This year, the Richard Charles Lee Asian Pathways Research Lab (RCL-APRL) hosted its first joint-internship opportunity with the Peace, Conflict and Justice (PCJ) program. PCJ intern Bonnie Lao worked as a research assistant for Dr. Joseph McQuade, helping him index his forthcoming book. She also published two original research articles on the NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) website, which we are pleased to share below with the generous permission of NAOC. The first article assessed the geopolitical implications of Japan’s energy security policies, while the second examined domestic instability and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Since completing the internship, Ms. Lao has taken up a position as a Research Analyst at the NATO Association, and is currently working as Assistant Editor for a forthcoming edited collection on NATO and the Asia-Pacific.

Japanese Energy Security and the Reshaping of Geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific


Last month, Japan’s defense minister Taro Kono was in the unusual position of having to defend Japanese military action, having sent patrol ships and destroyers to secure merchant shipsin the Middle EastJapan relies on the Middle East for 95% of its oil, approximately 40% of its total energy consumption as of 2017. The vast majority of this oil passes the Strait of Hormuz, a passage several kilometres wide that is particularly vulnerable, bordered by Iran on the north and the United Arab Emirates on the south. Given prior Iranian threats to block off the strait, Japan is looking to secure its interests by aiding Middle Eastern efforts to ensure safe passage for oil, as well as seeking alternative sources of energy. Without large domestic reservoirs of energy (its energy self-efficiency ratio is 7.4%) and coupled with the shutdowns of nuclear power plants following the disaster at Fukushima, Japan is reliant on energy imports. Being the third-largest consumer of oil in the world after the United States and China, diversification from Middle Eastern oil is one of the most pressing security concerns facing Japan today.

Japan’s attempts to diversify its energy sources offer a useful perspective into Sino-Russo-Japanese relations, as well as Russia’s pivot to Asia given its frigid relationship with the West. Quantitative studies for optimal energy diversification suggest that Japan should increase crude oil imports from Russia to lessen its dependency on Middle Eastern imports. With the advent of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline, Russian oil exports to Japan increased severalfold, and there are reports of major Japanese investment into Russian oil enterprises.

Japanese interests in Russia as a potential source of energy security have also manifested in their foreign policy under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, from 2012 onwards. Broadly speaking, Japan views Chinese expansion as its main geopolitical threat, particularly in the East China Sea. Maintaining friendly ties with Moscow is thus an attempt to limit the possibility of a united Sino-Russian threat. Japan has demonstrated substantial dedication to better relations with Russia, with the continued existence of diplomatic talks between two even after the annexation of Crimea, against the wishes of America – a key ally. Despite the presence of significant sanctions on Russia from Western countries, Japan maintains bilateral trade with Moscow. Russian exports are also increasingly going eastward as a result of decreased demand from Europe and increased threats of sanctions from the West. In this sense, we can observe two interlinked diversification efforts currently taking place. On the one hand is Russian diversification of trade partners to counter decreased Western demand. On the other is Japanese diversification of energy trade partners that simultaneously serves as a foreign policy strategy to favorably strengthen Russo-Japanese relations.

However, there have been signs of Sino-Russian cooperation in the area, implying that Japanese efforts to further relationships with Moscow via trade have been ineffective. Scholars note that Russo-Japanese trade is dominated by oil on the Russian side and automobiles on the Japanese side. The concentration and overdependence on specific commodities are risky and do not guarantee future development. Sino-Russian relations have strengthened in parallel to Russo-Japanese relations, with American intelligence reports noting that China and Russia have “significantly expanded their cooperation, especially in the energy, military, and technology spheres since 2014.” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi has publicly noted that China and Russia should cooperate in the face of an “unstable international situation,” and that the bilateral ties “are at their best in history.” Partially, this can be attributed to the ongoing trade and security-based tensions between the United States, Russia, and China, leading to a strengthening of the Sino-Russian relationship as a means of bolstering both economies. Plans are in place to double the trade between Russia and China by 2024, where both countries would be less vulnerable to American trade sanctions and tariffs.

Japanese diversification of energy has manifested in closer trade relations with Russia, which also serves to improve diplomatic ties to prevent a joint Sino-Russo incursion. However, the basis of this trade is limited to specific commodities, which is not a strong foundation for increased diplomatic ties. There are international ramifications if Japan continues to push for more amicable relations with Moscow. How effective will economic sanctions be if there exists robust Russian trade with China and Japan? Given that Sino-Russian ties act as a bulwark against American interests in the area, and the historical ties of Japan as a close American ally, questions arise regarding this aspect of Japan’s foreign policy. The Trump administration has damaged the historically strong Japan-United States relationship, with the American withdrawal from the TPP and accusations of free-riding allies in Europe and Asia. To what degree can Japan remain a proxy for American power in the region if it is actively pursuing closer ties with Moscow? As national economies are becoming increasingly strained and countries are looking for alternative avenues for growth, the shifting blocs of interests in the region have created a rather fluid international order that needs to be taken into account when we consider traditional alliances, such as the one between Japan and the United States.

Read Bonnie Lao’s article on the NATO Association of Canada’s website, where it was originally published. 

Photo: “President Trump at the Signing of the U.S – Japan Trade Agreement and U.S. – Japan Digital Trade Agreement” by The White House via Flickr

Potential Domestic Instability: An Internal Examination of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

South Africa-China Bi-National Commission, 22 Nov 2016 Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa with Vice President of the People's Republic of China Dr Li Yuanchao (Photos GCIS)

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has largely been analyzed from the perspective of global trade on the one hand, and the resulting ramifications for Chinese soft power and international affairs on the other. However, there has been relatively little analysis of the domestic attitudes in China towards some of the manifestations of the BRI. Some firms have raised concerns over the challenges of investing in developing countries that could be politically unstable or lacking the human infrastructure to complete projects. However, for the average Chinese citizen, some of the most visible displays of the BRI in action are the influx of international students in Chinese universities and an influx of higher numbers of foreign residents, some of whom will become Chinese citizens. Spots in elite universities are finite, and there is immense difficulty for domestic Chinese students to attain entry. China is also a Han ethnostate, and has exercised concern over domestic security regarding non-Han members. In the enactment of the BRI, we also need to consider the potential domestic security and political ramifications for the Communist Party of China.

A key component of the BRI has been the education infrastructure for international students studying in China. In 2010, the Ministry of Education released a plan to attract half a million international students by 2020. To facilitate this, the government has established generous scholarships that not only cover tuition and accommodation, but provides a stipend as wellApproximately two-thirds of scholarship recipients come from developing countries, and Chinese universities are quickly becoming “magnet” institutions for BRI countries. According to Professor Alan Cheung at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the education of these students from BRI countries will contribute towards the overall success of infrastructure and policy goals – helping to develop skilled labour for these countries is in China’s benefit.

However, this has stoked discontent at home, as international students are subject to a lower language proficiency level, and are exempt from the gruelling gaokao exam (高考), the most stressful academic examination with the ability to set the course of life for students, dictating university admissions and available careers. Campus facilities offered for international and domestic students are also different– international students would often get an entire dorm room to themselves, while domestic students share a room with six to eight people. These scholarship programs, while serving the larger purpose of BRI and global soft power, are stoking the embers of discontent regarding unequal treatment towards Chinese citizens.

Despite the increased numbers of international students and African migrants, (Guangzhou’s Xiaobei district is colloquially known as “Little Africa”) permanent residency requirements in China have been notoriously strict, having granted only 20,000 permanent residency applications since 2004. As Chinese influence grows, and numbers of foreign residents and students increase, the government recently proposed to loosen permanent residency requirements in late March this year. Opening it up for public consultation, the backlash was swift. Within days, there were hundreds of millions of comments on Weibo, the vast majority of which were vehemently opposed to the lowered requirements, with comments railing against interracial relationships and the lack of population planning policies for foreigners (foreigners are not subject to population and residency policies, and can choose to formally reside and educate their children in any city.)

This is not a new phenomenon. African communities in Guangzhou are policed arbitrarily and frequently and are often referred to as sanfei (三非,) referring to the perceived “illegality” of their entries, stays, and work. In 2017, Chinese politician Pan Qinglin proposed a massive crackdown on African communities in Guangdong, stating that the mingling of cultures would destroy Chinese culture and would heighten the risk of terrorism. China is an ethnostate, with over 90% of the population identifying as Han Chinese, and minimal minority representation in government. The nation-building undertook by the Chinese state since the 1990s has underscored this – it is Han-centric; in other words, to be Chinese is to be Han Chinese, and it is imperative for minorities to assimilate to the national Han Chinese culture. For example, the mainland perception of the recent Hong Kong protests has been negative, with the perception that the Hong Kong people are Chinese people above all, despite the fact that almost no one under the age of 30 in Hong Kong identifies as Chinese. The propaganda efforts by the central government to promote, and to adhere to this Han understanding of the Chinese identity is now at odds with recent efforts to diversify and integrate foreign residents.

It is of particular note that China spends more on domestic security than their entire military. This has correlated with the rise of Han-centrism in the past decade, with domestic defense expenditures tripling since 2007, with per capita expenditures highest in Tibet and Xinjiang. This nation-building coupled with China’s economic success over the past two decades have resulted in a Chinese public that is largely content with the status quo governance. The most recent iteration of Edelman’s Global Trust Barometer shows that the Chinese public has the greatest overall trust in their leadership. While this trust is strong, the current attempts to reverse the three-decade effort in ethnic nation-building have proven to be incredibly unpopular. Continued efforts in this vein need to be considered carefully by the central government, as public discontent could weaken their mandate to rule.

Compounded by the recent public failure in governance regarding COVID-19, any attempts by the government to further their foreign policy goals, particularly those that could be interpreted as “at the expense of the Chinese people,” need to be re-evaluated. This particular aspect of the BRI, given its internal controversy, and potential governance challenges for the central government, is problematic. With the consolidation of power by Xi Jinping over the past decade, there are fewer internal political opponents, but public missteps that spark domestic security turmoil or incite civilian ire are events that could spur far-reaching political changes. If poorly executed, BRI could be the catalyst.

Read Bonnie Lao’s article on the NATO Association of Canada’s website, where it was originally published. 

Photo: “South Africa-China Bi-National Commission, 22 Nov 2016” by GovernmentZA via Flickr.