U.S.–China Week: The drums of cold war and open confrontation over the South China Sea (Issue 7, 2015.06.01)

Welcome to Issue 7 of U.S.–China Week. 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].

Chinese ambassador questions U.S. intentions, calls an anti-China alliance ‘counterproductive’ and ‘stupid’

Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai reacted strongly to the U.S.publicity campaign surrounding the South China Sea: “[W]hat the U.S. is doing has given rise to a lot of questions in China: Why are they overreacting? Why are they reacting like this? Why are they sending more and more military ships, airplanes, for reconnaissance activities so close to China? What is the real intention? Is there any attempt to replay the Cold War in Asia?” Cui deftly but ultimately unconvincingly made the case that China’s actions are merely legitimate and measured activities in areas belonging to China, and that only the United States and others are causing trouble in the region. Specifically, Cui calls U.S. alliances in the region, if arranged to counter China, “counterproductive and even stupid.”

ANALYSIS: This is an unusually firm public statement from Cui, one clearly calculated as a response to the unusual publicity afforded the island reclamation issue by the United States leading up to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore (see next item). I would not say these statements displayed a resolve to use force, however: “WSJ: If a U.S. aircraft or a Navy vessel goes within 12 nautical miles of one of these reefs, would China consider that reason to fire on the craft? // Mr. Cui: Like every other sovereign country in the world, we certainly have the right and capability to defend ourselves.” Most troubling is the failure to recognize that bipolar, Cold War dynamics, by definition, take two to tango.

China appears isolated over South China Sea at regional security forum as its representative fails to address concerns

There is a lot to read about the Shangri-La Dialogue, which took place over the weekend in Singapore. CSIS’s Bonnie Glaser has the best quick summary, including her own reporting from the conference, putting Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo’s speech (Eng|中文) in context. Glaser specifically reports Sun was uncomfortable speaking extemporaneously to answer pointed questions from the audience, leaving “the impression that China could care less about others’ concerns and will stay the course in the South China Sea regardless.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter gave significant speeches en route in Hawaii (saying “China is out of step with both international norms”) and at Shangri-La (“there should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants”). The Chinese Foreign Ministry posted adetailed rebuttal (“countries must not abuse the freedom of navigation and overflight, still less shall they take the freedom as an excuse to infringe upon the sovereignty, rights and security of coastal countries that are protected by the international law”). Meanwhile, U.S. officials told reporters China has placed artilleryon one of the artificial islands.

ANALYSIS: At the risk of attaining “broken record” status this summer, I will again note that these interactions need to be viewed in context of the scheduled September state visit by President Xi Jinping to the United States. While both governments generally wish for a smooth visit, this also gives both sides an opportunity to push hard on issues they deem especially important. Under that summit-bound rubric, the United States government made the first move on this issue, making clear that it views the South China Sea issue as of paramount importance. The question is whether China’s government will engage or, increasingly cornered, lash out—putting the summit at risk. The ability of U.S. and Chinese military forces to operate safely in close proximity while both of their missions are demonstrative in nature will be tested repeatedly before September.

Subpoenas for J.P. Morgan’s contact with China’s corruption czar and others; Possible deportation for China’s ‘most wanted’

U.S. investigators in the ongoing inquiry over China hiring practices at J.P. Morgan ordered the firm to hand over any contact it had with a wide variety of top Chinese officials, including Politburo Standing Committee member and anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan, WSJ reported. Wang himself has not been subpoenaed, and there has been little or no public reaction from Beijing. WSJ also reported that a rumored trip by Wang to the United States was “never formally proposed” and dropped by April without explanation. / Meanwhile, “China’s most-wanted fugitive” Yang Xiuzhu is reportedly in U.S. custody and awaiting deportation. A China Daily story suggests extradition is in the cards, but WSJ reports the more likely scenario that Yang could be deported “on visa-related violations” and then repatriated.

ANALYSIS: The apparent lack of public response by the Chinese government and media to the subpoena of J.P. Morgan’s contact, if any, with Wang Qishan is encouraging, since the investigation really doesn’t target Wang. If anything more suggestive of wrongdoing emerges, however, the response from Beijing could be furious both in public and, perhaps more so, in private. / If Yang is repatriated to China, her treatment should be scrutinized, especially if the U.S. government discovered the alleged visa violations while looking into her case at the request of Chinese counterparts. Of course, the United States gains little from serving as a haven for large-scale thieves of public funds.

U.S. works with China on North Korea, praises new measures against the trade in ivory

While the Pentagon set out strong, public opposition to Chinese actions in the South China Sea, two State Department releases revealed other facets of bilateral ties. First, the U.S. point person for North Korea policy, Sung Kim, met in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart Wu Dawei and went to the press afterward with positive words about China’s role. Second, the press office in Washington released a statementpraising the Chinese government’s destruction of a large stock of ivory and its “commitment to eventually halt the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products,” noting this action “reinforces commitments made at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogues in 2013 and 2014.”

ANALYSIS: These releases may have been part of a coordinated effort to emphasize some positive at a time when headlines emphasize military confrontation—but probably not. Regardless, consider this your weekly reminder that the U.S.–China relationship is broad, complex, and not suited to description in geopolitical terms alone.

U.S. commentators roundly mocked using China as a set piece in navel-gazing op-eds

James Palmer must have had fun with this piece in the Washington Post. A taste: “And because China is so vast, its successes can be attributed to whatever your pet cause is. Do you oppose free markets and privatization, like John Ross, former economic policy adviser for the city of London? Then China’s success is because of the role of the state. Do you favor free markets, like the libertarian Cato Institute? Then China’s success is because of its opening up. Are you an environmentalist? China is working on huge green-energy projects. Are you an energy lobbyist? China’s building gigantic pipeline projects. Are you an enthusiast for the Protestant work ethic, like historian Niall Ferguson, who describes it as one of his “killer apps” for civilizations? Then credit China’s manufacturing boom to its 40 million Protestants — even though they’re less than 5 percent of its 1.3 billion people.”

ANALYSIS: Palmer is right to mock, but there is a deadly serious reality underlying the dark humor. As much as the “China watchers” in academia, government, business, and elsewhere lack comprehensive understanding and have fundamental disagreements, their conversations incorporate greater complexity about China. Despite all their efforts (or perhaps because of them, since “experts” like to defend their turf), elite U.S. discourse on China is still conducted largely in caricature. China is hardly unique in this respect, but something has to change if “mutual trust” and “cooperation” are to emerge.


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 and senior fellow at Yale Law School’s China Center, where he focuses on 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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