Welcome to issue 82 of U.S.–China Week. This will be the last edition for 2016. Publishing will resume as normal on January 17, the Tuesday following the U.S. Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. Best wishes to everyone for a happy new year.
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PLA Navy captures U.S. Navy maritime survey ‘glider’ off Philippine coast, promises return after U.S. protest
A Pentagon spokesperson said in a statement Friday “the Department of Defense has called upon China to immediately return an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) that China unlawfully seized on Dec. 15 in the South China Sea while it was being recovered by a U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship.” By Saturday the Pentagon said“we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV.” U.S. sources told Reuters the UUV may be returned as early as Tuesday at a rendezvous in the South China Sea. The South China Morning Post reported that China’s government may seek policy changes by the U.S. government in exchange for the return, speculation not echoed by other sources.
President-elect Donald Trump responded to the incident on Twitter, calling the seizure “an unprecedented act.” (He was roundly mocked for an earlier version of the tweet that called it “unpresidented.”) Trump then tweeted, “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!” Responding to a question about Trump’s tweeting, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “First I want to say we strongly dislike the word ‘steal,’ and it is completely inaccurate.” On the substance, Hua repeatedly referred to a Defense Ministry spokesperson’s statement, which is somewhat unusual for South China Sea incidents. That statement (Chinese original/English story) said the Chinese ship retrieved the UUV for safety reasons and the Chinese government had “decided to turn it over to the United States in an appropriate manner.” The statement went on to criticize the U.S. government for publicizing the incident. By coincidence or not, SCMP reportedresearchers held China’s “first national conference” on underwater drone technology just after the seizure. / Ankit Panda has some swift analysis, including pointers to Lawfare articles by Ku, and Kraska and Pedrozo. Both a Wall Street Journal editorialand a NYT “news analysis” frame the incident as a Chinese test of U.S. “resolve.”
ANALYSIS: In a speech in Australia, Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris saidbefore the incident, “We must have the resolve to ensure access to the shared domains. We have to mean it.” Some have already taken the view that the U.S. reaction to this event was insufficiently forceful to show the “resolve” desired. In any case, to the extent that this event presents a test, it is not a test in isolation. If, as seems likely, this Chinese action was at least in part a calculated signal, it comes in the context of a complex U.S.–China signaling environment—crowded with Trump’s questioning of the “one China” policy, Harris’ widely reported but basically normal comment that “we will cooperate where we can and be ready to confront where we must,” and new publicity about apparent weapons installations in the Spratly Islands (see third item).
In Harris’ speech, “resolve” is part of an equation to achieve deterrence. For critics, it’s also something the United States needs to show to reassure allies. Resolve, deterrence, and reassurance all have to be linked with an action. Resolve to do what (and at what cost)? Deterrence against what red-line actions (with what penalty)? Reassurance that the United States will stand for what? The U.S. government has already shown that it did not possess resolve to forcefully oppose all Chinese provocations in the South China Sea at any cost, or else it could have risked broader conflict to stop artificial island construction. Similarly, the Chinese government has shown it has not had resolve to risk an armed clash to oppose U.S. “freedom of navigation” operations. If any interference with freedom of navigation were a deterrence red line, more dangerous events such as the Cowpens incident would have tripped the wire. These examples of forbearance are signs of maturity, not weakness. What allies and U.S. citizens need from the U.S. government is reassurance that all efforts will be made to maintain regional peace and security while pursuing U.S. and allied interests. This means if costs are to be imposed on China, they should be imposed through clearly communicated actions but not through on-scene escalation. The two sides have put a lot of effort into reducing the risk that an action viewed by one side as a provocation could result in immediate crisis. These deescalatory efforts should not be thrown out in a misguided effort to demonstrate resolve. Still, the capture of the UUV shares something with Trump’s behavior on Taiwan issues: Both push buttons, but neither fully owns the implications.
Obama advises Trump to have a plan before questioning ‘one China’ status quo, but leaves the policy open to revision
In President Barack Obama’s year-end press conference, he had this to say on the Trump team’s involvement with China and Taiwan issues: “The idea of One China is at the heart of their conception as a nation. And so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what the consequences because the Chinese will not treat that the way they’ll treat some other issues. They won’t even treat it the way they issues around the South China Sea, where we’ve had a lot of tensions. This goes to the core of how they see themselves. And their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant. That doesn’t mean that you have to adhere to everything that’s been done in the past, but you have to think it through and have planned for potential reactions that they may engage in.”
ANALYSIS: Obama had criticism for Trump in this press conference, and he implies some here. Notably, however, Obama does not say the “one China” policy must remain unchanged. He simply asks for something that was not apparent in the Trump–Tsai Ing-wen call: a plan. So little is still known about the precise level of knowledge, planning, and intentions Trump had in holding the much-discussed conversation; perhaps there is a secret plan, or perhaps advisers got their boss out ahead of his own thinking. Regardless, the sitting president declined to vocally advocate for continuity on handling what he declared to be “the core of how they see themselves.” It seems to me that’s really something.
Satellite photo analysis indicates weapons installed on China’s Spratly Island installations; Analysts see ‘militarization’
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at CSIS released imagery and analysis suggesting China had installed anti-aircraft weaponry on installations it has constructed in the Spratly Islands. AMTI’s Greg Poling told Reuters, “This is militarization. The Chinese can argue that it’s only for defensive purposes, but if you are building giant anti-aircraft gun and CIWS [close-in weapons systems] emplacements, it means that you are prepping for a future conflict.” China’s Defense Ministry released a statement saying (in the NYT translation), “As for necessary military facilities, they are primarily for defense and self-protection, and this is proper and legitimate. For instance, if someone was at the door of your home, cocky and swaggering, how could it be that you wouldn’t prepare a slingshot?” CSIS also released a podcast on the developments featuring Adm. Michael McDevitt and Cortez Cooper. / Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said his country would not issue diplomatic protests over the weapons emplacements. Yasay also sought to clarify the Philippine government’s position on the UNCLOS arbitration decision. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had said he would “‘set aside’ the ruling and would ‘not impose anything on China,'” Reuters reported. Yasay then emphasized via a statement the government’s “respect for and firm adherence to this milestone ruling.”
In an essay headlined “How American Can Lead in Asia,” six distinguished scholars and former officials propose a path forward for U.S. policy. The authors are two former ambassadors to China (Joseph Prueher and Stapleton Roy), two former intelligence officers (Paul Heer and Ezra Vogel), and two top Washington scholars on U.S.–China relations (David M. Lampton and Michael Swaine). The full text is a must-read, and it is at times provocative. Excerpt: “The security imperatives of China and the United States are potentially, but not inherently, incompatible. They become incompatible only if neither side is willing to accommodate, in some fashion, to the other’s fundamental interests. The solution is not for the United States to double down militarily, spending vast amounts of money in a futile attempt to remain militarily predominant across all of maritime East Asia. Such an approach would be virtually certain to result in an intensifying arms race and political rivalry with Beijing that would undermine the basis for vital Sino-U.S. cooperation in other areas. At worst, it could generate a new Cold War that benefits no one.”
‘Japan Is Termed Bridge for China; Reischauer Sees Way for Peking Into World Affairs’
“WEST HARTFORD, Conn., Dec. 13[, 1966]—Edwin O. Reischauer, former Ambassador to Japan, said yesterday that the Japanese were beginning to play ‘a very important bridge role between China and the outside world.’ The new relationship between ‘the twin giants of Asia’ could ultimately make the Chinese see ‘that the only future can be one of peaceful coexistence,’ he said. Mr. Reischauer, who has been a professor at Harvard University since leaving the ambassadorship last summer, said the Japanese were showing new interest in leadership ‘after 20 years of modestly trying to stay out of world affairs.’ ‘Now, with their new self-confidence, I find the Japanese talking back to the Chinese when they go over there, and making straight-forward comments to them,’ he said. … The Japanese are in a unique position in regard to Peking, he asserted, because they have strong economic and political ties to the West and, at the same time, ‘contacts, vocabulary and fundamental ideas’ that they traditionally share with China.”
(Source: The New York Times. This entry is part of an ongoing feature of U.S.–China Week that follows U.S.–China relations as they developed in another era of change and uncertainty, 50 years ago.)
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 senior research scholar, lecturer, and senior fellow of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, where he specializes in U.S.–China diplomatic, security, and economic relations through research and Track II dialogues. He is also a fellow for China and East Asia with the EastWest Institute. His website is gwbstr.com.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are my own (and I reserve the right to change my mind).
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