Perspectives: The Month Through China’s Eyes
Chinese news coverage in the past month focused largely on international issues in the aftermath of the Trump-Xi summit in April. The ongoing missile tests being conducted by North Korean and the escalation of tension on the Korean peninsula has proven to be difficult subject for Chinese media to tackle, with op-ed writers seemingly needing to capture a variety of potential conflicting views on the subject. Coverage of China’s recent Belt-and Road Summit was more harmonious, with media overwhelmingly aligned and supportive of the event. Finally, the recent terrorist attack in Manchester also prompted a response from the Chinese press. Among these three events, the One-Belt-One-Road Summit elicited a very different reaction from the India press, which is included this month for contrast.
Chinese media commentary on North Korea seems to have swung back and forth between a number of different messages in the past months: a qualified rebuke to North Korea for its testing, a more direct rebuke to the US for its reaction and goading of North Korea, its protestations of being an innocent bystander who cannot be expected to solve the issue and its unqualified criticism of the planned Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ant-missile shield over South Korea.
The Global Times carried an op-ed that argued that Sino-Korean relations were deteriorating due to the latter’s ‘unfriendly activities’: “The relationship between China and North Korea has already been severely affected… Although they maintain smooth diplomatic communication, strategic mutual trust between the two is scarce. As the situation in the Korean Peninsula worsens, Beijing-Pyongyang ties may further deteriorate. China should ready itself for unfriendly activities by North Korea.” The article argues for the two countries having a ‘normal’ relationship, but on “the precondition that China’s national interests shall not be violated and Beijing shall not pay the price for Pyongyang’s extreme policies.” The article is at pains to highlight China’s status as an interested bystander in the conflict rather than as an actor. However, it also warns of China’s strength and vigilance in defending its own interests: “The issue around the peninsula generally is the conflict between the US and North Korea…China should make clear to the US and South Korea that China is not key to solving the North Korean nuclear issue. Beijing hopes to maximize the interests of all stakeholders. But if it fails in the end, it still has the capability to strike back at any side that crosses the red line”
The People’s Daily took a similar line in terms of its China’s role as a bystander in conflict not of its making, apportioning carefully worded blame on North Korea: “It is reasonable for the DPRK to pursue its own security, but its nuclear and missile ambitions have put itself and the whole region into dire peril…The DPRK must not be obsessed in a wrong path of repeated nuclear tests and missile launches that resulted in rounds of sanctions” and less carefully worded blame on the US: “The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the US also added fuel to the escalated tensions since the two allies…revealed a strategic intention to crush the DPRK. It is almost impossible to ease the crisis on the peninsula if the ROK and the US continue their fantasy to settle the problem with more military actions but turn a blind eye to reasonable appeals of the DPRK. The article positions China as the voice of reason in the conflict, one that it characterises as not directly concerned and therefore as an honest broker: “China is not a directly-concerned party of the peninsula crisis, and it does not hold the key to solving the nuclear issue, [but]…China will stay committed to the goal of denuclearization as well as the path of dialogue and negotiation.”
Finally, Chinese media has been universally critical of THAAD, an issue which it claims has nothing to do with North Korea while itself constantly conflating the two. China Daily for example called the initiative the ‘biggest thorn choking the relationship’ with South Korea. Chinese arguments amount to firstly that THAAD is ineffective as a defense as against North Korea and compromises Chinese interests: “Its removal, however, will take a lot more than the porous pretext the previous administration employed for its deployment－that THAAD is indispensable for the ROK’s national security. To what extent the system would be able to defend Seoul from Pyongyang’s missiles aside, two things are obvious: THAAD cannot protect Seoul from Pyongyang’s overwhelming artillery firepower and it compromises Chinese security” and secondly, that THAAD is to blame for North Korea’s aggression and implicitly China’s non-engagment in the conflict: “Deploying THAAD is a no-win decision. Its only proven effect thus far has been estranging Beijing from Seoul, which would otherwise have been able to collaborate well in dealing with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea based on a shared belief that sanctions and dialogue should be pursued simultaneously. Their lack of united efforts has allowed the latter to conduct two more successful missile tests in disregard of international protests and sanctions.”
Manchester Terror Attack
Chinese media also commented on the Manchester terror attack, where a suicide bomber at a pop concert killed 22 and injured dozens at a pop concert. Media reactions differed from commentary on previous terrorist attacks on western cities. Previously, Chinese op-ed had used the opportunity to highlight the threats posed by domestic separatist ‘terrorists’ in Tibet and Xinjiang, justify the government’s crackdowns in those regions and criticise Western governments and media for failing to universally recognise China’s domestic unrest as ‘terrorist’ in nature. Current op-eds took a more conciliatory tone, highlighting the need for the international community to work together without arguing about domestic questions.
The Global Times highlighted the apparent inevitability of terrorism in the modern world, without the usual backhanded slap to the West for ultimately creating it: “We live in an era when terrorism is prevalent and the international community appears unable to do anything about it. We enjoy freedom; our privacy is valued, and technology empowers mankind, but this sows the seeds for the spread of terror atrocities. Security measures, while they cost enormous human resources and money, are useful to some extent. Nonetheless, they are imperfect measures and cannot deter all terrorists” The article includes a call to coordinated action, with a useful comparison to climate to change efforts: “For the foreseeable future, humanity will have to face the daunting challenge of combating terrorism. There are other challenges before us, but counter-terrorism is the most urgent. Unfortunately, the international community has yet to reach consensus on how to fight terrorism. The world can convene an international conference on climate change, a topic that a minority still regards as controversial, but there is no such mechanism to support an anti-terrorism mission. “
China Daily also focuses on the shared commitment necessary to stop global terrorism: “The international community needs to come up with more effective ways to tackle the immediate threats of terrorists, while also eliminating the soil that breeds terrorist and extremist ideologies.” While making a similar appeal for international cooperation the article also includes concrete criticism of recent international anti-terror efforts in the Middle East and their inadequacy: “Some countries fighting the IS group in the Middle East cannot agree with one another on either the targets or the objectives of the war against terror, and the lack of coordination and common goals has given the terrorist group breathing space. Internationally, countries are also dragging their feet in sharing intelligence and cutting off the financing channels of terrorist groups. Not to mention that little has been done to address the root causes of international terrorism and extremism, such as poverty, social conflicts and inequality.”
One Belt One Road Summit
The international One Belt One Road Summit recently hosted in Bejing was naturally touted as an overwhelming successs in the Chinese press. Media were keen to stress the win-win nature of the initiative, China’s humble position as an initiator but not leader of the plan and the purely economic, rather than political nature of its intentions. The People’s Daily sought to cast the initiative as part of the continuity of the current world order, an idea sure to bring comfort to those destabilised by current US foreign policy signals: “China recognizes the current international order, a global framework devised by the victors of WWII, placing the UN at its center along with other international organizations such as the World Trade Organization and World Bank. The order reflects the progression of history. However, the order has now been extended.” The article goes on to argue that China is seeking to improve the world order for the benefit of all, criticising the status quo: “The U.S.-led international order puts the security interests of U.S. allies above those of non-allied countries. There is also disproportionate emphasis on changing the political systems and values of non-Western countries to emulate those of the West… China will not resort to outdated geopolitical maneuvering, but rather hopes to achieve a new model of win-win cooperation. The country has no intention of forming a small group detrimental to stability; instead, it wants to create a big family that can coexist harmoniously.”
China Daily also was at pains to point out the harmonious intent of the initiative in the face of popular misconception: “Many of the current misgivings about China’s role in the Belt and Road narrative have to do with the perception that the initative, featuring China as a advocator and architect, and also main investor thus far, will end up being China’s vehicle for projecting its own influence.“ The article referenced Xi Jinping’s own statements to refute these allegations: “Yet, as Xi reiterated, the initiative was conceived as an open platform by all, of all, for all. Although it has made tremendous financial commitments to a number of infrastructure projects under the initiative, Beijing is more preoccupied with kick-starting the process by doing so. Even with the financial resources at its disposal, the Chinese government cannot afford to buy influence on such a scale, even if it wished to.”
The Global Times too sought to deemphasize China’s role in the initiative, even dimissing the country’s role as its initiator: “For the first time, China has been an initiator and major driving force for an international large development plan. Is China leading the world? Frankly speaking, Chinese people do not think about it like this. We would like to see it as an international cooperation project in which China has played a larger role.” The article picks up on the theme of improving on the Western world order by pointing to the win-win nature of the plan and its ushering in a new and better era: “The era when the fruits of development were completely monopolized by a few countries is over. As long as there is large-scale growth in the world economy, the benefits can be far-reaching. The Chinese emphasis on win-win cooperation has followed the tide of the times. The reason why the Belt and Road initiative shows such strong vitality is also because it is firmly in line with the logic of the 21st century.”
While China’s views on the Belt and Road are naturally benign, and it has dismissed Indian criticism of it as ‘a show for domestic politics’, Indian media views have been more nuanced. The Indian Express argued that “India’s reservations need to be looked at from the sovereignity perspective. China routinely threatens countries when it finds issues even remotely connected to its own sovereignty question being “violated”. Not just China, no country compromises with its sovereignty for the sake of some trade and commerce interests…. The region through which the highway was to pass belonged to India and has been under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. The Chinese side, thus, has full knowledge of India’s concerns about the region.” India Today also reflected on the issue of sovereignty, stating that “if China’s plans succeed, India will have to deal with a fundamentally changed neighbourhood that is already gravitating into China’s economic orbit. Some experts suggest that Delhi’s response should begin with consolidating its interests in its immediate neighbourhood, where its core interests lie, rather than attempting to counter China’s moves in Africa or Southeast Asia.” While the threat to India’s sovereignty was the lens through which most of the Indian media focused its criticism of China’s strategy, a column in Live Mint questioned the economic rationale of the One Belt, One Road strategy. “Xi’s ambition may be blinding him to the dangers of his approach. Given China’s insistence on government-to-government deals on projects and loans, the risks to lenders and borrowers have continued to grow. Concessionary financing may help China’s state-owned companies bag huge overseas contracts; but, by spawning new asset-quality risks, it also exacerbates the challenges faced by the Chinese banking system.”
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