Country Report: China (June 2019)

In the spring of 2019, Chinese experts assessed China’s relations with the United States and Russia forty years after reform and opening began. They also evaluated China–Japan–South Korea and China–India–Russia relations. They analyzed the current US–Japan alliance and the US “securitization” of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Conspicuous in many of these analyses is their broad historical scope as well as the implications they draw for policies China should consider. There is a clear effort to avoid a new cold war, manage Sino–US tensions, avoid being drawn into an alliance with Russia, and look for ways to invoke trilateralism to improve relations with countries such as India, Japan, and South Korea. This mood may reflect the uncertainty of the first four months of 2019; a watchful eye should be kept on Chinese writings since the trade war hardened.

Chinese Foreign Policy after Reform and Opening

In Guoji Luntan, No. 2, 2019, Ni Feng reflected on the history of Sino–US relations on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of China’s adoption of the reform and opening policy, noting that the introduction of this policy in December 1978 coincided almost exactly with the announcement that China and the United States would formally resume diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979. Ni divides the past forty years of Sino–US diplomatic relations into four stages. The first stage, from 1979–1989, was one of “strategic cooperation” as the two countries faced a common enemy, the USSR. Ni recognizes that, in many ways, this phase of the relationship originated in 1972, when Sino–US rapprochement began. From 1972–1978, the lack of formal diplomatic relations limited the two countries’ ability to resolve their mutual problems; the normalization of relations in 1979 ushered in a “honeymoon period.”

The second stage, from 1989–2001, was characterized by general progress, despite a number of crises. Ni refers only obliquely to the disruption in bilateral relations created by the Tiananmen incident, referring to it by the Chinese euphemism of “political disturbance.” In doing so, he understates the impact this event had on Sino–US relations. He stresses more heavily the impact of the disintegration of the USSR, which eliminated the original motivation for closer Sino–US relations. In the aftermath of the Cold War, China and the United States instead began to emphasize close economic and trade relations as the cornerstone of their relationship. Americans’ search for new overseas markets coincided neatly with the reenergizing of China’s reform movement brought about by Deng’s Southern Tour. While emphasizing economic relations, the United States also worked to socialize China into the norms of the US-led global world order.

The third stage, from 2001–2009, was more stable than the previous stage. As the United States turned its focus to countering terrorism, in the aftermath of September 11th, it began to see China as a partner in the war on terror. Ni argues that the United States is a country that always needs an enemy and had been searching for a new adversary after the USSR fell; September 11th focused US attention, for a time, away from China and other potential contenders. During the third stage, the two countries reached an understanding on Taiwan; namely, in 2003 George W. Bush expressed his opposition to a unilateral change of the status quo by Taiwan (in the same sentence, Bush also expressed opposition to a unilateral change of the status quo by China, which Ni omits). This stage also saw the institutionalization of the relationship through the creation of the high-level Senior Dialogue and Strategic Economic Dialogue, as well as a number of working-level dialogues. Finally, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Ni argues, the United States realized that it needed help from China, which had become influential on the world stage. The stability of this period allowed the bilateral relationship to remain steady as Obama took office.

The final historical stage lasted from 2009–2016 and was characterized by both competition and cooperation. Ni argues that the gap between China and the United States has narrowed since 2000 as China has focused on growth, while the United States has been bogged down by two wars and the global financial crisis. In this context, the US became increasingly worried about its power relative to that of China. Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalance was an attempt to respond to these new realities. Despite this increased competition, both countries realized that more cooperative relations were in their interest and worked collaboratively on issues such as the Paris Agreement.

Turning to the present, Ni asserts that bilateral relations under the Trump administration are more complex and unsettled than at any time since normalization efforts began. The United States has shifted from its efforts to bring China into the global order to a perception of China as a “strategic competitor” and “revisionist” power. These policy shifts have occurred rapidly and without any of the deliberation that characterized previous administrations’ policies. Ni contends that the trade war marks an unprecedented swerve away from the view that economic growth and cooperation advance both countries’ interests, and poses a fundamental threat to the two countries’ relationship. He also notes the many other points of tension between the two countries, including Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Indo-Pacific region, military exercises, and increasing US opposition to Confucius Institutes. Finally, he highlights what he sees as a unanimous negative feeling toward China among US elites, suggesting that even political figures and media entities that are critical of the Trump administration’s policy share its concerns about China’s rise. With the relationship now characterized by sharp competition, Ni concludes that the relationship is at its worst point of the past four decades.

Despite the many current difficulties, however, Ni recognizes that progress has been made. Compared to the period prior to normalization, China and the United States have much closer economic ties, more extensive popular exchanges, and more robust governmental communication mechanisms. Looking back at the past, he argues, provides several key lessons for maintaining a productive relationship. First, the two countries need to highlight their many mutual interests, including counter-terrorism and climate change. Despite the current trade war, there is still room for greater economic cooperation, particularly on energy and agricultural products. Further institutionalizing intergovernmental communication mechanisms will allow the two sides to better manage conflicts that arise from their different cultural and ideological traditions; at the same time, the two countries should emphasize the development of better crisis management protocols. The two countries’ top leaders will play important roles in advancing mutual interests, while expanding exchanges between the two by tourists and students will build stronger popular support for a positive relationship. Finally, Ni contends that the United States must recognize that the “One China” policy is foundational to the entire Sino–US relationship and should be sensitive to the PRC’s preferences regarding Taiwan.

Writing in the same issue, Feng Yujun considers the evolution of Sino–Soviet/Russian policy since the beginning of the reform era. Feng begins by highlighting the immense differences in China’s current strategic environment compared to the beginning of the reform era. Then, China saw the USSR as its most significant security threat, and was particularly alarmed by tensions on the border and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. China was only beginning to open up to the United States and the West. Today, China has moved from the margins of the world order to its center, and has vastly more global power.

Looking back on China’s relationship with the USSR/Russia, Feng draws four key conclusions. First, cooperation is beneficial for both countries, while struggle is bad. During the 1960s–1970s, Sino–Soviet tensions meant that China had to devote an enormous amount of resources toward preparing for a potential military conflict. This diversion of resources limited China’s ability to invest in modernization and the global technical revolution (Feng does, in passing, note the impact of the Cultural Revolution as well, but domestic policies were surely more significant than he allows in this essay). Likewise, tensions with China meant the Soviet Union had to prepare for the possibility of a two-front conflict in both the east and the west, and also deployed troops on its borders with China and Mongolia. Better relations mean that both countries can devote their resources to economic growth instead.

Second, the key slogans describing Sino–Russian relations include “mutual respect, equality, and mutual benefit,” “non-alignment, non-antagonistic, not directed against third parties,” and “always friends, never enemies.” The disintegration of the USSR removed it as a potential security threat to China and allowed it to further its reform policies throughout its northern regions. Relations with Russia improved markedly. Politically, the two countries negotiated a final settlement to their border dispute. Militarily, there were no longer troops deployed along the border and the two sides adopted trust-building measures. Economically, ties expanded significantly. At the international level, the two countries began to cooperate on a range of global and regional economic and security issues. Together, these resulted in a new model for bilateral relations.

Third, Feng recognizes that reform and opening meant, to some extent, the “de-Sovietization” of Chinese domestic policy as it shifted away from central planning and toward a “socialist market economy,” as well as the elimination of China’s previous isolation in favor of further engagement with the outside world. Feng notes the significant differences between Chinese and Soviet reforms; the Chinese reforms happened earlier and more gradually. Feng applauds the Russian reforms for transforming the system without causing large-scale conflict or disaster. Nevertheless, he argues that Putin’s great power ambitions conflict with Russia’s decline in actual strength and contends that Putin’s Ukraine policy has significantly damaged Russia’s international position.

Finally, Feng argues that building positive relations with both the United States and Russia, while difficult, is necessary to provide a friendly international and regional environment for China. China has come to recognize that conflict is not inevitable, and that it does not have to choose between Russia and the United States. Feng acknowledges various factors that might point toward a Sino–Russian alignment against the United States, such as the US perception of both China and Russia as revisionist powers and strategic adversaries, but argues that a Sino–Russian alignment would only complicate China’s strategic position without eliminating the pressures it faces from the United States. Feng contends that it is not in China’s interest to pursue a “Cold War” against the United States because the two countries share many common goals. Furthermore, he is not confident that aligning with Russia against the United States would be a good strategy for China because he argues that, despite current tensions, Putin is seeking to improve its relations with the United States. Finally, Russia’s national power is declining and its global influence is diminishing; China has little to gain from an alignment with a country in such a position. Consequently, China should recognize the value of its bilateral relations with both Russia and the United States and work to improve the trilateral interaction among all three, rather than allying with Russia against the United States.

China–Japan–South Korea Relations

In Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 4, 2019, Li Kaisheng evaluates the effectiveness of the China–Japan–South Korea cooperation mechanism as it reaches its twentieth anniversary and offers suggestions for Chinese policy as it prepares for the eighth trilateral summit. Li emphasizes the significance of this trilateral cooperation mechanism for managing contemporary affairs. Globally, the fragmentation of regional cooperation has made this trilateral mechanism even more important for Northeast Asia. Furthermore, the mechanism provides an important means for the three countries to coordinate their policy on North Korea, as well as toward the United States. China is particularly interested in pursuing a coordinated policy strategy with Japan and South Korea, rather than having these two countries turn toward the United States and against China. Consequently, Li sees the trilateral mechanism as having special significance for China: helping it to achieve a “community of common destiny,” helping to resolve regional concerns about Chinese intentions by embedding China in a rules-based order, and forming an important check against “offshore balancing” by the United States.

Although the trilateral mechanism has a lot of potential utility for China, Li acknowledges that its actual effectiveness has been limited. The logic of the mechanism is to use economic cooperation as a way to develop better political coordination. However, the three countries face a number of difficult political and security challenges, which limit the overall effectiveness of the trilateral mechanism. These persistent challenges have made it difficult to hold regular trilateral summits, preventing the three countries from agreeing on an FTA, and provide a poor environment for developing relations. Rather than continuing to focus on economic relations as a means to improve political relations, Li suggests addressing political and security problems more directly.

Li recognizes that the particular political and security problems facing the three countries are difficult to solve, but is optimistic that they can be better managed through careful policy. For example, although Li recognizes the difficulty in resolving the territorial conflicts between China and Japan over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands and between Japan and South Korea over Dokdo/Takeshima, he argues that establishing stronger communication mechanisms and careful diplomatic strategy would allow the countries to prevent these disputes from escalating. Similarly, he argues that the impact of historical issues would be lessened if the three countries’ political leaders were more cautious in their approaches. Another long-term problem is increasing regional power competition between Japan and China, brought about by China’s rapidly increasing national strength. If both countries can recognize that they are poorly served by antagonistic relations, they will be able to better manage the short-term impacts of this competition; Li points favorably to the two countries’ adoption of the four-point consensus in 2014 as evidence of such a pragmatic approach. Finally, although Li recognizes that the United States will attempt to maintain its regional dominance and will try to use its alliances with Japan and South Korea to support this policy, he argues that its preoccupation with other parts of the world and on the North Korean nuclear crisis give China some room to maneuver.

Assessing the current state of affairs, Li argues that there is a unique window of opportunity to advance the trilateral cooperation mechanism. All three countries want to increase regional cooperation. Furthermore, the three component bilateral relations that form the trilateral relationship are all relatively stable. The eighth leadership summit, to be hosted by China in 2019, provides an opportunity for China to advance this objective. Li concludes by providing several policy recommendations for Chinese decision makers that he believes would be acceptable to Japanese leaders and would allow the three countries to break through stumbling blocks related to political and security concerns. First, he urges the three countries to define their relationship as “future-facing strategic partner relations,” to express their commitment to long-term cooperation, the strategic nature of their shared interests, and the value they place on the trilateral mechanism. Second, he urges them to establish a trilateral ministerial-level defense dialogue mechanism. Third, Li urges them to improve the efficacy of their trilateral mechanism and limit intervention by external great powers (namely, the United States). By directly addressing some of the key security and political challenges the three countries face, such as the North Korean nuclear crisis and the territorial disputes, Li believes the trilateral mechanism can become more effective in the future.

China–Russia–India Relations

In Eluosi Dongou Zhongya Yanjiu, No. 2, 2019, Wang Shida assesses the development of the trilateral China–Russia–India relationship since its origins in 1998. As the initiator of this trilateral grouping, Russia has been very enthusiastic. Likewise, China is very supportive because of its close strategic relationship with Russia and because it sees the trilateral mechanism as a way to advance the interests of emerging economies. India’s commitment to the mechanism is the biggest question mark moving forward. While India’s government has been very supportive, the views of its strategic analysts are more mixed. One view is that the trilateral mechanism is useful for addressing problems in India’s relations with both China and Russia and enhancing its strategic independence, especially as the Trump administration’s “America First” policy makes the US a poor partner. Others are skeptical about Russia’s motives, arguing that promoting the trilateral relationship helps Russia to compensate for its declining power, but that the relationship has much less to offer to India. Other critics doubt that the trilateral mechanism can help India solve its problems with China or Russia.

Despite these skeptical views, the Indian government has advocated participation in this trilateral mechanism. Wang argues that this mechanism advances the global shift toward a multipolar order and helps to prevent continued US hegemony. It also increases the “discursive power” of emerging economies like India relative to the United States. As the United States pursues protectionist policies, this mechanism helps India to promote a free and open global trading system, while also improving its position in international organizations like the IMF. Furthermore, participation in this mechanism helps India to advance a global strategy of “multiple alignment” (rather than non-alignment), by which it balances greater cooperation with the United States against closer coordination with Russia and China. By pursuing relationships with multiple great powers, India buys itself the freedom to choose the partner that will best maximize its interests in a particular issue area. Furthermore, Wang contends that Indian leaders see the trilateral mechanism as advancing their regional interests, most notably competing with Pakistan for dominance in South Asia.

Nevertheless, Wang identifies a number of constraints that weaken Indian support for the trilateral mechanism. First, India has tended to approach the region from a hierarchical perspective and has a long tradition of zero-sum political thinking. The “mandala” concept envisions a series of concentric circles, with India at the center, and posits that a country’s greatest security threats arise from its neighbors. This view tends to see international relations as inherently antagonistic. Furthermore, Wang argues that India has been influenced by the legacy of British colonialism and believes that it has an inherent right to dominate the subcontinent. In this context, some Indians are concerned about the trilateral mechanism because they believe that China’s relative power is increasing within the relationship and that China’s ambitions might contradict India’s own.

Second, tensions between India and Pakistan are detrimental to the development of the trilateral mechanism. Indian observers are keenly aware of the close relationship between China and Pakistan, which they see as harming Indian national interests. They worry, for example, that the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will spur rapid economic development in Pakistan, and are nervous that China is encouraging closer relations between Pakistan and Russia. These concerns limit India’s appetite for pursuing closer relations with China, whether bilaterally or through a trilateral mechanism.

Third, the Trump administration’s embrace of an Indo-Pacific strategy somewhat reduces India’s interest in the trilateral mechanism. Under this new strategy, the United States, Japan, and India are working together to implement a rules-based order. The United States has also announced plans to direct more resources to the region: in July 2018, the United States announced a $113 million investment in the Indo-Pacific region, and in August 2018, the United States promised almost $300 million in security aid. Closer coordination with the United States also allows India to better counter China’s rise.