Country Report: China (June 2014)

Regional Dynamics, the US Pivot, and Maritime Security

Shi Jiazhu and Yu Lingling in Guoji guancha, No. 2, 2014 explain the US strategy in shifting the center of its global strategy to Asia and China’s response to maintain maritime security. They describe its aims as: reducing US lines for fighting a war; concentrating control over resources; and maintaining hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and the world. With the decrease in the US share of the global economy and China’s economic rise, US anxiety has risen. The article makes it clear that this is not due to anything China has done, but because the United States, under the illusion of unipolarity, cannot accept China’s rise. After all, China has a different social system and values and is seen as having the potential to end the rule of the world by the West. The United States, without cause, sees it as a strategic competitor and latent challenger, even viewing its maritime development as a threat. This account treats the United States as on the offense, worsening China’s national security environment and threatening its sovereignty. While China seeks to share the Pacific, the United States seeks to rule the entire Pacific and the world. As it expands its military presence, it is creating a more negative atmosphere in the region. In three spots in particular—Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, and the South China Sea—the struggle centers on Chinese sovereignty versus US hegemony. Furthermore, Washington encourages Japanese militarism and the revival of its maritime expansionism. The article links this to Japan’s historical behavior, which is reviving, as it strives to become a military great power. Given this situation, the authors explain, China must firmly support its core interests and its sovereignty. It is depicted as entirely on the defensive with no room for compromise. Yet, the article ends by suggesting that cooperation with Washington is still possible, omitting any suggestion that this could happen with Tokyo.

Hu Bo writes in Shijie zhishi about China’s three key maritime strategies. The primary goal is to gain regional superiority as a maritime power, thereby effectively deterring any military threats. Maritime security has been and remains a matter of “life and death” for China. Moreover, maritime power is also about bolstering China’s honor and rejuvenation as a great nation. China also has specific thorny issues to which it is constantly wary in its coastal waters, including protecting security in the Yellow Sea and preventing hostile developments on the Korean Peninsula, as well as maintaining security in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. While China is competing with the United States in maritime power in the Asia Pacific, the conflict with Japan for now remains the most irreconcilable. At the same time, Hu suggests that Japan will eventually accept China’s relative superiority. The second maritime strategy is to wisely use powerful maritime diplomacy in order to have significant influence on maritime affairs in the region and globally. And finally, China is to wisely and efficiently use resources in order to become a global economic maritime power.

Ruan Zongze writes in the latest edition of Guoji wenti yanjiu that China needs a peaceful and prosperous periphery as much as its neighbors need a peaceful and prosperous China. In recent years serious changes have taken place in the Asia-Pacific region underpinned by the emergence of two centers of gravity—China and the United States—, exacerbating many conflicts and frictions. While many countries are benefiting from China’s rise, some are also deeply worried about it and use China as a scapegoat for their internal problems. The United States has used their concerns to its advantage in its pivot towards Asia, which further increased the tensions between China and some of its neighbors.

Ruan stresses that peripheral diplomacy is of utmost importance for the new leadership and discusses what it will involve in the near future. First, China will continue establishing a favorable environment in the periphery as part of its realization of the “China Dream,” an argument referring to economic improvements and multiple trade and investment agreements with its neighbors. Second, China will continue advancing its relations with major countries in the periphery. A strong emphasis here is placed on relations with Russia, but also India, referring to recent high-level meetings with these countries. Ruan notes that improving these ties has bolstered China’s diplomatic position vis-a-vis the United States and Europe. Third is the promotion of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” along with the “Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road.” Finally Ruan argues that China will need to manage obstacles in order to facilitate peaceful development of the region. These include dealing with the influence of the United States, containing Japan’s revisionism, peacefully resolving the Diaoyu conflict, and protecting stability in the South China Sea.

In the latest issue of Xiandai guoji guanxi, Han Caizhen and Shi Yinhong present a somewhat more pessimistic analysis of regional dynamics in the Asia-Pacific, detailing the key challenges in multilateral regional cooperation more broadly, as well as for China, more specifically. As for the former, the two authors first point to the inefficiencies of large multilateral organisations. The fluid nature of organisations such as APEC lacks structure and result-oriented procedures, yielding few substantive results. They note too the unbalanced nature of regional cooperation, with large countries, such as China, India and the United States, shaping economic and geopolitical order in the region. Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, therefore, is strikingly different from that in the EU, where there are no such stark differences in political and economic influence amongst the different participants. Moreover, Asia-Pacific countries lack historic experience in resolving this imbalance. The authors refer also to frictions between major “insiders” and “outsiders” in the region, i.e., China and the United States. The most longstanding issue is that of regional security cooperation. The authors note that multilateral negotiations failed to resolve the most pertinent crises in the region, such as that concerning North Korea, and that there has been little progress in the past ten years in establishing effective multilateral security mechanisms and frameworks. Finally, the spread of nationalism in individual Asia-Pacific countries obstructs multilateral efforts, which the authors contrast to the experiences of European countries after surviving the two World Wars. They argue that whereas Europe shuns nationalism, Asian countries, by which they obviously mean Japan, have embraced it as part of their democratic identity.

Turning to China-specific issues, the first issue highlighted in the article is that of ongoing frictions with Japan. The authors note that Japan’s assertive foreign policy and anti-China rhetoric are unlikely to subside, and bilateral frictions, which they blame on Japan, will only be exacerbated. The second related issue is that of the disputes in the South China Sea. The authors point to the United States as an important culprit in sparking the tensions, arguing that many Asian countries turn against China not due to their national interest but mainly to gain more support from the United States, which, in turn, is not as concerned with the disputes per se as it is with obstructing China’s rise in Asia. The authors also note that given that territorial disputes involve members of APEC, they complicate economic ties and other ongoing multilateral negotiations. The third challenge for China is US assertiveness in East Asia multilateralism and TPP negotiations. Its active participation in multilateral negotiations complicates the “insider” versus “outsider” dichotomy, and its push for signing the TPP agreements and creating FTAAP appears to be an effort to reassert US economic influence in the region and to stave off that of China. The authors note the importance for China of establishing a more balanced foreign policy strategy that pays more attention to the periphery and establishes multilateral security and economic mechanisms, as well as closer bilateral ties.

China-Russia Relations

Guo Qiong in the latest edition of Yafei zongheng argues that China and Russia have to step up their collaboration in Central Asia, as the region will face new security challenges after the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Guo notes mutual interests but also acknowledges significant frictions in their approach to the region. The key shared interest is that of maintaining security in Central Asia, but China is becoming an increasingly important economic player in the region, diminishing Russia’s longstanding influence. Following China’s signing of large-scale gas agreements in Central Asia, Russia is feeling particularly threatened about losing its economic, but also strategic, leverage in the region. The new challenges Russia and China face in the region predominantly concern maintaining stability. The US withdrawal, elevating terrorism and extremism threats, combined with the repercussions of the Arab Spring on already weak and corrupt regimes, weakens regional stability. The US attempt at maintaining influence in the region is another pressure the two countries can work on counteracting together. Guo renews China’s call for working more closely through the SCO to improve security and to enhance economic cooperation in the region. Helping Central Asian states develop economically is directly beneficial to enhancing their security; so the two countries should work together on this objective. Guo reminds readers that China does not aim to hurt Russia’s economic interests in Central Asia and is always acting with Russia’s interests in mind. This is the usual message to which Russians have responded warily.

China-Japan Relations

Zhu Fenggang’s article in the second issue of Yazhou zongheng of 2014 places the territorial dispute with Japan in a context that has displaced others in most Chinese sources. This is not a dispute between two neighbors with different interpretations of legal or historical records, but a pointed challenge by Japan against the postwar international order, he asserts. Zhu makes four principal arguments. First, from Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in the 1590s with the intention of conquering China and advancing further south, Japan’s nationalism has been rife with expansionism, as rekindled in the Meiji period. Tracing aggression against the Ryukyus (which in 1879 were renamed the Okinawa prefecture), Korea, and then Taiwan and the Diaoyu Islands in 1895, Zhu finds no interruption in this extreme nationalism before it had turned into fascism, which lasted until 1945. Second, Zhu finds postwar Japan not in accord with the international order that had been established by the Cairo, Yalta, and Potsdam agreements, which required it to return territory taken from China and others and left it with just four main islands and various smaller ones. While it had to lie low in order to be accepted in international society, leaving room only to concentrate on economic relations, entering the US-led Western camp and holding high the banner of anti-communism, Japan gained US protection that allowed it to continue illegally to occupy islands and to revive nationalism, using disputes over islands as the driving force.  Thus, Japan never really changed in the postwar era.

Third, as Japan’s economy stagnated in the 1990s and the people were distressed, Zhu finds that island consciousness served to divert their attention. Taking Ishihara Shintaro as representative and pointing to his obsession with the sea, Zhu accuses Japanese of provoking crises in order to arouse extreme nationalism, to the point that the focus of criticism becomes diplomatic weakness. He charges that its dispute with Korea is evidence that Japan wants to extend its colonial rule. After recognizing Dokdo as Korean, in 1905 in the course of the war with Russia Japan had laid claim to the island as Takeshima. In 1952 Korea claimed sovereignty, but in 1953 during the Korean War Japanese troops occupied the island before Korean forces drove them off. Eventually, South Korea designated October 25 “Dokdo day,” countering Shimane Prefecture’s February 22 designation. As for the dispute with Russia, it dates from the seventeenth century, not just from the 1855 treaty that Japan uses to make its case. What Japan seeks, in Russian eyes, is to negate the Yalta accords, the postwar order, history, and, beyond bilateral relations, the international order. In this struggle, Japan is striving to wipe away the stain of its defeat. If in 1956 Russia considered the transfer of two islands, it soon rejected that, and if in its economic weakness and wavering diplomatic line of the 1990s Japan had its hopes raised, this too changed. As Russia’s power keeps growing. Japan’s prospects of altering the status quo keep diminishing. These two cases are in line with China’s Diaoyu case.

Fourth, Zhu finds Japan, after using the Cold War divide to rekindle its expansionism and arousing nationalism via territorial pretensions, giving priority to its struggle with China over territory as a means to further arouse the people and to attempt to contain China through a “maritime democratic league” focused on the United States, Australia, and India, above all. While there were eleven meetings on the East Sea to 2008, Japan refused joint development with China of the area by the islands. In 2011, it finally provoked a crisis. Given its ambitions, including to become a military great power, Japan is unlikely to compromise. Zhu’s analysis broadens the context to: the long-term course of expansionist history, which appears to call into question Japan’s hold over Okinawa; the psychology of a nation, in which a “divine state” displaced the usual intermediate forces between people and state; and the international order, which anti-communism and containment have threatened and even served to revive forces from the time of fascism. These views are similar to those in Russia, with an appeal to Yalta, a warning about territorial infringement, and an uncompromising approach to resolving differences since the other side is driven by a fanatic ideology.

Xiao Xi argues in the latest edition of Guoji guancha that China-Japan relations are moving into the phase of strategic stalemate. He stresses that this relationship cannot be regarded as a zero-sum game, and economic interdependence, as well as political adaptation need to be taken into account in the analysis of the bilateral relationship. There are five key features characterizing strategic stalemate. First, China’s economy has already exceeded that of Japan, while Japan still maintains a better quality of economic development, especially in terms of capital and technological advancement. Second, Japan is unable to reconcile a decline in its strategic influence, while China’s influence is growing. Japan sustains its tough position on the Diaoyu Island and East China Sea disputes in order to resurrect its strategic interests. In contrast to Japan, China is fostering its influence in Asia and on the global stage, forming complex interdependent relationships with its neighbors. Third, China is a big regional power, with its strategic focus still in East Asia, while Japan has already dominated East Asia for decades and regards Southeast Asia as its backyard. Moreover, China is going global, while Japan maintains its concentration on Asia. Fourth, both countries have their own defensive and offensive tactics vis-a-vis the United States. Besides China-Japan relations, the relationship with the United States is the most critical relationship for both. Fifth, public opinion is mutually negative, symbolizing a lack of mature great power mentality.

As for China’s strategic response to Japan, Xiao suggests that it needs to adjust its mentality of a big power. Whether China can deal with the changing international situation as a mature superpower matters for its future. China still lacks a clear strategic vision and deep strategic thinking about its rise. Moreover, it has not fully considered the domestic and international constraints on it. China should deal with China-Japan bilateral relations with a long-term vision in mind, and focus on developing common interests, while establishing a more targeted strategy towards regional issues. It should activate the triangle negotiation framework of China-US-Japan and China-Russia-India, and it should grasp the initiative in international affairs and promote its potential in driving global agenda.

Shen Dingli assesses Japan’s behavior at the Shangri-la meetings in a recent media interview. He notes that Abe used the opportunity to scold China, while continuing to use the rhetoric of “positive pacifism” and “rule of law” for resolving the disputes in the South China Sea.  Abe alluded to China having to change its behavior to be in line with international law. Shen notes that Abe’s speech aroused a lot of emotion in the Vietnamese at the summit. Shen further notes that Abe volunteered to attend and give a speech at the conference—a rare choice for top politicians, who do not usually attend the summit, and a decision influenced by China’s rise. He adds that Japan has ruined the opportunity of reaching agreement over the island dispute with China despite China’s warnings. Abe’s emotional speech was simply an attempt to portray the situation in black and white and to shift the responsibility for conflict from Japan, the initial instigator, to China, concludes Shen.

Shen further criticizes the United States for blatantly supporting Japan and forcefully interfering in Asia. Hagel’s comments at the summit scolding China for compromising security in the region only showcased the common tendency of the United States to intrude in the external affairs of other countries. Shen emphasizes the unified position of Japan and the United States against China, and the readiness of China’s leadership to counteract it, claiming that China has always actively pursued peace in the region and has managed to settle most of its territorial conflicts. China will not be weakened by these pressures and will continue pursuing its dream of national revival, he stresses.

North Korea

Liu Jia, in his op-ed published on the Gongshi website argues that negotiations between North Korea and Japan went unexpectedly smoothly. North Korea promised to investigate the kidnappings of Japanese citizens, while Japan agreed to ease some of its economic sanctions against North Korea. The successful negotiations have likely altered Kim Jong-un’s judgment about the current situation in Northeast Asia. First, from North Korea’s perspective, the status of Japan is rising in the framework of the US-Japan alliance. Japan’s flexibility in foreign affairs is increasing, which enables it to ease the sanctions regime. Second, if North Korea can establish a trans-shipment port for Chinese exports to Japan, acting as a bridge in China-Japan bilateral trade, it will increase North Korea’s strategic importance to China. Third, by improving diplomatic relations with Japan, the Kim Jung-un regime can isolate South Korea and divide the US-ROK alliance.

These successful negotiations, we are told, are based on the strategic interests of both nations. Kim Jung-un is eager to open up North Korea. Since China and Russia lack the technology and capital respectively, and South Korea is motivated by the objective of unification, Japan is the best choice for a breakthrough in East Asia. For Japan, establishing relations with North Korea is a way of mitigating its diplomatic deadlock, allowing Abe to conduct an independent foreign policy. The author further concludes that the improvements in North Korea-Japan bilateral relations will benefit China. First, Japan has already recognized the stability of Kim Jung-un’s regime, and is willing to deal with North Korea in the long term. The stability of North Korea as well as the Korean Peninsula satisfies China’s geopolitical interests. Second, North Korea will serve as the trade channel between China and Japan. Currently, there is no harbor directly connecting Japan with northeast China, which prevents bilateral trade from expanding. If North Korea develops export trade with Japan, China will take advantage of this channel, boosting its economic ties with Japan.