China’s Global Engagement Cooperation, Competition, and Influence in the 21st Century

China is again undergoing a period of significant transition. Internally, China’s leaders are addressing challenges to the economy and other domestic issues after three decades of dramatic growth and reforms. President Xi Jinping and other leaders also are refashioning foreign policy to better fit what they see as China’s place in the world. This has included a more proactive approach to trade and related international economic affairs, a more vigorous approach to security matters, and a more focused engagement on international cultural and educational affairs.

In this volume, China specialists from around the world explore key issues raised by a changing China’s interaction with a changing world. They chronicle China’s emergence as a more capable actor whose engagement is reshaping international affairs in many dimensions. These include: global currency and trading systems; patterns of cooperation and competition in technological innovation; economic and political trends in the developing world; the American-led security order in the Asia-Pacific region; the practice of international military and humanitarian intervention; the use of naval power; the role of international law in persistent territorial and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas; the international human rights regime; the circulation of Chinese talent trained abroad; a more globalized film industry; and programs to reshape global cultural awareness about China through educational initiatives.

Across these diverse areas, China’s capacity—and desire—to influence events and outcomes have risen markedly. The results so far are mixed, and the future trajectory remains uncertain. But across the wide range of issues addressed in this book, China has become a major and likely an enduring participant.

China’s Global Engagement: Cooperation, Competition, and Influence in the 21st Century is available for purchase on amazon. 

China’s Nuclear Interest in the South China Sea

Economic and sovereignty interests are commonly cited as the reasons for China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The security of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent could be added to that list of reasons.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has worried about external threats—and justifiably so. During the Cold War, it faced down both the world’s superpowers, first the United States and then the Soviet Union. Both were armed with nuclear weapons at a time when China was still developing its own arsenal. But even after it successfully produced nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, China could not rest easy. It still had to ensure their survivability to create a credible nuclear deterrent.

China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent

Early on, China understood that ballistic missiles based on land would be more vulnerable to preemptive attack than those based under the sea.  And the longer they could stay under the sea, the safer they would be.  Thus, in the late 1950s, China began to acquire the technology needed for nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which can operate underwater for long periods, and for their associated submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).[1]

By the 1980s, China built its first SSBN, the Type 092 (or Xia-class), along with its first SLBM, the JL-1. Though only one Xia-class submarine ever became fully operational, China went to great lengths to protect it. Chinese engineers tunneled under a rocky promontory at Jianggezhuang, adjacent to the Yellow Sea, to provide the submarine with a hardened shelter. As it turned out, the Xia rarely went to sea during its service life.[2] But if it sailed into the Yellow Sea today, China might have some cause for concern, given the proximity of capable naval forces from Japan, South Korea, and the United States on the sea’s eastern edge.

China’s Southern Strategy

After the Cold War, China continued to improve its sea-based nuclear deterrent. About a decade ago, China began serial production of its second SSBN, the Type 094 (or Jin-class). So far, the Chinese navy has commissioned four Jin-class submarines; the completion of the JL-2 SLBM followed.[3] But years before the submarines entered service, China had already started construction on a new naval base for them that runs along Yalong Bay, near the South China Sea. With satellite imagery, one can see the grand scale of the new base.  (See image below.) It even features a submarine tunnel, like the one at Jianggezhuang, but with enough room for loading facilities and multiple submarines.[4]

Yalong Bay Naval Base

 

China’s Jin-class SSBNs are now regularly seen at the base.  (See image below.)  South of it is the South China Sea—a region increasingly dotted with Chinese military outposts and airfields. It is also a region with no navies capable of directly challenging China’s. Indeed, Chinese strategists may have envisioned the South China Sea to be a naval bastion, a partially enclosed area where China’s SSBNs could safely operate under the protection of friendly air and naval forces. The Soviet navy operated in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in much the same way during the Cold War.

Jin-class Submarines
Source: Jamestown Foundation

To be sure, the South China Sea carries drawbacks as a naval bastion. The biggest is probably the fact that operating there would put China’s SSBNs further from potential targets in the Western Hemisphere, though future SLBMs may have longer ranges. Still, the South China Sea does enable China to disperse more widely its undersea nuclear forces, and thereby improve their survivability. If China has come to see the South China Sea as important to the security of its sea-based nuclear deterrent, then those who hope that patient economic and diplomatic engagement will persuade China to change its behavior in the region are very likely to be disappointed, as they have been to date.


[1] John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 23–125, 129–205.

[2] Stephen Saunders, ed., Jane’s Fighting Ships 2014-2015 (London: Jane’s Information Group, 2014), p. 128.

[3] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, Apr. 2016), p. 26.

[4] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Secret Sanya: China’s new nuclear naval base revealed,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2008, pp. 50–53.

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Not Over Yet: China’s Progress in the South China Sea

China may be hoping that the recent easing of tensions in the South China Sea marks a turning point in the region—one that leads to the countries of the Asia-Pacific abandoning their confrontational approach to China. In February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi could point to some “clear progress” toward that end. After being stalled for years, negotiations between China and several Southeast Asian countries finally produced a draft of a new code of conduct for the disputed waters.

China could also cite progress on another front: relations with the Philippines. Throughout the term of former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, which ended in June 2016, the Philippines had been a thorn in China’s side. Not only did it offer the United States access to its military bases, the country also won a legal victory against China’s South China Sea claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), an international tribunal in The Hague. But the election of a new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, created an opportunity for China.

Duterte’s violent anti-drugs campaign drove a wedge between the Philippines and United States. And so, as Washington publicly criticized Duterte, Beijing offered him $24 billion of economic inducements. That made it easier for Duterte to overcome domestic opposition to his pivot away from the United States. He soon ended joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises and naval patrols in the South China Sea. While he has not terminated his predecessor’s base-access agreement, he may yet do so.

Enduring Challenges

Even as some challenges to China have receded, others remain, and new ones have emerged. Certainly, last year’s leadership change in Vietnam did little to alter that country’s determination to counter Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Satellite images showing that China is building new logistical and military facilities in the Paracel Islands (which Vietnam also claims) have led Vietnamese leaders to do more, not less. Hanoi continues to improve the security of the islands that it occupies.

New Challenges

Meanwhile, Indonesia has become more vocal. Once, Indonesia was content to smooth over its maritime dispute with China by obliquely asserting that no “territorial” dispute existed. Today, Indonesia has taken a clearer line. As Chinese fishing boats, sometimes accompanied by the Chinese coast guard, have pushed deeper into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, Indonesian authorities have stepped up their patrols of the region. In February 2017, Indonesian President Joko Widodo unexpectedly revealed that he would welcome a joint naval patrol with Australia in the South China Sea.  His suggestion was all the more surprising given the rocky security relationship between Australia and Indonesia.

While it refrained from taking up Widodo’s suggestion, Australia did urge Southeast Asian countries to use the PCA’s rejection of China’s claims as the basis for their new code of conduct with China.  For the moment, that quelled concerns over whether Australia would gradually accept Chinese behavior in Southeast Asia as its economic ties with China grew. Some had wondered whether such a process would accelerate, particularly after the stormy conversation between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Donald Trump in January.

But possibly the most worrisome to China is Japan’s vigorous activity in Southeast Asia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe routinely visits the region, often bringing with him promises of greater economic and military cooperation. He has offered both the Philippines and Vietnam offshore patrol vessels to monitor the waters they dispute with China. Tokyo has also encouraged Japanese companies to expand their engagement with the region through trade and infrastructure development. A year ago, Japan sent one of its newest attack submarines, the Oyashio, on a tour of Southeast Asia, the first time a Japanese submarine has done so in 15 years. In May 2017, Japan intends to send its largest warship, the helicopter carrier Izumo, to the region. The carrier will spend three months there before it sails onto the Indian Ocean to participate in a joint India-U.S. naval exercise.

Future Progress

It appears that even without the United States leading the way, other countries of the Asia-Pacific are not yet ready to resign themselves to Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. Resistance to China may have reached less of a turning point than a plateau. The South China Sea is now far more militarized than ever before. All claimants to its waters have strengthened their claims to the region and their defenses on their respective island outposts. Even the Philippines is continuing with its plans to upgrade the airfield and harbor facilities on Thitu Island in the Spratly archipelago. While a period of intense confrontation in the South China Sea may have passed, it does not mean that further Chinese progress will be easy.

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Taiwan’s Ex-Presidents: A Carousel of Legal Problems

On March 14, the former president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, was charged with leaking classified information related to a wiretapping case. This indictment is not the first—or even second—time that a former president of the country has experienced legal troubles after leaving office.

As president, Ma released recordings of a member of the Democratic Progressive Party and Wang Jin-pyng, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT) and President of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s legislative body), to the Premier.

Ma said that he ordered the leak because he felt that it was his duty as the head of state to release information related to potential influence peddling. The government’s prosecutor authorized the wiretapping due to suspicions that the two politicians were using Wang’s position to influence judicial officials.

If convicted, Ma could face up to three years in jail.

Ma has insisted on his innocence claiming that he handled everything appropriately as head of state. According to Ma, he was dealing with a crisis and what “he believed were political flaws and responsibilities involving cabinet members.”

When discussing the charge, Ma said, “Legislators can get away with peddling their influence, but the people who uncovered the scandal have been prosecuted. Where is the justice?”

Post-Presidency Blues

Ma’s post-presidency has been anything but pleasant. The wiretapping lawsuit is not the only one that Ma has faced (and is facing) since he left office in May 2016. The day that he left office, Ma faced 24 lawsuits because his presidential immunity ceased. Also, he was barred by the presidential office from travelling to Hong Kong for “national security concerns” though he has traveled several times to the United States since leaving office.

Unfortunately for Taiwan, Ma is not the first former president to be charged, convicted, or jailed after his tenure in office.

Former President Chen Shui-bian, a member of the DPP, was found guilty of corruption in 2009. He, along with his wife, was sentenced to life in prison, but the sentencing was later reduced to 20 years. He was found guilty of corruption and graft for accepting over US$20 million in bribes and misusing public funds. Chen claimed that the charges against him were politically motivated and a form of revenge by the KMT for his staunch pro-independence views.

The Chen case is an important precedent to explore because Ma may find himself in similar circumstances soon. Like Chen, Ma faces a government with the executive and legislative branches controlled by the other side. Members of the KMT have complained that Ma’s indictment is revenge for what the KMT did to former president Chen. His refusal to pardon Chen as a courtesy to his predecessor, among other things, provides little incentive for current President Tsai Ing-wen to be lenient and pardon him.

Further compounding this pattern of legal troubles, another Chen’s predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, was also indicted on corruption charges for embezzling US$7.8 million during his tenure in office. Lee was acquitted and won on the prosecutor’s appeal.

This pattern of every ex-president of Taiwan being charged is troubling for what many consider a vibrant and healthy democracy in Asia. Not only did Taiwan recently elect its first woman president in 2016, but it also handed the Legislative Yuan to the opposition DPP for the first time in the country’s history. Many across the world looked (and still do look) to Taiwan as a blueprint for a successful and open democracy in a region where there are not very many.

When it comes to ex-presidents, however, Taiwan is riding a carousel of judicial issues. What does it say for a country that the first three presidents who came to office through popular, democratic elections have faced prosecution? Can a democracy truly be characterized as vibrant and thriving when Lee, Chen, and Ma were not able to live life as a private citizen without being surrounded by a cloud of lawsuits?

Stop the Carousel

This bickering and targeting of ex-presidents is not healthy for the country. The lawsuit against Ma and related debates will soak up hours of air time on Taiwanese television, distracting people and the government from more important issues like cross-Strait relations, Chinese aggression in the East Asia, pension reform, modernizing the economy, and many other things.

If Ma is found guilty for leaking classified information in this particular case, it would be in President Tsai’s best interest to pardon him. She must break the cycle of political bickering and revenge and show herself to be a truly transcendent leader. By eschewing partisan politics and not sticking it to the opposition, Tsai can show her colleagues—rivals and allies alike—how to truly lead a nation.

An opportunistic leader would seize the moment to shore up his or her popular support, but a selfless leader should rise above—not bow to—the popular opinion of the day for the good of the country. If she does not work toward bridging gaps and reducing the hyper-partisan nature of Taiwanese politics, then in four, eight, or however many years it takes for the KMT to return to power, Tsai just might find herself taking a ride on the same carousel that Chen has ridden since 2009 and that Ma is just getting (un)comfortable on.

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Trump, Tsai, and the Three Communiques: Prospects for Stability in US-China-Taiwan Relations

The Shanghai Communique of 1972 and the U.S.-China Joint Communiques of 1979 and 1982 have been essential foundations of a bilateral relationship that has remained impressively stable while it has become much broader, deeper, multifaceted, and globally important than either side could have expected forty-five years ago, and as it has faced challenges created by China’s rapid rise.

The U.S. and China have had different understandings of these fundamental texts.  To China, the Communiques embody binding international commitments. For the U.S., they are two sides’ parallel statements of deeply entrenched policies.  Where China sees U.S. acceptance of China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, the U.S. insists that it merely acknowledges the existence of a view ostensibly shared on both sides of the Strait.  From the U.S. perspective, the U.S.’s Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and—less securely—President Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances stand alongside the Three Communiques as authoritative statements of U.S. policy.  For China, the additional documents lack such stature and have been sources of U.S. failures to implement commitments in the Communiques, particularly on arms sales to Taiwan.

Despite such divergences, the Communiques have underpinned a mutually acceptable framework for handling what was once the most serious problem for U.S.-China relations and remains a major area of potential discord today: Taiwan.  For the U.S., the arrangement has meant adopting a “one China policy” that eschews support for “two Chinas,” “one China, one Taiwan,” Taiwan independence, diplomatic relations or security pacts with the government in Taipei, support for Taiwan’s joining states-member-only organizations, and so on.  For China, it has meant acquiescing (although with objections) in U.S. policies and practices that support a functionally autonomous Taiwan, including robust informal relations, some level of arms sales, advocating Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in the international system, and insistence that any resolution of the cross-Strait issue be peaceful and (since the Clinton administration) have the assent of the people of Taiwan.

Perhaps the most important practical contribution of the Communiques (and the TRA) has been to provide a fixed anchor for U.S. policy—one on which Beijing has been able to rely.  Occasionally, U.S. presidents or officials have appeared to deviate from policies rooted in the documents.  Sometimes, these moves seemed “pro-Taiwan,” as when President George W. Bush said he would do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself, or when President Bill Clinton offered what Beijing saw as excessive support for the unacceptably “pro-independence” Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui.  Other times, the seeming shifts were “pro-Beijing,” as when Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated Taiwan lacked sovereignty and seemed to imply support for reunification, or when President Barack Obama omitted a robust reference to Taiwan, while reaffirming respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, in a joint statement during his 2009 visit to China.  When these disturbances have occurred, U.S. leaders have retreated to the “big four” texts and reassured nervous audiences in Beijing, Taipei, and elsewhere that there was no change in policy.  This has been good for stability in cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations.  The bounds the Communiques have set for both sides have helped contain even serious crises, including those surrounding China’s missile tests in the Strait in the mid-1990s and Taiwan’s referendum on entry into the United Nations in 2008.

Will this pattern persist in a new difficult period, with Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump in power?  Trump’s early moves have been, at best, extreme versions of the apparent departures from established policy undertaken by other administrations.  Trump appeared to move in a “pro-Taiwan” direction when he accepted Tsai’s congratulatory phone call.  Much more alarming for Beijing, Trump declared the one China policy to be negotiable, and linked its continuation to possible Chinese concessions on issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea.  Trump statements also shook Taiwan, where his suggestion that the one China policy was a “bargaining chip” in negotiations with China implied that Taiwan might be a bargaining chip too, and where candidate Trump’s less-than-reassuring statements about commitments to treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea undermined confidence in the U.S.’s thinner and less formal support for Taiwan’s security.

It is encouraging that the Trump administration has imitated its predecessors in returning to the shelter of long-established policy: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed that there were no plans to change the one China policy, and Trump promised, in a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, that the U.S. would “honor” the one China policy.  While these are welcome moves, concerns continue.  Trump framed his pledge as granting a request from Xi, not as reconfirming unshakeable U.S. policy.  Like many of Trump’s statements, it may be fleeting, soon to be undercut by a tweet.  Disturbingly absent from Trump administration statements have been strong references to the Three Communiques and the TRA—the traditional underpinnings of stability in U.S. policy.  Recommitment to those foundational documents is especially important today, with a U.S. leader prone to extraordinary volatility, a leader in Taiwan distrusted by Beijing, and a leader in China who has said that a political solution for Taiwan cannot be passed on “from generation to generation.”

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