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Standing Firm Against the PRC’s New Expansionism

Nations Respond to Beijing’s Prioritization of Security Concerns

FORUM Staff  |  Photos by Reuters

More signs are emerging that nations — especially in the Indo-Pacific — view the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a security threat. Indicators include Japan’s plan to drastically increase its defense spending, the election of a South Korean president critical of Chinese coercion and first-time participation in NATO’s annual summit by four Indo-Pacific partners.

These moves and others come as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping has declared that his nation will prioritize security concerns above all others. Xi introduced a concept of security in 2014 that’s unique to the PRC and reiterated its provisions during the CCP’s 20th National Congress in October 2022, when he secured a third five-year term as party leader. This comprehensive national security policy covers 16 areas of governance, including cultural security, food security, energy security and military security. 

“The gradual securitization of everything is what we’re seeing in China,” Helena Legarda, lead analyst with the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, told FORUM. “Any policy area can be seen by Beijing as a matter of national security if it can pose a challenge to the regime and the political system.” 

The policy goal, driven in part by perceptions of internal and external threats, appears to be self-reliance. “Effectively, it’s Beijing preparing for the worst in case they need to disconnect with the West,” Legarda said.

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping leads a procession of new politburo members during the party’s 20th National Congress in Beijing in October 2022.

A wide range of reactions to the PRC’s assertiveness has emerged among countries concerned about coercion, many of which count the PRC as a top trading partner or avoid taking sides between the PRC and the United States. “They’re looking to try to settle disputes as best as they can or at least control escalation and try to keep good relations with all powers in the region,” Legarda said. 

Still, in areas such as commercial fishing, territorial sovereignty and the projection of military power, concerns are being expressed. “When we’re looking at the reactions from countries, especially in the Indo-Pacific,” she said, “I think we’re starting to see somewhat of a pattern.”

Australia, India and Japan, in particular — all democracies and partners with the U.S. in the Quadrilateral partnership, or Quad — are growing bolder in their response to a CCP military buildup that has accelerated since Xi came to power in 2012. “Over the last four or five years, we’ve seen a China where pragmatism is being sidelined in favor of ideology,” Legarda said. “It’s a China that seems more willing to accept economic or reputational costs in service of its grand strategic and political goals.”

Phillip C. Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the U.S. National Defense University, sees irony in this. 

“China is concerned about the potential for the Quad nations working together, taking on more of an institutionalized form, doing more in terms of regional security,” Saunders told FORUM. “But it’s China’s actions that are stimulating threat perceptions in all of the Quad members in a way that makes them want to increase security cooperation … and potentially for other states to be interested in joining the Quad, or in some form, a Quad-plus.”

South Korea’s deployment of THAAD missile defense systems to protect against North Korean missile attacks sparked retaliatory and costly trade restrictions from the People’s Republic of China.

Two developments underlie the perceptions of a new PRC threat, Saunders said. First, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has developed greater capabilities and a greater willingness to project power, as seen in the deployment of two aircraft carriers around Taiwan, the self-governed island that the PRC claims as its territory, and into the South China Sea, as well as in long-range, simulated bombing missions and the development of more advanced fighter aircraft. Second is the PRC’s reaction to an August 2022 visit to Taiwan by a U.S. delegation led by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “They were unhappy about this and chose to express that unhappiness using military means,” Saunders said. “That certainly got attention in Taiwan, and it got attention elsewhere in the region, as well.” Within days of the visit, the PLA staged major drills around Taiwan and fired ballistic missiles that landed near the island’s ports and in waters inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, prompting a diplomatic protest to Beijing.

Nations concerned about the PRC’s destabilizing activities look to the U.S. as they shape their responses, said Raymond Kuo, a political scientist with the Rand Corp., a U.S.-based security research and analysis group. “Chinese belligerence is causing countries to want to gravitate toward the United States,” Kuo told FORUM. “The United States is starting to take up the mantle of leadership in corralling a more regional and unified response to China’s challenge.”

Japan has shown some of the strongest resistance to Chinese aggression, Kuo said, including a statement with the U.S. in 2021 identifying the Taiwan Strait between China and Taiwan — a critical shipping route for Japan and South Korea, among others — as a top security concern. It was the allies’ first such joint statement in more than five decades. In addition, Japan established an economic security ministry in May 2022 to defend supply chains, infrastructure and leading technology. The move reflects increasing concerns about PRC trade obstructionism and economic espionage, according to an essay for the East Asia Forum by Toshiya Takahashi of Shoin University in Japan. “The law helps Japanese security cooperation with the United States and Australia — both of which are receptive to economic countermeasures against China,” Takahashi wrote.

U.S.-led restrictions on the export of technology products to the People’s Republic of China targeted Chinese companies such as e-commerce giant Alibaba Group.

The PRC criticized Japan when Tokyo published its annual defense white paper in July 2022 highlighting repercussions from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the PRC’s intimidation of Taiwan and vulnerable technology supply chains as growing national security threats. The white paper noted Japan’s plans to increase its defense budget and develop counterstrike capabilities. The PRC said the white paper contained “accusations and smears” against Chinese defense policy and was an attempt by Japan at “finding excuses for its own strong military arsenal.”

Tokyo and Beijing normalized relations in 1972, and Japan’s generally favorable feeling toward the PRC reached its highest point in 1980, when a government poll showed 79% of the population had a positive image of China, according to the online news magazine The Diplomat. Four decades later, in 2021, private polls indicated that more than 90% of the Japanese population had a negative view of China, The Diplomat reported.

Other examples of pushback against PRC assertiveness:

South Korea has sought increased cooperation with the U.S. and Japan since the March 2022 election of President Yoon Suk Yeol, Saunders said. During his campaign, Yoon noted that the PRC had imposed economic restrictions that cost South Korea about U.S. $7.5 billion in response to Seoul’s deployment in 2017 of the U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to protect against North Korean missile strikes. In a February 2022 essay for Foreign Affairs magazine, then-candidate Yoon called for “high-level strategic dialogues” with the PRC but suggested he would not let South Korea’s reliance on Chinese trade dictate the terms of their relationship or his nation’s broader foreign policy. The PRC’s retaliation over THAAD, which it considered a threat to its own interests, “had a lasting impact on popular views toward China, and on government and military views, as well,” Saunders said. “Statements out of South Korea are more candid about Chinese intentions and military capabilities.”

Vietnam may have shown the fiercest resistance to the PRC’s maritime coercion, Kuo said, when as many as 30 of Hanoi’s naval vessels challenged up to 160 Chinese vessels during a May 2014 confrontation over exploratory oil drilling by the PRC in disputed waters of the South China Sea. Hundreds of vessels were reportedly rammed in the final month of the standoff. This incident and others involving control of the Paracel and Spratly islands and the PLA’s dredging and militarization of artificial reefs and other maritime features have left Vietnam “looking to involve outside powers to balance the situation,” Saunders said. In a 2019 defense white paper, Vietnam detailed the Chinese aggression it has faced, including “unilateral and power-based coercion, violation of international law, militarization, change in the status-quo and infringement over its sovereignty, sovereignty rights, and jurisdiction.” Vietnam is working with the U.S. Air Force to develop its military capabilities and move away from dependence on Russian weapons and PRC influence, the Air University’s Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs reported in December 2021. Despite strong economic ties and a shared ideology, Saunders said, the Vietnamese have shown “nationalism is a strong force, and that begets suspicion of China. They’re playing a delicate game that has diplomatic, military and economic elements to it.”

India and the PRC fought a border war in 1962, and tensions continue to flare. A June 2020 skirmish left 20 Indian Soldiers and by some accounts up to 40 Chinese troops dead, The Times of India newspaper reported. In November 2021, Indian military officials labeled the PRC the nation’s No. 1 security threat and vowed to deal with border incursions. As a nonaligned nation, India refrains from entering into formal military alliances, but it routinely conducts exercises with the U.S. and its allies and partners. Although India and the PRC are members along with Brazil, Russia and South Africa of the BRICS economic group, India, as a Quad member, issued a joint statement rebuking the PRC, including condemning actions in the East and South China seas that involve “the militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities.” Saunders described India’s policy as “one of hedging against China, but as security concerns have intensified, they’ve been willing to do more with the United States as part of that hedge.”

Australia joined the United Kingdom and the U.S. in unveiling a security partnership in September 2021 that will provide Australia with advanced military capabilities, including conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines. Following a May 2023 meeting with his Australian counterpart, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan articulated his support for the security partnership and said he trusted Australia to play a bigger role in regional security. “On AUKUS, insofar as it contributes constructively to regional security, we’re in support of it,” Balakrishnan said, according to The Guardian newspaper. “We are comfortable with all the three partners within AUKUS, because with each of them, we’ve had long-term relationships, and that’s why I think we’re able to work together.”  

Defense leaders in 2022 also reiterated plans to rotate more U.S. land, sea and air forces to Australia amid shared concerns about the PRC’s increasing power projection. On other fronts, Australia called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in China, imposed a 5G network ban on PRC communications giant Huawei and investigated Chinese nationals under Canberra’s new foreign interference laws. The PRC responded by imposing sanctions on Australian products such as coal, seafood and wine. In addition, Australia attended the NATO summit in June 2022 as one of the security alliance’s Indo-Pacific partners along with Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. The NATO 2022 Strategy Concept singled out the PRC for the first time as a threat to the alliance’s values and principles, condemning the communist nation’s “coercive policies,” and concluding that the PRC “strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains.” The leaders of Australia and the PRC, meanwhile, spoke in November 2022 for the first time since 2016.

New Zealand has questioned the PRC’s assertiveness. Then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, also during the 2022 NATO summit, urged resistance to PRC expansionism, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper, saying the PRC has “become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms.” In recent years, New Zealand has joined in more than 20 international statements criticizing CCP actions including the repression of the Muslim Uyghur population in northwest China and the eroding of civil rights in Hong Kong, The Economist newspaper reported in October 2022. New Zealand also was among 50 nations, including Australia and the Pacific Island Countries of the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau, that issued a joint statement at the United Nations General Assembly in October 2022 declaring that CCP treatment of the Uyghurs “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” 

Baltic nations Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania recently withdrew from the Beijing-led initiative Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries. The decisions came amid criticism of the PRC’s escalating military pressure on Taiwan and Beijing’s strengthening of ties with Moscow despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Lithuania’s withdrawal coincided with the announced opening of a Taiwan trade office in its capital, Vilnius, and as the nation embraced a “values first” foreign policy, pledging it “will actively oppose any violation of human rights and democratic freedoms, and will defend those who are fighting for freedom around the world, from Belarus to Taiwan.” The PRC responded by banning exports from the Baltic nation.

The European Union reported that 30 Indo-Pacific countries attended its Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in Paris in February 2022. Among the “shared ambitions” discussed were maritime security and cybersecurity — two areas where the PRC is at odds with other nations. The PRC has territorial disputes with more than a dozen nations, including disagreements on sovereignty over islands and navigation rights in the South China Sea. In addition, PRC-linked hackers have been accused of cyberattacks worldwide, the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported in October 2022, including targeting “multiple Southeast Asian governments … using custom malware linked to Chinese state-sponsored groups.”

The U.S. is countering PRC assertiveness in new ways. The Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative will boost maritime domain awareness among countries along the South China Sea and into South Asia. The separate U.S. $6.1 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative singles out the PRC and notes that “a great deal of the [U.S. Defense] Department’s investments and efforts are focused on this threat and strengthening Indo-Pacific deterrence.” The U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy released in February 2022 notes growing competition from the PRC and commits to initiatives including the five U.S. treaty alliances in the region, as well as strengthening the Quad, supporting India’s continued regional leadership and expanding U.S. diplomatic presence. Saunders also pointed to new U.S. restrictions on the sale of microchips to the PRC and, more broadly, on products that use U.S. technology. Previous restrictions focused on technology that could aid the PRC’s nuclear capability. “Now, in a more general sense, we don’t want China to be a state-of-the-art competitor with integrated circuits. We don’t want them to have a world class artificial intelligence industry,” Saunders said. The U.S. is urging like-minded nations to abide by the new restrictions and to begin decoupling parts of their economies and supply chains from the PRC. “We’re going to lean on Japan and South Korea and the Southeast Asian states to be careful what you trade with China,” Saunders said. “And we’re doing the same thing with Europe.”

Among the many nations concerned about the PRC’s growing threat are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is negotiating with Beijing over a South China Sea code of conduct for navigation, territorial claims and other issues. The talks have gone on for a decade and seem to offer little hope for progress, said Kuo, the Rand Corp. analyst. Among the sticking points in the South China Sea negotiations: the PRC’s insistence on bilateral agreements with individual member nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam rather than with ASEAN as a whole. “If ASEAN could really act together as a bloc,” Kuo said, “they would have much more authority and much more ability to shape the region.” 

Still, Saunders said, the long-running talks have revealed the PRC’s true intentions: to restrict the freedom and sovereignty of ASEAN nations. The PRC, for example, wants to limit ASEAN members’ ability to conduct military exercises with nonmember nations and exploit oil resources with help from foreign companies. “They want it to be only ASEAN companies or Chinese companies,” Saunders said. “The course of these negotiations has made explicit what many of these countries fear, which is a China that’s trying to dominate the region and dictate what happens there or at least have veto power over what happens there.” This strident approach has fostered distrust of the PRC across the region. The 2022 State of Southeast Asia Survey, conducted by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, found that 64% of respondents in ASEAN nations welcomed U.S. regional, political and strategic influence and that 53% trusted the U.S. to do the right thing regarding global peace, security, prosperity and governance. The comparable numbers for the PRC: 24% and 27%.  

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