Welcome to Issue 6 of U.S.–China Week, slightly abbreviated as the United States observes Memorial Day today. Instead of five big ideas, I’ll cover some especially important developments in greater depth and leave you with a few links to others. For East Asian regional security news, watch as the Shangri-La Dialogue unfolds this week.
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U.S. brings CNN along for South China Sea surveillance flight, raising daily tensions to public attention
A CNN team tagged along on a U.S. surveillance plane as it flew in what U.S. officials emphasized was international airspace in the South China Sea, near islands under construction by the Chinese government. The Chinese military repeatedly asked the U.S. plane to leave “to avoid misunderstanding.” Top U.S. East Asia diplomat Daniel Russel called the flight a “regular occurrence” and “entirely appropriate,” and said “we will continue to fully exercise our rights globally to the international space.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said flights like this pose a “potential threat to the security of China’s maritime features, and [are] highly likely to cause miscalculation, or even untoward maritime and aerial incidents.” The planereportedly did not enter a 12 nautical mile radius surrounding the artificial islands; doing so would be a direct challenge to Chinese territorial claims, one a Pentagon spokesperson said “would be the next step.”
ANALYSIS: The U.S. government has clearly made a decision to increase public pressure on the Chinese government over the South China Sea, either specifically because of alarm over the island building or using that development as an example. Surveillance flights like this are nothing new, but putting a CNN team on a highly sensitive intelligence plane and declassifying military audio and video has raised unprecedented attention. (U.S. officials might also have seen the well-respected CNN correspondent as a friend, since he previously served as chief of staff to a U.S. ambassador in Beijing. Both the U.S. government and CNN should have been sensitive to how this apparent potential conflict of interest might be read in Beijing.) This follows on the moves discussed in the first item last week, showing that the CNN report is part of a concerted effort.
One goal of the increased publicity may be to force the Chinese government to make its claims in the South China Sea more explicit. If U.S. vessels or aircraft enter a 12 nautical mile radius of Chinese-claimed features (or credibly threaten to do so), Chinese officials might be forced to resort to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to make their objection. If this is the U.S. strategy, however, it is a risky one. Chinese officials have spent years cultivating strategic ambiguity about whether their claims emanate from sovereignty over disputed features and the associated maritime entitlements under UNCLOS, or whether some other form of rights within the “nine-dashed line” are the source of Chinese claims. If the Chinese government backs away from the broader “nine-dashed line” claim, they risk the ire of a public highly sensitive to sovereignty and territorial slights. Regardless, there is little reason to believe the recent actions will deter China from declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) like the one it declared in the East China Sea in late 2013. U.S. policy makers may have calculated that such a declaration is coming one way or another.
Some commentators both inside China and elsewhere have framed this set of U.S. moves as highly provocative and dangerous. Certainly these moves come with risk, but the U.S. government is far from alone in taking actions that produce risk. It is important to remember, however, that the recent increase in publicity is not the same thing as an increase in provocative moves. For months, U.S. officials have observed that the situation was becoming more dangerous in the South China Sea, but with scant detail. Now, U.S. officials are making a highly public case—just like we’re seeing with cybersecurity and computer-enabled theft of commercial secrets…
NAME AND SHAME
Chinese professors charged with stealing trade secrets to benefit China
From the Justice Department: “‘According to the charges in the indictment, the defendants leveraged their access to and knowledge of sensitive U.S. technologies to illegally obtain and share U.S. trade secrets with the PRC for economic advantage,’ said Assistant Attorney General Carlin. … [Regarding the allegedly stolen technology:] Apart from consumer applications, FBAR technology has numerous applications for a variety of military and defense communications technologies.” The detailed DOJ release reports that Tianjin University was a key beneficiary of the alleged theft. Tianjin University denies this.
ANALYSIS: As above in the South China Sea, this represents a “going public” of U.S. concerns with China. It is a more purely economic move than the earlier indictment of Chinese military service members for online theft—and it’s immediately more concrete, since a Tianjin University professor was arrested. The role of the National Security Division within DOJ is interesting, as is the apparent “dual use” nature of the technology concerned.
Report on Chinese investment in the U.S. by Congressional district estimates 80k Americans work for Chinese firms
The Rhodium Group-National Committee on U.S.–China Relations report is available here, and it will be a useful handbook for those supporting stable ties with China through the U.S. election season.
Australia to host advanced U.S. bombers, despite PM’s initial stance that a U.S. official ‘misspoke’
Link here. This was a rare hiccup in the very real “united front”-style series of moves the U.S. government has been staging of late in pursuit of the “rebalance” policy.
ABOUT U.S.–CHINA WEEK
U.S.–China Week is a weekly news and analysis brief that covers important developments in U.S.–China relations and features especially insightful or influential new policy analysis.
Graham Webster is a research scholar and senior fellow at Yale Law School’s China Center, where he focuses on U.S.–China diplomatic, security, and economic relations through research and Track II dialogues. A full bio is available here.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are my own (and I reserve the right to change my mind).