Regional Maneuvering Precedes Obama-Xi Meeting at APEC Summit

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 21

The site for this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing. (Credit: Los Angeles Times)

As we approach this month’s 22nd Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Beijing, relations between China and the United States stand at a tipping point. On the one hand, Beijing and Washington still cooperate on certain issues related to renewable energy, Islamist terrorism, global economic development and nonproliferation (Xinhua, November 2). U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently praised China for cooperating with the United States on North Korea and other regional security issues (Yonhap, November 3). On the other hand, Beijing and Washington continue to spar over China’s promotion of regional institutions that exclude the United States, such as Beijing’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and U.S. regional security policies that many in China describe as a form of containment. For example, recent Chinese media commentary, perhaps designed to prepare the intellectual battlefield for the summit, fault the United States for providing weapons and diplomatic support to mobilize China’s neighbors into taking a harder line against Beijing, The summit will likely see a clash over the issue of whether these policies conflict with China’s vision of the “new type” relationship it wants with the United States. China evidently wants Washington to show more deference to Beijing’s desire for a sphere of influence in East Asia, which neither the United States nor its regional allies and friends will accept.

Arming Vietnam to Sabotage Its Reconciliation with China

Chinese analysts denounced the Obama administration’s early October decision to end a 30-year-old arms embargo and permit Vietnam to purchase defense items to strengthen its “maritime domain awareness and maritime security capabilities” (U.S. Department of State, October 2). They saw the move as a U.S. attempt to disrupt an ongoing reconciliation between Vietnam and China. The two countries’ ties have recovered following the acute escalation earlier this year of their territorial dispute over the Parcel Islands in the South China Sea after the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Company moved an oil rig to an area within Vietnam’s declared 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (China Daily, October 8).

Li Kaisheng, an associate research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, claimed that the U.S. reversal came “at a critical moment in relations between Beijing and Hanoi” when “bilateral relations are beginning to get back on track,” leading him to remark that it is “fair to doubt the timing and motivation of the U.S. policy shift” (China Daily, October 9). In particular, “What it [Beijing] is concerned [about] is that the momentum toward improving Sino-Vietnamese relations and stabilizing the situation in the South China Sea may be reversed by the latest U.S. move” since “a Vietnam supported by U.S. weapons may be more reluctant to negotiate a peaceful settlement to territorial disputes.” Li regretted that, in embracing the decision, Hanoi failed to understand that, “The weapons sales benefit the U.S., as it can easily push Vietnam to the front line of its strategy to contain China, stacking another chip in the great power game” (China Daily, October 9). Wang Hui, a senior writer at the state-run China Daily, further believes Washington is trying to “beef up its military presence in the region” and enhance its ability “for interfering in regional disputes” (China Daily, October 9). The official newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army adds that the Pentagon is interested in restoring naval access to the Cham Rahn Bay, a strategic port that could be useful in controlling the South China Sea (People’s Liberation Army Daily, October 26).

Wang Hui warns Vietnam to “understand that it is only one small piece on the U.S.’ strategic rebalancing chessboard” (China Daily, October 9). Other Chinese writers claim that U.S. actions “put regional stability and peace in jeopardy” (Global Times, October 9). For example, “conflicts triggered by U.S. arms sales will only hurt the two instead of the U.S.” since, according to Li  Kaisheng, the United States “will definitely not send troops to help Vietnam in the event of a conflict” since U.S. interests are not directly involved (Global Times, October 9). When they met on October 18, Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, told Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh, “It is in the interests of both China and Vietnam to get along well with each other and to handle differences appropriately” (South China Morning Post, October 19). Zhang Mingliang, a regional security expert at Jinan University, interpreted Fan’s remark as “reminding Hanoi not to try to curry favour with great powers like the United States, but to focus on developing good ties with China, because ‘a good neighbour is better than a distant brother’ ” (South China Morning Post, October 19). Although Vietnam might like to obtain U.S. security guarantees, differences over human rights and both countries’ fear of antagonizing Beijing will likely constrain important Vietnam-U.S. defense ties for years to come.

Missile Defenses Must Be Modest

Relations between China and South Korea (ROK) continue to improve due to their increasingly overlapping interests—deepening economic ties, Beijing’s irritation at how Pyongyang’s provocations are undermining China’s regional security policies, Seoul’s hope that Beijing will finally apply sufficient pressure on North Korea (DPRK) to reign in its wayward stepchild and a mutual unease at Japan’s expanding regional security ambitions. But the close military relationship between South Korea and the United States remains a recurring irritant for China.

The latest manifestation of this irritant is Chinese alarm at conflicting foreign media reports that South Koreans are prepared either to allow the United States to base Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an advanced ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, in their country or that South Korea will purchase such a weapon for their own national missile defense system, which though aimed at lower-level threats, will remain interlinked with the BMD systems operated by the U.S. forces based on the Korean Peninsula. Both the South Korean and U.S. governments have denied that any formal discussions on the issue have occurred, but the Korean media suggests that some U.S. and ROK officials want the system. Although THAAD’s sophisticated 1,000-kilometer radar could help identify and track North Korea’s intermediate-range missiles, the system could in theory launch unarmed interceptors against any such Chinese ballistic missiles that happen to take off nearby. Another Chinese concern is that South Korea might join the more robust missile defense architecture that Japan and the United States are building in the region, which may include some Indian and Australian participation (Global Times, October 9).

Back in May, a Xinhua commentary warned that, “It would be bad news for both South Korea and the region at large if Seoul should decide to answer the U.S. call and mount on its [BMD] chariot” (Xinhua, May 29). The author, Huang Yinjiazi, explained that, “Facing a very complicated and unstable situation in the Korean Peninsula, a missile defense system could become a blasting fuse rather than a guard, as it would most possibly trigger [the] DPRK, already feeling insecure because of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, to respond vehemently” (Xinhua, May 29). More recent Chinese media coverage has noted that the deployment issue remained unresolved (Xinhua, October 1). Perhaps in an attempt to influence the debate, Global Times published an article by a Korea University professor who argued that “the South Korean government has persistently denied the possibility that its missile defense could be incorporated into the U.S. system” because officials recognized that “Seoul’s official participation in U.S. missile defense could lead to the worst possible scenario for its national security, by being hustled onto the front lines in a major power conflict pitting the U.S. and Japan against China and Russia. This would make it impossible for Park to carry out her policy goals of cooperating with China while maintaining an alliance with the U.S. and bringing about change in North Korea” (Global Times, October 13). Influential Nanjing University professor Zhu Feng related a similar message in a South Korea media outlet, warning that, “Seoul should stay away from meddling in the strategic rivalry between China and the United States” (Korea Joongang Daily, October 24).

Chinese objections to U.S. missile defenses extend to Japan, which is preparing to host a second advanced X-Band radar as well as two more U.S. Aegis BMD destroyers at the Yokosuka naval base (Reuters, October 23). On October 23, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying criticized unnamed countries that “have pushed forward anti-missile system deployment in the Asia-Pacific region to seek [their] unilateral security, which runs against regional stability and mutual trust as well as peace and stability in Northeast Asia.” This came a few days after the United States deployed an Army Navy Transportable Radar Surveillance system, which can cue the Navy’s ship-based Aegis missile defense systems and link them to THAAD batteries, at the Kyogamisaki military base in Kyoto Prefecture in western Japan. Calling on these countries to take a “broader picture of regional peace and stability,” Hua admonished that, “Relevant countries should not take [their own security concerns] as excuses for damaging others’ security interests” (Xinhua, October 23). A week earlier, Xu Bu, China’s deputy chief envoy to the Six-Party Talks, warned that the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in northeast Asia and Washington’s strengthening of its military alliances with South Korea and Japan were making it harder to persuade North Korea to renounce its nuclear weapons program (Yonhap, October 17).

Although Chinese objections to U.S. missile defenses have become more vocal in recent months, it is still noteworthy that Beijing’s stance on U.S. BMD is less alarmist and vocal than that of Russia, even though China’s nuclear forces are smaller than either Russia or the United States, suggesting that Chinese policy makers either appreciate the limited goals and technological capabilities of the U.S. BMD programs or remain confident that China can deter U.S. threats through means other than threatening a nuclear second strike, such as by threatening to disrupt the U.S. economy by cyber weapons.

Revised Japan-U.S. Defense Guidelines Directed Against Beijing

Chinese analysts also vehemently attacked the mid-October interim report of the Japanese and U.S. governments describing how Tokyo and Washington were revising their defense cooperation guidelines to permit a wider range of joint geographical and functional activities. Zhou Yongsheng, a professor of Japan studies at China Foreign Affairs University, describes the recent revisions as effectively annulling the ban on collective defense and empowering Japan and the United States to cooperate in defense of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, which are administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing. Zhou argues that, while Washington is seeking to avoid a direct clash with China over the East China Sea, Tokyo is using the revision of the defense guidelines “to ‘pre-secure’ U.S. military support should there be a military clash over the Diaoyu Islands” (China Daily, October 13). The People’s Liberation Army Daily published an article by Liu Qiang, warning that the United States was “inviting calamities by nurturing a tiger” in the form of a remilitarized Japan that Washington could find difficult to control (PLA Daily, October 9). Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei cautioned that, while Beijing recognized the reasons why Japan and the United States established a limited military partnership during the Cold War, China would not want to see the alliance transform into a regional or global institution: “The Japan-U.S. alliance is a bilateral arrangement made under special historical conditions. It should not go beyond its bilateral scope or undermine third parties’ interests, including China’s” (Xinhua, October 9).

In addition to closely studying the results of the Xi-Obama dialogue, observers of the APEC summit will watch closely to see whether China and Japan can set aside their recent tensions and address some of the issues that divide them: If not their disputed islands, than at least some of the troublesome historical issues of which the United States is not a party (see China Brief, October 23).

Who Is Manipulating Whom?

These Chinese analysts see the United States and its Asian partners as trying to use and maneuver one another against China. In their view, the United States is trying to maintain its “rebalance” in Asia and global superiority by enlisting local powers as Washington’s proxies, specifically to manage and constrain China’s rise. They routinely dismiss U.S. assertions that its diplomatic interventions, arms sales and alliance-building activities are not aimed at China. For example, they see the United States as de facto siding with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries against China’s maritime claims, as building up its regional military power under the guise of defending allies against North Korea and as selling arms to Japanese right-wing militants and Vietnamese socialists but not to China, which remains under a U.S. arms and high-technology embargo (People’s Daily Online, October 10). Meanwhile, Asian countries are trying to secure U.S. intervention to challenge China.

Su Xiaohui, a deputy director at the China Institute of International Studies, describes how this discourse is at play in the way Japan and the United States are expanding their defense cooperation guidelines. He warns that Tokyo is seeking “to dismantle the postwar international order, and especially those rules in the Constitution of Japan maintaining restrictions on Japanese military development and self-defense,” by securing U.S. support for its goals against the objections of China, South Korea and other countries. But the United States, “facing internal and external problems,” wants to empower Japan as “a new ‘international police force’ and a cheerleader for ‘neo-interventionism’ ” by Washington against other countries. In his view, whereas previous revisions aimed to allow Japan to cooperate with the United States more against the Soviet Union and then North Korea, “China is treated as an assumed enemy in this revision” (People’s Daily Online, October 13).

PRC analysts believe that, through their exchanges, both parties embolden each other into taking actions that damage their common interests in having better relations with China. They deny that “Beijing has become ‘assertive’ on territorial issues in recent years” and insist that China is taking “compensatory” actions in response to “wrongdoings” by other parties and that Beijing “stands ready to negotiate at any time” (Global Times, October 9). Yet, they warn that “China will take further steps if these countries don’t put a stop to their actions” and that “[any] insistence on a so-called ‘internationalized’ solution that drags in an irrelevant country will only push solutions further out of reach. The victims of the resulting disturbances to regional stability and peace will be the countries of the region” (Global Times, October 9).

Many Chinese analysts frame these U.S. actions as designed to bolster the U.S. containment strategy against China and prevent realization of the “new type of great power relations” proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Claiming that Obama told Foreign Minister Wang Yi that the United States would support this “new type” framework at the upcoming APEC summit, Xu Lifan argues that Washington is violating the principles of “mutual respect, no conflict and mutual benefit” that should underpin the “essence of the new Sino-U.S. relationship” (People’s Daily Online, October 10). Similarly, Li claims that these U.S. “duplicity tricks” violate the principles of “mutual respect, non-conflict, non-confrontation, equality and mutual benefit” (China Daily, October 8).

Of course, the Obama administration has been careful to avoid using the Chinese formulation since, among other problems, it implies a spheres-of-influence arrangement for Asia that neither the American people nor their Asian allies can accept. But the president’s team has been forewarned that their Chinese hosts plan to hammer home the argument that U.S. policies are violating agreed principles of mutual conduct at the APEC meeting.