisions between China and the US allies.


Shen Dingchang in Dangdai Hanguo, No. 3, 2015 examined relations between North and South Korea under Park Geun-hye. Shen reviews her interest in “trustpolitik,” in parallel applying pressure and seeking dialogue, while also offering humanitarian assistance in search of mutual trust. Arguing that both North and South had hoped to improve relations, leading to ups and downs and certain improvement in both exchanges and trade, Shen finds that relations remain tense. The article proceeds to explain the state of relations, stressing their complexity, singling out the US factor as well as the nuclear factor, recalling the Cheonan incident and the May 24 sanctions, and citing human rights. In other words, North Korea’s nuclear weapons (missile tests are omitted) are but one of many factors affecting relations. Shen adds that the interests of many countries are affected and that their cooperation is necessary to improve North-South relations, but most of all sincerity between the two sides will be required. Clearly, this excludes preconditions, and prioritizes exchanges and cooperation. There is no sense that the North is a bigger obstacle than the South.


In the litany of past agreements, Shen finds only positive precedents for what Park should be doing, pointing to Lee Myung-bak as the cause of the most negative period when tensions increased and North Korea was aroused to take countermeasures. In other words, South Korea is to blame for ignoring the North, thereby provoking it. Shen does observe that two incidents in 2010 brought the two sides to the brink of war without specifying that the North was at fault or explaining why, except to hint that they resulted from the South’s failure to sustain cooperation. Park is credited with softening this approach. The article proceeds to assess her policies, claiming that South Korea is different from other countries because relations with the North are really “internal” (nei) policies, as distinct from US-focused foreign (wai) policies.


Analysis of Park’s policies toward North Korea is followed by reporting on North Korea’s critique of them as actually no different from Lee Myung-bak’s and claims that they were contradictory and could not forge trust. Shen rebukes them and puts the onus on South Korea, given its superiority on many dimensions, to take the first steps to really increase trust. Then Shen reviews Park’s March 2014 Dresden talk, putting its humanist themes first, before noting the harsh response from the North. Shen finds that under Park it is very hard to notice appreciable development in North-South relations. Seeking explanations, Shen stresses first the impact of ROK-US military exercises, while insisting that North Korea as well as South Korea want to improve relations. Summarizing the causes of this failure, Shen starts with the US factor, blaming its policies for preventing improved relations, whether its troop presence, the joint military exercises, or the legacy of “Cold War” thought. Containing North Korea is seen as part of the US “rebalance” to Asia and as a cause of the worsening security situation in Northeast Asia. Pretending that it is US policy that is at fault, Shen treats North Korea and the region as victims, making the case for why China should stand with North Korea not South Korea in a confrontation.


The second factor is North Korea’s nuclear weapons, which are treated as a product of failed negotiations, despite China’s convening of the Six-Party Talks and ideas for resolving the problem. Shen adds that North Korea is trying to maintain its national security and defend itself from the US threat; therefore, the only way forward on the nuclear issue and even for a real improvement in North-South relations is to end the mutual antagonism between North Korea and the United States. The clear message is that Washington has to cut a deal with North Korea, rewarding it before it moves to denuclearize and address human rights issues. Until then, the North’s behavior is understandable, readers are essentially told. The third factor mentioned is the 2010 Cheonan incident and the May 24 South Korean sanctions, which Park will not remove until the incident is explained. Shen describes North Korea’s insistence that it had nothing to do with the incident and that the South should lift the sanctions right away, before calling on leaders on both sides to have the courage to resolve this. In giving the North’s position in detail but not the South’s, Shen leaves the impression that the South should yield on this matter. The final factor listed is the human rights issue, as raised at the United Nations, with North Korea’s response to this cited and no interest shown in finding a way forward that would satisfy the North’s critics. In conclusion, Shen calls for Park to show sincerity and change course. Not a word is said about what Kim Jong-un should do, but it is taken for granted when the threat to his regime is ended that he will be ready to act to stabilize the region as well as to reduce tensions on the peninsula. Beijing has no apparent role but to urge Seoul as well as Washington to change course, even if Pyongyang should again test a nuclear weapon—something not mentioned at all as a matter of concern in this narrative.


In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu No. 6, 2015, the causes and influence of the Japan-ROK “Cold War” are scrutinized by Pu Linbo, who finds bilateral relations in the fall of 2015 at a low point since normalization in 1965, which is exerting an impact on international relations in Northeast Asia as a whole. Pu describes the past three years as a time when both political and economic ties have been “cold.” After relations deteriorated sharply in 2012, there were expectations that new leaders in both countries would mend ties, but Pu explains why this did not happen. First, Japan’s priority in ROK diplomacy had visibly fallen, officially being placed behind China. Second, resolving the history question had now become a precondition of a summit. Third, Abe’s response was unyielding, doubling down on what aroused South Korea. Obama in 2014 tried to make peace between Abe and Park, bringing them together, but it did not work, Pu concludes. Following events in 2015 to November, Pu discerns more meetings at the top level and signals from the June commemorations in the capitals of both countries of the fiftieth anniversary of normalization of a will to improve ties.


Pu traces Lee Myung-bak’s motive in visiting Dokdo in 2012 to a desire to halt the drift of Japan to the right not to propagate ROK sovereignty. In 2013, backsliding on history issues provoked outrage in Seoul, Pu observes, but under outside pressure Abe began to soften his stance, as seen in 2015. On all the disputed issues, there is no doubt in the article that Japan’s failure to accept responsibility for its wartime conduct and occupation of Korea are responsible, and South Korea is responding justly. Pu asserts that although Park sought to separate the historical question from other issues, the result was a cooling in political and economic relations as well as mutual trust to the point of mutual hostility and perceptions that they do not share the same values. Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI) and travelers to Korea fell sharply from 2012, as did Korean exports to Japan, readers are told. Seeing damage to his “rebalance to Asia,” Obama responded in 2013 with pressure on Japan on history issues and with calls for Korea not to fixate on history and to improve ties to Japan. By 2015 pressure on Korea was rising, as Americans faulted its excessive nationalism. With security in the forefront, Washington leaned to Tokyo. Pu concludes that an agreement on the “comfort women” issue (not yet reached) would be an impetus to much better Japan-ROK relations—a second normalization of relations—and triangular ties too. Yet, Pu warns that the underlying conditions will not soon fade away completely. Therefore, bilateral ties will remain somewhat unstable. A turning point has been reached, but historical frictions will endure, readers are told.


Zhu Haiyan wrote in Guoji Luntan No. 11, 2015 about how the US-Japan alliance is changing, focusing on the new joint guidelines. Zhu cites plans to shift from a regional to a global alliance and from a bilateral to a 2 + “x” (additional partners) alliance, charging that the US plan is to use this alliance to sustain its hegemony and to counter China’s rise, and that Japan’s plan is to escape from the postwar system and establish a strong Japan. Zhu emphasizes the big impact this will have on the Asia-Pacific region and China. Reviewing the changes in the guidelines, Zhu sees a shift away from the past defensive nature of the alliance, long seen in Japan as preventing a Soviet armed invasion and in the United States as preventing the revival of Japanese militarism too while sustaining US global hegemony and presence in the Asia-Pacific region. In the new arrangement, Japan can use force even when it has not been attacked, and the scope of cooperation has greatly expanded while geographical limits have been dropped and areas such as space and cyber security have been added. With this alliance as the core, Zhu sees room for expansion across the region and beyond.


Zhu discusses both countries’ designs for the new-style alliance. The US goal is to sustain its hegemony with no mention made of countering such developments as China’s thrust into the South China Sea or North Korea’s nuclear threat. As it loses ground in the world, it presses to dominate because of some internal obsession, not anything others are doing to arouse insecurity except for the mere fact of China’s rise casting doubt on US hegemony. The Japanese goal is to change the domestic political agenda, using the excuse that this is for the sake of the alliance and due to outside pressure, while also using US power to project a strong Japan onto a wider stage. Completely supporting the US “rebalance,” Abe also seeks to reshape both the regional and global order and, especially, to counter China’s rise, Zhu affirms.


As for China’s response, Zhu argues that as pressure is put on eastern China, it both looks to the west for a strategic breakthrough (Central Asia, Russia, and Mongolia), and seeks to use economic power with a “win-win” strategy to counter the zero-sum approach against it. Examples given are free trade agreements (FTAs) with Australia and South Korea. As Japan assumes more strategic responsibility, Zhu sees the United States increasing its strategic capacity in the West to pressure Russia and forcing Russia to expand its counterforces. Japan’s greater role on the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea is seen arousing historical tensions and damaging regional peace, stability, and prosperity. Moreover, its role in missile defense will contribute to an arms race. In this transition, Zhu sees the United States losing control over Japan, newly troubled by Japan-ROK tensions too. The guidelines will also intensify Japan’s rightward shift at home and development of a military industrial complex cooperating with allies but posing some latent dangers for Japan and its people, as Japan loses the image of “peace Japan” and its people become objects of kidnapping and murder abroad. The article concludes that this will pose a big obstacle to China’s rise, aggravating Japan’s ambitions in the Sino-Japanese island dispute and discouraging other states from cooperating with China even to the point of interfering with “One Road, One Belt.” If the results are so detrimental to China, readers may wonder why China did not do more in recent years to try to forestall the US-Japan alliance from strengthening.

In Eluosi, Dongou, Zhongya yanjiu, 2015, No. 6, joint construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt by China and Russia is analyzed by Zhao Huirong. Asserting that Russia is important, but not necessary for the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), Zhao explains that Russia must give official support for this belt as a precondition for joint construction, warning that there are very many difficulties and obstacles in the way of this joint effort. The article observes that “One Belt, One Road,” has two objectives: to resolve domestic development questions, and to solidify the overall strategic direction of China’s foreign policy (through neighborhood policy to advance great power diplomacy and through joint development to promote peace and stability, including using Sino-Russian relations to stabilize Sino-US relations). The fact that Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) states occupy close to half the area of the Eurasian continent means that whether China and Russia can cooperate on it is extremely important. Zhao notes a debate inside Russia on this plan with some saying that this is a challenge for Russia and others saying that cooperation exceeds competition and that interests are not in conflict in Central Asia. Gradually, the official Russian attitude has grown clearer. At Sochi in February 2014 and three months later in Shanghai, Putin told Xi Jinping that he supports China’s proposal, and in May 2015 they agreed to a plan for joint construction, but Zhao warns lots of challenges lie ahead after this starting point.


While China sees the belt leading to northern Europe through Russia, the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean through Southwest Asia, and even the Indian Ocean, it has only singled out Russia so far due to Russia’s importance. After all, its geography, vast economic potential, and military might second only to the United States and other factors make it irreplaceable. For China, maintaining good relations with Russia gives it flexibility in relations with the United States, and the same applies for Russia using the “turn to the East” in relations with the West. Zhao adds that China’s economic power together with Russia’s military power serve to maintain global strategic equilibrium, which means that this will be a long-term, stable relationship, while making the world political and economic order more just, as opposed to the way the United States and other Western countries have been working against the interests of Russia and China. Listing sources of instability in Asia, Zhao starts with US policies, then notes North Korea’s nuclear weapons, then Japan’s right wing drift, and finally the Russia-Japan territorial dispute—an agenda serving Sino-Russian ties. Regional integration of the sort China is seeking will serve Russia’s geographical strengths, including its role as a bridge, readers are told. The former Soviet Union will rise as a whole, and Russia will be a great beneficiary of the regional framework.


Zhao explains that Sino-Russian relations are a model for the new type of great power relations, but he raises doubts about Russia’s will to grasp this opportunity, pointing to concerns raised by some of its officials and academics. Rather than being poised to seize a golden opportunity supposedly entirely to Russia’s benefit, they are raising suspicions and obstacles, expressing their own thoughts about the SREB not in accord with China’s. First, Russia has been Eurasia’s unrivalled empire driven by expansionism and is still under the sway of imperial thinking, says Zhao, pointing to radical nationalism and patriotism expressed in an obsession with integrating the Eurasian space as its own sphere and refusing to recognize the independence of states such as Ukraine. In such areas, it refuses to hold talks with other great powers and demands recognition of Russia’s superior status. Second, Russia fears that the SREB will weaken the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Russia’s interests, doubting how China will adhere to the principle of equality of interests. Russian articles cited for such suspicions are seen as reflecting its own incapacity to bear the burden of funding EEU integration. Zhao notes that in exchanges with Russians he has had to counter views that: 1) China’s aim is to corner the market for its own exports—being cheaper than Russian goods and driving them from these markets—, 2) the transportation system that the SREB will construct will be at the expense of the Trans-Siberian and Baikal-Amur systems, reducing Russia’s role as a Eurasian bridge; 3) China’s investments will be largely in natural resources, not in manufacturing and without technology transfers, leaving a very unfavorable division of labor; 4) China will insist on illegal use of Chinese labor, threatening to lead to immigration problems; and 5) China’s moves will cause ecological problems. Together, these concerns reflect a lack of confidence in Russia’s economic and investment capacities and fear of China’s attractiveness to other states, in which economic success will be converted into political influence at the expense of Russia. This is attributed to the psychological distress Russians are feeling at the changing power balance between Russia and China. When Russian anxieties toward the West are discussed by Chinese authors, no blame is put on the psychology of Russians, but when concerns about China are aired, this is the cause.


Zhao describes a record of Sino-Russia agreements whereby Russia failed to fill its obligations. In the 2009 agreement for Northeast China and the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia, more than 200 projects remained only on paper or were halted after their start, causing large losses to the Chinese side. China does not exclude the possibility in the new SREB and EEU agreement, similar problems will arise of deals blocked, delayed, and outright violated. As world energy prices have been falling, the danger of investing in Russia has grown. Meanwhile, Russian political and economic elites still look to the West, showing limited interest in China, Zhao adds, warning of the prospect that with the support of outside forces, Russia would later politicize economic disputes with China. As the world economy slows and regional security issues arise as well as when problems in other countries interfere, there is doubt about prospects for cooperation, implies Zhao, but he insists that quickening the pace of Sino-Russian cooperation can overcome the obstacles. They can deepen cooperation against “color revolutions” and other threats; tighten regional security cooperation; and avoid misunderstandings (i.e., what Russians say about China.) 


Zhao raises many possibilities for closer ties, including Russia welcoming China in developing the Arctic; joint development of new, high tech weapons; strengthening the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an economic entity; and Russia accepting that China’s relations with Eurasian states are equal to its relations with Russia and do not contradict those with Russia. In other words, China should not be asked to sacrifice those ties for Russia’s interests. With states whose relations with Russia are distant, China should not be dragged into their contradictions, and with those close to Russia, China’s ties should be seen as complementary to Russia’s. Finally, Zhao pointedly informs Russia that economic ties with European states and the United States as well as those with international financial institutions are constructive for the regional integration plans under consideration, implying that Russia’s hostility to these connections is not shared by China and not conducive to their joint economic objectives.


In Heping yu Fazhan, No. 6, 2015, Qu Caiyun examines strategic cooperation among Japan, the United States, Australia, and India. Qu describes increasing cooperation since the idea of this quadrangle was proposed to the point it is an important force leading to change in the regional security framework. Although their shared goal is to contain China, Qu finds that with each pursuing its own national interests with its distinct attitudes about strategic cooperation, this will leave room for China to seize the right moment to disrupt their plans for the neighborhood security environment. As usual, their behavior is explained as a response to China’s rise, not any Chinese behavior. Qu points to Abe in 2006 introducing the idea of this strategic quadrangle as a “values” grouping aimed at containing China, adding that by now it has become a new multilateral cooperation framework posing a challenge to China as a kind of “Asian NATO” pushed by Japan and the United States. The US interest is traced to its quest to retain its world leadership position, seeking new partners and allies. Taking advantage of the 2004 tsunami, Washington worked to draw these four countries together in relief, which served as the incubator for the idea of a new framework.


Qu turns then to Abe’s foreign minister Aso Taro’s call for an “arc of freedom and prosperity” and Abe’s visit to India in 2007 for proof of how the idea was going forward. The article continues with Abe’s return to the top position and vigorous pursuit of this idea as he was propagating the “China threat” alarm. In his new formulations, there was no hiding aspirations for Japanese leadership and the focus on US military role. With US support, the quadrangle became a model for the security framework of the Asia Pacific at a time of rapid transformation, Qu concludes.


Given interlocking economic interests that could be damaged, there was an effort to conceal the containment nature of the quadrangle, Qu adds, pointing to vehement opposition from China and to Australia’s decision in 2008 to refrain from a four-way strategic dialogue in such a framework, but especially to the impact of the global financial crisis that made this idea untimely and left the United States reluctant to arouse China when it needed China’s financial support. Yet, the quadrangular quest went forward less openly, Qu explains, focusing on six bilateral relations that have been drawing closer. Even so, Qu finds that India and Australia have other priorities and are not as committed to the goal of containing China. Japan is most passionate about the quadrangle, while the United States lets Japan press the issue, although it has the leading role. Because of the reservations of two states, this framework will not have smooth sailing, Qu says, advising China to react calmly and seek ways to split the group while also pursuing common interests with all four of these countries as it is advancing “One Belt, One Road,” and winning the understanding and trust of neighboring countries. This is an image of polarization, which China is resisting.


Han Zhaoying and Tian Guangqiang wrote in Xiandai guoji guanxi on Indian strategic concerns about the “Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road,” stressing that India matters for its success and that China should work to persuade India, alleviating its security concerns as well as showcasing the economic benefits. The implication may be that others have neglected India’s salience for this initiative as well as that the initiative’s progress depends on all-around improvement in bilateral relations. The authors add that in February 2014 China proposed that India fully participate in the initiative, which led to an intense debate inside India, in which many have expressed strategic doubts. After all, Indians are wary of the whole idea as threatening India’s interests in the Indian Ocean, seeing it as a clever strategy for China’s navy to advance and to counter US and Indian strategic intentions, even to surround India with the “string of pearls” strategy. The article adds that what China recognizes as port construction for commerce is perceived as something more sinister, complicating dialogue on it. One Indian source is cited for warning that China’s aim is to become an Indian Ocean economic, political, and naval great power at the expense of India’s leading role. The inclusion of Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the initiative is seen as bringing them into China’s camp to balance India’s regional influence. Another concern is that the contents of the initiative are vague and its establishment faces lots of difficulties.


Han and Tian also point to ambivalence since India is eager for more economic ties with China to climb on board the express of economic development. Mention is made of India’s own ambitions to expand its role in the area, reasserting influence it has lost as well as to its dilemma in preserving its strategic autonomy in the face of a Sino-US competition for supremacy in the Indian Ocean. Reference is made to the US desire to strengthen bilateral ties with India as part of its “rebalance” to Asia, which is met by some in India as a way to use the “China threat” to raise their country’s international status. Shared suspicions in the two states about the Maritime Silk Route are boosting India’s determination to balance China in the Indian Ocean.


How should China respond? Han and Tian cite a high Chinese official as saying that India lies at the juncture of the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt, and they conclude that allaying India’s suspicions is of high priority. One step is to alleviate the concerns of security and political circles via talks to resolve the border dispute. Another is to cooperate more on humanitarian assistance and in countering non-traditional threats at sea. While proposing joint efforts for port construction, China could reassure India that its initiative is only about economic cooperation, not a move to compete for influence in the Indian Ocean. Recognizing that the initiative is now only at its initial stage and lacks clarity, the authors call for transparency and reassurances about its strategic intent. They also propose to use existing regional bodies to achieve more openness. The entire thrust of the article is to find ways to reassure India, putting economic goals in the forefront, but it lacks candor on the causes of India’s concern and the trade-offs China would have to make in order to win India’s trust. One wonders if increasing uncertainty about the prospects for “One Belt, One Road” is leading some Chinese to prioritize India as never before.