Country Report: China (October 2018)

In mid-2018, Chinese experts assessed China’s relations with South Korea and Japan’s increasingly autonomous approach toward North Korea. They examined the fragmentation of security cooperation mechanisms in Southeast Asia, evaluated the factors underlying the deterioration in US–Russia relations, and analyzed the evolution of US and Japanese efforts to balance against China.

China-South Korea Relations

In Dangdai Hanguo, No. 2, 2018, Wang Xiaoke assesses the current prospects for improved relations between China and South Korea. In 2016–2017, South Korea’s decision to deploy the United States’ THAAD system put a damper on China–South Korea relations. China objected to THAAD deployment for a number of reasons. China feared that THAAD’s radar system would be able to detect missile launches from China and would therefore reduce China’s nuclear deterrent. To the Chinese, the THAAD deployment appeared to be the first step in the US deployment of an anti-missile system directed against China. In the broader strategic context, the Chinese perceived the South Korean decision as a choice to side with the United States against China. In contrast, South Korea insisted that THAAD is directed against North Korea and that the Chinese have no reason to worry.

According to Wang, the controversy surrounding the THAAD deployment reflects structural tensions between China and South Korea that constrain their relationship. The interplay of China–US competition and the US–South Korea alliance produces friction between South Korea and China. Wang argues that the US perception of China as a competitor, evident in Obama’s “Asia-Pacific rebalance,” has only strengthened under Trump. Growing China–US competition increases the pressure the United States places on South Korea, which sees the US–South Korea alliance as the foundation of its diplomacy and security policy, to choose between China and the United States. The North Korean nuclear crisis highlights South Korea’s dependence on US military support and its nuclear umbrella, and the difficulty it has in resisting US pressure. South Korea’s friction with China does not just result from US influence, however. South Korea is also worried that China’s rise will be destabilizing. Nevertheless, it acknowledges China’s important economic role and seeks to balance its relationship with China against its relationship with the United States.

Despite these structural tensions, recent developments have presented an opening for improved China–South Korea relations. In late 2017, China and South Korea agreed to move beyond their dispute over the THAAD deployment and to normalize relations. Meanwhile, Moon’s “balanced diplomacy” reflected a more autonomous position that eased Chinese concerns. Although Moon remains committed to the US–South Korea alliance, he opposes the development of a trilateral US–Japan–South Korea alliance and the use of force to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. These positions reassured Chinese leaders. Decreased tension on the Korean Peninsula has also created an opening for improved China–South Korea relations. Wang argues that if South Korea becomes less concerned about security threats from North Korea, it will not need to rely as much on the United States and will be better able to develop relations with China. Such an optimistic view contradicts the widely held Chinese position, earlier stated by Wang, that THAAD deployment is directed not at North Korea, but at China.

In Wang’s view, prospects for improved China–South Korea relations have been heightened by Trump’s diplomatic missteps. South Korea faced substantial economic repercussions from China for its decision to deploy THAAD, but elected to prioritize its security relations with the United States over its economic ties to China. Nevertheless, Trump has insisted that South Korea bear more of the burden for its defense and has sought to renegotiate trade deals. Wang contends that South Korea will realize that Trump’s “America First” policy makes the United States a less reliable ally, which will further motivate it to seek balanced diplomacy and improved ties with China.

Although China–South Korea ties have warmed since late 2017, the structural problems remain. The two countries must take practical steps to improve their relationship. First, the two must have a sober understanding of the nature of their partner relationship. Although they have had a “strategic cooperative partnership” since May 2008, in reality their security and political relations remain weak despite strong economic ties. China wants South Korea to break free from its alliance with the United States, but this is not likely to happen. Wang argues that the two countries should focus on developing their common interests. Both seek a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis and value strong economic cooperation. They should increase the frequency of various types of exchanges, particularly of academics, students, and the media. These exchanges can serve as a mechanism for Track II diplomacy on difficult political and security issues. The more familiar academics and officials are with China, the more likely they are to understand its positions and the less likely they are to view its actions with suspicion. Finally, the two countries must effectively manage their differences, lower their expectations for each other’s behavior, and handle crises responsibly. Wang concludes that China and South Korea have an opportunity to improve their relationship, but such positive developments are by no means inevitable.

Japan’s North Korea Policy

In Dangdai Hanguo, No. 2, 2018, Yao Jinxiang argues that Japanese dissatisfaction with US and South Korean policy toward North Korea has led it to stake out an increasingly independent position. Historically, Japan followed the lead of the United States in its North Korea policy, though it also took the initiative to try to resolve particular problems, such as the abduction issue. However, as South Korean and US relations with North Korea appeared to warm in early 2018, Yao argues, Japanese leaders began to worry that Japan would be left out of the process of resolving the North Korean crisis. These concerns were heightened by a lack of communication by South Korea and the United States with Japan.

These developments spurred a lively debate in Japan. In the Diet, politicians stressed the need to adopt a more strategic approach toward North Korea, though their policy posture remained tough and skeptical. In academic circles, discussions focused on three key questions: First, academics asked how Japanese policy should change given the Trump administration’s stated position of leaving all options on the table. Second, academics discussed what Japan’s role should be in the future economic integration of the peninsula and argued that Japan should strengthen its economic relationship with North Korea. Finally, academics also stressed the strategic dimension. As tensions on the peninsula cool, Japan will have to vie with other countries, especially China, that will all rush to increase access to the North Korean market. At the same time, the United States, South Korea, and Japan will need to rethink the purpose of their alliance relations and determine how to construct a new security system for Northeast Asia that includes North Korea. Although some in Japan are still committed to the longstanding position of imposing limited pressure on North Korea to achieve complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the nuclear program, others believe that Japan should take a less passive position.

Thawing relations between North and South Korea heightened the Abe administration’s concerns about existing Japanese policy toward North Korea. The March 2018 meeting between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping further raised Japan’s sense of alarm. In response, the Japanese considered several policy shifts. Abe has expressed his willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un. Unlike previous talks, which focused narrowly on the abduction issue and historical matters, these talks would cover much broader regional security issues. In addition, Japan’s North Korea policy, which was previously driven by domestic issues, is now increasingly motivated by regional concerns. Japan seeks to coordinate its policy with other major actors. For example, Japan seeks to coordinate with the United States so that the United States will incorporate Japanese concerns into its own discussions with North Korea and because Japan wants a stronger role in defining the terms of the discussion surrounding the future of the Korean Peninsula. Japan has also realized that it must coordinate with China in order to ensure Japan’s ability to participate in the denuclearization negotiations and the eventual construction of a mechanism for peaceful unification of the peninsula. Furthermore, Japan has realized that South Korea has far greater diplomatic capabilities than it realized, and that it must also coordinate with South Korea in order to convey its concerns to North Korea.

As it seeks a concrete path toward greater involvement in peninsular affairs, Japan has identified a number of specific areas to evaluate, including providing economic assistance to North Korea, determining the conditions necessary for normalizing bilateral relations (including the extent to which they should stress denuclearization as a condition for improving the relationship), and developing plans for economic cooperation following normalization. Potential economic linkages are a key tool for the Japanese. Although they anticipate that South Korea will have the strongest economic ties with North Korea in the future, they also believe that lingering mistrust between North and South will provide an opening for Japan to act as an intermediary.

Yao concludes that Japanese fears about being left out of the resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis and a lack of influence over the future Northeast Asian security order have pushed it to adopt a more autonomous position. Japan seeks to set the terms of debate and improve its security environment. Rather than merely reacting to foreign pressure, Japan is now taking a hard look at its strategic interests and developing policies that advance its interests. Yao contends that this policy autonomy is likely to extend into other issue areas.

Southeast Asian Security

In Taipingyang Xuebao, No. 8, 2018, Wei Hong and Yin Nannan lament the fragmentation of security cooperation mechanisms in Southeast Asia and identify steps China can take in response. According to Wei and Yin, this fragmentation has three main manifestations. First, there are a diverse array of sub-regional security cooperation mechanisms in Southeast Asia, including US-centered traditional security mechanisms, ASEAN-centered comprehensive security mechanisms, and non-traditional security mechanisms that focus on specific problems. The proliferation of mechanisms creates a great deal of complexity. Many equal mechanisms co-exist; other mechanisms are nested or overlapping. Finally, the relationship among these many mechanisms is characterized by “disordered competition.” ASEAN and the United States compete for leadership of significant regional security cooperation mechanisms. Each has a different style; recently the US-centered traditional security model has prevailed over the ASEAN-led model of regional cooperation. These styles are mutually contradictory: the US model emphasizes military means, formal alliances, and a specific target, while the “ASEAN Way” stresses respect for sovereignty, non-intervention, dialogue and consultation, and a commitment to shared values and norms.

Wei and Yin trace the causes of this fragmentation to changes in power, interests, and identities. Power competition between China and the United States has created a partial power vacuum in the region. The United States promotes mechanisms that help it to maintain its regional security leadership, protect SLOCs, and counter China’s rise. Meanwhile, China supports ASEAN-centered comprehensive security mechanisms that help it to prevent the United States from dominating the security sphere and ensure peace and stability in the region. Structural weaknesses limit the influence of these ASEAN-centered mechanisms: the ASEAN member states are small countries with limited governance capabilities whose power pales in comparison to that of China or the United States. Nevertheless, ASEAN’s ability to balance China and the United States against each other, together with competition between the two larger powers, means that neither China nor the United States has absolute control over the regional security framework. A second source of fragmentation is the diverse interests of the various actors. The United States, China, and the various ASEAN member states are all independent political actors with their own national interests. Differences among the ten ASEAN member states lead some to support US-centered mechanisms and others to support problem-centered mechanisms. A diminishing sense of identity is a third source of fragmentation. Wei and Yin argue that the open ASEAN security concept, which allows various parties to seek their own objectives within the multilateral framework, demonstrates a lack of shared values or common identity.

According to Wei and Yin, this fragmentation limits the effectiveness of regional security governance in two main ways. Security mechanisms should make matters more predictable by reducing transaction costs and providing information that makes coordination possible, but fragmentation prevents security mechanisms from becoming institutionalized and serving this function. In addition, fragmentation weakens ASEAN’s role in the region, which makes it much easier for the United States to interfere. Wei and Yin point to US efforts to “internationalize” the South China Sea disputes and goad two ASEAN members, the Philippines and Vietnam, into opposing China’s sovereignty claims as a key example of how ASEAN’s weakness creates an opening for US intervention. Their view that a stronger ASEAN would allow China to better achieve its South China Sea interests stands in contrast to that of other Chinese analysts, who argued that China should turn ASEAN member states against each other in a sort of “divide and conquer” approach.

To counter this fragmentation, Wei and Yin argue that China should take steps to increase the institutionalization of security cooperation mechanisms in the region. (Here the logic becomes circular, as Wei and Yin earlier argue that fragmentation prevents mechanisms from becoming institutionalized.) China should become an “agenda setter” so that the Southeast Asian governance mechanisms reflect its national interests. China should also promote the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Mechanisms in Asia (CICA) in order to improve coordination between existing mechanisms. At the same time, Wei and Yin urge China to support ASEAN’s central role in the region by advancing its initiatives and promoting the “Asian security concept.” They argue that promoting ASEAN is consistent with China’s great power ambitions. Wei and Yin conclude that these policy measures best support China’s objectives of maintaining peace and stability in Southeast Asia and preventing US control in the region.

US–Russian Relations

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 4, 2018, Feng Yujun and Shang Yue assess the recent deterioration in US–Russian relations and evaluate the policy implications for China. Since Donald Trump’s election, they assert, US–Russian relations have reached their lowest point since the Cold War. Spurred initially by Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, the United States has imposed ever harsher sanctions on Russia. The two countries have expelled some of the other’s diplomats and labeled media companies as foreign agents. Relations in the Middle East have been particularly tense, where the two countries’ interventions in Syria have made the civil war there at least partly a US–Russian proxy war. Looking ahead, Feng and Shang anticipate that actors in the Middle East might splinter into US and Russian camps.

The source of US–Russian tensions, Feng and Shang argue, is no longer linked to external structural factors related to the two countries’ relative power. In contrast to the Cold War era, they assert, US power now well exceeds that of Russia. Unlike many Chinese observers, Feng and Shang do not believe that the United States’ international power was significantly decreased by the 2008 global financial crisis. Instead, they argue that factors internal to the two countries’ relationship drive current tensions. The two countries lack mutual trust and understanding, in large part because of their very different value systems. Many US policymakers view Russia as a threat to US political ideals and the US-led world order, while Russians see Russia as a global great power and want to assert the same authority over international affairs that the USSR once held. The Russian intervention in the 2016 US presidential election adds further complexity to the relationship.

Consequently, Feng and Shang argue that the bilateral relationship is best understood as one of “limited adversaries.” The scope of the tensions is necessarily limited by the increasingly large power gap between the two countries. Neither country regards the other as its main threat (in their view, the United States is focused on China, while Russia is most concerned with its domestic economy). Nevertheless, disagreements on many substantive issues will create oppositional relations for the foreseeable future.

In this context, managing the China –US–Russia relationship presents strategic challenges for China. Feng and Shang strongly reject the use of a realist lens, which would argue that China and Russia will ally against the United States, to evaluate the trilateral relationship, partly because China and Russia have explicitly decided not to form an alliance and partly because they believe that power-based approaches cannot explain actors’ behavior in the contemporary world. Aside from power considerations, countries must manage a host of other domestic interests, such as economic development, social stability, and governance concerns. At the international level, countries are concerned with issues such as climate change and investment. In their view, efforts by China and Russia to balance the United States would be unable to address these other concerns. In addition, strategic cooperation between China and Russia cannot prevent the United States from taking steps that threaten their interests, such as strengthening the US military posture in Eastern Europe or engaging in patrols of the South China Sea. Furthermore, Feng and Shang assert that an effort to ally against the United States would violate China and Russia’s shared values and approach to bilateral relations. As a result, they strongly oppose any effort to use Chinese–Russian cooperation as a cudgel against the United States.

Instead, Feng and Shang argue that the three countries should seek cooperation in four particular areas. First, they should commit themselves to resolving security concerns in Northeast Asia, including the creation of an official mechanism to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. Second, they should cooperate on initiatives to address terrorism and other non-traditional security concerns. Third, they should limit the military arms race, and coordinate with each other in areas such as nuclear and cyber policy. Finally, the three countries should exchange experts and engage in unofficial dialogues to develop policy solutions for shared problems. By rejecting traditional views of great power relations, the three countries can better respond to global challenges.

US–Japan Relations

In Riben Xuekan, No. 4, 2018, Zhang Shirong argues that the United States and Japan are using an increasing number of pressure points to balance against China’s rise. Zhang assesses the relationship among the three states from the perspective of offshore balancing, in which a great power teams up with a regional power in order to check a rising power. Both the United States and Japan face constraints on their ability to unilaterally check China’s rise: the United States is at a disadvantage geographically, while Japan lacks sufficient comprehensive power and is still bound by its “peace constitution.” By coordinating their efforts, Zhang argues, Japan and the United States have found a new purpose for their Cold War alliance.

Initially, US-Japanese offshore balancing focused on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. However, as China’s power has increased, it has been able to assert itself much more strongly in the East China Sea through measures such as its declaration of an ADIZ. Consequently, Japan and the United States have sought other balancing points that interfere with China’s rise while limiting the risk of direct conflict. Under the Obama administration, the United States and Japan extended their balancing points to include the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, and, when these did not prove sufficiently effective, India.

Zhang argues that the Trump administration, like the Obama administration, engages in offshore balancing, but that the Trump administration has added the new element of “America First.” Because the “America First” approach seeks to contract the United States’ strategic posture and shift the economic burden onto other states in order to free up resources for the US economy, Zhang contends that offshore balancing will be an even more important policy approach under Trump than it was previously. By challenging China in multiple locations simultaneously, Japan and the United States demonstrate their commitment to challenging its rise. Nevertheless, while Zhang perceives an orderly process under the Obama administration, he believes that the Trump administration’s efforts at offshore balancing have introduced a significant degree of disorder.

As China’s power strengthens, Zhang predicts that Japan and the United States will take riskier steps and venture into previously taboo areas. Already, this can be seen in the two countries’ approaches to Taiwan. Zhang also worries that the balancing efforts might extend to other previously uninvolved actors, such as Mongolia, Myanmar, and the five Central Asian republics. Nevertheless, efforts by the United States and Japan to balance China may be stymied by their inability to convince other actors to see China as an enemy instead of a responsible great power and a valuable partner. In the South China Sea, for example, Zhang contends that Japanese and US efforts to sow discord have been frustrated, especially as the Philippines recalibrated its approach. A thaw on the Korean Peninsula also lessens its utility as a balancing point. Meanwhile, improving Sino–Indian relations might counter US and Japanese efforts to incorporate India as their newest balancing point.

Contemporary offshore balancing differs from that of the earlier period because the United States can no longer merely rely on Japan to achieve its objectives in East Asia; rather, offshore balancing will increasingly draw in other partners. Zhang concludes that to achieve its objectives, China must reject the Cold War thinking that characterizes the US–Japan alliance and take a leading role in the region and the world.