PacNet #38 – Why America opposes the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?—A second look

Pacnet image.jpg
here

As US-China relations decline to their worst state in over 50 years, it’s important that both sides understand fully the importance of their respective differences. US opposition to Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is commonly understood in China and elsewhere as a competition between the two powers for economic advantage and accompanying international influence. This line of assessment is valid as far as it goes but gives little attention to a wide range of factors in the BRI—and related Chinese statecraft employed in support of the initiative—that Americans deem seriously objectionable.

Some of these factors concern newly prominent unconventional Chinese actions and levers of influence abroad that were heretofore disguised, hidden, denied, or otherwise neglected or unappreciated by foreign specialists assessing Chinese foreign relations. The unconventional Chinese actions and levers of influence have been featured in investigations carried out by US and other government agencies and respected US and foreign think tanks. What the investigations show is that the BRI, despite Chinese rhetoric to the contrary, is part of a wide-ranging effort by the Chinese government to undermine the many interests of the United States and its allies and partners who stand in the way of China’s determined international ascendance, under the rubric of the BRI and other means.

Those interests include a) the rule of law; b) the rights of small nations seeking to avoid dominance in contested issues with large nations; c) transparent, free, and fair economic dealings in line with accountable governance; and d) popular political rights, religious freedom, and non-discrimination against minorities.

BRI challenges America

Legitimating China’s growth model, Huawei expansion—Beijing has succeeded in having the BRI widely endorsed by, among others, the UN secretary general, playing a prominent role in the two China-hosted international forums on the BRI in 2017 and 2019, and by Italy becoming the first of the G7 countries to join BRI in 2019. Meanwhile, the most important Chinese company associated with the BRI, Huawei, is advancing from a strong base among developed countries, seeking a leading global position.

Such endorsements of the BRI and advancement of Huawei are major problems for Americans who target China’s unfair economic practices. They aver that Beijing’s surplus capital for financing BRI deals has come as a result of China’s neo-mercantilist practices, marking the latest stage in a three-decade long effort using state-directed development polices which plunder foreign intellectual property rights and undermine international competitors. The profits flow into efforts to achieve dominance in major world industries, build military power, and support the BRI in order to secure China’s dominance in Asia and world leadership. They support companies like Huawei in their attempt to dominate international communications enterprises.

Broader international endorsement of the BRI and the expansion of Huawei would legitimate the longstanding negative Chinese economic practices. They would make it even harder for the United States to counter the many negative features of Chinese practices for US interests in the existing international economic order. That order is viewed as under serious threat coming from determined Chinese efforts to weaken and undermine restrictions on the egregiously mercantilist state-capitalism prevalent in China today.

BRI and corruption—The BRI is not a multilateral organization. Its basis is bilateral agreements between China—and Chinese firms—with various countries and their firms. These agreements are not transparent. Corruption is a serious problem in China, but it’s even worse in many developing countries. Chinese firms and supporting Chinese government representatives repeatedly work effectively with corrupt foreign leaders seeking mutual advantage, which comes at the expense of the country’s broad national interest.

A comprehensive study by the Asia Society of China’s BRI in Southeast Asia recalled the extraordinary scale of corruption in the Razak government in Malaysia making deals with enormous payoffs in very expensive Chinese projects in the country. It said the Malaysian case was an exception only in that corrupt practices were exposed, concluding “the pervasive use of bribery, cost padding, and kickbacks was also indicated in numerous other BRI projects in the region.” Studies by the International Republican Institute, the Center for American Progress, the Center for New American Security, the German Marshall Fund and many others came to the same conclusion in other parts of the world. Such practices undermine the international status quo, which have featured strong US-led efforts to reduce corrupt practices which weaken good governance and disadvantage the public interest.

The BRI supports authoritarian rule—Many corrupt cases in the BRI involve Chinese dealmakers and authoritarian “strong man” leaders seeking to advance authoritarian rule. Examples included Cambodia, Venezuela, many states in Central Asia and the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Montenegro, and arguably Serbia, the Maldives, Ecuador, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Such practices run against US interests in good governance with accountability to the people of the country. They promote an alternative international order that accommodates leaders who suppress the rights of their people for the sake of maintaining their power.

Authoritarian rulers often are keen on Huawei, Chinese communications and surveillance technologies and related equipment for use in controlling their populations. Some also adopt Chinese journalistic practices that serve to influence their people to support authoritarian rule. China in turn benefits from the sales, and Chinese representatives also gain much greater access to and a degree of control over the communications, surveillance, and media of the recipient country. The situation provides opportunities for Chinese espionage.

BRI fosters dependency, leverage and control—Beijing commonly uses BRI agreements to build economic dependence. The Chinese agreements often result in unsustainable borrowing. Debtor countries are more accommodating regarding Chinese demands for equity (e.g., land, ports, and airfields) and/or Chinese requests for access to military facilities or other favors. Salient examples are Cambodia, Djibouti, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Laos, Malaysia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Serbia, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela. The disadvantages for the United States are that Chinese actions foster a world order at odds with prevailing rules, with China free to manipulate vulnerable states for its own advantage, leading to economic stalling of these countries that will require costly intervention by existing international economic institutions.

Other Chinese BRI leverage disadvantageous for the United States comes as BRI participant states often rely heavily on trade with China. They are well-aware they need to defer to China on sensitive issues given Beijing’s long record of putting aside or manipulating WTO norms to use trade dependence as leverage in order to compel the country to meet China’s demands on a variety of policy issues. Meanwhile, Huawei and other firms’ expensive and complicated communications and surveillance systems along with Chinese provided hydro-electric dams and port operations cause recipient countries to rely ever more on Chinese businesses for management and maintenance. Such connections make the Chinese ties difficult and expensive to replace by another provider, adding to reasons for recipient states to defer to China on sensitive issues.

Conclusion

The US opposition to the BRI reflects a substantial set of differences with China, not just an issue of economic competition. Yet, there is no easy answer for the United States in countering the Chinese challenges as Beijing’s BRI advances its sway and finds welcome, notably from many authoritarian and/or corruptible leaders.

Robert Sutter (sutterr@gwu.edu) is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University, USA. His most recent book is The United States and Asia: Regional Dynamics and Twenty-First Century Relations: Second Edition (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2020).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #36 – Countering China’s Influence Operations: Lessons from Australia

Pacnet image.jpg
here

This is an abridged version of a commentary originally published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In 2017 a rising politician in the Australian Labor Party, Senator Sam Dastyari, proclaimed at a press conference with Chinese-language media that “the South China Sea is China’s own affair,” and that his Labor Party would help maintain the relationship by knowing “when it is and isn’t our place to be involved.” This statement stood in stark contrast to the position taken just the day before by the Labor Party shadow defense minister Stephen Conroy, who had condemned China’s “absurd” island building and stated unequivocally that a Labor government would authorize freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

When confronted by Australian reporters Dastyari denied making the remarks, and it would be more than a year before the leaked audio of the press conference confirmed that he did, and forced him to resign from Parliament. But the image from the press event of Dastyari standing aside billionaire Chinese property developer Huang Xiangmo, coupled with recent revelations of their close financial ties, raised troubling questions about the role of Chinese influence in Australian money politics.

Australia’s energized investigative journalists, with some helpful leaks provided by the Australian security officials, began reporting on a range of activities undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party-state that had long been hidden or obscured in Australian politics and society. These activities included efforts to buy political influence, cultivate pro-Beijing voices in elite circles, coopt and control the Chinese diaspora in Australia, and shape discussion while silencing dissent Australian university campuses. What emerged from the barrage of media reporting was a disturbing and extensive pattern of Beijing’s attempts to interfere with Australia’s democratic processes along a variety of fronts. These revelations captured the attention of China watchers the world over and touched off a firestorm in Australian politics.

Prominent politicians, commentators, business and university leaders, scholars, and voices in the Chinese Australian community lined up on different sides of a national debate over how serious a challenge Chinese influence posed to Australian democracy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spearheaded legislative reforms to crack down on foreign interference, which were enacted with strong bipartisan support, and the government subsequently banned Huawei and ZTE from Australia’s 5G network. Beijing responded with a diplomatic freeze and a slowdown on coal imports from Australia.

These scandals and revelations turned Australia into a cautionary tale about the myriad and opaque ways that the Chinese Communist Party-state seeks to influence and interfere with political processes in democratic countries. But what exactly are the lessons of the Australia case for other advanced democracies and other countries in the region? The answer lies in the ways in which the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sought to exploit Australia’s vulnerabilities, as well as in the sources of Australia’s resilience in pushing back on these influence efforts. 

The Nature of Chinese Influence Operations

China’s efforts to influence and shape public discourse and political outcomes beyond its borders go well beyond the legitimate public diplomacy that all governments engage in. The CCP uses unofficial channels in ways that are opaque, deceptive, and manipulative to influence foreign governments and citizens—leaving the realm of legitimate public diplomacy far behind. Turnbull aptly defined this as “covert, coercive, or corrupting” behavior that crosses the line “that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference.” In Australia, these methods have included, among others, monetary inducements to politicians to change their stance on key issues; threats to mobilize Chinese Australian voters to punish political parties who do not support Beijing’s policy preferences; “astroturfing” local grassroots organizations to give the appearance of broad support for Beijing; coopting the messaging of Chinese-language media and local civic organizations; and a variety of efforts to drown out or silence critics. These efforts are deliberately hidden from public view to create a layer of plausible deniability that obscures direct ties to Beijing and makes it more difficult to nail down the degree of interference.

The wave of influence operations in Australia has also thrown a spotlight on a once little-known department within the CCP, the United Front Work Department (UFWD). Under Xi Jinping, who calls the UFWD a “magic weapon” for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people, United Front work has been dramatically expanded and elevated within the party. Its goal is to “win hearts and minds” of overseas Chinese and other influential targets and unite them in support of the CCP and its goals while neutralizing critics.

Beijing’s “Agents of Influence” and the Media Firestorm

The Dastyari affair begins with the figure of Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire property developer from China who came to Australia in 2011 and quickly gained permanent residency and political clout. Huang was a major political donor to both the Labor and Liberal parties and also gave generously to Australian universities, including a 2014 donation to the University of Technology Sydney to establish the Australian-China Relations Institute (ACRI). Huang was also chair of the UFWD-linked Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC), a United Front-led organization whose leadership and activities are closely guided by Beijing and the Chinese embassy. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the ACPPRC that organized the pivotal Dastyari press conference.

Spurred by the Dastyari incident, media investigations into the ties between CCP-linked money and politicians uncovered that China-linked businesses were the largest donors to both the Labor and Liberal parties, donating more than A$5.5 million between 2013 and 2015. The subsequent political scandals began to shed light on the range of ways that CCP-linked donors and proxies sought to exert influence, not just over political parties, but also academic campuses, research institutions, influential individuals, and groups within the ethnic Chinese community. Reporting focused on how overseas Chinese students were being surveilled and organized by local consulates to pump up patriotic, pro-party messages on college campuses while stifling dissent.

The barrage of revelations ignited an intense national debate just as Turnbull announced draft legislation to counter foreign interference and espionage. Many in the business and academic communities argued that fears over Chinese influence were being exaggerated while many in the broader ethnic Chinese community felt that they were being unfairly targeted. But the political ground had shifted decisively, and broad public support emerged for taking a tougher stance on foreign interference.

Why Did China Target Australia? 

Australia was an attractive target for China’s interference operations because of its strategic value as a US ally in an increasingly contested Asia-Pacific region. If China could sideline Australia from taking active part in efforts to constrain Chinese maritime behavior, it would sharply undercut American regional leadership and strengthen China’s hand in pursuing its ambitions in the South China Sea and more broadly.

Australia also offered some tantalizing vulnerabilities for Beijing, including its economic dependence on China as a trade partner and the growing dependence of Australian universities on tuition revenue from Chinese students and research funding from CCP-linked patrons. These two factors created natural constituencies of support which consistently advocated for a cooperative relationship with China.

Two other notable features made Australia particularly vulnerable. First, Australia was one of the few advanced democracies that did not prohibit campaign donations from foreigners, creating a wide-open loophole for wealthy Chinese political benefactors with links to the CCP to seek to influence political parties. Incredibly, Dastyari had in fact not broken any laws before being drummed out of office.

Second, Australia has a large community of ethnic Chinese Australian citizens, which is a natural target for the United Front. The CCP and UFWD have worked for decades in these communities to coopt Chinese community organizations and help people sympathetic to Beijing to rise in local prominence—while also filtering out negative media coverage in Chinese-language press and drowning out critics.

The Strength of Australian Democracy

Australia’s resilience in the face of China’s large-scale influence efforts is makes it a case study in how democracies can marshal a defense against corrosive Chinese influence. First and foremost, Australia’s independent and boisterous free press launched aggressive investigations into many facets of Chinese influence and brought to light many troubling incidents. Once these issues were surfaced by the media, a vibrant public debate ensued, and over time public opinion moved decisively against China. Last year’s public opinion poll by the Lowy Institute showed that people’s trust in China dropped by 20 percentage points in a single year, from 52% to 32%.

Australia’s swift political response is also notable. Campaign finance, counter-interference, and espionage laws were enacted in 2018 that, among other things, banned foreign donations and toughened sanctions and enforcement provisions. A new coordinating office was also created with the mandate to formulate a comprehensive strategy and follow up on specific cases of foreign interference, and last December a new intelligence task force was launched with more dedicated resources to target enforcement of the new provisions.

Ultimately, Australia’s strong democratic culture, political will, and a healthy shot of transparency proved to be an antidote to Chinese intrusion into Australian domestic politics. Australia has not softened its South China Sea policy, and subsequent efforts by Beijing to freeze diplomatic relations and slow down imports of Australian coal have failed to dislodge support for the government’s tougher stance. However, the Australian public and government should not fall complacent. The CCP has made long-term investments in relationships and networks that will not be eroded overnight, and it is refining its toolbox through trial and error.

The “Magic Weapons” of Advanced Democracy

If the United Front Work is a “magic weapon” for Mao and Xi, then transparency and rule of law are the magic weapons for democracies. Legislative reforms and a free and vibrant press must help shine a light on the shadowy web of inducements, threats, cooptation, and self-censorship that actuates Chinese influence. This may entail tackling uncomfortable issues for democratic systems, but advanced democracies such as Australia have some advantages to bring to this challenge and should leverage their strengths to combat malign influence.

Dr. Amy Searight (ASearight@csis.org) is senior associate for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  Dr. Searight has a wealth of experience on Asia policy—spanning defense, diplomacy, development, and economics — in both government and academia. Most recently, she served in the Department of Defense (DOD) as deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, from 2014 to 2016. Prior to that she served as principal director for East Asian security at DOD, and as senior adviser for Asia in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #35 – India: The Solution to Australia’s Reliance on China?

Pacnet image.jpg
here

An earlier version of this article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.

Australia would benefit from an increase in both economic and strategic ties with India. Strong trade and closer ties with India would help ease Australia’s economic and political vulnerability to China. Indeed, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s 2020 plan was initially to travel to India to revitalize negotiations for an Australia-India economic agreement, however the bushfire crisis put a halt to the trip. According to DFAT, two-way trade between Australia and India has grown in value from $13.6 billion in 2007 to $30.4 billion in 2018. Negotiations for a bilateral agreement between the two countries started in May 2011 and there have been nine rounds of negotiations so far, the latest of which was held in September 2015. While there are no concrete plans yet to reschedule the meeting between Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, given the travel challenges presented by Covid-19, the governments should look to restart negotiations as soon as possible.

Australia’s China Vulnerability: How India Can Help

Australia’s economy is heavily reliant on China, which continues to be Australia’s largest two-way trading partner, accounting for around a quarter of total trade. While Australia has benefitted from Chinese demand, such large dependency has also left it in a vulnerable position. Whenever China is negatively impacted by a global economic shock, Australia is exposed to such impact.

This became evident with the ongoing US-China trade war. In August 2019, the Australian stock market slumped because of the trade war. Even though Australia was not involved, it still felt the effects of the trade war. It should be noted however, that at times the Australian economy has been able to benefit in certain areas from the ongoing battle. Nonetheless, this is only a short-term benefit, in comparison with the more serious long-term consequences to come. Former senior economic officials from both Australia and the US believe that the Australian economy will further have to suffer because of the trade hostilities.

Politically, the economic dependency also puts Australia in an awkward position in confronting the US-China dilemma. Australia is forced to take sides between economic and defensive dependency, in which both choices alone present considerable disadvantages. Australia must balance its relationships with a country on which it is heavily reliant economically for crucial exports (China) and a country on which it has relied for security and defense since the fall of Singapore in 1942 (the US). Both security and economic wellbeing are vital components of a state’s survival, so being forced to choose one inevitably means missing out on the other.

To counter this, Australia needs to increase its competitiveness by expanding its export market opportunities. Currently, Australian trade relies on a minimal number of commodities to a small number of critical trading partners. Australia needs to diversify its trade partners and expand its export base, which is where India can help.

India is currently Australia’s fifth largest export partner and presents a lucrative option for Australian exporters to diversify. By 2027, India’s population is projected to overtake China’s. By 2030, India is expected to become the world’s third largest economy, and the second largest by 2050. At the end of this decade, India and China will be on par when it comes to potential export markets.

While Australian trade with India has grown steadily, there is much more potential for export market access. However, India has notably high trade barriers and low ease of doing business, especially in areas such as contract enforcement and property registration. An economic agreement would help to reduce obstacles for Australian exporters.

Strategic Benefits of Closer Ties with India

Economic relations aside, closer ties also present strategic political benefits. India shares more in common with Australia than China. India and Australia are federal democracies, former British colonies, and English is the primary language of both foreign ministries. These similarities go a long way in ensuring smooth diplomatic communication between both governments, something which has been an obstacle in the Australia-China relationship.

India has a strong relationship with the US, as was evident in the recent state visits by Modi to the US and President Trump to India. Australia wouldn’t have to worry about taking sides should India be in the picture. Instead Australia could use this to their advantage and work in a collaborative relationship with both countries.

Despite the clear importance of India to Australia, Australia is still very much focused on China. China accounts for over 30% of Australian exports, whereas India accounts for just 5. China was mentioned 112 times and had its own sub-chapter in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. By comparison, India was mentioned just 60 times. The Australian foreign policy community commonly cites the “Rise of China” but India too should be viewed in the same way. India is experiencing a geopolitical rise in the Indo-Pacific. Similar to the increase in Chinese influence within Pacific Island countries, Australia tends to forget India too is playing this game with other countries in region, much to the displeasure from Beijing.

The decade ahead will see increased importance in the space race and cyber-security, both of which India looks to play an active role. India has demonstrated its similarity with China in terms of its rising power status and strategic importance. Australia has yet to recognize this and its low prioritization of India, in favor of China, is not in Australia’s strategic interest. India’s global rise presents Australia a pivotal opportunity to change economic and strategic dependence for the better.

Adil Cader (adilacn1@gmail.com) is a Pacific Forum young leader and is on the Perth US Consul General’s alliance managers committee. He has previously worked at the Australian Mission to the UN in New York and has been involved with various think tanks. He holds two masters degrees in international relations and international law from UWA. His interests are Australian foreign policy and the impact of soft-power diplomacy.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #32 – China’s Post-Covid Geopolitical “Either/Or”

Pacnet image.jpg
here

An earlier version of this article was published in the Nikkei Asian Review.

As the coronavirus crisis continues to reshape geopolitical contours and dynamics, the rivalry between China and the United States has deteriorated markedly. Divisions over China’s re-emergence as the first-in and first-out of the Covid-19 ward have thereby deepened. At issue is whether China’s virus-fighting assistance and its post-Covid position in the world is accepted or resisted. The either/or proposition of whether “you are with us or against us,” not long ago admonished by Washington, is increasingly coming from Beijing.

Three distinct phases have characterized the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The first was whether other countries suffered “with” or “against” China. As the world watched with shock and awe in January and February, and while the Chinese government boldly locked down swathes of its vast territory like a turnkey operation, some governments imposed early travel restrictions on China, led by Australia and the US. For Southeast Asia, a critical battleground in the China-US faceoff, Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam tightened travel rules quickly, whereas Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand maintained road and air transport routes with China well into March. These four countries in mainland Southeast Asia have depended on China for tourism, trade, investment, and superpower support in the face of Western criticisms against human rights and authoritarian proclivities.

A similar pro- and anti-China wedge has been evident in the West. As China exerted and stabilized virus control from mid-March, the pandemic went on a rampage in Europe and the US. Global coronavirus tallies became a league table of sorts, not only for public health management but also the ability of each afflicted country to overcome an external enemy. China began at top spot but soon gave way to the US and European countries.

This second stage was about whether other pandemic-ravaged countries accepted China’s assistance and advice through its so-called “coronavirus diplomacy,” as Beijing began to export its medical equipment, expertise, experience, and largesse. To date, more than a hundred countries around the world have received China’s anti-virus overtures with varying degrees of enthusiasm. European countries that are participants in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, such as Italy, took in Chinese aid. Southeast Asian governments have broadly welcomed Chinese medical gear and advice but more so among the mainland countries, especially Cambodia and Laos.

But some countries have pushed back hard. Spain and the Netherlands, for example, declined what they deemed “defective” Chinese test kits and face masks. Sweden, with its own approach of building “herd immunity,” closed the last of China’s Confucius Institutes. On the other hand, President Trump labeled Covid-19 the “Chinese virus,” questioned Beijing over virus misinformation, and suspended the US budget contribution to the World Health Organization, which is accused of conniving with Chinese authorities. Australia went a step further and called for an independent investigation into China’s virus mismanagement and the WHO’s role in it.

As partial re-openings take place in various countries from May, the third phase comes into play. The sharp economic contraction around the world will bite all economies hard but China’s centralized rule and large domestic market may give the country some additional room to maneuver. If the weaknesses of the US and Europe in the 2008-09 Global Financial Crisis enabled China’s launch to superpower status, the 2020-21 period could lead to solidification should China’s economy rebound quickly. Even though its growth this year will be much lower than forecast, China may come out of Covid-19 more intact than the other established major powers because it has suffered earlier and recovered faster.

China’s new phase of ascendancy will line up the international community between those nations that recognize China’s pre-eminence and others that resist it. In an ideal world, the coronavirus crisis would have galvanized international cooperation, led by China and the US, to fight against a common enemy. But instead, the virus has worsened pre-existing geopolitical tensions.

As the coronavirus blame game between the US and China intensifies, an open conflict between the two superpowers is more plausible than at any time in recent decades. China, for example, has expanded its claims in the South China Sea by setting up administrative regions in the face of Vietnam’s opposition, while the US and others are preoccupied by the pandemic. Nine plaintiffs so far in the US, including the state of Missouri, have filed lawsuits against China for its role in not preventing the spread of the coronavirus, and the Trump administration is alarmingly fingering China as the culprit for America’s woes, charges that can degenerate into a “casus belli” if conditions take turn for the worst.

Naturally, China is defensive regarding what it sees as a global scapegoating and a concerted drag on its geopolitical position. Moreover, China’s economic slowdown also will put President Xi Jinping under pressure at home ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial anniversary next year, while Trump faces election-year challenges. Both leaders will have incentives to boost nationalist inclinations and domestic popularity by finding outsiders to blame for internal problems.

Profound crises, such as imposed by the coronavirus, often lead to cathartic changes. Instead of more tension and potential conflict, Covid-19 may also force structural reforms and adjustments at home in both the US and China in a way that realigns their interests abroad. For example, Trump could lose the election this year, while Xi could be forced out or pressured by CCP cadres to take a different tack, resulting in changes away from confrontation towards peaceful co-existence and a revamped international order that satisfies both, with a bigger space for China and enough of a role for the US. While such a scenario and others based on shifting domestic dynamics that lead to more international cooperation may seem farfetched, the alternatives of untenable tension and geopolitical showdown are infinitely more detrimental to all parties involved.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak (Thitinan.P@chula.ac.th) teaches at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok and directs its Institute of Security and International Studies.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #29 – Post Covid-19, the US-China Rivalry Will Only Get Worse

Pacnet image.jpg
here

A version of this was originally published as one of a series of regional commentaries commissioned by the Australian Committee of CSCAP on Asialink Insights (University of Melbourne).

While it’s become commonplace to say that the Covid-19 crisis will lead to a “new normal” in international affairs, it’s not at all clear what that means or indeed what “normal” has been in recent years. Some commentators are seeing the crisis as a “game-changer,” but that is far from certain—the tendency once the crisis has past may well be to simply lapse back into old habits and patterns.

In some areas, patterns and attitudes that are already evident will be accentuated. To take one example, those who have been suspicious of China will have even more reason to be suspicious, while those who have been excusing China and overlooking its negatives will have even more excuses to offer.

Some trends that were already underway will be accelerated. This is so regarding US-China trade. US business was already turning away from China. Xi Jinping’s policies have been discouraging Americans. China’s business culture is increasingly one in which “rule by law” is prevailing over “rule of law,” and anyway market forces have been working against China—it is becoming more expensive. This trend away from China towards other markets and suppliers is likely to be accentuated as China looks less attractive in the wake of the pandemic and others, like Vietnam, where the business culture at this stage is a lot better, become more attractive. In fact, I have been saying for a while now that “China is the present, Vietnam is the future.”

There is an argument to be made that in the commercial world globalisation will be eroded, and it has been in some ways. It is likely, for instance, that as a result of the pandemic the stock-piling of goods judged to be strategically important will become more common at both the national and business levels, and it is likely that more of these sorts of goods will be manufactured at home rather than imported. But at the end of the day business will go where it’s cheapest, and this is likely to lead to more manufacturing opportunities not just for Vietnam but also for Bangladesh, Indonesia, and (for the US) South America as more companies pull out of China.

It’s hard to see the US-China relationship going any way but backwards. This is usually the case in an American election year. This year, with China’s failings more evident and with the pandemic hitting the US so badly, the political class will focus even more on China and in particular the administration will want to blame China.

As to the future of American foreign policy, a lot depends on the result of November’s presidential election. Historically it has been said that US foreign policy is defined more by continuity than change, but that rule will not apply this year: the policies of the two candidates in this election are very different. The pundits are of course making their predictions and many see Trump being re-elected, but this is only April and November is a long way away.

It is important here to understand the context of current US policy making in respect of China. Two distinct views are in play. President Trump sees the relationship almost exclusively in economic terms, transactionally, and seeks instant gratification from it. It doesn’t matter to him that the ruling party in China is communist. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on the other hand, takes an ideological view: his concern is no longer just about China’s behaviour, it is much more about the fact that the regime is communist. Reflecting this, US embassies have been instructed to stress in all their dealings with their hosts that China is being ruled by a Communist Party. This can turn a struggle for influence into a new ideological Cold War with little opportunity for compromise or cooperation.

Some of China’s diplomacy has been effective as the crisis has developed, extending as it has as far afield as Europe, Africa, and the South Pacific. But it is also being seen for what it is – an attempt to offset the cost of China’s early failings as the pandemic developed. As well, some of what China has done has not gone well—for example, ventilators sent abroad didn’t work. And of course the claim that the US military brought the virus to Hubei was not only silly in itself but triggered a “blame game” from which no one is benefiting.

While it is too early to pick “winners” and “losers” among those responding to the pandemic, it is worth noting that Taiwan has done well in managing the crisis—and as a result its stocks have improved further in Washington. The Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea is also seen to have done well, which has already paid dividends domestically. Japan is now facing a second wave, but will probably emerge quite well. ASEAN has been a useful “club” with some notable economic achievements over the years, but it has offered nothing in this particular crisis. There has been no “ASEAN response” to the pandemic; each country has acted on its own.

As to multilateral institutions generally, there is a continuing need for bodies like the WHO, but the Covid-19 crisis has been a timely reminder that many of them—especially the WHO—need serious reform. The extent to which the US plays a part in this will depend, again, on what happens in November.

Ralph Cossa (Ralph@pacforum.org) is Pacific Forum president emeritus and WSD-Handa Chair in Peace Studies.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #27 – Comparative Connections Summary- May 2020 Issue

Pacnet image.jpg
here

COMPARATIVE CONNECTIONS SUMMARY- MAY 2020 ISSUE

REGIONAL OVERVIEW

THE PANDEMIC SPREADS AND THE WORLD RESPONDS

BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the international community’s ability to respond, and looks to take a heavy and enduring toll on the global economy. International focus on the pandemic should not cause us to overlook other significant events: increased Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, growing China-Australia tensions, the non-summit between President Trump and ASEAN leaders, South Korean elections, and a dispute over host nation support which raised questions about the ROK-US alliance. Meanwhile, the disappearance of Kim Jong Un from the public eye raised questions about how prepared the world is for dealing with a sudden leadership change on the Korean Peninsula.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS

COVID-19 OVERTAKES JAPAN AND THE UNITED STATES

BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO

It took time for Tokyo and Washington to understand the scope of the COVID-19 crisis, as the virus continues to spread in both Japan and the United States. The routine that would normally define US-Japan relations has been set aside, but it is too early to draw inferences about what this pandemic might mean for the relationship, for Asia, or indeed for the world. At the very least, the disease confounded plans in the United States and Japan for 2020. COVID-19 upended the carefully developed agenda for post-Abe leadership transitions in Japan and threw President Trump, already campaigning for re-election in the November presidential race, into a chaotic scramble to cope with the worst crisis in a century.

US-CHINA RELATIONS

US-CHINA RELATIONS HIT NEW LOWS AMID PANDEMIC

BY BONNIE GLASER, CSIS & KELLY FLAHERTY, CSIS

The COVID-19 virus sent US-China relations into a tailspin as 2020 opened. Recriminations flew over who was responsible for the virus that killed hundreds of thousands of people and brought economic activity to a halt. The Trump administration took a series of measures against Chinese media organizations and journalists in the United States, which provoked Beijing to expel US journalists working in China. The Phase 1 trade deal was signed, and some tariffs were lifted, though the COVID-19 outbreak hampered China’s ability to purchase the promised amount of US goods and services. With the 2020 US presidential election picking up speed, Trump campaign strategists are actively targeting China.

US-KOREA RELATIONS

FAILING TO FIND COMMON CAUSE

BY ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM & HARRY KAZIANIS, CENTER FOR NATIONAL INTEREST

The US impasse with both Koreas carried over into 2020, with little official contact with North Korea and negotiations with South Korea over troop burden-sharing going into overtime. The global pandemic forced all three governments to make sharp adjustments, with President Trump reaching out to both Seoul and Pyongyang to either offer or solicit assistance. But in both cases, the rifts appear too deep to forget, even in the face of a shared catastrophe like COVID-19.

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

FIGHTING THE PANDEMIC, ASEAN BRACES FOR ECONOMIC PAIN

BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY

Many Southeast Asian countries’ growth rates have been stripped to near zero by COVID-19, and leaders expect a crisis that could exceed that of the Asian Financial Crisis. The pandemic defined Southeast Asia’s diplomatic relations from March, with high-level meetings moved to video conferences. The US-ASEAN summit, scheduled for March 24, was postponed but no new date has been announced. With US elections ramping up and questions about the COVID-19 pandemic outstanding, a 2020 US-ASEAN summit appears unlikely.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

FROM LOW PRIORITY TO HIGH TENSIONS

BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE

For most of the first four months of 2020, China’s generally low priority treatment of Southeast Asia featured cooperation on the coronavirus, standard treatment of South China Sea issues, and a visit by Xi Jinping to Myanmar. However, April saw tensions rise in the South China Sea, with an increase in US criticism of Chinese actions and US military moves against Chinese challenges as well as Chinese initiatives and ongoing provocations.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS

CORONAVIRUS EMBITTERS CROSS-STRAIT RELATIONS

BY DAVID G. BROWN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY

After President Tsai Ing-wen won re-election and her Democratic Progressive Party retained its legislative majority, COVID-19 dominated the news, further embittered cross-strait relations, and provoked a sharp confrontation over Taiwan’s involvement in the World Health Organization. Beijing conducted more military operations near the island in response to concern that Taiwan is pushing independence, and the Trump and Tsai administrations strengthened ties. The opposition Kuomintang chose a younger, reform-minded leader following the latest in a series of defeats.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS

TESTING TIMES

BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK

Inter-Korean relations stayed frozen in the early part of 2020. ROK President Moon Jae-in’s outreach was hardly reciprocated by Kim Jong Un, whose sister snapped back when Seoul mildly criticized Pyongyang’s missile launches in March. For both Koreas the challenge of COVID-19 was overwhelming, yet the North refused any cooperation on this. In April Moon’s liberal party scored a big win in parliamentary elections; two DPRK defectors gained seats for the conservative opposition. Kim caused a global media frenzy by briefly vanishing from view. Moon has less than two years left in office, so Kim’s shunning of him looks short-sighted.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS UNDER QUARANTINE

SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY

The outbreak of COVID-19, first in China and then in South Korea, placed plans for a highly anticipated summit between Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in on hold. Beijing and Seoul’s priorities focused on fighting the virus together through aid exchanges, a new inter-agency mechanism led by their foreign ministries, and multilateral cooperation with Japan and ASEAN. As cases spread across borders, political frictions emerged over entry bans and relief supplies. The public health crisis triggered efforts to mitigate its socioeconomic repercussions, raising questions over  long-term US influence. The virus also dramatically interrupted the normal diplomatic and economic interactions between China and North Korea.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS

SINO-JAPANESE RELATIONS: IN A HOLDING PATTERN

BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI

Politically, the major news in Japan-China relations was that Xi Jinping’s long-anticipated state visit was postponed. While the coronavirus was a factor, the two sides had also been unable to agree on the text of the Fourth Communiqué, and there was considerable opposition within Japan to the visit due to issues between them. Several major Japanese companies announced major investments in the People’s Republic of China, even as the Japanese government agreed to subsidize companies to move their supply chains out of the country.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS

PRAGMATIC STABILITY, LATENT TENSIONS

BY MINTARO OBA, WEST WING WRITERS & JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY

In the first months of 2020, Japan and South Korea maintained pragmatic stability despite a brief flare-up over travel restrictions. The need to prioritize recovery from COVID-19 pushed both countries to focus on domestic issues. With the landslide victory of the ruling Democratic Party in April parliamentary elections in South Korea, it is not likely that Seoul’s approach to bilateral disputes with Tokyo will undergo fundamental change anytime soon. With the US presidential election six months away, stalemate in US-South Korea military cost-sharing talks and volatility surrounding North Korea form an important backdrop to uncertainties in the South Korea-Japan bilateral relationship. By September, we may know whether it is pragmatic stability or latent tension that is the defining force in South Korea-Japan relations in 2020.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS

ENDING STRATEGIC DISTANCING IN THE ERA OF SOCIAL DISTANCING

BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY

In the first four months of 2020, as COVID-19 raged throughout the world, Russia and China increased, and even intensified, their diplomatic interactions, mutual support, and strategic coordination. Patience for maintaining an informal entente, rather than an alliance, seemed to be running thin. This happened even as the city of Moscow’s own brief “Chinese exclusion” policy evoked sharp dissonance in China’s public space. These developments occurred against the backdrop of a Middle East crisis and political shakeup in Russia. As the rest of the world sank into a state of despair, disconnect, and devastation, the two large powers moved visibly toward each other amid an increasing backlash from the US, particularly regarding China’s early actions in the pandemic.

JAPAN-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

GREAT DISRUPTION: UNCERTAINTY OVER THE INDO-PACIFIC

BY KEI KOGA, NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY

Japan and Southeast Asia faced completely different situations in 2019 and 2020 because of the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Japan-Southeast Asia relations were continuously positive. One of the major developments among Southeast Asian states was the creation of the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” (AOIP) which resonated with the principles in Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) concept. As a result, Japan expressed explicit support for AOIP. Functionally, they made progress, particularly in the fields of defense, infrastructure development, and digital, as illustrated by various Japanese initiatives—“Vientiane Vision2.0,” “Initiative on Overseas Loan and Investment for ASEAN,” and “Data Free Flow with Trust.” As such, both Japan and Southeast Asian states began to synthesize their respective visions of the Indo-Pacific and to establish concrete cooperative mechanisms. Diplomatic momentum was put on halt in 2020 as COVID-19 spread. While Japan, Southeast Asian states, and ASEAN made efforts to coordinate counter-measures, share information and best practices, and provide mutual assistance through teleconferences such as the Special ASEAN Plus Three Summit on Coronavirus Disease 2019 in April 2020, each state faces different social and political situations, making it difficult to cooperate. As such, great uncertainty looms over Japan-Southeast Asia cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #26 – Interpreting China’s “Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy”

Pacnet image.jpg
here

DiRecently the Chinese foreign ministry has taken an increasingly strident tone against the United States, Australia, and other countries. Dubbed “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” this new approach seems popular inside China and reinforces a presumed transition of Chinese diplomacy from conservative, passive, and low-key to assertive, proactive, and high-profile.

Wolf Warrior and Wolf Warrior II are Chinese action blockbusters that highlight agents of Chinese special operation forces. They have boosted national pride and patriotism among Chinese viewers.

“Wolf-warrior diplomacy,” named after these movies, describes Chinese diplomats’ offensive to defend China’s national interests, often in confrontational way. China’s foreign ministry spokespersons Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian have taken to Twitter to hit back against external criticisms of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the poor quality of exported Chinese medical equipment. Zhao said in a tweet on March 20 that “if someone claims that China’s exports are toxic, then stop wearing China-made masks and protective gowns.” He suggested in another tweet on March 12 that “It might be (the) US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”

Why is China resorting to “wolf-warrior diplomacy?” Has this aggressive style become the new norm?

Soaring Nationalism

First, this change did not occur suddenly. Since 2010, when China’s GDP overtook Japan’s as the world’s second largest, the Chinese have become more confident and China’s foreign policy has become more assertive, gradually departing from Deng Xiaoping’s taoguang yanghui dictum. As the Communist Party continues to promote “four confidences”—in our chosen path, in our political system, in our guiding theories, and in our culture—nationalism has been on the rise. “Wolf-warrior diplomacy” is an extension of soaring nationalism at home.

In recent years, President Xi Jinping has advocated “a fighting spirit” on several occasions, whether speaking to soldiers or party officials. This has apparently raised the morale of Chinese officials and diplomats, and encouraged a more assertive style.

“Wolf-warrior diplomacy” is evidenced not only in combative words but aggressive actions. For example, in early April, a Chinese coastguard ship allegedly sank a Vietnamese fishing trawler near the Paracel Islands. When Vietnam protested, the Chinese foreign ministry responded by saying Vietnam’s claims to the area are “illegal.” Then on April 19, the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Civil Affairs jointly announced the naming of 80 islands, reefs, seamounts, shoals, and ridges in the South China Sea, triggering angry protests from other claimants. The last time China named islands and other geographical features in the South China Sea was in 1983.

Telling the China Story

Second, as China becomes more powerful, some other countries increasingly view its development as a threat to their national interests. These countries are generally unprepared or unwilling to accept China’s rise. Many Chinese believe the Western media portrayal of China is highly biased, often with ideological and racist tinges. Wolf-warrior diplomacy is part of the Chinese government’s endeavor to “tell the China story.” The latest diplomatic offensive is also part of the official effort to project China as a great power leading the global fight against the Covid-19.

China’s image suffered during the crisis due to its bungled handling of the outbreak at the early stage. Many blame China for initially covering up the human-to-human transmission of the virus and not sharing complete information with the international community.

From China’s perspective, wolf-warrior diplomacy is a direct response to “unfair” approaches by other countries, especially the US, toward China and the Chinese people. For example, earlier this year, the United States and China were engaged in a race to expel journalists, starting after the publication of an op-ed entitled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” in The Wall Street Journal. When the WSJ refused to apologize, China expelled three of its journalists. Shortly afterwards, the US State Department declared five Chinese media outlets “foreign missions,” requiring them to register personnel and property with the US government and cut the number of Chinese nationals working there. In retaliation, China expelled more American journalists.

Zhao’s claim that the coronavirus might have been brought to Wuhan by the US military was a response to US politicians’ calling it “Chinese virus.” Hawks in the Trump administration, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, continue to use the term “Wuhan virus,” in defiance of the World Health Organization guidelines, to shift all responsibility to China.

Fizzling Out?

Third, just as Chinese society has become more diverse, Chinese diplomats are not monolithic. There is no consensus within the Chinese foreign policy establishment on whether confrontational diplomacy is desirable, and not all Chinese diplomats are wolf-warriors.

Traditionally minded Chinese diplomats, including the long-serving ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai, have sought to tamp down the combative impulse and dismissed Zhao’s theory about the US military as “crazy.” Another veteran diplomat, Fu Ying, said Chinese diplomats should uphold “the spirit of humility and tolerance, and adhere to communication, learning, and openness.”

It is too early to tell whether “wolf-warrior diplomacy” represents the culmination of Chinese diplomacy’s transition. As China faces growing external criticisms and demands for reparations over the coronavirus, it is not inconceivable that Chinese leaders may rein in confrontational diplomacy to create an environment conducive to domestic reconstruction.

In fact, wolf-warrior diplomacy is already hurting China’s foreign policy, since it has generated pushback, such as Australia’s calls for an independent probe into the coronavirus’ origins. China’s soft power is weak globally; a belligerent approach will further damage China’s global image. According Pew polls released on April 21, 66% of Americans say they have an unfavorable view of China, its most negative rating since Pew began asking the question in 2005.

As the American public opinion of China and Xi turns more negative, so does Chinese public opinion on America. Professor Wang Jisi of Peking University noted in a recent speech that attitudes in the Chinese government, think tanks, media, and public opinion toward the US have greatly changed during the Covid-19 period. Yet, one sees no end in the information war and diplomatic battle. America’s naming and shaming of China, and China’s tit-for-tat response have made much-needed cooperation in combating the coronavirus very difficult.

Balancing National Interests and Soft Power

It is truly unfortunate that China and the United States are engaged in a diplomatic tussle and blame each other when they should work together. It’s imperative that they play down their differences and focus on containing the coronavirus.

As a nation proud of its glorious ancient civilization, China should remain humble, benevolent, and magnanimous. It should also admit its botched handling of the coronavirus at the outset and hold relevant officials accountable. The Chinese government should improve the mechanism that encourages, not impedes, local officials to report such public health alerts.

Due to political, ideological, and cultural differences, Western suspicions about the Chinese government and anxiety about China’s rise will not disappear anytime soon, and the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated such distrust and apprehension. A more powerful China should be more confident and receptive to constructive criticism. Striking a balance between firmly defending national interests and enhancing soft power is a great challenge in Chinese diplomacy today.

Zhiqun Zhu, PhD, (zz004@bucknell.edu)  is professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University. He has written extensively on Chinese foreign policy and US-China relations. 

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #25 – China’s Eight Arguments Against Western ‘Hubris’ and Why They Fail

Pacnet image.jpg
here

The poor performance of Western Europe and the United States during the pandemic has revived Western declinism. A recent example is an essay by Zhou Bo of the Center of China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Zhou’s assertions are important, but also mainly wrong, and therefore call for a critique. Below I will summarize Zhou’s arguments before refuting them.

1) The West is “falling apart,” and in a “nadir of its self-confidence,” based on the observation that Europe does not have a coordinated response to the pandemic.

Europe is a collection of sovereign governments with very limited merged sovereignty. Each still has its own policies in most areas, including pandemic response. Similarly, China and its Northeast Asian neighbors Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia, and Taiwan each had separate national policy responses to the pandemic. That does not indicate that any of the states in Northeast Asia is suffering a crisis of confidence in its own political system.

2) China successfully implemented emergency counter-measures now “being emulated around the world.”

The Chinese government did relatively quickly take the drastic measures that are relatively easy for an authoritarian state with untrammeled police powers. But the West will not seek to “emulate” other aspects of China’s performance that Zhou does not mention: the Chinese government treated initial reports of the disease as criminal rumor-mongering, suppressed information about the outbreak in the crucial early days, hoarded supplies of medical equipment purchased by importers abroad while China had shortages, demanded that other countries lift their restrictions against Chinese travelers while itself excluding and scapegoating foreigners, attempted to re-write the story of China’s role in the pandemic, and concealed the actual numbers of China’s sick and dead.

3) The pandemic suggests the United States will lose its declared strategic competition with China and Russia because the United States needs medical equipment from China and, aside from the pandemic, relies on China for drugs.

The US need for imported medical equipment is temporary and rectifiable; it will not limit US ability to strategically compete with China. The pandemic is, however, accelerating the trend of American diversification away from China for vital supplies, even if China is the cheapest producer. Chinese commentators such as Zhou who crow about this US over-dependence on China are unintentionally doing Americans a favor.

4) “China and Europe will inevitably get closer” because “a divided Europe will naturally look east” and because Europe, like China, wants “multilateralism” in “global trade,” climate change, and “the role of international institutions” while the United States is opposed.

First, it does not logically follow that less commitment to European integration among individual Western European countries causes them to “naturally” move to China. Zhou would have to make the case that individual European countries want to trade more or align themselves more tightly with China but have been prevented by their membership in the EU or by now-absent US leadership. But Zhou doesn’t go there.

Secondly, it is over-simplistic and misleading for Zhou to say that China and Europe see eye-to-eye on “multilateralism” in a way that leaves America out. In keeping with decades of previous US policy, Washington continues to support NATO, advocates for human rights and democracy worldwide, and is the EU’s top trading partner.

Beijing, on the other hand, routinely violates or disavows international law when it clashes with Chinese self-interests, often sides with outlaw states, and opposes attempts by international organizations to champion liberal principles. China’s idea of multilateral trade is other countries being open to Chinese imports and technology extraction while China maintains protectionism and predatory policies against Western direct investment in China. European political leaders have been much like Trump administration officials in their recent criticism of China over various issues.

It’s questionable that the desire of European states for a relationship with China extends beyond wanting their share of the possible economic benefits.

5) Americans want the EU to view China as an enemy, but will fail because “the creation of the EU is meant, in part, to avoid great power competition.”

This seems to be a reference to US attempts to discourage security partners from contracting Chinese corporation Huawei to build their advanced data network infrastructure. The EU was founded on what began as Western Europe’s common interest not in “avoiding great power competition,” but rather protecting themselves by banding together against a threatening great power. China is a long way from being their new Soviet Union, but is getting some negative attention, which is why some European governments have reservations about using Huawei systems.

6) As the US economically decouples from China, Europe will gain “a greater flow of goods, capital, personnel and technology from China.”

Are Chinese exports to Europe currently limited by China choosing to sell to the US rather than Europe? In any case, the US interest in decoupling is driven by American concerns about economic dependence on China. Western Europeans share those concerns, which means they may not want everything China offers.

7) The pandemic “can become a turning point for the country to provide more public goods to the world,” as shown by China providing medical supplies to many virus-hit countries.

Selling previously hoarded medical supplies is not providing public goods. Zhou is correct that China has the capacity to be a global “Good Samaritan” by quickly producing a large amount of certain items for which there might be a desperate foreign demand during a humanitarian crisis. China fulfilling such a role would be welcome. This, however, is a relatively low level of providing public goods. A higher level is something like intervening in a failed state to deliver food and other aid while under hostile fire, as the US and other countries did in Somalia in 1993-94. Beijing avoids operations such as this because they are difficult and controversial, but meaningful international leadership is inherently difficult and controversial.

8) What matters is not whether states are democratic or authoritarian, but the government’s performance. China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore proved during the pandemic that a “strong and decisive” state is necessary and that the Western model of limited government cannot cope with crises.

By admitting that multiparty democracies like Japan and South Korea handled the pandemic well, Zhou fatally undercuts his implied argument that the lack of civil and political liberties in China is justified by superior government performance. Politically, Japan and South Korea are more similar to Western Europe than to China. Furthermore, Zhou neglects to mention the two countries most praised for their pandemic responses: New Zealand, a transplanted Western European country; and Taiwan, another liberal democracy. By ignoring Taiwan, Zhou silently reminds us that the China Model overly empowers a regime to prioritize its own survival, leading to unconstrained ruthlessness and vindictiveness even at the expense of its own and international society.

Europeans want to profit from China, but will not see the China Model as politically or culturally inspirational or attractive as long as China is ruled by a regime with objectives and policies so deeply at odds with Western Europe’s liberal traditions.

Denny Roy (RoyD@EastWestCenter.org) is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu.  He specializes in strategic and international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #24 – The destruction of North Korean agriculture: We need to rethink UN sanctions

Pacnet image.jpg
here

In 2016 and 2017, in response to North Korea’s continued nuclear testing, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) expanded sanctions that had previously been targeted at commodities, individuals, and institutions linked to the nuclear and missile sector to sanctions measures that no longer differentiated between the civilian and the military sectors. The 2017 UNSC sanctions included a ban on the import of natural gas and condensates; a cap on crude oil imports to 4 million barrels a year and refined oil product imports, which includes diesel and kerosene, to half a million barrels a year. Military sector oil imports, including rocket fuel, were already prohibited by the Wassenaar Arrangement, prior UN sanctions and bilateral Chinese export controls, so the impact of the UN oil sanctions fell disproportionately on the civilian economy.

North Korea has no indigenous sources of oil and natural gas and therefore depends on imported energy inputs to produce fertilizer and pesticides, to fuel irrigation equipment and agricultural machinery and to transport agricultural inputs including seeds, crops, equipment, spare parts, and labor. Given the UN prohibitions on essential energy imports, it should be no surprise that in 2018 North Korea’s agricultural production collapsed to levels similar to those of the famine years of the 1990s.

Under international law, the North Korean government has primary responsibility for the welfare of its population but that does not mean that outside actors like the UN do not also hold responsibilities. No government or international organization may use the excuse of the wrongdoing of governments to inflict further harm on innocents living in that government’s territory. In war time, the destruction of agriculture in an enemy territory is a war crime.

The Geneva Conventions state that it “is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works… whatever the motive.”

North Korea needs around 5 and a half million tons of cereal a year to feed its people, at subsistence levels. In the 1990s, between a third and two-thirds of a million people lost their lives in the midst of economic collapse and the devastation of North Korea’s agricultural sector. Crop production recovered to the extent that between 2012 and 2016, domestic food production, averaged around 5 million tons a year. The food gap was filled from a more or less even split between commercial imports and food aid. In total, recorded imports hovered at around half a million tonnes a year, increasing, after a reduced harvest in 2017, to an import requirement of just over three-quarters of a million tons for 2018, as sanctions tightened.

Improved agricultural production combined with a manageable food import requirement had been accompanied by significant improvements in child nutrition. By 2017, according to UNICEF, North Korean children, whether in terms of stunting (a sign of long term poor nutrition) or wasting (a sign of starvation conditions) on average were significantly and measurably better off than if they had lived in other poor Asian counties like Nepal or even some wealthier countries in Asia, like Pakistan, India, and the Philippines.

In 2018, after the implementation of energy sanctions, agricultural production fell to just over 4 million tonnes, leaving an enormous food deficit of 1 and a half million tonnes in 2019. Put another way, if the only food available in 2019 had been from domestic food production, only about two-thirds of the 25 million population could have received even a basic subsistence level ration. There was no humanitarian crisis in 2019 because China and Russia stepped up with massive food aid as well as fertilizer and pesticide support and, very likely, ignored sanctions limits on oil exports to the DPRK.

Even prior to UN energy sanctions, the North Korean economy was getting by with globally low levels of oil inputs; the 25 million population was second only to the Democratic People’s Republic of Congo as the lowest per capita consumers of oil in the world. The UNSC December 2017 limit on refined oil imports to 500,000 barrels a year is less than Australia, an oil producer itself and with a similar size population to the DPRK, imports in one day. Agriculture in North Korea is founded on hard physical labour, mainly by women, because of the nationwide lack of technology and farm equipment. Nevertheless, there is a limit to how much human labour can substitute for the diesel that is necessary to transport crops and labour from one place to another or the natural gas and oil products necessary to produce the fertilizer and pesticides to ensure adequate yields from insufficient land and inhospitable terrain.

Neither the United Nations nor the member states have a road map that sets out how the goal of DPRK denuclearization will be achieved by sanctions that target the civilian economy. Perhaps the UNSC assumption is that the people will rise up and overturn the government if conditions get tougher. Yet North Korea is, by almost any criteria, including GNI in total or per capita, one of the poorest countries in the world. In destroying agricultural production, the 2017 sanctions have made day-to-day life a literal struggle for the physical survival of families and communities, which does not leave time, opportunity, capacity, or motivation for individuals to also risk their lives by expressing political criticism of a security-focused authoritarian government.

In 2003 the UN had abandoned non-targeted sanctions because of the many well-attested reports from internationally respected health professionals that showed how non-targeted sanctions did not discriminate between innocents and wrong-doers and had caused the deaths of millions of children in Iraq and Haiti. The United Nations Security Council cannot excuse itself through a bureaucratic insertion of “humanitarian exemptions” in its resolutions. The loss of agricultural production destroys farmers’ capacity to grow food in future years. The scope and scale of North Korea’s food production losses could only be compensated by what would have to be the largest and most expensive food aid operation in the world. No member state is seriously proposing this as an option. Ethically, it is also a rather grotesque idea that the same organization that destroyed the population’s ability to feed itself should offer “humanitarian” aid as recompense.

In 2020 China and Russia face coronavirus. If the disease damages their own agricultural production cycle or if they decide they need to keep their oil and cereal stocks at home to protect against the economic uncertainties brought by the global pandemic then, while energy sanctions continue, the North Korean population will again face the threat of starvation. The UN’s own agencies that have been resident and working in North Korea for 25 years and more, especially the FAO and the WFP, have already documented how these new sanctions have brought back a level of food insecurity unknown since the famine years.

This is the start of the agricultural season in North Korea. At least until the UNSC has brought forward a detailed impact study of sanctions on food security, oil, and energy sanctions should be suspended.

Hazel Smith (hs50@soas.ac.uk) PhD FRSA is Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; Professor Emerita of International Security, Cranfield University, UK; Member Global Futures Council on Korea World Economic Forum and Fellow, Wilson Center, Washington DC.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #23 – How ASEAN Should Respond to China’s South China Sea Tactics

Pacnet image.jpg
here

“The South China Sea is a major issue in the heart of ASEAN’s own region. For ASEAN not to address it would severely damage its credibility. ASEAN must not take sides on the various claims, but it has to take and state a position which is neutral, forward-looking, and encourages the peaceful resolution of issues.” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

The South China Sea territorial disputes are among the region’s most critical issues. The first clash occurred in 1974 between the People’s Republic of China and South Vietnam around the Paracel Islands. In 1988, another open conflict erupted between China and a now-unified Vietnam in the Spratly Islands. In 1995, a different conflict between China and the Philippines highlighted Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef, Kalayaan. What is the main reason for this territorial dispute? Scholars point to reasons such as natural resources, fisheries, sea lines of communication, and maritime strategy.

ASEAN member states push the South China Sea as one of the top agenda items because of Beijing’s aggressive efforts to enforce its claims. Although China clearly states that they prefer to discuss the dispute within a bilateral framework rather than multilateral, ASEAN as a regional organization continues to work with other organizations from the UN to resolve the dispute peacefully.

In 1976, ASEAN introduced the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the informal code of conduct for the South China Sea, based on notions of conflict avoidance. In 1990, Indonesia initiated an informal meeting, the Workshop Process on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea, which ended with the Declaration on Code of Conduct (DCOC). However, in early 1992, China passed the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Waters and Contiguous Areas, reiterating China’s claims in the South China Sea and stipulating the right to use force to protect islands and their surrounding waters. Months later, in July 1992, ASEAN responded, with ASEAN’s foreign minister signing the ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea to promote the informal code of conduct based on self-restraint, the non-use of force, and peaceful resolution of disputes.

It took years for ASEAN and China to commit to and sign the DCOC, which brings both parties to work towards a COC in line with the TAC and a Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone. Both parties agreed to maintain the status quo over the islands and promote cooperation in the South China Sea. ASEAN and Beijing held a second meeting called the ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DCOC). Both parties agreed on six projects scheduled to be implemented from 2006 with funding support from the ASEAN-China Cooperation Fund (ACCF). Despite having those projects together, China made a statutory declaration to the UN secretary-general that it would reject any arbitration over military activities, as well as sea and territorial disputes. Furthermore, in 2007, China conducted military exercises around the Paracel Islands, which raised strong protests from Vietnam. China has not only conducted military exercises but also established the Sansha administrative district in Hainan Island, responsible for managing the Paracel and Spratly islands.

In 2011, ASEAN and China adopted the Guidelines for the Implementation of the DOC, which enhanced the practical cooperation in the South China Sea. Months later, ASEAN and China issued a Joint Statement of the Fourteenth ASEAN-China Summit. China promised to work with ASEAN countries on the adoption of a consensus-based COC in the South China Sea to maintain peace, cooperation, security, and stability in the region. Chinese Primer Wen Jiabao also planned to establish ASEAN-China Maritime Corporation Fund. The National Institute for South China Sea Studies held a seminar on “Implementing DOC: Maintaining Freedom and Safety of Navigation in the South China Sea,” showing China’s willing to work together with ASEAN in developing the sea. During the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN failed to issue the joint communique, yet Indonesia helped ASEAN with crafting ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Seaand released it on July 20, 2012.

ASEAN had moved to keep its diplomacy focused on legally codifying the DOC in a binding COC. Initiated by Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, ASEAN brought China to the diplomatic table to complete the COC agreement. Moreover, Natalegawa made a so-called “zero draft” for a COC with the DOC as its foundation, yet Beijing insisted that the drafting of COC had to start from scratch. The negotiation started in 2013 with the formation of a working group and, until 2015, the group had not moved beyond procedural issues. ASEAN gives China control of the timetable agreement, yet Beijing keeps mentioning that there can be no COC until the DOC is fully implemented. As China holds the DOC hostage by continuing to assault other claimants’ rights, it looks like China is using it as a delaying tactic to change the status quo of South China Sea disputes.

ASEAN keeps trying to clarify the status of the South China Sea dispute, yet Beijing has a different perspective and mentions that there is no sense of urgency over it. China’s delaying tactic has worked very well as it seeks to militarize its artificial islands in the Spratlys. With diplomacy stuck, it is better for ASEAN to maintain neutrality as its collective response and concentrate on promoting cooperation and joint development. For ASEAN member states, the most beneficial action to address China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea is acting like rationalists who combine the realist and liberalist approach. As a realist, it is important to show and maintain national security around the disputed islands by having good relations with other non-claimant great powers, such as the United States, Japan, Australia, or India. ASEAN member states also need to act like liberals by engaging in economic cooperation and join in the development of disputed areas with Beijing.

The Philippines case, which brought the South China Sea case against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), has shown that confrontation alone will produce no results. As Graham Allison argues, China, like all great powers, will ignore international legal verdicts. As Thucydides’ summarized in the Melian Dialogue: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—it is commonly understood that the PCA and the International Court of Justice, along with the International Criminal Court, only work for small powers.

Despite China’s disregard of international law, it is important for ASEAN to continue promoting the DOC and COC to keep ASEAN as a credible organization in the region.

Tenny Kristiana (tenny@suou.waseda.jp) is a member of Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program. She has achieved her second postgraduate degree in International Relations from Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.