Tag Archives: East China Sea

Former Obama Asia advisor: Media's US-China rivalry articles 'represent lazy journalism'

Jeffrey Bader, a former senior director for East Asia at the U.S. National Security Council during the Obama administration and a key Obama advisor, spoke at Beijing’s Tsinghua University Tuesday, almost a year after he appeared the last time. While a lot of what he said was not especially new if you follow Bader, he closed his speech with a fairly sharp line on the U.S. news media’s handling of Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a trip to to Southeast Asia because of the domestic political crisis in the United States.

Specifically, Bader took issue with the tired frame that assumes a U.S. absence is a victory for China:

We all read a steady drumbeat of articles and media of both sides focusing on U.S.–China rivalry. They are not wrong, but they are seriously unbalanced and, I believe, frankly represent lazy journalism. Nevertheless, perceptions affect reality. If, for example, western analysts interpret Obama’s failure to attend APEC and the East Asia Summit as a victory for China—and I read many articles describing these events as “Xi wins, Obama loses,” as if it were a football game—then I can understand why Chinese analysts respond by imposing a similar zero-sum framework of analysis on U.S. and Chinese behavior.

I hope sophisticated Chinese and Americans will transcend this kind of interpretation. In fact, not everything, indeed not most things that the U.S. and China do are aimed at the other. We each have substantial interests and relations including with other countries in Asia without regard to any rivalry for influence.

This analyst agrees with the former White House advisor.

A few other notes:

  • Bader noted there has been a significant increase in U.S.–China military-to-military exchange, cooperation, and  participation in international exchanges. My far less informed observations confirm this impression.
  • He divided U.S.–China issues into four realms: global issues, Asia-Pacific issues, global hotspots, and purely bilateral issues. Of these, he said, Asia-Pacific issues such as the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas are likely to pose the greatest challenge in the coming years.
  • Increased nationalism throughout the region, he said, is worrisome and creates conditions where concessions are impossible in territorial disputes. Accordingly, Bader said he likes China’s proposal of joint development of undersea resources in the South China Sea, since it sets the sovereignty issue aside and sidesteps arguments over exclusive economic zones that may radiate from some land features under UNCLOS.
  • “Diaoyu islands doesn’t matter,” Bader said in a refreshingly frank and lighthearted discussion of the sticky Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. He continued: “If there were global warming—and there’d have to be a lot of global warming, because they’re pretty high—but if there were somehow miraculously global warming and these islands disappeared, no one would care. But China and Japan would still have issues.” The root of Bader’s argument on Japan and China is that the island dispute was nearly absent for decades before coming up, and that Sino-Japanese relations have hit an unusual rough spot that allows the island dispute to flare up.

Shameless plug:

  • I wrote here about Bader’s dislike for the term “pivot,” which he brought up again today.

Updated: Did the Chinese government really call Diaoyu/Senkaku a 'core interest'?

The Japanese news wire Kyodo News last week reported that the Chinese government called the Senkaku/Diaoyu island issue a ‘core interest.’

“The Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press conference, using China’s name for the Japanese-administered isles in the East China Sea. …

Hua made the comment after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NHK in Tokyo that Chinese officials repeatedly told him during his visit to Beijing earlier in the week that the Senkakus are “one of China’s core interests.”

This report has gained a fair amount of attention. My attempt to follow up on Dempsey’s remarks to NHK is currently coming up dry. Though Google returns a search result on the story, the link is broken, Google’s cache provides nothing, and a search for the full sentence reveals no copies.

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 3.29.29 PM

[UPDATE May 2 11:08 in Beijing—This Japanese-language NHK story includes video of Dempsey saying, “They did use the word “core interests” several times, and I know that’s really their phraseology for issues of sovereign importance.” It is left to the announcer and the written report to make the connection between “core interests” and the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue. My translation of the relevant passage of the print version: “During the interview, Chairman Dempsey said of his meetings with Chinese government officials on his recent trip to China, ‘In the meetings, the Chinese side, on the topic of the Senkaku Islands, used the word “core interests” many times.’ On the topic of Okinawa Prefecture’s Senkaku Islands, China repeatedly clarified that the islands are an non-negotiable ‘core interest.'” What did Dempsey really say in full? I can’t tell.]

Another Japanese source, Asahi Shimbun, has a different phrasing from the Foreign Ministry:

“It is an issue about China’s territory and sovereignty, and therefore a matter of ‘core interest,’ ” said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, at a regular news conference.

Meanwhile, the situation from the official Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website brings Hua’s quote into question. The MoFA reports [en] [zh]:

Q: In a recent interview with the Japanese media, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey said that during his visit to China, the Chinese side repeatedly stressed that territorial sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands is part of China’s core interests. Is this China’s official position?

A: China’s Peaceful Development, the white paper released by China’s State Council Information Office in September 2011, made it clear that China firmly safeguards its core national interests, including national sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity.

The Diaoyu Islands issue concerns China’s territorial sovereignty.

问:美军参谋长联席会议主席邓普西日前接受日本媒体采访时称,中方在其访华期间多次强调维护钓鱼岛领土主权是中国核心利益之一。这是中国官方立场吗?

答:中国国务院新闻办公室2011年9月发表的《中国的和平发展》白皮书明确表示,中国坚决维护国家核心利益,包括国家主权,国家安全,领土完整等。

钓鱼岛问题涉及中国领土主权。

A comment signed Iain Johnston (I’ve e-mailed to confirm it’s really him [UPDATE: confirmed.]) on the Japan Times version of the Kyodo story says in part:

… It is possible that the PRC spokesperson strayed a bit from the official position. The official record reflects official policy. This particular formulation — “touches on territorial sovereignty” – probably reflects a dilemma the PRC government faces. It cannot say the Diaoyudao/Senkaku are not a core interest. This would create domestic problems for the regime. But it cannot say explicitly that the islands are a core interest, because this could constrain any future space for negotiation. A critical piece of evidence will be whether or not the PRC drops the demand for negotiations with Japan over the islands. If it does, then this would be consistent with an official declaration that the islands are a core interest. If it continues to demand negotiations, this would be consistent with the official position of not (yet) directly stating the islands are a core interest.

[UPDATE: In comments below, Johnston provides a link to the relevant video of Hua Chunying’s statement, in which she says what the Japanese reports say she said.]

Chinese press seem relatively quiet on this statement, with the links I’m seeing in Weibo conversations leading to articles sourced from Japanese publications. For instance see this Sina News story (in Chinese).

Meanwhile at ChinaFile, Susan Shirk takes the statement as a strong, overt move by the Chinese government.

Last week the Chinese government and military officially declared that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands constitute a “core interest” of the country. …

To make sure the message came through loud and clear, top military officials first informed General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff who was visiting China. On the next day, it was announced from the podium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest,” said Hua Chunying, the ministry spokesperson.

You can be sure that the decision to call the Diaoyu Islands a “core interest” was thoroughly vetted by the key civilian decision-makers—Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and the other five leaders in the CCP Politburo, as well as the People’s Liberation Army leaders. It’s a considered act by a highly insecure CCP leadership willing to engage in international brinksmanship to maintain domestic support.

Shirk argues that this is in contrast to the 2010 incident in which some Chinese representatives reportedly started referring to South China Sea claims as representing a “core interest.” Though top U.S. officials later said the most provocative supposed mention of the South China Sea as a “core interest” had never happened, Shirk views that event as a clear roll-back.

The South China Sea [in 2010] had not been the focus of much attention from the Chinese public; it wasn’t a hot button issue of nationalism like Taiwan or Japan. The impetus for China’s increasingly assertive actions in the region came from the bureaucratic interest groups operating with little effective restraint from the top and using the media to arouse popular excitement. Because the Chinese government had never made a public and authoritative declaration that the South China Sea was a “core interest,” it was able to climb back from the brink without paying any domestic price for formally saying that this claim wasn’t a “core interest.”

Shirk’s comment points above to probably the most useful piece on the “core interests” issue in recent years, from Michael Swaine at the China Leadership Monitor in 2011.

So, what’s going on here?

The official version of the Foreign Ministry statement, following Dempsey’s public statement that he had heard this language, would seem to either represent a careful escalation of rhetoric or, just as likely, an awkward negotiated middle ground after conflicting messages had already been sent. If indeed the messages were coordinated in talks with Dempsey and in the Foreign Ministry press conference, then it would seem reasonable to suspect this represents a well-coordinated, high-level decision. On the other hand, it’s always an open question just how well signals are coordinated between the Foreign Ministry and the military.

Even if it was clear how fully approved the statement is, it is unclear what this means. For now, there we are.

Is the China-Japan confrontation Xi's inside political play, or part of a broader move?

Is China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, flexing military muscle with Japan to solidify rule within the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, or is the heightened dispute with Japan best viewed in a broader context?

At Foreign PolicyJohn Garnaut examines the relationship between Xi and the PLA. The article is worth a read, but the thrust of it can be captured in this passage, speculating that the Chinese agitation on islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan is the result of an effort by Xi to shore up internal power.

The dizzying display of hard power is sending fear and awe throughout the Asia-Pacific region. But Xi, it seems, is unconvinced that all this shiny hardware can be effectively deployed by an organization that was designed for civil war and adapted in recent decades as a political force to ensure the party’s grip on power.

That’s where China’s rapidly escalating territorial showdown with Japan, its largest trading partner and still the world’s third-largest economy, comes in. In September, the Japanese government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands as they are known in China, from private owners to prevent them from falling into the hands of Tokyo’s governor at the time, a hawkish nationalist provocateur. But China responded with fury. It launched a propaganda blitz against Japan, facilitated protests and riots across China, and escalated its maritime and air patrols of the disputed area. For Xi, according to his close family friend, the otherwise baffling diplomatic crisis that resulted has offered a priceless opportunity to “sort the horses from the mules” and mobilize willing generals around him. Claims that Xi has exploited or even orchestrated the brinkmanship with Japan might seem preposterous to outside observers, given that a miscalculation could lead to war. But the logic is compelling for those who have grown up near the center of China’s endless and unforgiving internal struggles.

This claim should be taken with a grain of salt. It is, after all, an anonymous source coming out of the highly opaque world of Chinese elite politics. On the other hand, Garnaut’s sources in recent months have seemed quite good. Either way, the idea is worth discussion.

What if the current surge of Sino-Japanese confrontation over the islands really are in large part the result of internal political plays?

Though all-out war is unlikely, the risk of accident or miscalculation is significant whenever military or civilian law enforcement vessels or planes are put in proximity with those they believe to be adversaries. If Xi Jinping has calculated that this risk is worth taking, we might assume he is deeply insecure in his new position. Perhaps he sees the danger of a PLA outside his close command as greater than that of accidental violence or escalation with Japan—an outcome that could cause untold damage to commerce and the largest decline in China’s international status since at least 1989. Of course, a military out of control could cause its own violence, but this is no small gambit.

As Garnaut notes, there is also a real possibility that in a full-scale conflict Japan’s highly modern, well-trained forces would defeat China’s modernizing, untested military. If Xi is worried about the strength of his rule, this potential outcome would be devastating. For a new leader to lose a battle (a war?) to a great historical adversary at the center of China’s so-called “century of humiliation” could very well be crippling.

An alternative: What if the Japan initiative is no mere internal play, but also aligns with a broader strategy of pushing China’s maritime claims now that it has stronger forces?

China’s increased military and Maritime Surveillance (armed civilian law enforcement) activity in the East China Sea, where the dispute with Japan is centered, should not be viewed in isolation. Though it’s possible the logic of the Japan dispute is independent, Chinese forces and diplomatic staff have recently taken a harder line with maritime neighbors in the South China Sea. Especially with the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s official statements and deployments reflect a renewed assertion of ill-defined territorial claims. The Philippines has brought a seemingly well-crafted case under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both states are party, and the Chinese government has not sent anyone to participate in the arbitration process so far. Meanwhile, regular Chinese patrols are reported by state media, and active development is under way on one island under the banner of a new city called Sansha, which supposedly administers a wide swath of South China Sea territory under Chinese law.

There are significant parallels between the South China Sea and East China Sea situations. The Philippines and Japan are both treaty allies of the United States. (Vietnam is not, though Vietnamese-U.S. dialogue and coordination appear to have increased along with this dispute.) In each case, Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels have been the most visible, though some PLA presence is involved. Why not view these initiatives as parallel?

One reason to differentiate the South China Sea mobilization from the China-Japan dispute is that the former predates Xi’s rise to power, while the latter seems to be developing largely under his watch. But it’s equally possible to view the rise in island disputes as part of a broader flexing of Chinese military muscle, perhaps also including a recent increase in action on the China-India border dispute.

As always, it could likely be a combination of both. But while it’s worth taking seriously the internal political intrigue that may drive international events, broader trends must be kept in view. Missing from this account is potential competition for resources and action between different military commands in China. Though it’s often disputed which came first—the U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific or China’s increased assertiveness on maritime disputes—the two moves have emerged at similar times. And perhaps in each case the strategic logic has been the same all along, but people making decisions in China have decided that now is the time to start pushing, either because military strength has risen sufficiently or because they believe long-term claims need periodic renewal. While it would be a neat narrative, and a pleasingly dramatic one, to root these events in one man’s struggle to establish control, the reality is far less pleasingly simple. Garnaut’s coverage of elite politics is invaluable, but it should be taken as one part of a broader picture.

Chinese Official: Sino-Japanese Relations 'Back on Track'

Huang Xinyuan says Sino-Japanese relations have recovered. That’s after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo‘s second meeting with President Hu Jintao this weekend at the APEC summit in Hanoi, and after five years of stilted relations during Koizumi Junichiro’s leadership in Japan.

“Since Prime Minister Abe’s visit to China,” Huang Xingyuan, Councilor with China’s Foreign Ministry, said today in Hanoi, “China-Japan relations have improved dramatically and are now back on track.”

The two leaders met today.

“The talks today were constructive and positive and will definitely improve China-Japan relations,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing Saturday. …

“This is a sign that both countries relations are improving and developing, and that progress is being made,” Hu told Abe, according to a pool statement released to reporters today. “China-Japan relations will be at this important juncture for some time and it is important that both countries’ leaders work toward developing relations in the right direction.” …

“We will continue to talk about the East China Sea,” Huang said, “and we’ll make the East China Sea an area of peace.”

Japan has urged China to stop exploration in the area until the two energy-hungry nations can set up a system for joint use of the reserves.

Japan earlier this month filed a protest with Beijing about Chinese activity in the area after detecting flames from an apparent burn-off of oil or gas — a possible sign that China was advancing its development of the disputed reserves.

The contentious issue of the Yasukuni Shrine was not discussed among the two leaders today, a Japanese government official told reporters on the condition he not be named.

Brief: Taiwanese Protesters Warned Off Islands

Japanese authorities told a Taiwanese fishing boat approaching the Pinnacle Islands* to turn back and mobilized security forces to prevent its approach. The boat is thought to be carrying a dozen activists on a trip to protest Koizumi’s Aug. 15 Yasukuni Shrine visit. Some anti-Japan activists in Hong Kong had planned a similar trip, but delayed their departure to get their boats ready. [AFP via Yahoo!]

*The islands are known as Senkaku Shotō (尖閣諸島) in Japanese and Diàoyútái Qúndǎo (钓鱼台群岛) in Chinese. I use the name Pinnacle Islands for neutrality.