U.S.–China Week (Issue 10, 2015.06.22)

Welcome to Issue 10 of U.S.–China Week, just in time for the U.S.–China Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) meetings this week in Washington. More on that below, but first:

As always: Please encourage interested friends and colleagues to subscribe to the list. Here is a direct link to this issue at Transpacifica.net. And please send your comments, quibbles, and suggestions to [email protected].

Chinese Foreign Ministry announces conclusion of some South China Sea land reclamation, military construction to continue

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang made headlines by declaring: “[A]s planned, the land reclamation project of China’s construction on some stationed islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands will be completed in the upcoming days.” Is that “some” of the features China is working on, or is that “some” of the features in the Spratly Islands and all of the ones China is working on? The Chinese seems to include the same ambiguity: “经向有关部门了解,根据既定作业计划,中国在南沙群岛部分驻守岛礁上的建设将于近期完成陆域吹填工程.”  Meanwhile, the Chinese government will reportedly require civilian shipbuilders to meet standards that would enable the military to use the civilian fleet in an emergency, and the United States and Japan are both conducting joint military exercises with the Philippines.

ANALYSIS: About the only thing that seems clear about Lu Kang’s remarks is that they are partially intended to reassuring a U.S. audience at a time when U.S. officials have repeatedly called for China and other parties to halt island construction. The announcement over all is actually as “provocative” as ever, since it makes explicit plans to continue defense-oriented construction on the artificial islands. Perhaps the diplomats were campaigning for some way to show U.S. counterparts that the message is getting through before S&ED.

U.S. reveals another huge personnel data breach, putting security clearance files at risk; Sanctions ‘on the table’

Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Vice Premier Wang Yang (who published a WSJop-ed), and Vice Premier Liu Yandong will head a large Chinese official delegation to Washington this week for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and numerous sideline events. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel briefed the press on the meetings and cheered the presence of the People’s Liberation Army at S&ED. He also reacted negatively to the Chinese announcement in the item above: “The recent announcement out of Beijing that the Chinese Government intends to continue and expand the construction of facilities on the reclaimed outposts that it’s been constructing in the South China Sea is troubling not just to us, but to the countries in the region.” The State Department also released detailed lists of eventsbeginning Monday night through Wendesday. Russel’s counterpart, Assistant Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang, also answered questions and put on a friendly face but took some swipes at unspecified U.S. pundits. There’s a less complete English account here.

ANALYSIS: Expect relatively mild announcements this week, since anything impressive-sounding will most likely be saved for President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping to announce at their summit in September. Also expect a disconnect between what’s actually discussed in the many working-level meetings and the public posturing we will see from both governments over issues like the South China Sea or cybersecurity. The current round of news on alleged Chinese hacking makes an announcement of renewed cybersecurity dialogue this week less likely, but it’s still possible.

Obama uses weekly radio address to push TPP, so U.S. can ‘write those rules before China does’

Obama said: “One of the things we should be doing, for example, is rewriting the rules of global trade to benefit American workers and American businesses. I think we should write those rules before China does. That’s why I’ve been working with Congress to pass new, 21st century trade agreements.” Asia policy experts (here, Douglas Paal) have doubled down on the argument that the United States should conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for geopolitical reasons. After a week of grim news for TPP and speculation about lost U.S. credibility in Asia, the agreement’s prospects in Congress looked better at week end. Still, Democrats and progressiveinterest groups are not sold. Meanwhile, China and Australia are reportedly nearing a free trade agreement, and the U.S.–China bilateral investment treaty (BIT) may see some progress this week at S&ED.

ANALYSIS: Holding up the threat of China creating rules is unnecessarily negative toward China for a rhetorical note that does not seem to be convincing Congressional skeptics. If TPP makes it through, it will be because of Republican Congressional leadership and strong industry lobbies who support many of the still-secret terms in the agreement under negotiation. A “China threat lite” talking point won’t do it. Looking down the line, it’s hard to imagine the rhetoric the administration would have to deploy in support of a BIT with China.

Soros: Form a U.S.–China strategic partnership to avoid global war

George Soros, the financier turned progressive philanthropist, writes that peace-sustaining international institutions are unstable and argues for a U.S.–China strategic partnership. “The U.S. government has little to gain and much to lose by treating the relationship with China as a zero-sum game. In other words it has little bargaining power. It could, of course, obstruct China’s progress, but that would be very dangerous. President Xi Jinping has taken personal responsibility for the economy and national security. If his market-oriented reforms fail, he may foster some external conflicts to keep the country united and maintain himself in power. This could lead China to align itself with Russia not only financially but also politically and militarily. In that case, should the external conflict escalate into a military confrontation with an ally of the United States such as Japan, it is not an exaggeration to say that we would be on the threshold of a third world war.” Soros also hopes TPP will fail, since its success could undermine Xi’s September visit.

ANALYSIS: There is plenty of good and plenty to question in this essay. Surely the U.S. right will dismiss this argument because of the name atop the article, but significant segments of the U.S. security and policy community are also increasingly unwilling to engage in pragmatic debate on this level. Like some other recent essays, this is the kind of debate we need—even if Soros doesn’t have the right answers to every problem.

Eikenberry: U.S. must get smarter on China policy with realistic assessments, more regional expertise, etc.

Amb. Karl Eikenberry, a retired U.S. Army Lt. General with Mandarin language training and experience as an attache at the Beijing embassy, outlines the challenges for U.S. policy toward China in the context of geopolitics and domestic Chinese developments. He concludes with eight very tall orders for U.S. China policy: conduct comprehensive and realistic assessments of current and future PRC capabilities; nest management of U.S.–China relations in integrated regional and global strategies; exploit contradictions in China’s strategic partnerships oriented against the United States; increase burden-sharing among allies and partners; develop resilient military capabilities and reconsider low-payoff reconnaissance operations; deepen and expand liberal economic regimes; build America’s China and Asia-Pacific expertise; and strengthen America’s domestic foundations of power.

ANALYSIS: Eikenberry makes a strong case for a reality-based policy that fully incorporates uncertainty. His eight recommendations are well-taken, though I find myself once wondering how we get from here to there. To accomplish this kind of well-coordinated and (to use the jargon) “whole of government” approach, officials at the very top would have to spend enormous amounts of time and political capital. Will anyone campaign for president with a promise to make China a priority at least as pressing as ISIS?


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, lecturer, and senior fellow of The China Center at Yale Law School, where he specializes in 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).

Subscription to U.S.–China Week by clicking here or e-mailing me is free and open to all, and an archive of past editions appears at my long-running website on U.S.–East Asia politics, Transpacifica.

Contact: Follow me on Twitter at @gwbstr. Send e-mail to [email protected].






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