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China’s Policy on the DPRK’s Nuclear Issue: Cooperation and Disagreements with the US and Russia

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The main aims of this article are to investigate and explain China’s policy, cooperation and disagreements with Washington and Moscow on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK or North Korea) nuclear issue.

As a permanent member of the UNSC and an important player in international relations, China has the capability and authority to address and solve internationally important problems. In turn, international society is also interested in Beijing continuing its active involvement in the improvements in world security․

China plays a decisive and important role in the negotiations regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issue. The de facto withdrawal from the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) by the DPRK led to a new political situation in the international community. The DPRK’s nuclear weapons may trigger a decision by other Far East countries to acquire nuclear arsenals. The balance between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) has already been violated in favor of the former. Whether the ROK will continue to rely on the American nuclear umbrella or develop its own nuclear weapons depends on the final results of negotiations. Japan has previously announced that the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal is a threat to its national security, which means that Japan may consider a possible substitute for the American nuclear guarantee. Tensions regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issues threaten the entire political and economic stability of the Far East. China is the second-largest economy in the world, and Japan and the ROK are extremely well developed economies. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Indian economies continue to grow rapidly. Tension or military actions in the Korean Peninsula can harm economic development throughout the entire region. However, after missiles and nuclear tests, the DPRK seems to be playing its own game, as it has not accepted UNSC resolutions. Officially, Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the NPT and rejects international norms; this behavior discredits the effectiveness and authority of the UN, as well. In a broader sense, the DPRK continues to attempt to solve its national security problems by developing missile systems and nuclear weapons. However, these projects harm the DPRK’s political relations with the international community, including with allies such as China. When the DPRK began nuclear tests, China was initially surprised and attempted to punish the DPRK for its actions by voting for sanctions against the nation.

The following question therefore arises: Which action is more useful for a state? Developing nuclear weapons would give the opportunity to deter any offensive activity, whereas having allies and expanding economic relations would deter any possible revolutions or economic collapse. Recent world history offers a cogent example. The Soviet Union was one of the most powerful states in the world, but history has nevertheless shown that it is difficult to maintain sovereignty without a modern economy, free trade and open economic relations with the international community. Moreover, if a state’s economy collapses, no nuclear weapon can help. The next hypothesis is that the DPRK’s government understands that the ROK’s economy develops quickly and that they are far from the ROK’s level of economic development. However, they want to show their domestic audience that they are building a modern and strong state. Although the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty and New Start

treaties between Russia and the US might encourage other countries to reduce their nuclear capabilities, the DPRK’s nuclear tests can lead to a new nuclear arms race.

View from Beijing on the DPRK’s Nuclear Issue

In response to the DPRK’s nuclear tests, the UNSC chose sanctions as the appropriate way

of halting the proliferation of Weapons of Mass destruction (WMDs) in the Far East. UNSC sanctions on the DPRK primarily targeted the military, financial and nuclear sectors of this country. China condemned the DPRK’s nuclear test and voted affirmatively for Resolutions․

With these steps, China sent a message to its partners in Pyongyang, stating that Beijing is not interested in a nuclear arms race in the Far East. Chinese decision makers sent another message to Western colleagues stating that they are ready to cooperate within the framework of negotiations and would not accept any attempt to solve the DPRK’s nuclear issue militarily.

Contributions of the Chinese researchers show that the opinions of China’s researchers are divided on this issue. One segment of Chinese researchers believes that the DPRK is not China’s friend and that its behavior and nuclear arsenal is a threat to Chinese security. The second segment of Chinese researchers believes that the DPRK is a buffer between China and Japan and between Chinese and US troops that are based in Japan and the ROK and that China must help the DPRK for this reason.

In turn, the second segment of Chinese researchers can be further divided into two groups. The first group believes that China should help the people of the DPRK because of the longstanding Sino-Korean relationship, but representatives of this group like to add that the Chinese do not like the Kim dynasty. The second group of this segment of Chinese researchers believes that the DPRK is China’s strategic partner, as evidenced by the Sino-

North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance of 1961, and that China must continue to help the DPRK maintain its political system.

If we consider, that the DPRK is still China’s ally due to the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, Mutual Assistance, that was signed by China and DPRK in 1961, which  obligated each party to come to the aid of the other if attacked, so the following question arises: Why did China accept sanctions against its so-called ally?

China is disappointed by the fact that nuclear weapons technology is being spread to neighboring states, which may be a reason for the possible nuclear arms race in the Far East.

Thus, if the international community could not find the ways to urge the DPRK’s government to completely, verifiably, irreversibly dismantle its nuclear arsenal, it is possible that other countries in the region such as Japan and ROK, which have the capability to build nuclear weapons, would strive to repair the balance and would start their own nuclear programs. They can announce that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons threaten their security and that they need to build their own to deter the DPRK. It is worth mentioning, that before the first nuclear test of the DPRK, China was the only legal owner of nuclear weapons among its eastern neighbors. Nuclear weapons give China an advantage against its perpetual opponent, Japan. This fact provided an impetus to China to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons in NEA.

The Chinese nuclear arsenal deters Japan, but what will happen if Japan creates nuclear weapons as well?

China would lose its coercive deterrent against its historical opponent.

I believe that China will continue to press the DPRK and urge it to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, but Beijing will never entirely turn to the US and leave the DPRK in complete isolation. It appears that if China agrees with the US’s wishes to isolate the DPRK that such an event would mean the beginning of the collapse of the DPRK. I believe that after this step, the US would reach a separate agreement with Pyongyang. The history of international relations features several examples designed and implemented by the US as follows: the first event was when the US improved its ties with China without discussing this step with Japan, and the second event was when the US improved its relations with Vietnam – a country that the US had struggled with in the past. Currently, the US serves as a reliable patron for the guarantee of security in Vietnam. The US-Vietnam strategic partnership is surely in opposition to China’s interests. From my point of view, China would continue to support the DPRK in building its economy, which would give Beijing a chance to maintain its influence over the DPRK. Further, Beijing will continue to improve its ties with the ROK, as the ROK is the third-leading economic partner of China. China will attempt to find ways to demilitarize and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula with the ROK. From Beijing’s perspective, these steps will provide an opportunity to reduce the US’s influence in the Far East. We can conclude that from China’s perspective, “no problems in the region will eliminate US interference in regional affairs.” In sum, during the negotiations for preventing further nuclear proliferation in the Korean Peninsula, China is in the most difficult position because it attempts to push the DPRK to continue the negotiation process and to stop developing new nuclear weapons. China also makes an effort to ease sanctions on the whole. Beijing cannot allow an unstable situation in the DPRK, which would cause thousands of refugees to flee from the DPRK to China; thus, China is interested in the DPRK’s stability. Additionally, the government of China believes that if a communist regime is maintained in Pyongyang, China would be able to use the DPRK’s massive army in a possible “West-East” confrontation.

China-US Disagreements and Cooperation on the DPRK’s Nuclear Issue

China-US competition for political influence on the Korean Peninsula began following the Second World War and escalated during the Korean War, as China was struggling with the DPRK against the US and its allies. The DPRK’s nuclear arsenal and tense relations between the DPRK and the ROK remain threats to the security and stability of the entire Far East. The conflicting parties have powerful military allies. On July 11, 1961, China and the DPRK signed the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, and in 1953, the ROK and US signed Mutual Defense Treaty. Due to this treaty, the US maintains troops in the Korean peninsula.

In fact, the US has a military presence near China’s eastern borders (in Japan and in the ROK), and the DPRK’s nuclear issue has given the US an excuse to relocate more troops to the region and to relocate its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) advance missile defense system to deter the DPRK.

From Beijing’s perspective, a concentration of US troops or relocation of the US missile defense system near its borders are also a real threat to China. China helps maintain Pyongyang’s regime so that its army can keep away and deter US ground troops from Beijing and Eastern China, which are located south of the Korean Peninsula.

From previous experience, the Chinese people also know that the No.1 US ally in the Far East, Japan, might attack China if it strengthened its position in the Korean Peninsula.

In sum, China and the US have different visions for the future political development of the Korean Peninsula. China would like to maintain the DPRK’s stability, whereas the US attempts to weaken it by sanctions. If it finally crashes, the US wishes to change the regime and unite it with the ROK. By contrast, China attempts to limit its disagreements with the US and maintain peace in the Korean peninsula; however, China’s strategy is also to develop high-level political and economic relations with the ROK, connect the ROK’s economy with China’s economy and, as a result, weaken the US in the Korean Peninsula. This strategy may yield results, but the main obstacle is that the DPRK periodically takes provocative actions, including nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches. Thus, ROK leaders continue to see the US as the main guarantor of ROK security. As a result, the US maintains a military base in the Korean peninsula.

However, China and the US also have one common goal: to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula and prevent a possible nuclear arms race in the Far East. The main reason for cooperation between the US and China is that the two superpowers oppose nuclear proliferation in the Korean Peninsula.

China-Russia Cooperation Regarding the DPRK’s Nuclear Issue

 In a broader sense, in the UNSC, Russian diplomacy regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issue entails finding solutions with China and subsequently negotiating with other partners. Russia attempts to use its influence on the DPRK to support the negotiation process. The main positions of Russia and China on the Korean nuclear issue match as both sides want to see the Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons and the peaceful development of the DPRK.

The following question arises: What is uniting Beijing’s and Moscow’s positions on the DPRK nuclear issue in the UNSC?

  1. China and Russia are responsible powers that are interested in dismantling the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal. China is not interested in seeing its neighbors become new members of the “nuclear club”. Russia is also interested in maintaining the balance of power in the Korean Peninsula and Far East.
  2. The second reason for the Russian-Chinese united resistance against the DPRK’s nuclear tests is that that after the DPRK’s nuclear tests and missile launches, the US increased its military involvement in the Far East, arguing that it must protect the ROK and Japan from the DPRK threat, but in fact it is against China and Russia as well. The ROK and Japan subsequently began increasing their military potential in the Far East.

III. China and Russia are against the rhetoric of US politicians who emphasize the importance of changing the DPRK’s political regime. Any type of political instability in the Korean peninsula would deepen – not solve – the political crisis in the Far East. Russian and Chinese decision makers understand that if the US leads political changes in the DPRK, it would completely change the direction of Pyongyang’s foreign policy and that the country would move into the Western camp. These types of possible developments in the DPRK would limit Russia’s and China’s ability to maneuver in the Far East.

  1. In the UNSC, China and Russia have attempted to maintain stability and the balance of power in the Korean Peninsula. Concurrently, along with the other main players of the international community that were involved in the negotiations on the DPRK’s nuclear issue, they continue to press the DPRK to return to the negotiating table to discuss dismantling its nuclear arsenal. In the UNSC, Moscow and Beijing maintain pressure on the DPRK but only to the extent that its economic and political systems do not collapse.
  2. China and Russia continue to develop their economic relations with the DPRK, given the limitations of the UNSC sanctions. These economic relations provide an opportunity for the DPRK regime to maintain its political and economic systems. China’s investments and economic aid are the DPRK’s main guaranties of stability. As developments have shown, China and Russia can exert influence on the DPRK; however, regarding its nuclear policy, the DPRK has independently chosen its steps and listened to neither Beijing nor Moscow.
  3. China and Russia cooperate regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issue and do not let the US and its allies isolate and destroy the DPRK; on the other hand, when the Russian bear returned to Korean Peninsula, a hidden struggle would develop between Russia and China for influence in the DPRK. This would provide more room for the DPRK’s diplomats to maneuver between Russian and Chinese disagreements, as was the case during the Cold War, when the DPRK’s leaders were playing on disagreements between China and Russia.

VII. China and Russia are against US and ROK’s use of the DPRK actions as an excuse for deploying the THAAD missile defense system, as it could become a real security threat for both China and Russia.

Conclusion

From my perspective, the DPRK’s nuclear issue can be solved if the US, China, Russia, the ROK, and Japan can come to a united conclusion.

What type of policies do these 5 countries have?

The US has long attempted to find ways to change the DPRK’s political system or to disrupt the DPRK’s weak economy and receive concessions from Pyongyang. Japan, with some exceptions, has attempted to follow US policies. The ROK has tried to maintain economic relations with the DPRK, but at a low level. China, by contrast, continues its economic relations with the DPRK, given the limitations of the UNSC sanctions. Beijing has urged the DPRK leaders to implement Chinese-style economic reforms and continues to provide the DPRK with food aid. China therefore attempts to maintain influence in the DPRK to prevent unpredictable or dangerous steps by Pyongyang, but as past developments have shown, the

DPRK tries to play its own chess game and make decisions by itself. Russia has attempted to reestablish its influence in the DPRK, which was lost when the USSR collapsed. For this reason, Moscow wrote off the DPRK’s debt. Therefore, we have 5 players+ the DPRK, and every player attempts to play its own game. I believe that the DPRK also tries to gain from the disagreements of the above-mentioned global and regional powers (China, Russia, the US, the ROK and Japan). I believe these powers can agree from their side that nobody should separately or secretly sign an agreement with the DPRK. The powers can offer the DPRK support for developing its north regions, which border China, to prevent further immigration to China from the DPRK’s poorest regions. The 5 powers must announce that they have no intentions of changing the DPRK’s political system so that the DPRK does not need nuclear bombs to prevent such developments. I believe it is important to maintain an arms embargo and control the import and export of nuclear dual-use materials to the DPRK, but it is nonetheless possible to suspend heavy economic sanctions. These steps will provide the opportunity to build confidence among the negotiating parties and improve the DPRK’s economic situation, which in turn will give added impetus to stop the immigration of the DPRK’s citizens into China, which Beijing would like to prevent. The 5 powers can offer the DPRK a new roadmap for a final solution to its nuclear issue. The main idea can apply to that if the 5 powers help the DPRK join the global economic order, as a result it will be much easier to urge the DPRK’s decision makers to dismantle their nuclear arsenal. In this hypothetical scenario, the DPRK would have something to lose.


(*)Mher D. Sahakyan- Ph.D. 2016 (International Relations), School of International Studies, Nanjing University, China. Director of the “‘China-Eurasia’ Council for Political and Strategic Research” Foundation, Armenia and the author of the article CHINA’S POLICY ON THE DPRK’S NUCLEAR ISSUE: COOPERATION AND DISAGREEMENTS WITH THE US AND RUSSIA, (Moscow University Bulletin. Series 13. Oriental Studies, No. 1, 2017, pp. 39-55), from which this essay is adapted. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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The Demise of a French Sub Deal: Is China a Threat?

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The conflict between emerging and existing powers is almost as old as time.  Labeled the Thucydides Trap, it first recounted the 5th century BC Peloponesian war and its inevitability as Sparta, the dominant power, feared the rise of Athens.  Is something similar about to transpire between the US and China?

The latest war of words is about nuclear submarines.  When armed with ballistic missiles, they become a hidden mortal danger.  So the US also deploys nuclear attack submarines which shadow rival nuclear ballistic submarines … just in case.

Australia was in the process of acquiring 12 French conventional attack submarines (a deal worth $37 billion) when the US and UK stepped in with the AUKUS deal.  Intended to counter China, it offers Australia  advanced nuclear propulsion systems and an opportunity to construct nuclear subs of their own with the technology transfer.  Australia will then become the seventh country in the world to build and operate nuclear submarines.

The fear of the ‘yellow peril’ is ingrained in the Australian consciousness from the days when they were afraid of being swamped by Chinese immigrants.  It led to restrictive immigration policies for non-whites. 

Much of the concern with China is due to the forceful nature of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies.  In Xinjiang the Uyghur population is a minority in its home province due to the influx of Han Chinese.  Moreover, Uyghurs feel discriminated against, in jobs and the progress they can make.  Some have rebelled causing many to be put in re-education camps where there are tales of torture although denied by Chinese authorities.  Biden has declared it a genocide and introduced sanctions on leading Chinese officials there. 

China’s proactive foreign policy, renewed interest in Afghanistan, its warships patrolling all the way across the Indian Ocean to Africa are further evidence.

The new Afghan leaders, at least many of them, spent their exile in Pakistan giving the latter influence with the new government.  And Pakistan is effectively a Chinese client state.  The mineral wealth of Afghanistan, if it is to be developed, is thus likely to include Chinese help.

The UN General Assembly holds its first debate of the new session on the third Tuesday of each year; the session then runs through to the September following.  As leaders converge, one of the questions being asked of those involved in AUKUS is how they are going to pacify an angry France.  It has recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the US — in the latter case a move without precedent in almost 250 years of diplomacy.

If the French feel the Australians have been duplicitous, the Australians for their part claim they are obligated to do the best for the people who elected them.  The new deal brings jobs, technology and a greater role for Australia in dealing with an increasingly powerful China

It would be a great shame if the West in trying to shore up its interests in the Indo-Pacific region loses a crucial ally — France — at the very least in wholehearted support.  Is Mr. Xi smiling and quoting some ancient Chinese proverb, perhaps Lao Tzu, to his colleagues?   

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Japanese firms’ slow and steady exit is sounding alarm bells in Beijing

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Last year in March, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had indicated Japan would initiate measures to reduce the country heavily relying on China for factory production. Since July 2020, Japan has rolled out subsidies totaling over 400 billion Yen to move its enterprises out of China to Southeast Asia and beyond. It is yet to be seen if the scale of incentives has actually triggered a major change in where Japanese companies relocate production.  On the other hand, experts in China continue to wonder why would Japanese companies which are on average making 17% profit diversify into the ASEAN nations, where in 2019, their rate of return on direct investment was a mere 5%?

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In less than ten days, Japan is going to have a third prime minister within a short span of twelve months. On September 1 last year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned on health grounds, Yoshihide Suga was chosen as Abe’s successor. At the time, China’s leadership did not show any worrying signs as the new Japanese leader was expected to continue with the foreign policy of the previous government. But one year later, Suga’s unexpected departure is leaving Japan’s diplomatic relations with China considerably strained over Taiwan. Yet the leadership in Beijing is not going to lose sleep over the next prime minister’s public stance on the Japan-Taiwan “alliance.” What China will be closely watching is how many more billions of Yen and for how long a new leader in Tokyo will carry on with rolling out subsidies to lure away Japanese businesses out of China?

Interestingly, on assuming office Prime Minister Suga had promised continuity in domestic policies and that he will respect Abe’s foreign policy. However, Suga’s promised commitment to further improve relations with China was viewed differently in the People’s Republic. Writing in an article on the day Yoshihide Suga took office in Tokyo, Zhou Yongsheng, professor of Japanese studies at Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University, observed: “[Under Suga] Japan will continue to align with the US as far as international relations and security affairs are concerned, and continue to back the US policy of containing China It is under these preconditions that Japan will seek cooperation with China.”

In sharp contrast, reviewing Suga’s foreign policy performance after two months, NIKKEI Asia’s foreign affairs analyst Hiroyuki Akita wrote in November 2020: “Suga has not said much publicly about his views on diplomacy but he has urged his aids to continue Abe’s diplomacy as it is at least for one year.” Akita gave a thumbs up to this approach and recalled a Japanese saying to describe it: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, not everyone agreed with Akita praising Suga’s brief record in diplomacy as flawless. Having spent seven years in the Abe cabinet as Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga’s image was that of “a fixer, not a leader.” Suga did everything in diplomacy in his early phase as the prime minister what Abe had been espousing for the past seven years.

But as Toshiya Takahashi, professor of IR at Shoin University in Japan had predicted within a few weeks of Suga becoming the top leader, “Abe’s shoes were too big for Suga to fill.” Why so? Mainly because unlike Abe, not only Suga was not ideological, he was also far less diplomacy driven. “Suga is not an ideologically driven revisionist — he is a conservative politician, but his attitude has no relation to ideology. He does not seem to hold any specific cherished foreign policy objectives that he is willing to push with all his political capital in the way that Abe did in 2015 with the passage of the security-related bills,” Takahashi had commented.   

To observers and experts in both Japan and China, Prime Minister Suga’s (he will relinquish office on September 30) non-enthusiastic approach to foreign policy might have much to do with the current state of strained relationship between Japan and China. Asahi Shimbun opinion poll last year claimed foreign policy and national security as among the two most popular elements of Abe’s legacy. No wonder, critics in Japan have been pointing out that Suga’s cabinet did not have the luxury and support Abe enjoyed in foreign affairs of having in the government someone like Shotaro Yachi – the former secretary general of the National Security Secretariat. In China too, reacting to Suga’s first policy speech after taking office, scholars such as Lü  Yaodong, Institute of Japanese Studies, CASS in Beijing had observed, “Suga seems not to be as enthusiastic about China-Japan ties as Abe. Compared with Abe’s administration, Suga may walk back China-Japan ties.” (Emphasis added)

Remember, as already mentioned, the LDP had succeeded in pursuing policy of (economic) cooperation and avoiding confrontationist diplomacy with China under Abe. But Suga government’s failure to effectively fight coronavirus pandemic and its perception that China was increasingly becoming aggressive in SCS, are being cited as reasons why Japan was compelled to take strong steps against China. It is too well-known by now how Tokyo angered Beijing by referring to the importance of Taiwan to regional security in the recently released 2021 Defense White Paper. In fact, a Chinese scholar had warned as early as within a month of Suga taking over as prime minister from Shinzo Abe, saying that “Japan will take a more offensive stance against China over maritime boundary disputes under the incitement of the US” (emphasis added).

Hence, it is of extreme import to mention here China’s top diplomat Wang Yi’s recent trip to four ASEAN nations. Apparently, the second visit by the Chinese foreign minister in quick succession in the neighborhood had aroused the global media attention as it was soon after the recent visit to the region by the US vice president Kamala Harris. However, according to a Chinese commentator, Wang Yi’s recent visit to ASEAN countries must be viewed in the context of the region turning into a “battle ground” for rising economic one-upmanship among big powers. “Just a day after Wang Yi’s departure, Vietnam reached an agreement on defense equipment and technology cooperation with Japan,” the commentary noted.   

Furthermore, whilst under the previous Abe government, Japan consistently increased its investments in the ASEAN nations, except in the year 2016, all through from 2014 until last year, Japan’s investment in the region far exceeded that of China’s. Contrary to his vows, since coming into office in September last year, especially following his meeting with President Biden in the White House in April this year, Prime Minister Suga’s quiet agenda has been to confront China in both political and economic arena. In Japan, the Suga agenda was interpreted by analysts as “rebuilding Japan-US industrial chain, decoupling economic ties with China.”    

A policy report released by Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in March 2021, revealed three important facts: first, in the year 2019, total Japanese investment in ASEAN nations stood at USD 265.5 billion – 14% of the country’s overall overseas investment, i.e., USD 1,858.3 billion.; second, in 2000, Japanese investments in ASEAN totaled USD 25 billion as against its USD 8.7 billion investment in China – a gap of USD 16.3 billion. Whereas in 2019, Japan invested USD 135.2 billion more in ASEAN as compared with China. As pointed out by one Chinese analyst, this gap is hugely significant, especially as the overall size of the ASEAN economy is a little over one-fifth of China’s GDP; third, followingthegovernment’s new strategy last year to encourage Japanese businesses to move out of China to new locations in ASEAN nations, the new guidelines also entailed reducing investments into China. A large part of the investments was diversified into ASEAN markets.

Finally, what is beginning to worry the Chinese authorities is the trend and direction of slow exodus of Japanese businesses out of China going back to Japan and towards Vietnam and Indonesia on one hand, and widening gap in Japanese investments between ASEAN and the PRC, on the other hand. At the same time, it was beyond anyone’s imagination in China that Japan would be acting foolish and risking “economic security” by diversifying businesses and investments into less profitable “barren” markets. But then who could anticipate what political and economic policy-rejigging coronavirus pandemic would bring about?

Overall, China’s more immediate and bigger concerns are firstly the sudden departure of Prime Minister Suga – in spite of Suga having made it clear he had no will to change or reverse “decoupling” policy he had been pursuing, and secondly, whoever emerges as the new leader of the four contenders by the month-end, analysts in Japan believe Tokyo is unlikely to change its “anti-China” political and economic policies.  

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How China Exacerbates Global Fragility and What Can be Done to Bolster Democratic Resilience to Confront It

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Authors: Caitlin Dearing Scott and Isabella Mekker

From its declared policy of noninterference and personnel contributions to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Missions to its purported role in mediating conflicts, China has long sought to portray itself as a responsible global leader, pushing narratives about building a “community of common destiny” and promoting its model of governance and economic and political development as a path to stability. This narrative belies the reality. Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-style “stability,” whether to protect Belt and Road Investments (BRI) or regimes with favorable policies towards China, in practice facilitates authoritarianism and human rights violations, contributes to environmental degradation and corruption, and undermines democratic governance, all of which can fuel instability, intentionally or otherwise.

In pursuit of its true goal – “a world safe for the party” – China has leveraged its diplomatic and economic power to weaken  the international human rights system, bolstering support for illiberal regimes, contributing to democratic decline and exacerbating global fragility in the process. Nowhere is this more apparent than in conflict-affected contexts.

Conflict Resolution, CCP Style

Although China brands itself as a ‘promoter of stability, peace, and unity’, its very definition of stability is built on its authoritarian model of governance. This, plus its concerns about non-interference in its own domestic issues, informs its conflict resolution approach, which emphasizes host state consent and political settlement, two-ideas that can be laudable in theory, depending on the context. In practice, however, China’s conflict mediation efforts in some instances have provided support to incumbent regimes who are perpetuating violence and conflict, promoting a  ‘stability’ that disregards the voices of vulnerable populations and the need for inclusive governance. In the case of the Syrian civil war, China’s “political solution” meant maintaining China-friendly Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, while blocking resolutions condemning the regime’s brutality against its citizens. 

“Stability” promoted by China can also come at the expense of human rights. China (and Russia) have previously pushed for cuts to human rights positions within peacekeeping missions, endangering the capacity of these missions to protect civilians in conflict.  In Myanmar, where the military is committing unprecedented human rights violations against its own citizens, China initially blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup and other international efforts to restore stability at a time when a strong international response was much needed. This was in line with China’s previous engagement in the country, working closely with the military regime to “mediate” conflict near the Chinese border in a way that preserved China’s interests and influence, but did little to actually address conflict. After a growing humanitarian crisis began to threaten its investments on the Myanmar side of the border, however, China changed rhetorical course, showing where human rights violations stand in its hierarchy of stability.

Advancing China’s Interests, Undermining Governance

China’s policies in fragile states mirror its unstated preference for expanding its economic and political interests, even if securing them sidelines the stated imperative of addressing fragility. In some instances, China has lobbied for UN policies in conflict-affected contexts that appear to support its own agenda rather than – or sometimes at the expense of – peace. According to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2020 report to Congress, “China has shown an apparent willingness to leverage its influence in the UN peacekeeping operations system to advance its economic interests in African countries, raising the possibility that Beijing is subverting UN norms and procedures in the process.” Per the report, the most notable example of this was in 2014 when China lobbied to expand the UN Mission in South Sudan to protect oil installations of which the China National Petroleum Corporation held a 40 percent stake.

Moreover, China’s pursuit of its interests sets up countries on unstable trajectories. China’s economic investment policies and initiatives exacerbates governance deficits and increases fragility by encouraging corruption, facilitating authoritarianism and human rights violations, and contributing to environmental degradation, all key drivers of conflict. Two cases from Nigeria and Pakistan highlight the point.

In Nigeria, China’s investment projects have exacerbated corruption and fueled distrust in local government – key drivers of conflict and intercommunal violence in the country. China has exploited poor regulatory environments and worked within illegal and corrupt frameworks, often tied to armed groups and criminal networks. In one illustrative example, China state-owned timber trading companies  offered bribes to local officials to illegally harvest endangered rosewood. Members of local communities have cited feelings of exploitation by officials accepting bribes from Chinese businessmen, further stressing fragile ties between local government and citizens. Such business practices also demonstrate a blatant disregard for the environmental consequences of illegally harvesting endangered flora and fauna. Moreover, the inherently opaque nature of these projects that are tied to CCP interests makes it difficult to demand accountability.

Similarly in Pakistan, a 62-billion-dollar project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) aimed at linking Xinjiang to the Arabian sea, has exacerbated tension in conflict-affected provinces. The project plans to build infrastructure and extract resources from several less developed regions, while overwhelmingly benefitting industrial and political hubs such as Punjab. Many provinces, including Balochistan and Sindh, have accused political elites of altering the route of the corridor in their own interests, thus further marginalizing their communities. Separatist groups have launched several attacks throughout the country, not only fueling conflict between Pakistani ethnic groups but also leading to attacks against Chinese expatriates. Recently, prominent voices from within China have called for a military intervention in Pakistan. CPEC has increased military presence throughout small villages, sparked an uptick in violent conflict along the route, and further eroded trust in local government institutions.

These cases may of course signal more opportunism and indifference by China to the impact of its engagement on stability in any given country, as opposed to an explicit attempt to undermine democratic governance (as it has done elsewhere in support of pro-China interests). Regardless of the intent, however, the impact is the same. China’s focus on political leverage and profits first and foremost undermines stability – and China likewise can benefit from instability in states with corrupt politicians interested in trading local resources for short-term political gains.

What Can be Done: Bolstering Democratic Resilience to Address Fragility and Foreign Influence

Foreign authoritarian influence has a compounding impact in conflict-affected contexts, further undermining governance structures, institutions, and processes that can mitigate or exacerbate fragility.  Good governance, on the contrary, can not only help countries prevent and manage conflict, but can also help countries address the myriad challenges associated with foreign authoritarian influence. Strong democratic institutions help societies respond positively and productively to threats both domestic and foreign.

Targeted investment in democracy in conflict-affected contexts vulnerable to foreign authoritarian influence offers an important opportunity for utilizing the Global Fragility Strategy in support of US foreign policy initiatives and advancing the Biden Administration’s policy priorities to tackle climate change, prevent authoritarian resurgence, confront corruption, and prevail in strategic competition with China.  An investment in support of democracy and good governance to address any one of these issues will reap dividends across each of these issues – engaging in conflict prevention and stabilization programming will both advance global democracy and advance US goals vis-à-vis China and other authoritarian rivals. Such investments, which must be long-term to account for the compounding impact of foreign authoritarian influence in already fragile environments, should include:

  • Supporting governments, civil society, and citizens to better understand, expose and counter foreign authoritarian influence, particularly in conflict-affected contexts where data and research efforts can be challenging. An understanding of China’s playbook is critical to countering CCP influence operations;
  • Helping independent media to investigate and expose foreign authoritarian influence and how it fuels conflict, whether through training, financial support, or other protections of the civic and information space, to raise public awareness of the impact of such engagement on conflict dynamics and promote transparency and accountability in dealings with foreign actors;  
  • Developing evidenced-based tools to prevent and mitigate foreign authoritarian influence in fragile contexts;
  • Strengthening electoral institutions, political parties, legislative bodies, and judiciaries to uproot elite capture and mitigate malign influence;
  • Leveraging diplomacy to build political will and incentives for government officials to resist foreign malign influences. Such diplomatic efforts can include increased outreach and contact with countries previously neglected by the US – but prioritized by China – and public diplomacy to both expose the CCP’s misleading narrative and advance narratives about what democracy can deliver;  and
  • Coordinating with similarly-minded donors such as the European Union, Japan, and Australia, to implement a unified approach to match the scale of Chinese investment and maximize the impact of any intervention.

Only democracy can help countries navigate the nexus of domestic and foreign threats to their stability. In the era of COVID-19, authoritarian resurgence, and climate crisis, supporting countries to develop these “resilience” fundamentals is a sound – and necessary – investment.

*Isabella Mekker is a Program Associate with IRI’s Center for Global Impact, working on countering foreign authoritarian influence and conflict prevention and stabilization programming.

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