Country Report: China (February 2019)

In the winter of 2018–2019, Chinese experts assessed the Modi administration’s pursuit of closer maritime security ties with Southeast Asia and evaluated the weakening foundations of Chinese–Indian relations. They also examined Japan’s new “strategic independence” and analyzed the implications of the current easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Indian–Southeast Asian maritime cooperation

In Yatai Anquan yu Haiyang Yanjiu, No. 1, 2019, Liu Lei and Yu Tingting assess the Modi administration’s efforts to increase maritime cooperation with Southeast Asia. Although India has long been concerned with its maritime security, this focus increased substantially when Modi took office in 2014. India’s mounting concerns with its maritime security are rooted in its dependence on shipping for its continued growth: India’s rapid economic development has been propelled in large part by its interconnectedness with the global economy as both an exporter of consumer products and an importer of energy. In this light, the Modi administration published the new “Indian Maritime Security Strategy” in 2015, which emphasizes the importance of all the Southeast Asian states except for landlocked Laos, and upgraded India’s 1991 “Look East” policy into the “Act East” policy. Through this policy, Modi deepened cooperation with traditional partners like Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand, while expanding ties with Vietnam and Myanmar. Cooperation with Malaysia, Cambodia, and the Philippines has developed more slowly, but is making steady progress.

According to Liu and Yu, Indian–Southeast Asian maritime cooperation under Modi has three key characteristics. First, India is expanding its presence and influence in the region through the use of its navy, which serves the roles of diplomat, police officer, and humanitarian. Second, India is emphasizing the establishment of high-level maritime security cooperation mechanisms with Southeast Asia. Third, India is increasingly motivated by a desire to constrain China’s naval ambitions. Liu and Yu point, as evidence, to India’s 2018 Milan exercises, which brought together seventeen countries, and to its growing cooperation with Vietnam. Nevertheless, they argue that India is trying to maintain independence by being careful not to tie itself too closely to the United States and Japan, and by maintaining positive relations with China, as indicated by Modi’s two visits in 2018.

A number of factors drive closer maritime security cooperation between India and Southeast Asia. The geographical locations of states like Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which have coastlines on the Indian Ocean, are critical to India’s maritime strategy. India’s trade depends on maritime channels that connect the eastern Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific; many Southeast Asian states are located along this path. India’s demand for the natural resources and energy supplies that can be found in many of the countries of Southeast Asia or in their coastal waters further motivates it to pursue closer ties. In addition, a tradition of friendly relations provides a strong foundation for cooperation. India shares Buddhist or Hindu traditions with many of the countries, which are also home to a large overseas Indian population.

Another factor motivating closer cooperation is the perception of shared security threats. India and many of the states of Southeast Asia worry about a “China threat.” India has become alarmed by a number of recent Chinese projects in the Indian Ocean, such as its base in Djibouti, port in Gwadar, 99-year lease of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, and the “twenty-first century maritime silk road” element of the BRI. Meanwhile, many of the Southeast Asian states have territorial or maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea. The United States has encouraged Indian–Southeast Asian cooperation because of its own concerns about Chinese naval ambitions, and its desire to see India take a stronger position in an expanded “Indo-Pacific” region. India and Southeast Asia also share a commitment to combatting non-traditional threats, such as piracy and terrorism.

Despite the many factors that encourage close cooperation between India and Southeast Asia, Liu and Yu identify several potential weaknesses. There is a major difference in the relative strength of India and the countries of Southeast Asia, which leads to sharply different objectives. India is a much stronger country and has great power ambitions. The countries of Southeast Asia, by contrast, are just trying to maximize their national interests. This power gap has the potential to degrade mutual trust. As India increases its military capabilities to better match its strategic objectives, it has to be careful not to frighten its less powerful partners. In addition, despite India’s interest in Southeast Asia, it has been slow to institutionalize cooperation mechanisms, in part because its main focus is still on South Asia. Extra-regional powers such as China and the United States are playing out their broader strategic game in part of the Indian Ocean, which further complicates the situation.

Nevertheless, Liu and Yu expect that increased Indian–Southeast Asian maritime cooperation will greatly influence the various parties involved. For India, this cooperation provides protection from an array of traditional and non-traditional security threats and ensures the maritime access necessary for its continued economic development. The expansion of India’s naval presence into the Western Pacific will advance its great power ambitions, while linking it more closely to the US “Indo-Pacific” strategy. The states of Southeast Asia, which are far weaker, will also obtain security and economic benefits, although they may be less inclined to support India’s maritime ambitions, which will increase its influence in their backyards.

Liu and Yu are nervous, on balance, about the impact of Indian–Southeast Asian cooperation on Chinese interests. They fear that India is using countries that have disputes with China in the South China Sea as pawns in their attempt to balance against China, and caution that this will make the resolution of these disputes more complex. They also see Indian involvement in Southeast Asian affairs as a warning shot to China: if China intervenes in South Asia, India will have other avenues by which to respond. To the extent that India is successful in limiting Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean, it will hamper China’s ability to implement the BRI. Nevertheless, they do not believe China should be overly alarmed, given the many challenges limiting deeper cooperation.

Liu and Yu’s view of the implications of Indian–Southeast Asian maritime cooperation for the United States is more mixed. On the one hand, Modi’s strategy seems to support the “Indo-Pacific” policy advocated by the United States. Cooperation with the countries of Southeast Asia allows India to expand its influence into the Western Pacific and is consistent with what Liu and Yu see as US efforts to encircle China. However, they caution that there are potential conflicts between Modi’s strategy and that of the United States. In particular, Modi emphasizes the leading role of ASEAN in regional affairs, while the United States would prefer to rely on a quadrilateral effort by India, the United States, Japan, and Australia.

Liu and Yu conclude that Chinese policymakers should take a measured approach toward Indian–Southeast Asian cooperation. China should coordinate with India and Southeast Asia in their efforts to combat non-traditional security threats, but should also continue to develop its maritime interests in the Indian Ocean and to decrease its dependence on the Malacca strait. At the same time, China should try to build strategic trust with both India and Southeast Asia.

China–India relations

In Waijiao Pinglun, No. 1, 2019, Lin Minwang assesses the weakening foundations of Sino–Indian strategic relations. At the global level, the basis for cooperation has deteriorated markedly since the two countries normalized their relationship in 1988. Initially, as developing countries with similar positions in the post-Cold War world order, China and India had many common objectives. They both advocated for a multipolar world, rather than a unipolar world led by the United States, and pushed for a stronger United Nations. As non-Western states that developed under the post-WWII world order created by the West, they share a commitment to the establishment of a more equitable system that better represents the interests of the developing world. In addition, given their shared experiences of colonialism and their pride in their historic civilizations, they have often opposed forceful interventions into the domestic affairs of other states in the name of human rights. This common ground allowed India and China to advance shared positions on issues like climate change, trade, and global finance. More recently, however, the two countries have found it more difficult to cooperate. Some Indian observers charge that China is acting like a global great power, rather than a leader of the developing world, and is adopting policies that are more sympathetic to those of the Western great powers. For example, while China and India, together with South Africa and Brazil, coordinated their positions before the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, India believed that China turned its back on developing countries like India when it worked with the United States to shape the 2014 Paris Agreement. Furthermore, a quiet competition is emerging as China and India both seek to shape the post-American world order.

At the regional level, the two countries’ political competition has increased. Both China and India are regional great powers with a good deal of influence over their neighbors in Southeast Asia and South Asia, respectively. China’s pursuit of BRI projects in South Asia has brought it into India’s neighborhood and set off alarms. India worries that the smaller countries of South Asia will tilt away from India and toward China; many Indian strategists perceive the BRI as a Chinese attempt to create a new Chinese-led international order. India has nervously watched China’s BRI projects in countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. In addition, the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor threatens to upset the unsteady relationship between India and Pakistan. Indian observers are particularly worried that China might take Pakistan’s side in the Kashmir dispute in order to support the projects it has located there. Indian analysts also fear China’s expanding influence in the Indian Ocean, looking with particular concern at China’s construction of the Djibouti base and its various port projects. As China’s economic influence in South Asia expands, it is increasingly willing to mediate regional disputes, which poses a serious challenge to Indian regional policy. Consequently, India has tried to persuade small countries in South Asia not to participate in the BRI and has attempted to create alternative regional mechanisms. It has also proven receptive to the “Indo-Pacific strategy” (which Lin attributes to the Trump administration) and to restarting the Japan–US–India–Australia quadrilateral dialogue in order to balance against China.

Finally, at the bilateral level new manifestations of “old problems” have caused relations to deteriorate. Two recent flashpoints have been China’s refusal to either accede to India’s request to list Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Masood Azhar as a terrorist or to accept India’s application to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Lin argues that recent problems such as these are rooted in the failure to solve older disagreements over the border and the Dalai Lama, which, at least in the case of the border, were papered over after the 1988 normalization. In 2014, for example, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj landed a well-aimed punch when she announced that India would endorse the PRC’s “One China” policy when China accepts a “One India” policy that recognizes India’s claims to Arunachal Pradesh. A host of other issues, such as India’s trade deficit with China, India’s strategic and defense cooperation with the United States and Japan, and disagreements over Pakistan, further exacerbate bilateral tensions.

Lin argues that the weakening foundations of the relationship from the global, regional, and bilateral perspectives result from the same set of reasons. Perhaps the most important is the growing power gap. Although China and India emerged from the Cold War at similar levels of development, China’s growth has been much more rapid than that of India, which has allowed it to amass far more power and influence. Since the 18th Party Congress in 2012, China has increasingly talked about “molding” its environment and has started to provide regional and global public goods to support its more assertive posture. India is alarmed by these developments. Domestic changes in India, most notably Modi’s Hindu nationalism, have also weakened the bilateral relationship by pushing India to adopt a more hardline approach toward China. Despite these shifts, however, many elements of the two countries’ immediate post-Cold War policies remain and could offer a basis for improving relations.

Recognizing the need to turn the relationship around after relations bottomed out in 2017, Modi and Xi met in Wuhan in April 2018. This meeting, in Lin’s view, offers the two countries an opportunity to re-envision their relationship. He argues that China should have reasonable expectations for Indian behavior and should try to understand how India’s strategic doubts lead it to positions that run counter to those of China. In addition, China must remember that India is also a rapidly rising great power; consequently, relations between India and China have regional and global impacts. When thinking of India as a great power, China should remember that India has a strong desire to chart its own path. Given India and China’s shared experience of Western colonialism, they may find themselves to be “natural allies” on certain issues. Third, China should pursue closer economic ties with India so that it can benefit from India’s rapid development. India, too, has much to gain from a close economic relationship with China. Finally, at the technical level, it is important for both sides to develop mechanisms that will allow them to manage their differences. Strong leadership can overcome, to some extent, their lack of mutual trust. However, Lin cautions that the two countries must be careful not to allow public disputes to lead them astray when differences emerge. The combination of the vocal Indian press and Chinese nationalism can cause issues to rapidly heat up and make compromise difficult. Lin concludes by encouraging Chinese policymakers to take advantage of the current opening to rebuild the Chinese–Indian relationship on a stronger basis.

Japan’s “strategic independence”

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 6, 2018, Wu Huaizhong evaluates Japan’s new, more autonomous foreign policy through which it is trying to become a “normal” power. Wu identifies three major aspects of Japan’s strategic independence approach. First, Japan is committed to preserving the existing global economic system of free trade from which it has benefited enormously. This commitment to the existing order pits Japan against the United States, which, under the Trump administration, has pursued a protectionist trade policy and attempted to renegotiate trade deals to maximize US interests. As the United States has stepped away from global free trade, Japan has taken on an increasingly strong leadership role in negotiating arrangements that do not include the United States, such as the CPTPP (also known as the TPP-11) and the EU–Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, both now in effect, and RCEP and the China–Japan–South Korea FTA, which are still in process. Wu argues that Japan’s efforts to lead these negotiations is a marked change from its previous approach, which focused more narrowly on preserving market access and expanding investment opportunities.

Second, Wu argues that Japan is actively promoting the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategic concept as a way to restructure the regional order, now that the United States under Trump is stepping away from the Obama-era Asia-Pacific rebalance. Wu describes Abe’s Indo-Pacific strategy as a comprehensive political, security, and economic response, centered on the strategic calculation that Japan should protect values such as democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and the market-based economic order established by the West in the Indo-Pacific region by coordinating with its democratic allies and pursuing values diplomacy. Abe’s strategy attempts to advance Japan’s security interests by strengthening the Japan–US–India–Australia quadrilateral security framework, which is especially beneficial for ensuring maritime security and restraining China. The Indo-Pacific strategy promotes Japan’s economic interests by limiting its cooperation with the BRI, offering Japanese businesses as alternative partners for regional infrastructure projects, and expanding its trade and investment options. After formally announcing this strategic concept in an August 2016 speech, Abe lobbied India and the United States to get on board and worked to strengthen the trilateral and quadrilateral arrangements that would support it. Importantly, Wu’s emphasis on the Indo-Pacific concept as a Japanese alternative necessitated by US isolationism and designed to keep the United States involved in the region differs somewhat from the view of Liu and Yu, who, though they would probably recognize the Japanese origins of the concept, see the United States as a major proponent of the Indo-Pacific concept today.

Third, Abe has pursued more positive relations with China. Wu argues that this aspect of Abe’s policy derives from his recognition of the continued importance of great power relations and his desire to increase Japan’s self-sufficiency by strengthening its relations with great powers other than the United States. To this end, Abe seeks to overcome the competition in the Sino–Japanese relationship, establish a cooperative partnership, and work with China to promote free trade. Wu argues that Abe’s China policy differs from that of the Trump administration in important ways: while the United States views China as a strategic competitor, Japan sees opportunities for cooperation; while the United States opposes the BRI and pursues trade protectionism, Japan wants to work with China to support regional free trade and accepts that the BRI has some potential (this latter point seems to contradict Wu’s earlier contention that Japan is trying to limit its cooperation with the BRI). These divergences from US policy, Wu argues, illustrate Japan’s increasing strategic independence.

Wu asserts that Japan’s search for strategic independence derives from its desire to be a normal country, but is also, importantly, a response to a dramatically changing strategic environment. For many decades, Japan’s foreign policy supported that of the United States, which was committed to the continued stability of the postwar liberal world order. Under the Obama administration, Japan was an important partner in US efforts to implement the Asia-Pacific rebalance and constrain China. Since Trump’s election, however, the United States has stepped back from its leadership role, while countries like China and Russia increasingly challenge the existing rules. In this context, Japan feels it must step into the vacuum and shore up the rules-based liberal order.

Wu argues that the strains the Trump administration has placed on the long-standing US–Japan alliance provide further motivation for Japan to seek strategic independence. Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the TPP came as a rude awakening to Japan, for which the trade deal is extremely important. Abe has lobbied Trump to recognize the importance of the US–Japan alliance, but has been unable to convince him of the value of US commitments in the region. Meanwhile, trade tensions threaten to derail the bilateral relationship and Trump’s North Korea policy has set off alarm bells. With the dependability of the US as an ally in question, Japan has become increasingly motivated to look elsewhere for support. This has led, in Wu’s view, to the significant adjustment of Japanese policy toward China since the spring of 2017. Abe’s realization that balancing China will not work and that Japan has more to gain economically from cooperating with China than from opposing it further support his pursuit of warmer relations.

Despite the recent evidence of a more autonomous Japanese foreign policy, Wu contends that it will face three challenges in the short-term. First, the US–Japan alliance will continue to constrain Japanese independence. After years of following US foreign policy, Japan is now willing to oppose it, but only indirectly. Japan worries about being completely abandoned by the United States and believes that a continued US presence in the Asia-Pacific is essential to preserve the existing regional order. Second, it is premature to think that Japan is ready to leave the safety of its partnership with the United States for the embrace of Asia. Japan’s efforts to build relations with other East Asian countries are stymied by the history problem and the limited reconciliation after WWII. Furthermore, Japan strongly doubts China’s intentions and rejects the creation of a Chinese-led regional order; consequently, Japan still creates its China policy within the strategic context of the US–Japan alliance. Finally, Japan’s identity as a pacifist country and domestic opposition continue to slow its pursuit of more expansive self-defense capabilities. Although Abe has sought to greatly upgrade Japan’s military capabilities through his “proactive pacifism” and tried, during the Obama years, to become a more equal partner to the United States, it is hard for him to eliminate domestic constraints, such as the pacifist movement, Article 9, budget constraints, and the high costs of advanced military equipment.

Wu concludes by considering the implications of Japan’s increased strategic independence for Chinese interests. Although Japan is becoming more autonomous, he sees no need for alarm. He recognizes that Japan’s pursuit of greater military capabilities and the possibility that it will become more involved in regional maritime conflicts are likely to increase Sino–Japanese tensions, and that Japanese may seek to build relations with other great powers to balance against China. However, he argues that many aspects of Japan’s more autonomous foreign policy, such as its commitment to free trade and its pursuit of warmer bilateral ties with China, directly benefit Chinese national interests. He urges China to approach Japan with confidence and to actively encourage Japan to pursue its economic interests within the framework of East Asian cooperation.

The Korean Peninsula

In Dongbeiya Xuekan, No. 11, 2018, Jin Dongzhu presents a very optimistic take on the North Korean nuclear crisis, premised on the assumption that North Korea is sincere in its willingness to abandon its nuclear program. Reflecting on the easing of tensions since early 2018, Jin is full of compliments: for North Korea for its willingness (in Jin’s view) to give up its nuclear weapons and focus on economic development; for South Korea for President Moon’s willingness to pursue both a direct dialogue between North and South and to mediate the US–North Korean dialogue; for the United States for abandoning its failed “strategic patience” strategy; and for China for firmly encouraging the peaceful resolution of the crisis. Jin confidently predicts that the future of the Korean Peninsula will be peaceful and stable, despite the possibility of some hiccups along the way.

In Jin’s view, each of the key states played a major role in achieving the recent reduction of tensions. Kim Jong-un was initially committed to a policy of developing nuclear weapons, despite international disapprobation and harsh sanctions. Nevertheless, after the sixth nuclear test and the development of an ICBM that can reach the United States, he announced that he had achieved his nuclear objectives. Jin argues that Kim is now willing to give up his nuclear weapons because he realizes that they have pulled economic resources away from the North Korean population and prevented the public from achieving a better standard of living. (One does not have to be all that cynical to expect that a better strategy for Kim would be to pretend to abandon his nuclear weapons, while secretly maintaining these capabilities.)

Jin also highlights the shift in the US policy from harsh economic sanctions (which are still in place) and military threats to a willingness to engage in dialogue. In Jin’s view, the harsh US policy was based on the assumption that North Korea did not actually pose a threat. Faced with the concrete threat of an ICBM with a nuclear warhead, Jin asserts, the Trump administration abandoned the policy of previous administrations, ignored domestic opposition, and agreed to a face-to-face meeting with Kim. (Jin believes that Trump was motivated by the belief that he would get more votes in the 2020 election if he could successfully resolve the Korean nuclear crisis, which, while possibly a consideration in Trump’s mind, seriously overestimates the US public’s attention span and its focus on foreign policy.)

Jin further emphasizes Moon’s rejection of the hardline Park administration policy in favor of a softer approach to the North. Recognizing that the Olympics presented an opportunity for warmer relations, Moon pursued direct talks with North Korea and facilitated the meeting between North Korea and the United States.

Finally, Jin asserts that China’s insistence on the peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis and its suggestion that North Korea receive a security guarantee in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons have played an important role. (This description of the Chinese role is at odds with the view in the US press that the Chinese were largely sidelined during the events of early 2018.)

Jin offers a description of “trends” on the peninsula that seems more like an exercise in wishful thinking. Jin expects the situation on the Korean Peninsula to remain markedly improved, though some problems will inevitably arise, because all parties now agree that the peaceful resolution of the crisis through political and diplomatic means is better than a military solution. North Korea will gradually eliminate its nuclear weapons while focusing on economic development. Jin argues that North Korea’s advanced technical capabilities (as evident by the fact that it developed a nuclear bomb) and educated population will allow it to engage in Chinese-style reform and opening.

The United States should guarantee North Korea’s security and gradually eliminate its economic sanctions, now that it realizes its longstanding policy of imposing harsh sanctions and conducting military exercises only made the situation worse. Jin cautions against allowing conservative officials like John Bolton to impose the “Libya model” (denuclearization followed by regime change) on North Korea; instead, he urges the United States to work with China, South Korea, and North Korea to sign a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War and to offer economic cooperation to help North Korea develop.

Jin expects South Korea to continue its role as a mediator between North Korea and the United States. At the same time, South Korea should negotiate with North Korea on an equal basis, close the development gap between the two countries, engage in cultural exchanges, and refrain from teaming up with the United States against North Korea through joint military exercises or on other matters. Jin also urges South Korea to remove THAAD, which is threatening to China and unnecessary if the peninsula is peaceful.

Finally, Jin believes that China can continue to act as a stabilizer. However, Jin’s description of the role China will play consists mainly of official slogans, and it is not clear exactly what China’s responsibilities will be. Given the repeated cycles of tension and relaxation since the beginning of the nuclear crisis in 1994 (cycles which Jin explicitly recognizes), this analysis seems overly rosy.