Welcome to Issue 110 of U.S.–China Week. Axios reported that President Donald Trump, in an Oval Office meeting before signing the order that instructed the U.S. Trade Representative to consider launching the Section 301 investigation targeting China, expressed displeasure with the nature of the action he was about take. If the Axios source is to be believed, Trump said: “For the last six months, this same group of geniuses comes in here all the time and I tell them, ‘Tariffs. I want tariffs.’ And what do they do? They bring me [intellectual property]. I can’t put a tariff on IP.” Shortly after, Steve Bannon (who was in the meeting) was fired, and USTR announced an apparently pre-baked decision to investigate Chinese trade and investment practices on intellectual property. That’s all quite juicy, if true, but it’s anyone’s guess what it portends for the future. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that Bannon’s departure is a strong indication that the administration will move away from economic nationalism. Some more commentary and news in brief form follows.
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- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke with State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Xinhua reported, addressing Afghanistan. Xinhua reiterated China’s invitation for Trump to visit China “within this year” and Tillerson reportedly said (in Xinhua paraphrase) that “Trump is looking forward to his important visit to China.” MFA readout here.
- Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun and Ambassador Terry Branstad met in Beijing to discuss the first bilateral “law enforcement and cybersecurity dialogue,” Xinhua reported. No date was mentioned.
- The U.S. government sanctioned Chinese and Russian firms over their ties to North Korea, BBC reported. A MFA spokesperson, as usual, said “The Chinese side opposes the unilateral sanctions outside the framework of the UN Security Council.” She also asked the United States to stop the sanctions.
- U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price visited China and said it has been an “incredible partner” in fighting synthetic opioids, “helping to stop the production of drugs like fentanyl in China.”
- A Commerce Ministry spokesperson, responding to the Trump administration’s latest investigation of Chinese trade and investment practice, said, “We are strongly discontented with this unilateralism and protectionism and will take all means necessary to resolutely defend the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese side and Chinese enterprises.”
- At Lawfare and in an accompanying Hoover Institution paper, Julian Ku argued that because the Chinese and U.S. governments hold very different views on pertinent international law questions, “I am not sure that pressuring China to ‘accept international law’ on cyber warfare will advance U.S. interests. China could easily use its own reading of international law to attempt to restrict and isolate the U.S among other states and in global public opinion.”
- A Chinese national was reportedly arrested “after a federal criminal complaint accused him of conspiring with others wielding malicious software known as Sakula … the same rare program involved in U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hacks detected in 2014 and 2015. The [federal criminal complaint] did not mention the OPM hacks.”
Ratner blasts State Dept. ‘accommodationist impulse’ on China, but the problem is much broader
“What we have seen over the last several months is not just a series of random, off the cuff remarks, but instead a State Department deliberately unwilling to criticize China,” wrote Ely Ratner, a former Obama White House adviser now at CFR. He continued: “This has to stop. It has to stop because the State Department is giving Beijing a green light to bully Taiwan, further suppress Hong Kong, and push toward its goal of controlling the South China Sea. It has to stop because the State Department is generating serious concerns throughout the region about the credibility of America’s commitment to Asia and its willingness to push back on Chinese assertiveness.” Ratner wrote that he is unsure why the State Department appears reluctant to talk tougher on China, but he suggested explanations ranging from simple inexperience to Chinese government capture of Trump son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner. Ratner’s proposed remedy was for National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to “weigh in more actively on China issues.”
ANALYSIS: Ratner has a point here, but it is undermined by a focus on the State Department’s rhetoric in specific, rather than the administration’s approach to China more generally. There is indeed real harm to U.S. interests in regional security and respect for human rights when the U.S. government noticeably retreats from its earlier pattern of statements. But the root of the problem lies not with a strange series of statements (or absences thereof) coming from the State Department. Instead, the problem stems from the capricious, conflicting, and self-defeating behavior emanating from the top of the administration, and from the indication that the Trump administration is willing to trade one interest for another, rather than pragmatically advocating for the United States on all fronts. At the risk of being labeled with the “A-word” myself, I also think it’s important to note that when commentators criticize policies as “accommodationist,” they are employing a form of innuendo that connects to 20th century rhetoric about “appeasement.” This kind of name-calling detracts from the overall argument while also ignoring the fact that successful, strong U.S. policy would, yes, accommodate some Chinese government concerns where doing so is in the U.S. interest. I’m not arguing that it is in U.S. interests to pull punches in diplomatic statements, but making “accommodation” a swear word paints pragmatic policy with the same brush as actual ruinous capitulation on crucial issues.
‘2 U.S. Navy Jets Downed in China; One Pilot Seized’
“WASHINGTON, Aug. 21[, 1967] — The Pentagon said that two United States Navy jets were shot down today over Communist China after having veered off course. The official Chinese press agency, Hsinhua, said the planes had ‘flagrantly intruded’ into Chinese air space in ‘an act of deliberate war provocation’ and been downed over the Kwangsi Chuang Autonomous Region by the Chinese Air Force. Hsinhua said one of the pilots had been captured. Each plane carried a two-main crew. … The Pentagon said the Navy jets had gone off course after having completed a bombing run near Hanoi in which they encountered heavy fire from antiaircraft guns and ‘several’ surface-to-air missiles. … The loss of the planes over China, coming atop Congressional criticism that a recent decision to bomb closer to the Chinese border might provoke Peking into entering the war, is expected to intensify attacks on the Administration’s bombing policy.'”
(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.)
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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, and he is based in Oakland, California.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are my own (and I reserve the right to change my mind).
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