China and Its Neighbors: A Delicate Balance

Opening ceremony of the Russia-China Naval Interaction 2014 joint exercises.

Understanding Chinese behavior from the Pacific to the Himalayas.

No one country in today’s world has as many neighbors as China does. China’s vast territory is bounded by fourteen overland countries and six maritime ones, rendering it extremely difficult to be a good neighbor to all. Already the world’s second-largest economy, behind only the United States, China feels more of an urge now to secure a favorable peripheral environment for its further rise and expansion, toward the ambitious goal of revitalizing its ancient civilization and realizing “the Chinese Dream.” Recent years have seen China implement one strategy after another, the best known being the “One Belt, One Road” strategy and the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), both aimed at tapping new markets for its growing economy and extending its influence wherever it can reach. China knows that its global ambitions have to begin with its neighbors, and that differentiated approaches to different neighbors make the most sense in creating an overall favorable neighborhood environment.

To the east, China overlooks North Korea, South Korea and Japan, each a hard nut to crack.

The DPRK, once China’s closest ally, is quickly becoming a “negative asset” for China, with bilateral relations dropping to a historic low, due largely to North Korea’s nuclear program. China seems to be at a loss in the face of the gambits of North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un, who ordered a series of nuclear tests in defiance of harsh international sanctions and China’s strong opposition. Domestically, Kim has cruelly purged several high-ranking pro-Chinese officials; new faces in the top brass are believed to be less China-friendly. To date, Chinese president Xi Jinping has not met with his North Korean counterpart. Therefore, it’s quite safe to say that as long as King Jong-un refuses to abandon his nuclear program and continues to diminish China’s role in the “Six-Party Talks,” China is not likely to rally North Korea to its side in joint defense against America and Japan on its eastern front.

For well over a century since the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895, China-Japan relations have seen structural contradictions. The second Sino-Japanese War, which broke out in 1937, was another attempt by Japan to dominate East Asia by means of force. While the first war taught China a lesson, the second ended in Japan’s defeat, leading to Japan’s dependence on the United States as a goalkeeper in the Asia-Pacific against China, Russia and North Korea. Later on, the handover of jurisdiction over the Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku) by America to Japan in 1972 exacerbated structural contradictions between the two neighbors, as showcased by the long-standing territorial disputes in the East China Sea. However, China chooses to refrain from escalating tensions, trying to minimize hostility to Japan at this crucial moment of its development.

In contrast to China’s relations with Japan and North Korea in Northeast Asia, China–South Korea relations have registered steady development, particularly in trade and economic terms. The exchange of visits by top leaders in recent years facilitated the signing of the China-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect on December 20, 2015, broadening and deepening the China-ROK Strategic Cooperative Partnership. However, the United States’ proposed deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea has cast considerable shadow over the bilateral relationship.

Taiwan is internationally recognized as part of China, but the United States’ continuous intervention in cross-Strait relations has made the Taiwan issue highly internationalized. During the eight years of the Nationalist Party’s rule (also known as the KMT), cross-Strait relations recorded substantial détente, reaching a zenith at the summit meeting between then ruling KMT chairman Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping in February 2016. As such, China quickened its pace toward peaceful reunification, but the trend was reversed by the election last May of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by Tsai Ing-wen, who is now Taiwan’s leader. With the ruling DPP moving faster toward de facto independence, China is now preparing for a final solution by non-peaceful means, which is the last resort China would prefer to turn to.

In a nutshell, China seems to be on the defensive against its eastern neighbors in its overall foreign-policy configuration.

To the north, China shares boundaries with two neighbors: giant Russia and neutral Mongolia. As early as in 1996, China and Russia signed a strategic partnership agreement, the first of its kind China ever struck with a foreign country after China’s own “glasnost” and “perestroika” in 1979.The strategic partnership served as a guide not only to trade, economic and military cooperation in their bilateral relationships, but also to their joint actions at the UN Security Council. Later on, in 2011, both countries decided to elevate the partnership, prefixing it with the word “comprehensive,” the highest-level partnership China could ever offer to a foreign government by then. Today, reinforced by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS, China and Russia, as two big world powers, would assist each other in world affairs against America and its Western allies.

Mongolia used to be part of China, and after it gained independence from China in 1947, it remained a long-time ally to the former Soviet Union. With the end of the Cold War, it normalized its relations with China and ever since then, it has managed to strike a balance in between China and Russia, seeking to be recognized as a permanently neutral state. Needless to say, a neutral Mongolia is in China’s best interest. Today, Mongolia is becoming more dependent on China for free riding on the fast track of China’s economic growth, and is embracing the proposed China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor.