Issues & Insights Vol. 23, SR3 – Strategic Competition and Security Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

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There is a growing acceptance among countries in the Indo-Pacific region that strategic competition between the United States and China is changing perceptions about security and the adequacy of the existing security architecture. While some have characterized the competition between the two as a new Cold War, it is clear that what is happening in the region is far more complex than the competition that characterized the original Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. First, the economic integration that has taken place since the early 1990s makes it much more difficult to draw bright ideological lines between the two sides. Further, the Asian context of the emerging competition is one where the two competitors have grown to share power. As the dominant military power, the United States has been the primary security guarantor in Asia and beyond. China, on the other hand, has emerged over the past decades as the primary economic catalyst in Asia and beyond. Currently, each side seems increasingly unwilling to accept that arrangement.

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Table of Contents


Carl Baker

Chapter 1 | Southeast Asia Faces Its Boogeyman – Great Power Competition Returns to Southeast Asia in the 21st Century

Drew Thompson

Chapter 2 | Geoeconomics and Geopolitics in Southeast Asia

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Chapter 3 | Economic Aspects of National Security

Brad Glosserman

Chapter 4 | China as a technological power: Chinese perspectives and the quantum case

Hoo Tiang Boon

Chapter 5 | Minilateral groupings as an alternative to multilateralism in an era of strategic competition

Thomas Wilkins

Chapter 6 | The Role of Indo-Pacific Economic Institutions in Shaping Security Competition

Prashanth Parameswaran

Chapter 7 | Economic Development Cooperation amid Indo-Pacific Strategic Competition

Gong Xue

Chapter 8 | Regional Security Cooperation in the US-China Strategic Competition

Kei Koga

Chapter 9 | Strategic Competition and Security Cooperation

Raymund Jose Quilop

PacNet #41 – Another “hotline” with China isn’t the answer

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When US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met his Chinese counterpart, Minister Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of the Shangri-la Dialogue in June, he reportedly urged the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to participate more proactively in crisis communications and crisis management mechanisms.

As the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) enter a period of “strategic competition,” US officials apparently see these lines of communications as “guardrails” to “keep both sides from veering off the road toward escalation.”

While well-intentioned, another hotline isn’t the answer. It would give false hope that the United States and PRC will resolve disputes more rapidly during a crisis. The PRC does not hold the same value and goals for hotlines as the United States: it views them as tools to manipulate rather than to solve crises.

The United States is better off changing its expectations, understanding how the PRC views crisis communications, and shifting the focus to the internal, inter-agency process by which US policymakers would coordinate in a crisis with Beijing.

Incompatible goals

Secretary Austin is one of several senior leaders within the Biden administration calling for more US-PRC hotlines. Current and former US officials believe that US-PRC crisis communication mechanisms are under-developed.

As one article put it: “Their inadequacy constitutes a clear and present danger of potential miscommunication that could fuel a dangerous U.S.-China military confrontation at a time of heightening bilateral tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.”

However, the United States and PRC hold different assumptions and goals about hotlines.

The United States views them as a tool to deconflict and de-escalate and communicate between forces during a crisis. The PLA harbors deep suspicion about crisis communications with the United States, and perceives US proposals for new channels as an excuse to engage in provocative military activities near PRC-claimed waters and territory.

Beijing regards crisis communications as subservient to broader political goals of “crisis management,” which encompass exploiting crises to its advantage and manipulating risk calculations. Hotlines are not meant to resolve the crisis but to empower higher level organs within the PRC to signal resolve, assign blame, and stall until Beijing stakes out a position of maximum pressure and leverage over the United States during negotiations.

This incompatibility has not stopped senior US defense officials from holding out hope that hotlines and personal relationships with PLA leaders might ease tensions. In his recent book, for instance, former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper says he could rapidly contact his “counterpart,” Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe, to clear up misunderstandings.

Such hopes could be misplaced. Not only could hotlines fail to solve crises, but they might also not perform as intended. As Kurt Campbell, the Biden administration’s National Security council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, has said: hotlines tend to “ring endlessly in empty rooms.”

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

The United States has signed two hotline agreements with the PRC. The first, dating back to 1997, is a hotline at the presidential level. During a joint press conference with Jiang Zemin, President Clinton said at the time that it would “make it easier to confer at a moment’s notice.”

However, this hotline was not used during the 2001 EP-3 accident, when a PRC fighter jet crashed into a US aircraft, forcing it to land on Hainan Island with US service members onboard. The PRC did not answer any calls for 24 hours, prompting John Keefe, who then worked in the US Embassy in Beijing, to state it was “the day of phone calls not returned.”

A second hotline, called the Defense Telephone Link (DTL) was established in 2008 at the secretary-of-defense level. The DTL is utilized on a regular basis, but only for routine bilateral communications. During incidents, such as the 2016 PLA seizure of an unmanned underwater vehicle in the South China Sea, it appears the DTL was not utilized.

US desires for a “red-phone hotline” with the PRC may not meet US expectations because senior PLA leaders are not empowered to speak to foreign militaries during crises. Only after civilian Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing have vetted and approved talking points can the PLA communicate. Another red phone is unlikely to accelerate this dynamic on the PLA’s side.

Understanding PRC concepts of crisis communication

The United States should consider broadening its understanding of PRC approaches to “crisis management” as distinct from “crisis communications.” Understanding and accepting the PRC perspective (and not attempting to change its mind) could help US leaders adjust their expectations.

The PLA’s 2020 Science of Military Strategy dedicates a chapter to the “Prevention and Handling of Military Crisis.” It states that “smart crisis management does not lie in the ability to intervene after the crisis has formed and erupted, but whether it can avoid the occurrence of unfavorable crises.” The goal, then, is to avoid the conditions leading to a crisis—what Michael Brecher and Jonathan Wilkenfeld call the “catalysts” to crises. For the PLA, these catalysts are US military actions and posture near the PRC. So, the United States is responsible for eliminating them.

In the section on “handling active crises,” the PLA says that while communication is important, they must:

The handling of military crises should attach great importance to the use of military coercion methods, and appropriately demonstrate strength, determination, and will. In the case that deterrence cannot make the enemy yield, appropriate actual combat methods should be adopted to further deter the enemy, so as to achieve the effect of stopping the war or preventing the escalation of the crisis with a small battle.

Such analysis aligns with strategies that General Secretary Xi Jinping has emphasized to use a “small war to deter a large war” (以武止戈). So, while the United States approaches crisis communication as a means to de-escalate, the PLA views it as part of a broader PRC campaign to stall, manipulate, and possibly use the threat of escalation to coerce Washington to back down.

A new conceptual approach to crisis communications?

The United States should reconceptualize “crisis communications” as a component of a broader concept of “crisis management.” US policymakers should reframe crisis management as a type of deterrence rather than an instrument to de-escalate. Of the four priorities listed in the 2022 National Defense Strategy Fact Sheet, for example, two relate to deterrence. Crisis management should be utilized as a supporting function of US deterrence and coercion strategy, not separate from it. Plainly, rather than conceptualize crisis communications as a way (in the ends-ways-means construct) to an end of de-escalation, crisis communication should be a means to the crisis management ways, supporting the NDS ends of deterrence. Crisis communication mechanisms would thus signal US resolve in the face of PRC pressure or manipulation, instead of trying to resolve the problem.

Second, the United States should streamline internal government bureaucratic processes by which decisions are made during a crisis with the PRC. Joint Publication 3-28, Defense Support of Civil Authoritiesdefines “crisis management” as “measures, normally executed under federal law, to identify, acquire, and plan the use of resources needed to anticipate, prevent, and/or resolve a threat or an act of terrorism.” US national security organs are currently under-equipped to coordinate timely policy responses in a crisis with China. While the National Security Council could be the default coordination hub, manpower limitations may bottleneck efforts to achieve synchronization across the Indo-Pacific Command, Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of State, and the US Embassy in Beijing. Establishing a clearly defined chain of command and points of contact across the various US agencies¾including public messaging courses of action¾that can be rehearsed and stress-tested would enhance US crisis communication capabilities.

Finally, the United States and PRC should discuss definitions of “crisis management.” Words have different meanings to different people, especially across different languages and cultures. The United States and PRC should explore differing ideas and concepts of “crisis” to avoid misperceptions. In October 2020, the Department of Defense (DoD) and PLA held their first Crisis Communications Working Group “to discuss concepts of crisis communications, crisis prevention, and crisis management.” This dialogue should resume, perhaps renamed as the “Crisis Management Working Group.” This group should look beyond the US “ways” of crisis communications, and instead focus on the “ends” of crisis prevention and crisis de-escalation.

Lyle J. Morris is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Colonel Kyle Marcrum is a student at the United States Army War College. The views/statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are strictly our own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, or the US Government. Review of the material does not imply DoD or US Government endorsement of factual accuracy or opinion.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #38 – China’s “containment” policy against America

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Chinese officials and government media constantly decry what they call the US “containment” policy against China. They allege that Washington’s intention is to prevent China from becoming relatively stronger or more globally influential, lest Beijing impede the pursuit of the US agenda in international affairs.

Calling a policy “containment” when it tolerates China having an annual bilateral trade surplus of $350 billion is questionable, to say the least. More importantly, such Chinese propaganda obscures the fact that the PRC also tries to limit America’s influence. When it comes to containment, China gives as good as it says it gets.

The PRC tries to contain the United States in several ways.

First, Beijing has sought to maintain an anti-US coalition, even if there are few takers. The main basis for Sino-Russian cooperation is a common interest in blocking and, where feasible, rolling back US strategic influence. As an example, China’s diplomatic position on the war in Ukraine prioritizes containment of America. Beijing blames the war on Washington, accepting the reputational cost of refusing to condemn Russia and blowing off China’s previous profession of support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The Chinese see North Korea, as well, as a partner in countering the United States. North Korea often repeats PRC and Russian anti-US propaganda. Kim Jong Un reportedly told Xi Jinping earlier this year that the DPRK and China “are strengthening strategic cooperation and unity to destroy the undisguised hostile policy and military threat of the United States.”

Second, Beijing pressures third party governments, particularly US friends and allies, to not support Washington’s agenda. Xi and other Chinese officials have repeatedly implored Europe to “to pursue an independent policy towards China,” meaning independent of the United States. In March, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi metaphorically warned Japan against military cooperation with the United States, saying Tokyo “should not pull someone’s chestnuts out of the fire.” In May, Wang told his Japanese counterpart that “people [are] on alert” because of “the view that Japan and the United States were joining hands to confront China.”

When Canada detained Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou at Washington’s request, the Chinese government punished Ottawa by detaining two Canadians in China as political hostages. Even after Canada freed Meng, the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs re-emphasized the broader message: “Canada should draw lessons and act according to its own interests”—i.e., not America’s interests.

One form of Chinese pressure is attempting shame US partners as exploited pawns. PRC officials and government media have recently called AustraliaCanada, and Lithuania US “running dogs.” In October 2021, the French representative at a UN meeting read a statement signed by 43 countries condemning China’s persecution of Chinese Uyghurs. The PRC ambassador to the United Nations responded, “To France and other followers of the US: what you are doing is submitting your independence and autonomy, and serving as the henchmen of the US…[Y]ou are giving up your own dignity, and will win no respect from others.”

Another PRC method is threats. The Chinese government warned the United Kingdom and Sweden that if they heeded US pressure to exclude Chinese IT infrastructure builder Huawei, these countries would stop getting Chinese investment. Similarly, the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times said that “Australia will have to pay an economic price if the South Pacific nation, blinded by lust to act as a US attack dog, opts to destroy ties with its most important trade partner.”

The threats are not limited to the economic sphere. China has warned Australia, for example, that if it hosts US troops, “Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire.”

Conversely, Beijing praises governments that appear to decline security cooperation with Washington as admirably “independent.”

Third, China promotes alternative international institutions that will be vehicles for Chinese rather than US influence. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between China and the European Union, for example, would have pulled Western Europe closer to China and farther from the United States had implementation of the agreement not halted in 2021. China was more successful with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). To counter the US-supported Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Beijing put its weight behind RCEP, which suited Chinese preferences with its weak provisions for the protection of labor, the environment, and intellectual property. America’s withdrawal from the TPP along with the accession of 15 countries, including China, to RCEP in 2020 handed regional economic rule-making leadership to Beijing.

China is also changing the character of pre-existing institutions such as the United Nations to re-orient them away from reinforcing the US-sponsored liberal international order. The PRC is successfully prodding UN human rights agencies toward holding abusive individual governments less accountable to the international community. At the same time, the Chinese government has used the UN Human Rights Council to criticize US actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Having provided investment and economic assistance to many UN member developing countries, Beijing can call in favors from business partners to thwart US objectives in the United Nations. In 2019, for example, China offered economic gifts to buy the votes necessary to defeat the US-backed candidate for the position of head of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

In May, China vetoed a US-sponsored proposal in the UN Security Council for additional sanctions against North Korea. China’s fundamental North Korea policy goal is to protect the Kim regime from collapsing in order to keep the US bloc from expanding (via a united, Seoul-led Korean Peninsula) up to the Chinese border.

Finally, Beijing works to discredit US regional and global leadership. Since 2020, when many Americans criticized Beijing’s initial non-transparency about the coronavirus outbreak in China, Chinese officials have tirelessly pushed the narrative that the United States is unworthy to wield international influence. “For the US politicians,” goes a representative criticism from the PRC foreign ministry, “democracy is their tool to seek personal and partisan gains at home, and a weapon to serve US hegemony abroad.” The delegitimization of US global leadership includes much Chinese government effort to highlight social and political problems inside the United States, a task made easy for Chinese speechwriters by the open and critical US press.

The much-hyped “Global Security Initiative” attributed to Xi is largely a statement of opposition to the US alliance system (expressed in phrases such as “Cold War mentality,” “bloc confrontation,” and “pursuit of one’s own security at the cost of others’ security”). The criticism of alliances does not apply to China itself, of course, because China’s relationship with Russia is a “partnership” rather than an alliance, albeit one with “no limits.”

This is not the first time China has accused the United States of doing what China itself is doing. Questions about the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the outbreak of Coronavirus in China led to Chinese government accusations that the virus started in a US Army laboratory in Maryland. Washington’s publicity of the persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang led to a vigorous PRC campaign of criticizing injustices in the United States.

What China and the United States do to each other is standard for rival great powers in a period of tense peace. The Xi cult of personality, however, restricts China from describing its own external behavior in terms other than hyper-exceptionalism, benevolence, victimization, and righteous indignation. As a sad consequence, the Chinese don’t give themselves enough credit their own containment policy.

Denny Roy ([email protected]) 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.

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR 3 – South Korea’s Place in the Indo-Pacific: A Research Showcase for Pacific Forum’s Korea Foundation Fellows

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About this Volume

Papers by the Pacific Forum’s current and previous Korea Foundation Fellows examine pressing issues facing the Korean Peninsula in the 21st century. These include the Great Power Competition between the US and China, North Korea and nuclear security, critical new technologies, and energy security. These papers by emerging leaders in the Korean Studies field offer fresh perspectives on Korean security issues – both well-known and emerging – useful for watchers of the peninsula both inside and out of Northeast Asia.

Authors of this volume participated in the Pacific Forum’s Korea Foundation Fellowship program between 2019-2022, with the generous support of the Korea Foundation 

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. Pacific Forum’s publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its staff, donors and sponsors.

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Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: Fostering Conversations on Emerging and Enduring Security Challenges | Rob York
  2. Choose to Win: Two Scenarios on Future Weapons and their Implications for Korea, the US, and Asian Security | Seongwon Lee
  3. South Korea’s Role Amid US-China Strategic Competition | Su Hyun Lee
  4. Between Rhetoric and Practice: Yoon Suk Yeol’s Choice for South Korea and the Indo-Pacific | Eun A Jo and Jae Chang
  5. South Korean Semiconductors: The Crux of Yoon Suk Yeol’s Long-Term Strategy toward Technological Leadership | Kangkyu Lee
  6. Exploring the Opportunities for Comprehensive Response to Disinformation in the Indo-Pacific: Cases of the Republic of Korea and the United States | Jong-Hwa Ahn
  7. The Politics of Multilateral Energy Cooperation in Northeast Asia: The Implications for South Korea, Japan, and China | Juyoung Kim

About the Authors

Rob York is Program Director for Regional Affairs at Pacific Forum. He is responsible for editing Pacific Forum publications, including the weekly PacNet series, the triannual Comparative Connections journal, and the in-depth Issue & Insights series. Prior to joining Pacific Forum, Rob worked as a production editor at The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. A PhD candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Rob has established himself as a commentator on inter-Korean and Hong Kong affairs, as a regular contributor to NK News and The Daily NK and having been published at The South China Morning PostWar on the Rocks, the Foundation for Economic Education, Korean Studies, and The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, as well as conducting numerous interviews in various media outlets. His research agenda at Pacific Forum includes trade and its relationship with security, media analysis, countering disinformation, and human rights.

Seongwon Lee is a lecturer at the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University. Previously, he was a non-resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum (2020), deputy director for international cooperation at the Ministry of Unification, and interpretation officer at the Republic of Korea Marine Corps. He earned his BA at Stanford University, MA at University of North Korean Studies, and is currently finalizing his PhD dissertation titled “Future Weapons: An Evolutionary History” at the Graduate School of Future Strategy, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).

Su Hyun Lee is the 2021-22 resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum. She holds a BA in East Asian International Studies and MA in International Cooperation both from Yonsei University. 

Eun A Jo is a PhD candidate in the Government Department at Cornell University and an incoming 2022-2023 predoctoral fellow at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University. She is interested in political narratives, memory, and the domestic politics of international relations, with a focus on East Asia. Her dissertation, “Narrating Enemies in World Politics,” explores how post-conflict states narrate their former enemies and what implications these narratives hold for policies of peace and reconciliation. To this end, she compares the narrative trajectories of postcolonial, postwar, and post-authoritarian Taiwan and South Korea, using an interdisciplinary theoretical framework and a mixed-method research design. A paper from this research, titled “Pasts that Bind,” is forthcoming in International Organization.

Jae Chang is a recent graduate of Cornell University, where he studied Government and China & Asia-Pacific Studies. His primary research interests are Northeast Asian multilateralism and the role of identity politics in international relations. Additionally, he is interested in the impact of South Korean pop culture, especially in Korea’s partnership with Netflix.

Kangkyu Lee is a research fellow with the Humane AI Initiative at the East-West Center. He is also a consultant in Korean and Japanese affairs for Blackpeak. He is an incoming PhD student in International Affairs, Science, and Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and was formerly (2020-21) a resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum where he researched the implications of AI and other frontier technologies on international relations and global security.

Jong-Hwa Ahn is an expert in international security and strategic planning. Recently, he worked for the United Nations on policy planning and is currently a Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow for media and journalism. At Pacific Forum, he was a Korea Foundation Fellow for foreign policy and regional strategy and, as an army officer in the Republic of Korea, he served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. He also worked on public diplomacy for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Korea Institute of Sport Science and received his Master’s in International Peace and Security from Korea University.

Juyoung Kim is a non-resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum, where her research focused on the politics of multilateral energy cooperation in Northeast Asia. She has nearly five years of policy research experience in several think tanks in South Korea including the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, Future Resources Institute and East Asia Institute and her research interest in natural resource governance, the geopolitics of energy and multilateral energy cooperation has evolved gradually from her work experiences. Juyoung recently defended her PhD thesis on the politics of governing Mozambique’s LNG industry at King’s College London, and she received her MSc in International Relations Theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

PacNet #2 Balancing accessibility and quality in Blue Dot Network infrastructure finance

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An earlier version of this article appeared in East Asia Forum.

While US-led Bretton Woods Institutions have supported infrastructure projects since the 1940s, there has been criticism in recent years that the United States has been inadequate in responding to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Biden administration should utilize the Blue Dot Network (BDN) to incentivize private investments in sustainable infrastructure projects in conjunction with the existing Bretton Woods Institutions.

By striking the right balance between accessibility and quality, the BDN would create a unique opportunity to narrow the infrastructure gap while also responding strategically to the BRI through coalition building.

In November 2019, Australia, Japan, and the United States launched the BDN, a voluntary program aiming to certify infrastructure projects that would meet high standards of transparency, sustainability, and developmental impact to help countries pursue quality infrastructure investments. Given that there is currently no certification process to assess quality infrastructure projects, the BDN could also be used by the Bretton Woods Institutions to evaluate existing projects, including those under the BRI.

The BDN is seen as a way to provide project finance alternatives to China’s BRI. One of the major differences often highlighted between the Bretton Woods Institutions and the BRI relates to the lower than optimal lending criteria of the BRI. Since Chinese government-owned banks have the backing of the state, BRI partner countries can receive loans even if the projects are not expected to be profitable.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Bank estimated that nearly one-third of BRI partner countries were at high risk of debt distress. However, the low emphasis on environmental and social impact assessments by the BRI has meant the World Bank and other lending institutions have struggled to promote high-quality infrastructure projects. The BDN certification process must be a driver for projects with better commercial lending viability while still maintaining an openness that will invite a critical mass of private investment to guide quality infrastructure goals.

While the BDN has received $2 million from the US State Department, no specific projects for certification have been announced. The undersea fiber optic cable to Palau has been the only project that has attracted financing from all three BDN countries Still, it is unclear whether it will be a test case for receiving certification by the BDN.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies has pointed out that the United States does not have the appetite to compete on a dollar-to-dollar basis with the BRI, and should instead focus on promoting rules that reflect US values. But efforts to promote “the highest standards” have been criticized for only reflecting the values of developed countries. To avoid such criticism, the BDN will have to be implemented in a way that captures the characteristics and needs of recipient countries rather than applying a one-size-fits-all standard.

Given that the BDN is expected to invite private investment, the emphasis on accountability might be more focused on the investors seeking a better rate of return than the people affected by the policy. Therefore, It is imperative to see how the BDN will balance promoting high-quality infrastructure projects while also being accessible enough to shrink the infrastructure gap, which is projected to be about $94 trillion over the next two decades.

In recent years, there has been exponential growth in environmental, social, and governance related assets, with approximately one-third of global assets in sustainable investments. Norway, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, recently released its plan to impose stricter ethical and environmental guidelines on its investments and stated that it would not be adding more emerging markets to its portfolio. While surveys show that a certification program for quality infrastructure projects would increase the likelihood of private sector participation in infrastructure projects, the standard-setting efforts will need to be structured in a way that promotes infrastructure projects in places of need as well.

These factors underscore the importance of standard creation through a multi-stakeholder mechanism. The OECD has provided technical support by building a multi-stakeholder design process for the BDN certification framework. The aim is to build in sustainability as an objective both at the design and the implementation phases, signaling to the financial markets that the risks have been managed, which would make it more attractive for private sector investment.

While the OECD indicated that BDN certification would be based on existing criteria such as the G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment, the OECD stated that stakeholders from 96 countries had been engaged in finalizing the BDN certification framework, including China as an observer. Given that the Biden administration has shown a keen interest in mobilizing allies and like-minded countries for various standard-setting initiatives, the BDN is a great opportunity to showcase US commitment to multilateralism.

Even though the BRI has been criticized for being poorly coordinated and too fragmented, the Trump and Biden administrations have perceived the BRI as a tool for achieving Beijing’s geopolitical goals. Countries, especially in Southeast Asia, have often shown reluctance to align with either the United States or China. However, some ASEAN members have expressed interest in pursuing financing opportunities with the trilateral partners.

The Biden administration needs to emphasize to developing countries that the BDN will be utilized for the common objective of achieving Sustainable Development Goals, rather than being perceived as another means to contain China.

John Taishu Pitt ([email protected]) is a foreign associate at a law firm in Washington DC and a Fellow in the Institute of International Economic Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

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 #56 – America and China: Seeking an Updated Foundation for Enduring Engagement

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The following is drawn from the introduction to the Regional Security Outlook 2022, prepared by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific 

The US and China bookend the core bilateral axis in the contemporary world. This relationship became increasingly distant over the last 20 years and went into free-fall in 2017-18 when the Trump administration openly stepped away from the broad posture of engagement that had underpinned US policy toward China since 1972. The incoming Biden administration therefore inherited a badly fractured US-China relationship.

Somewhat ironically, as concerns about US-China relations mounted, a widespread propensity to re-assess alignments and policy settings emerged as a helpful source of restraint on the behavior of key states. The proximate trigger for this propensity was, of course, Biden’s election win over Trump. There was some speculation that Beijing also faced new and difficult judgements. This stemmed from international polling suggesting that its policy settings and style of implementation were alienating many global audiences.

From the outset, the Biden administration made clear it agreed that the US posture of engagement toward China had run its course. The new administration believed that China was presenting itself as an ideological alternative to the prevailing liberal order and suggested that US-China rivalry could be characterized as centered on alternative systems of governance. As always, the cumulative stresses and strains of the past rolled over into 2021 and continued to develop as well as to interact with new events and developments. Above all, the COVID-19 pandemic continued its relentless erosion of stability, prosperity, and optimism around the world. Other, more specific concerns included, in particular, Taiwan but also the South China Sea, Myanmar, the Korean Peninsula, and Afghanistan.

The Biden administration could not easily suppress the major qualms about America that political leaderships around the world were grappling with. Although there was unmistakably hesitation in some quarters, Washington encountered a strong residual interest in re-engagement among its allies.

The so-called rules-based order has established itself as something of a lightning rod in the dispute between the US and China. At an initial meeting of senior officials in Alaska in March 2021, the Biden administration sought to have the relationship viewed as a package of selected, broadly agreed, areas of cooperation alongside areas of regulated or bounded competition centered on economic performance. China had for a number of years flagged its reservations about the rules-based order simply by pointing out that it had not been present when the order was framed. In Alaska, however, it expressed a broader and sharper view, characterizing the order—which even Xi Jinping acknowledged had been a decisive factor in China’s spectacular economic success—as a hegemonic construct that precluded fair competition and looked to the building of a new order devoid of these hegemonic characteristics.

This prospective insight into at least one aspect of China’s difficulties with the rules-based order seemed to be confirmed in July 2021 when China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi formally presented US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman with a package of two lists and three “bottom lines.” The first of these “bottom lines” reportedly reads: The United States must not challenge, slander, or attempt to subvert the path and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics. This statement confirms that China seeks formal acknowledgement of and acceptance that systems of governance other than liberal democracy/market economies can be fully effective across all criteria and should be assessed without prejudice.

What we have, therefore, is both the US and China saying that the rules-based order has been subverted, with the US highlighting, inter alia, the unqualified concentration of power in the Chinese Communist Party constitutes as an unacceptable threat to fair competition with private enterprise in the West while China insists, also inter alia, that Western notions of democracy and human rights are now so entrenched that they cast a pejorative cloud over its own system of governance even though it performs effectively against “collective” variants of these essential qualities.

All things considered, China and the United States spent the greater part of 2021 posturing and probing for the high ground rather than engaging substantively on practical solutions to the problems bedeviling their relationship. The outlook, therefore, remained somewhat fraught, with the scope for further serious deterioration looking rather stronger than the prospects for constructive engagement.

We cannot delude ourselves. The differences in values and priorities, the associated differences in what is expected of the state and in the sources of the state’s authority are real and deep. The judgement of political, economic, and security commentators is all but unanimous: the events and trends of the recent past appear to have placed the tools, processes, and mindsets that sustain order and stability in the Indo Pacific under alarming cumulative stress. The Cold War resulted in the Indo-Pacific hosting formidable nuclear and conventional military capabilities. Then China emerged and engineered the fastest sustained expansion of its military power to major power proportions in recorded history. And all sides are deploying these capabilities to prevent or provoke change. Both sharp surprises like AUKUS and the persistent calculated brinkmanship in the East and South China Seas can be seen as warning signs that the potential rate of change to the status quo is exceeding the region’s absorptive capacity.

It is imperative that the policy community in the Indo-Pacific region demands, encourages, and facilitates efforts to probe, dissect, and unravel the policy settings of the major powers and to develop the space for a coexistence that is stable, peaceful, and competitive—in that order. Above all, this is a task that the ASEAN-managed multilateral security processes—especially the ARF and EAS—should and must be a prominent part of, not least because their inclusive membership is an inherent antidote to the forces of divergence that are currently so strong.

Ron Huisken ([email protected]) is Adjunct Associate Professor, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU and Editor of the CSCAP Regional Security Outlook.

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 #55 – What’s in a word? Calling it “containment” makes a huge difference

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Any discussion of US-China relations will, without fail, include Chinese denunciations of America’s mistaken efforts to wage “a new Cold War” against China to check its rise and contain the spread of its influence. The US reply that heightened competition is not containment and attempts to show differences between the two policies are dismissed as empty rhetoric or outright deceptions.

It’s a frustrating conversation because the US policy is to compete with China, not to contain it, and there is a real and important distinction between those two approaches. The problem is that when I began to explore what a real containment strategy would look like—thinking, “that’ll show ‘em!”—it was quickly clear that it’s easy to confuse the two. Even rollback, an aggressive Cold War policy that sought to reverse Soviet influence, can be espied in elements of Western policy toward China.

But it’s critically important to differentiate between clear-eyed competition and blunt-force containment. Competition holds out hope for cooperation and a constructive relationship; containment does not. That hope could make all the difference.

When China looks at the United States, it sees a country increasingly subject to the growing influence of hostile forces. Following the Biden-Xi summit last month, Xinhua noted the Biden administration’s vow “that it does not intend to have a new Cold War with China.” But that grudging concession followed a long complaint about those in Washington who are “still latching onto looking at the world through a zero-sum lens and creating ‘imaginary enemies.’” Those “die-hard zero-summers” “resurrect Cold War metaphors” and reflect “Washington’s deeply ingrained Cold War paranoia.” This “obsolete thinking and entrenched ideological bigotry” is “exactly the way in which the United States once reacted to the Soviet Union’s achievements in the Cold War years.”

The commentary then provided a list of US actions that it says confirm the United States’ hostility to China’s rise. They include formation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue “to counter China.” Conducting Freedom of Navigation operations and regional war games “to flex its muscles.” Playing the Taiwan card—selling weapons, sending warships through the Taiwan Strait, and strengthening ties—“to disrupt China’s drive for national reunification and development.”

China’s ambassador to the United States Qin Gang added more items to the indictment in recent remarks to the Brookings Institution’s Board of Governors. He denounced plans “to host a Leaders’ Summit for Democracy to throw ideological labels on others, attack those different from them, and refuse to respect and recognize other countries’ development paths.” He rejected attempts to “abuse and overstretch the concept of national security, set up the so-called ‘Clean Network’ and ‘democratic technology alliance,’ and suppress foreign companies without any justifiable grounds.” And he dismissed US efforts to “politicize” the COVID-19 outbreak, contrasting the response to the pandemic—arguing over its origins—with the joint effort by the two countries to halt the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa.

It’s easy to lengthen the list of charges: establishing the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) trilateral security partnership; strengthening US alliances around the region; the campaign to deny Huawei markets around the world; promoting diplomatic campaigns to secure international condemnation of Chinese actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang; and encouraging a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics that China will host.

Each of those US actions makes sense to me, either as a reaction to Chinese behaviors that threaten US interests or those of its neighbors. From my perspective (and that of many others), US responses are defensive and designed to protect the status quo.

But as Qin countered in his remarks, “what are the rules? Who made these rules? Who are the traffic police?” Beijing looks to the United Nations for authorization for such actions and it has been silent. (A Chinese veto at the Security Council—actual or potential—could have something to do with that.) In that vacuum, US action looks capricious and unilateral.

What is troubling is my effort to contemplate a real containment strategy produced something that looked awfully similar to existing policy. It included the strengthening of security relationships throughout the region, with particular attention to China’s neighbors. The United States would engage in frequent exercises and shows of force to keep China off balance and force it to direct resources to the military. It featured diplomatic campaigns to spotlight Chinese transgressions and vigorous efforts to isolate the country. On the economic front, countries are discouraged from accepting Chinese aid, provided alternatives to those funds, and compelled to deny Chinese companies, its new technology competitors in particular, access to their markets. US companies are also discouraged from investing in or doing business with Chinese counterparts. All were designed to halt the spread of Chinese influence and isolate the country within the international order—to contain it.

The biggest difference would be this strategy’s efforts to undermine stability within China. These initiatives would identify sources of tension and friction in Chinese society and actively work to widen and magnify them. This would be the most aggressive expression of containment and is quite dangerous since it’s hard to mistake it for anything other than what it is: an attempt to destabilize the Chinese Communist Party and promote regime change.

My attempt to differentiate between competition and containment failed. That is frustrating because I genuinely believe—as do virtually all US policymakers and analysts—that US policy is designed to compete, not contain. Even hardline critics of US policy accept that conclusion since they complain that the United States isn’t doing enough to challenge China.

Does it matter? Is it significant that the United States is containing China but doesn’t use that word to describe its policy?

Absolutely. Containment asserts that the Chinese government is fundamentally illegitimate and cannot be given space in the international system. Competition, by contrast, bounds that enmity. By insisting that the United States “will cooperate when it can, compete when it should and confront when it must,” opportunities to work with the world’s second-largest economy and a formidable power are not dismissed out of hand. (The United States occasionally cooperated with the Soviet Union during the Cold War across a narrow range of issues, all directly related to security. There are more issues with which the West can work with China because of entrenched interconnections that never existed in Western-Soviet relations.)

Containment draws sharper, thicker lines between China and the West. It legitimates a wider range of actions, including offensive ones. Those then justify China’s pursuit of its own narrowly framed interests and validates responses that the West has already dismissed and condemned. It reinforces a downward spiral in relations. And since the goal is to contain China, there is little reward for Beijing to moderate its behavior—cooperation is no longer on the table.

Most significantly, containment and its dismissal of cooperation threatens to alienate US allies and partners. Those governments are concerned by Chinese behavior but they are not all in on the hard line. The European Union strategy toward China echoes the current tripartite US approach identifying China as “simultaneously (in different policy areas) a cooperation partner, a negotiation partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.” Japan aligns closely with the United States but it too worries about closing the door on relations with China. A shift from competition to containment could fracture the broader coalition of forces that is essential if there is to be any hope of changing the Chinese government’s behavior.

It isn’t clear if China cares one way or another. In one moment, Chinese interlocutors call for changes in US declaratory policy—such as accepting “mutual vulnerability” or adopting a no-first use policy. In the next, they dismiss US rhetoric as empty talk, highlighting gaps in words and its actions. Ironically, in the next breath, they ask—in some cases demand—that those countries accept its own assertions of benign intent, and ignore all material changes in Chinese capabilities, as well as any steps that it has taken that undercut its professions of goodwill and desire for peaceful coexistence.

The Chinese are right about one thing: trust is in short supply. While there is blame enough to go around, the failure to recognize their part in that downward spiral guarantees continued deterioration.

Brad Glosserman ([email protected]) is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

PacNet #53 – What should Washington expect from US-China strategic stability talks?

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National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that US President Joe Biden proposed strategic stability talks to Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping during their virtual meeting on Nov. 15 and that “the two leaders agreed that we would look to begin to carry forward discussions on strategic stability.”

The United States has long sought such discussions with China, but Beijing has invariably declined, arguing that “conditions are not ripe” because the US nuclear arsenal is much larger than China’s. Yet while promising that it would stick to “minimum deterrence” (codewords for a small nuclear force), Beijing has been growing its arsenal and, per recent evidence, this growth is advancing much faster than anticipated, with no end in sight.

If strategic stability talks take place, what should Washington expect?

The findings of unofficial US-China meetings offer insights. In the absence of official strategic stability talks, these meetings were, for a long time, the only game in town. They stopped as the broader US-China relationship deteriorated, but some have resumed recently, and they provide important lessons for Washington. I offer five here.

Lesson #1: Expect to be blamed

Beijing will air grievances and appear largely dismissive to US (and allied) concerns. Beijing justifies its military build-up by pointing to “US aggressive moves,” including efforts to build a coalition of democracies against China. Washington will hear criticisms of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the Australia, United Kingdom, and United States (AUKUS) pact, Beijing’s new bête noire. US explanations that Beijing’s actions have triggered those developments will fall on deaf ears, and Washington will be told to be “more rational” and to abandon its “Cold-War mentality” and its quest for “absolute security.”

Of course, Beijing will also accuse Washington of changing its policy vis-à-vis Taiwan, notably by deploying troops there and by suggesting that the United States has defense commitments with Taipei.

As a result, while Beijing will say that it wants to improve the bilateral relationship, it will not articulate specific actions China should take to that end. For Beijing, the United States has destabilized the relationship and therefore the responsibility for stabilizing it rests on Washington.

Lesson #2: Expect challenges to insulate the nuclear dimension from broader competition

Beijing will express rhetorical support for attempts to insulate the nuclear dimension of the relationship from competitive dynamics in broader US-China relations, but it will also stress that such dynamics make it difficult for China not to compete in the nuclear domain.

Beijing will insist that it is not a “revisionist state,” unlike the United States, which has withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and Open Skies treaties, is developing low-yield nuclear weapons, and is refusing to cooperate on peaceful nuclear uses. For Beijing, these actions “prove” that the United States is not sincere about strategic stability and, after AUKUS, nonproliferation.

Still, Beijing will stress that China and the United States should commit to never fighting a war, especially a nuclear war. Expect reference to the Reagan-Gorbachev 1985 statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and a push for China and the United States to issue a similar statement.

Beijing, however, will go on to say that the chances of war will decrease if the United States refrains from deploying missile defenses or INF-range missiles in the Indo-Pacific. Read: Problems will go away if the United States lets China dominate the region. When Washington refuses and cites alliance commitments (which allies want strengthened because they fear China), Beijing will use this as evidence of US “nuclear aggressiveness.”

Lesson #3: Expect major disagreements over nuclear plans and strategies

Beijing will be angered that China is—will be—a major focus of the key US strategic reviews, notably the Nuclear Posture Review.

Beijing will dismiss US claims that China is now a US “nuclear near-peer” due to qualitative and quantitative force improvements, and possible posture change (to launch-under-attack). It will object that Chinese modernization complicates US-Russia nuclear reductions. It will reject arguments that the United States might consider building its arsenal back up (because it now has two major nuclear-armed adversaries, Russia and China) and that in response to requests from US allies, it might focus extended deterrence on China, not just North Korea.

Beijing will also reject the idea that it is politically impossible for Washington to acknowledge US-China mutual vulnerability—a goal that China has long sought. It will dismiss the charge that the apparent scope and scale of the Chinese build-up (and its open-endedness) suggests that China has given up on nuclear stability with the United States.

Instead, Beijing will maintain that Chinese nuclear strategy remains consistent and continues to be based on the same principles it laid out after it exploded its first nuclear device in 1964. These include the development of a small nuclear force and its use strictly for deterrence purposes, not warfighting. Beijing will stress that Chinese modernization aims solely to ensure that its forces remain survivable, and it will point to its no-first-use policy as the best example of China’s restraint. Beijing will dismiss “US media and think-tank speculations” about Chinese nuclear activities but insist that modernization is essential because China faces a “grave threat” from the United States.

Beijing will express skepticism over US claims that Washington has maintained a restrained posture in the Indo-Pacific, and that US missile defenses are limited. It will point to the US intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies, arguing that China does not worry just about US firepower, but is also concerned by the US ability to search, locate, and neutralize Chinese forces.

Lessons #4: Expect crisis management to have potential

Beijing will reject limits on, let alone reduction of, its strategic weapons, but support efforts to avoid or manage crises and escalation. In other words, arms control is out, and crisis management is in.

Beijing may agree to a “multi-tiered crisis management dialogue” where the two countries define “basic principles” and explain perspectives on issues that concern the other. For instance, that could translate into the United States providing information about its damage-limitation and left-of-launch strategies in exchange for China explaining its co-location of nuclear and conventional systems.

Beijing may also agree to improve implementation of existing crisis management mechanisms, strengthen them, and develop new ones, especially those that address risks in the space and cyber domains, and with artificial intelligence. Beijing may support establishment of an emergency management office. Of course, also expect Beijing to say that a US-China no-first-use policy would reduce the odds of a crisis and, in the event of a crisis, decrease the risks of nuclear escalation.

Cooperation will not be smooth, however. Beijing will warn that a “lack of trust” between the two countries is an impediment to progress and charge Washington with creating “the conditions of cooperation.” Consistent with Lesson #1—that problems in the relationship are the fault of the United States—it will call out Washington for “creating crises with China or near Chinese territory” and demanding that Beijing manage them. Beijing may also make “issue linkages,” saying Chinese cooperation on crisis management will be difficult without US “flexibility” on trade, technology, or another issue.

Lesson #5: Expect cooperation on some non-bilateral nuclear issues

Beijing will show interest in joint work on nuclear security. It will want to engage with Washington to advance the multilateral arms control and nonproliferation regimes, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, International Atomic Energy Agency, Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Beijing will also voice support for US-China efforts to address proliferation crises, but cooperation will remain limited. For instance, while recognizing that North Korea is a problem, Beijing will assert that it can be solved if the United States offered “reasonable security guarantees” to Pyongyang, granted sanctions relief, and normalized US-North Korea relations. Short of that, Beijing will continue to argue that the United States is the problem and confirm the suspicion that it is “using North Korea to justify its regional alliances.”

Bottom line: Keep expectations low and get ready for the long haul

Washington, then, should have low expectations for US-China strategic stability talks. Profound differences and disagreements mean that discussions will be difficult and frustrating, and it will take time to produce deliverables.

Focusing on crisis management shows some promise, however, and joint work on non-bilateral issues may help build a framework for cooperation. In any case, broad “strategic nuclear” engagement has stronger odds of success than narrow nuclear work. Talks should include nuclear weapons, conventional weapons, missile defense, and emerging technologies and domains that have or could have an impact on bilateral strategic stability.

Finally, to perform well, Washington should ramp up expertise in this area, both inside and outside the US government. It needs more experts who understand both China and strategic stability. This should receive its full attention.

David Santoro ([email protected]) is President and CEO of the Pacific Forum. He is the editor of US-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles (Lynne Rienner, May 2021). Follow him on Twitter @DavidSantoro1

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 #50 – Fold, call, or raise? China’s potential reactions to AUKUS

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Over a month has passed since the announcement of the defense cooperation agreement among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS). While the deal includes cooperation in a variety of areas, the most eye-catching aspect of the cooperation is the sale of nuclear-powered submarines, a crown jewel of US military technology, to Australia. Although AUKUS does not mention China directly, it is well-understood that China motivated the formation of this partnership. Given the scope of AUKUS and its relatively long implementation timeframe, there are four ways to analyze Chinese reactions: threat assessment, nuclear nonproliferation, potential responses, and the regional arms race.

The threat assessment

The Chinese worry about Australia obtaining nuclear-powered submarines, but do not consider the threat urgent. They are concerned by the impact such submarines could introduce to China’s maritime domains, especially in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Beijing, therefore, has focused on the deal’s geopolitical impact and attacked AUKUS, arguing that it is the product of a “Cold War mentality” among Canberra, London, and Washington and that it will undermine regional security and stability. Some have equated AUKUS with an “Asian version of NATO,” with the potential to expand to include other like-minded countries.

Despite the severity of the challenge, there is also an impulse in Beijing to “wait and see” as to its real impact, as the details remain elusive and consultations will take time. The Chinese are not yet clear whether the submarines will be built, or whether they will come from retired US fleet. In addition, Beijing believes that AUKUS might be scrapped by future political transitions in the Australian government, especially considering its high financial and strategic costs. The fact that three former Australian prime ministers have expressed varying reactions to AUKUS leaves China with a sense of hope that this may not be a done deal.

Impact on proliferation

The most stringent Chinese attacks on AUKUS have focused on its implications for nonproliferation. The Chinese Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Vienna made a statement on Sept. 16 on the deal’s “undisguised nuclear proliferation activities.” He called for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to publicly condemn AUKUS, which, he claimed, demonstrates the “double standard” the United States and United Kingdom pursue in nuclear exports. According to a prominent Chinese arms control expert, director of the Arms Control Center at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) Guo Xiaobing, AUKUS violates the mission and core obligations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in five different ways:

  • It contributes to the proliferation of a delivery system for weapons of mass destruction.
  • It contributes to the proliferation of fissile materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
  • It has the potential to lead to the proliferation of uranium enrichment technologies.
  • It undermines the NPT because it sets a bad precedent.
  • It could fuel a regional arms race.

To be sure, AUKUS does not violate the NPT. In the IAEA Safeguard Glossary (2001 Edition), section 2.14, on the use of nuclear material in a non-proscribed military activity which does not require the application of IAEA safeguards, it is stipulated that “[n]uclear material covered by a comprehensive safeguards agreement may be withdrawn from IAEA safeguards should the State decide to use it for such purposes, e.g. for the propulsion of naval vessels” (emphasis added). This, in other words, excludes nuclear-powered submarines from IAEA safeguarding requirements. As such, then, China’s attack on AUKUS is that it violates the spirit of the NPT, but not its letter.

Potential responses

Given the impact of AUKUS is not immediate, Chinese reactions will take time to manifest. At present, China appears to prioritize understanding the scope and details of AUKUS and attacking its legitimacy for geopolitical and nonproliferation reasons. Still, in retaliation, some have proposed additional economic sanctions on Australia through trade. Hu Xijin, chief editor at Global Times called for “no mercy” to Australia if Canberra dares to “assume it has acquired the ability to intimidate China now that it has nuclear submarines and strike missies.” He has also proposed that China should “kill the chicken to scare the monkey” if Australia takes any aggressive military moves. In the event of perceived attacks from Australia, this could mean that China will retaliate militarily.

The most important challenge for China

For Chinese strategic thinkers, the real danger and core challenge of AUKUS (and the United States’ overall coalition-building in the region) lies in the intensification of the arms race in the Indo-Pacific. Although Beijing considers that the goal of its military buildup is to offset, or undermine US military dominance in the region, rather than targeting any regional countries, Chinese officials seem to be coming to the painful realization that their military modernization has led regional players to seek new (or more) weapons. Plainly, Beijing is realizing that its actions have contributed to a regional arms race. What’s more troubling for China is that this arms race is between China on one side and the United States and its allies and partners on the other. Beijing, then, must counter multiple countries at the same time.

Equally upsetting for China is that this arms race is created, fueled, and supplied by the United States. Starting with nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, China believes that the United States will receive—and deliver on—rising demands from allies and partners in the region for newer and more advanced weapon systems, even if they are not nuclear-powered submarines; South Korea, for one, has made this request for a decade.

Beijing must decide if it should “fold,” “call,” or “raise.” “Calling” or to “raising” vividly reminds China of the fall of the Soviet Union, and how Moscow exhausted its resources in its arms race with the United States. “Folding” does not appear to be an option—Beijing is unlikely to give up its regional ambitions. Beijing could call for arms control dialogues, but that will require compromises, and it is unclear that there is an appetite for this in China at the moment. Still, AUKUS might force China to make tough decisions.

Yun Sun ([email protected]) is a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.

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 #49 – Xi Jinping’s top five foreign policy mistakes

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Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy is stimulating increased international opposition to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agenda, undoing years of effort by Chinese officials to assure regional governments that a stronger China will be peaceful and non-domineering. Here are five examples of Xi’s self-defeating decision-making in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) foreign relations.

Wolf Warriorism

Xi has ordered his diplomats to demonstrate “fighting spirit” and to “dare to show their swords.” Accordingly, over the past two years Chinese diplomats have aimed jarring insults and threats at various countries, not just Western democracies, but also Brazil, Kazakhstan, Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, Thailand, and South Korea. The result is unsurprising. Public opinion surveys by the Pew Research Center and other pollsters show a marked increase in negative feeling toward China since 2019 in Europe, Australia, Japan, the United States, and other countries. Former Singaporean senior foreign ministry official Bilihari Kausikan said “China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ are doing a better job than any American diplomat of arousing anti-Chinese feelings around the world.” Chinese diplomats could defend their country’s actions differently. Instead, Wolf Warriorism acts as an extension of domestic politics, with little regard for harm done to China’s international prestige and relationships.

Galwan Valley skirmish

According to Indian sources, this June 2020 battle on the disputed Sino-Indian border began when Chinese troops ambushed and killed an Indian colonel who had approached the Chinese unarmed and in good faith to negotiate de-escalation. Whether or not Beijing ordered this particular act, a PRC policy of creeping expansionism made an eventual confrontation almost inevitable absent a tacit Indian surrender. For years the Chinese have built infrastructure to facilitate quick military mobilization in disputed areas. The Chinese government found it intolerable when the Indian side started to do the same in response.

The clash caused a long-term hardening of Indian attitudes and policy toward China. The Indian government cancelled several infrastructure construction deals with China, halted the purchase of Huawei information technology equipment, and sought to economically decouple from China in other important sectors. New Delhi re-committed itself to blocking Chinese expansion into disputed areas. India has signaled a deeper commitment to the Quad, was quick to express support for the AUKUS agreement, and now sends warships into the South China Sea—acts that Beijing finds threatening.

South China Sea policy

Having already distinguished itself as the most aggressive of the South China Sea claimants, Beijing started building sizeable artificial islands in 2013. China has now installed military facilities, including runways, docks, barracks, and missile batteries, on at least three reefs in the Spratly group. The PRC’s South China Sea policy highlights Beijing choosing to impose its will upon weaker neighbors rather than seeking a mutually acceptable compromise. It is also another example of the Chinese government disregarding an international agreement to which China was a signatory. Beijing has argued that China’s “historic rights” to the South China Sea take precedence over the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and contemptuously rejected the 2016 ruling against China by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The upside of these outposts, located far from mainland China, is uncertain. They might be more liability than asset to the PRC in a time of conflict. As for the downside: more than any other single Chinese policy, the new bases convinced international observers that PRC foreign policy under Xi was taking an aggressive turn, with more emphasis on winning rather than managing strategic disputes, and less effort to avoid alarming other governments in the Indo-Pacific.


Rather than blazing a creative new solution to the cross-Strait dispute, the man celebrated for “Xi Jinping Thought” has simply doubled-down on his predecessors’ demonstrably failed policies. Xi maintains that unification is essential to China’s “rejuvenation,” although the PRC is abundantly prosperous and secure without controlling Taiwan. He has continued to insist that Taiwan’s destiny is “one country, two systems” (1C2S). Taiwan’s people, however, never supported 1C2S, and the destruction of Hong Kong’s liberties has thoroughly discredited the concept. That Xi would still speak of 1C2S in a message to Taiwan as recently as Oct. 9 indicates a stunning intellectual and political sclerosis.

Finally, Xi has increased military pressure on Taiwan. This has deepened resentment on the island toward China and bolsters support for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which now holds both the presidency and a legislative majority. The heightened sense of danger has prodded Taiwan to implement asymmetric defense, which will make it more capable of fighting off an attempted PRC invasion. The Biden administration has reaffirmed US support for Taiwan as “rock solid.” Even Japanese leaders are now openly discussingthe increasing likelihood that Japan would help defend Taiwan.

Xi’s Taiwan policy works to eliminate possible solutions other than a war that, even in the best-case scenario, would be disastrous for China.

Economic coercion against Australia

In April 2020, Canberra displeased Beijing by calling for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. The PRC retaliated by cutting importsof 10 Australian products. As in previous cases, Chinese officials implausibly denied that the restrictions were politically motivated, a gratuitous show of duplicity.

The consequences of this Chinese policy were worse for China than for Australia. Canberra did not accommodate the 14 political demandsmade by the Chinese embassy in November 2020. Australia suffered little from the import bans, finding other buyers for much of the supply turned away by China. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg recently described the damage done to Australia’s economy as “relatively modest.” In addition to the reputation cost to Beijing, the Chinese government’s campaign against Australia drew greater international attention to the dangers of doing business with China. Power shortages in China during autumn 2021 are partly due to a coal shortage, worsened by the sanction against Australian coal imports. The attempt to punish Australia has increased momentum for addressing China’s systematic violation of both the spirit and the letter of its World Trade Organization obligations. Canberra’s refusal to capitulate may serve as an inspiration for other governments under Chinese economic pressure over a political disagreement, diminishing the usefulness of this tactic.

What drives Xi? First, he has relied heavily on pandering to Chinese nationalism. Appearing to defend China’s interests against challenges by foreigners makes the Xi regime more popular and implicitly makes opposing Xi seem unpatriotic.

Second, Xi rules during a period of Chinese hubris. By 2012, when Xi assumed leadership, China was the world’s second-largest economy and on track to surpass the United States for the top spot. Beijing had hosted the Olympic Games in 2008, China’s coming-out party as a world power, while the financial crisis in 2007-2008 convinced Chinese observers that America was in rapid decline even as China surged ahead.

A third contributing factor is hyper-authoritarianism. Xi has concentrated numerous decision-making powers in himself, built up a personality cult, and prioritized political correctness over pragmatic analysis. The resulting political climate is not conducive to advisors warning Xi that he is making mistakes.

Xi’s goals include increasing China’s international stature and quashing international criticism. He says he wants to cultivate the image of a “credible, loveable and respectable China.” Xi seeks to maximize China’s access to global markets and technology. He wants to hasten the withdrawal of US strategic influence from the region. He wants the world to believe “China will never seek hegemony, expansion, or a sphere of influence.”

Xi’s major foreign policy errors, however, have undermined these goals. The PRC government under Xi has indulged nationalistic domestic public opinion at the risk of sabotaging the important longer-term national objectives that Xi has specified as central to his “China dream.”

A PRC that other states perceive as aggressive is engendering coordinated strategic opposition. This will make it harder for China to become a regional and global leader. If other governments believe China is expansionist, they will believe every strategic gain by China emboldens Beijing to strive for more. During Xi’s tenure this logic has become commonplace in discussions about Beijing’s designs on Taiwan and the South China Sea. There is also an important economic and technological cost to China, as worried trade partners decouple to reduce their vulnerability to PRC coercion and to avoid selling China the rope that China might hang them with.

Chinese remember Mao’s leadership as 70% good. Xi may have difficulty reaching even that modest standard.

Denny Roy ([email protected]) 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.