Country Report: China (June 2016)

In the spring of 2016, Chinese analysts considered the repercussions of North Korea’s latest nuclear test. They assessed the prospects for China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) policy, with particular attention to its implementation in Iran and Afghanistan. They also evaluated the prospects for Sino–Russian cooperative relations, and sharply criticized Japan’s intervention in the South China Sea.

The North Korean Nuclear Issue

In Dongbeiya Luntan, no. 3 (2016), Wang Sheng and Ling Shengli assess China’s policy regarding the North Korean nuclear issue. They criticize existing explanations for the intractability of the nuclear problem, which focus on either systemic or unit-level factors. One faulty explanation is that the Six-Party Talks have been ineffective, as a result of the difficulty of the objective, the varied interests each party holds, the inadequate institutionalization of the negotiation process, and the inability to create binding conditions. Other inadequate explanations blame individual parties: the United States, for being too willing to accept a long timeframe for resolution or for failing to accede to North Korea’s demands; North Korea, for its disingenuous participation in the Six-Party Talks despite its intention to maintain a nuclear program; China, which has the greatest influence over North Korea, for its inability to persuade the North Koreans to agree to a solution; or South Korea, for pursuing a tough policy and uniting with the United States against North Korea. Others blame ineffective Sino–US cooperation, stymied by the two parties’ conflicting policy objectives and differences in the policy tools they are willing to use.

In contrast, Wang and Ling argue that analysts should more comprehensively assess the failure to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue from a neo-classical realist perspective, which stresses the interaction of external system-level factors and internal domestic factors. In their view, North Korea seeks nuclear weapons because it fears international threats to its security; because of its own uncertainty about the degree of insecurity it faces and about whether a US–North Korean agreement could resolve this situation, North Korean policy is inconsistent. Nevertheless, North Korean policy is a rational response to the leadership’s perceptions of the external context. At the international level, four factors drive North Korean policy: its desire to compensate for its own weakness relative to South Korea; ineffective policy coordination and differences among the major powers, which create loopholes for the North Korean regime; the unstable security situation on the Korean Peninsula; and global nuclear proliferation. These international factors coexist with three domestic-level factors: the North Korean leadership’s desire to consolidate its rule, protect national security, and use the pursuit of nuclear weapons as a tool for extracting economic aid and other benefits from other countries. The military has a strong hand in guiding North Korean policy.

Wang and Ling then consider the negative consequences that would result from North Korean possession of nuclear weapons. First, nuclear weapons would not improve North Korea’s security situation or benefit its population in the long term, even though they might help the regime to consolidate its rule in the short term. In addition, North Korean possession of nuclear weapons would severely damage US-led global non-proliferation efforts, threaten the US alliance system in Northeast Asia, and pose a direct threat to Japan and South Korea, and even to the US homeland. As a result, the United States would likely take military action, perhaps through surgical strikes. Relations between North and South Korea would also suffer: North Korea’s relative power would increase, raising tensions; South Korea would respond by hardening its policy and enhancing its cooperation with the United States. Furthermore, North Korean nuclear possession would violate China’s bottom line of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and challenge China’s regional and national security interests. It would encourage South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons, and put the onus on China to prevent North Korean proliferation of its capabilities. Finally, the security environment in Northeast Asia would deteriorate amid increased peninsular tensions, military and nuclear competition, and—of particular concern to China—strengthening cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

To avert these consequences, Wang and Ling advocate a “dual-track” solution, which considers both the nuclear problem and the underlying tensions on the Korean Peninsula. They argue that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as South Korean experts, has already expressed its support for this approach. In Wang and Ling’s view, the dual-track solution would proceed in four stages, focusing initially on the easier tasks and leaving the more difficult tasks for later. In the first stage, North Korea would freeze its nuclear program, halt all proliferation, and reenter negotiations. During the second stage, North Korea would receive temporary security assurances and begin to open itself up to the outside world. During the third stage, North Korea would receive a five to eight yearlong security guarantee and would irreversibly abandon its nuclear program. Finally, a peaceful resolution would be reached on the Korean Peninsula. Throughout this process, the parties would adhere to three principles: the non-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the avoidance of war, and stronger Sino–US coordination. Wang and Ling conclude that the successful resolution of the nuclear issue is inseparable from the final resolution of the divided peninsula, and that China will play a crucial role in mediating between the United States and North Korea. While this may appear even-handed, emphasis on a freeze in return for talks is close to the North Korean position, while stress on final resolution of the peninsular divide prior to denuclearization, with China playing a large role, may back the North’s call for the removal of US troops and the gutting of the US–ROK alliance. Much is left unstated in this proposal, which does not put much of the onus on North Korea and could lead to pressure for a sharp US–ROK retreat.

Liu Jiangyong, also writing in Dongbeiya Luntan, no. 3 (2016), expresses direct criticism of US policy. Liu is concerned by ratcheting tensions. North Korea’s nuclear test and its subsequent launch of a satellite in early 2016 prompted UN sanctions. In response to North Korea’s actions, the United States and South Korea expanded the scope of their annual exercises. Liu is very critical of this decision; he argues that North Korea seeks nuclear weapons and conducts tests out of a sense of insecurity, and blames the United States and South Korea for aggressive responses that only increase North Korea’s sense of vulnerability. To Liu, the United States, through its policy actions, plays the key role in determining whether North Korea will continue to develop nuclear weapons. Liu blames both the United States and South Korea for failing to accede to North Korea’s request that they halt their military exercises in exchange for an agreement by North Korea to halt its nuclear tests.

Liu fears that this iteration of the North Korean nuclear crisis is more severe than those in the past. North Korea’s capabilities seem to be advancing. He worries that increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula could result in nuclear war, not necessarily through the direct use of a nuclear weapon, but through US surgical strikes on North Korean nuclear facilities or through North Korean attacks on South Korean nuclear power plants. He is also concerned that the United States is trying to force China to take a harder line on North Korea, which would harm North Korea–China relations, and, therefore, increase the direct threat to China posed by North Korea. Like Wang and Ling, Liu also worries about the possibility of proliferation in Northeast Asia, as a deteriorating nuclear situation on the Korean Peninsula would encourage Japan to develop nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, echoing the official Chinese position, Liu strongly opposes US plans to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea, arguing that its radar system would also cover parts of China and Russia, and darkly warning the United States to heed the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis.

Liu argues that the first priority must be to prevent this iteration of the crisis from spiraling into war. At the same time, he calls on South Korea and the United States to halt their joint exercises and on North Korea to halt its tests, and advocates the revival of the Six-Party Talks. To achieve these goals, Liu argues that both sides must cast off realist approaches that focus on military capabilities in favor of the concept of “sustainable security,” as laid out by Xi Jinping in 2014. Broadly speaking, sustainable security emphasizes common objectives, comprehensive policy, cooperation, and sustainability (a great deal of security at a low cost). In the Korean case, a sustainable security strategy focuses on the dual goals of non-nuclearization and achieving peace and security on the Korean Peninsula by respecting each party’s security needs, embracing both traditional and non-traditional security issues, and promoting regional economic and social development. The parties can achieve sustainable security through “peaceful multilateralism,” a policy approach best characterized by the Six-Party Talks. Much of the remainder of the essay meanders away from the North Korean issue and into a more general statement of support for Xi Jinping’s “sustainable security concept” and an extended exposition of the differences between relatively peaceful Northeast Asia and more conflictual Europe and the Middle East. Liu concludes that sustainable security will only be possible in Northeast Asia if North Korea and the United States both decide to support the concept. Left vague is what is meant by respecting the security needs of North Korea and promoting regional development. What is clear is that so far Liu faults the United States for not making the concessions necessary to avert this crisis.

One Belt, One Road

In Xiya Feizhou, no. 2 (2016), Fan Hongda analyzes the important role of Iran in China’s OBOR policy. By lifting sanctions and ending Iran’s isolation, the July 2015 nuclear agreement increased Iran’s diplomatic room to maneuver. Furthermore, as crises have hit many countries in the Middle East (including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria) and as Saudi Arabia has faltered, Iran has become relatively powerful. Nevertheless, Fan argues that Iranian diplomats face three main problems that hinder Iran’s development: poor relations with Israel over the Palestine issue; poor relations with Saudi Arabia over a host of substantive issues that Fan boils down to a basic Persian–Arab conflict; and poor relations with the United States based on their interactions over the past fifty years. Fan argues that Chinese policymakers must be aware of these three crucial bilateral relationships because China’s bilateral relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States may impact its relationship with Iran.

At the same time, Fan argues that Chinese analysts must be well versed in domestic political developments in Iran because they impact China’s ability to achieve its objectives. He details Iran’s political history, recognizing the lasting influence of Ayatollah Khomeini, but concluding that the trend is now toward “pragmatism and moderation.” Nevertheless, conflicts between the reformers and the existing political system may cause domestic turmoil, and limited domestic reform may constrain Iran’s ability to take advantage of the improvements to its international situation. Fan argues that Iranian leaders prioritize economic development and, as a result of the years of sanctions, desperately need both capital and technology, which creates a large opening for China. Iranian leaders remember that China stood by them while other countries sanctioned them, and are looking for ways in which they can achieve their development objectives within the context of OBOR. Nevertheless, Iran’s improved international position means that there will be more competition for economic projects as other countries’ firms seek to enter into their own agreements with the Iranian regime.

Fan stresses that China’s ability to achieve its goals rests on a nuanced understanding of Iran’s domestic situation. China must carefully watch Iran’s reform process, which Fan expects to be gradual, and understand the various strands of public thought. China also needs to recognize Iranian national pride and support its regional great power status. Above all else, Chinese policymakers need to convince Iran that China is uniquely able to help it achieve its development goals (while also reminding it of the harm that will come if it fails to adhere to its existing contracts). Given the influence of youth, as demonstrated by the Arab Spring, Chinese policymakers should devote particular attention to persuading young Iranians to see China’s economic rise as a model. China’s overtures should not be limited to economics; one of China’s policy weaknesses, in a world of great power competition, is its lack of allies. (This argument serves as an interesting contrast to Fu Ying’s argument against alliances, discussed below, although Fu Ying seems more influenced by formal military alliances, while Fan is focused on less formal political partnerships.) When choosing political allies, China should prioritize relations with regional great powers like Iran, which have the potential to enhance China’s influence over other global great powers. Given talk of Iran joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and working with both China and Russia in the context of this Eurasian grouping, it is noteworthy that Fan does not talk about the Russian connection.

Finally, Fan emphasizes that Chinese policymakers must situate OBOR objectives in the context of improved Sino–Iranian relations. Fan warns that the Chinese must be careful not to push OBOR too hard; irritation at perceived disrespect by the international community was a major motivation for Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, China needs Iran to believe that OBOR is beneficial for its own, domestic development objectives. Fan concludes, a bit optimistically, that Iran’s troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia offers an opportunity for China to improve its standing in Iran by offering to mediate between the two countries, arguing that both Iran and Saudi Arabia will appreciate China’s efforts even if their bilateral relations fail to improve.
In a companion article in Xiya Feizhou, no. 2 (2016), Huang Minxing and Chen Likuan assess the importance of Afghanistan to OBOR. Much of Huang and Chen’s analysis rests on the geopolitical significance of Afghanistan as a country at the crossroads of the Silk Road. After detailing Afghanistan’s historic importance for the ancient Silk Route, they describe its modern significance, emphasizing its impact on stability in Xinjiang and its potential importance as a source of raw materials and as an export market. Reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan offer an opportunity for Chinese investment.

China’s OBOR proposal partly conflicts with the “New Silk Road” plans of other countries, particularly the United States, Japan, Pakistan, and India. The United States and Japan, for example, have developed energy projects in Afghanistan. All of the countries are interested in increasing regional economic integration. US objectives are global; the other countries’ objectives are more narrowly defined by their national interests. Nevertheless, the success of these plans is limited by setbacks in Afghan reconstruction. Although these plans offer some competition to OBOR, they are not mutually exclusive, and cooperation is possible among the various parties.

China makes its OBOR proposals for Afghanistan in the context of a good bilateral relationship. China has been active in Afghan reconstruction, in extracting mineral resources, and in developing cultural exchanges. Meanwhile, the Afghan government has stated its support for the OBOR strategy. In contrast to the US and Japanese plans, Fan argues, China’s OBOR strategy emphasizes joint projects with Afghan partners and seeks mutual benefits. Nevertheless, Fan cautions that Chinese analysts must consider several challenges to the execution of the OBOR proposals. Afghanistan’s security situation remains volatile, and its relations with its neighbors, especially Pakistan, remain ambiguous. Differences may arise between China’s OBOR priorities and Afghanistan’s domestic economic priorities. Trade balances between the two countries are volatile, and Afghanistan’s economy is weak. Furthermore, the Silk Road routes the Chinese envision running through Afghanistan are difficult to construct; for now, Afghanistan may be better served by seeking a port in Pakistan and connecting to China, indirectly, via the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. To this end, China has offered assistance to construct a highway and a railroad connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fan concludes that China should promote its OBOR objectives by helping Afghanistan to overcome its security challenges and by creating a stable environment for the two countries to pursue economic cooperation.

Sino–Russian Relations

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, no. 4 (2016), Fu Ying argues that China and Russia are developing a stronger strategic partnership but will not pursue a formal alliance. In light of China and Russia’s deepening relationship and their shared view of the United States as a threat, some analysts expect China and Russia to form an anti-Western alliance. Nevertheless, Fu argues that China is generally opposed to alliances. According to Fu, Chinese analysts view alliances as having four characteristics: they are directed against a future threat; they generally include a stronger and a weaker party; the weaker party sacrifices its interests to the stronger party; and they are a matter of convenience and do not last (this view owes something to the Chinese perception of the US alliance system in East Asia, although US alliances with Japan and South Korea have certainly lasted). Chinese analysts also view alliances as a source of conflict and a constraint on individual states’ decision-making power. China has had three alliances with Russia/the USSR (in the late nineteenth century; in the 1940s; and in the 1950s), all of which failed. Consequently, alliances are unsuitable for a country like China, which prioritizes its independence. Instead, Russia and China are developing a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.”

According to Fu, the Sino–Russian partnership is based on equality and mutual respect. Both populations want their country to be respected as a great power. The two states possess high levels of mutual trust and have highly institutionalized leadership cooperation mechanisms and frequent leadership meetings. Bilateral trade has expanded. The two countries cooperate on climate change, in new financial organizations like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank, and on military and security affairs. Fu notes several unusual aspects of the relationship that highlight the closeness of the two countries: their ability to resolve all bilateral territorial disputes in 2008; cooperative relations between the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) Central Committee General Office and the Russian Presidential Executive Office; and China’s willingness to link its development strategy, including OBOR, to Russia’s. Russia and China have some conflicting interests, particularly surrounding historical issues, Russia’s unease at China’s increasing relative power, and differences in their foreign policy emphasis, but they are able to manage them well. Furthermore, these differences are overshadowed by their common policy interests regarding national security, economic development, and on a host of international issues.

Fu next considers the Sino–Russian relationship in the context of Chinese–Russian–US trilateral relations. As Sino–Russian relations have improved, US–Russian relations have deteriorated sharply, most clearly over the conflict in Ukraine. The United States now questions whether Russia wants to be part of the West or whether it seeks to challenge it. Interestingly, Fu notes that some US analysts fear that China will follow the “Russia model” in the South China Sea, but contends that such fears are groundless because it has not picked sides in the Ukraine conflict (the US analysts Fu mentions would probably argue that China has chosen a side by remaining “neutral”). In China, according to Fu, discussions of Ukraine focus on the factors that caused the crisis, including the color revolutions, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) eastern expansion, the various disputes between Russia and former members of the USSR, and the close ties between Crimea and Russia. Meanwhile, Sino–US relations have remained largely stable, although they are punctuated by specific challenges, such as those related to the South China Sea and economic and trade issues, and permeated by broader structural issues related to China’s rise. The unevenness of these bilateral relations has “unbalanced” the trilateral relationship, but Fu emphasizes that China and Russia are not ganging up against the United States. (Nevertheless, Fu then notes that China and Russia wish to work together to “perfect” the international world order created by the West.)

Fu concludes by cautioning against a return to the blocs and great power struggles of the Cold War, arguing that current global and transnational problems are better addressed through pluralistic approaches. China and Russia should not pursue an alliance; China and the United States should seek a new form of great power relations focused on dialogue and overcoming differences. In repeating over and over the mantra that China and Russia are not allies, with little attention to the limits of the relationship, Fu seems to be trying too hard to be convincing.

Japan and the South China Sea

In Taipingyang Xuebao, no. 4 (2016), Zhang Xuekun and Ou Xuanxi analyze the causes and implications of Japan’s continued “interference” in the South China Sea dispute. After offering the standard Chinese history of Japan’s South China Sea policy from the early twentieth century to the present, Zhang and Ou assess the motives that have caused Japan to shift from paying “active attention” to “attempts to comprehensively intervene.” Of primary importance, of course, is China’s rise. Japan feels increasingly threatened by China, especially by its rising economic power, as indicated by China’s gross domestic product (GDP) surpassing Japan’s GDP in 2010. Consequently, Japan seeks to constrain China’s “sea power” and limit its maneuverability in the strategically important, energy-rich South China Sea. Second, Japan fears that Chinese success in the South China Sea would harm Japan’s claims to sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Toward this end, Japan helps countries like the Philippines and Vietnam to oppose China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea in order to delay resolution of those issues and to distract Chinese attention from the East China Sea, while also building a coalition of regional supporters for Japan’s East China Sea claims. Zhang and Ou stress that Japanese leaders are stalling because they fear that resolution of the South China Sea issue will favor China and prefer the situation to remain unresolved as long as possible. Finally, Japan seeks to counter China’s increasing economic influence in Southeast Asia. With the advent of the AIIB, for example, as a challenger to the Asian Development Bank, Japan fears that it is losing regional influence to China. Consequently, Japan sees the South China Sea conflict as an opportunity to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN. Zhang and Ou, like many commentators, are dismissive of Japan’s claims to be motivated by concerns about freedom of navigation.

Prevented (for now) by domestic and constitutional constraints from adopting military measures, as the United States has done, Japan pursues its objectives through a host of other strategies. It promotes regional maritime cooperation, using coordination on non-traditional security issues to gain a foothold in the region. At the same time, Zhang and Ou repeat the common criticism that Japan “internationalizes” the South China Sea conflict by raising it in various international, multilateral settings and by denying China the opportunity to resolve the issue through bilateral relations, as it would prefer. Japan has also worked to increase the defense capabilities of ASEAN and of individual claimant countries, like the Philippines and Vietnam, to bolster their ability to resist China’s claims, and has coordinated its efforts with the United States, India, and Australia. Finally, Japan has used international law as a tool to deny China’s claims, while revising domestic laws, such as the ban on collective self-defense, to allow itself to more freely intervene in the region.

In the future, Zhang and Ou expect Japanese intervention to increase, even including a military presence. The rightward shift in domestic Japanese politics, its revisions to its laws and possibly its constitution, and the negative repercussions of China’s rise for Japan’s relative power suggest that Japan will actively use the South China Sea conflict as a tool to balance against China. Given these pessimistic projections, Zhang and Ou conclude by offering several policy recommendations for the Chinese government. At the international level, China must prevent Japan from coordinating with the United States and India to achieve its goals; to this end, China needs to focus on improving its own bilateral relationships with those two countries. At the regional level, increasing Sino–ASEAN economic interdependence and promoting OBOR will strengthen China’s position, as will strengthening traditional and non-traditional security and agreeing to a “code of conduct” (many non-Chinese analysts are skeptical that the Chinese government has any real interest in a code of conduct). With regard to its bilateral relationship with Japan, China must maintain its principles while seeking greater substantive cooperation, and must try to split the South China Sea issue from the continuing dispute in the East China Sea. Finally, Zhang and Ou call for stronger Chinese air power and a more substantial military presence in both the East and South China seas to make Japanese intervention more costly.

Zhu Haiyan makes many of the same points in an article in Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, no. 2 (2016). Like Zhang and Ou, he criticizes Japan’s tendency to internationalize the issue, increase the military capacity of ASEAN claimants, use international law to challenge China’s sovereign claims, and coordinate with the United States. The similarities between the two pieces extend to a virtually identical, but unattributed, section on Japan’s 2015 statement of support for US military patrols within the 12 nautical mile boundary of China’s manmade islands and the division of responsibility between Japan and the United States for assisting the Philippines. (Whether one article copied this section from the other, or whether both articles copied it from a third, possibly official, source, is unclear.)

Zhu is skeptical of Japanese claims that they seek to protect freedom of navigation or the security of sea lines of communication (SLOC). Instead, he largely agrees with Zhang and Ou’s contention that Japanese behavior is motivated by the desire to contain China in the East China Sea, the broader region, and throughout the globe, and by its support for the US “Asia–Pacific rebalance.” At the same time, he argues that Japanese behavior is also driven by its desire to develop a “going out” strategy for the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) that will allow Japan to move beyond the postwar system and expand its international military presence.

In addition to domestic political and legal constraints, Zhu argues that characteristics of Japan’s relations with countries both inside and outside the region will constrain its intervention in the South China Sea. According to Zhu, Japan’s policy is based on a regional focus, while the United States takes a global perspective. Consequently, Japan’s ability to coordinate with the United States on South China Sea policy will be determined by the broader context of Sino–US relations, which, at a global level, encompass issues like terrorism and climate change, and are trending toward more constructive cooperation. Furthermore, the need to avoid conflictual bilateral relations with China will limit Japanese actions. At the same time, Southeast Asian states pursue a double-edged policy toward China that attempts to both draw closer to China and check and balance China’s rise. Improvements in Sino–ASEAN relations will limit the space for Japan to maneuver.

Zhu then turns to the negative consequences of Japan’s intervention and its desire to prolong the conflict. Japan’s position hampers China’s ability to achieve its “dual track approach,” which stresses direct bilateral negotiations with other claimants and cooperation between China and Southeast Asian states to achieve peace and stability. At the same time, Japanese militarization and military cooperation with other claimants means that China must pay more attention to ensuring the security of its eastern flank. Japan’s involvement also hinders the execution of OBOR by damaging China’s relations with the Southeast Asian countries along the “Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road,” and increasing their fears about the “China threat.” Finally, Japan attacks China’s “discursive power” regarding the South China Sea, a term Chinese analysts often use to refer to China’s ability to shape the terms of discussion. Japan damages China’s global image by convincing other states that China is an expansionist, bullying, revisionist power, while Japan seek to enforce international law.

Zhu concludes that Japan’s involvement in the South China Sea will not cease. Therefore, China must warn Japan that continued interference will generate excessive costs for the bilateral relationship and prevent Japan from using the South China Sea dispute as a cudgel to beat back China’s rise.