Country Report: China (August 2015)

Chinese articles in recent months have been unambiguous in asserting Chinese positions on issues in the forefront of international relations. They offer telling insights into the thinking behind official rhetoric on India’s more energetic foreign policy, South Korea’s pursuit of middle power diplomacy as in Park’s appeal for a Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), Sino-US differences on how to deal with North Korea, and Japan-US relations following the Abe-Obama summit. We begin with an unusual piece that does not repeat the usual narrative on Russia’ relations with the outside world, but, instead, raises doubts about the rising military budgets in that country, even to the point of drawing parallels with what happened to the Soviet Union. All of these articles are unusually informative on specific themes that help to build a bigger picture of where foreign policy is heading.


Zhuang Yan, Tong Wei, and Du Chunbu wrote an article in Eluosi, Dongou, Zhongya yanjiu, No. 3, 2015, on the impact of the rapid rise in Russia’s defense spending on its economy and society. Although Russia repeatedly insists that it does not intend to engage in another arms race, the fact that its defense budget over the past decade has risen more than ten times and is set to rise rapidly over the coming three years too persuades the authors to raise doubts. They assess the implications of this steep rise in spending in various areas. Early in the article mention is made of the extreme militarization of the Soviet economy, which suppressed spending on other areas of the economy and on social needs, becoming a main source of severe contradictions leading to stagnation and decline. Looking back to the 1990s, the authors note failed reforms and the sorry state of a military starved of funds, to the point in 1999 the expenditures were just 1.6 percent of the US total. Then, Putin took power intent on strengthening the military to prevent Russia from being subordinated to a stronger country or even disappearing altogether. Now, because it was adequately funded, military reform went comparatively smoothly, the authors note, but in 2008 in the war with Georgia inadequacies were uncovered as reforms were deemed to still be inadequate for the needs of modern warfare. A new set of reforms was conducted in 2009-2011, as Russia’s military budget kept climbing faster than that of any other country with growth of 19-20 percent per year in 2011-2012, and it soon rose to third in the world, surpassing Great Britain and Japan. In 2012, Putin went so far as to declare that Russia’s number one priority given the world environment is to sustain its military development to 2020. The article gives the figures for the reform strategy of 2013 as a jump in military expenditures in three years of 67.4 percent, a rise in the military share of the state budget to 20.9 percent and in its share of GDP to 4.0 percent. Yet, these goals were unrealizable. Given the fighting in Ukraine and the sanctions by the West, at the end of 2014 Russia committed to even greater financial support for the military. In 2015, these shares climbed as high as 23.0 and 4.2 percent, respectively.

The article assesses the significance of these changing budgetary commitments. One, it aroused a spirited debate over whether Russia was being led into the trap faced by the Soviet Union. Putin’s response was that this would not only not be harmful to the national economy, it would help it develop in a good way, strengthening Russia’s ability to maintain its sovereignty, winning the respect of its partners, boosting its military industries as the engine of overall economic modernization and high-tech spinoffs. Some Russian commentators agreed, but more warned that, as in the case of support for agriculture in Soviet times, funds would be swallowed in a bottomless “black hole.” The State Duma said that livelihood and defense are both priorities, but the latter should not expand at the price of sacrificing the former. The article quotes a member of the Duma who warned that the idea that defense expenditures would drive the economy forward is unworthy of respect and seen to be false on various occasions in Russian history, and an economist who warned that this would not be positive for social and economic stability and development. Looking at recent data, the article finds sharply falling social expenditures with services dropping from 45.8 to 33.1 percent of GDP and in the state budget from 16.3 in 2014 to 12.1 percent in 2017. Investment also is down. These trends are unfavorable for a healthy balance in the national economy, readers are told, as other negative effects are identified. Moreover, the article points to a rising secret budget, associating it with a lack of responsibility and corruption. It explicitly states that Putin has been wrong in his assurances, and that sanctions and falling oil prices are not being handled correctly.

Sino-Indian Relations

In No. 3 Guoji wenti yanjiu, Lan Jianxue wrote about India’s foreign policy and Sino-Indian relations, arguing that India has changed a lot and China needs to grasp these changes in its domestic and foreign policy to guide the direction of the next stage of bilateral relations through a scientific plan. Noting that over the past decade it has pursued “strategic autonomy,” using various international contradictions in pursuit of two goals—to foster high-speed economic development and conduct diplomacy as a great world power and important actor in Asia—, the article sees Modi aiming to prove India’s importance to the world and avoiding alliances. He is said to recognize that only strengthened military threat capacity in foreign policy will be successful. Lan views India as unwilling to accept anything but being a first-rate great power. It has also signaled to international society that in South Asia and the Indian Ocean what India says is what counts. Lan also notes that India has switched from “looking East” to “acting East,” pointing to the link-up of India’s move to the east and Japan’s to the south, India’s expanding influence in Myanmar, and its growing economic and defense cooperation with Mongolia and South Korea. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the article finds closer ties to Vietnam, oil exploration in contentious areas of the South China Sea, talks on free trade with ASEAN, involvement in the Mekong River regional economic corridor, and improved defense ties to Australia and Indonesia. It has moved to a two-ocean strategy, straddling the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Lan finds India looking to become a global balancer and swing state. Indians are recognizing that their country’s choice can make a difference in Sino-US relations to the point of becoming a game changer if it turns in one direction or the other. At present, readers are told, it is striving hard to avoid openly allying with Washington and containing Beijing largely because there is insufficient trust in relations with the former. Observing that the four US pillars of power—economic, military, alliance, and financial—are unstable, the US-led international alliance system is in retreat, and US plans to use India are complicated and something India sees as too costly. If Sino-US relations suddenly improved, Indian-US relations could be sacrificed. Lan adds that all formal US allies eventually suffer a lost to their strategic autonomy; therefore, India must be very careful in how it handles relations with the United States and Japan, to the maximum extent, in pursuing its own national interests. Lan also argues that the core task for India is to advance economic diplomacy, giving Modi credit for doing this with the main great powers. In short, this article tries to convince India that proceeding as China desires is in its own best interest.

Turning to Sino-Indian relations, Lan finds the expression “neither enemy nor friend” no longer applicable. While India has seen a need to defend against China, using the United States and Japan and other great powers to contain China, it is insisting on its autonomy and not operating under an anti-China banner. Lan notes growing overlap of interests in dealing with the international trade system, the international financial order, the global development agenda, and Asian regional integration. Five to six years ago observers saw relations shifting from South Asia to the Asia-Pacific, and now they see a shift from the Asia-Pacific to the world. They are rediscovering each other, working at structuring a new model of win-win relations. While they have a border problem and are geopolitical rivals, Lan insists that trade is their core concern with huge latent potential. Yet, Lan acknowledges that India is adamant that large trade deficits with China cannot be sustained and calls on India to use market means to boost its exports. Lan is upbeat on ways to go forward.

The article concludes with recommendations for raising relations to a new level. First, Lan calls for top leaders to strive for better relations, praising their meetings to date. Second, blaming the border problem on the legacy of Western colonialism, Lan focuses less on diplomatic acumen than on approaching it from a new strategic angle with the courage of mutual compromise and capacity to guide public opinion as well as utilizing a positive international environment, although Lan warns that conditions are not now ripe. Lan further proposes that the two cooperate in trying to change (democratize) the international system, avoiding zero-sum thinking. In addition to ideas for closer economic cooperation, the article ends with backing for strengthened academic and cultural ties. The overall thrust is that India must ignore China’s rising assertiveness and calls from others to join forces against it, while just focusing on how to boost bilateral relations for its economic needs and global goals.

South Korea

In an article in Dangdai Hanguo, No. 1, Ling Shengli traces South Korea’s middle power diplomacy from Roh Moo-hyun to Park Geun-hye, pointing to examples from Korea as “balancer” to Korea as regional energizer through NAPCI. Doubting the results, Ling suggests that Seoul’s options as a middle power are rather limited, but still it should proceed with such initiatives. As for Roh’s 2005 notion of a balancer, Ling describes its meaning as a state able to moderate the behavior of great powers in Northeast Asia and to assume the leading role in dealing with matters on the Korean Peninsula. The author describes the geopolitical thinking that lay behind this idea, noting first that Korea is the crossroads of the region and inevitably the juncture of great power struggle, which has never ended and causes suspicion in South Korea of the powers. Its response is to seek to escape this competition and be accepted as the central state in the region. It sought to use contradictions among the four great powers for leverage. Given growing divisions and contradictions in the ROK-US alliance and the historical tensions and territorial troubles with Japan, the rapid development of Sino-South Korean trade that is having growing impact on South Korea’s prosperity, the energy and even arms cooperation of Russia and South Korea, Seoul’s initiatives are regarded as understandable. Always keeping its strategic focus on unification and with its hopes for using the great powers to this end raised by success in nordpolitik and the shared Six-Party Talks endeavor, Roh Moo-hyun saw turning his country into a balancer as the way to halt great power conflict in the region, while turning Korea into its economic hub. To accomplish this, Seoul needed more independence from Washington, rejecting both regionalization and globalization of the alliance while gaining more autonomy in its own defense and more leeway to advance ties with Pyongyang, which Ling credits with helping to make progress on the North Korean nuclear question. Roh was on the right track, but he did not go far enough, even if the idea of being a balancer was a stretch.

Ling points to problems that interfered with Roh’s aspirations. First, were conflicts with Washington, marked by disagreements in strategy and interest that led to US loss of trust. Yet, Liao credits the balancer idea with positive significance for ridding the region of remnants of the Cold War and forging a regional security framework even if no regional great power could accept Seoul taking the lead. Missing in this is finger pointing at Pyongyang for regional problems. Implicit is criticism centered on Washington and Tokyo for a Cold War approach to Pyongyang and even Beijing and Moscow. Thus, Seoul’s failure is implicitly blamed on the US alliances. Roh’s idea did not die. In fact, Ling argues that it was really Kim Dae-jung’s idea and was kept alive by Lee Myung-bak and then Park Geun-hye, overreaching with middle power hopes.
Lee’s “new Asia initiative” broadened the scope to all of Asia and posited Seoul as the leader of its rising nations. Turning away from maneuvering among four great powers to using economic power for regional influence, it targeted ASEAN and middle and small powers, while also seeking to reduce the impact of the global economic crisis. Seoul sought to export its development model, even its political model. Ling sees some positive features in seeking to restore economies and to integrate the region without striving for political or military alliances. Yet, South Korea’s weight in the region was much less than China and Japan’s, and some in South Korea doubted the strategy as old wine in new bottles, while both China and Japan were suspicious of its leadership intentions. Even so, Ling is not very critical since he sees Lee as advancing Asian regionalism through multilateralism.

The article finally turns to Park’s middle power aspirations through NAPCI, building trust and alleviating regional tensions. It shows that Seoul is conscious that the world has entered an era of multipolarity, it is becoming hard to center diplomacy on the ROK-US alliance, and it is valuing middle power multilateralism. Ling adds that while Washington does not oppose Seoul turning more towards Beijing in dealing with Pyongyang, it is quite disturbed about Seoul leaning towards China beyond this. NAPCI is interpreted as Seoul seeking more autonomy and equality in relations with Beijing and Washington, a welcome development for Beijing. Further discussion centers on Seoul’s unstable external environment and NAPCI’s objective to reduce this. It is seen as a way to build great power trust to deal with North Korea and as a path toward a regional cooperative system, i.e., a security framework. The main actors are seen to be four powers and South Korea, not North Korea. Pointing to problems with NAPCI, Ling mentions: 1) it lacks specifics; 2) while Washington is cold to the idea, Beijing supports it in principle, Tokyo and Moscow are silent, and Pyongyang is fiercely against it as serving US hegemonism; 3) doubts prevail on how a middle power can exert much influence on great powers, especially on security issues; 4) despite the difficulties, gradually advancing cooperation is worth a try; and 5) even if its success is doubtful, it is positive for turning Seoul more towards multilateral security cooperation, i.e., away from excessive orientation to its ally.

Sino-US Relations and North Korea

Yang Xiyu’s article in Guoji wenti yanjiu, No. 3, is on Sino-US relations and the North Korean nuclear issue, including suggestions for increased cooperation. As a veteran of the Foreign Ministry and the Six-Party Talks, he is an authoritative voice on how China assigns blame and what it would prefer to happen. Conceding that there is a basic commonality on denuclearization and resumption of the Six-Party Talks for peaceful resolution, Yang stresses a sharp divide, especially in how to interpret the language of the Joint Statement “promise to promise, act to act,” indicating how Pyongyang and others should respond to each other. Yang notes that from the early 1990s the North Korean issue has had increasing importance in Sino-US relations. He finds, however, that thinking on a security framework for the Korean Peninsula is completely different. They do not agree on the meaning of a peaceful resolution or on how North-South relations should evolve. How this issue is handled, Yang adds, will have great significance for the new type of major power relations taking shape.

Tracing the roots of the problem, Yang points to the loss of balance when the Cold War had not yet ended on the peninsula. Continuation of the US-Japan-ROK triangle when the Sino-Soviet-DPRK side had disappeared meant that the Cold War persisted and provoked Pyongyang to pursue nuclear weapons. Yang also insists that China sees the issue from a broader prism than simply non-proliferation. It is about how to maintain security in Korea in its political, economic, and diplomatic dimensions. If the source of insecurity is the North’s weakness compared to the South or the US alliances, then Yang appears to be saying that only by changing the balance on the peninsula (with its impact on reunification) and the power balance in the region is cooperation on denuclearization likely to advance beyond today’s limited measures. Throughout, Yang gives credence to his point of view as asserting what China thinks. Yang further states that in spite of Pyongyang’s violation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regime and lies about its nuclear program, which he neglects to mention as if they are of no matter, China consistently stands behind the North’s right to nuclear energy. China has always sought to address in the talks the hostile security environment external to the peninsula that causes the nuclear problem through establishing a peace system for the peninsula and treating North Korea equally in it. There is no ambiguity here about who is to blame and how different China’s proposals are from those of the United States and its allies. There is little basis for finding common ground.

Reviewing the history of US policy, Yang argues that Clinton first wanted to use military force, but Seoul as well as Beijing objected, insisting that only peaceful means be used. Omitting mention of China’s support to prop up the regime, Yang obscures its strategy to use Pyongyang to alter the strategic balance in the region. After all, the goals attributed to Pyongyang are actually Beijing’s strategic aims. In the late Clinton years, Yang sees more promise if the result would be mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs. Here, Yang is reflecting opposition to a “color revolution” and why China must support the North. No mention is made of the secret uranium enrichment program, as if it were just another reasonable response to the unfavorable imbalance rather than a violation of agreements that might cause loss of trust in Pyongyang. Coverage of the Bush period is centered on China’s disagreements with the US position, not on what was touted at the time as five versus one in favor of denuclearization. Acknowledgment is made of shifts under Bush in a positive direction, encouraged by China, but nothing is said about why the Agreed Framework broke down in late 2008, sparing Pyongyang of blame. Obama is treated as giving low priority to this nuclear issue, as if strategic patience was a step back from Bush’s approach due to loss of priority in dealing with North Korea. Mention is made of the Leap Day agreement and the North’s violation of a UN Security Council resolution, but blame is placed on Obama for closing the door to bilateral talks, which the North seeks, naturally provoking more moves by the North to attract US attention and reduce pressure from it. Yang insists that the North does not want war; it is just seeking what appears to be a fair deal through bilateral talks. Instead, Obama has sought to increase military pressure and sanctions, tightening the alliance with South Korea, conducting military exercises, and applying unilateral sanctions apart from the United Nations. Despite noting some efforts to start talks, Yang faults the US side for not creating the right conditions or unconditionally supporting them. Rather than Pyongyang not cooperating, Washington is blamed for not following the model of its recent opening with Cuba and its earnest dialogue negotiating with Iran.

Yang concludes his article by reiterating what he says has been China’s consistent approach to the Korean nuclear questions, unlike the inconsistent US approaches. First, it means putting aside the nuclear issue in order to concentrate on dialogue and mutual trust, recognizing that China will not be part of its “sanctions club.” In brief, the strategy to enlist more support from China, even if it must wait for a new nuclear test, is mistaken. Second, in seeming parallel with arrangements for Iran, China’s approach is to agree to North Korea maintaining a peaceful nuclear program. Without attaching blame to the North, Yang explains that the peninsula remains in a state of war, as if this is independent of any particular actor. Moreover, Yang depicts it as caught in the Cold War, as if that is a consequence of alliances and, similar to China, it is just another innocent victim. It follows that China and the United States must turn their attention from the theme of denuclearization through a broader bilateral agenda. Almost nothing is said about South Korea in this article. It apparently counts for little. North Korea is not faulted; it seemingly is an innocent victim. China does not need to change course; it has all along had the right plan. A new type of major power relations is all about a complete turnabout in US policy, accepting China’s strategy for the Northeast Asia region, as for Southeast Asia and other divisive challenges.

Japan-US Relations

An article by Hu Lingyuan and Gao Lan in Guoji wenti yanjiu, No. 3, asks if Abe’s “proactive approach to peace” is the gospel of the US-Japan alliance. The authors regard Abe’s theme as a signal for expanding Japan’s international contributions, becoming more involved in the US East Asian security strategy, and ending Japan’s postwar pacifist line. Thus, it is seen as a source of great instability in East Asia, but in jointly facing China, the United States and Japan are likely to face increased tensions as a result of this, Hu and Gan conclude. The article details various aspects of Abe’s approach: 1) constitutional reform and factors preventing it, leading to a multi-stage strategy toward it; 2) establishment of the National Security Council, signifying a turning point in postwar security strategy following the US model; 3) a series of laws and measures to realize Japan’s security goals, placing Japan more fully within the US global strategy and “normalizing the state”; and 4) removal of the barriers to collective self-defense, which will allow Japan when a country with close relations is under attack, regardless of how the attack originated, to join in the use of military force, meaning that under the pretext of “self-defense” it now can engage in armed conflicts. Hu and Gao conclude that “proactive approach to peace” means a strategy of expanding military preparations after continuously warning against a “China threat,” which will end 70 years of peace, prosperity, and development, while turning Japan into a high danger area and creating big challenges for the US alliance.

Hu and Gao insist that the core of the alliance is to contain China. They point to the US response to Abe, delaying his visit after he took office and then confining it to one day with a very simple reception. Mentioning troubles in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and in the base relocation on Okinawa as well as the Yasukuni Shrine imbroglio, they contend that contradictions are continuously arising and that the United States will not be ready for the shift away from “postwar Japan.” Specifically, Hu and Gao list these challenges: 1) Abe’s conservative history outlook increasingly challenges US values, not only the views in China and South Korea, causing lots of trouble to relations; 2) frictions expanding between Japan’s move toward autonomy and US insistence on control, as Japan perceives US decline and the rise of multipolarity and reduces its strategic dependence; 3) Japan’s intention to call into question the postwar system led by the United States, which will cause dissatisfaction since the US goal for Japan is just a supportive ally sticking with much of the US drafted constitution, not a country bent on far-reaching constitutional reform; 4) Japan’s attempt to break free of reliance on a single alliance by expanding its ties to Australia, India, some states in Southeast Asia, and even Russia—although the Ukrainian crisis has set back this last pursuit—, which goes beyond US interest in sharing responsibility; 5) Japan’s dissatisfaction from US avoidance of becoming involved in the Sino-Japanese conflict, since the US goal is for a certain amount of contentiousness but not for Japan to provoke armed conflict. The authors conclude that the “peace constitution” has been the foundation of the alliance, and Abe’s determination to change it will impact the alliance. Finally, they express pessimism about Sino-Japanese relations and expect Sino-US pursuit of a new type of major power relations to continue and cause problems in the US-Japan relationship. One gets the impression that China will consciously try to play on the differences these authors pinpoint in order to make their prognosis come true.