Country Report: China (February 2020)

As 2019 ended, Xi Jinping’s relations with neighboring leaders drew scrutiny. Whereas over the past year his ties to Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin often captured the spotlight, the world was awaiting his state visit with Abe Shinzo in April, response to moves by Kim Jong-un, possible visit to Seoul to meet Moon Jae-in in the spring, reaction to Tsai Ing-wen’s victory in Taiwan, and the next stage of relationship with Narendra Modi after India made clear that it would not join RCEP. In late 2017, Xi had set a clear direction to improve ties with Japan as part of a new strategy to boost ties to surrounding states in light of the deepening and inevitable confrontation with the US. And in 2018, the expansion of the SCO to include India and a shift to diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula had rekindled Xi’s interventionist aspirations. Yet, uncertainties loomed for 2020 before the scare of an epidemic left plans on hold and a dark shadow over China’s New Year’s celebrations.

At the two ends of the Indo-Pacific, Chinese articles point to a dual strategy with two suspected weak links in the US alliance and partnership framework. Relations with Japan, Russia, and even North Korea are taken as more or less given, but South Korea and India appear as countries that could pose further problems for China while also being swing states that face new difficulties in relations with the United States and could decide that upgrading ties to China is a wise choice. While writings persist in scrutinizing Trump’s policies (without optimism about long-term Sino-US relations), they also pay close attention to the thinking of Moon Jae-in and Narendra Modi.

South Korea

In Guoji Luntan, No. 6, Gu Weijian assessed Moon Jae-in’s policy toward North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Moon’s policy was credited with restoring ties after ten lost years of frozen relations with North Korea and reducing tensions to the point of a new “honeymoon.” Yet on denuclearization, problems have ensued with US policy and ROK conservatives limiting Moon’s move. If Moon, in his remaining time in office, cannot successfully overcome such pressure, his efforts at denuclearization will end in failure. Gu makes clear that the path forward is through mutual North-South trust, including a peace dialogue, which will alter North Korea’s view of security and openness and lead to gradual denuclearization. According to the strategic logic, cooperation in place of sanctions is necessary, not pressure and not proof of intentions to denuclearize. North-South cooperation is the entry, denuclearization the exit. Moon rightly asserted that development of North-South relations cannot be conditioned on the issue of denuclearization. Instead of mentioning any North Korean violations of promised agreements, Gu points to Seoul’s need to resume promised steps to boost ties unconditionally. Moon’s faulty logic is to insist on first abandoning nuclear weapons, and only then can relations be fundamentally improved, simplifying Moon’s position as if it did not involve rewards for some partial steps. Gu further states that Moon’s meeting with Kim Jong-un at Panmunjom was a test of Moon, but he continued to boost national defense, as if Kim was not doing the same. THAAD, F-35A, and other moves are blamed, no word being mentioned about the North’s missile tests and threat build-up.

Gu points to Trump as a decisive influence on Moon. When Trump’s approach to North Korea grew tougher, according to this thinking, Moon yielded. Trump feared a blow to the overall US regional strategic situation, pushing North Korea into a corner unacceptable to it. Gu accepts that Kim Jong-un called for first completely removing sanctions and then would move, in steps, to abandon nuclear weapons, and blames Trump for insisting on not removing all sanctions if denuclearization is not complete, without acknowledging that Trump was ready to remove some of them in line with steps to denuclearize. Some conservative US officials are alarmed by Moon’s attitude toward North Korea and by the possibility that the US forces would have to be removed from South Korea. Gu implies a zero-sum approach between cooperation first and denuclearization first. Moon differed from Trump in consistently showing warmth to North Korea to induce change; contradictions became ever more apparent.

The real problem is a lack of trust between the US and North Korea, and Moon is unable to follow his own path with the US opposing it. Under Kim Dae-jung, North-South cooperation occurred within the framework of the ROK-US alliance. Under Roh Moo-hyun, it was largely outside that framework. Either way, as a result of the emphasis on sustainability, there was a gap with the US. To avoid that, Moon chose to simultaneously advance both ties with the North and the alliance. Yet, without US-North Korean normalization, it was meaningless to expect denuclearization to be a condition for US forces withdrawing from the peninsula. Trump has ruptured ties with South Korea, owing to “America First” demands. While Trump threatens to withdraw troops, this is just a pretext to increase South Korea’s alliance role, and Trump is using the nuclear issue to strengthen alliance ties and prevent South Korea from finding its own space. Moon is careful to avoid giving the US and his domestic opponents the pretext of “pro-North, anti-US.” Moon’s statements stress that the North Korean nuclear issue does not bear on the ROK-US alliance, avoiding both the Roh cleavage in US relations and a US backlash that could lead to withdrawal of forces. He also is avoiding Pyongyang’s use of a ROK-US divide or bypassing the ROK in dealing with the US. However, a US split with the ROK may occur since the North cannot denuclearize if the alliance is strong; Moon’s quest for transferring wartime control of forces in South Korea is positive for North-South dialogue and autonomous defense but also uncertain for ties to the US; and a peace agreement would raise sovereignty issues affecting US and UN forces in the ROK. Moon’s limited term in office limits his options, especially after his third year. Conservatives have influence in the media and affect public opinion, the impact of which Moon has not overcome.

Gu’s article relies on far-reaching assumptions about North Korea, omits any mention of how China could have an impact, and largely treats the ROK-US alliance and North-South relations as zero-sum. The US position is assumed to make a deal with North Korea inconceivable. It relies on the Libya model,” making progress on denuclearization impossible, says Gu, failing to reflect actual US policy. Moon at most can temporarily reduce tensions on the peninsula, not bring real peace Trump will not compromise under the influence of his broader regional policy and his aim to keep hold of South Korea, allowing Moon little leeway unless he chooses to act to overcome it, which is difficult, given the limitations of domestic politics and public opinion.


Rong Ying and Zhang Lei wrote about the “New India” vision and the construction of a closer Sino-Indian partnership in Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 6, arguing that this vision of a great power strategy for India’s rise can reshape ties between the two countries. It aims to win popular support, boost the economy, and drive India’s rise in world affairs, but there are contradictions.
The only choice ahead is for “the dragon and the elephant to dance together.” Around 2030 India will become the most populous country, seeks to be the third economy and in 70 years to reach $20 million per capita after climbing to $5 trillion in GDP by 2024. The authors go into detail covering Modi’s declared objectives, including forging consciousness of a single India and combining the leading role in South Asia and an overall great power role through multilateral diplomacy. This includes using “Act East” to boost ties to Southeast and East Asia, deepening ties with Japan, South Korea, and Australia as well as advancing the Indian version of the “Indo-Pacific concept.” As trade frictions with the US intensified from 2018, India closely watched the Sino-US trade talks and sought to find advantage in it.

China’s determination to benefit from India’s new vision was stressed in the article. Modi is keen on keeping economic growth, is striving to maintain social stability amid a rise in ethnic and religious sectionalism, is facing conflict with Pakistan, has refused to join 15 countries in RCEP, and will not bend to any foreign pressure. Many in the West doubt that India after turning away from RCEP will reform and resolve internal problems. Modi’s “New India” vision and Xi’s “China Dream” vision overlap. The leaders of the two countries have established the strategic aim of tightening ties. The two states need to forge a plan to unify over a long term and in stages. In April 2018 and October 2019 Xi and Modi met, setting a path where the two state can rise together with closer relations and supporting each other’s reform development. The article ends with an agenda for the next stage in relations: 1) exchanges on experiences of governing in the two states, strengthening partnership ties, despite different models since there are similarities in national character and development; 2) institutions for deepening ties, including investment in each other’s small and medium-sized enterprises and resolving investment problems; 3) various forms of cooperating in international institutions from the SCO to the WTO; 4) deep security talks, managing contradictions, strengthening border area stability to fairly resolve persistent border problems; 5) deepening exchanges, including on Asian civilizational dialogue and for raising a sense of pride in the rise of Asia. This agenda called for both countries rising together.

In Guoji Luntan, No. 6. Li Xiaotian discussed India’s view of and impact on the SCO, arguing that its attitude has improve from initial indifference but that it still is wary that the organization is meant to expand China’s influence. Seeking to rise as a major power in Eurasia, India finds that it can build strategic partnerships through the SCO and balance China and Pakistan. Even so, it is on the lookout for a negative turn in ties with Pakistan or China, casting doubt on the SCO.

As the strategic competition in the region intensifies, India is in danger of taking a wrong turn with worsening Sino-Indian relations as well as Indo-Pakistan relations. It could take a win-win approach. The SCO holds out promise for both security and economic management of regional issues is the message of the article. It can range from Central Asia to South Asia in its impact. Yet if China, Russia, and India fight for whose voice will be heard, if the Sino-Indian border dispute worsens, or if a flare-up occurs between India and Pakistan, the SCO can lose force. Some observers fear that India will use US power to seek geopolitical status by blocking the deeper SCO development, but some see SCO management by China and Russia preventing a negative Indo-Pakistani conflict. Alexandr Lukin sees the positive effect of expanding the SCO outweighing any negative effect. In any case, the impact of a country as big as India cannot be overlooked. Key to this is Indian consciousness and interests, which is the theme of the article.

In the first stage after the US attack on Afghanistan, the SCO was found to be unable to deal with the threat of terrorism by India as well as the US, and India entered the arena without regard to the SCO. When in 2005 the SCO members demanded that the US leave Central Asia, India began to take it more seriously, differing from the West in not pressing democracy or human rights in viewing Central Asia. Still, India saw the SCO as a tool in China’s expansionism. As the SCO has maintained regional security and advanced joint development ever more, India has given it more attention. In 2014 three events led to India’s entry: 1) the US announced it is leaving Afghanistan, leaving India to fear a vacuum causing a clash of interests with Pakistan there; 2) Russia used military force to annex Crimea and sought to use India’s power to lower the pressure from the West, while pressing for India to enter the SCO; and 3) the SCO structure was finalized, with India ready to join, in 2017, and China attaching to it more strategic significance as it also advanced the BRI and other visions. Yet India’s thinking remained relatively negative to the SCO, seeing it as an instrument of Chinese policy and hoping to lessen China’s role with its entry if it were not marginalized by China managing economics and Russia, security. India feared being dragged into deepening discord among China, the US, and Russia. Yet it was seeking great power status in Eurasia as well as the Indo-Pacific, drawing closer to Central Asia, improving energy security, and fighting terrorism; it needed to join the SCO.

The article mentions India’s “Look North Policy” and “Connect Central Asia Policy,” to which Modi added “Neighborhood First Policy” extending the Central Asia policy. Special attention is shown to the Afghanistan factor for Modi. India also sought support for becoming a permanent member of the Security Council from Central Asian states. Moreover, entering the SCO gave India a platform for deepening ties to Iran, which favors entering the organization; Russia, with which it has a “privileged strategic partnership”; and China. With Russia, India seeks to balance China, including in Central Asia, one of their common strategic interests. In turn, Russia sees India’s entrance into the SCO as preventing its complete turn to the West without worrying that India would export democracy or anti-authoritarianism. Through the organization, it could seek to manage China ties, too. Joining the AIIB would bring capital to it. Seeing threats from the northwest, India could join in anti-terror exercises. Separating maritime containment of China from continental cooperation, India had a bifurcated regional approach, relying on the US at sea and Russia in Eurasia to balance China, as if the SCO could ease this objective.

Since China recognizes that great power interactions are largely a mix of competition and cooperation, balancing and easing tensions simultaneously as in Sino-US relations, it can deal with India in the SCO. Those in the West who think that China was blocking India’s entry into the SCO and view the “String of Pearls” and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as aimed at containing India fail to recognize that US global influence is gradually receding. This is in fact illustrated by its pull back from Afghanistan and “America First.” They also assume that India entered the SCO to rely on Russia to balance China and found support for this in Central Asia. Yet balancing Pakistan is more urgent than balancing China, and if Pakistan entered the SCO and boosted ties to Russia, India had to as well. Some see its entry as so significant that a China-Russia-India triumvirate will emerge. India views the SCO through geopolitical and geo-economic lenses. It will help to determine the SCO model. It has many shared strategic interests with the SCO and can help to steer the SCO, as on Afghanistan. The implications of the article are that the SCO, notably China, can assume a major role in managing Afghanistan and maintaining peace between India and Pakistan. Given amicable Indo-Russian relations, Pakistan has little hope to limit India’s interests via the SCO. Even the Indo-Chinese border issue can be addressed through the SCO.

As a rising regional great power, India can have a big influence on the SCO, but its thinking and strategy have positive and negative impact even if it seems for now the positive ones prevail. Great power competition is intensifying, and Indo-Pakistan and Sino-Indian relations for a time worsened. Yet India’s negative attitude toward the BRI can be a bottleneck to economic cooperation ahead and breaks with other SCO members, while blocking the SCO from regional economic integration. It has time to change. Among its erroneous ideas is a zero-sum approach, reacting to both Sino-Russian relations and the role of the US in the region.

South Pacific

Qin Sheng in Yatai Anquan yu Haiyang Yanjiu, No. 6 wrote about the Indo-Pacific strategy in the South Pacific, an important part of the Quad’s concerns beyond the usual three areas under consideration. One aim of the Indo-Pacific strategy is to counter BRI. Boosting their economic and military presence in the South Pacific, the Quad will aggravate great power competition. The vision is for the four states to use “value diplomacy” to isolate China and military alliances to contain China. Only when this vision received the official imprimatur of the US in 2019 did it become broadly accepted in the diplomatic field. Yet it does not signify common understanding in the four states of its meaning and significance. Thus. it operates differently for the four in bilateral and multilateral relations, raising the Indian Ocean’s geopolitical importance but not often drawing attention to the South Pacific except in Australia as China’s relations in the area enter a new stage. It poses a challenge to the BRI.

The South Pacific islands were long overlooked until the 2010s. The Indo-Pacific concept changed that under the decisive influence of Australia after the US naval dominance began to be challenged by China’s rise, establishing economic interdependence among US allies and building a deep-sea naval capability. In 2017-19, each of the four states clarified what it means by the Indo-Pacific framework; notably, the US and Australia focused on the Pacific Islands. The US sought to join with Australia and New Zealand—with their longstanding ties to the islands—to realize its strategic interests. For Australia, the key was to respond to a potential clash to China’s rising influence, calling this in 2017 a “step up.” Boosting the islands’ economies took many forms, as did security ties and more exchanges. Security diplomacy is the strategic priority. Details are presented on meetings, visits, and statements in support of the new plans in the US, Japan, and India. Increases in ODA are covered, especially the biggest role for Australia.

The goal of making a counteroffer to BRI was made explicit in September 2018 through direct competition, taking advantage of deeper roots on the islands, which are reviewed in detail. In 2018 the Quad made the BRI as their hypothetical enemy. BRI’s appeals for joint prosperity and support for the islands raising their “Pacific voice” are emphasized. In contrast, the Indo-Pacific strategy, no matter which country, is for pursuit of one country’s interests, not for multilateral development or even for coordinated pursuit the various Quad country’s objectives. Trump’s “America First” principle limits this strategy by seeking short-term gains with no clarity on its staying power. One cannot even be optimistic about Quad cooperation under a new US president or in light of trade disputes. This is not a true multilateral framework.

The island countries have ample room for diplomatic choices. Climate change is a big concern as is overcoming economic backwardness. Only if these states unite will their voices be heard. They have achieved some progress in that direction. While the Quad prioritizes security, the biggest security threat is not military. It is maritime resources and environment. The Quad do not prioritize a development agenda. With “community of common destiny” as its aim, BRI advocates a new model of South-South cooperation, not intensified strategic competition in the South Pacific. A big test awaits the islanders in the choice they will make between the two competing regional frameworks. The recent decision of the Solomon Islands to establish diplomatic relations with China will lead more states toward the BRI. The article ends with no hope of cooperation between the two camps; conflict lies ahead, and China has a win-win policy.


Xi had met with Abe at the G20 in June and prior to the China-Japan-Korea (CJK) summit in December, but plans for an April 2020 state visit remained in flux, as if Japan had much leverage. Recalling the trouble in which the two Hu’s had found themselves in 1986, 2003, and 2008 over diplomatic overtures to Japan and the failed Jiang Zemin visit there in 1998, Xi had to proceed with caution. Each side invoked public opinion as a factor limiting its freedom of action, while tensions over the East China Sea and Taiwan kept rattling preparations.

In Guoji Zhengzhi Kexue, No. 3, Hu Fangxi and Zhang Lihua focused on the reasons for success or failure in Japan’s quest for autonomy from the US. In an alliance, they said, the weaker country without nuclear weapons has its sovereignty sharply limited, but in the case of Japan it has on a number of occasions fought successfully for its autonomy, and as its relative power has grown it has fought more. What accounts for whether it wins or loses? Both the way it fights and the power it internally musters matter, and the record extends for nearly 70 years since 1951. Japan has to maintain the alliance or secure total sovereignty in international relations, and for the foreseeable future will depend on the US as the cornerstone of its diplomacy, even as the US has a degree of dependency on Japan. Given its situation and the US need for a presence in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan had leverage. Boosting ties with the Soviet Union/Russia and China gave it more. The stability and flexibility of a cabinet could strengthen Japan’s power to fight for a more autonomous voice. In opening relations with the Soviet Union, recovering Okinawa, rejecting the US approach to the two oil crises of the 1970s, demanding that Japan develop the FSX fighter jet in the 1980s, Japan sought more autonomy. Causes of failures, such as in the late 1980s, are indicated.

The conclusion argued that the Japan-US alliance was a product of the Cold War, but it survived and grew stronger. Even as Japan’s relative strength in the alliance rose, it mostly failed in its struggles for autonomy for reasons explained in the analysis. It asked how China should respond to Japan and its alliance with the US. An obvious aim was to foresee how Japan will seek to distance itself from the US in the future and whether it will succeed. Absent, however, was any coverage of how China is driving Japan deeper into the US clutches, making it less likely that Japan would seek more autonomy. This is an example of a bilateral analysis when a trilateral focus is needed.

In Guoji wenti yanjiu, No. 6, Wei Zongyou concentrated on how “America First” impacts both the US alliances with the ROK and Japan, covering both “fair trade” and “defense burden-sharing.” If Trump agrees to “leniency” at times, he arouses deep dissatisfaction in both countries marked by the search for more autonomy and ways to defend their countries’ interests. Although there will not be fundamental conflict with this US, more challenges can be anticipated as both states doubt that they can depend so much on the US. The two alliances are described as classic, unequal ones with US comprehensive national power, especially military power, absolutely superior. “America First” is having three main impacts: 1) aggravating dissatisfaction with the US, as shown in polls; 2) casting doubt about US reliability; and 3) stimulating Japan and South Korea to seek more autonomous power. Yet South Korea relies on the US on North Korea, and Japan for responding to the rise of China in Asia as well as the North Korean threat.

Even so, the authors expressed little doubt that Trump’s words and actions can spur, to the maximum extent, autonomous efforts to protect their economic and security interests. For Seoul, given the North Korean nuclear impact, the first autonomous efforts center on getting a bigger role on this matter, which also leads to seeking China’s understanding and support. Also, on BRI, despite Trump’s great efforts in opposition, Moon Jae-in is positive, even sending a representative to Beijing to talk about linkages with Seoul’s “New Southern Policy.” In June at the G20 Moon told Xi that Seoul was willing to go forward together on BRI, cooperating in third markets and supporting open world markets through multilateralism. At the same time, Moon stresses developing economic ties with Russia through his “New Northern Policy,” including in the Arctic route as part of economic diversification. In September 2017 at the EEF, introducing this policy and his “9 bridges strategy,” Moon drew a link with Putin’s “New Eastern Policy” and treated the Russian Far East as an important crossroads. The plan is for two annual meetings to firm up this strategy. Japan has prominently pursued autonomy in CPTPP (instead of TPP), an EU EPA, talks with China and South Korea on an FTA, and REP. From May 2017 it gradually moved to a cooperative attitude on BRI, especially during Abe’s summit with Xi in October 2018 with support for coordinating in third markets and even more in the June 2019 summit. In security along with the US alliance, Japan is boosting its own defense capabilities along with “proactive contribution to peace.” It is developing closer security ties to Australia, India, and others. The authors left open whether these moves toward autonomy will contribute to peace, stability, and prosperity in the region. As the Trump administration demands more of its allies, the implicit message was that China needs to explore more ways to make use of their autonomy.

Seoul is targeted by China differently than Tokyo for at least four reasons: 1) it is considered a more integral part of the Sinocentric order, given historical ties and geography; 2) vulnerability to North Korea makes Seoul less capable of resisting Beijing: 3) it has allowed itself to become economically dependent on China well beyond Japan’s dependence; and 4) progressive leaders are viewed as more susceptible to pressure to weaken ties with the United States. Tokyo could be more assertive, e.g., in launching a Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative, which Seoul belatedly joined in endorsing but only in the much-qualified form of its New Southern Policy. It could refuse Huawei technology rather than merely saying it would be up to companies on how to respond. Unable to assert a regional strategy, Seoul is alert to Beijing’s readiness to push back hard. It is not only that Seoul fears economic retaliation, as occurred after its THAAD decision, and reduced cooperation on North Korea. It senses the danger of isolation with little support in a time when US policy minimizes alliances and Trump may be all swagger and little real action.