PacNet #10 – The New US Diplomacy with China: ‘Keep Your Promises’

“If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression, and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”

So said Deng Xiaoping in a speech to the United Nations in 1974. As if responding to Deng’s call, there has been discussion about the feasibility of an American strategy to create distance between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese people. No wonder Beijing has responded furiously to this idea, including by criticizing the “longer telegram.” In fact, the author of the “longer telegram” claims that “it would be extremely hazardous for US strategies … to make the ‘overthrow of the Communist Party’ the nation’s declared objective.” The Trump administration’s document on the US strategic approach toward China also states that “US policies are not premised on an attempt to change the PRC’s domestic governance model.” Nevertheless, the idea that the US should urge the Chinese people to overthrow the CCP continues to attract attention.

The idea of creating political division within China deserves further scrutiny, given its potential impacts on the US-China relationship. What is the logic behind this idea? What are the problems? A critical review of the strategy suggests a different approach: Washington should instead focus on pressing China to live up to its own promises and obligations.

There are at least two arguments in support of “creating division” within China. First, China experts have found that Beijing has compromised in international disputes when the CCP faced internal threats, including crises in legitimacy. Therefore, hawks would argue that division within China is beneficial for US national security. But CCP failure to maintain political stability is one thing; the US attempting to engineer a political division is quite another. Chinese people will more likely link a US effort to the memory of national humiliation, when Western powers carved their own spheres of influence into the country in the late 19th century. They will also readily agree to the CCP’s narrative that the US seeks to divide China to contain the rise of a peer competitor.

Second, liberals would argue that the US should support the Chinese people precisely because the US respects their democratic aspirations. However, several surveys conducted by American scholars in China have consistently found that Chinese citizens are highly satisfied with their government’s performance. More importantly, Chinese people think that China has been “democratized” over time: the 2020 annual survey of Democracy Perception Index found that 73% of Chinese respondents consider China democratic—just 49% of Americans believe the same about the US. By contrast, given the widespread perception of rising racism and McCarthyism targeting Chinese scholars and students in the US, efforts to inspire the Chinese people to challenge the CCP would only stimulate anti-American nationalism; the more the US tries to create division within China, the more Chinese people will unite against the US.

However, the assessment that the CCP is already significantly divided over Xi’s leadership remains valid. As the author of the “longer telegram” rightly observes, Xi Jinping’s abrasive foreign policy, over-centralization of power, and illiberal policies have generated widespread frustration among Chinese elites. According to a former Central Party School professor’s testimony, published by Foreign Affairs in 2020, there was hope for the expansion of political reform when Xi took power in 2013. Indeed, during his final press briefing in 2012, former premier Wen Jiabao insisted that China “must press ahead with both economic reform and political structural reform, especially reform in the leadership system of our party and country.” Xi was expected to further open up China’s political system, but instead shattered such expectations; Xi even removed presidential term limits from the constitution in 2018. There are unfulfilled promises by previous leaders Xi has failed to carry out.

The US should ask the Xi regime to live up to China’s promises and obligations. US officials can collect all the statements by Chinese leaders before Xi about the autonomy of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang and the exact wording on civil rights and liberty, as codified in the Chinese constitution. As Ralph Cossa has summarized: “It’s unreasonable to ask them to be like us; it’s not unreasonable to ask them to follow their own promises.” This approach would be effective because there is a human psychology that people feel most pressed when demanded to honor their own words. Likewise, international relations scholars have found that political rhetoric and commitments, if repeatedly made, carry a coercive power over national leaders.

By extension, US officials should be familiar with words of wisdom from Chinese intellectuals and great thinkers officially acknowledged by the Chinese state. A good example is the speech by Matthew Pottinger, the former deputy national security advisor, in May 2020. Speaking in fluent Mandarin Chinese, Pottinger quoted Lu Xun, China’s most celebrated modern writer, to make his point on the problems of censorship in China. He also drew on the iconic student protests on May 4, 1919 to argue that China did its best when it listened to the diverse opinions of average citizens. In another speech, also in Chinese, he even cited Confucius to make his point about the need for candid conversation between the US and China. Chinese officials and scholars criticized Pottinger’s speeches, but the unusually severe censorship that followed also reflects how Xi did not want  Chinese citizens to discuss what the Chinese philosophers and intellectuals have said about open society and free thinking in China.

No doubt Chinese officials will continue to be creative in rebuttal. They may make the usual case that Americans do not understand the unique history or culture of China. They may be more candid, arguing that past promises are irrelevant because situations have changed. But it would not be difficult for Washington to retort that the US is not imposing its own values or visions, but simply asking China to keep its word. For example, Deng Xiaoping once said “after China resumes the exercise of its sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, Hong Kong’s current social and economic systems will remain unchanged, its legal system will remain basically unchanged, its way of life … will remain unchanged. … Beijing will not assign officials to the government of the Hong Kong … Our policies with regard to Hong Kong will remain unchanged for 50 years, and we mean this.” These promises were imbedded in a legally binding treaty between China and the UK registered with the United Nations. Washington can present the evidence of all the changes made in defiance of Hong Kong’s autonomy, including the national security law.

The CCP would likely criticize the US with the rhetoric of “what about all those problems in the US?” or “mind your own failure to keep promises.” If China presses the US to live up to its own words, US officials should welcome the suggestion. The need for domestic renewal is something American citizens can agree on. If the standard of competition is about who fulfills their promises faster and more faithfully carries out all the positive promises their leaders have made for their people and the world, there would be no better form of great power competition.

Sungmin Cho (chos@dkiapcss.net) is Professor of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS), a US Department of Defense academic institute based in Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of DKI APCSS, the US Department of Defense or the US government.

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PacNet #6 – Myanmar’s Military Arrests the Civilian Government—and Democracy

In the early hours of Feb. 1, the day Myanmar’s newly elected parliamentarians were to take their seats, the armed forces arrested senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), including State Counselor and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar President Win Myint. The military declared a state of emergency, announcing it will govern the country for one year, after which it promises fresh elections. Understanding this political crisis requires unpacking the role of the military in Myanmar’s beleaguered democratization, the calculus of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and a geopolitical context dominated by China.

The military claimed that the Nov. 8, 2020 general election—in which the NLD won 396 of 476 contested seats in the bicameral parliament, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won only 33 seats—should have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Military leaders alleged massive fraud although international and domestic election observers have thus far found no such evidence. Meetings between the military and the NLD collapsed after Suu Kyi reportedly rejected all of the military’s demands, which included postponing parliament, abolishing the election commission, and recounting the votes from the November election with military supervision. While the military’s actions appear indefensible, it also appears that Suu Kyi overestimated her ability to wield another electoral mandate.

The collapse of the power-sharing arrangement between the armed forces and civilian government fits a troubled historical pattern. Myanmar’s military-authored 2008 constitution enshrined provisions that enabled the armed forces to step back from absolute power in 2011 without fear of reprisal but left Myanmar’s civilian government weak and especially vulnerable to a coup d’état. In 2020, the NLD proposed dozens of constitutional amendments aimed at curtailing the military’s influence by reducing its guaranteed allotment of parliamentary seats to below 25%, lowering the over-75% threshold to pass constitutional amendments (which effectively grants the military a veto),  and transferring control of the armed forces from the top general to the president. The military vetoed all amendments that would have reduced its political power and regarded the NLD’s efforts as a direct threat to its privileged position.

Min Aung Hlaing’s political calculus is also important for understanding the takeover. His second five-year term as commander-in-chief was expected to end upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 in July 2021. Had the USDP and its allies won at least a third of the contested parliamentary seats in the November election, they could have elected him president with the aid of the unelected military parliamentarians. This would have enabled him to designate his successor with the approval of the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council, a function he could not constitutionally perform as commander-in-chief. After the NLD’s landslide victory, claiming electoral fraud and seizing power may be what Min Aung Hlaing regarded as his last opportunity to ensure military guidance of Myanmar’s “disciplined” democratization while protecting the economic gains of his cronies and avoiding prosecution. Given Suu Kyi’s age and lack of a political heir apparent, the military may be looking to hold power until it can shape a more compliant civilian government.

International reaction to the military takeover has ranged from measured calls for dialogue and stability from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to protests and condemnation. On Jan. 29, three days after the armed forces publicly refused to rule out a coup, a group of Myanmar-based diplomatic missions representing Western countries issued a rare joint statement opposing any attempt to alter the electoral outcome. After the takeover, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded that “[t]he military must reverse these actions immediately.” President Joe Biden threatened new sanctions. The military, not known for its economic competence, must now contend with capital flight from what was Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economy in 2016, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this will likely set Myanmar’s economy back years.

The military also faces a domestic population that overwhelmingly supports the NLD and is likely furious that hard-won, albeit partial, democratization has been so abruptly halted. Furthermore, the military’s disrespect for domestic institutions has implications for the tortuous peace process with armed ethnic groups in Myanmar’s borderlands. Groups that negotiated ceasefires with the central government may increasingly doubt Naypyidaw’s intentions for peace and inclusive development, raising the danger of further cycles of violence. With less legitimacy and capacity than when they previously ruled the country, military leaders appear to be acting in self-interest rather than the national interest.

Diplomatically, Myanmar has risked returning to pariahdom because of military atrocities against Rohingya Muslim ethnic minorities in Rakhine State. Since 2017, over 750,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi’s outspoken defense of the armed forces despite international condemnation and her refusal to disavow anti-Rohingya hate speech severely tarnished her global reputation as a Nobel-winning champion of democracy and alienated international supporters. Suu Kyi may have calculated that doubling down on nationalism would protect her from being outflanked by the military and Buddhist extremists, allowing her to secure a larger electoral victory and ultimately strengthen civilian rule by amending the constitution. That gamble appears to have failed spectacularly.

Unlike many of Myanmar’s diplomatic partners, China has avoided criticizing its “friendly neighbor.” Beijing provided economic and diplomatic lifelines to the previous military regime in exchange for access to natural resources and extensive political influence, generating concerns in Myanmar that the country was becoming dangerously overdependent on China. Political reforms enabled Naypyidaw to reduce that dependence, but as international opprobrium mounted over the Rakhine crisis, China continued to defend Myanmar against human rights criticisms at the United Nations while pouring investment into the country and supporting the peace process with ethnic armed groups. As Myanmar has moved further into Beijing’s orbit, it is again becoming vulnerable to overreliance on China, and Chinese diplomatic leverage. The return to military rule will accelerate this process at a time of heightened tension in both Sino-US and Sino-Indian relations. Yet, Myanmar’s political volatility also threatens China’s interests in a stable environment for its infrastructure projects and strategy for accessing the Indian Ocean. On Jan. 12—less than three weeks before the military takeover—Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar to discuss cooperation on a wide range of issues with Suu Kyi, Win Myint, and Min Aung Hlaing. That the takeover happened despite Beijing’s extensive investment suggests that greater stability might have been achieved by collaboratively promoting good governance in Myanmar.

Myanmar has confronted colonialism, intercommunal violence, military dictatorship, and civil war. Securing stability requires tolerance across political fault lines, rule of law, and respect for the expressed will of the people. Myanmar’s military subverting democratic processes bodes ill for human rights and geopolitical stability. The crisis poses an early test of President Biden’s vision for a coalition of democracies, but it also highlights the need for regional powers to rise to the challenge. Both Seoul and Tokyo regard Myanmar and Southeast Asia as important elements of “new southern strategies” to economically diversify away from China. As key US allies and leading Asian democracies, South Korea and Japan should join willing ASEAN partners in issuing a statement demanding the release of civilian leaders, immediate access to Myanmar by international observers, and a commitment from the military to reverse its seizure of power. As China will likely block action by the UN Security Council, coordination among regional stakeholders and global democracies will be critical to an international response that places the people of Myanmar, and their self-determination and prosperity, at its center.

Jonathan Chow (chow_jonathan@wheatoncollege.edu) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Massachusetts where he teaches international relations and East Asian politics.

Leif-Eric Easley (easley@ewha.ac.kr) is Associate Professor of International Studies at Ewha University in Seoul where he teaches international security and political economics.

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PacNet #1 – South Koreans’ Negative View of China is Nothing New, but is Getting Worse

To outside observers South Korea’s negative attitude toward China appears to be growing apace, but it is nothing new to locals. Since an annual poll by the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS) at Seoul National University began in 2007, China has consistently ranked fourth on Korea’s favorability list, behind the US, North Korea, and even Japan (but ahead of Russia). It only surpassed the North to reach second place on two occasions: in 2014 and 2015, due to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit and at the conclusion of a free trade agreement.

Nonetheless, one can demonstrate that South Korea’s negative view of China has been compounded by two factors since the turn of the millennium. One is China’s unilateral displays of irredentist and arrogant behavior, which have wounded the Korean public’s pride and heightened their distrust. The other is the Korean public’s disappointment in their own government’s lackluster efforts in countering China’s challenges and claims. The Seoul government has persistently remained low key over fear of a possible stall in economic relations caused by China’s punitive response. Should it decide to fight back, it is also fearful that the consequences could undermine its domestic political support.

These internal and external factors have incrementally driven the Korean people’s negative feelings toward China. Had the government sufficiently addressed China’s political challenges, a positive turn in public sentiment could have resulted. Further growth in Korea’s affinity for China might also have been possible had Beijing demonstrated restraint in its irredentist claims and empathy toward South Korea’s security concerns regarding North Korean provocations, including its nuclear proliferation.

Little Affinity to Begin With

 Having co-existed as neighbors for millennia, the Korean people have naturally developed their own perception of China, which has left a rather belligerent, rather than benign, impression. China as of late has reminded Koreans of its bellicosity by noting its intervention in the Korean War. Commemorating the 70th anniversary of intervention, Chinese leader Xi Jinping extolled the decision to join in a “just war” that culminated in the successful rescue of North Korea and the defense of its border against American imperialism. Never in the past had Xi’s predecessors called it a “just war” (though Xi had also done so before assuming leadership of China, including in 2010).

In addition to China’s intervention in the Korean War, China’s recent actions on the security front have only enhanced the Korean public’s distrust. Beijing’s sanctions on the South for its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment decision spoke volumes. The annual IPUS survey in 2018 and 2019 found that a mere 13% of the respondents saw China as a cooperative partner. While 90% of Koreans think Japan opposes Korean unification, China  comes in a close second at 89%. More than half of the populace believes that China will again intervene on behalf of the North in a contingency. As a result, 81% say Seoul must seek cooperation with China on unification, compared to 97% who say the United States’ help is needed, and even then the reasons are different: to dissuade China from opposition and collaborate in the rebuilding efforts, while the US’ support is for a safe and stable transformation of the unified Korea.

Making Things Worse

Throughout the 2010s the percentage of Koreans’ who regard China with affection has seldom exceeded 10% of the population—once in 2014 at 10.8%, as per an IPUS survey. Since the start of the millennium, there have been five incidents that have heightened Korea’s negativity toward their neighbor.

The first incident was China’s irredentist claim to Korea’s ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, in 2004. In the aftermath, 58.2% of Koreans, whose opinions of China had been generally approving to that point, told a survey by the Korea Broadcasting System they no longer held a favorable view of China. Also, in a turning point, the majority of Koreans (50%) began to perceive the rise of China as a danger.

Other salient examples were China’s refusal to condemn the North over its sinking of the Cheonan naval vessel and shelling of Yeonpyeong island in 2010. An IPUS survey showed that a mere 4.2% of South Koreans reported affection towards China that year. Another was the economic sanctions following the deployment of THAAD in 2016, sinking ratings below the 4% threshold. The feelings would get worse with the advent of COVID-19: a record low of 3.3%.

Finally, sporadic incidents involving Chinese nationals residing in Korea have been another source of anti-China sentiment. The 2008 beating of Korean spectators by Chinese students during the Olympic torch relay in downtown Seoul is one example. Consequently, a drop in affection occurred, from 10.2% the year before to 7.8%. Another incident happened during the passing of the Hong Kong national security law in August 2020, when the Chinese students vandalized their Korean school’s facilities that hosted activities supporting human rights in Hong Kong.

‘Silent Diplomacy’ isn’t Helping 

Why has the South Korean government not countered the challenges from China? 58.3% of Koreans, for instance, favored a ban on incoming flights from China in February when COVID-19 started to spread globally. However, the incumbent government’s preoccupation with the possibility of Xi’s reciprocal visit from 2017 stifled public demand. On other issues, past governments preferred to adopt so-called “silent diplomacy,” avoiding unnecessary misunderstandings that could damage the interests of the nation and government. This has become the hallmark of Korea’s China diplomacy.

However, the government’s indulgence in China is prompted by its own myths: that China is vital to Korea’s unification, and that China is critical to denuclearization of North Korea. What the government does not seem to realize is that the Korean public thinks otherwise. IPSU data shows that never has more than 15% of the Korean people thought that China would be helpful to the cause of unification. The past two years also indicate that less than 9% see cooperation with China as viable for the North’s denuclearization, while more than 40% perceive the US as a more feasible partner. Only simultaneous cooperation with the US and China garnered a majority response. In addition, scholarship by Hwang In-chang and Baek Jong-rok shows that 62.6% of Koreans want the government to strongly protest against China on the issue of fine dust, which severely afflicts Korea at certain parts of the year and has been blamed for respiratory problems.

Conclusion

Due to the foregoing mythical reasons, the Seoul government has taken a position opposite to its constituency, further contributing to anti-China sentiment. It is the government that is responsible for Korea’s ill-perceived indulgences of China. The public is frustrated with the government’s illusion of China as a cooperative partner, while the rise of China induces anxiety. So long as a vast majority (72%) support the continued alliance with the US, the government remains the culprit behind China’s burgeoning unilateral behavior in the Northeast Asian region.

Jaewoo Choo (jwc@khu.ac.kr) is a professor of Chinese foreign policy in the Chinese Department, Kyung Hee University, Korea. He is the author of US-China Relations: From Korean War to THAAD Conflict (Seoul: Kyung-In Publising, 2017), the first of its kind in Korea.

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.