Advantage China after Trump-Kim summit

For all the talk about China being insecure with regard to potential Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un bonhomie, Beijing is likely to be rather pleased with the events that transpired in Singapore today.

First, soon after the early reports of the agreement came from Singapore, China called for easing sanctions and “establishing a peace mechanism.” The US-DPRK statement also envisions something similar, i.e., the “building of a lasting and robust peace regime.”

Such a framework places Beijing directly at the negotiating table. Foreign Minister Wang Yi underscored this today, saying China had and continues to play a “unique and important role” in the Korean Peninsula issue. The fact that Kim flew on an Air China jet shows Beijing’s continuing influence over Pyongyang.

Second, the formulation of the DPRK committing to work towards complete denuclearisation, while Trump describes US-South Korea drills as “provocative” and talks about ending US force presence in South Korea also works for Beijing in more ways than one. This is essentially what Beijing had been seeking for months, via its double freeze proposal. Moreover, Trump’s characterisation of US force presence in the region isn’t likely to have gone unnoticed in other regional capitals.

For one, the South Korean administration appeared to have been caught off guard with Trump offering the drills as a bargaining chip. The presidency and military both issued statements saying that clarity was needed on “the meaning and intention” of Trump’s remarks.

But more broadly, if US-South Korea military ties and exercises are “provocative,” would Washington under Trump be a reliable partner for states involved in the South China Sea dispute or even Taiwan, irrespective of the Indo-Pacific strategy and Defence Secretary James Mattis’ tough words at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Also, Trump’s remarks about the cost of military exercises are very damaging. It’s one thing to want allies to carry their weight. But the repeated counting of costs is incredibly short-sighted and likely to raise questions about the costs that the US will be willing to incur to challenge an assertive China in the region.

After today, it appears that for all the rhetoric, Trump is uninterested in incurring those costs. Trump might have sought history in Singapore. But today’s developments mean it’s advantage Beijing.

What is China’s perspective on the rules-based order?

The concept of a rules-based order has become part of common diplomatic parlance of late. This framework roughly refers to a common set of rules or norms of engagement in the international arena that have been mutually agreed upon among states.

The recent debate around a rules-based order, in large part, is a product of changes taking place in the world order, owing to America’s relative decline and China’s rise. For instance, the idea of the importance of preserving the rules-based order is repeatedly invoked in connection with China’s island-building in the South China Sea and its rejection of the 2016 Hague tribunal’s verdict following a case by the Philippines. In this perspective, Beijing is seen as undermining the rules-based order.

At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi both referred to the importance of a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. A South China Morning Post round-up of the event quotes Yao Yunzhu, a retired PLA major general and a delegate at the SLD, as saying: “The US has created a grand narrative consisting of keywords including ‘rule-based order’, ‘freedom of navigation and overflight’, and ‘militarisation’ – once you hear these words, you know it’s a criticism targeting China.”

So what exactly is Beijing’s position on such a framework? Do Chinese policies disregard the rules of the road internationally or is there is a specific Chinese conceptualisation of a rules-based order?

The answer to these questions lies in the Chinese elite’s perception of their country’s international role based on an assessment of power. For instance, Xi Jinping’s articulation of “major power” or “big country” diplomacy implies that China does believe in different rules for different players. Intuitively, such a framework undermines the idea of a common framework for all states irrespective of size or power. It implies a difference in the rights and responsibilities of big and small countries.

That, nevertheless, does not imply an outright rejection of international institutions or norms. For instance, building a multilateral and multipolar world order remains a key Chinese objective. In such a framework, Beijing views institutions such as the UN and WTO as critical players. Its actions, for now, do not indicate a desire to upend the system. Rather, they reflect a wish to expand China’s authority within the system. Beijing, in fact, views the US, particularly under Donald Trump, as undermining this order with its America First policy.

Also, Chinese diplomacy has historically and ideologically been wedded to the primacy of the institution of sovereignty and thereby non-interference as the defining principle of the international order. Beijing’s repeated criticism of the West, particularly America, in terms of the doctrines of humanitarian intervention (Libya) and pre-emptive strike (Iraq) are rooted in this framework. This was also one of Beijing’s arguments against the Hague tribunal.

Sovereignty also forms the fundamental premise for Xi’s vision for building a community with shared future with mankind. For instance, on issues of economic development, human rights, political systems and so on, Beijing rejects the applicability of universal notions. Instead, it argues in favour of taking into consideration national conditions.

So, China is clearly articulating a vision for a rules-based order, albeit one premised on realpolitik and sovereignty.

How did China fare at the Shangri-La Dialogue?

In many ways, the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore over the weekend played pretty much as per the script. Going into the event, the Chinese side was acutely aware that it would come in for criticism, with US Defence Secretary James Mattis likely to lead the charge. Before arriving in Singapore, Mattis had already warned of increased US action in the South China Sea.

Beijing, therefore, sought to define the event an “academic exchange” as opposed to a policy-level dialogue. That didn’t, however, dampen the combative tone of the Chinese side. So while Mattis lashed out at Chinese “coercion” in the South China Sea, Lieutenant General He Lei, vice-president of the Academy of Military Science, charged the US with militarising the region, adding that stationing of Chinese soldiers and weaponry was a symbol of sovereignty.

The question that remains is whether the US is willing to do more that Freedom of Navigation operations to counter China’s growing power in the disputed waters? Perhaps sanctions against Chinese companies involved in island building or expanding military to military cooperation?

Despite that and much to Beijing’s chagrin, the Indo-Pacific narrative appears to be gathering steam. French Defence Minister Florence Parly has indicated that Paris and London will be coordinating their vision on Asian affairs, sailing together across “certain seas.” Japan, Australia and the US also reportedly agreed to work together to deal with any attempt to change the status quo in the South China Sea unilaterally.

Chinese state media, however, has churned out a rather glowing appraisal of the Chinese delegation’s efforts in Singapore, stating that “China has played a crucial role by upholding its concept of a comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security.” One of the highlights for state media was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments about the need for “strong and stable” Sino-India ties. Chinese analysts have also welcomed Modi’s remarks. Unsurprisingly, there has been no mention of Modi’s language on the Indo-Pacific, rules-based order and ties with the US.

The Xinhua report after SLD also lashed out at “participants from some Western countries” who “tried to create tensions in the South China Sea, issuing false statements.” That’s becoming a bit of a theme in state media. Take this Global Times piece, which essentially cautions India from falling into a competition trap defined by the West.

How effective is China’s media management abroad?

Over the past year, there has been increasing reportage on China’s efforts at influencing public discourse in other countries. The so-called sharp power debate has been most acute in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the US and parts of western Europe.

A key component of discourse management for Beijing is influencing media coverage in different countries in order to shape favourable attitudes towards China. Two recent reports offer fresh insight into this.

The first is a study led by the Prague-based Association for International Affairs, which outlines media coverage concerning China in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary from mid-2010 to 2017.

The study finds that the coverage in each country differs based on interests and domestic political and economic landscape. For instance, while media in the Czech Republic is “often openly critical” of China, this is not the case in Hungary and Slovakia.

Moreover, the sustainability of critical coverage is doubtful, given that cultivation of political elite, expanding economic linkages and Chinese investment in local media coincide with positive coverage. The study also finds that primarily it is economics that dominates the coverage of China, with issues of security, domestic politics in China, social issues and human rights taking a backseat.

Another interesting point to note is that generally the public in Hungary and Slovakia “is relegated to information mostly imported from foreign news agencies or English-speaking media sources.” This is deeply problematic in that it tends to lead to half-baked and potentially prejudiced coverage, which is unlikely to resonate with local concerns or facilitate informed debate.

The other study along similar lines assesses the media discourse around China in Canada over a 16-year period, starting from 2000. The authors find that over the years, print media coverage of China has turned slightly positive.

However, what’s fascinating about this paper is that it reveals the divergence between the Canadian public’s perception of China and media coverage. For instance, it cites polls, which indicate that the Canadian public remains deeply skeptical of the economic and political relationship with China.

Canadians apparently view the political rights situation in China as having deteriorated over the years and have grown more pessimistic about the benefits of deepening economic cooperation. And this, while the media coverage has focussed on economic relations with rights issues being marginalised.

Who’s More Powerful in Asia: US or China?

The Lowy Institute’s new Asia Power Index makes for intriguing reading. For starters, it offers a good definition of power.

“Power is defined as the capacity of a state or territory to direct or influence the behaviour of other states, non-state actors, and the course of international events. It is the capacity to impose costs and confer benefits that shape the choices of others.”

The authors then assess the overall power of 25 key Asian states based on their weighted average across eight specific measures of power. These are:

  • Economic resources
  • Military capability
  • Resilience
  • Future trends
  • Diplomatic influence
  • Economic relationships
  • Defence networks
  • Cultural influence

The findings offer much food for thought. For instance, while the US and China are neck-and-neck on the measure of economic resources, there is a serious gulf between them with regard to military capability. Add to that the fact that while the US tops the defence networks measure, China ranks a low eighth. This is indicative that despite China’s rapid military upgradation and attempts at projection of might, Beijing is a long way off from catching up with Washington.

The two surprising areas where China trumps (pun intended) the US, however, are diplomatic influence and economic relationships. While the latter in Asia is understandable, one wonders whether the former is merely about Donald Trump’s America First approach or is a systemic change underway.

China also does rather well on the measure of resilience, which includes threats to internal stability, scoring 85.9 to the US’s 91.4. In the short-term, I’d agree with the authors on that. But I’d contend that Xi Jinping’s personalised control over the Party-state structure poses a serious threat to long-term stability.

India, meanwhile, ranks 4th in the overall assessment, just a shade behind Japan. And there’s some very good advice being offered for New Delhi to rise up the table, i.e. focus on converting its sizeable resources base into strategic gains and improving defence networks.