U.S.–China Week: S&ED preview, Fan Changlong’s visit, more breaches (Issue 9, 2015.06.15)

Welcome to Issue 9 of U.S.–China Week. Two notes: First, beginning next week I will be spending a few days in Tokyo and Beijing; if any of you out there in e-mail-land would be interested in meeting up to chat, please drop me a line. Second, you can find my comments in ChinaFile’s recent conversation on U.S. policy toward China. I argue that the rise of a new fatalism in U.S.–China policy circles calls for, among other things, “a realistic assessment of the limits to the considerable power the United States possesses.”

As always: Please encourage interested friends and colleagues to subscribe to the list. You can find a copy of this issue at Transpacifica.net. That’s the best link to share on social media. Please send your comments, quibbles, and suggestions to [email protected].

Top Chinese general visits U.S. aircraft carrier, seeks to advance military ties, and hears about the South China Sea

Gen. Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), met with several counterparts during a nearly weeklong visit to the United States. On the hot topic of the South China Sea, Defense Secretary Ash Carter “called on China and all claimants to implement a lasting halt on land reclamation, cease further militarization, and pursue a peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in accordance with international law.” (Chinese readout.) They focused on military-to-military contacts in areas of common purpose, including “humanitarian assistance and disaster response, peacekeeping, military medicine, counter-piracy,” and a commitment to reach consensus on crisis avoidance rules for air-to-air encounters between the militaries. Fan also visited the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier in California and a Boeing factory in Seattle. Carter and Adm. Harry Harris, the new commander of U.S. Pacific Command, were invited to visit China this year. The White House released a bland statement after Fan met with National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

ANALYSIS: It is heartening that military-to-military engagement continues despite the souring U.S. discourse on China ties. The signals aren’t all friendly, of course. China tested a hypersonic nuclear delivery system just before Fan’s visit, and some in the United States opposed friendly engagement amidst China’s island building efforts in the South China Sea. But military-to-military ties are low-cost and could prevent a future incident from escalating out of control.

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

Following last week’s announcement that hackers had gained access to a U.S. government personnel database, the government revealed a second breach potentially affecting “nearly all of the millions of security clearance holders, including some CIA, National Security Agency and military special operations personnel,” according to the AP. Anonymous officials are again pointing their finger at hackers “linked to China,” reportedly the same hackers who broke into the other system. The White House said sanctions are “on the table” as a response, following arecent executive order introducing that possibility. Commentators such as John Bolton are calling for a strong response. While named officials have apparently not publicly named China, anonymous sources and dozens of analysts have made the accusation perfectly clear. If the Chinese government now has security clearance data, it may have access to information that could compromise officials and, significantly, names of Chinese citizens that American officials maintain contacts with.

ANALYSIS: This breach is extremely embarrassing and potentially very damaging, no matter who is behind it. This kind of information is an obvious target for intelligence agencies, and some have rightly questioned the wisdom of keeping it all in one place. In searching for a response, sanctions are not the answer. The U.S. government should use targeted economic sanctions when economic data is stolen, but an economic response to spying would be a mismatch. More direct responses, such as hacking in to destroy the copied data or to disrupt hackers’ systems, make more sense but carry some escalatory risk. Bilateral efforts to develop norms on cybersecurity, despite the difficulties, are as urgent as ever—but stronger defense is step one.

What to watch for in next week’s U.S.–China joint documents, and what Lampton hopes to see

David M. Lampton, in a generally pessimistic essay, sets out a hopeful vision for what next week’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) might produce: “This year’s summary document of the dialogue, as well as the summit results, should be a strategically oriented map forward with respect to the very character of U.S.–China relations. In moments of crisis with Beijing, only a consensus on strategic interests can shine light on the path forward. Such a document would recognize that the distribution of power has changed, become more diffuse, and that balance and stability is our joint objective. It should also say that the two countries will work to adjust economic and security institutions to reflect new realities, and pledge to embrace interdependence.”

ANALYSIS: What Lampton is calling for would be remarkable but hard to achieve in the current climate. On the other hand, officials in Washington and Beijing are eager to produce something substantive to slow the downturn in bilateral ties. Thinking optimistically, this S&ED could lay the groundwork for a “4th Communique” to be concluded when Xi Jinping visits in September, but I don’t see the necessary common ground at this stage. Thinking realistically, expect the governments to report ambiguous progress and withhold big announcements until September.

Shambaugh: Competition is displacing engagement in U.S. policy discussion over China

David Shambaugh also sees S&ED as an opportunity but is not overly optimistic that it will be seized. He writes: “Viewed from Washington, it is increasingly difficult to find a positive narrative and trajectory into the future. The ‘engagement coalition’ is crumbling and a ‘competition coalition’ is rising.”…  “The macro trajectory for the last decade has been steadily downward—punctuated only by high-level summits between the two presidents, which temporarily arrest the downward trajectory. This has been the case with the last four presidential summits. Occasionally, bilateral meetings like the [S&ED] provide similar stabilization and impetus for movement in specific policy sectors. But their effects are short-lived, with only a matter of months passing before the two countries encounter new shocks and the deterioration of ties resumes.”

ANALYSIS: Taken alongside Lampton’s ideal outcome above, Shambaugh’s assessment describes the unfortunately more realistic path forward. Even if the two bureaucracies break new ground at S&ED and the presidents announce a new strategic understanding in September, the national security establishments remain mutually suspicious, and the U.S. election will guarantee a dark public tone for much of 2016. Obama and Xi face a test this year, but a greater test comes after the new U.S. president takes office.

U.S. errs in pressing ‘international law’ in South China Sea, when it really should push just ‘law of the sea’

Sean Mirski argues a U.S. emphasis on “international law” should downplay the law of sovereignty:  “Perhaps the most important distinction between sovereignty and maritime law is that the United States can rely on the latter to combat China’s aggressive new policies in a way that it cannot with the law of sovereignty. Up until now, American policymakers have not harnessed the full potential of the law of the sea because it has been indiscriminately lumped together with its counterproductive cousin, the law of sovereignty. But by emphasizing just the law of the sea in its attempts to promote a peaceful settlement, Washington can accomplish two objectives: first, it can improve the relationship of the smaller claimants with each other, paving the way to a more functional coalition against China, and second, it can illegitimate Beijing’s attempt to dominate the entire South China Sea.” Mirski also cautions: “One should not overstate the importance of law to the dispute—international law cannot compel nations like China (or any other claimant) to act against their core national interests.”

ANALYSIS: Mirski certainly has a point that different bodies of law have different tactical value (or pose different challenges) for the U.S. government. What this interesting essay omits is a real evaluation of the results of the Obama administration’s efforts to use legal frameworks to shape China’s behavior. Moreover, explicitly downplaying sovereignty law might undermine the legitimacy accorded by referring to international law as an authority.


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].

[Corrected for a typo and to add a missing link to the Shambaugh piece. -gw Mon Jun 15 20:49:22 EDT 2015]






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