DAVID WALTON. China finding its place in the world.

Dec 6, 2019

 China. Developing Its Border Relations

The twin concerns in Australia about the People’s Republic of China (PRC), relating to increased economic dependency and tensions over politico/security policy, are common throughout the Asia Pacific region.  

The fact that the PRC now rivals the United States as the leading power in the region raises two important questions: How does it conduct border relations with neighbouring countries in the Asia Pacific? What are the implications for Australia? If we examine the PRC approach to border relations with North Korea (DPRK), Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan and its policy in the Pacific, this will shed some light on these questions.

China’s relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is laced with historical, cultural and ideological issues and political pragmatism. The relationship goes back over a thousand years of cooperation, struggle and resistance to Chinese domination and the infusion and inculcation of Chinese culture and language. The modern relationship between the PRC and the DPRK, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last October, is based on shared ideology and cold war history that includes China propping up the North Korean economy. The DPRK has few allies and international friends and, due to a United Nations-led international trade blockade, is reliant on the PRC for aid, oil and food. A security agreement has been signed and the relationship has been described as “lips (DPRK) and teeth (PRC)” of a mouth. The DPRK is vulnerable to pressure, but as per the historic relationship, has also been unpredictable and, at times, unwilling to conform to demands from Beijing. Failed attempts to halt recent DPRK nuclear testing and Kim’s sudden decision to improve relations with the Trump Administration are the most recent examples. Pyongyang is aware of its strategic importance as a buffer to South Korea – a united Korea could potentially allow for US military bases on the PRC border, thereby weakening China strategically – and is willing to play this card for leverage. This demonstrates that while the PRC has substantial clout, there is no guarantee of a desired outcome. Nonetheless, Kim’s decision to travel by train to the Hanoi summit via Beijing to consult with President Xi before the summit with Trump in February 2019, is indicative of closer alignment. It also highlights the PRC’s position as a major player on the Korean peninsula and in the resolution of the North Korean imbroglio.

By contrast, the PRC relationship with Hong Kong and Taiwan highlights a different set of issues. Both territories are viewed as part of China and therefore are a domestic affair. Hong Kong was returned as a Special Administrative Region in the handover from Great Britain in 1997. Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek fled after losing the civil war in 1949, is viewed as a “renegade province” that will eventually return to the motherland. Both territories have a majority Chinese population imbued with Chinese heritage and cultural values and in the case of Taiwan, a democratic political system. Until 1979 Taiwan was recognised by the United States as the legitimate China as a result of the cold war and the desire to isolate and punish the PRC. Support for democracy by the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan is a particularly problematic issue for the PRC at this time of political protests in Hong Kong. Taiwanese pro-democracy supporters are watching Hong Kong with great interest and trepidation should the Chinese army forcefully intervene. It is unlikely that this will happen however, as Beijing sees a stable, prosperous Hong Kong as a potential model for Taiwan’s eventual reunification.

Japan, on the other hand, represents a complex relationship for Beijing. China has always loomed large in the Japanese imagination, but post-war bilateral relations have been tense due to the legacy of the Pacific War, Japan’s strategic alliance with the United States, territorial disputes and competition over leadership in the region. The war legacy is the major impediment to normal relations. Despite a series of expressions of regret and sorrow by Japanese Emperors and several Prime Ministers, the mainstream view in the PRC is that a genuine apology has not yet been delivered. One key reason for on-going tension has been visits by Japanese Prime Ministers and cabinet ministers to Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo. This shrine, which honours war dead since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, has the enshrined spirits of fourteen Class A war criminals responsible for the Japanese role in the Pacific War. Prime Minister Abe has avoided visiting in recent years and has a policy of not reflecting on historical animosities. His support for a revision of Article Nine of the constitution and for a strong independent Japan fans Japanese nationalism, which, alongside PRC rising nationalistic pride, has led to increased levels of animosity and uncertainty. Despite these tensions, economic relations have been profitable and there is massive Japanese investment across the Chinese eastern seaboard. This has been described as “hot economics and cold politics” and importantly has been a lever to control hostilities as long as profits are being made. Since 2014 there has also been a thawing in political relations and a gradual improvement in diplomatic ties.

A noticeable feature in PRC regional diplomacy has been expansion into the Pacific region. Papua New Guinea particularly, plus Fiji, Vanuatu and Samoa, are all enjoying unprecedented attention from Beijing and offers of aid and support flood in from the Chinese government. Notably, unlike Australian aid, Chinese assistance is in infrastructure – roads, bridges and transport – which is part of China’s ambitious multi-billion dollar “One Belt, One Road” initiative to link Asia and Europe through massive infrastructure projects.

So far, Australia has responded to PRC penetration into the Pacific with great alarm, which does not bode well for Australia’s overall China policy already in disarray. After years of relative complacency, the Morrison Government has commenced a flurry of activity and regular visits to the Pacific region by senior ministers. A recent Lowy Institute report notes that Australian aid and assistance to the region is worth A$6 billion dollars compared to 1.781 billion from the PRC and Australia’s contribution is rising in response to PRC overtures. Nonetheless, the PRC physical presence in the region is increasing and strategic analysts have expressed concern that its long-term goals are to establish military bases in the Pacific. At this stage there is no evidence to support this, but the Morrison Government’s focus on the Pacific as a priority area after long-term neglect indicates that Canberra is taking these matters very seriously.

David Walton is a Senior Lecturer at Western Sydney University. His research interests are at the intersection of international relations and diplomatic history. He has been a visiting fellow at several universities in Korea, China and Japan. See also:

  • David Walton and Emilian Kavalski, Power Transition in Asia, Routledge, 2017

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