Tag Archives: China

Japan & Northeast Asia: Acknowledging History for Peaceful Relations

Japan’s acceptance of its history would be a beneficial start to demonstrate they are wholehearted in working with its neighbours towards a greater goal – striving for regional peace and prosperity.




[dropcap]O[/dropcap]saka’s Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s justification of Japan’s war crime in forcing women into sexual slavery during World War II, ignited outrage from its neighbours, particularly China and South Korea. This incident reminds us that although it has been almost 70 years since the war ended, there are still unhealed scars that will perpetuate mutual suspicion and disunity – particularly from its closest neighbours China and Korea who had suffered the most from Japanese military aggression.  Additionally, the Japanese government’s actions have continuously convinced China and South Korea they are not sorry for what they had done in World War II. However, if the Japanese government is willing to accept its history without attempting to downplay the atrocities that had happened, this will cement positive and healthy relations with the other two powers of Northeast Asia.

In May this year, Toru Hashimoto from the Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai), claimed it was  necessary for the Imperial Japanese Army to have “comfort women” (ianfu) – a term used to euphemise sexual slavery during World War II. Hashimoto defended that “to maintain discipline in the military, it must have been necessary at that time”. It is estimated that approximately 200,000 women, many of whom originated from Korea, were trafficked into military brothels, where they suffered the most brutal forms of torture. As a result, enraged responses came from China and South Korea. Hong Lei, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson of China, condemned Hashimoto’s remarks: “We are appalled and indignant about the Japanese politician’s comments boldly challenging humanity and historical justice”. South Korea’s ambassador to Japan, Shin Kak Soo, commented: “I’m disappointed to know that a Japanese politician has such a poor understanding of history and women’s human rights”. On 16 May, Hashimoto offered to apologise to former sex slaves: “I think I have to apologise firmly for what Japan did as I talk to former comfort women”. However, in this statement, it appears that Hashimoto was attempting to soften Japan’s war crimes. He continued: “During World War II, neither the US nor the British militaries had comfort stations or comfort women, but it is an obvious fact that they made use of local women” and “Japan was not the only one doing so: everybody was doing bad things. I think Japanese people […] should offer objections if there is a misunderstanding of facts in the world”.

Although the Japanese government has apologised for its actions in World War II, they have lacked to convince both China and South Korea about their own bona fide. Contrarily, some Japanese deeds have strongly persuaded its neighbours they are refusing to acknowledge history. In 2001, the Japanese government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, permitted changes in history school textbooks that moderated Japanese war crime.  Such textbooks, called New History Textbook (Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho), were written by a group of staunch nationalists, known as the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Atarashii Kyokasho o Tsukuru Kai). The book included content related to sex slaves as “comfort women”; in addition, it whitewashed the Nanjing Massacre, where 300,000 Chinese unarmed soldiers and civilians were killed by the Japanese army in 1937. This decision flared up its regional neighbours: they questioned Japan’s motives and their apologetic attitudes towards imperialisation and military aggression. Furthermore, the South Korean government underlined how the textbooks still included rationalising and glorifying Japan’s past wrongdoings based upon self-centred interpretation of history.

Another controversial issue is represented by the visits paid by Japanese Prime Ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine. In the shrine were buried high ranking military officers who had committed war crimes, and the Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo (1884-1948). These visits rile up neighbours, and despite repeated angry accusations about Japan’s refusal to accept its history, Tokyo has always been ready to defend its decision. For instance, between 2001 and 2006, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made visits each year. In April 2013, 168 members of the Japanese parliament paid a visit to the Shrine and offered their prayers. Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister and finance minister, Taro Aso, was also one of the attendants: as a result, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se cancelled a meeting with his Japanese counterpart. A spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying said “no matter in what capacity or form Japanese leaders visit Yasukuni Shrine, in essence it is an attempt to deny Japan’s history of aggression”. However, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga justified that “a visit to the Yasukuni is the matter of beliefs, and Japan ensures freedom of faith”.

Amidst the ire reactions over Hashimoto’s distasteful comments, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a photograph with a military jet that was numbered 731. In the photograph, Abe was smiling and flashing a thumbs up. Unit 731 was a chemical and biological experiment unit division located in Harbin of China. Many victims, from various countries such as China, South East Asia and Russia were forcibly subjected to horrific and inhumane experiments. The photo received furious condemnations from Korean and Chinese media. South Korea’s largest news publication, Chosen IIbo, commented the picture with the caption “Abe’s endless provocation!”.

Hashimoto’s comment, along with past Japanese leaders’ actions, clearly reflect the deep-rooted tensions between Japan and its Northeast Asian neighbours. China, Japan and South Korea are the leading economies in Asia, therefore healthy diplomatic relations are essential to regional stability. As Hong Lei observed, “the way they treat the past will determine the way Japan walks toward the future. On what choice Japan will make, the Asian neighbours and the international community will wait and see.”

Northeast Asia is also riddled with other complex and thorny issues: the disunity and mutual suspicion between the two Koreas, the uncertainty of regional stability due to North Korea’s unpredictable regime and the looming possibilities of a nuclear attack. Still relevant is the Sino-Japanese fiery dispute over the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands), Japan and South Korea’s competing claims over the Dokdo Islands (also known as the Liancourt Rocks, and called Takeshima by Japan), and the unresolved relations between China and Taiwan. These obstacles have continuously barred members of this region from having consistent positive diplomatic relations and mutual trust. Hence, it is essential that all members of this region must be more proactive in setting up good relations for future generations to resolve all these tensions. While this article is not suggesting that Japan’s acceptance of its history will solve all of East Asia’s conflicts, that would be a beneficial start to demonstrate they are wholehearted in working with its neighbours towards a greater goal – striving for regional peace and prosperity.



The Hard Promise of China’s Peaceful Rise

The analysis below confirms an on-going change in the distribution of power in the Asia-Pacific. This shift not only discourages any optimistic expectations on China’s peaceful rise but is helpful in explaining the new American Strategy for the area, based on a massive redeployment of both US military forces and financial resources in order to contain China’s rising assertiveness.

{Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science}





The debate over the Chinese economic and international rise in world politics in the last two decades has been characterized by growing concerns about the nature of its peaceful purposes. In particular, with the deepening of the world economic crisis since 2008, several military and diplomatic operations have been aiming at containing the rise of Chinese assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific area, such as the strengthening of the American commitment to Japan’s defense, formation of Japan-South Korea alignment, the redeployment of Japanese forces, naval cooperation between the United States and the Vietnamese and Philippines forces, and, finally, the Asia-Pacific Security Strategy announced by President Obama and the former Secretary of State Clinton in the last weeks of 2011.[1]

At first sight, these concerns could seem exaggerated, given that on the 9th of December 2003 Chinese premier Wen Jiabao reiterated the concept of a new phase in China’s approach toward its neighboring countries, pointing out the peaceful nature of Chinese rise and the developing status of its economy, adding that hegemony and expansion never would have been pursued in the area, even with the full development of the country.[2]  Despite the attempt of reassuring further their neighbors and the United States by substituting the term “rise” with the more neutral “development” only a year later, several questions about the new role of China in world politics have emerged in the political and academic debate. In fact, according to Zheng, both “rise” and “development”  “were attempts to counter the ‘China threat’ theories by emphasizing the peaceful way in which China could emerge as a world power[3]: however, the sole fact of the emergence of China as a world power has been sufficient to raise relevant points about its political effects.

From a theoretical point of view, international relations theory provides some helpful insights in order to understand whether the growing power of the Asian giant is able to affect the current international system and US interests in the Pacific region in the foreseeable future. Power transition theory, elaborated by AFK Organski in 1958, accounts for the existence of four different kinds of state-units, organized according to a hierarchal distribution of power: on the top stands the dominant nation, followed by great, middle and small powers. However, this distribution of power is not unchangeable and those states not completely satisfied with the status quo are willing to modify the hierarchy: “peace is threatened when challengers seek to establish a new place for themselves in the international order, a place to which they believe their increasing power entitles them.[4] In addition, Gilpin offers a more precise definition of revisionist and status quo orientations, by identifying some crucial components such as the distribution of power, the hierarchy of prestige and those “rights and rules that govern or at least influence the interactions among states[5]. Finally, according to Mearsheimer, all great powers are intrinsically revisionists because the anarchical system compels them to maximize their own power in order to achieve security.[6]

Within these conceptual frameworks, and in the light of the increase in international tension in the Asia-Pacific region in the last years, in this essay I will be presenting the two main academic positions about the evaluation of the Chinese role: can China be considered as a status quo power or, rather, as a major threat by virtue of being just a great power, and therefore revisionist, dissatisfied with the current American-dominated international system?

China as a status quo power: the importance of economic growth

In 2003, an article by Johnston clearly addressed the question about China’s role in the international system, stating its basic status quo character by underlying Chinese pro-globalisation attitude (given its priority in economic development and the growing economic interdependence) and by recalling Chinese increasing interest in joining regional institutions such as APEC, ARF, SCO, WTO through a comprehensive acceptation of their working rules.[7] Furthermore, China is more concerned about its domestic problems and, according to its own strategic plans, until 2050 its ruling class will be facing three big challenges on the road of state modernization, in order to become a medium-level developed country. Accordingly, the most compelling issues on the Chinese agenda are the shortage of natural resources, the environmental pollution and a lack of coordination between economic and social development.[8]

As a matter of fact, China’s primary objective is to avoid a confrontational foreign policy because it could threat its economic growth, the stability of the Communist Party and the country’s path to modernization: “China’s leadership appears rational, calculating, and conscious not only of China’s rise but also of its continued weakness”, finding more convenient a whole assimilation into the international system than being its worst challenger.[9] This wise and prudent behaviour is confirmed by the Chinese effort into developing friendly relations with the major states on its periphery (Russia, Japan, India, and the Central and Southeast Asian states) also for securing stable energy sources. In addition, Chinese leaders have become aware of the importance to promote China’s values and culture abroad in order to benefit from soft power’s advantages.[10]

Considering China as a status quo power contrasts with the theoretical frameworks previously mentioned. Those who apply power transition theory to evaluate contemporary China’s rise as a potential challenger to the US, rely on flawed historical analogies based on power relations between Germany and Britain in the early twentieth century.[11] According to Ikenberry, China will not “repeat the experience of post-Bismarck Germany” as it faces “a very different type of status quo international order than that faced by previous rising powers[12]: for such a reason, China will continue to work within the rules and multilateral institutions of the current international order. Along with the liberal idea on the Chinese role in international relations, Overholt and Shambaugh sustain that China does not represent a threat to their neighbours nor to the United States: on the contrary, it is the most supportive and helpful country for both of them, because China assures stability in the Asia-Pacific area and can represent a good ally for the US in facing the big regional political and economic issues.[13]

Against this backdrop, Kang, according to constructivist arguments, claims that a neo-structural perspective is too static and does not adequately depict the realities of Asia, where states do not seek hegemony or expansionist policies, even when they achieve great economic power and have the capabilities to expand. His main argument is that Chinese power created a degree of stability, and conflict has only resulted when China began losing power rather than when it was gaining power.[14]

To draw a first conclusion, the thesis that asserts future optimistic expectations on the Chinese peaceful rise lies to its economic growth, as Bijian bears out affirming that “China’s emergence has been driven by capital, technology and resources acquired by peaceful means[15]: but what if peaceful means are no longer sufficient to guarantee such resources? What could be the effects if the Chinese growth, so decisive in maintaining domestic and regional stability and cohesion and so interdependent with the international economic and political order now in crisis, comes to an unexpected slowdown after 30 years of uninterrupted rise?

The economic crisis and the role of Chinese nationalism

According to Buzan, the next 30 years of China’s peaceful rise have no likelihood to look like the past thirty, because the international order that China has joined so far has been deeply affected by the economic crisis in 2008. Such a crisis has been having a huge impact on Chinese strategy of export-led growth while the advanced capitalist economies are “no longer be able to sustain … their previous levels of imports from China”.[16] Chinese economic growth, so necessary to maintain its socio-political stability, commercial openness and the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, has revealed to be little sustainable.[17] As a matter of fact, Yue underlines three major factors which have characterized China’s peaceful rise in the last ten years: accession to the WTO in November 2001 (thanks to which its international trade volume ranked the third and foreign exchange reserve overtook Japan’s to be the largest by the end of 2006); Chinese massive investments in resource-rich countries located in Central Asia, Latin America and Africa, where China’s political influence in those areas is rising as well; spillover effect in East Asia generated by China’s globalizing economy that drew China and ASEAN countries closer in geo-economic terms.[18] Having revealed the rhetoric on peaceful rise its dependence on the US-dominated international system and given that most of the resources imperative to China’s economic growth are distributed in areas under US domination[19], Yue does not deny that the competition for securing them could “heighten tensions and even increase the likelihood of conflicts between China and the developed world which would in turn be destabilizing to the international system.”[20] As a result, the new economic challenge has pushed China to turn toward a neo-mercantilist position: massive intervention in its economy through a deeper state control on critical industries, by building corporations like PetroChina[21] and increasing Chinese military expenditures in the last years to an impressive 1,97% of its GDP in 2009.[22]

Chinese more assertive approach to foreign policy, recently reiterated by warning the US to stay out of any disputes about the South China Sea, coincides with the emergence of the so-called geopolitik nationalism since 2008. Hughes, by analysing a number of popular Chinese texts all published in the last few years and after the deepening of the economic crisis in the US, such as Wolf Totem, Unhappy China, China’s Maritime Rights and China Dream, has discovered how concepts of lebensraum, ’maritime interests’, ‘sphere of influence’ underpin and foster Chinese domestic discourse on foreign policy.[23] As PLA Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu’s 2010 China Dream asserts, the Chinese national “grand goal” will be “to become number one in the world” by displacing the declining United States. Liu rejects the concept of a “peaceful rise” “arguing that China cannot rely solely on its traditional virtues of harmony to secure the new international order. Therefore, China needs a “military rise” in addition to its economic rise”.[24]

In substance, the rise of China is unquestionable and, as Buzan sustains, is necessarily transitional.[25] For such a reason, China can be at best defined as a reformist revisionist country[26]  whose major aim will be to continue its peaceful rise in the next thirty years, international economic restraints and the onset of nationalistic ideologies notwithstanding, reshaping the Asia-Pacific without provoking a Gilpinian hegemonic war in order to re-establish a new hierarchy of power and prestige.


The Chinese awareness of being militarily weaker than the US on the one hand, and the need to harness external threat and nationalistic ideologies in order to obtain domestic cohesion and reinforce the Party legitimacy undermined by the economic crisis on the other[27], have caused increasing concerns and serious doubts about the peacefulness of China’s rise. Indeed, as the 2011 Global Military Balance reported for the first time, the shift in economic power is already beginning to have a real military effect: while Western states’ defense budgets are under pressure and their military procurement is constrained, Asian Pacific nations and particularly China, are increasing defense spending by double digits annually. According to the report, “combined with its more muscular regional diplomacy, China’s increased defence budget has continued to provoke concern over the implications of its defence modernisation.[28] Furthermore, IISS Director General John Chipman echoes Mearsheimer’s temporal and theoretical predictions[29] when states that  “if current trends were continued it would still take 15-20 years for China to achieve military parity with the U.S.[30]

In conclusion, these data seem to confirm an on-going change of distribution of power in the Asia-Pacific and, accordingly, they not only discourage any optimistic expectations on China’s peaceful rise but are helpful in explaining the new American Strategy for the area, based on a massive redeployment of both US military forces and financial resources in order to contain China’s rising assertiveness.


Photo Credit: Pan-African News Wire File Photos

[toggle title= “Footnotes and Bibliography”]



[1] Hughes, Christopher. Class Lecture. East Asia: Primed for Rivalry?, LSE, London, 6 February 2012.

[2] Bijian, Zheng, “Globalization and The Emergence of China”, opening remarks at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., 13 November 2003.

[3] Zheng, Yongnian, “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’: Concept and Practice”, China Discussion Paper – Issue 1, Nottingham: China Policy Institute, November 2005, p. 3.

[4] Kugler, Jacek, and A.F.K. Organski . 1993. “The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation.” In Handbook of War Studies, edited by Manus I. Midlarsky, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p. 174.

[5] Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge, CUP, 1981, p. 34.

[6] Mearsheimer, John, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York, W.W. Norton, 2001, p. 29.

[7] Johnston, Alastair Ian, “Is China a Status Quo Power?”, International Security, 27/4, Spring 2003, pp. 5-56.

[8] Bijian, Zheng, China’s “Peaceful Rise” to Great-Power Status”, Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 2005, Vol. 84, Issue 5, pp. 18-24.

[9] Brzezinski, Zbigniew, “Make Money, Not War”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005, p. 47.

[10] Tellis, Ashley J., “A Grand Chessboard”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005, pp. 53-54.

[11] Jeffery, Renée, “Evaluating the ‘China threat’: power transition theory, the successor-state image and the dangers of historical analogies”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 63:2, 2009, p. 314.

[12] Ikenberry, G. John, 2008, “The Rise of China: Power, Institutions, and the Western Order”, cited in Jeffery, ibidem, p. 316.

[13] Jeffery, Renée, ibidem, pp. 318-319.

[14] Kang, David C., China Rising – Peace, Power and Order in East Asia, New York, CUP, 2010, pp. 198-202.

[15] Bijian, Zheng, ibidem.

[16] Buzan, Barry, “China in International Society: Is ‘Peaceful Rise’ Possible?”, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, 2010, pp. 19 – 21.

[17] As Cox predicted just two years ago: “The present Chinese model, with its severe inequalities, regional disparities, environmental problems and unsustainable growth, could itself easily become fairly unsustainable”, in Michael Cox, “Power Shift? Not Yet”, World Today, 66 (8/9) 2010, p. 22.

[18] Yue, Jianyong, “Peaceful Rise of China: Myth or Reality?”, International Politics, 2008, 45, p. 442.

[19] Yue, Jianyong, ibidem, p. 450.

[20] Yue, Jianyong, ibidem, p. 439.

[21] Kurlantzick, Joshua, “The Asian Century? Not Quite Yet”,  Current History, 110 (732) 2011, p. 27

[22] The Military Balance 2011, London, IISS, p. 198.

[23] Hughes, C., “Reclassifying Chinese Nationalism: the geopolitik turn”, Journal of Contemporary China, 20 (71) 2011, pp.601-620.

[24] Kissinger, Henry, On China, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2011, p. 507.

[25] Buzan, Barry, ibidem, p. 32.

[26] Buzan, Barry, ibidem, p. 29.

[27] Levy, Jack S., “Domestic Politics and War”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 18, No. 4, Spring, 1988, pp. 653-673.

[28] The Military Balance 2011, London, IISS, p. 195.

[29] Mearsheimer, John, “Showing the United States the Door”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005, p. 49. The scholar, in responding to Brzezinski, asserts that “it is true that China does not have the military wherewithal to take on the United States. That’s absolutely correct – for now. But again, what we are talking about is the situation in 2025 or 2030, when China has the military muscle to take on the United States.”

[30] Apps, Peter, “East-West military gap rapidly shrinking: report”, Reuters, 8 March 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/08/us-world-military-idUSTRE7273UB20110308



– Apps, Peter, “East-West military gap rapidly shrinking: report”, Reuters, 8 March 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/08/us-world-military-idUSTRE7273UB20110308

– Bijian, Zheng, “Globalization and The Emergence of China”, opening remarks at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., 13 November 2003.

– Bijian, Zheng, China’s “Peaceful Rise” to Great-Power Status”, Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 2005, Vol. 84, Issue 5.

– Brzezinski, Zbigniew, “Make Money, Not War”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005.

– Buzan, Barry, “China in International Society: Is ‘Peaceful Rise’ Possible?”, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, 2010.

– Cox, Michael, “Power Shift? Not Yet”, World Today, 66 (8/9) 2010, p. 22.

– Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge, CUP, 1981.

– Hughes, Christopher., “Reclassifying Chinese Nationalism: the geopolitik turn”, Journal of Contemporary China, 20 (71) 2011.

– Hughes, Christopher. Class Lecture. East Asia: Primed for Rivalry?, LSE, London, 6 February 2012.

– Jeffery, Renée, “Evaluating the ‘China threat’: power transition theory, the successor-state image and the dangers of historical analogies”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 63:2, 2009.

– Johnston, Alastair Ian, “Is China a Status Quo Power?”, International Security, 27/4, Spring 2003.

– Kang, David C., China Rising – Peace, Power and Order in East Asia, New York, CUP, 2010.

– Kissinger, Henry, On China, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2011.

– Kugler, Jacek, and A.F.K. Organski . 1993. “The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation.” In Handbook of War Studies, edited by Manus I. Midlarsky, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

– Kurlantzick, Joshua, “The Asian Century? Not Quite Yet”,  Current History, 110 (732) 2011.

– Levy, Jack S., “Domestic Politics and War”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 18, No. 4, Spring, 1988.

– Mearsheimer, John, “Showing the United States the Door”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005.

– Mearsheimer, John, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York, W.W. Norton, 2001.

– Tellis, Ashley J., “A Grand Chessboard”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005.

– The Military Balance 2011, London, IISS.

– Yue, Jianyong, “Peaceful Rise of China: Myth or Reality?”, International Politics, 2008, 45.

– Zheng, Yongnian, “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’: Concept and Practice”, China Discussion Paper – Issue 1, Nottingham: China Policy Institute, November 2005.


Getting Your Five A Day?

The government wants us to eat five portions of fruit & veg every day; why not engage with five different news sources each day as well – it would be equally as healthy for you, and for the wider world.


5 a day


Tom is currently employed by Edelman Berland (the research arm of Edelman and the organisation that produced the data referred to in this piece). He was not involved in the creation of the report.


International PR firm Edelman released their 2013 survey of global trust, the ‘Trust Barometer‘, yesterday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The survey, released annually since the turn of the millennium, commenced with the rise of NGOs to the global scene as a consequence of the anti-globalisation movement in the US. Since then it has tracked the ‘Fall of the Celebrity CEO’ (2002), to the rise of ‘A Person Like Me’ as a credible spokesperson (2006), through to the ‘Fall of Government’ (2012).

The data released this year was telling. Some pointed to things that we already knew (people don’t trust bankers or journalists much these days), and some to things that you would be unlikely to consider (the most trusted location for a company to be headquartered, for example, is Canada). Below are my highlights – you can see the figures for yourself here.

The ‘informed public’ (college-educated/within the top 25 per cent of household income per age group/significant media consumption/engaged with business news and public policy) felt significantly higher degrees of trust than the general public. According to the data the global difference was 9 points (informed public trust standing at 57 points against the general public trust at 48 points), with the UK displaying equatable levels (taking into account margins for error). The US, however, surged ahead with a whopping 14 point difference (informed: 59, general: 45) – though it is worth noting that this may have been artificially inflated by the recent election and the ‘hope’ of Obama having a successful second term, however improbable.

Business was trusted more than government in 16 out of 26 markets surveyed, including the US, the UK, Japan, and India. Interestingly, citizens of Singapore and China – neither possessing especially liberal or hospitable governments – expressed greater trust in their governments than in business, by 5 per cent and 7 per cent respectively. Whether this is due to mass failings in business (corruption et al.), good economic performance, or the lack of a polycephalous media…

We in the West, perhaps somewhat idealistically, trust small businesses significantly more than we trust big businesses: in the UK this amounts to an astonishing difference of 30 per cent (trust in small business: 78 per cent, big business: 48 per cent). Emerging markets on the other hand, expressed greater trust in big business. 89 per cent of Chinese, for example, giving the thumbs up for large organisations, against only 65 per cent for their smaller equivalents.

The winning statistic, purely from a fear factor, is the increasing level of trust that many are placing in social media as a reliable news source – 58 per cent in emerging markets view social media as a credible news source, 28 per cent in developed markets.

Bertrand Russell once said, “I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine”. By relying on social media to provide information about the world around us we run the risk of regressing into an environment that relays to us only what we wish to hear, rather than ideas that challenge our perspectives.

In the case of Twitter, for example, a platform where you, and only you, are responsible for choosing the sources of your daily digestion, this possibility is entirely plausible. I myself am guilty of ‘unfollowing’ those with whom I expressly disagree with. An over-reliance on social media to provide us with a snapshot of world events creates the foundation for a wholly unbalanced diet of media consumption.

The government wants us to eat five portions of fruit & veg every day, why not engage with five different news sources each day as well – it would be healthy for both you and the world around you.


Photo credit: luckyjimmy

The Algerian Hostage Dead: NATO Is Responsible

While the West may be reluctant to put more boots on the ground due to the growing frustration from the general public, we are likely to see more military interventions this decade.


mali france


What do Libya, Mali and Algeria have in common? The three nations have played a pivotal role in the political domino effect culminating over the last week. At least 48 hostages are now thought to have died in a four-day siege at an Algerian gas plant. In response to the Algerian hostage situation Mr Cameron said his government will continue to focus on fighting terrorism: “There is no justification for taking innocent life in this way”.

These are typical words attributed to a politician speaking in the generic foreign policy language. However David Cameron has failed to mention that NATO also played its part in the Algerian hostage crisis. Algerian crisis is a direct consequence of the current Mali conflict and the Mali conflict is the direct result of the Libyan conflict in 2011 as those who supported Gaddafi were thrown out from the country for being black and had nowhere else to go except to join the Mali terrorist groups.

And since it was Cameron and his “peace-seeking” NATO states who encouraged the violence in Libya and helped to carry out a regime change operation, it seems NATO are at least partially responsible for the Algerian hostage crisis. Politics works in funny ways.

Let us examine each claim individually starting with Libya.

The mission to oust Gaddafi and kick start a new dawn for Libya has been claimed by the West to be a success. Yet an uncomfortable truth rarely mentioned in the Western media remains- hundreds of African migrant workers in Libya accused of being mercenaries for Col Muammar Gaddafi were imprisoned and tortured by fighters allied to the new interim authorities.

Indeed it is heavily documented how the victorious rebels were hunting after African mercenaries and the latter had no choice but to escape from the destruction-stricken country. These mercenaries found a new home- Mali. Additionally there are irrefutable claims that homes have been looted, and women and girls beaten and raped. Perhaps removing Gaddafi was a success for the Western nations, but the country is currently in turmoil and is still mostly run by heavily armed mercenaries.

It is clear that the West had a lot of interest in removing Gaddafi. While the UN gave the authorisation to protect the Libyan civilians, this objective turned into a regime change operation. It is not surprising that Russia and China continue to veto any resolutions in regards to Syria as they understand that another aim to protect the Syrian civilians would simply mean regime change in Syria.

We can only speculate what interests the West has in the region. A number of theories have been put forward: oil, a step towards eventually attacking Iran, protecting Israel, all of the above. While impossible to know the truth, it is clear that the West has a grand strategy for the Middle East and Africa.

And so we arrive at the second stage of the domino effect. The current conflict in Mali seems in many ways to mirror the conflict that took place in Libya. Rebels are trying to take over the country and overthrow the government. There is however one difference. The current Mali government is a friend of France whilst Gaddafi refused to get on his knees for the Western powers.

A popular argument used by the politicians is the claim that Libya was a dictatorship while Mali is a democracy and therefore the West has a responsibility to protect Mali from radical extremists. However if this claim was true then the West would have already intervened in Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However these authoritarian states have good relations with the West and are therefore safe from NATO interventions.

Indeed those who claim that the Mali government are not executing their own civilians like Gaddafi did may be shocked to find that there are growing reports by Amnesty International of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses in Mali, as troops battle Islamist militants in the West African country.

Residents of Mopti, in the centre of the country, told the Observer of arrests, interrogations and the torture of innocents by the Malian army. Amnesty International says that it has documented evidence of abuse by the Malian army, including extrajudicial killings. It says that in September, a group of 16 Muslim preachers composed of Malian and Mauritanian nationals were arrested then executed by the Malian military in Diabaly. It seems like the French government is trying to protect those that are carrying out human rights abuses.

Undoubtedly the rebels are not saints either. Nevertheless there has to be some consistency from the West. Claiming to be against Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein as they killed own citizens, while at the same time supporting the regimes in Mali, Bahrain and Jordan, who also treat their citizens with cruelty is simply hypocritical.

Of course this is not the first time a Western power has supported brutality. It is also imperative to mention the case of Syria here. Mr Hollande has claimed that the reason why his country is supporting the Mali government against the rebels is because the rebels are Islamic extremists whilst the rebels in Syria are secular.

Mr Hollande’s remarks are are simply wrong as it is well known that a large section of the Syrian rebels are also radical Islamists. The radical rebels who have connections to Al Qaeda seem to be having more influence on the Syrian population than the Free Syrian Army who claim to be secular.

And so thanks to the continuous hypocritical interventions by the Western nations we have arrived at a situation where a BP gas site has been assaulted by terrorists. Whilst undoubtedly investigations will be carried out, it seems more than likely that the terrorists who have carried out the hostage mission are in some way linked to the rebels in Mali.

It is well known that in life, a particular action always leads to a particular consequence. This is called the butterfly effect. International politics is not immune from this phenomenon, as something that began as a mission by the West to oust Gaddafi in 2011 has ended with Western citizens being taken hostage in Algeria. I say “ended” yet it is probable that this is just the beginning of more violence and conflict which will spread to other parts of Africa.

This is rather useful for the NATO states as America and other Western nations have been itching to find an excuse to send more military to the continent now that the Middle East has been “conquered” and squeezed completely dry. And while the resource-plenty and flourishing Africa will now be the new victim of Western interventions, our media and politicians will continue to tell us that our governments are fighting to make the world a safer place by annihilating the terrorists – the same terrorists that arise through Western interventions in the first place.

Just yesterday David Cameron has announced that the war on terrorists will go on for decades and NATO interventions will switch from Afghanistan to North Africa.

Interventions are a destructive cycle. The West intervenes in other regions as a police state under a pretext of supporting democracy, but end up opening a can of worms. Extremism spreads to nearby regions and the locals are angered by the continuous meddling of the West in their affairs and therefore join the terrorist groups which encourages the West to intervene more.

It becomes a permanent circle, or better known as a perpetual war. Alternative solutions to intervention do exist. Empowering regional bodies and governments through international development programs, foreign aid and cooperation are viable alternatives to militarism. While the West may be reluctant to put more boots on the ground due to the growing frustration from the general public, we are likely to see more military interventions this decade. Due to the development of unmanned drones and other rocket-type weaponry, NATO is likely to continue to intrude in the Middle East and Africa. It seems the West never learns.


Photo credit: US Army Africa

Neo-Realism & Virtuosity: The Rise of Turkey

Josef Joffe’s analysis centered upon the concept of two distinct geopolitical Belts is fascinating. However, it fails to consider the bridge between the two most relevant macro-groups: Turkey. In the last decade Turkey has radically changed and has strategically implemented its previous relationships with the Western and the Eastern belts, giving itself a new and crucial place on the geopolitical chessboard.


turkey 1


In the conference held at the Johns Hopkins University in Bologna on the 20th of December, Josef Joffe, publisher and editor of Die Zeit, and Senior Fellow of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, delivered a lecture about the uses and limits of realism in international affairs. After a short introduction illustrating the landscape of contemporary IR theories, Joffe focused his analysis on the most compelling issues currently at stake, such as the Iranian bomb and the U.S.-Chinese rivalry in the Western Pacific.

Structure as Destiny

Joffe’s theoretical background privileges structural realism as the key through which international relations are explained. Against this backdrop, Joffe asserted that ‘structure is destiny’. Examining the relationship between U.S. and Europe, for instance, he states that their power and position in the international system affect their behaviour. Indeed, if in the post-WWII period the U.S. has gone to war more than any other nation, Europe, on the other hand, has only fought symbolically against Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and was led by the U.S. in three of those conflicts.

If applied to a broader context, Joffe, suggesting again the thesis contained in his Überpower, stated that the world could be divided into the Berlin-Berkeley Belt and Baghdad-Beijing Belt. The first one is the blessed, pacified, prosperous, stable, democratic, liberal West, where some given basic rules of international politics have been unhinged, above all the security dilemma that drove many conflicts in the past. Conversely, the second belt is depicted as Hobbesian, competitive and fear- and ambition-driven: in this realm, international politics’ rules keep on working as usual. For instance, the Middle East, where there have been the most, and the most dangerous, wars in the post-war period, provides a fitting example. In addition, it is worth recalling the nuclear competition between Pakistan and India, and the Chinese rising-power phenomenon, which is characterizing the relationship between Beijing and Tokyo in adversarial terms, mostly due to dispute over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands.

Theoretically speaking, Joffe’s analysis is fascinating and seems to be straightforward as well. However, it fails to consider the bridge between the two most relevant macro-groups: Turkey. As a matter of fact, in the last decade Turkey has radically changed, and strategically implemented its previous relationships with the Western and the Eastern belts, giving itself a new and crucial place on the geopolitical chessboard. Indeed Turkey, slipping away from inclusion within either the one or the other belt, and not exclusively belonging to the Middle Eastern region in purely geographical terms, deserves a closer attention. As a matter of fact, this country is domestically pacified, prosperous, stable, democratic-liking; at the same time, however, Turkey is still involved in potentially lethal security issues, and its ruling class does not hide anymore geopolitical ambitions over the Greater Middle East. Given its expanding soft and economic powers, and the massive investments in military expenditures (14th worldwide), a legitimate question arises: would Turkey aim at connecting the Western and the Eastern belts by becoming the next regional hegemon in that geopolitical vacuum?

The Turkish-Belts Relations

To provide a satisfactory answer to this theoretical and political question, a brief but compelling screening on the relationships between Turkey and the most relevant actors of each “Belt” will be enlightening.

First of all, Turkish-Iranian relationships are characterized by Ankara’s twofold balancing attempt at preventing military conflict as well as minimising Iranian hostility. Nevertheless, the nuclear issue has allowed Ankara to gain the Iranian goodwill on bilateral issues, such as the opposition to Kurdish militancy and the completion of favorable energy deals that should enable Turkey to increase its dependency on Iranian hydrocarbon resources and to become a key energy transit corridor. Lastly, as Elliot Hentov has remarked, accepting Turkish mediation on the nuclear file, and by virtue of the Turkish vote against the US in the UN Security Council, Iran has reluctantly promoted Turkey’s role as the leading regional power. As a result, Turkey looks at Iran as a regional partner.

Secondly, if balancing is the strategic rule in the Turkish-Iranian relations, Beijing, as the last part of the Eastern Belt, is seen through a different perspective, possibly based on a more competitive approach. Indeed, attempts toward a strategic partnership, either commercial and political, have often resulted in substantial disagreements over security issues in the Middle East, the fate of the Arab Spring, the protection of the political and cultural rights of the Turkic-Muslim people residing in Xinjiang, and the Chinese interference over the Turkish attempt at improving economic relations with Taiwan. Lacking any bases to develop better relationships, Turkey resistance to Chinese warnings witnesses for a clear independent position from the Eastern Belt, whereas the major political objective lies, and is limited to,  mutual recognition, commercial ties and balancing policies.

On the other hand, Turkey maintains closer relations with the Western Belt, even though a greater degree of strategic detachment is coming out. After having enjoyed challenging and intricate relations with the European Union for over half a century, Turkey is progressively stepping aside from its own historical dream of EU membership. If, on the one hand, commitment over the membership is seriously lacking by both sides, on the other the EU-Turkey relationship is losing its historical fascination. The response of Europe to the financial crisis, the emerging multipolarity, new security challenges, and questions of European identity and human rights have come under scrutiny. As a result, since a complete diplomatic severance between them is out of the question, for Turkey is currently more convenient to deal individually, rather than multilaterally, with each of the EU countries. As for the Iranian case, Turkey seems pursuing balancing and pacific relationships with its Western closest neighbour.

The United States, differently, represents a more challenging partner for Turkey. Indeed, in the last years several contradictions and frictions have emerged between Washington and Ankara. First of all, the fraying and tense relationships between Turkey and Israel, in conjunction with the increasing cooperation of the former with Iran; secondly, different positions over the Arab Spring and the military intervention against Libya; thirdly, and more importantly, the contrasting strategic view over the Middle East. If the Obama administration has unsuccessfully tried to implement the policy of “offshore balancing” by embedding Turkey as one of its most loyal NATO-ally, Ankara has rejected the plan, claiming for a re-balancing of the relationship between the American superpower and its allies so as to accommodate the new geo-economic and geopolitical landscape. Despite that, Emiliano Alessandri underscores how Ankara’s activism in the most recent years has been directed “at carving out a space for itself more than at seriously developing a new idea of international engagement agreeable also to Washington”.

A Conclusion

Which conclusion can be drawn from this analysis? As recently stated by Abdullah Gul, Turkish President since 2007, Turkey aims at becoming a soft power with a substantial role in the Middle East as a good and successful model for Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to follow. In doing so, according to Gul, Turkey should increase its international role by assuming the feature of a “virtuous power”:

A virtuous power is a power that is not ambitious or expansionist in any sense. On the contrary, it is a power where the priority lies with safeguarding the human rights and interests of all human beings in a manner that also entails the provision of aid to those in need without expecting anything in return. That’s what I mean by a virtuous power: a power that knows what’s wrong and what’s right and that is also powerful enough to stand behind what’s right. (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2013, Vol. 92, No. 1, p. 7).

What these vague words mean is still unclear for the future of the region: by all means, and beyond any rhetoric, Turkey wants international recognition as a great power in a multipolar world, and the politics of “zero problems with neighbours pursued by its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, a professor of international relations, captures well his country’s regional and global vision. By confirming the neo-realist assumption that “structure is destiny”, Turkey, by relying on its large population and dynamic economy aims to become the political and economic hegemon at the crossroads of the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Just a huge and hegemon-free regional room between the two Belts.


Photo credit: Christopher Frank / theriskyshift.com

The Great China/Hong Kong Divide

Given China’s own complex situation, granting Hong Kong universal suffrage seems highly unlikely. Perhaps it is likely later on future when democracy, civil participation, voting and free speech are more understood and developed in China.


hong kong skyline at night


Recently, the streets of Hong Kong were flooded with protestors demanding their new leader, Leung Chun-Ying, to resign because of his alleged illegal renovation of his luxurious mansion. Many have utilised the opportunity to vent their other discontents such as demanding gay rights, rising property costs, housing issues for growing families and the sluggish economy. Protestors accused him of being a lackey for the Chinese government, merely doing Beijing’s bidding while ignoring the needs and priorities of Hong Kong citizens. Leung has a bigger challenge than resolving his building breaches; could he foster positive relations between Hong Kong and China? Since 1997, Hong Kongers have grown more defensive of their distinct identity and remain very suspicious about the Chinese government and somewhat unwelcoming to mainland Chinese.

Criticisms of Leung being too close to China

Leung Chun-Ying was appointed as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong on 1 July 2012, beating opponent Henry Tang, who was the former Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong. Tang’s popularity plummeted because of his illegal construction of a basement on his property at 7 York Road, Kowloon Tong.

Leung’s road to leadership has not been a smooth ride. In Hong Kong media, Leung is aligned with the personality of a wolf because of his apparent ruthlessness in politics. In April 2012, demonstrators demanded Leung to step down because of his seemingly pro-Beijing stance and he would only be an instrument for the Chinese government. A citizen name Lam Sim-Shing commented “Beijing blatantly interfered in our election,” and “he will be a ‘yes’ man for Beijing…”.

Some pro-capitalist politicians and media and anti-Leung protestors have accused him of being a loyal member of the Chinese Communist Party, to which Leung firmly denied. He responded: “I am not a member of the Communist Party. I am not a so-called underground member of the Communist Party. In fact, I’m not a member, and have not been a member of any political party anywhere in the world”.  He was once asked whether Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, deserved the award and he answered former Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, should be the first Chinese Nobel Laureate. Leung addressed his inauguration speech in Mandarin, rather than Cantonese as the previous Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, had done. Most Hong Kongers see Cantonese as the dividing line between them and mainland Chinese. Many Hong Kongers may interpret their leader would only serve to please the Beijing elites. Moreover, Leung’s introduction of Beijing’s controversial education reforms, which were announced in 2012 (will be discussed later), further reinforced anti-Leung citizens’ opinions about him.

Mass protests erupted in early January when Leung was accused of illegally renovating his flat that breached the Buildings Department regulations. According to The Guardian, Hong Kong media discovered he had constructed “a trellis, a metal gate, a canopy over his garage” on his property just six months after winning his election. Now Leung is facing pressure from protesters and authorities to give an explanation.

Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Hong Kong. According to The Guardian protesters held up signs that depicted Leung as a wolf, and calling him a liar. From other sources, some illustrated Leung with a long nose – resembling Pinocchio and one protester wore a wolf costume with the Chinese Red Guard uniform. One of the protesters claimed Leung “is not honest. As chief executive, he cannot convince the public that he is leader with credibility” and “I don’t want Hong Kong to be led by a person without credibility”. Another citizen complained they have not the right to vote for their own leader; “we don’t even have a vote, he is elected by a small group of people. We cannot use our voting right to express our view no matter how his performance is”.

The Great Divide Between Hong Kong and China

The protests clearly show us there is still a deep divide between Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong was ceded to British rule when the Qing Government was defeated in the First Opium War (1839-1842). After signing the Treaty of Nanking 1842, influence and connections from China became very limited and Hong Kong had lived under western-style democracy. The sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred back to China in 1997, ending more than 150 years of British control and China had agreed to have a “one country, two systems” policy. Yet, since the reunification, many Hong Kongers are still concerned Beijing would meddle in its affairs and enforcing laws that would threaten their free speech and democracy.  Some protesters were seen waving the British colonial flag; a clear indication that democracy and free speech were guaranteed when they were under British jurisdiction. However, one must note that even during the colonial days, Hong Kongers could not vote for their Governor.

According to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong in 2011, it revealed that Hong Kongers do not perceive themselves as Chinese citizens but rather, ‘Hong Kong citizens’. Only 16.6% identified themselves Chinese citizens.  Despite a majority of Hong Kong citizens being of ethnic Han descent, writing Chinese characters and retaining aspects of Chinese traditions, they see themselves as been distinct from their mainland Chinese counterparts.

Several incidents reflect contemporary relations between the two sides. In 2011, the popular song sung by Hong Kong singer and actor Eason Chan, Under Fuji Mountain, was replaced with lyrics (by Hong Kong citizens) that deride mainland Chinese people as “stealing, cheating, and lying” and “thanks to Mainland China, Hong Kong is now deteriorating inch by inch”. This edited version, called Locust World, has become a big hit in Hong Kong.  According to China Smack, some Hong Kongers would sing this song to mainland Chinese.

Many Hong Kongers are resentful towards increasing Chinese immigration, seeing them as threats to Hong Kong’s identity and holding them responsible for raising property prices. Lots of Chinese tourists come to Hong Kong and although this brings great economic benefits, yet some local residents cannot withstand some of the tourists’ unrefined and discourteous behaviours. There have been growing incidents where heavily pregnant Chinese mothers travel to Hong Kong to give birth due to Hong Kong’s better medical facilities and for their children to gain residency in Hong Kong. With the growing number of Chinese mothers, Hong Kong’s soon-to-be mothers have been, unfortunately, shunned aside by hospitals.

Last year, there was an incident on a train in Hong Kong which reflects contemporary attitudes of Hong Kong people to mainland Chinese people. A man saw a child eating on the train and he told the mother eating is not permitted on trains. Rather than being praised for his efforts in abiding by the law, a fellow passenger (from the mainland) derided his Mandarin and a heated argument exploded. Another passenger intervened and stated “don’t bother. Mainlanders are just like this”. This confrontation was caught on video and went viral and Hong Kong viewers praised the man as a hero.

To many Hong Kongers, they feel they should not be pressured to be ‘Chinese’ in the way that is expected from mainland China. Margaret Ng, a legislator, commented:

“We are Chinese without being only Chinese. We can accept western civilisation without identifying with the west. We observe universal values without losing our own cultural identity”.

Controversial National Education Reforms 2012

In September 2012, thousands of angry protesters marched against the national education reform policy introduced by Beijing. Demonstrators indicted Beijing of trying to ‘brainwash’ students and young people on patriotism to China, supporting a one-party system and implementing education policies that would wipe out free and independent thought.

One protestor named Joshua Wong claimed “we’re here on a hunger strike…because the government is not listening to the people’s voice”. Beijing maintained the reforms aimed to educate Hong Kong youths more about Chinese history, culture and forging positive links between the two sides. These are the following aims  the Beijing government claimed:

“The government council’s guidelines on the new curriculum highlight goals for improving morality, positive attitudes, self-recognition, judgment, identity, and responsible decision-making. Those moral qualities included “Chinese values” such as “benevolence, righteousness, courtesy and wisdom,” but also an interest to “foster universal values, including peace, benevolence, justice, freedom, democracy, human rights.”

Leung did not oppose to the education reforms. But seeing the intensity of the protests, Leung announced  the reform would not be compulsory but up to schools to decide. He declared: “we’re giving the authority to the schools,” and “this is very much in line with our school-based education policy”.

With growing discontent about China and mainland Chinese, mounting property prices, poverty, housing issues and Hong Kong citizens demanding universal suffrage, Leung has a difficult and gruelling job.  Hong Kong-China relations remain convoluted as there is an interesting interplay of political and cultural differences due to 150 years of separation and different values and many Hong Kongers not referring themselves Chinese citizens but insist they have their own unique identity. It seems positive relations are hard to achieve now. However, Hong Kong has just been returned to Chinese administration for a mere 16 years and in this generation of Hong Kong citizens, they are still adapting to the transition.

On the other hand, China has only recently emerged from political turmoil, social instability and an impoverished economy which it had experienced decades ago and is still dealing with priorities such as poverty, improving education in regional and rural areas and corruption etc. However, this is not to say Hong Kong is not an important region to China. Last year, the Chinese government announced new plans to assist Hong Kong with its social and economic development.

Given China’s own complex situation, granting Hong Kong universal suffrage seems highly unlikely. Perhaps it is likely later on future when democracy, civil participation, voting and free speech are more understood and developed in China.


Photo Credit:

12 Predictions For 2013

From the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, the forthcoming Israeli elections, and the health of the EU, Frazier Fathers makes 12 predictions for 2013…




1)  Shots Fired in the Eastern Seas?

As the excellent articles by Hsin-Yi Lo (Part 1 and Part 2 ) illustrated, the disputes between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are rooted in the two country’s histories. Following the election of the Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party many signs point to relations with China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands deteriorating in 2013. In its election manifesto the LDP called for the deployment of “civil servants”  to the islands to maintain Japanese control which of course will elicit a harsh response from China. Whether the new Prime Minister will carry out these election promises remains to be seen but all the pieces are in place for a tense year in the Seas of East Asia.

Prediction: Tensions in the South China Sea and surrounding areas remain high throughout 2013 with repeated clashes (both direct and indirect) between Chinese and Japanese paramilitary organizations (coast guard/police and protesters/fishermen). The tit for tat will continue through the year with escalating intensity and expanding into economic and military realms. That being said, both sides will stop short of opening fire on the other.

2) Bibi 2.0

If the polls are to be believed, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party appears to be headed to re-election in January. What does this mean for the Middle East? Not a whole lot; the status quo will remain with the Palestinians, the rhetoric over Iran’s nuclear program will continue (more on that later) and relations with Israel’s neighbours will remain frosty at best. Nothing will change and the Middle East will spend another year in purgatory.

Prediction: Settlement construction continues, peace process remains derailed, rocket attacks from Gaza remain a threat and relations with Washington, Europe and the rest of the Mid-East remain on ice.

3) Off the Cliff or into the Ceiling?

Although the negotiations between President Obama and House Republicans to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences may result in a deal before the January 1st cliff, this will not be the end of the US budgetary clashes. According to many estimates, the United States government will reach the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling sometime in the first quarter of 2013 after delaying tactics by the treasury. It is unlikely that any debt deal struck in the final days of December will be forward thinking enough to resolve this debt ceiling issue and as result American politics will likely immediately fallback into partisan deadlock after a brief detour for a gun control debate.

Prediction: President Obama’s agenda in almost every major policy area will be stuck in gridlock as Congress’s dysfunctional characteristics continue through 2013 towards the Midterm 2014 elections.

4) Gaddafi 2.0

Most current reports state that Syrian President Assad is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He is slowly losing the civil war – meaning eventually the rebels will get their hands on him and he will, if he is lucky, face a farce trial and be sent to the gallows. If he tries to make a break for freedom, it is likely that his Alawite allies will attempt to hand him over to the rebels in order to save their own skin. Either way things are bleak for Assad; more or less any scenario short of a NATO invasion and his capture by Western forces will result in the current Syrian President meeting an end that could match the grizzly end met by the late Colonel Gaddafi. This of course leaves the question of what happens next.

Prediction: President Assad meets a grizzly end, either at the hands of the rebels or his former supporters. After Assad is removed sporadic fighting continues as sectarian groups battle for supremacy as the Syrian National Council struggles to project power across the country.

5) An Islamist Paradise

2012 saw northern Mali seized by radical Islamist forces as fellow TRS contributor Peter Kelly provided insight on in his piece this past fall. Unfortunately a quick resolution to this situation seems less and less likely as US UN Ambassador Susan Rice was quoted as stating that the French intervention plans for Mali were “crap”. Even with a UN resolution passing on December 20, most experts predict that forces would not actually be ready to engage the Islamist forces until September or October. What this means is that for the next 8 to 10 months the region will continue to deteriorate, radical Islamist forces will be able to dig in and implement their harsh interpretation of Islam. The risk of another African refugee crisis erupting and spilling into the fragile neighbouring countries is real and the fact that border security is non-existent in this region means that there is nothing stopping the Islamists from just disappearing into the vastness of the Sahara.

Prediction:The 2013 year sees much of northern Mali still in the hands of Islamist extremists. The intervention, when it occurs, will meet quick success as most of the extremists will disappear into the desert and across porous borders following a short period of fighting.

6) Negotiating with Terrorists

With a June 2014 deadline for the official withdrawal of the majority of US combat troops from Afghanistan. It is clear that if there is any hope of stability for the region the Taliban will need to be negotiated with. In October the ongoing secret negotiations between the US and Taliban collapsed over a proposed prisoner swap. Now the stage is set for potential negotiations between the dysfunctional Afghan government and the Taliban in 2013.

Prediction: Attacks on NATO personnel and Afghan government personnel and facilities will continue with the annual “Spring Offensive” being particularly bloody. Negotiations will continue behind the scenes setting the stage for the 2014 elections where the Taliban will be on the ballot.

7) A Bigger but not Better EU

July 1, 2013 sees Croatia join the happy club that is the European Union. This is the same club that is expected to hover about 0% GDP growth over the year. Although Germany, the Baltic and Nordic nations continue to have strong finances and growth, they will continue to be dragged down by worries over Greek, Italian and Spanish debt. Although an agreement was reached over EU financial regulation and banking oversight it is unlikely that this will be enough to stabilize the union’s economic woes. The pivotal moments for Europe will likely come in the Italian and German elections which are set for February and September respectively. The outcome of these elections will likely determine the fate of the European Union.

Prediction: Pro-European centrist governments will manage to maintain power in both Germany and Italy but racial and ultra-national parties like the Five Star Movement will make large gains resulting in increased political instability and a channel for vocal opposition.

8) The Thin Red Line

Despite condemnation from the UN and Benjamin Netanyahu’s drawing red lines, 2013 appears to be when decisions need to be made. Of course, the red line was supposed to come in 2012 and before that in 2011 and the year before that. Why are the summer and fall of 2013 so important? First in March of 2013 both the IAEA and the various branches of US intelligence services are due to present reports on the status of the Iranian nuclear program to their respective governing bodies. Even if these reports are damning it is unlikely that any action will occur before the Iranian presidential elections that are set for June. Since President Ahmadinejad is term limited he will be replaced and the question becomes by whom, and with the backing of which mullah’s and governing faction will the new president come. Should a repeat of the 2009 election occur it is very unlikely that the US or Western powers will remain silent as Iranians protest in the streets. But if a new hardliner president is elected, and the nuclear program remains on track, strikes of Iranian nuclear facilities will likely move to the forefront.

Prediction: If a perceived hardliner wins the Iranian elections, air strikes will hit Iran’s nuclear facilities before the holiday season of 2013. If a “reformer” wins, 2014 will become the new “Red Line”.

9) What Global Warming?

Following “super storm Sandy” global warming once again moved back into the psyche of the American people and there was renewed hope that climate change would move back onto the policy agenda. The annual UN climate change talks in Doha this past November produced much talk but no actual agreement or actions beyond meeting and agreeing to meet again before the 2015 deadline. 2013 won’t change much either. As politicians all continue to struggle to restart the world economy, it would be foolish to expect any movement on the climate change file from any major CO2 producer.

Prediction: Another bad weather year around the world has people talking of climate change; no government from the major CO2 producing nations takes any concrete action.

10) Farewell Hugo

From personal and family experience I know that battling cancer is one of the toughest fights in a person’s life. Unfortunately for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, two cancer surgeries and the follow up complications which involved internal bleeding generally do not point to a good recovery. Even after recovering from surgery, President Chavez still likely faces chemotherapy or radiation treatment and likely at minimum several months of being largely unable to lead on a day to day basis. The fact that a successor has been chosen is an unfortunate sign that Chavez’s days as President could be numbered and what that means for Chavez’s socialist movement in Venezuela and other leftist movements in South and Central America is a question that will play out beyond 2013.

Prediction: President Chavez transfers power to his Vice President by the summer as persistent cancer treatments have him out of the country and unable to fulfill his duties.

11) Argentina Hits Rock Bottom…Again

In 2001, Argentina was bankrupt. Today, Argentina has become a key player in the international commodity markets while its exports have doubled from the $31 billion in 2001 and, if you listen to the government claims, all is well within the country. But things are not as good as they appear. In January it is expected that IMF will decide whether or not to censure Argentina over the reporting of inaccurate inflation and economic data. Since 2007, official inflation levels have averaged 8.8%, but many private and international economists peg it at approximately 20%. The government of Cristina de Kirchner seems prepared to continue its economic policies, including the nationalization of major foreign companies.

Prediction: The economic downward spiral of Argentina continues in 2013 as inflation continues to pressure the spending power of the average Argentinian. Meanwhile foreigners continue to fear additional nationalization of foreign companies in the footsteps of the Spanish oil company YPF, as a result FDI begins to decline.

12) Challenging the Dear Leader

With the election of President Park Geun-hye in South Korea, 2013 will see how Kim Jong-Un responds to his new female counterpart. Although Park has pledged to attempt to reengage North Korea, the recent rocket/ballistic missile launch and signs pointing to preparations being made for a nuclear test the question is whether the new Kim will attempt to engage with the South or continue to show his strength in 2013.

Prediction:  The first half of 2013 is relatively quiet from the North Koreans. But they start the summer with a bang by testing a nuclear weapon.


Photo credit: John “Pathfinder” Lester

Chinese Soft Power: Sources And Implications For The US

Where does China’s soft power stem from, and what are its implications for the US? 
{Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge}


China rickshaws at drum tower


China’s rise, fuelled by more than three decades of ‘miraculous’ levels of economic growth, has equipped Beijing with an impressive and quite unique set of ‘powers’ (Lampton, 2007). Economic power is at the heart of all other aspects of Chinese power. It has enabled investment in the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (Tkacik, 2007), as well as related ‘asymmetric capabilities’ (Shirk, 2008:194) as cyberwarfare (Fritz, 2008) and advanced military space technology (Logan, 2007). Moreover, it has allowed Beijing to maximize its security through deals advancing China’s energy security and securing key raw materials. These issues, and their implications for US security interests, are extensively studied in Washington (e.g. Waldron, 2005; Ridley, 2005; Office of the SoD 2009, 2010).

Apart from economic realpolitik, as in the form of securing resources and capacity for economic warfare[1] (Segal, 2004:169-170), China’s economic growth, has also energized Beijing’s ‘soft power’. Soft power, coined by Nye in 1990, can be broadly defined as non-coercive, co-optive power- the power of attraction. The attractiveness of a state is affected by its culture, history, membership and role in international institutions, as well as its economic performance and stature (Nye, 1990:167). Other crucial sources of soft power are ‘political ideology and diplomacy’ (Gill and Huang, 2006:17). China’s economic power is the key motor behind its mounting soft power.

This paper focuses on China’s soft power, with a view to delve deeper into the latter’s impact on the US and its interests. It begins with an analysis of the sources and complex structure of China’s soft power. Subsequently, it assesses how the US may be affected by Beijing’s co-optive power, with an emphasis on both direct and indirect aspects of that influence. It looks at China’s ideational influence in its near abroad, the MENA region and Latin America to shed light how Beijing’s influence may affect American interests. It closes with an analysis of China’s augmenting soft power in multilateral settings, and how this may on occasions marginalize US influence. America remains the most powerful state in the international system. No country in the world has more ‘global’ interests than the US. China’s growing soft power affects American interests around the world therefore, a thorough assessment of this process is imperative.

II. The Sources of Chinese Soft Power: Economic Performance, an Alternative Development Model and a Unique Culture

Economic Performance

The preeminent source of China’s attractiveness is its economic performance. The ability to maintain close to 10 percent growth for over three decades (Kaplan, 2010:22), enjoy substantial stability and lift 300 million people out of poverty[2], together constitute an unprecedented achievement (Ramo, 2004:10-11). Beijing has realized these achievements following a novel, unconventional, non-western development path. Underlying driver behind the Chinese development model is innovation. The continuation of the ‘Chinese miracle’ depends greatly on incessant innovation, which ‘cuts time-to-reform’ and is ‘the only cure for the problems of change’ (ibid.:15). Innovation increases the ‘density’ in the Chinese society, which in turn decisively boosts economic growth (ibid.:13-16). Cultural values, as national ‘pride of culture’ may also increase density (ibid.:33); the CCP recognises and uses this accordingly.

Economic and Political Ideology

Beijing has embraced many of the key tenants of capitalism and is largely a market economy (McKinnon, 2010:504), with a ‘Chinese twist’, that Halper (2010:10) calls ‘state capitalism’ or ‘market-authoritarianism’. The CCP largely controls key business sectors, owns firms of strategic importance, and restricts political liberties with a view to ensuring stability (Halper, 2010:30). The ‘Chinese way’ to economic growth and development is increasingly emulated around the world. The illiberal nature of Chinese ‘market-authoritarianism’ means developed democracies are unlikely to be lured and show any keenness to emulate this model (Nye, 2006:9). Reversely, growth and development, without western democracy[3] seems a particularly luring ‘package’ to various illiberal regimes across the developing world, and especially in Africa and the Middle East (Gill and Huang, 2006:20). The ideology of self-determination and the inviolability of sovereignty which Beijing puts forth simultaneously, further attract those illiberal states which are worried in the light of a more interventionist West[4] (Halper, 2010:31).

The Beijing Consensus

‘The Beijing Consensus’ (BJC) is a concept / theory, first discussed by Ramo (2004) and further developed by Halper (2010), which draws together the different aspects of Chinese soft power, delineates the powerful links between economic and soft power, and explains China’s muscle. Ramo (2004:11-12) explains the three central theorem’s of the BJC: a) the key to development is ‘bleeding-edge innovation’ to ‘create change that moves faster than the problems change creates’; b) fundamental need to shift development’s focus to individuals, their ‘quality-of-life’ with sustainability and equality as priorities; c) a security doctrine which stresses self-determination, through the use of leverage and asymmetry. Halper (2010:32) explains that deliberately or not:

‘Beijing is inadvertently promoting a most troublesome export: the example of the China model’.

While many Americans see the BJC as a challenge, an increasing number of nations, especially those ‘tired of others interfering’ see Beijing and the BJC as a great opportunity (Vogel, 2006:16).

Power – Values, Culture, Ideas

China’s power in the realm of ideas has been rising exponentially, largely hand-in-hand with its ‘development model’- as the latter ‘goes global’. Beijing advances a set of ideas, which accommodate its rise as a great power. Key idea is the concept of a ‘peaceful rise’ put forth by Bijian in 2003 (Suettinger, 2004:2). It is instrumental for Chinese soft power, as it serves to reduce the stress induced to neighbours and other powers byChina’s ascension to great-power-status. By alleviating fear and suspicion, ‘peaceful rise’ effectively allows China’s soft power to blossom. Also, China has become the world’s largest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions (Wang, 2008:264). This, arguably helps Beijing put forth a more comprehensive profile of a ‘champion of peace’, prosperity and stability (Lampton, 2007:119-120). Importantly, China’s ‘peaceful rise’ is only part of the puzzle of the ‘peaceful rise of Asia’ (Suettinger, 2004:2-3).

Another important concept serves to frame Beijing’s vision of society. That is the idea of a ‘harmonious society’– stable, based on spiritual civilization, but simultaneously a ‘society of thrift’– one that continually innovates and addresses resourcefully the repercussions of the ‘old model of industrialization’ (Bijian, 2005:22). To realize these, the CCP advances the concept of ‘closeness to the people’ (Ramo, 2004:30). Closeness of government to the people, will create ‘an environment where bottom-up development can work’ (ibid.:31). These ideas are very important, especially with placing the individual at the heart of the national development strategy. This last concept for instance attracted the attention of Brazil and Mexico (ibid.:33-34).

Lastly, the Chinese cultural value of ‘social stability’ is the second most important social value in China. In sync, it is the single most important element for economic growth (ibid.:23). Since social stability is the key to economic growth, and economic growth and development are central to the legitimization of an authoritarian government, then, the fact that China champions both makes her and her model hyper-attractive in certain areas of the world.

The Broader Context

Important external factors for the rise of Beijing’s soft power include the failure of the Washington Consensus, the erosion of US soft power and the global economic crisis. In the years following 9/11 America went through its ‘unipolar moment’, which claimed it political capital, weakened alliances and distanced friends. Human rights violations in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib further weakened America’s attractiveness and traumatized its moral example. This paper deems that there was a power vacuum in the realm of ideas that China’s concepts in part came to fill. In parallel, the BJC comes as a bright contrast to the ominously failed Washington Consensus. Even more importantly perhaps,China has managed to maintain robust, double-digit economic growth at the most difficult perhaps time for Western economies since the Great Recession (Halper, 2010:33-37).

III. Implications of China’s Soft-Power’s for the US; Evidence of Direct influence

To begin with, an increasing number of American tourists visit China to discover its culture, history and get their own, first-hand impression of the rising power. Moreover, a systematic promotion of the Chinese language has been underway for quite some time, and now an increasing number of people are ‘flocking to China to learn the Chinese language’ (Saich, 2006:4). In parallel, an increasing number of American schools are introducing Chinese language programs (ibid.). Moreover, one fourth of US universities now have Chinese language courses (Gil, 2008:119). Gill and Huang (2006:18) stress the importance of the ‘HSK’-‘TCFL’, the ‘Chinese’ TOEFL, which has been seeing a 50% annual growth.

The number of Confucius institutes in the US has also been growing exponentially. Since 2005 when the first Confucius institute was set up in Maryland, another 86 institutes have been set up in 37 American states (CIO, 2011). Confucius institutes advance the teaching of Chinese culture and language, while they also work to improve the ‘Brand China’ (Ramo, 2007). In other words, Confucius institutes are investments in ‘public diplomacy’ (Wang, 2008:264), geared at presenting a ‘kinder and gentler image of China to the outside world’ (Gill and Huang, 2006:18-19).

On a similar note, the influence of the China Radio International (CRI) (which broadcasts in Washington), has been expanding considerably, largely thanks to consecutive CCP investments (Nye, 2006:23). The CRI promotes tourism, cultural exchanges and the spread of the Chinese language. CRI’s stated objective is ‘to introduce China to the world’ (CRIENGLISH, 2011). In parallel, China has been sponsoring Chinese cultural festivals in the US, some on an annual basis. An exemplification of these efforts was the impressive $2m month-long China festival at the Washington Kennedy Center in October 2005 (Gill and Huang, 2006:19).  The spread of the Chinese language, coupled with an interest in Chinese culture and history, is tangible evidence of Beijing’s increasing soft power influence in the US.

An important policy advice CCP gives to major businesses and also practices with state-sponsored firms is investing in the US as part of ‘an effective and long-term solution to China’s image problem in the US’ (Lampton, 2007:122). The calculation is that setting-up firms and factories in the US means hiring American employees – hence, buying influence over their congressmen (Lampton, 2007:123). For instance ‘Chinese companies invested $280m and created more than 1,200 jobs in South Carolina alone’ (Prasso, 2010)[5].

In spite of multilevel, strategic direct engagement of Chinese soft power and its extensions with the US public, Lampton   (2007:124) suggests that:

China’s reputation in the United States still suffers. International public opinion polls uniformly reveal that Americans have more negative views of China than do most other people, predisposing Washington to be tougher with China than are other governments.’

This does not mean that the increasing presence of Chinese soft power institutions, cultural exchanges and influences are unimportant. However, it does suggest that in spite of systematic efforts, a clear image problem in the US persists, impeding Chinese ideational power from profoundly influencing the American public. Hence, though discernible and tangible, its implications are not decisive enough to influence considerably Washington’s China policy.

IV. ‘Weiji’ in the Near Abroad and Significance for the US

Weiji, the Chinese word which describes the combination of threat and opportunity, best describes the way China is perceived in its near abroad. Take Taiwan for instance. Taiwan has the greatest justification to feel ‘threatened’ by China’s rise; and it does. Nonetheless, concurrently, the rise of China has presented Taiwan with immense opportunities. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner and Taiwan one of China’s biggest investors. Economic ties have flourished over the last years (Halper, 2010:18). Now over a million Taiwanese live and work in the mainland, while more and more Taiwanese set up businesses and invest in China (ibid.).

Chinese soft power and the concepts that underlie / frame it, have been central for improving relations with Taiwan. The Chinese guarantee of non-forceful (re-)unification with Taiwan is enhanced strongly by the ‘peaceful rise’ policy and associated rhetoric, as well as the ‘good neighbourliness’ concept, epitomized by the saying: ‘A far away relative is less helpful than one living nearby’ (Ramo, 2004:52). Improvement of Taipei’s relations with the mainland is good news for the US, the main protector of Taiwan. It reduces the risk of crisis and escalation, while continuous multi-level bonding in the social and economic sphere coupled with confidence-building exercises has produced solid outcomes as the election of the Kuomintang Party (2008) (Halper, 2010:19).

Japan, can understandably be worried seeing China modernising the PLA, especially given the fact that Japan has no nuclear deterrent or overwhelming conventional forces. Beijing’s lack of transparency re its military budget is not helping either (Carpenter, 2007). Also, Japan saw China overtaking it as the world’s second largest economy in mid-2010 (Barboza, 2010). Nonetheless, trade and cooperation between Japan and China have seen a great surge. Cooperation through the ‘ASEAN Plus Three’ – (APT) framework has been important in this respect (Foot, 2006:85). Moreover, the ‘peaceful rise’ – ’good neighbourliness’ policies and China’s overall emphasis on peaceful, diplomatic resolution of Sino-Japanese disputes (with the exception of some rather short bursts of Chinese realpolitik assertiveness) has been crucial for preventing so far an Asian ‘arms race’. Chinese assurances, and tangible evidence of backing them, have helped prevent a major security dilemma; hence, Japan feels less pressured to emphasize re-armament and perhaps move rapidly to acquire nuclear weapons. This also means one less worry for the US, who labours to prevent a proliferation race in the region. Moreover, Yoshihara and Holmes (2008:136) also point to the important role of the sizable Chinese ethnic minorities in the region and in Japan, which ‘naturally’ encourages diplomatic solutions over confrontation.

North and South Korea are perhaps an even more complex case. South Korea is arguably attracted by the economic opportunities posed by having Beijing as its partner under the latter’s benevolent neighbourhood policy. Reversely, North Korea is attracted to Beijing as it provides it with a way around the tough sanctions and other US-led counter-measures geared at pressuring Pyongyang to put an end to its nuclear programme. Moreover, Pyongyang is arguably magnetized by the Chinese miracle as it is in great need of rapid economic growth and development – not least in order to legitimize its rule at a time when the majority of its citizens are going through profound economic poverty and hardship. Though this stance is undermining South Korea’s security interests, economic opportunity and anticipation of a more ‘responsible’ stance by China on the North Korean issue (Zoellick, 2006:96), have allowed closer Chinese-South Korean cooperation. The situation for the US would be much more complicated if Beijing-Seoul relations were only confrontational and antagonistic in nature. This, rather more balanced picture allows space for engagement, cooperation, and at times, through deliberation allows for more constructive US – Chinese – South Korean diplomacy re Seoul.

In sum, Beijing’s ‘charm offensive’ (Kurlantzick, 2007) in the near abroad, has helped isolate Taiwan internationally, but engage it further on all levels nationally. It has tried to ease the worries of Japan and South Korea with evidence of occasional success. Lastly, it has charmed North Korea, over which it has, in theory, considerable diplomatic influence, but has not yet coordinated action with the international community adequately. Beijing’s ‘charm offensive’ largely advances American interests. Beijing’s foreign policy doctrine and approach works to reduce confrontation and tensions – and hence the risk of conflict. Therefore, it follows that it also reduces the risk of America having to intervene to uphold its guarantee to Taiwan, or extend its nuclear shield to Japan.

V. Chinese Soft Power in Africa, Middle East and Latin America and the Importance for the US                                                 

The influence of Chinese soft power in the MENA region and Latin America is profound, complex and needs ample space to be evaluated in depth. This section epigrammatically and selectively refers to some key points and assesses their importance for the US.

China and MENA

The absence of conditions apart from conforming with the ‘one-China-policy’ to trade with, or receive aid from China is crucial for Sino-African relations. Many African states increasingly rely on Beijing, fascinated by China’s growth and development, hoping they can learn and gain from the ‘Chinese example’ (Brookes and Shin, 2006:1-2). The security dimension of the ‘Beijing Consensus’ – and particularly the ‘self-determination’ clause – is very attractive for isolated ruthless regime’s, in pariah / nearly-failed states, like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Al-Bashir’s Sudan (Halper, 2010:83-87). This renders the conduct of strategic diplomacy by the US ineffectual. Isolation fails, sanctions miss, and the option / threat of humanitarian intervention seems less threatening given the improbability of mandating action through the UNSC.

In Africa, China’s image has been thriving, not least because of its tangible contribution to economic development, mainly through the building of infrastructure projects and advancing the technological capabilities of many developing nations (Foster, et. al., 2008). This advantageous image, of the benevolent actor who delivers results, combined with the ‘spirit’ and values enshrined in the BJC explains why now most of Africa looks to China rather than the US for a reliable partner[6]. A key implication of this new reality for the US is that it is losing out in the ‘race’ of securing energy resources, as Chinese energy firms increasingly ‘lock’ resources through long-term semi-barter deals in resource-rich African states (Brookes and Shin, 2006:2).

Similar difficulties have been posed in dealing with proliferation in the Middle East, and the question of Iran. China’s enthusiasm to fill the vacuum left from Western – largely American firms – leaving Iran in conjunction with US (and EU) sanctions, have held back the negotiations and undermined the ability of the US and the international community to effectively pressure the Iranian government. China’s ‘diplomatic cover’ / umbrella has on occasions, proven a major obstacle (Halper, 2010:91-92).

In Latin America, the role of China has been expanding rapidly. Chinese cultural and educational programs have been expanding with positive impact for the reception of China in the region (Pan, 2006). Moreover, Bush era’s American hegemony alienated friends and distanced allies in Latin America, who increasingly find in Beijing a robust and increasingly crucial partner. Both Halper (2010) and Ramo (2004) discuss in considerable depth the strengthening of Venezuelan – Chinese relations. America is the largest consumer of Venezuelan oil. In pursuit of more independence, Chavez increasingly opts to maximize oil sales to China (Halper, 2010:90). Expanding Chinese soft power in Latin America may be disturbing for the US for geopolitical reasons, as Beijing’s friendships and alliances in America’s near abroad may generate concern. Also, America cedes ground in the ‘great game’ of resource acquisition.

VI. Chinese Soft Power and Multilateral Fora. A New Role? The Significance for the US

China’s attractiveness is particularly evident in multilateral settings. As always, interest in China relates to the economic opportunities that arise from increased cooperation. Nonetheless, multilateral organizations are crucial marketplaces of ideas in conjunction with everything else. Chinese ideational power is increasingly apparent in a series of fora/IOs. For instance, the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) started out with the focused agenda of mediating border disputes, but Chinese ideational leadership quickly broadened SCO’s mandate to include politico-economic cooperation in other spheres as well as broader issues of security. To cite an example, in 2005, after denying US observer status in the SCO (Cohen, 2006:8), a Chinese-led SCO declaration pressed Washington to withdraw its forces from Uzbekistan (Halper, 2010:79). Chinese soft power has effectively created a multilateral milieu which deliberately excludes the US, and can at times pressure it.

Similarly, the US is excluded from both the ‘ASEAN Plus One’ and the ‘APT’ arrangement. China has a leading role in these arrangements, effectively creating separate economic spheres with considerable geopolitical gains for China and non-negligible implications for America (Halper, 2010:28). In 2009, the first ‘BRIC Summit’ took place, serving as a platform for exchange of ideas on trade and aid, with an emphasis on how to exclude the US. When Obama asked to send a delegation with the status of observers, his request was turned down (Halper, 2010:29). Through these multilateral settings, China advances simultaneously its ‘good neighbourliness’ and the ‘China Opportunity’ concepts, which command considerable gravitas in the above-discussed regional IOs (Ramo, 2004: 51-53).

Overall, the exclusion of the US from increasingly important fora and IOs is a demonstration that Chinese soft power and effective multilateral strategy can be in direct competition with American soft power. Moreover, it shows that whenever Beijing ‘marks a victory’, it opts to exclude the US from the new setting, to carve out alternative spaces for ideational exchanges, often with the deliberate collective aim of operating outside the US-set / dominated framework.

VII. Conclusion or A clear Assessment of the Nature and Composition of Chinese Soft Power as well as its Impact on America and its Global Interests

Chinese soft power is uniquely complex. It is so conflated with economic influence that they seem, at times, almost inseparable. This paper found that Chinese soft power stems greatly from the example of its development model. It impresses nations around the world that may not necessarily want to emulate the model, but are attracted to China, and draw closer to Beijing. A set of ideas, many endeavouring to frame China’s intentions vis-à-vis its neighbours, partners and friends, are also a key component of China’s ideational influence. The ‘Beijing Consensus’ has considerable analytical value and is a handy summation of Beijing’s ‘power of example’, cultural and political influence. China’s soft power has been also empowered by the erosion of US soft power America suffered during the G.W.Bush era.

After identifying the sources of Chinese soft power, this thesis examined its impact on American interests. It started with an analysis of the direct impact of Chinese soft power on the US to show that although on-the-rise, Chinese soft power has a limited direct impact on the US. Subsequently, this paper analysed the impact of Chinese soft power in its near abroad, and found that though China presents a threat and opportunity at the same time, its power of public diplomacy and attraction rather advances America’s aim of peace and stability in this sensitive area. This paper’s succinct analysis of China’s ideational influence in MENA and Latin America demonstrated that Chinese ideas often attract dodgy regimes, with which China engages, and hence carries high responsibility. When China uses its soft power in a responsible way, then, America and the international community benefit greatly; when not, it undermines efforts aimed at making this world a safer place (Zoellick, 2006, Shirk, 2008). Lastly, China’s soft power in multilateral settings is impressive. Apart from the UN, China has empowered the ASEAN Plus One and APT fora, has developed the SCO and has given a new dynamic to the ‘BRIC Summit’. In all these, it has laboured to carve a leading role for itself, while marginalizing America’s role.

*Information cut off point: May, 2012 (albeit minor updates)

[toggle title=”Citations and Bibliography”]


1] (e.g. dollar reserves or trade policy)

[2] Other sources, as Wan (2008: 416) suggest that Beijing lifted 422 million people out of poverty.

[3] (or economic freedom without political freedom)

[4] Alluding to concepts as humanitarian intervention and responsibility to protect; as well as pre-emptive and preventive military action.

[5] Multiply 1,200 by at least say 3 (family), and Chinese firms may influence the lives (and hence votes) of over 3,500 people – a serious political capital indeed.

[6] China’s charm offensive in Africa has equipped China with considerable sway over an impressive voting bloc in IOs and the one third of the UN General Assembly in particular (Halper, 2010: 112-113). Crucially, this helped China be awarded the 2008 Olympics, a significant soft-power boost. Most of these relations are cultivated through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (ibid.).


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Photo Credit: Stuck In Customs

The ‘China Threat Debate’ Revisited

Does China threaten the US in the economic and military realms?
{Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge}


chinese flag nationalism


China is the biggest and fastest-growing rising power (Garret, 2010:29). Its rapid and profoundly steady economic growth increasingly facilitates the simultaneous expansion of its military power. Beijing’s gravitas as an actor in the international system was considerable even before the last 30 years of impressive growth. In 1970 China already held a permanent seat in the UNSC and had 20 nuclear-tipped ICBMs (Burr, 2000). This essay analyzes whether China’s 30-year-long economic development and its far-reaching implications pose a genuine threat to the United States. It does the same with China’s military development. But before outlining how we are approaching these central questions in this paper, we need to clarify what we understand as a ‘genuine threat’. Succinctly, we interpret here a ‘genuine threat’ to be an eminent danger or direct challenge to another actor’s existence or his vital interests.

We first tackle the question of China’s economic development, examining the potential challenges this may pose to the US, to demonstrate, that the challenges posed are mostly outnumbered by the opportunities at hand. The argument of growing interdependence and the enmeshment of China in the structures of global economic governance will be evaluated, to examine its potential significance for Sino-American relations. Subsequently, an analysis of the military dimension of China’s rise will follow, examining the challenges posed by Beijing’s ascension in Asia and beyond, with the aim of identifying the space for conflict, accommodation and understanding with America and its regional interests. Throughout the essay, we refer to the ‘China Threat’ theory, developing their arguments and testing them against evidence at hand. We agree with Ramo (2004:7), that of the most interesting aspects of the ‘China Threat’ debate is that the ‘louder…it becomes, the less sense it makes’. Our findings suggest that attempts to present China as an existential, pressing and genuine threat to the US, are, at this stage at least, exceedingly exaggerated.  

Chinese Economic Development: Threat, Challenge, or Opportunity?

Nicholas Kristof, predicted in 1993 (p.59) that, ‘if continued, China’s rise will be the most important trend in the world’. Well China has in fact continued to rise rather steadily for 17 years since that prediction, and it seems China will continue to rise in the proximate future (Makiel, 2008). As Bijian (2005:18-20) points out, the main driver of China’s rise, the motor behind its expanding influence, is its profound economic growth. In the last 32 years, China has averaged GDP annual growth rates ‘of more than 10%’ annually (Kaplan, 2010:22). This trend accounts for China being the ‘fastest-growing’ economy in the world (Makiel, 2008:24). Since 2010, China has emerged as the world’s second largest economy after the US (Barboza, 2010)[1]. Overtaking its regional competitor, Japan, China emerged as the most powerful economic actor in Asia[2].

Despite these impressive economic achievements, this paper will argue that China’s emergence as an economic superpower, is certainly not a threat, and though it does pose some challenges, they clearly are of less magnitude than the great opportunities it presents. To begin with, it is important to remember that America remains by far the most technologically advanced economy and still possesses roughly four times China’s share of the global wealth[3]– China is not pushing America in the sidelines of the global economic order just yet. Moreover, China is still a developing country, still ranking 97th in terms of GDP p.c. (IMF, 2010). One may rush to say this is irrelevant. Well, this is not true in the case of China. China’s priority is economic development and modernization (Bijian, 2005). For as long as China lags behind in terms of economic development and living standards, China’s leaders will concentrate on thriving in this arena (Bijian, 2005:18). It is critical for the progress of China as a nation, the survival of the CCP and its leadership, as well as for social cohesion and national unity (Shirk, 2008:7-8,256).

Economic Interdependence

[China] has come to rely on international markets, global institutions and free trade to achieve economic growth’-(Halper, 2010:1)

Moreover, as Waldron (2005:719-721) points out, there are several reasons to believe that though possible, it will certainly not be easy for China to continue to rise at that pace. It will indeed require the prioritization of the economy over all other issues, and also the minimization of any tensions in its foreign relations, as China is dependent ‘to an unhealthy degree on exports[4]’ (Waldron, 2005:719). There are many additional factors why Chinese economic progress largely depends on the country’s (evident) commitment to ‘heping juegi’[5]. Notions of ‘codependance’ (Garret, 2010:29) and interdependence are central to understanding, why Beijing and Washington genuinely need each other for their mutual economic advancement.

Importantly, it is true that China’s Central Bank holds the world’s largest foreign currency reserves, including the largest share of US dollars. Some like Miller (2010) see a danger in this, stressing that China’s dollar reserves equip it with leverage over the US. Such analysis neglects the fact that if China does attempt to speculate against the dollar, this means China will lose billions because of the dollar value it holds. Hence, it has become partially China’s interest for the dollar to be stable and thriving as opposed to unstable and collapsing. Furthermore, it is important at this stage to reiterate that China needs to devote a larger effort to remain a reliable economic partner, as potential repercussions are graver. Reversely, US’s long held position at the peak of the global economic pyramid enables it to turn more easily to other rich economies to secure increased partnership (even at a higher cost).

Additionally, China has been buying American debt in IOU’s and bonds. This paper agrees with Garrett (2010:29-31) that the format-‘China buys American debt and Americans buy Chinese goods will endure’. This is the case because both benefit through this model, addressing their imbalances to strike a mutually beneficial equilibrium. ‘China Threat’ proponents might again be alarmed by this ‘erosion of America’s economic sovereignty’ (Ridley, 2005). They again seem to be missing the whole picture. Instead of interpreting this development as a danger, they should be welcoming it as a positive step. Chinese purchases of US debt integrate China further into the world economy, but also tie China to the flourishing of the American economy. Based on the analysis conducted above, it should also become clear that if US fails/stops for some reason to continue repaying its debt, this would first and foremost damage Chinese economic interests, leaving the CCP leadership with very restricted room for manoeuvre.

China’s Integration in the World Economy

Apart from buying America’s currency and debt and US being the largest importer of Chinese goods, China has integrated economically with a series of other capitalist economies. It has bought the rights of Greek ports, Irish debt, German technology, and is the EU’s largest supplier of a series of commercial goods. China’s experts now increasingly man top offices in the IMF and the World Bank. Added to this, China’s commitment to economic cooperation was exemplified in joining the WTO (Kynge, 2006:226-227). Indeed with opt-outs –not very different ones though than many Western WTO signatories including America. China’s WTO accession exemplifies Beijing’s determination to be a reliable centre of economic power, abiding by the accepted norms and regulations of international trade (Lardy, 2002:21). Put simply, engagement, or better, enmeshment works (Roy, 1996:766). Kynge (2006:227) summarizes well the above-developed argument:

‘China is perhaps too much wedded to the world, too deeply insinuated into its organizations and treaties, and too dependent on others to bite the hands that feed it’.

China has also become a ‘key’ market for Japanese and Taiwanese goods. These trade ties, should come as a reassuring sign to ‘China Threat’ proponents like Kristof (1993:67-68) and Bernstein and Munro (1997:29-30) whose anxiety reverses around Taiwan and/or the Senkaku islands. One could argue that given the economic interests derived from the economic interaction of these three parties, chances of confrontation decline. Especially, given that China, who ‘China Threat’ proponents see as the most aggressive of these three actors, is the one who needs economic stability the most. The economic argument sheds light to why the diplomatic and economic cost of any serious tension over territorial disputes constitutes the latter very unlikely.

The Real Problem? – Chinese Currency Manipulation

Beijing has been systematically preventing the Chinese Remninbi (RMB) from appreciating (Morrison&Labonte, 2010)[6]. Hence, with the RMB undervalued, Chinese exports are rendered disproportionally competitive. This policy, not only boosts Chinese exports, but also facilitates attracting FDI. As certain American enterprises find it difficult to compete with the (‘artificially’) cheap Chinese exports, US Congress deems that China is effectively ‘exporting unemployment’ (Bergsten, 2010). Though figures are often exaggerated, this Chinese policy indeed harms certain American economic interests.

However, America and other parties affected, have apparatus in their toolbox to address this challenge. Obama employed the diplomatic tool, devoting the largest part of his bilateral with Jiabao in the White House on this issue. The US congress, took a harder line adopting certain protectionist counter-measures. To complicate the issue further, Morrison and Labonte’s (2010:27-28) Congress-summoned report concludes that ‘none of the solutions guarantee that the bilateral trade deficit will be eliminated’; and that if China can keep combining the advantages of ‘low-cost labor and rapid productivity gains’ Chinese exports to America will continue to grow ‘independent of the Exchange Rate regime’. The analysts continue explaining how a swift revaluation of the RMB could actually prove more destabilizing, with China having to massively sell its currency reserves to achieve this. This paper wants to highlight that China is still a developing country, that Beijing has allowed already RNB to appreciate, and that Washington’s efforts should concentrate on finding the most constructive policy-response to this sensitive issue for both China and America. This could be coupled with an emphasis on improving the competitiveness of American goods[7].

In sum, it seems that, overall, in the decisive sphere of economics, there seems that China and America have found great space for cooperation, trade, multilevel interaction, trust, and mutual profit and development. The magnitude and vitality of these ties suggest that there is very little space for economic warfare or other deliberate attempts to hinder each other’s economic prosperity.

The Military Challenge Posed by China: Real, Imagined or Reasonable?

China’s sustained economic growth has simultaneously enabled a modernization and empowerment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Chinese efforts mainly concentrate on developing PLA’s air-force, transforming China’s ‘White-Water’ Navy to ‘Blue-Water’ and maximizing the effectiveness in terms of utilization and training of the PLA standing army. One could add to these R&D in Space-Satellite Technology and Cyberwarfare capabilities.

Firstly, this paper does not hold that military force is, in itself, a bad thing. Instead, there are legitimate reasons why a vast country like China, with extensive borders to police and protect, in both land and sea, might require an effective and modernised military (Fravel, 2008). However, ‘China Threat’ theorists interpret China’s military ‘build-up’ as a creeping attempt for China to eventually attempt to re-integrate Taiwan by force (Kristof 1993:68) and press for the 200-miles claim linked with the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands (Segal, 1993). Both claims can be challenged.

As far as Taiwan is concerned, there seems that a considerable degree of diplomatic understanding has been achieved. US commitment to ‘One-China policy’ and the mutual recognition by China and Taiwan that cooperating is safer and more productive at this stage, render predictions of war rather baseless. Kagan (2008:34) sees this war as ‘eventually unavoidable’. The argument is that pro-independence forces will declare independence, enticing China to attack (Manhubani, 2005:54-56). This argument seems less valid if one examines the stance and the leverage of America in this issue. So far, the US have managed to advise and on occasions restrain Taiwan’s leaders from any overt and potentially aggravating attempt to alter the status quo[8]. Deterrence theory best explains why this is -and is likely to remain, the case (Ross, 2002). The US, with its overwhelming military capacity can guarantee Taiwanese security if China, mobilizes against it unprovoked. Reversely, China would be very sceptical before confronting the US militarily for time to come. Furthermore, the US can explain to the Taiwanese, that if they violate or attempt to violate any of the existing agreements, it will be difficult for America to come to Taiwan’s aid (Ross, 1997; Ross, 2002:80-83).

Respectively, China’s 200-mile policy has proven largely a rhetorical exercise. The very time this essay is written, America is having a joint exercise with South Korea within the 200 miles zone. Apart from Chinese flexibility, one must not neglect the comparative naval military capabilities of China and America. Even if China attempted to block the Malacca Straights (scenario developed in Halper, 2010) in 2015 or 2020 using a handful of Aircraft Carriers (that it may have acquired by then), America, potentially joined by France and Britain and other allies who would not accept to see this crucial sea lane closed, could respond with despatching more than a dozen aircraft carriers. Therefore, the author of this paper thus finds speculation on the impact of Chinese aircraft carriers -at this stage when both Congress reports cannot specify when and if these will appear[9]– at least unconstructive (Annual Reports to Congress 2009:53, 2010:57).

Another point we need address is the suggestion that China is developing the sort of capabilities necessary to tackle American military advantages (Halper, 2010:15). This view suggests that China is strategically ‘leapfrogging’ certain key aspects of America’s military capacity. These include underwater submarine platforms in the proximate underwater milieu of China, and anti-aircraft-carrier short distance, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles (Wortzel 1994:165-166). Though this paper understands the above-mentioned argument, it still believes that this suggests no threat per se. It is still required for the US to send its aircraft carriers in China’s immediate milieu for them to be threatened by these Chinese capabilities. Hence, one could argue that the defensive dimension of the Chinese rationale here is stronger.

The Numbers Game

‘China Treat’ theory suggests that China threatens its milieu and America by systematically lying about its military expenditure (e.g. Carpenter, 2007). The argument goes that China’s leaders, malicious and cunning, are undertaking an ambitious military project to reach military superpower status (Tkacik, 2007:1). To achieve this aim without raising alertness, they methodically understate their defence spending. For example, Bernstein and Munro suggest that while the Chinese claimed to have spent $8.7 billion in 1997, in fact, the actual figure (taking also into account PPP) was ‘a minimum of $87 billion’. Similarly, Halper (2010:12) suggests, that in 2008 the Chinese claimed a military budget of roughly $30 billion, when, in fact, they were spending between $105 and $150 million. The Chinese indeed are not very transparent with their defence budget (Roy, 1996:759), not including R&D expenses, arm sales income, and does not take PPP into account. Indeed, critics have a point here; China does spend more on defence than it tells us, or seems at first sight.  However, this does not explain why China poses a threat. Even when factoring PPP on the highest US estimates of Beijing’s real military budget, the latter remains a fraction of America’s. Added to this, the world’s sole superpower has been for six decades the epicentre for research on military technology. Worries of China catching up, at this stage, might be slightly premature.


‘China’s hard-eyed communist rulers…put at risk the very national existence of the US’-(Gertz 2002:199).

Let us assume that indeed China is developing a formidable army, and that it will achieve this soon. This still does not reveal much about CCP’s intentions. Intentions (and interests) should be the epicentre of the debate (Roy 1996:765). ‘China Threat’ champions Bernstein and Munro (1997:24) suggest that the People’s Armed Police, over-manned and stormed with ex-soldiers, serves as ‘a reserve for…international conflict’. This suggestion can be challenged on multiple grounds. Primarily, one must not neglect that the world’s most populated nation -even if it was a western liberal democracy, would still require a respectively large police force. Additionally, a country as vast as China, both in terms of borders and population has both the need and the capability to generate a large army. Overall, the fact that China seeks a large army is not bad or irrational or threatening in-itself. The US maintains and spends in military more than the next seven states combined (5 of which are staunch US allies).

Thus the question persists: why is Chinese military power perceived as threatening when American is not. Many China Threat theorists suggest that there are historical factors, issues associated with the illiberal nature of the CCP, the hawkish nature of the PLA’s chiefs and other arguments along these lines. The problem with these suggestions is that CCP and PLA leaders, apart from some absolute red lines (e.g.-Taiwan) and some more flexible ones (200-mile-policy), especially since 2003, emphasize their efforts to ensure a ‘prosperous’ and ‘peaceful rise’ for China (Suettinger, 2004). This has been reflected in the speeches of China’s leaders and Jiabao’s in particular, where he often identifies the parameters and stresses the fundamental significance of China’s ‘heping juegi’. Fravel (2008:312-313), further underlines that China prefers and seeks to settle border disputes diplomatically. China, historically, used forced surgically, with limited aims, non-pursuing territorial expansion, as much ensuring recognition and respect of its sovereign borders.

China’s Real Military Threat(s)?

‘Cyber-warfare will provide China with an asymmetric advantage to deter stronger military powers’-(Fritz, 2008:28)

Present-day ‘China Threat’ proponents as Halper (2010), stress that there are three areas today where China challenges directly the US: Cyberwarfare, Surveillance (satellite and conventional) (Myers, 2010) and Space technology/capabilities (WSICP, 2006). Space is an area where in the absence of cooperation there can be no real benefits for the actors involved. In fact, roguish and hawkish actions by any actor can be deterred or retaliated in kind by almost any other satellite-holder. Thus, Space technology mostly maximizes the effectiveness of Chinese surveillance (Myers, 2010). Surveillance, though key for information gathering, is not threatening in itself. Therefore, Cyber-war capabilities are the major source for concern. The effectiveness and extensive record of Chinese cyber-attacks suggest China has taken a leading (and arguably aggressive) role in this crucial sphere. China has proven to command substantial technological know-how and impressive execution skills. In the last decade, Chinese cyber-militia have managed to penetrate key US institutions including the Pentagon, IOs as the WTO (Harris, 2008; Fritz, 2008), as well as corporations as Google who were defeated-out of China’s cyberspace (BBC, 2010). This paper holds that perhaps the major ‘military’ challenge posed by China is in the cyberspace. The threat here is genuine and tangible, but addressable.


Chinese power is rising fast. The ‘faces of Chinese power’ are also increasing (Lampton, 2007:115). Nevertheless, the enmeshment of China in the global economy, the structures of global economic governance and regional economic integration increasingly account for China’s economic prosperity, the nation’s priority. Economic interdependence and the necessity of economic stability and progress in China encourage stability in China’s foreign relations and advance the peaceful settlement of conflicts and disputes. Codependance between China and America, though with challenging facets, remains principally a mutually beneficial relationship, likely to continue. In the economic sphere, there is more room for appropriating opportunities and intensifying cooperation than there is for conflict and completion.

In the military sphere, the challenges linked to China’s military development have been and can continue to be addressed with effective combination of multilevel and on-all-sides diplomacy with deterrence. Such an approach has proved and can continue to be effective on sensitive issues as Taiwan and the Senkaku, and serve as a tested basis for Washington’s policy. The ‘peaceful rise’ goal, is inextricably linked with the goal of rapid and sustainable economic development, and defines the context in which the PLA can operate. Perhaps the major military challenge posed by China is in the field of Cyberwarfare, and Washington has to do more in this sphere if it wants to be guarded against this threat.

This essay has shown that China’s economic and military development do not endanger America either genuinely or directly at this stage. Cooperation and opportunity are the defining features of Sino-American economic relations, whereas accommodation and understanding the military. As a final note, the author of this paper would like to recognise that due to the constraining word limit, he opted not to link China’s economic success with Beijing’s growing soft-power. It would be useful perhaps to delve-deeper into this new debate, initiated by Ramo (2004) and picked-up by Halper (2010), to assess the impact of this facet of China’s power on the US.

*Information cut-off point: December, 2010

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]


[1] Some analysts stress that it should be thought as third, after the EU (Bergsten, 2008)

[2] China is now predicted by some analysts to surpass the US by 2030 (Barboza, 2010)

[3] US’s 20% compared to China’s 4% (CIA’s World Factbook, 2010; Bijian, 2005:18)

[4] China depends 40% on exports, twice the extent other great economies do (Waldron 2005:719).

[5] Heping Juegi is the ‘idea of China’s “peaceful rise” to international prominence, as a responsible, threatening and nonthreatening global power’ put forth first by Bijian in 2003 (Suettinger 2004:1).

[6] This is linked to the purchase of foreign currencies. Bergsten (2010) explains that to keep the RMB undervalued, China purchases over a billion US dollars worth of currency reserves.

[7] (e.g. through R&D where America still holds a decisive lead, instead of focusing on how to reduce the competitiveness of Chinese products)

[8] (e.g. Sui-bian’s 2003 proposal for a referendum on pro-independence sentiment)

[9] Storey and Ji conducted a study into Chinese aircraft carriers in 2004, to find that the two of the three aircraft carriers that had passed from China had developed into museums and amusement parks.


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Photo Credit: Kathy_Zhuang

Threats To Stability As Myanmar Awakens

The recent economic opening of Myanmar is a huge chance for the country. However it has also given rise to threats to its stability, and especially to populations in areas affected by ethnic conflict. International actors will need to be careful not to exacerbate the situation further.


A Karen Family Flees from Their Village in Northern Karen State


Sitting at the crossroads of India, China and South East Asia, military-dominated Myanmar (known by many in the West as Burma) is under transformation. March this year marked two major milestones: 50 years since the military first seized power, and 12 months since the incumbent quasi-civilian government was inaugurated. The months following have seen the country all but shed its burdensome pariah status, with high-level diplomatic dialogues becoming an almost weekly occurrence, and most Western sanctions being lifted or indefinitely suspended.

While Myanmar remains a deeply fractured state along geographical and ethnic lines, the country appears to be rapidly entering a new era, one that will be defined primarily by a military-heavy centralised elite, aiming to play off Western and Asian interests in pursuance of economic growth. While many benefits will be felt throughout society and further transformation should certainly be encouraged, a new set of security risks are emerging, most acutely for populations in areas affected by ethnic conflict.

Economic and Strategic Imperatives

In the public sphere, the West’s shift in approach has largely been attributed to the allowance of the country’s most popular leader Aung San Suu Kyi into the parliament, alongside half-baked efforts to implement less draconian policies on matters such as freedom of speech, expression and association. The government has also been praised for the signing of preliminary ceasefires with many of the country’s pro-democracy armed opposition groups and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.  Perhaps most encouraging has been the 180 degree shift in leaders’ rhetoric on such issues, with former generals not only admitting the downfalls of their autocratic approach to governance but stating commitment to genuine reform.

Such ameliorations have been crucial to fostering greater engagement and should not be overlooked. However, the causes are rooted in the convergence of Western and Myanmar economic and strategic imperatives, most significantly those relating to China.

Pushing primarily to meet its vast energy needs, China has become a dominant force in shaping the economies of developing countries across the world. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in neighbouring Myanmar, which holds a wealth of natural resources and a key corridor connecting China’s landlocked south western provinces to the Indian Ocean. Somewhat aggressively permeating much of the country’s decrepit economy, China has attracted vicious opposition among much of Myanmar’s population as well as many of its military leaders. As a result, following the former dictator’s recession from power, progressive elements of the former junta led by President Thein Sein have come to the fore and are prioritising the reparation of relations with the international community in order to diversify their trade partners and political connections.

Concomitantly, the allure of the region’s burgeoning markets has gained the focus not just of multinational corporations, but of governments from across the globe, facilitating a new epoch of Western-Myanmar relations.

Free trade agreements in the region have formed an integrated economy more populous than NAFTA and the EU combined. 2015 will see the formation of the ASEAN economic community, allowing free-flow of goods, capital, services and labour across all ASEAN member states. Integral to these plans is Myanmar, as the region’s only link to the Bay of Bengal – key for seaborne trade with Africa, the Middle East and Europe – and across land to India and beyond. This geostrategic reality has not only made engagement with Myanmar crucial to Western states and their allies, it has also provided incentive for Myanmar’s military elite to come out of isolation and enlist the support of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the Asia Development Bank and the World Bank.

Shaping Reforms

So where does this leave the people of Myanmar, a devastatingly oppressed and poverty-stricken population, most of which have no regular access to electricity or clean running water and have experienced decades of persistent human rights abuse and conflict?

In many ways, Myanmar’s citizenry is already benefiting significantly from the transition underway, and that looks likely to continue. While for the most part, the country’s awakening has been orchestrated to suit the needs of the former junta and associated elites, it has been influenced unprecedentedly by a somewhat embryonic civil society movement, that has been on the rise since 2008. A vast array of actors, some well-connected with the existing political and military frameworks, others more in touch with the country’s poorest communities, have been instrumental in shaping reforms. While the priorities of government and business elites often differ to those held by civil society organisations, many unexpected dialogues are taking place on issues ranging from land management to freedom of the media.

In urban areas particularly, development of infrastructure is underway and many in the educated classes are eagerly anticipating the arrival of Western companies in the services, manufacturing and tourism sectors. Compared with most of those from Asia, Western companies offer better pay, labour standards and opportunities for career development. New products too are already available, and after years of dumping from neighbouring states, economists in the country have long-argued this is a crucial step. Perhaps most significantly, citizens now have unrestricted access to the Internet, while newspapers and journals no longer have to go through the censorship board. Though further steps still need to be taken, this has given people an unprecedented level of access to information on the politics and socioeconomics of their country. This is crucial if the government is to live up to claims that 2015 general elections will be free and fair.

Building Tensions

In rural areas, however, the socioeconomic trajectory appears less clear, particularly in the country’s peripheral States, which are home to the majority of the non-Burman population and a lion’s share of the country’s natural resources. Aside from coastal areas in the west, these areas are characterised by densely forested mountain ranges and remain home to a myriad of armed actors of diverse ethnic groups. The largest have been active in some form or other since the country’s independence, retaining arms in order to secure greater autonomy from the government. While some are driven by a political reform agenda, ultimately seeking the formation of a federal union, others are primarily concerned with holding territory in order to profit from local resources and govern people of their ethnic group without interference. To complicate the landscape further are an unknown quantity of small militia, some aligned with state, others remaining hostile, which typically man checkpoints or provide security for bribes from traders and construction companies. As the West ramps up support for the government, and substantive military cooperation becomes a realistic possibility, its overall impact on such an environment must be carefully managed.

Mapping out the actual political dynamics of many of these regions is an impossible task, not just for foreign developmental partners, but even for the government itself. Worryingly, supremacist ideologies that defined the doctrines of former regimes’ form a basis for much of the new constitution, which provides next to no local autonomy to administrative states and regions, particularly on matters pertaining to development and security. Nevertheless, concerted efforts are being made by the President to reach out to the most established groups and a noted change in tone when compared with former regimes has been rewarded with a series of unprecedented ceasefires.

On the ground though, these agreements remain fragile, with opposition groups and the government seemingly at odds with where to go next in order to reach a lasting settlement. The government’s strategy is reminiscent of those it used in the 1990s to buy groups out by allowing economic concessions and developing business partnerships. In theory, such an approach to counter-insurgency doesn’t only appease armed actors themselves – or at least large portions of them, encouraging divides to form – it also opens space for business to grow, benefiting local livelihoods and curbing their enthusiasm for supporting insurgents.  However, following decades of the Myanmar state forces targeting entire populations with brutal violence and devastation of livelihoods to achieve such ends, opposition groups’ political aims have gained widespread popular support and mistrust of the government is rife.

The majority of armed groups themselves have persistently called for comprehensive political dialogue to precede any major development programmes. This demand has been accepted in principle at the negotiation table by government delegates, but has not been referred to officially. Sources close to the delegation have confirmed that its primary aim is to get signatures on paper, with the hope that rebel groups will dissipate over time as the socioeconomic environment improves. Such an approach has left relations on a knife-edge, provoking diverse responses from different groups.

Most opposed to Government peace plans is Myanmar’s second largest non-state armed group, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which had held a ceasefire based on similar principles between 1994 and 2011. Along with a myriad of ethnic armed forces in the late 80s and early 90s, the KIO signed an agreement which gave them patches of territory in areas populated mostly by Kachin ethnics, and began cooperating on development programmes with the promise that political dialogue would follow. In reality, dialogue never materialised, and tensions came to a head in June 2011 when government forces infiltrated KIO territory to secure a dam construction site they felt was under threat. Ensuing events set in motion conflict that continues to this day, having displaced around 75,000 civilians and set the stage for horrific abuses to be committed by the state on locals, including an alarming number of women and children.

The government has extended an olive branch to the KIO numerous times, most recently in October 2012, when the delegation promised the group political dialogue and agreed to hold negotiations for the first time with a mil-pol alliance spearheaded by the group including all of the country’s pro-federal ethnic armed groups. However, while brutal attacks on rebel fighters and civilians alike continue in KIO territory and that of their allies that have signed ceasefires, confidence appears very low among KIO leaders. This was clearly indicated recently when low-ranking officials were sent by the group to negotiations.

International Intervention

With Western sanctions lifted, the floodgates are open for developmental assistance to the Myanmar government and the arrival of multi-national corporations. As a result, the country looks set to experience rapid economic growth, with the centralised quasi-civilian administration and its corporate associates at the helm. With military cooperation on the horizon too, international actors will need to be careful not to exacerbate fragilities further. As learned in Afghanistan, propping up a centralised regime is rarely conducive to lasting stability and can damage the reputation of Western powers among locals significantly.  A security framework capable of managing Myanmar’s complex geopolitical structure, and its abundance of point-source resources, must incorporate ethnic armed actors that are trusted and supported by the people, or it is doomed to perpetuate further conflict and instability.


Photo Credit: Worldwide Impact Now (used with permission)

East Asian Sea: China, Japan & The Diaoyu Islands (Part Two)

With the dispute between China and Japan over the East China Sea seemingly never ending, we asked Hsin-Yi Lo to provide an introduction to the history of the background of the dispute (covered here), as well as a more detailed look at the Diaoyu Islands themselves (in this part).



Part 1 discussed how historical relations between China and Japan have affected current diplomatic relations and public sentiments. In July 2012, Japan announced it was considering of purchasing the Diaoyu islands. China responded with sending patrol ships to the area, refuting the announcement and stated Japan’s decision as invalid. Two months later, Japan formally declared to buy the Diaoyu islands. Widespread protests occurred in China, showing very strong anti-Japanese sentiments and both sides remain unyielding in their claims and some feared tensions may intensify.

Background Information

Diaoyu Islands is located in the East China Sea; they are a group of uninhabited islands (five small islands) with 70 other affiliated islets.  They are surrounded by China, Taiwan and Okinawa islands and it is believed they sit on top of rich oil and gas reserves. Although Diaoyu islands are small, they have repeatedly caused diplomatic tensions between China and Japan, and even activists from Hong Kong have protested against Japanese claims in the past and present. In addition, Taiwan is also a claimant for the Diaoyu islands.

History of Diaoyu islands

China contests it has ownership of the Diaoyu islands since the 15th century, which was during China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). China has an early record , a book titled “Voyage with a Tail Wind” mentioned that Hu Zongxian, who was the “Supreme Commander of the Jiangsu-Zhejiang-Fujian coastal defense against Japanese pirates”, placed the “Diaoyu islet” and “Chiwei islet” (one of the affiliated islands of Diaoyu islands) as part of China’s naval defense territory.

Furthermore, China recently uncovered a document titled “Memorial Pearl”, written in 1808 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) under Emperor Jiaqing, listed Diaoyu islands were part of Chinese territory.

When China was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), China was forced to sign the Shimonoseki Treaty to relinquish some of its territories to Japan (for more information on this please view the above link). One of the demands was for China to surrender the Island of Formosa (now known as Taiwan) and “together with all islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa”  over to Japanese ownership. According to China, Diaoyu islands were ruled as a part of Taiwan thus it also meant that Diaoyu islands were renounced. However, Japan argues that China did not specify Diaoyu islands as part of Chinese jurisdiction and also contested that China did not clearly state its ownership in the Shimonoseki Treaty. Japan claimed it had explored the islands in 1884 and declared them as terra nullius. On 14 January 1895, Japan officially established the islands as part of its territories and ruled it as part of the Ryukyu islands (known in Japan as the Okinawa Prefecture).

After the Second World War, based on the agreements and discussions at the Cairo Declaration (27 November 1943) and Potsdam Proclamation (26 July 1945), the Allied Forces agreed Japan was to return all territories to China (including Taiwan) after its surrender.

However, given that it was the Cold War period, the United States was determined to contain communist influence in Asia and it needed an ally. Thus the US formed bilateral relations with Japan. On 8 September 1951, Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru signed the Treaty of Peace with Japan at the San Francisco Peace Conference to forge diplomatic relations with the US and allowed US military presence in Japanese territories. Article 3 of the Treaty stated:

Japan will concur in any proposal of the United States to the United Nations to place under its trusteeship system, with the United States as the sole administering authority, Nansei Shoto south of 29 deg. north latitude (including the Ryukyu Islands and the Daito Islands), Nanpo Shoto south of Sofu Gan (including the Bonin Islands, Rosario Island and the Volcano Islands) and Parece Vela and Marcus Island. Pending the making of such a proposal and affirmative action thereon, the United States will have the right to exercise all and any powers of administration, legislation and jurisdiction over the territory and inhabitants of these islands, including their territorial waters.

As stated in Article 3, Japan agreed Ryukyu Islands were to be administered under US trusteeship, which also meant that Diaoyu islands were included in the deal. In 1972, the US and Japan met and signed the Okinawa Reversion Treaty whereby Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) were returned to Japanese jurisdiction. Thousands of Chinese protested angrily over the transfer of the Diaoyu islands to Japanese control.

At the same time, China-Japan relations improved in the late 1970s. The former Premier of China Zhou Enlai visited Japan to strengthen bilateral ties and the Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in Beijing on 12 August 1978.

Despite the Peace Treaty, Diaoyu islands remain a contentious issue and the following are some examples of both sides trying to exercise their claims. On 14 July 1996, Japanese Right Winged Youth Group landed on the island and commenced constructing a lighthouse and China, Hong Kong and Taiwan reacted angrily to this. In 2003, protestors from China and Taiwan sailed on a vessel towards Diaoyu islands but did not successfully land. Japanese authorities took action and sent them back out of the zone.  In the same year, a member from a Japanese right wing group crashed a bus into the Chinese consulate in Okinawa to protest Chinese claims.

On January 2004, two Japanese patrol ships allegedly attacked two Chinese fishing ships who were near the disputed area. Later on in the year, Japan conducted research explorations for natural gas in the area where they believed to be their “exclusive zone”. Japan’s exploration was in response to China building a natural gas complex in the disputed zone. Chinese citizens held a rally outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing, refuting Japan’s activities. On 10 November 2004, a Chinese submarine was discovered in Japanese waters. Japan responded by sending its navy forces to chase it away. Japan reported that China informed them that the submarine was in Japanese waters for “technical reasons”.

Japan Purchasing Diaoyu islands

In July 2012, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Japan was considering purchasing the Diaoyu islands and China responded by sending patrol ships to the disputed zone. Two months later, the Japanese government officially declared to purchase the islands and to nationalise it. Japan argues that Diaoyu islands has always been a part of their territories and often referenced the Okinawa Reversion Treaty. The government paid 2.05 billion yen ($US26 million) to the Kunihara family who owns three out of the five islands.

China reacted very pungently, China contested that Japan’s move was “illegal and invalid” because Diaoyu islands have always been a part of Chinese sovereignty according to historical records. Furthermore, Japan surrendered unconditionally after the Second World War and agreed to return all territories taken from China in the Shimonoseki Treaty. The spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hong Lei, commented “regardless of repeated representations and opposition by the Chinese side, the Japanese side still pushes forward the so-called state-owning process of Diaoyu island, which severely damaged China’s territory sovereignty and hurts the Chinese people’s sentiment”.

Reaction also came from Hong Kong. In August, activists sailed on the Kai Fung No. 2 vessel to Diaoyu islands to assert Chinese sovereignty by raising a Chinese flag on one of the islands. South China Morning Post reported that Kai Fung No.2 was deterred from landing on the islands, it reported that “in the last 16 kilometres, the fishing boat was hit by at least one Japanese vessel, disrupting its steering. A Japanese ship also fired a water cannon at the boat, hampering the crew’s visibility”. Subsequently, they were arrested by Japanese authorities and then released.

Widespread protests happened in China and attracted international headlines and criticisms. Thousands of demonstrators surrounded the Japanese embassy in China and some hurled beer bottles and eggs. Protestors shouted anti-Japanese chants and slogans and some Japanese businesses were compelled to close due to the intensity of the protests. Some demonstrators destroyed Japanese made cars and it was reported that protestors in Qingdao (Eastern China) attacked a Japanese department store.  China also cancelled attending the 2012 Japan International Travel Fair and Chinese holiday-goers cancelled their trips to Japan thus airlines such as Spring Airlines and China Southern Airlines had to withdraw flights to Japan.

In early October, Japan acknowledged China’s claims to settle tensions but China refuted. At the United Nations General Assembly, Noda said that China’s use of force to claim the islands are not acceptable. Noda said “any attempt to realize a country’s ideology or claim by unilateral use of force or threat is inconsistent with the fundamental spirit of the U.N. Charter and is against the wisdom of human beings, thus absolutely unacceptable”.  Further, Noda stated that Diaoyu Islands is “an integral part” of Japan.

In early November, China sent four patrol ships to near the disputed waters. Japan too, haa been sending patrol ships to the area. Moreover, Japan and US will hold a joint military drill. Joint military drills have taken place before, but this time Japan is keen to send a message to China not to start any naval offences with them and to discourage China from continuing to claim the islands.

China insisted that Japan’s belief in their ownership of the islands is “self-deception” and an attempt to sway the international community. Lu Yaodong who is the director of the Japanese diplomacy teaching and research department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences commented “Tokyo’s stance is not as soft as it seems, as hard-line action has been taken to escalate the territorial fray, including it hiking its budget to boost its regional maritime presence”.

Some have criticised Japan for deliberately escalating tensions. Honorary professor at the University of Tokyo, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, commented “practically speaking there won’t be any change in sovereignty if the islands are owned by private individuals, Tokyo or the government” and added “But I don’t think it’s a wise decision. It’s as if Japan is picking a fight”.

Some may view China is overreacting and too engrossed in this dispute at the expense of bilateral relations and regional stability. This article is not justifying the violence that happened during the demonstrations but the intensity of the protests reminds us that the old wounds from past Japanese military aggression against China are still there. The Diaoyu islands dispute brings back memories of China’s humiliating defeat in the First Sino-Japanese war and the disgrace in relinquishing territories (please view part 1 of this article about Japanese military aggression against China). To the Chinese, defending one’s territory is important because lands are passed down to descendants by their ancestors. They honour the responsibility of protecting them in honour of their ancestors’ struggles and toils in defending the territories. And Diaoyu islands are no exception.

Sovereign rights over the Diaoyu islands will remain a diplomatic obstacle between China and Japan. And it seems historical conflicts and memories are also tangled into the current dispute. Regional stability hangs in a delicate balance. The Diaoyu islands issue is difficult to resolve, there is no immediate solution and the past China had endured is also difficult to forget and heal. However, given the current economic situation in Japan, perhaps it is not wise to stir tensions with its biggest trading partner and the growing power of Asia.


Photo Credit: Frontierofficial

The 18th Chinese National Party Congress: Is Reform On The Cards?

The forthcoming 18th Chinese National Party Congress should not be  interpreted as the transition of leaders: it reflects the determination of a new generation of leaders to improve governance under the Chinese Communist Party.



Post American election frenzy sees the China quietly transitioning its leadership. At this point, there is almost no doubt that Xi Jinping will become the next President of China, and Li Keqiang as the next Premier during the 18th Chinese National Party Congress. The two leaders will form the core of China’s sixth generation of leaders. But the coming 18th National Party Congress in China should not be merely interpreted as the transition of leaders. In fact, it reflects the determination of a new generation of leaders to improve governance under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The elections are staggered. Party members elect 2270 delegates from a number of constituencies, who in turn elect around 200 Central Committee members. The duty of these 200 members is to pick 25 Politburo members, nine of which will then be elected as members of the Politburo Standing Committee. To make it into the Standing Committee, one must be elected at each level of elections; even if one is nominated at a higher level election, without winning the ones at lower level all is in vain.

This entire process is the so-called intra-party democracy and has zero transparency for an outsider. Yet small changes are in play; delegate selection this year is promoted as being more representative of different classes and backgrounds and more democratic, shown by increasing numbers of young delegates and working class delegates. A particular breakthrough in this Party Congress is that competitive elections have been introduced even at the highest level Standing Committee elections, as opposed to single-candidate elections in previous congresses. Although baby steps, this shows the will to bring in more competition during the leadership selection process, though actual vote counts collected will be kept secret to display party unity.

Another point of focus is the size of Standing Committee, the crux of power of Chinese communist politics. There is no official regulation regarding the number of members in the Standing Committee, hence it has fluctuated over history, according to different historical contexts and needs. From 16th National Party Congress onward, there have been nine members, each with separate responsibilities. For the coming Congress it has been suggested that the size of Standing Committee be reduced to seven members, ridding posts in charge of the Central Politics and Law Commission and the Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilization, top-level party organs responsible for legal affairs and propaganda respectively.

Nothing is finalized yet, but if this suggested reform goes through, it represents a possible commitment to reform the political system to improve governance effectiveness. Communist China has long had a parallel existence of government and party structures, where the duties of each structure are often not clearly separated. Take the aforementioned Law Commission as an example; it is a party organ that has exerted varying degrees of influence over the Chinese judiciary system, depending on the current leadership style. During Mao’s era it had equal level of investigative powers as judiciary institutions, but by Zhao Ziyang’s (reform-minded Premier ousted after Tiananmen Massacre) time party had relatively less influence over judiciary system. Over the past ten years it has risen in importance probably due to the increasing need to maintain stability within the society given increasing levels of social unrest and official corruption. But placing judiciary system under top-level party leadership has not achieved the effectiveness expected, as reflected by the previously undiscovered crimes of Bo Xilai.

Removal of the propaganda and judicial positions from the Standing Committee demonstrates a will to reduce top-level party control over civil liberties, and increasing independence of judiciary system. This is not done at random, and is a matter of party survival. The two weiweiquan (social movement for defending civil rights) and weiwen (government efforts to keep stability) – are the hottest issues today in China’s rising civil society. As the public is increasingly aware of the need to defend civil liberties, it is also increasingly wary of government controls, often turning it into a subject of coded political mockery. Management of such sentiments is hence a top priority, as consequences could be dire for maintaining party dominance.

Standing Committee reforms are not unitary. On October 9th, just one month before the actual Party Congress, the Chinese government released its first ever white paper on judicial reform. One third of the paper was dedicated to discussing issues regarding improvement of human rights protection, especially measures to ensure that arrested persons receive fair trial and are subject to humane treatments during police investigation processes. Building on this the paper further discussed ways to strengthen judicial organs’ capability to maintaining social justice.

These developments are also consistent with Hu Jintao’s speech to provincial leaders and cadres on July 23, widely regarded as setting the tone for 18th Congress. China’s development is placed at “an important period of strategic opportunities,” but also faced with challenges. Domestically economic development has reached a transition point, plagued with high levels of corruption and social contradictions. Hence political reform must continue in a “never rigid, never stagnant” manner, and officials must focus on people’s livelihood, increasing overall public wealth and social problems. Behind this communist-coded language are worries of party’s grip of power over increasing social grievances.

Beyond the choice of personnel in the coming Standing Committee, the 18th National Party Congress signifies efforts of the CCP to self-evolve in order to survive. Suggestions of political reforms are a good start, but much will depend on the coming leadership’s ability to implement practical and tangible changes. On this regard, there is much expectation on Xi and Li, who are the first Chinese leaders to have solid social science training, in contrast to engineering and science backgrounds of the previous leaderships.


Photo credit: Francisco Diez

Good Luck President Obama, You Need It!

Most of Obama’s policies are completely unchanged from those of his predecessor. The War on Terror continues, the drone program has expanded, relations with western Europe remain strong whilst those with Russia remain hostile. But what of the second term?


President Obama looking serious


“The best is still to come” was the soundbite which has resonated from Obama’s victory speech last night. Time will tell if this is the case, but the facts are that the US public has overwhelmingly supported the status quo in this time of economic trouble. The President remains in office, the Democrats keep the Senate and the  Republicans keep the House of Representatives. In that respect nothing has changed. But with no future election to worry about, will Obama’s foreign policy change from the Bush spillover which dominated his first term?

In 2001 George W. Bush faced one of the most dramatic changes in international affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Faced with two falling towers and thousands of dead Bush was faced by a US public desperate for answers, for justice and for vengeance. The result of this was the first term of the War on Terror, 2001 in Afghanistan, 2003 in Iraq. Wars that were supposed to be short interventions to create a change in the Middle East became festering pools of suffering for almost a decade. Tens of thousands died across the Middle East, and by his second term Bush was desperately trying to hold together a mission that was going from bad to worse.

Obama inherited that mission. Bush’s surge in Iraq had already stabilised the country ready for a withdrawal Obama only had to keep on target. However, the ongoing mission to attempt to stabilise the Middle East, destroy the leadership of Al-Qaeda and mend relations damaged by the 2003 invasion of Iraq remained the same.

What Obama faced in taking office was a battle between his lofty ideals and promises and reality. His compromise was pragmatic, driving towards aims slowly and cautiously and making no significant and unbalancing changes to the foreign affairs of the second term of Bush.

What did change was so gradual the world’s population at large barely noticed it. There was a shift from the Middle East to the Pacific with troop deployments in Australia and a new agreement with Japan over Guam and further military cooperation. Although this shift has been slowed by the Arab Spring and the continued fighting in Syria, it is symbolic enough to prompt China’s own challenges for the South and East China Sea. There were significant defense cuts which have placed an emphasis on less of everything, but a greater emphasis on technological and training superiority. Obama has orchestrated a gradual lean to a more impartial role in the Middle East than under Bush, one aided by his faux-pas with Nicholas Sarkozy and the intervention in Libya against a secular dictator on the side of Islamists as well as liberals. More generally there has been a shift away from democratic transition by pressure or force and towards a focus on stability. Transition is now pushed towards supporting stable governments and pushing them towards liberal reform. Again, the Arab Spring was an unexpected reversal of this trend. And, of course, Osama Bin laden is dead.

However, most of Obama’s policies are completely unchanged from those of his predecessor. The War on Terror continues, the drone program has expanded exponentially, relations with western Europe remain strong whilst those with Russia remain hostile. But what of the second term? What of 2012-2016?

Well the answer is: Probably much of the same, but don’t expect the US foreign policy world to look the same in 2016 to 2008. The track of Obama’s presidency has been a gently-gently turn from Bush’s policies to Obama’s, and the US should look very much like Obama’s legacy by the end of the next four years. A turn from the Middle East to East Asia, from military intervention to diplomatic and economic pressure, from antagonism of Muslim states to partnerships based on the national interest of influence.These policies have already proved fruitful and will continue to do so. Japanese support for military bases was prevented from collapse just long enough to actually step up cooperation important to limit China’s expanding Pacific potential. Sanctions in Iran have its economy on the verge of collapse and popular support of Ahmadinejad beginning to turn against him. The intervention in Libya and support for the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions has given Obama political capital there not seen for decades. Despite the Benghazi attacks popular support is actually for the US as militant groups were forced out of Eastern towns across the country by anti-extremist protesters.

That said, just like the Arab Spring revolutions, the 9/11 attacks and the fall of the Soviet Union, sudden and unexpected events can throw the best plans into disarray. How Obama deals with potentially disastrous events could change his foreign policy dramatically.

  • Afghanistan: Withdrawal in 2014, if too soon, could devastate the region and NATO’s influence.
  • Syria: The conflict must be restrained to the country to avoid regional collapse.
  • Iran: Although sanctions are working, should Iran turn to desperate measures or should Israel overplay its hand things could turn very dangerous.
  • Yemen: A potential second Afghanistan/Somalia. Though the risk is smaller should the state collapse, the threat of a new front could give extremists a valuable new refuge.
  • South/East China Seas: The competition between the South-Eastern/Eastern Asian powers over the seas is not a battle the US can involve itself in overtly or risk facing backlash. However it is one which needs to be carefully monitored and one where soft power could be at its most important.
  • West Africa: The continued rise of Bokko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) and other extremist Islamist groups in this region could be a new front in the most need for intervention but with the least popular support for it. So far the US has only been able to give token support for these states, but as things go from bad to worse in Mali this cannot be expected to be the end of the conflicts.

Congratulations Barack Obama, but I don’t envy you in the four years to come. You will face a hostile House of Representatives and a demanding public. You will face the challenge of keeping North Africa on your side and yet still combat Islamic extremism, of limiting China without antagonising it, of realising your potential without ceasing to be pragmatic. Good luck President Obama, you need it.


Photo Credit: US Army

Omnipotent US President?

Is the President of the United States of America as powerful a position as it is made out to be? Or is political control over Congress distinctly more desirable?



Thanks to Hollywood and “public relations” (the modern Western term for propaganda), it often seems God would have no America to bless if it weren’t for the President. When asked what role the United States played in the world at the final Presidential debate last week, Obama declared America to be ‘one indispensable nation’. Romney asserted that the US could only lead once its domestic policies were restored to good health.

The current President is axiomatically correct here, in the way that the United States, through ruthlessly efficient foreign policy and military supremacy, has been able to gain and maintain its superpower status. Foreign policy is indisputably America’s superlative strength, with no other nation yet to match it. In terms of issues close to home however, with high unemployment and an increasing deficit, military spending is generally not so relevant to the American people when they cast their vote.

The rise of social media in the twenty-first century inevitably led to a global revolution as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook became instruments that could tune and play public opinion. Four years ago, young people (and mainly Obama supporters) utilised social media to promote the potential candidates for the 2008 US Presidential election. The 2012 election has witnessed the online apparatus expand to older generations and the Republican’s – whose fan base is less young, are exploiting it just as much as Obama did in his successful 2008 campaign. So is it fair to suggest that the President of the United States is greatly limited by a “cyber-population”?

An increasingly common question is whether the Party or person who wins the election even matters; the chief limitation on the President which arguably subdues him to a mere puppet role is Congress. The past two years have consisted of petty partisan politics within government, as the Democrats and Republicans have failed to reach compromise on decisive issues such as the budget deficit. These unresolved disputes led to an automatic cut of $1.1 trillion from government spending. Ultimately how powerful can the role of the President be when he is effectively powerless in regards to domestic policy, since all decisions essentially lie in the hands of the House and Senate? More importantly, how much of a globally effective role can the US government play if it cannot even reach negotiations to resolve its own country’s issues?

China is foreseen to emerge as a highly competitive superpower in the upcoming years. Considering it isn’t a democracy, there is none of this Congressional crippling of power. Unlike the US, it doesn’t have what Romney says America does, which is ‘the responsibility and privilege to defend freedom and promote principles for world peace such as human rights’. When the Chinese government abuses human rights purely for economic growth, censorship bans the reporting of it. Without these constitutional restrictions therefore, there is a question of whether someone such as the Chinese President has more power to play with than the US President.

Overall, statistically the US government appears to be more powerful militarily and economically, but this is clearly subject to change. The question is not will, but can the winner of the 2012 US Presidential election play a role in affecting this change?


Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey

The East China Sea: China, Japan & The Diaoyu Islands (Part One)

With the dispute between China and Japan over the East China Sea seemingly never ending, we asked Hsin-Yi Lo to provide an introduction to the history of the background of the dispute (covered here in part one), as well as a more detailed look at the Diaoyu Islands themselves (in part two).



East Asian politics is dominated by the territorial row between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu Islands, also known as the Senkaku Islands. In September 2012, the Japanese government announced it would purchase the Islands. The Chinese government is vehemently opposed to the move – arguing the Islands have always belonged to China – while citizens made international headlines when they staged mass protests with strong anti-Japanese sentiments. Some have criticised the Chinese government and its citizens for overreacting, but perhaps it is something more than the Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands that has been challenged. This article hopes to show a perspective about how the complex historical relationship between China and Japan has affected current diplomatic relations.

Historical relations between China and Japan

Although separated by the East China Sea, Chinese influence on Japanese culture, language, religion, politics and even architecture is quite prominent. During the Tang Dynasty (618AD-907AD), which is considered as one of the golden eras of Chinese history, Japan sent many students to learn more about the Tang Dynasty’s feudal system and culture and they would report back what they had seen and learnt.

Japan, along with many other Asian states, was a tributary state to China but maritime conflict did occur between the two. The Sengoku Period of Japan (1467-1573) became the backdrop to the rise of Japanese pirates in the 1500s (during the Ming Dynasty in China). Japanese pirates, known as ‘Wokou’ to the Chinese (in Chinese characters: 倭寇: ‘Wo’ means ‘dwarf’ and ‘Kou’ means ‘brigand’) fought with the Chinese navy who attempted to protect coastal areas from being raided.

The influence of the Chinese feudal system came to an end when Western powers arrived to Japan. Matthew Perry, the United States Naval Commodore forced Japan to open its ports to Western trade. Japan saw how the Qing Government in China was overwhelmed by Western military force in the First Opium War (1839-1842) and did not want to bow down to Western pressure. Japan also saw how science and modernisation strengthened politics, military and economy in the West, thus prompted modernisation and the Meiji Restoration of 1868-1912 where Japan underwent a series of major reforms in its education, military, economic and political structure. Japan was determined to defend against Western colonisation, to be a strong power in Asia, and to have international recognition. Seeing China’s humiliating defeat by foreign powers in the Opium Wars (the second of which happened in 1856-1860), the Sino-French War of 1883-1885, and its being forced to submit to Western powers’ demands, Japan aggressively pursued its modernisation plan, fearful of suffering the same fate.

Another significant change that the Meiji Restoration brought was that it shifted the balance of power from China to Japan. Japan was no longer a tributary state to China, Japan no longer viewed China as its main influence, and it may have also have viewed the age-old feudal system employed by China to be the causative link between China’s vast social, political and economic problems and its inability to defend itself from the West.

Breaking off its tributary status with China gave Japan a new-found status in the region. With the rise of Japan, also came the rise of Japanese nationalism and imperialist ambitions to expand its influence. Japan saw itself as the next big player in Asia and to realise this goal, Japan had to topple the reigning dominant Asian power – China – and to dismember its influence in the region.

The first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) was a significant moment in Asian history and it redefined China-Japan relations. Defeating China gave an immense morale boost to Japanese confidence and demonstrating to the West that it was indeed the new-found power in Asia. China suffered a huge loss of confidence owing to the loss of prestige and, of course, the humiliation of being overpowered by a former tributary state. The Qing Government was forced to sign the Shimonoseki Treaty. The Treaty demanded China to recognise the autonomy of Korea (which had been China’s suzerain state) and relinquish its territories which included Taiwan (known as Formosa) “together with all the islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Taiwan” (further discussion about the dispute of Diaoyu Islands in the Treaty will be discussed in the next article), Pescadores Islands (known as Peng Hu Islands in Chinese) and Liaodong Peninsula (in Southern Manchuria) to Japan. Japan also demanded to have most favoured nation status. The Qing government was to agree to open the ports of Hangzhou, Suzhou, Chongqing and Shashi for Japanese trade. Furthermore, the Qing Government was to pay 200 million taels of silver for war indemnity.

In the First World War, Japan seized advantage of the situation to extend its power and control in China. Japan proposed to the United Kingdom that its participation in the war should be rewarded with German territories in China. After the war, Japan gained control over the areas of Shandong and Qingdao (Eastern China). The Chinese government and Chinese citizens could only suffer more humiliation and helplessness as Japan expanded its sphere of influence at the expense of China. And over the next two decades, Japan continued to take advantage of a disunited China to extend its influence. And in 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria.

On 7 July 1937, came the Lugouqiao Incident (Marco Polo Bridge Incident) which marked the Second Sino-Japanese War where Japan launched a full scale invasion of China. On that night, the Japanese army – who were positioned in Fengtai – held an army exercise without informing Chinese authorities. Gun shots startled the Chinese soldiers, one Japanese soldier went missing and the Japanese believed he was abducted. The Japanese commander demanded to search the nearby area but the Chinese commander objected. A gunshot was then fired; both sides accused each other firing the shot. Subsequently, the Battle of Lugou Bridge started, catalysing the Second Sino-Japanese war.

The Second Sino-Japanese war lasted for eight years, and within those eight years many Chinese civilians suffered the Japanese army’s aggression and brutality. Atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre – where approximately 300,000 people died and civilians were subjected to barbaric forms of murder, rape and torture – were commonplace. There were also killing competitions (the notorious 100 Man Killing Contest in Nanjing), killing games and the Unit 731 research where horrific biological experiments were carried out by Japanese doctors and scientists on Chinese captives.

From the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War to today, China-Japan relations have remained volatile. Economic trading started to become more prominent during the 1980s when China opened its market to the world and as of now, China is Japan’s largest trading partner. It may seem to us that the period where China suffered from Japanese military aggression is far away, but recent events suggest that old wounds are still hurting.

In the past, the Japanese government has denied the Nanjing Massacre claiming that the Chinese fabricated it. Furthermore, Japanese ministers and Prime Ministers have visited the Yasukuni Shrine where Japanese soldiers, high ranking military officials who committed war crimes, and Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo are buried. In 2006, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the shrine which sparked anger from Asian neighbours. This year, the Transport Minister Yuichiro Hata and Postal Reform Minister visited the shrine. The foreign ministry spokesperson of China, Hong Lei responded that “China’s position on this issue has been clear-cut and consistent: we urge the Japanese side to face squarely and reflect upon history and strictly abide by its solemn statements and pledges regarding historical issues, and face the international community in a responsible manner”.

From China’s perspective, Japan is unrepentant from its past military aggression and Japan has no sincere intentions to building positive diplomatic relations. Therefore, one can argue that Japan’s political decisions would be viewed as suspicious to China. With this history, China-Japan relations are still very contentious and sensitive issues would bring back old scars.

In the second part, the Diaoyu Island territory will be further discussed, why sovereignty rights are so important to China and how the past interplays with China’s response to Japan’s move to purchase the Islands.

Read the second part here.


Photo credit: Frontierofficial