Welcome to Issue 18 of U.S.–China Week. I’m “disrupting” my own format this week in anticipation of one or two weeks without publishing due to vacation. Despite the annual August Washington, D.C., slowdown, preparations are well underway for a U.S. visit by President Xi Jinping late next month with confirmed stops in New York and Washington. This issue highlights eight key issues to watch as Xi’s visit approaches.
This week also marked the first of my planned regular contributions to The Diplomat, in which I argued U.S. discussions about retaliation and “cyber deterrence” in response to Chinese espionage lack clear objectives.
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TOP U.S. IRRITANTS
(1) The cyber-economic nexus of U.S. discontent with China
The often intertwined issues of cybersecurity and the theft of commercial secrets have developed into a nexus of anger and distrust among U.S. officials and business leaders who deal with China. This week, a Chinese spokesperson said China hopes “the U.S. side can stop irresponsible attacks and accusations against China [and] create necessary conditions for bilateral cooperation.” In short: Stop shaming us publicly, and maybe we’ll talk.
This will not satisfy U.S. officials, who are tired of denials, under pressure from businesses on China’s own cybersecurity efforts, and still taken aback by the Office of Personnel Management hack (which I argue at The Diplomat seems to have crossed a line the U.S. government hasn’t yet been able to describe). If the Chinese government will not come to the table to discuss cybersecurity and economic espionage, anti-China sentiment and policy consensus will only harden.
(2) South China Sea geopolitics and freedom of navigation
Chinese officials will likely use planning meetings with U.S. counterparts to seek a change in the U.S. stance toward the South China Sea. A reduction or cessation of U.S. surveillance flights in the area has been high on the Chinese wish list for several years.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, is reportedly split on tactics—whether to exercise the freedom of navigation it asserts within 12 nautical miles of certain Chinese-constructed islands—but likely united against a Chinese ambassador’s recent comments that could implicitly deny military freedom of navigation in an ill-defined area of the South China Sea.
U.S. officials face a choice of whether to more actively confront China on this front, and Chinese officials face a choice of whether to make China’s claims more explicit.
(3) U.S. attitude toward China’s ‘fugitive’ hunt could upset atmosphere for cooperation
If U.S. officials are frustrated with Chinese obstinacy on cybersecurity and commercial secrets, Chinese officials are likely to be similarly frustrated with U.S. unwillingness to simply turn over Chinese citizens in the United States accused of corruption and other crimes.
Unnamed officials told The New York Times about a U.S. diplomatic protest against Chinese agents allegedly operating illegally in the United States. An unsigned Xinhua op-ed decried an alleged U.S. order for the departure of Chinese agents, saying “China’s operation is legitimate and has been approved in bilateral agreements reached earlier this year.”
It seems likely the U.S. and Chinese governments have different interpretations of a deal reached when Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson visited Beijing earlier this year. If the Chinese government believes the United States is harboring fugitives for reasons other than legal procedure, the atmosphere for productive dealing could be soured.
CAMPAIGN AND CONGRESS
(4) China’s currency moves revive old political issue despite unclear future effects
Seasoned observers of China’s economy seem united only in the idea that we’ll have to wait and see what happens in the coming months to interpret the recent “devaluation” (or was it a liberalization, or a correction?) of China’s currency. Members of Congress and presidential primary candidates are wasting no time, with a certain high-polling candidate declaring “they’re just destroying us” and several moves under way in Congress.
Regardless of whether critics’ assessments are accurate, the currency moves have already drawn China into the U.S. election news cycle in a way that guarantees more critical coverage of Xi’s visit.
(5) Human rights, sometimes sidelined, likely to stay on the public agenda
After a U.S.–China dialogue on human rights, to which China sent an official of lower rank than the U.S. chair, the State Department made its top human rights official available for a detailed briefing on U.S. alarm and objections regarding human rights in China. “I can assure you that it will be a very prominent issue at the summit,” he said. The Chinese counterpart broadly rejected the U.S. comments.
A bipartisan group of senators has written a letter asking Obama to pressure Xi on human rights, and Republican presidential hopeful Senator Marco Rubio is likely to raise the issue on the campaign trail, pressuring Obama to make human rights a highly public part of the Xi visit.
(6) Military-to-military ties, valued by both sides, face U.S. criticism
China hawks looking for ways to “impose costs” have proposed disinviting China from the major annual military exercise RIMPAC. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter reportedly wrote to Senator John McCain saying China was still invited. The U.S. Air Force meanwhile updated its rules for PLA interactions.
Deeper and more regular interaction between the U.S. and Chinese militaries over the past few years has been one of the few bright spots in bilateral security relations. Valued by commanders on both sides, mil-mil interactions are thought to reduce the chance of accidental conflict and create formal and informal channels for crisis communication. Congress comes back September 7.
(7) Taiwan could jump into the news with little warning
China’s top official for Taiwan affairs met with officials at the State Department and the White House. A State Department spokesperson, meanwhile, reiterated the U.S. commitment to “responsibilities under the Taiwan Relations Act,” adding, “Key priorities with Taiwan include ensuring it has the ability to defend itself, and remain free from coercion or intimidation. When free from coercion, Taiwan has increasingly engaged China with confidence.” With its January 2016 election heating up, Taiwan could jump into the equation at any time.
THE ABE FACTOR
(8) Moderate reactions to Abe’s WWII anniversary speech signal relatively stable Sino-Japanese ties
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s much-anticipated speech on the eve of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II received mixed reviews, but seemed to produce only moderate negative reaction in China. The White House welcomed “Abe’s expression of deep remorse for the suffering caused by Japan,” even though Abe didn’t phrase the “remorse” as his own, instead opting for “grief” and “condolences.” Watch Chinese government and media rhetoric on Japan as China’s own September 3 commemoration of the end of the war approaches.