Tag Archives: Media

Headlines hail ‘Sunnylands 2,’ but US government is equivocal

Robert S. Wang

Robert S. Wang

Robert S. Wang, formerly the No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Beijing and now the senior U.S. official for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), told reporters in Washington Wednesday that U.S. President Barack Obama would remain in Beijing for a one-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 12, following the APEC Leaders Summit to be held earlier in the week.

Headline writers have already called the meeting “Sunnylands II” and “Sunnylands 2.0.” But what Wang actually said left open the possibility of a more run-of-the-mill bilateral meeting.

Asked by a reporter whether the meeting would adopt the informal style of the June 7–8, 2013, meetings between the two presidents at the the Sunnylands estate in California, Wang did not provide a direct answer:

MR. WANG: Yeah, as I mentioned at the very beginning, after the leaders meeting is finished, the 10th and 11th, President Obama will stay behind in Beijing on the 12th, and so that’s where the bilateral meetings will be held between China and the United States. Some of the questions you’ve asked actually are probably best answered by the Chinese. We don’t know exactly what the Chinese have planned for the 12th in terms of how they want to do the bilateral at this stage, so I think that’s still in the process of discussion.

But obviously, I’ve heard a lot of comments about how effective it is to actually have smaller meetings where you can actually talk about issues in a more personal way, and I think knowing President Obama’s style and, of course, from the U.S. point of view, we did Sunnyland[s], and so we think that that’s an effective way of doing things. But – and of course, the Chinese seem to be receptive to that, but exactly what they have planned, we don’t really know at this stage whether it’ll be Beijing, whether it’ll be outside somewhere else. But that’s something I think that the Chinese are discussing with us, but not yet decided, I believe.

Media reports that the November 12 meeting will be “informal” and similar to Sunnylands hinge on the phrase in italics above, which strikes me as pretty weak. Also note that Wang says both “President Obama will stay behind in Beijing on the 12th, and so that’s where the bilateral meetings will be held,” and “we don’t really know at this stage whether it’ll be Beijing, whether it’ll be outside somewhere else.” The meetings will occur in Beijing, but we don’t really know whether it might be somewhere else.

In all likelihood, both governments would like to signal continuity with last June’s effort, which produced considerable optimism about the two governments’ ability to work on both areas of disagreement and common challenges. The U.S. and international media narrative on Obama in East Asia, however, took a hit when he skipped a trip to last year’s APEC summit to attend to the U.S. government shutdown. As I argued at the time, “what hurts the United States is not a few cancelled meetings, but dysfunction in the U.S. political system that distracts from long-term foreign policy goals.” If Obama followed-up with real personal attention despite the constant supply of international fires that need fighting, I argued, little would be lost.

Since Sunnylands, the sense that the U.S. government has been neglecting its East Asia policy and especially constructive relations with China has nonetheless been hard to escape. The Chinese government, of course, is not without blame. When Vice President Joe Biden traveled to China in December, it seemed his visit might continue the spirit of Sunnylands; but the Chinese government announced its East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ), surprising the U.S. side and souring the atmosphere for Biden’s visit.

So will November’s Obama–Xi meeting be informal? Will the delegations shed their ties? Will they leave Beijing’s formal reception halls for a countryside retreat (in the south, if they want to stroll outside)?  Or will the meeting take a different course? Despite today’s headlines, we’ll have to wait and see.

Cybersecurity as 'pivot' version two? A policy narrative for media-friendly U.S.–China relations

Pivot. “I personally don’t like the term,” said Jeffrey Bader, former senior director for East Asia of the U.S. National Security Council. It was an “unfortunate word” selected by staff seeking a positive press response to President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia in 2011, he said at Beijing’s Tsinghua University on Nov. 29, 2012. Each time the president goes to Asia, he said, the story is always about China, and there are two options: Either the United States came as a supplicant and is in decline, or it put China on its heels. Both stories are wrong, Bader argues, but the word “pivot” was selected to push for the second story in the U.S. press.

The word “pivot” swiftly became “rebalance” in U.S. government statements. To some, it had implied a turn away from other regions, not a reassuring message for those seeking continued support in the Middle East. Some also thought it implied that the United States would shift its interventionist tactics from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region. “Rebalance” was rolled out with more nuance, emphasizing at times that it implied only minor increases in the Pacific, instead emphasizing drawdowns elsewhere. Then, the question of whether the “pivot” or “rebalance” had failed as a strategy soared to the top of the discussion after Obama was reelected. In Secretary of State John Kerry’s confirmation hearings, he implied limited support for a shift of resources: “I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet. I’m not convinced of that. That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully when and if you folks confirm me and I can get in there and sort of dig into this a little deeper.”

With the pivot/rebalance downgraded as a strong-on-China rhetoric, and the deep need for greater engagement with China, what was left to keep the press on the “China on its heels” narrative? Consider cybersecurity. President Obama began a rollout with the State of the Union this year. Without naming China, he made “enemies [who] are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air trafic control systems” the China policy point. The day before, someone had leaked to the Washington Post a classified National Intelligence Estimate naming China as the most aggressive cybersecurity threat.

President Barack Obama meets then-Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, 2012.

President Barack Obama meets then-Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, 2012.

In the coming days, the private online security firm Mandiant released a report that allegedly detailed Chinese military involvement in spying on U.S. businesses. A “senior defense official” told The New York Times, “In the cold war, we were focused every day on the nuclear command centers around Moscow. … Today it’s fair to say that we worry as much about the computer servers in Shanghai.” Then the White House released its “Strategy to Mitigate the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets,” which does not name China in the body text but features it in six of the seven theft examples in sidebars.

This drumbeat has continued through February and March and up to today. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon said in a speech in March that “intellectual property and trade secrets” had “moved to the forefront of our agenda.” Since then, cybersecurity, often with some degree of conflation between national security threats and threats to private intellectual property, has moved to the top of the U.S. media agenda on China, along with North Korea. In the White House background briefing on the upcoming summit between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the briefers didn’t have to bring up cybersecurity. The first question and half of all questions mentioned the topic (including the meta-question “how do you keep this summit from being a cyber summit?”). Admittedly impressionistic data from Google Trends shows U.S. searches for “China” and “cyber” peaking in February.

U.S. search interest in "China cyber" over time, according to Google Trends.

U.S. search interest in “China cyber” over time, according to Google Trends. (Embedding isn’t working, so here’s a screenshot. The y-axis is calibrated to set the peak in February at 100.)

Now, the White House is in the midst of a significant surge in China diplomacy with considerable attention to the future. The Obama-Xi “shirt-sleeves summit” near Palm Springs, Calif., to take place Friday and Saturday was preceded by, among other efforts:

  • Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to China in August 2011.
  • Xi’s trip to the United States as vice president and heir-apparent, with Biden as his host and an Oval Office meeting with Obama in February 2012.
  • Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew’s trip to China in March 2013.
  • Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to China in April 2013.
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey’s trip to China in April 2013.
  • The April announcement of the 2013 round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue to be held in Washington July 8–12, 2013.
  • National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon’s trip to China in May 2013.

It’s possible to view the dogged focus on cybersecurity in the media and in government statements as misplaced. After all, it is unclear what if any effect on actual operations the “naming and shaming” process is having, and we will have to wait and see what further measures the U.S. government might take. Meanwhile, other issues such as energy and climate cooperation, maintaining stability around North Korea, and military-to-military relations are also pressing. Perhaps most of all, say (almost) all the comments out there, Obama and Xi have the opportunity to open a new chapter of U.S.–China relations through high-level dialogue and building a “new kind of great power relations” (Chinese wording) or a “new model of relations between an existing power and an emerging one” (U.S. version).

These cooperative notes, however, could trigger the media narrative Bader said the administration dreads: the United States as declining supplicant. Instead, the administration gets to claim they will raise cybersecurity in this and other interactions. They have high-level working groups in progress or planned for cybersecurity (a challenge) and climate change (an opportunity and a challenge). And needless to say, there is the benefit of getting a very serious issue for U.S. businesses and the U.S. national security community on the table in a way the Chinese government cannot entirely ignore.

How China's government escalates warnings before military action

The government of the People’s Republic of China has displayed a fairly consistent pattern of escalating signals followed by deterrent military deployments before engaging in a hot conflict, argues a new report [pdf] from the U.S. National Defense University. Reviewing each instance of armed conflict since 1949, as well as several cases that never made it that far, the authors suggest that the Chinese government has used evolving but similar signals, including statements by leaders and official publications, to indicate the degree of its resolve on a given issue.

The authors, Paul H.B. Godwin and Alice L. Miller, are experienced analysts of Chinese military and strategic history. Miller offers a framework for ranking the authoritativeness of various statements by leaders or in official media, one very similar to her account that was the basis of a post I did over at 88-Bar.

Godwin and Miller offer perhaps the clearest available review of the circumstances and signals that led up to China’s military engagements. For this alone, the paper is worth a read. They argue that China’s use of military force should be understood as divided between Taiwan-related and non-Taiwan-related cases. Non-Taiwan cases include the Korean War (from 1950), the 1962 border war with India, the 1963-75 deployment in North Vietnam, and the 1979 attack on Vietnam (as its ties to the USSR grew stronger). They are similarly thorough on confrontations over maritime claims, making this an essential read for those watching today’s events unfold.

Some interpretations are perhaps too confident in attributing intent to actions observed from afar. The accounts tend to assume a sort of Realist calculus undergirds decisions on each side and pushes for greater and more refined attention to Chinese signals in such situations. The result is a very strong framework for evaluating signals, one that fits the history presented in almost every case. It can be understood as a strong model fit to moderately jagged data.

Will past patterns continue?

Though the report does not claim to predict the future, there is a strong implication that the Chinese government’s signaling and deterrence patterns can be expected to continue. As the authors repeatedly note, however, China’s strength has increased, reshaping the playing field. They argue in part:

  • There are “indicators suggesting that changes in China’s security environment have reduced rather than increased the possibilities for military confrontation with the United States. Moreover, within PLA doctrinal development, increasing capabilities are as much related to deterrence as they are to offensive operations.”
  • There is enormous potential for damage to “China’s economic future and security” if the country is perceived as disruptive or aggressive.
  • “[T]he chances of a cross-strait military confrontation are now among the lowest they have been since 1949.”
  • It is improbable that China would strike first. If China escalated warnings and deployments, the United States would likely move more military force into the region, making a strike a losing proposition for China. A surprise attack, they argue, is unlikely as well.
  • In sum, military confrontation with the United States is unlikely on each of the potential triggers.

In the context of the report, these arguments assume a generally status quo scenario for signaling and deterrence. Left under-considered is the possibility that increased capabilities would be accompanied by a new pattern of signaling, deterrence, or offensive action. Indeed, the current situation in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the India borderlands, the cybersecurity area, etc., could be viewed as an “all-fronts” increase in activity. Are these all understood to be deterrent? If so, what new threats or challenges have they responded to? Did the external environment really turn that sour all at once?

The authors, I believe, would argue that these actions amount to a deterrent targeted at the United States, akin to efforts to prevent U.S. control of North Korea or North Vietnam. Of course, the U.S. government’s goals in the South China Sea and the western Pacific are very different than they was in those conflicts. But the fact of the matter is that there is an overall increase in Chinese deployments in the country’s maritime periphery. In the past, the report suggests, increased deployments were designed to deter specific actions by potential adversaries. Things are different today, and time will tell whether the signaling-deterrence pattern identified here holds.

A process-tracing media analyst’s treasure

The paper concludes with a remarkable compilation of Chinese government signals, ranked by authoritativeness, in three chronologies: the 1978–1979 Sino-Vietnamese border crisis; the 1961–1962 Sino-Indian border crisis; and signaling over Taiwan in 1991, 1995, 1999, and 2003–2004. Whatever happens in the future, these appendices are treasures for historians and the curious.

The following table (p. 32) outlines the report’s hierarchy of authoritativeness, by which the authors suggest observers should rate signals from the leadership, government bodies, and the People’s Daily.

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 6.00.01 PM

The appendices apply this framework and classify each signal to portray the incremental increase in authority of those delivering statements. Meanwhile, there is a corresponding “ascending order of threat,” included below:

■ X is “playing with fire” and may “get burned”
■ Beijing so far has “exercised the greatest restraint and forbearance” but this “should not be taken as weakness and submissiveness”
■ Do “not turn a deaf ear to China’s warnings”; China “cannot stand idly by”
■ “How far will you go? We shall wait and see”
■ “China’s forbearance has limits”; X is “deluding itself in thinking we are weak and can be bullied”
■ If X does not cease its behavior, it “will meet the punishment it deserves”
■ “Do not complain later that we did not give you clear warning in advance”
■ We have been “driven beyond forbearance” and are “forced to counterattack”; our “restraint was regarded as an invitation to bullying”; our “warnings fell on deaf ears”
■ “We will not attack if we are not attacked; if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack.”

Regardless of the overall analysis’s  validity in the future, these are very useful guides for assessing signals. Add to this increasing transparency (at least in the form of rumors online) that might allow more detailed analysis of decision-making within the regime, and increased official and Track II contact between the Chinese and U.S. political leadership, and we might just have a recipe for better understanding.

This is my second or third attempt at an informal review, for a general-if-nerdy audience, of recently published academic and policy writing. Comments are very welcome below or by e-mail at mail // at // gwbstr // dot // com.

Review: 'How New and Assertive is China's New Assertiveness' by Alastair Iain Johnston, Spring 2013

[This review is part of a new experiment. I have read for general impressions, main points, and potentially useful material for myself and others. This is not a detailed methodological or theoretical examination, nor is it a conscientious summary. I have tried to consider both specialist and generalist audiences. Comments are very welcome, as I hope to be doing this more often. -Graham]

Under Review

Johnston, Alastair Iain. “How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?” International Security 37:4 (2013): 7–48.

Review

isec.2013.37.issue-4.largecoverIain Johnston’s recent article in International Security recalls one of my favorite teaching pieces, which Johnston co-authored with Sheena Chestnut: “Is China Rising?” In that piece, Johnston and Chestnut asked the title question at a time when scholars, journalists, and pundits were instead asking about the implications of China’s rise. The new piece takes a similar tack, arguing that while “the new assertiveness meme has ‘gone viral,'” the evidence does not bear out a clear “assertive” turn in Chinese foreign policy.

Focusing on 2010, Johnston lays out seven areas in which China is supposed to have been more assertive and concludes that in most cases, a perception of new assertiveness is produced by one of a few mistakes. One is the classic cherry-picking problem (“selecting on the dependent variable”), in which arguments are based on instances that appear to support the assertiveness claim without examining those that might indicate cooperation. But the best of the argument comes in the one-by-one examination of seven major areas of supposed assertiveness, each of which has its problems. Johnston summarizes:

These seven major events in Chinese foreign policy in 2012 represent a mixture of new assertiveness (South China Sea); old assertiveness with a twist (the threat to sanction U.S. arms manufacturers that sell to Taiwan); reduced assertiveness (the Dalai Lama visit); probably predictable responses to exogenous shocks (Senkaku/Diaoyudao incident); the continuation of reactive/passive policies in the face of changed and less-hospitable diplomatic circumstances (Copenhagen, DPRK policy); and in one case, empirical inaccuracy (the South China Sea as a core interest claim). In toto, the differences across these cases suggest that there was no across-the-board new assertiveness in Chinese diplomacy in 2010 (31–32).

These points are generally well-made, and readers interested in any part of that laundry list might wish to engage with the details in the article. The article also examines four common explanations of the supposed new assertiveness (under “Problematic Causal Arguments”): change in the distribution of power; rising Chinese nationalism; the politics of leadership transition; and the power of the PLA.

Hidden Treasure

I think two parts of the paper deserve highlighting as valuable regardless of the overall argument.

  • In the section on “The Power of the PLA” as a causal argument for the supposed new assertiveness, Johnston provides an excellent reading of the landscape of Chinese foreign policy and PLA commentary (39–45, but especially 43–44). Johnston argues that official PLA commentary tracks over-all CPC commentary fairly closely, but that greater space for individual opinions has opened, especially for the “more nationalistic and militaristic voices.” A key assertion for those who have watched retired Chinese generals issue strident opinions in recent years is this: “[I]n the new media environment in China, these PLA authors (especially the quasi-and fully retired once) may sometimes represent only themselves.” Look at this section for a good, though by no means complete, rundown of voices out there and some of their stances over time.
  • Another nice kernel is this list of examples of Chinese behavior we might see as cooperative, rather than assertive, in 2010: “the continued growth of U.S. exports to China during the year; the continued high congruence in U.S. and Chinese voting in the UN Security Council; Chinese support for UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which imposed tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime—a move appreciated by the Obama administration; Beijing’s abiding by its 2009 agreement with the United States to hold talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama; a Chinese decision to continue the appreciation of the renminbi prior to the Group of Twenty meeting in Toronto in June 2010; Hu Jintao’s decision to attend the U.S.-hosted nuclear summit in April 2010 (in the wake of the January 2010 Taiwan arms sales decision, the Chinese had hinted that Hu would not attend the summit); a Chinese decision to pressure the Sudan government to exercise restraint should South Sudan declare independence, and China’s more constructive cross-strait policies, in the wake of Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 election as president of the Republic of China…” (32–33). Phew.

A Swing and a Miss

The only response I had seen to this paper was from Daniel W. Drezner, the Tufts professor and Foreign Policy blogger. Drezner seized on passing references in Johnston’s introduction and conclusion, in which he speculates that this mistaken “new assertiveness” meme results from “a new, but poorly understood, factor in international relations—namely, the speed with which new conventional wisdoms are created, at least within the public sphere, by the interaction of the internet-based traditional media and the blogosphere” (46–47). An interesting thought.

Though Johnston marshals a few references in support of this notion, he really doesn’t make the case. As Drezner writes: “What’s ironic about this is that in the article, Johnston properly takes a lot of the conventional wisdom to task for ahistoricism and problematic causal arguments in assessing Chinese behavior after 2008.  I’d wager, however, that Johnston has done the exact same thing with respect to the foreign policy blogosphere.”

This is a fair critique, as far as the text concerned goes. At very least, if Johnston is right, he has not made a very solid case and has not provided solid comparisons with the past. But this is a bit of a sideshow, given that the speed-of-groupthink argument subsumes a total of three paragraphs out of 41 pages. I’d like to see more recent work on this point, work I’m sure is out there or in progress.

Who Should Read This

Johnston has written a rare work of international relations scholarship that can serve as a direct intervention in foreign policy discourse outside academia. Sure, a 1,500-word version might be more digestible, but general international politics readers should have no trouble following.

For U.S.–China relations scholars or practitioners, the paper is at least a required skim. For those interested in discourse on U.S.–China relations and the shape of ongoing debates, it’s a required read.

Journalists, too, should give this one a read. Just like the “rise of China,” “China’s new assertiveness” comes easily to the keyboard. It also comes out of sources’ lips frequently. This article reviews one big idea and several small ideas that deserve a follow-up or qualification.

Other References

Chestnut, Sheena and Alastair Iain Johnston. “Is China Rising?”  In Global Giants: Is China Changing the Rules of the Game?, edited by Eva Paus, Jon Western, and Penelope Prime, 237–259. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009. (Updated version here.)

Drezner, Daniel W. “Are blogs to blame for Sino-American misperceptions?” Foreign Policy blog, April 17, 2013.

Disclosure

I feel compelled by the norms of journalism, though not the norms of scholarship, to note that Johnston was my professor one semester in grad school. We don’t always agree with our teachers, but they do help form our views, so take this all with whatever grain of salt you like.

Back to Beijing with a new collaboration with 88 Bar

[Cross-post from gwbstr.com]

This week marks my long-planned return to life based in Beijing. My arrival was met with two days of absolutely beautiful weather and clear air (obviously the result of my arrival and not the half-day downpour that preceded my landing).

And today, I have my first contribution to the lively and inquisitive 八八吧 :: 88 Bar, a group blog with strengths in design and technology. I fit in as the lone politico, but I’m happy to be there hawking my wares. Academia and the job search have a way of pigeon-holing a person into single-sector analysis, but some academics and some employers demand boundary-crossing work. I’ve always gravitated toward the latter, and my collaborators at 88 Bar—including long-time friend and finally collaborator Tricia Wang—are prime examples of how boundaries can be crossed.

My post today recasts some of the best insights in monitoring Chinese politics, taken from a footnote in a policy analysis. Some comments by Alice L. Miller at Stanford’s Hoover Institution give a solid method for assessing the authoritativeness of various government-affiliated statements in Chinese media. Jason Li, one of the 88 Bar OG‘s, put my schematic scribbles into a great visual form. I look forward to whatever comes next over there.

Check it out.

For now, if you’re in Beijing, drop me a line.