Welcome to Issue 17 of U.S.–China Week. As always: Please encourage friends and colleagues to subscribe to U.S.–China Week. Here is the web version of this issue, ideal for sharing on social media. And please send your comments, quibbles, and suggestions to [email protected].
SOUTH CHINA SEA
ASEAN meetings address South China Sea against Chinese wishes; U.S. proposes the ‘three halts’
Despite a statement by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that a multilateral forum is not “a proper venue to discuss specific disputes, especially territorial disputes,” the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) took up the South China Sea at a series of meetings last week. The ASEAN foreign ministers’ joint communiqueasserted that land reclamation in the region had “eroded trust and confidence.” Secretary of State John Kerry participated in the accompanying ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit meetings, declaring that “the United States will not accept restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight, or other lawful uses of the sea” and repeatedly proposing what became known as the “three halts”: for all parties “to halt further land reclamation and construction of new facilities ormilitarization on disputed features” in the South China Sea (emphasis added). The Philippine foreign minister supported the U.S. call, framing the “three halts” as a “halt in reclamation, halt in construction, and halt in aggressive actions that could further heighten tensions.” Wang Yi called the U.S. proposal “not practical and feasible” and pointed out the “freeze” is not a new idea, perhaps referring to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Fuchs’ July 2014 speech. Wang Yi reiterated that land reclamation had been completed, but said, “Next, we will build facilities mainly for public good purposes.” Mainly.
ANALYSIS: For the international media, this “Southeast Asian” meeting appeared to be dominated by U.S.–China disagreement. In the official Chinese photo, Kerry and Wang did not look so delighted to see one another when they met, recalling another tepid handshake. The U.S. government apparently released no readout from the meeting, but the tiny photo on the State Department’s China page is a little more friendly-looking, and Flickr has a version with a slight smile. Absent significant changes, it’s likely to be a chilly visit for President Xi Jinping next month.
THE ABE FACTOR
Japan’s Shinzo Abe to deliver WWII anniversary speech Friday, contents already under scrutiny
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to deliver a speech marking the 70th anniversary of World War II on August 14, one day before the anniversary of Japan’s surrender. A report already published by advisors to Abe lays down context andraises questions about the definition of “aggression” and the use of the word “apology.” In a week also commemorating 70 years since the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese press reported Abe will not visit the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, a signal of restraint if true. A Xinhua report suggests Chinese will be listening closely to the way Abe handles the terms “apology” and “aggression.” CFR’s Sheila Smith has an interesting new brief on “Rethinking Asia’s Postwar Settlement.”
ANALYSIS: Thinking optimistically, Abe has an “only Nixon could go to China” opportunity to acknowledge history and communicate apology from a position of strength as his cabinet advances national security legislation. Watch for whether he simply reaffirms the Murayama Statement, including “heartfelt apology” and recognition of “aggression,” or puts things in his own words. Whatever he says, we will learn much from the choices China’s government makes in presenting the speech to the Chinese public.
Mattis: Stop saying China is ‘at a crossroads’ and recognize the policy direction it has taken in recent decades
Peter Mattis of the Jamestown Foundation has had it with the idea that China is at a crossroads, and that the task for U.S. policy is to help China’s leaders make the right choices. “The most pernicious assumption embedded within the idea of China’s crossroads is that Beijing has not made any serious policy decisions about the direction the country is moving. After 20 or 30 years of U.S. pressure on a particular issue, Chinese decisions not to do something might best be read as a genuine decision—not simply a postponement.” Mattis is also frustrated that calls to “impose consequences for China’s actions” are seen as “shutting off China’s pathway to being a ‘responsible stakeholder’ or whatever current mantra the current administration is peddling.”
ANALYSIS: This is an important and provocative piece. Certainly U.S. discourse overestimates the ability of U.S. policy to shape decisions in Beijing. Given that, however, why should “imposing consequences” or “costs” be any more effective in shaping Chinese government behavior? The argument boils down to abandoning the carrot for the stick.
Republican candidates on China: Three lenses
Senator Marco Rubio did not get a chance to comment on foreign policy at the televised Republican debate this week, but if he had, we could have expected strong words on China. In Rubio’s recent Foreign Affairs essay, he devoted more than 500 words to China and “the need for moral clarity regarding America’s core values,” declaring “I will strengthen ties with Asia’s democracies, from India to Taiwan. Bolstering liberty on China’s periphery can galvanize the region against Beijing’s hostility and change China’s political future.” / At a televised debate, Senator Rand Paul argued against borrowing money from China for foreign aid, including if that aid is going to Israel. And Donald Trump declared “we don’t beat China in trade” and “we lose to China.”
ANALYSIS: In terms of coherence, Rubio’s China thinking surely “beats” Trump’s machismo and Paul’s rhetorical swipes. Rubio also previews a likely Republican attack on Hillary Clinton: “In the administration’s early days in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that human rights ‘can’t interfere’ with other ostensibly more important bilateral issues.” Chinese officials reasonably hope their country stays off the campaign agenda.
Quiet calls for bilateral cooperation on cybersecurity may signal partial thaw in September
After several weeks of uncertainty over how the U.S. government will handle the question of China’s involvement in hacking U.S. targets, a Chinese embassy official wrote a letter to the editor in the Washington Post: “Cyberattacks across borders are very complex and hard to trace. Therefore, combating such activities requires closer international cooperation and formulating international rules and norms to govern behaviors in cyberspace. This is where the interest of China and the United States aligns. We can accomplish much more by working together than apart. Making unfounded accusations and resorting to megaphone diplomacy is counterproductive. And there is no place in this solution for double standards.”
ANALYSIS: The embassy letter is no breakthrough and much of it is quite stale, but I agree with Richard Bush, quoted by China Daily, that Xi’s September visit presents opportunities for some kind of progress after China suspended the official bilateral cybersecurity working group following U.S. indictments of alleged Chinese military hackers. I also agree with Jeffrey Carr that “retaliation” is not the answer.
ABOUT U.S.–CHINA WEEK
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).