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East Asia

China’s approach to its neighbors in Xi’s new era

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Authors: Sun Liping & Isaac Nunoo*

The rise of China to the rank of the global powers has drawn attention around the world since the beginning of the new century. Then what are the challenges to the rising China and the responsibilities of China which has been so eager to be a great power globally?

True, most of the emerging powers in both the past and the present age hardly admit openly that they seek for regional hegemony, even though they come to be more assertive or even “revisionist” in view of the status quo. China seems to be no exception.

China, already a regional power, has demonstrated much keenness and eagerness in resolving the political, territorial and social rows with the adjacent countries or its neighbors. Yet, Beijing’s commitment has often been interpreted by scholars as a necessity since Beijing is required by great power and hegemonic theories to assert its dominance in its region before moving on to play greater roles in the international arena. It also behooves Beijing to either maintain sanity in its own corridors or have other great powers do so for her. If Beijing fails to ensure sanity and tranquility within the East Asia, its great power’s pursuit shall remain in limbo.

The development of good-neighbor relations has been China’s major strategic tasks since the early 1990s, as the primacy of China’s foreign policy towards its periphery countries was first stressed at the 16th Party Congress in 2002 when the CCP framed a diplomatic strategy ____ emphasizing that “great powers are the priorities, neighbors are paramount and developing countries are the foundation; and multilateralism is an important stage.” This was followed by the previous concept of “good neighborhood, secured neighborhood, and wealthy neighborhood”.

Considering all these, it is therefore not out of order for China’s FM Wang Yi’s visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar this month in an attempt to mediate the Rohingya impasse between the two states. He has also called on the two sides to amicably redress the impasse, noting that the Rohingya issue is a complicated one having historical, ethnic and religious colorations. Wang opined that the issue is a regional one that can best be resolved regionally—and that if the international community has anything to offer then it should think of providing the convenient atmosphere for peaceful consultations between the two states involved as well as assisting to reduce poverty which Beijing sees as the root cause of conflict. Meanwhile, China also shows its opposition to any sorts of interferes with or dictation from external players with no authority of the U.N. It therefore takes the first step to assure the smaller neighboring states, especially the “inside ring” (as described by Yuan Peng, a Chinese scholar in foreign policy), of its willingness to help provide panacea to the teething issues confronting them.

China, as both a great power of East Asia and one of the P-5 of the UN, is determined to ward off external aggressors and keeping neighbors at peace with China. It is not surprising that Beijing opposes the presence of the US THAAD in the Korean peninsula. Beijing has a goal to present a formidable power balance against the influence of the U.S. in especially the South and East Asian regions – what has been termed the ‘U.S.-Asia Pivot’. Suffice to say that any reckless behavior by China’s (small) neighboring countries will have uncomfortable repercussions on its regional and global aspirations and undermine its authority and status. It will also ostensibly empower other ‘big wits’ in the region and might lead to unnecessary tensions. Cracks are already emerging in China’s traditionally strong multilateral relations, particularly over the South China Sea saga. If any of these countries were to align with foreign actors particularly the US, it could culminate in a great-power competition right on China’s corridor. The presence of the THAAD, the pressure on North Korea, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam, by the United States herald a clear signal that Washington is back to the region to balance China’s rise in the South and East Asian regions. Jeffrey Reeves of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies has cautioned that turning a blind eye to these “signs of weakening relations with these countries may result in future trouble for China”.

China’s own belief in “a peaceful and harmonious world – under one authority” reflects in its relations with these small neighboring countries. In such an atmosphere, peace and tranquility becomes the fulcrum. Perhaps this also resonates with President Xi’s and other Chinese stress on the need for a ‘modern’ Tianxia ___ in the form of a supreme, benevolent arbiter who could bring harmony and serenity to a contentious world or at least Asia. Whichever way one looks at it, two reasons may account here: as a regional and great (/global) power and as a believer of Tianxia, Beijing will always strive to engage its neighbors in the pursuance of economic, social, cultural and political harmony and success within the region. This obviously rejected John Mearsheimer’s offensive realist pessimism that the rise of China will lead to an intense security competition among its neighboring states.

President Xi Jing Ping has reiterated China’s commitment to ensuring a prosperous Asia that is capable of remedying its own woes without the involvement of external actors. This is evidential in his statement, “Asian affairs should be led by Asians ourselves” made at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia (CICA) held in Shanghai in May 2014. China’s increasing economic ties with neighboring states have affected regional security and stability to some extent. It has however become important for China to be more concerned about relations with other neighbors like Cambodia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. It is against this backdrop that Xi Jinping visited Laos and Vietnam recently to strengthen China’s ties with the two neighbor states. Jeffrey Reeves has noted that instability in Beijing’s peripheral states would eventually affect China’s domestic security ____ smaller countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, Mongolia, Laos and Bangladesh are equally crucial to Beijing’s hegemonic influence, great power balance of power as well as its domestic stability. As a regional leader with global voice, a failure in any of these small states may be considered a failure on the part of Beijing. Laos, a socialist state led by communist stalwarts considers China as an inspiration for its cause and both would want to build an indestructible “community of shared future”.

Like Japan, Vietnam has the most interactions with China and yet has standing territorial disputes with Beijing. But interestingly, as observed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi “China’s destiny is linked with those of peripheral countries,” considering the powers of regional integration and the increasing importance of the Asia Pacific region for the global economic growth. Wang Yi disclosed this when he was discussing President Xi Jingping’s visit to Indonesia and Malaysia and attendance at the 21st Informal Meeting of APEC Leaders. By inference, Xi’s visit to Vietnam and Laos in November this year goes beyond normal or ordinary relations between the two countries ___ as communist leaders ruling socialist states, there is the need for strong bong in terms of administration, solidarity, regime survival, internal security and economic development. China sees it as a brotherhood responsibility to ensure the sustainability and growth of the four communist-socialist states (Cuba, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam) it holds ties with presently. It is also important for Beijing’s internal security and political ideology as a collapse of any of these states is likely to be seen as a collapse of the relics of communism and/or socialism. Bejing, therefore, finds it imperative to safeguard and assist them in order to vanguard against any attempt at erasing its long upheld political ideology by either internal or external forces.

In a nutshell, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Laos and Vietnam need China as much as China would want to build up a healthy and reliable relationship with them. Given this, three reasons account for FM Wang’s in Myanmar and Bangladesh; and President Xi’s presence in Laos and Vietnam recently. First, China is aware of the increasing complexity of the security environment of its periphery, with the expansion of foreign military bases, the strengthening of traditional military alliances, as well as deployment of new weapons systems such as ballistic missile defenses ___ affecting balance of power in the region and potentially undermining Beijing’s global and regional assertion. Second, there is also an imminent “color revolution” championed by foreign forces with internal support to revamp the regimes among China’s neighbors, as well as to push for values diplomacy, ostensibly to build “a democratic milieu around China”. Third, prosperous and cooperative neighbors will form the main basis for the preservation of China’s national security, sovereign unity and territorial integrity. It also provides the grounds for China’s defense against enemy intrusions, and offers it a palpable bulwark against other great powers meddling in the region.

All in all, Beijing is even yet to assiduously rope in many of these small countries within the region in its zest for regional solidarity, fortification and global aspirations, going beyond just “good neighborhood foreign policy.”

*Isaac Nunoo, PhD candidate in IR, SIPA, Jilin University

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East Asia

China’s soft power and its Lunar New Year’s Culture

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Authors: Liu Hui & Humprey A. Russell*

As a common practice, China has celebrated its annual Lunar new year since 1984 when the leaders of the day decided to open mysterious country in a more confident and transparent way. So far, the lunar new year gala has become a part of Chinese cultural life and beyond. The question then arises why China or its people have been so thrilled to exhibit themselves to the world, as its economy has already impressed the world by its rapid pace and tremendous capacity.

As it is well-known, in international relations, peoples from different cultural and ethnical backgrounds need to enhance their understanding which eventually leads to mutual respect and tolerance as the key to the world peace and stability. China is well-aware of this norm. As a rising power with 1.3 billion people, it is necessary for China to introduce its culture and notion of the peaceful rise to the audiences globally. Joseph Nye, Jr., the founder of the concept of the soft power, has argued: “The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies. During the information age, credibility is the scarcest resource.”In light of this, China has been steadily involved in cultural promotions abroad.

China is an ancient civilization but diplomatically it is a new global player in terms of its modern involvement into the world affairs, particularly in terms of reform and openness. Yet, since China has aspired to rejuvenate itself as one of the leading powers globally, it is natural for the world en bloc to assume Beijing’s intention and approach to the power transition between the rising power like itself and the ruling powers such as the United States and the G-7 club. Consider this, China has exerted all efforts to project but not propagate its image to the world. Here culture is bound to play the vital role in convincing the countries concerned that “culturally China has no the gene of being a threat to other peoples,” as Chinese President Xi has assured. The annual lunar gala is evidently a useful instrument to demonstrate Chinese people, culture and policies as well.

Culturally speaking, the Chinese New Year celebrations can be seen as follows. In a general sense, similar themes run through all the galas with the local cultural and ethnical ingredients, for instance, Chinese opera, crosstalk and acrobatics, as well as the lion-dancing or the dragon-dancing from time to time. Yes, the galas play the role of promoting the Chinese communities over the world to identify themselves with the Chinese culture which surely strengthen the cultural bonds among the Chinese, in particular the younger generations. Moreover, the dimension of the Chinese culture can be found beyond the country since its neighbors like Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Malaysia, as well as Chinese communities in many other areas also perform those arts at the holiday seasons. The message here is clear that China, although it is a rising great power, has never abandoned its cultural tradition which has emphasized the harmony among the different races and ethnics.

Recently, the lunar new year celebrations across China have invited professional and amateur artists from all over the world. Those foreign guest artists and many overseas students studying in China have been able to offer their talents in either Chinese or their mother tongues. No doubt, this is a two-way to learn from each other because Chinese performers are benefited from the contacts with their counterparts globally. In terms of public diplomacy, Beijing aims to send a powerful and sincere message to the world: China can’t be in isolation from the world because it has aspired to be a great and inclusive country as well. To that end, the rise of China is not going to challenge the status quo, but will act as one of the stakeholders.

As usual, realists have difficulties and even cultural bias to accept the rhetoric from a country like China since it has been regarded by the ruling powers of the world as an ambitious, assertive and communist-ruled country with its unique culture. To that challenge, the Chinese government and the people have done a great deal of works to successfully illustrate Chinese practice of harmony at the societal level idealized by Confucius’ doctrines. This social harmony is made possible only by the realization of the Taoist ideal of harmony with nature – in this case, harmony between humans and nature. This explains why panda and many other rare animals are now viewed as new national symbol of China. Although they are unnecessarily an indispensable part of the lunar new year gala, the viewpoint is that the rise of China would not be completed at the cost of the ecological environment like many other countries did in history.

Practically speaking, the lunar new year celebrations are being conducted in a rich variety of ways such as concerts, cuisines, folk entertainments and even forums and receptions around the world. Major global commercial centers have also served to create a Chinese holiday atmosphere, adapt to the needs of Chinese tourists, attract active participation from local residents, and provide such diversities of cultural and social events. What is worth mentioning is that some Chinese-North American non-profit, non-partisan organizations are beginning to celebrate Chinese lunar gala in partnership with other local counterparts. For instance, the Chinese Inter-cultural Association based in California, recently hosted a Chinese New Year party in a Persian restaurant in partnership with a local non-profit, non-partisan organization called the Orange County Toastmaster Club, part of Toastmaster International. Also, in another Chinese New Year celebration that was open to people of all races in Pasadena, two Americans played the guitar and sang songs in fluent Chinese! Both galas were attended by people of all racial backgrounds around the world. Given this, it is fair to say that China’s soft power supported by its annual lunar new year festival is on the rise globally with a view to promoting mutual respect and friendship among the peoples of various cultural, ethnical and racial origins.

Yet, though the impressive feats are achieved, it has noted that China still has a long way to go in terms of its twin-centennial dreams. First, as a developing country with its unique culture, it is necessary for China to promote its great ancient culture abroad, but it is also imperative to avoid “introducing” China rashly into the globe. Essentially, soft power is more the ability to attract and co-opt than to use force or give money as a means of persuasion. Thereby, it is the very ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. As cross-cultural communication is a long process, Nye admitted a few years ago, in public affairs, “the best propaganda is not propaganda.”

This is the key to all the countries. In 2014,President Xi formally stated, “China should increase its soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate its messages to the world.” In light of this, Chinese lunar new year gala surely acts as soft power to project the image of China internationally.

* Humprey A. Russell (Indonesia), PhD candidate in international affairs, SIPA, Jilin University.

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East Asia

China’s step into the maelstrom of the Middle East

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The Middle East has a knack for sucking external powers into its conflicts. China’s ventures into the region have shown how difficult it is to maintain its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.

China’s abandonment of non-interference is manifested by its (largely ineffective) efforts to mediate conflicts in South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan as well as between Israel and Palestine and even between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is even more evident in China’s trashing of its vow not to establish foreign military bases, which became apparent when it established a naval base in Djibouti and when reports surfaced that it intends to use Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar as a military facility.

This contradiction between China’s policy on the ground and its long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy principles means that Beijing often struggles to meet the expectations of Middle Eastern states. It also means that China risks tying itself up in political knots in countries such as Pakistan, which is home to the crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative — the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Middle Eastern autocrats have tried to embrace the Chinese model of economic liberalism coupled with tight political control. They see China’s declared principle of non-interference in the affairs of others for what it is: support for authoritarian rule. The principle of this policy is in effect the same as the decades-old US policy of opting for stability over democracy in the Middle East.

It is now a risky policy for the United States and China to engage in given the region’s post-Arab Spring history with brutal and often violent transitions. If anything, instead of having been ‘stabilised’ by US and Chinese policies, the region is still at the beginning of a transition process that could take up to a quarter of a century to resolve. There is no guarantee that autocrats will emerge as the winners.

China currently appears to have the upper hand against the United States for influence across the greater Middle East, but Chinese policies threaten to make that advantage short-term at best.

Belt and Road Initiative-related projects funded by China have proven to be a double-edged sword. Concerns are mounting in countries like Pakistan that massive Chinese investment could prove to be a debt trap similar to Sri Lanka’s experience.

Chinese back-peddling on several Pakistani infrastructure projects suggests that China is tweaking its approach to the US$50 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese rethink was sparked by political volatility caused by Pakistan’s self-serving politics and continued political violence — particularly in the Balochistan province, which is at the heart of CPEC.

China decided to redevelop its criteria for the funding of CPEC’s infrastructure projects in November 2017. This move seemingly amounted to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time when they were flexing their muscles in response to political volatility. The decision suggests that China is not averse to shaping the political environment of key countries in its own authoritarian mould.

Similarly, China has been willing to manipulate Pakistan against its adversaries for its own gain. China continues to shield Masoud Azhar (who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence agencies and military forces) from UN designation as a global terrorist. China does so while Pakistan cracks down on militants in response to a US suspension of aid and a UN Security Council monitoring visit.

Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves China’s interest in keeping India off balance — a goal which Beijing sees as worthy despite the fact that Chinese personnel and assets have been the targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan. Saudi Arabia is also considering the use of Balochistan as a launching pad to destabilise Iran. By stirring ethnic unrest in Iran, Saudi Arabia will inevitably suck China into the Saudi–Iranian rivalry and sharpen its competition with the United States. Washington backs the Indian-supported port of Chabahar in Iran — a mere 70 kilometres from Gwadar.

China is discovering that it will prove impossible to avoid the pitfalls of the greater Middle East. This is despite the fact that US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seem singularly focussed on countering Iran and Islamic militants.

As it navigates the region’s numerous landmines, China is likely to find itself at odds with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. It will at least have a common interest in pursuing political stability at the expense of political change — however much this may violate its stated commitment to non-interference.

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East Asia

Chinese extradition request puts crackdown on Uyghurs in the spotlight

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Chinese demand for the extradition of 11 Uyghurs from Malaysia puts the spotlight on China’s roll-out of one of the world’s most intrusive surveillance systems, military moves to prevent Uyghur foreign fighters from returning to Xinjiang, and initial steps to export its security approach to countries like Pakistan.

The 11 were among 25 Uyghurs who escaped from a Thai detention centre in November through a hole in the wall, using blankets to climb to the ground.

The extradition request follows similar deportations of Uyghurs from Thailand and Egypt often with no due process and no immediate evidence that they were militants.

The escapees were among more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014. The Uyghurs claimed they were Turkish nationals and demanded that they be returned to Turkey. Thailand, despite international condemnation, forcibly extradited to China some 100 of the group in July 2015.

Tens of Uyghurs, who were unable to flee to Turkey in time, were detained in Egypt in July and are believed to have also been returned to China. Many of the Uyghurs were students at Al Azhar, one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning.

China, increasingly concerned that Uyghurs fighters in Syria and Iraq will seek to return to Xinjiang or establish bases across the border in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the wake of the territorial demise of the Islamic State, has brutally cracked down on the ethnic minority in its strategic north-western province, extended its long arm to the Uyghur Diaspora, and is mulling the establishment of its first land rather than naval foreign military base.

The crackdown appears, at least for now, to put a lid on intermittent attacks in Xinjiang itself. Chinese nationals have instead been targeted in Pakistan, the $50 billion plus crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through infrastructure.

The attacks are believed to have been carried out by either Baloch nationalists or militants of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State.

Various other groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have threatened to attack Chinese nationals in response to the alleged repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

ETIM militants were believed to have been responsible for the bombing in August 2015 of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine that killed 20 people as retaliation for the forced repatriation of Uighurs a month earlier.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan

China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged ETIM assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets

China has refused to recognize ethnic aspirations of Uyghurs, a Turkic group, and approached it as a problem of Islamic militancy. Thousands of Uyghurs are believed to have joined militants in Syria, while hundreds or thousands more have sought to make their way through Southeast Asia to Turkey.

To counter ethnic and religious aspirations, China has introduced what must be the world’s most intrusive surveillance system using algorithms. Streets in Xinjiang’s cities and villages are pockmarked by cameras; police stations every 500 metres dot roads in major cities; public buildings resemble fortresses; and authorities use facial recognition and body scanners at highway checkpoints.

The government, in what has the makings of a re-education program, has opened boarding schools “for local children to spend their entire week in a Chinese-speaking environment, and then only going home to parents on the weekends,” according to China scholar David Brophy. Adult Uyghurs, who have stuck to their Turkic language, have been ordered to study Chinese at night schools.

Nightly television programs feature oath-swearing ceremonies,” in which participants pledge to root out “two-faced people,” the term used for Uyghur Communist Party members who are believed to be not fully devoted to Chinese policy.

The measures in Xinjiang go beyond an Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced that scores a person’s political trustworthiness. The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.

Elements of the system are poised for export. A long-term Chinese plan for China’s investment in Pakistan, dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisioned creating a system of monitoring and surveillance in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order.

The system envisions deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”

A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media. Pakistani media would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.”

The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”

The measures were designed to address the risks to CPEC that the plan identified as “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.

At the same time, China, despite official denials, is building, according to Afghan security officials, a military base for the Afghan military that would give the People’s Republic a presence in Badakhshan, the remote panhandle of Afghanistan that borders China and Tajikistan.

Chinese military personnel have reportedly been in the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in north-eastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan since March last year.

The importance China attributes to protecting itself against Uyghur militancy and extending its protective shield beyond its borders was reflected in the recent appointment as its ambassador to Afghanistan, Liu Jinsong, who was raised in Xinjiang and served as a director of the Belt and Road initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund.

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