Country Report: China (December 2015)

No indications were found in Chinese publications of realist thinking about how to resolve security challenges such as the threatening North Korean military build-up or the increasingly confrontational atmosphere in the South China Sea. Explanations were missing for why China has resumed high-level meetings with Japan despite its continued demonization of that country and its leader. The US disappointment in the Xi-Obama summit is not incorporated into generally optimistic accounts of the state of bilateral relations. Instead, deductive writings raise expectations a little even as they continue to point to bad behavior—containment, US interference in the region harming cooperation, fragmentation instead of regional integration, and etc. The main thrust is to showcase Chinese efforts to boost regionalism in the face of moves for nefarious reasons that stand in the way. Small steps forward, such as the China-Japan-Korea (CJK) summit, are overemphasized. Setbacks are excused as if they are not very serious.


An October 29 Dagongbao article by Tang Qifang praised the resumption of the CJK summit, concluding that cooperation is back on track, which is good for regional and world economic growth. Reviewing a remarkable record of increased trade as well as investments since the trilateral grouping took shape, Tang stresses its salience for the integration of the Asia-Pacific, including boosting the prospects for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), led by ASEAN. Yet, Tang raises doubt about those who think that “politics cold, economics hot” can endure, blaming Japan’s territorial and history moves for spoiling political ties and also seriously influencing economic ties, i.e., trade among the three failed to grow from USD 681 billion from 2011 to 2013 and Japanese foreign direct investment in China dropped 4 percent before a record 39 percent fall in 2014. While worsening political relations were not the only cause, Tang points to them as one cause and concludes that more needs to be done to boost political trust for economic objectives, but there is no mention of any fault except Japan’s or any steps China should take to boost trust.


A similar Guangming ribao article on November 2 reviewed the CJK summit in Seoul the previous day. It praised this triangular framework—begun in 1999 and moved out of ASEAN + 3 in 2008—for important successes in lots of dimensions. Pointing to the political and security arena, it had little to say but that meetings are regular (apart from the three-year hiatus just ending) and ministers and officials often get together. The one theme singled out is shared interest in a peaceful, stable Korean Peninsula, including efforts toward denuclearization and waiting for improvement in North-South relations. Such vagueness, putting stability above denuclearization and the priority on North-South relations without any onus on Pyongyang for its conduct or any recognition of the dangers Seoul and Tokyo are facing, cannot be comforting to informed readers. In the economic arena, emphasis is placed on the goal of regional economic integration with a three-way free-trade agreement (FTA). Clearly, this is China’s objective, perhaps the primary reason for its shift in favor of resuming the summit. Finally, the third dimension is cultural, arguing for more exchanges to boost mutual trust, but acknowledging that history has interfered with the relations and remains a precondition for such trust. Here too, vagueness prevails. What happened to allow for history to be overcome and a summit to be re-launched? The emphasis is put on a spirit of looking to the future, implying that Abe should stop rewriting history but not delving into other challenges to mutual trust, including Chinese views of the past and differences with South Korea. The article is upbeat but not very informative.


In Guangming ribao November 18, Ren Lin commented on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, noting concern about China’s future economic growth. Acknowledging that China’s growth rate has slowed, the article asserts that it still is contributing more than 30 percent of global growth and remains the driving force of the regional and world economy. Rather than growth being the only concern of development, the article mentions quality, equality, and environment as growing concerns. It urges China to grasp an historic opportunity to reform. Another theme addressed is the fragmentation of Asia-Pacific regional economic management and forces holding back East Asian regional economic integration: the influence of external great powers; a severe gap in the region’s security system, and different levels of development. In this context, China appealed in Manila for an FTA of the Asia-Pacific as the wish of all members of APEC, urging that work on its behalf be accelerated. Observing that the developed economies have long monopolized the right to speak on economic management, it appealed for a greater voice for developing countries at a time when the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are going forward, in pursuit of comprehensive, open, international order. China’s “One Belt, One Road,” Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and Silk Road Fund and South-South cooperation fund, all advance the participation of developing countries and have found a positive response in not a few developed European countries, readers are told. China stands as the champion of more economic integration, but no mention is made of whether it will strive for high-standard agreements or just blames the United States and its partners for insisting on unrealistic standards as a divisive strategy in the region.


Shi Yongming in the November 26 Dagongbao assessed the East Asia Summit (EAS), warning that it has to be concerned about political fragmentation as seen in interference that occurred in the just completed meeting, i.e., that the United States tried to sabotage political cooperation among China, South Korea, and Japan. He admonished that, despite passing its tenth anniversary, the EAS is still a young organization and needs to be protective of its initial dreams. Shi reminds readers that the vast majority of East Asian countries have experienced imperialism and colonialism—these are the relevant historical memories, not the tribute system or China’s export of revolution nor the trust built through the postwar US security system. The explanation offered for why divisions occurred in the Cold War period is similarly one-sided and misleading. The villains in recent history are the United States and Japan for the way they responded to the Asian financial crisis—the US refusal to give assistance and interference in internal affairs and Japan’s competitive currency policies with some Southeast Asian states. Thus, regional cooperation is attributed to resistance to these policies, leading to pursuit of an East Asian community, the dream of which is heartily endorsed. Yet, it comes with warnings about US insistence to be included, moves to use its market as a weapon to control Asia, and efforts to change the orientation of their economies. Shi takes heart that while America promotes “universal values,” the region has been discussing “Asian values,” including inclusiveness that allows a US presence. Obama is abusing this acceptance, readers are told, by insisting on US leadership, which is challenging ASEAN’s leadership. In 2015, Obama and Abe joined in pressing for use of their military alliance to lead political and economic cooperation in the region in what the author calls “imperialist style logic.” They are using TPP to split East Asian economic cooperation and the South China Sea issue to fragment regional political ties. The conclusion raises alarm against such attempts, implying that China is now fighting for regional cooperation and ASEAN unity against these divisive actions.


Li Xiao and Li Junjiu in Shijie jingji yu zhengzhi, No. 10, 2015, discussed “One Belt, One Road” as combining a geopolitical and geoeconomic strategy. They argued that no comparable analysis had been done of it in the context of the historical evolution of these aspects of China’s strategy, advocating a kind of macro-historical approach and one attuned to the experiences of rising powers. For the “OBOR” to proceed smoothly, they called for delineating China’s core national interests, recognizing what is threatening them, and specifying how to use comprehensive national power to pursue them. One question they raise is what is the relationship between “OBOR” and today’s world order. Another is how regional economic cooperation fits under this framework. A third is how to forge a new type of international relations with neighboring countries through this framework. Along with the northern “Jingjiyi” belt and the Yangtze River economic belt, readers are told that “OBOR” is one of China’s three great strategies for economic development, following the stages in its evolution over two years. The authors review some interpretations of “OBOR” by outside, realist observers, and they reflect on Chinese interpretations too, but they point to two limitations of existing studies: 1) missing historical analysis of China’s geopolitical and geo-economic strategy; and 2) missing deep thinking about the essence of the “OBOR” strategy from the historical angle of China’s transition from a transitional continental power to both a continental and maritime power. Of old, superior Chinese civilization and power historically led maritime neighbors (with the exception of Japan) to voluntarily accept the China-centered order, we are told. In the tributary system, China traded economic losses for gains in political authority. In the Ming Dynasty, it twice set aside the prohibition on going to sea, but it either returned to “glorious isolation” or placed so many restrictions on seaports and the private sector that maritime interests were stifled. The world entered a seafaring age, but not China. In the nineteenth century with Russia pressing by land and Japan by sea through Taiwan, China prioritized land over sea. It lacked resources to shift to the sea even after it realized the need to do so. This is legacy that is now over.


After the Cold War, China increasingly became the geopolitical target of the United States, the European Union, and Japan. It was a threat to the US hegemonic position in the Asia-Pacific and to Japan’s great power psychology as the only civilized state in East Asia, the authors insist, and China had to shift from “taoguang yanghui” to a strategy to establish a new international order. The code words for this are “anti-hegemonism” and anti power politics, while breaking through what is described as the West’s post-1989 sanction system against China to win space to maneuver diplomatically through new partner relations. This is an unabashedly negative view of the post Cold War order faced by China, justifying a different world order. At the same time, readers learn, China has participated in multilateral organizations from the UN Security Council to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to APEC. Finally, in 2012 a new leadership pressed for the goal of China becoming a maritime great power, linking OBOR to a rise in both continental and maritime power. With this came neighborhood diplomacy thinking, spreading consciousness of “common destiny.” Other strategic objectives are a “new type of major power relations” with the great powers, an FTA of the Asia-Pacific, the provision of public goods through new banks and funds, and promoting a new international economic order. The core geopolitical and geo-economic strategy behind this is OBOR, moving beyond passive policies when others pressured China, even in the post Cold War period in which US containment of China’s rise has been the main force. OBOR is China taking the lead, responding to the US approach, organizing neighboring states to escape from the US-led international system, and transforming it. China will champion free markets, offering others stability, open markets, and reliable assistance in development, while, at the same time, boosting its own international prestige. That is the thrust of this celebrated Chinese article.


The article argues that China does not have to make a choice between the southeast and northwest vectors. Given the US rebalance to Asia, China’s space for peaceful development in East Asia is confined, readers are told, and it has turned elsewhere (to the northeast, southwest, and west). China seeks to break through the global framework of “one superpower, many great powers” by systematizing the latent multipolarity, in this way overturning unipolarity and opening space for China to overcome the dilemmas of a new rising power. The smooth advance of OBOR will ease great power concerns about China’s rise, avoiding any new cold war with the United States and enabling agreement on a new regional order. The article proceeds to discuss challenges to the success of OBOR (Chinese firms’ inadequacies, problems in the other countries, outside forces including the US containment strategy, etc.), difficulties in forging regionalism, and related needs for Chinese domestic reforms. Overall, it is optimistic, but it also is aimed at developing a strategy and facing real challenges without assuming that China enjoys an easy road ahead to success.


An article by Wang Da and Xiang Weixing in Guoji guancha, No. 5, 2015 discussed the AIIB and global financial management, warning of politicization of economic challenges, globalization of regional problems, bilateralization of multilateral problems, and complications of technical problems. All are said to stem from the irrationality of the existing international order and the sharp contradictions in reforming it as others apart from the United States propose, which do not stem from China’s growing influence. The article reports that some Western observers argue that the AIIB is a victory for China’s diplomatic strategy and a sign of its challenge to the existing international financial order, criticizing this as politicization of financial matters. The fact that the G7 has been split by the AIIB results in challenges that China must still face related to globalization of this regional plan. In addition, China faces in bilateral relations with both the United States and Japan challenges related to the AIIB to which it needs to respond. As for technical issues, developed countries outside of the region are raising environmental, labor, human rights, and some other matters that complicate management—in the past being imposed while ignoring the actual circumstances of receiving countries. The article concludes by explaining the strategy of China for the AIIB and how it should counter various challenges.


Zu Lizhao in the November issue of Taipingyang xuebao focused on Russia’s strategy and policies toward China’s Maritime Silk Road plan. Russia is an important partner of China in the Silk Road Economic Belt, but, Zu asks, how is it responding to China’s other proposal for the maritime road, finding it debating both opportunities and challenges. Acceptance has not come as easily as for the “belt” proposal in academic discussions touching on economic development, geopolitics, regional economic integration, and international finance. On the economic front, they recognize it as serving China’s long-term needs as an extension of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.” In addition, it is seen as a product of newly intensifying competition, countering US geopolitical pressure. As Southeast Asian territorial and maritime disputes grow more serious and US political and military interference intensifies, this is seen as a necessary response to strengthen China’s defense and economic security, including the transport routes for energy imports. Russian commentators are identified too as recognizing that this plan advances economic integration sought by China. Also, it provides an outlet for Chinese capital. None of these discussions suggest serious reservations on the part of Russian commentators or refer to concerns in Southeast Asian countries. Zu then turns to how this maritime proposal will influence Russia.


Zu concludes that Russians see the Eurasian horizontal land bridge as greatly benefiting Russia and that the maritime road as signifying a shift away from taoguang yanghui in Southeast Asia. As for Sino-US relations, they understand that the main thrust of China’s policy is to forge a “new type of great power relations” and go to great lengths to avoid direct confrontation and make clear that China will not challenge to US global leadership position, but it hopes that America will respect its core interests, as it strengthens ties with Russia and others to balance the US influence. In response to the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific strategy, the Maritime Silk Road concept is pouring oil on a fire—a means to avoid US containment that will prove very difficult to realize its objective. The TPP and stepped-up US military cooperation very likely will prevent China from reaching its goals, Russians argue, despite its traditional advantages in culture, overseas Chinese, and trade. With the Maritime Silk Road aggravating Sino-US contradictions and Southeast Asian states tightening their political and security ties to the United States as their economic ties to China advance, the Asia-Pacific region will become less stable, which will prove to be damaging to Russia’s development needs, Zu finds Russian authors concluding.


Noting that Russians fear a loss of influence as China’s economic influence grows in Southeast Asia and could arouse the suspicions of India and Vietnam toward China, Zu indicates that Russia could be forced to choose. Yet, he points to Alexander Lukin saying that the strategic interests of Russia and China are complementary; spurring economic development is welcome, as the Maritime Silk Road avoids exacerbating existing contradictions. Russia is a maritime great power and its “turn to the East” draws it closer to China. The article confirms Russia’s support for China’s endeavor. While Zu notes the presence of Russians who fear that the Maritime Silk Road will compete with and threaten Russia’s northern transit routes, Zu finds that Lukin and others disagree. Both are coastal states, sharing many geopolitical and economic interests. They support each other on maritime territorial issues. Zu adds that by supporting China’s “Road” plan, Russia would benefit in various ways: increasing its geopolitical influence in the Asia-Pacific; linking the northern and southern routes and avoiding competition between them, and reducing Russia’s concern about China entering the Arctic Ocean and China’s suspicions about Russia participating in South China Sea energy development (suggesting a trade-off of benefits if Russia yields on the Arctic Ocean). Since the focal point of the Maritime Silk Road is infrastructure, Russia can get investment for its much needed Far East projects, such as the port of Zarubino (mention is made of a separate “Northeast Asia Maritime Silk Road” with North Korea as the third party and turning Hunchun into a port within the Tumen River project. Zu adds that US power politics have weakened Russian and Chinese maritime rights in the Pacific, especially adding to extreme US strategic pressure via its rebalance to Asia: increasing US military presence to the detriment of both; and also strengthening its military alliance with Japan, which threatens both states. The US military presence in the South China Sea is against Russia’s interests too, blocking its return to Cam Ranh Bay. Zu points to Russia’s military build-up in the Far East and closer cooperation with China, showcasing their common cause versus the US navy and noting Russia’s aim for security versus Japan’s territorial claims. In this way, Zu appears to be calling for an alliance-like relationship and implying that Russia is not yet ready for it, but that it would benefit by embracing China’s maritime strategy.


In May 2015, China and Russia agreed to link their new projects, striving together for regional economic integration. Russia gave its support for the Silk Road Economic Belt, providing a good basis for participating in the ”One Road” project. Academic and official writings have been favorably disposed. Zu calls now for stepping up this cooperation: Russia has the conditions to be an important participant and influence in the “One Road,” and as it looks from the viewpoint of great power diplomacy at the geopolitics and geo-economics of “One Road” and how they touch on Russia’s main interests, it should not be content to remain a bystander; outside forces impact the Asia-Pacific area’s security and stability, and as a positive supportive force it should not be overlooked; Russia has important influence in Southeast and South Asia as India, Vietnam, and others look to it for balance against China and the United States; so it can become an indispensable link in the Maritime Silk Road. By joining both parts of OBOR, Russia can become a link between the two. There is still great, unrealized cooperative space for China and Russia, readers are told, on land and sea. Russia is reminded that its interests are often overlooked in the Asia-Pacific region. Through various types of cooperation with China, its level of participation in the region will rise and the bilateral relationship will deepen. Given the inclusion of dealing with territorial issues and raising maritime authority, there is little doubt that a naval alliance is implied. The article concludes by calling this relationship equal, mutually trusting, and serving mutual interests, but it pointedly indicates that Russia’s economy is in trouble under Western sanctions and that cooperation with China is its only option, although such cooperation is not just a response to the West. Vaguely referring to what China can offer Russia to make this a win-win situation, Zu disguises the thrust of a strong statement about why Russia must follow China’s course in Southeast and South Asia, abandoning its independent diplomacy there.


In Guoji wenti yanjiu, No. 5 Han Aiyong looked at complexities in the East Asian security situation as economics and security proceed on separate plains, while also assessing what China is calling a new security outlook. Its urgency is linked to the negative impact of security on regional economies and to the rise in competition and confrontation linked to the US “rebalance to Asia” and US desire to block China’s rapid rise, as seen in TPP. Japan is blamed—as in the US case, not for responding to anything China is doing except peacefully rising, but for being motivated by its ambitions for regional leadership. Into the mix of more competitive relations in the Asia-Pacific region Han inserts Australia, Russia, and India. This inflammable brew, the causes of which are poorly identified, is treated as the source of regional instability. The second source of regional trouble is territorial and maritime sovereignty disputes, the most serious of which due to US intervention are between China and Japan and China and Southeast Asian states. Because of China’s efforts, the Diaoyu situation is less serious now with Sino-Japanese cooperation in avoiding incidents at sea, but the article identifies the South China Sea as more serious due to US, Japanese, Philippine, and Vietnamese moves. Finally, the growing overlap of historical and realist issues is raising emotions and exacerbating confrontations. This three-sided explanation of what troubles the region is the starting point for Han’s analysis.


Han describes a duality between countries relying on US security and China’s economy, pointing to both intensifying with the rebalance to Asia boosting US alliances and semi-alliances (with Taiwan and Singapore) as well as strategic cooperation with states such as India, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Through trilateral and multilateral alliance networks, the US position as the hub is strengthened and the region is more dependent on it for security. In contrast, Han views China as the economic center and even more so if trends continue, while treating TPP as a force that cannot change this long-term historical process. Han concludes that this duality is unfavorable for regional security and doubts that it is sustainable. The region’s development has hit a systemic bottleneck, readers are told, with blame put on great power ambitions for regional leadership. The result is that economics is not leading to political cooperation. Since development is the main regional task, security is not supposed to interfere with it, as alliances sow distrust. Stress is placed on China not wanting to change the existing order and only focusing on peaceful development; it firmly maintains its maritime rights; it seeks a stable neighborhood environment as a condition for its own development; and it strives for both economic and security cooperation. Thus, Han blames the misreading of China’s policies by Western states and some East Asian ones for accusations against it, while insisting that China must in the South China and East China seas defend its territorial rights, e.g., in declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in November 2013 and building islands, which have been wrongly blamed for “militarization.” Han adds that China has neither the capability nor the desire to expel the United States from East Asia, while warning that it should stop interfering in territorial matters and conducting reconnaissance flights. Yet, false charges have served to fan the flames of the “China threat” theory, seriously disrupting mutual trust in the region, influencing the atmosphere for regional cooperation, and also challenging China’s maintenance of national security and territorial sovereignty.


In this time of duality, people are seeking a new security concept, Han explains. Joint security is linked to consciousness of “common destiny” in the Asian region where diverse cultures coexist, where each is free to choose its own fate without the need for becoming more alike (harmony but divergence). Apart from the new concept of security, Han finds present in the East Asian region: militarist logic (seen in Japan’s thinking about history and efforts to revise its constitution), Cold War logic, (seen in military alliances and the pursuit of hegemonism) and great power balance logic (seen in attempts to find benefit in great power competition and using the United States as the outside balancer). In place of these, Han calls for rethinking traditional security logic for a perspective that avoids the old pitfalls. Alliances fail to meet the test: they cannot be equal between big and small powers, even leading big powers to interfere in the domestic politics of their allies. Without explaining how equality can limit bullying by a great power, such as China’s treatment of territorial claims by others, Han idealizes it as the alternative. Han also calls for an inclusive security framework involving all states as the mechanism to eliminate security threats. In this instance too, there is willful disregard of existing threats, i.e., North Korea’s. Eliminating US alliances and including North Korea is another idealistic solution to challenges that are obscured. The proposed solution is to embrace others no matter what differences exist. As opposed to realist thinking, this is the height of idealism. One reads nothing about arms control agreements, confidence-building measures, deterrence, and other hallmarks of strategic analysis. There are no data on who is changing the military status quo, just charges that containment is the cause of all problems. There is no mention of mechanisms of dispute resolution, just appeals for a new way of thinking steeped in idealistic wording without any specifications on how to address existing security challenges. Of course, no change in China’s foreign policy is proposed since the fault lies entirely elsewhere. Past claims that realism is the guiding principle in Chinese strategic thinking are contradicted by this article.