U.S.–China Week: U.S. ‘not neutral’ on SCS, Obama thanks Xi on Iran, U.S. holds tongue on OPM hack, Sino-Japanese news (Issue 15, 2015.07.28)

Welcome to Issue 15 of U.S.–China Week, one day late this week, since I was in transit. Four items today, but the first is double-length.

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Russel: U.S. ‘not neutral’ on how maritime disputes settled, favors international law and diplomacy

In an answer to a question following prepared remarks on the South China Sea, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, made headlines by saying the United States is “not neutral.” Here’s what he said: “I appreciate the opportunity to clear up what seems to be an almost ineradicable misperception on the part of the Chinese. We are not neutral when it comes to adherence to international law. We will come down forcefully on the side of the rules. We take no position, however, on the underlying sovereignty claims. … We’re concerned about how claimants make their claims. We strongly believe it should be consistent with international law, and that means based on land features. We also believe that— and care about how countries prosecute their claims, how they advance their claims. That means the behavior that the states exercise to advance their interests, advance their territorial claims. And what we seek is peaceful and diplomatic engagement. What we object to is coercion or the threat, let alone the use, of force to advance the claims. So our— The area of our neutrality, so to speak, is when it comes to the merits of the underlying sovereignty claims. We don’t take a position, and I would say we don’t actually care, whether land feature X belongs to country one or belongs to country two. In that respect, we’re not working to the disadvantage of any of the claimants, and we have the supreme luxury of objectivity. … We don’t take a position on a word in the deposition of the Philippines. We’re not backing the Philippines against China in their case. But we are defending the right of the Philippines or any other signatory, any other party to the convention to lawfully exercise their rights under the convention, just as we support and recognize rights of other countries including China to utilize international mechanisms including, say, WTO dispute mechanisms, even to the detriment of the United States. That’s not bias. That’s fairness.” (Emphasis mine.)

ANALYSIS: When the dispute is partly over how differences should be settled, for instance by recourse to international legal mechanisms or through negotiation, taking a position in favor of a legal approach is, as Russel says, “not neutral.” One might ask whether Russel’s support for “peaceful and diplomatic engagement” conflicts with support for adversarial proceedings under UNCLOS. A Chinese spokesperson rejected Russel’s statement and said the United States is acting as an “‘arbitrator outside the tribunal,’ designating the direction for the arbitral tribunal.”

In phone call, Obama ‘expresses appreciation’ to Xi for China’s role in Iran deal

According to the White House, President Barack Obama “spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping on July 20 to express appreciation for the role China played in reaching an historic, long-term comprehensive nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran that verifiably ensures Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful going forward. Both leaders agreed on the fundamental importance of continued U.S.-China cooperation in ensuring the full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” This implies Obama placed the call, and Mark Knoller notes Obama had talked to nine other leaders that week about the deal. The Xinhua readout is, as usual, more detailed, quoting Xi as saying: “̆China and the United States have maintained close communication and coordination throughout the negotiation process, which is yet another sign showing the two countries’ commitment to building a new model of major country relations.” Xinhua emphasized the broader relationship and did not say who initiated the call.

ANALYSIS: U.S. opinion varies on whether China is a true partner or simply going along with U.S. efforts in dealing with Iran. There has been precious little reliable reporting on China’s true role, and these negotiations will be fascinating fodder for future researchers. For now, don’t discount the possibility that China and the United States can cooperate strategically where interests align—but don’t assume this will extend to North Korea.

Report: U.S. has decided not to name China in personnel breach; Cybersecurity sourness persists

The Washington Post reports the Obama administration “has decided against publicly blaming China” for the hack of government personnel data, including security clearance files that some say could undermine an entire generation of covert operatives. (The Times reports that CIA personnel files were not compromised, but their absence from the stolen files could reveal which “embassy workers” are actually spies.) The Post‘s sources claim the government’s reticence is partly driven by the need to protect the sources and methods used to determine responsibility. There may be a delayed reaction, however: “U.S. officials stressed that the administration has not ruled out economic sanctions or other punitive measures for the OPM breach. ‘We’re still teeing up options’ for Obama and his national security team, [an] official said. [Another] official said that the government could impose new sanctions on China without publicly linking it to the attack, and ‘then send a private message that said, “Oh, and by the way, part of the reason for this is OPM.”‘”

ANALYSIS: The U.S. government appears to be doubling down in its opposition to commercial espionage (with “hundreds” of cases reportedly under FBI investigation) but somewhat at a loss when it comes to “legitimate” government targets. It may be that the world will develop new understandings for what is legitimate. The U.S. government and business community are increasingly sour on this issue, and it may be costing China more than it’s worth. It will be a very bad sign if significant reopening of dialogue is not both announced and conducted following Xi’s September visit.

Negotiations reported on Abe visit to China, as Japan publicizes Chinese construction in East China Sea

According to Japan’s Mainichi newspaper, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s potential visit to China in September surrounding the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II might be subject to three conditions, “that Japan adheres to four political statements jointly issued by Japan and China; follows the spirit of the 1995 statement by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama; and conveys Prime Minister Abe’s intention that he will not visit Yasukuni Shrine.” The third condition, which requires a pledge not to visit, would be a lot tougher than simply refraining from visiting. / Meanwhile Japan’s Foreign Ministry released photographs and maps along with a statement on China’s construction, apparently to develop energy resources, in a disputed area of the East China Sea. China’s Foreign Ministry claims its activities are legitimate. There is some speculation that the new construction could have military surveillance applications.

ANALYSIS: Every one of these developments has the potential to reconfigure the current uneasy landscape in U.S.–China relations. If Russel’s principles from the first item above, emphasizing international law, we may find that the United States has little to say about either countries’ activities until such time as the treaty with Japan is activated by a conflict. Should the United States really stay neutral on the conduct of both parties in Sino-Japanese ties? Behind closed doors, at least, active advocacy for an integrated regional strategy is called for.


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 senior 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].






One response to “U.S.–China Week: U.S. ‘not neutral’ on SCS, Obama thanks Xi on Iran, U.S. holds tongue on OPM hack, Sino-Japanese news (Issue 15, 2015.07.28)”

  1. […] earlier reporting that the Obama administration had decided not to publicly identify China as the culprit in the vast […]

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