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Thinking outside the Urn: China and the reincarnation of Mongolia’s highest lama

Written by Jichang Lulu.

The Chinese government’s prerogative to manage the rebirths of incarnate lamas is being tested in Mongolia. One of the highest lineages covered by the Qing’s ‘Golden Urn’ system at the basis of PRC reincarnation law is passing to its next holder, with the Dalai Lama’s involvement. Despite clear signs that China cares, no public position has emerged so far. To determine what China’s approach to the reincarnation issue might be, we have to go through some Mongolian history and a bit of leaf-reading. The very relevance of state management of rebirths to China’s foreign relations indicates to what extent Qing imperial thought permeates PRC policy. Reincarnation diplomacy is real and has an impact on Chinese policies towards its closest neighbours. Continue reading “Thinking outside the Urn: China and the reincarnation of Mongolia’s highest lama”

Is China a Ticking Time Bomb of Ethnic Contradictions?

Written by James Leibold.

China’s ethnic periphery can be a volatile place. Over the past decade, violence has repeatedly marred the remote yet strategic regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, which comprise nearly a third of Chinese territory and are its chief sources of oil and water. Here, the Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic minorities have long chafed under the integrationist policies of the Han-dominated Chinese Communist Party, with bloody cycles of resistance and conflict. In fact, recent episodes of interethnic violence, such as the Lhasa (2008) and Ürümqi (2009) riots and the horrific Kunming train station attack (2014), portend a rising storm of ethnic contradictions that threaten to spin out of control. While Party-state officials depict these incidents as the work of “separatists” and “terrorists,” many commentators in the West view them as examples of national decay and harbingers of national implosion.

Continue reading “Is China a Ticking Time Bomb of Ethnic Contradictions?”

China, Soft Power, and the Politics of Attraction

Written by Todd H. Hall.

Possibly no concept to emerge from the field of international relations in the past several decades has been quite as influential within policymaking circles as that of “soft power.” And the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been no exception to this trend. No less than the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and President of the PRC, Xi Jinping, has espoused the need for China to increase its soft power.

Speaking before a study session of the Politburo in 2014, Xi Jinping reportedly “vowed to promote China’s cultural soft power by disseminating modern Chinese values and showing the charm of Chinese culture to the world.” Precisely, he stated that “China should be portrayed as a civilized country featuring rich history, ethnic unity and cultural diversity, and as an oriental power with good government, developed economy, cultural prosperity, national unity and beautiful mountains and rivers.” Doing so, he proposed, “raise China’s overall cultural strength and competitiveness.”

Joseph Nye, the original father of the concept, tells us soft power is attractive power”. When others are attracted to us—our culture, our values, or even our policies—they will look up to us, follow us, even adopt our desires and values as their own. Nye has done the field a great service by pointing to the ways in which power is not simply limited to “hard forms” such as a military coercion or financial rewards. He may have also done the world a great service by channeling the energies and resources of various countries—including the PRC—into more peaceful arenas of competition.

It is amazing, however, how thoroughly the concept of soft power has gained traction despite the lack of any clear evidence as to what the actual returns of being perceived as “attractive” are. Certainly, we can mark the attractiveness of various states and their cultural products in international polls, flows of tourists and exchange students, box office returns, or even online video views.

But to what extent is such popularity a political resource from which states can actually reap tangible benefits, let alone one states can wield to specific ends? Popularity is fickle and fleeting, and at times seeking to maintain “attractiveness” can run counter to the very policy goals states may wish to accomplish. Indeed, recent efforts by the PRC to improve its position in the South China Sea show how easily soft power can be damaged by the pursuit of other perceived national interests.

Charm offensives may leave behind few results when their architects begin appearing more offensive than charming, and those who seek to the pull the levers of soft power may, in their time of need, find them to be quite soft. Correspondingly, it may be that the primary stakes in play are not related to any actual power that soft power provides but rather the gratification and domestic legitimation that comes from being able to point to markers of one’s own international appeal. Regardless, soft power is something that many states, and the officials of the PRC in particular, desire to have.

Putting aside the questionable value of having soft power, how could a country like the PRC actually go about attaining it? Much of the discussion coming from official sources, think tanks, and popular commentary in the PRC treats Chinese culture and values as inherently attractive; the problem is articulating them well, conveying them in the right way, making sure they are well presented and delivered in an enticing manner. Enhancing PRC soft power, in other words, is a matter of better messaging, PR technique, or packaging.

In contrast, many commentators outside China—including Joseph Nye and, in possibly one of the more thorough treatments of Chinese soft power, David Shambaugh—have argued that the narrow nationalism, the censorship and heavy hand of the state that stifle creativity, and the authoritarian nature of the political system are major impediments to PRC attaining soft power. Put differently, in this latter view, there is something inherent in the PRC’s political system and political values that renders soft power outside its grasp.

This focus on the PRC traits and behaviour overlooks, however, the timeless adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If we take seriously the idea that soft power is attractive power, we must also ask what makes certain actors or states on the international stage appear attractive. Beauty, desirability, attractiveness—these are not inherent attributes but rather judgments based upon subjectively or intersubjectively generated standards. Bluntly, one is attractive to the extent one appeals to others’ tastes.

The debate about the sources of or deficits in PRC soft power—particularly in the realms of policy and political values—thus implicates deeper disagreements regarding the normative standards that determine what deserves acknowledgement, recognition, status, and admiration within international relations.

By claiming that certain actors do or do not have soft power we are, in fact, asserting that certain standards or values have inherent—or at the very least, broad—appeal. This thus camouflages real political debates about values in the clothing of “practical” discussions about increasing soft power, with the purported tastes of some nebulous international audience as arbitrator. Such sleight of hand may be true soft power.

Todd H. Hall is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford. One of his latest publications is Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage, Cornell University Press, 2015. Image credit: CC by John6536/Flickr.

The Yin and the Yang: China’s Delicate Balancing of North-South Korea Relations

Written by Brian Benedictus.

When it comes to the level of trust and friendship between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea or DPRK), it is clear that the relationship has hit rocky times in recent years. By contrast, China-Republic of Korea (South Korea or ROK) ties have warmed gradually over the past decade, placing China in the increasingly difficult position of balancing its relationship with its long-time Korean partner to the north and its growing friendship with the Korea in the south.

In recent years, actions undertaken by leadership in Pyongyang has pushed China’s patience to the brink. In early 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapon’s test against strong push pack from China, which saw the test as threatening the region’s stability. It also showed Beijing’s inability to prevent its strategic partner from undertaking such a provocative action. Last December, ties became further strained when China’s closest link in North Korea, former vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, Jang Song Thaek, was accused of corruption and executed soon thereafter. The relationship once described by Mao Zedong as close “as lips and teeth” is clearly at one of its lowest points in history. Dr. Andrei Lankov, a Professor and historian at Kookmin University in Seoul, stated recently that “currently we see a gradual deterioration of Sino-DPRK relations, largely initiated by the North Korean side.” He also stated that “for China, North Korea is a trouble-maker whose adventurism occasionally puts China’s long-term interests at risk and whose disregard for the Chinese warnings is remarkable.” It is worth noting that there were over 40 senior level exchanges  between the two countries from 2009 to 2012, but the number during 2013 and 2014 dropped to just two.

China’s bilateral ties with South Korea have seen marked improvement in recent years. Xi Jinping’s summer meeting in Seoul with President Park Geun-hye marked the first time a Chinese leader visited South Korea prior to first visiting North Korea. The focal point of the relationship is the intensity of growing economic ties between the two countries, which has seen trade move from merely $6.37 billion in 1992 to over $200 billion in 2011. While South Korea’s trade volume with China is larger than its combined trade with Japan and the United States, a free trade agreement is expected to be ratified by the two countries later this month, which will only further cement ties between Beijing and Seoul. There are, however, some hard truths that all three countries realize when defining their respective bilateral relationships.

Simply put, Chinese trade and aid with North Korea will be maintained at least under current levels for the foreseeable future. For China, maintaining regional stability is paramount in the region. Any sudden government collapse in the DPRK could result in a heavy influx of North Korean refugees across border into China’s Jilin and Liaoning Provinces, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that Beijing would be stretched to manage. And while speculation has run rampant on the possibility of the two countries decreasing economic ties, the reality is that trade between them has been steadily increasing in recent years. In 2013 trade between China and North Korea grew by more than ten percent from 2012 levels to $6.5 billion. And while Chinese grain exports to the DPRK have decreased in recent years, this is due to a relatively stable North Korean economy and higher yielding domestic harvests, not geopolitical wrangling between the two states. Some observers also pointed to the apparent absence of Chinese shipments of crude oil to North Korea for the first seven months of this year, yet there were no reports of serious fuel shortages in the country. However, Yonhap news agency in South Korea reported that “…diplomatic sources with knowledge of the matter cautioned against reading too much into the official trade figures because China has been providing crude oil to North Korea in the form of grant aid and such shipments have not been recorded on paper.”

While the North Korean leadership has lashed out with a multitude of diatribes aimed at Beijing over the past year, the DPRK understands that China is its most reliable (and indispensable) friend. North Korea currently relies on China for nearly 90% of its energy imports and 60% of its total trade. Although it has looked recently to Russia, Japan, and even the European Union for economic alternatives, none of them would be willing to give Pyongyang an economic arrangement in the form that it currently enjoys with China. Since 1995, Beijing has allowed Pyongyang to run average annual deficits of nearly $358 million, which essentially China writes off as aid to the country. Pyongyang is also able to distribute Chinese food aid directly to its military, as such aid does not require distributional oversight as much of North Korea’s previous arrangements with international organizations have had,  thus reinforcing its Songun (military first) policy to maintain support of its vast military. North Korea’s primary export to China come from its vast and largely untapped mineral reserves. The reserves, which include anthracite and iron ore, provides North Korea’s leadership with a vital source of income, as most other countries currently do not trade on a large scale with the DPRK due to embargo restrictions.

Finally, while Beijing won’t sell off its “diplomatic stock” with the DPRK, it is increasingly diversifying its political capital into South Korea. In March, Beijing and Seoul announced  during the Xi-Park meeting that “…both sides are committed to realizing the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and hope to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula.” Beijing also seems to be taking the possibility of a ROK-led Korean unification more seriously, and doesn’t want to see the United States being the only major player whispering in Seoul’s ear if that time comes. Last year, in a major shift, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which is under the direct control of the State Council) stated in a report that Korean reunification would become the focus of cross-border relations in the future and stressed the need to quiet concerns that China would continue to support North Korea under any circumstances. The report also stated that during informal discussions with South Korean officials, Chinese officials apparently have shown a keen interest in the prospects of reunification.

There are obstacles, however, that will test the limits of exactly how far and fast PRC-ROK relations can develop. Beijing must understand that South Korea has to maintain a delicate balance between its economic interests with China and its vital security relationship with the United States. Many South Koreans are also suspicious of Chinese motives in  deepening ties with their country, and often such negative thoughts stem from China’s long-standing relationship with the DPRK. In a 2012 poll, over two-thirds (68.1%) of South Koreans held negative views towards the China-North Korea relationship. For its part, China must realize that if it wants to be seen as a responsible actor in the region, it cannot continue to support North Korea unconditionally. It does appear that Beijing is aware of the high reputational costs that its relationship with the DPRK poses. With each step that China takes in order to distance itself from its long-time ally, the likelihood that the regime in Pyongyang collapses increases. For China, this balance is vital to its regional interests, and its approaches to both North and South Korea will be in a constant state of transition and change for the foreseeable future.

Brian Benedictus is a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy analyst specializing in East Asian security issues. He is also an Asia-Pacific Desk analyst for Wikistrat. Brian owns the blog Warm Oolong Tea. Image Credit: CC by Roman Harak/Flickr.

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