Country Report: China (July 2013)

Country Report: China (with the assistance of Pang Zengjun)

China’s newspapers, especially Global Times in its English edition, attracted increased attention in the first half of 2013 for their international relations views. Two topics have drawn the lion’s share of attention: North Korea and Japan. Both had piqued foreign interest previously. Japanese observers have closely followed them, recalling the early 2003 bold articles on “new thinking” toward relations with their country but also later waves of wide-ranging accusations arousing distrust. Of late, claims that Japan does not have sovereignty over the Ryukyus (Okinawa) are among the most incendiary articles. South Koreans attentively follow articles in the Chinese press on North Korea, perking up their interest in 2004 when a lone journal article defied the standard pattern before the journal was closed and in 2006 when criticisms of North Korea were aired after its first nuclear test. Recently, suggestions that China’s support for North Korea could be withdrawn have generated the most news. If a small number of articles that serve as warnings and resonate widely in the outside world point to ongoing policy debates, we should not overlook a broader range of publications that are informative about how existing policies are assessed.

A new leadership, including in foreign affairs, seemed to be reflected in more judicious differentiation of targets of concern. Whether it was the Xi-Obama summit in June or domestic changes in the United States from a “soft” starting foreign policy team that prompted change, a more accommodating tone toward Washington could be detected, premised on its acceptance of a “new type of great power relations.” Yet, this did not extend to vigorous responses to charges about cyberattacks and other themes linked to strategic competition. “Good-neighborly” relations won further backing too, as some states, notably South Korea, fared better, while Japan and the Philippines were subjected to strong attacks. Problems were attributed to historical legacies, and it was other states that were mired in outdated thinking, but if they concentrated on cooperation, problems with China would be manageable.

According to a Japanese source, the reason for explosive writings in May and June against Japan in the flagship newspapers of People’s Daily and Global Times (its subsidiary) is that the editor was replaced at the end of April by Yang Zhenwu, who had been the Shanghai propaganda department head after, in the 1980s, serving with Xi Jinping at the county level. Similar to Abe’s “cabinet of friends” with similar ideas about ideology, Xi’s promotion of past associates serves an ideological objective, as seen in the way media coverage of Japan is being reshaped to pressure it to yield on the territorial dispute, argued a Sankei shimbun correspondent in Weekly Diamond. The argument extended to the impact of these writings in China. Reporting on a poll by Globalnet, an online source of Global Times, Japanese noted that an astounding 96 percent of Chinese respondents expressed support for actively assisting Ryukyu independence and suggested that the thrust of recent coverage is that China cannot avoid war with Japan. The same series of early June articles speculated that Xi’s aim in the anti-Japan campaign is to weaken the Hu Jintao faction, including Li Keqiang, the premier, who had recently taken a softer line. Just as Japanese national identity boosters seek to discredit those deemed soft on China, such as Asahi Shimbun, for suggesting that the Okinawa articles are just individual opinions, boosters in China appear intent on marginalizing those deemed soft on Japan in an internal struggle.

Vilification of Japan for striving to contain China persisted from coverage of the visit of Abe to Mongolia to articles on Japanese military activities. They framed the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands as part of a broad containment policy, while other Chinese publications made use of Abe’s own statements of revisionist history to paint Japan with the brush of the era ending in 1945. The ability to blur the line between Japan’s realist response to a changing security environment and its revisionist obsession with vindicating past aggression as well as between postwar Japan’s responsible reconciliation encouraging regional peace and prosperity and its pre-1945 expansionism reached new heights in this period of deepening tensions.

China’s media showcased an increasingly sinocentric Asia despite a backdrop of US-centric international media coverage. The Xi-Obama Sunnylands summit in June was clearly the prime event, sandwiched between the Xi-Putin March summit that started the pageantry of a new leadership and the Xi-Park meeting later in June that focused on China’s critical role in managing North Korea and striving to restart the Six-Party Talks as the centerpiece in regional security diplomacy. Conspicuously missing from the list was any meeting with Abe Shinzo, whose snub by Park Geun-hye was welcomed as further indication of Japan’s deserved pariah status. Viewing the Xi-Obama informal meeting as a sign of bipolarity indicative of China’s stature as the only peer to the United States, Chinese touted their country’s stature, even with a call for “two reciprocal shares” (US shares power, China shares responsibility).

A major theme in Chinese publications has been the nature of what Xi calls a “new type of great power relations.” In writings on Russia, this notion has been popular since 1996. The focus now, however, is overwhelmingly the United States. Putting the US “rebalance” toward Asia in an historical context, writers point to events as far back as the imperialist US takeover of the Philippines from Spain as emblematic of the old style of great power relations. The US objective is seen as an extension of a record of expansionism, still motivated by the “imperialist dream,” despite the fact that we have entered a new century with new circumstances, argued one author on June 7 in 21st Century Economic Report. China’s actions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea are seen as righting the wrongs of its humiliation, whereas the US response in association with its allies and partners is further evidence of its hegemonic thinking. Yet, many sources took pains to separate economic relations with the United States and other countries from tensions, even discussing China’s possible entry into the TPP after a spate of attacks against the TPP in the previous two years as part of a plot to contain China. Praise of the first talks in May aimed at realizing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), however, made it clear that the goal is to forge a new East Asian order in circumstances where the US objective is to prevent China from becoming the regional center.

Of the first round of new leadership summits in 2013, none mattered more than the Xi-Park meeting for its potential to adjust the existing balance of power. While some exaggerated the potential of the Xi-Putin summit in building bilateral ties opposed to this order or of the Xi-Obama summit in forging a new order with a G-2 foundation, the meeting with Park raised two prospects with greater likelihood. First, it was a clear manifestation of China’s greater priority than Japan for South Korea. In the East Asian triangle, the pendulum had swung decisively in China’s favor with many possible ramifications for security, FTAs, and coordination of ties to North Korea. Second, given Park’s emphasis on trust-building with China, there were uncertain implications for the Sino-US-South Korean triangle. Using its vast economic clout and its greater leverage over North Korea, China was interested in forging a very different relationship with Park than what had prevailed under Lee Myung-bak. Indeed, Roh Moo-hyun’s model is often praised in the Chinese media.

On Sino-Russian relations, Zhao Huasheng’s article in Guoji wenti yanjiu was an important analysis pointing to problems. It serves as a refutation of the growing discussion in Russian academic circles of whether China will become a threat, due to the unbalanced development of the two states and other causes. Zhao suggests that old warnings of a “China threat” are reemerging with new content and acuity, and that a new agenda for bilateral relations is needed to prevent slippage. In short, the next decade will be different amidst adjustments in great power relations. Covering a wide range of recent Russian sources on China, Zhao lists the different types of threat that they evoke before proceeding to a detailed refutation of their arguments. As informative as the article is, it skirts some critical concerns raised by Russians. It does not deal with the view that China is becoming more assertive to other states.

Identifying one group, including Trenin and Karaganov, with an expansive view of the strategic threat from China and an orientation toward containing China, and another group supportive of uniting with China for development and opposition to the West, Zhao concentrates on a third group in favor of good ties but interested also in balancing China in order not to be dragged into clashes with its neighbors. He attributes a mixture of liberalism and realism to this group, sees them having quite a big impact, and warns that China must understand and refute them based on a clear understanding of their psychology. Making it clear that he is not referring to Russian officials and that Putin has given a clear answer rejecting this reasoning, Zhao still takes this thinking seriously, saying that it seems rational but could damage trust in bilateral relations. After all, balancing involves India, Vietnam, the United States, and especially Japan, which some regard as the Eastern equivalent of Germany for Russia’s outreach efforts. He explains that Russia cannot become an intermediary in Sino-US relations, because neither side wants one. The article not only challenges reasons for Russia balancing, it also recommends greater Chinese sensitivity toward Russian feelings of inequality, embracing multipolarity and offering reassurances.

One thrust of the Zhao article is to boost Sino-Russian relations for a new era. He makes many recommendations for closer relations, although insisting that there is no prospect of an alliance forming. Zhao points to great opportunities for closer cooperation in the Russian Far East, where Russia needs to open up, and Central Asia, where economic gains owing to China are good for Russia too and opposition to color revolutions imported from the West and to the continuing presence of bases of a foreign power draw the two sides together. Gone are references to deference by China to Russia’s priority position, but Zhao notes that China is not opposed to the Eurasian Union. He also calls for a new stage in the SCO, strengthening it a lot, as well as increased cooperation over the hot spots of North Korea and Afghanistan. In the conclusion, one reads that trust must be enhanced while relations may be tested.

21 shiji jingji baodao took the Abe-Putin summit seriously, arguing that Putin is seeking multilateral investment in the Russian Far East as well as the expansion of natural gas exports. Moreover, Putin sees Abe as staying in power, and Abe sees him not as he is seen in the West as a new tsar, but as more inclined to strike a deal than other Russians. While the path forward is unclear, the article saw reasons for a deal.

When Premier Li Keqiang visited India in late May, as the first foreign trip in his new post, Chinese took pains to say that China has no intention to contain India. Recognizing the frenzy of criticisms of China’s military assistance to Pakistan and other moves in South Asia seen as adversarial to India, Chinese stressed cooperation as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, India intensifies its engagement with East Asia, and China continues to develop its western region in order to narrow the domestic gap between east and west. In India, China’s military build-up in Tibet is viewed from a different point of view as the border dispute flared on the eve of Li’s visit. Reassurances about China’s cooperative intentions were vague in nature. Diyi zaijing ribao went so far as to say that Li’s visit stirred “China fever,” conveying the message that states have so much to gain from China’s economy, other issues should not matter to them. It pointed to India’s plans for high-speed railroads and growing opportunities for mutual investment. Economic carrots can drive countries to draw closer to China, many suggest, regardless of problems in bilateral relations.