U.S.–China Week: TPP and the China threat, beyond the bilateral, Chinese opinion on U.S., frozen in cyberspace (2015.10.05)

Welcome to Issue 23 of U.S.–China Week. You might have thought you could stop talking about President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States. In this issue, you can, but first:

Now, we look beyond the events and pseudo-events of The Visit.

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].

After TPP negotiations wrap, White House opens campaign for ratification with China rhetoric

The 12 governments negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement announced they had reached a deal. Secretary of State John Kerry called this “a critical step forward in strengthening our economic ties and deepening our strategic relationships in the Asia-Pacific region.” (Is the China relationship not “strategic”?) President Barack Obama, echoing language introduced in this year’s State of the Union speech, signaled the White House will continue using a modified “China threat” rhetoric in attempts to win ratification: “When more than 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy.” Details of the deal are forthcoming, but we may have to wait several weeks. The White House is working fast with a fact sheet and aspeech by Obama tomorrow.

ANALYSIS: It is no surprise that the White House is bearing down on its choice to use the specter of Chinese rule-making as a sales tool in Congress. I continue to suspect this particular line is not what won “fast-track” authorization in June, and I doubt it will be decisive in gaining any votes for ratification. What does the White House get by framing TPP as an explicitly anti-China move, when the highest aspiration for a free-trade agenda would be to have China eventually join “high-standard” economic regimes?  One critique from Obama’s left rejects “Obama’s plea that he must have the TPP in order to contain China.” Expect many more substantive critiques once the text emerges from its controversial secrecy.

‘Beyond the U.S.–China Narrative’ in Asia-Pacific power

Chatham House cheekily released its new report “The Asia-Pacific Power Balance: Beyond the U.S.–China Narrative” while Xi was in the United States. Authors Xenia Wickett, John Nilsson-Wright, and Tim Summers argue that a “narrative of bipolarity between the United States and China is neither an accurate reflection of the Asia-Pacific region today nor a prediction of its future” and that “it has the self-fulfilling potential to push actors into a more bipolar ‘Cold War’–type behavior.” This detailed paper recounts and critiques several existing ways of looking at the region, beyond the bilateral, and offers predictions for the coming 15 years. Those include rapid change, diversification and diffusion of power, a complex and entangled web of relationships, and a “flexi-nodal” vision for regional structure.

ANALYSIS: This paper is worth a read for anyone working on U.S.–China relations, and equally for those who tend to focus on any one bilateral relationship within the Asia-Pacific region. Though the analysis can be somewhat general, at very least the authors have set out a compelling summary of the competing and inadequate existing narratives of change in the region.

Chinese exceptionalism isn’t necessarily anti-Americanism, and ‘Do Chinese want to lead?’

Also released amidst The Visit’s media storm was an in-depth and practical examination of unusually thorough public opinion data on how U.S. and Chinese citizens think about each other. The 2012 data was analyzed by several scholars led by Alastair Iain Johnston and Mingming Shen and published in the form of a policy report by the Carnegie Endowment. To drastically simplify: Brian C. Rathburn argues that “patriotic” Chinese are not necessarily “nationalistic,” or in social-psychological terms “in-group love” is not associated with “out-group hate.” Meanwhile, Zheng Su, Tianguang Meng, Mingming Shen, and Jie Yan find little support among Chinese for China to take on the role of “single world leader” (13.6%) or the “most assertive of [multiple] leading nations” (11.6%), with respondents instead preferring something like parity (32.7%) or non-leadership (19.3%). Other chapters examine how Chinese develop foreign affairs views and the views of Tea Party supporters in the United States.

ANALYSIS: Sophisticated analysis of polling data, beyond the top-line favorable-unfavorable results, is rare in the China policy field, and this report plows a path I hope others walk down. It is of course limited by the 2012 origin of the data and would be far more powerful if the survey could be repeated to capture change over time. The difficulty of doing high-quality public opinion surveys in China is an under-appreciated challenge in U.S.–China understanding.

U.S. officials cautious on cybersecurity prospects after Xi–Obama ‘agreement’

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, testifying in the Senate, had the following exchange with Senator John McCain, according to a proprietary transcript: “MCCAIN: As a result of the Chinese leader in Washington there was some agreement announced between the United States and China. Do you believe that that will result in an elimination of Chinese cyber attacks. / CLAPPER: Well, hope springs eternal. I think we will have to watch what their behavior is, and it will be incumbent on the intelligence community I think to depict, portray (ph) to policy makers what behavioral changes if any, result from this agreement. / MCCAIN: Are you optimistic? / CLAPPER: No.” Meanwhile the State Department’s top cybersecurity official Chris Painter dismissed pre-Xi-visit reports of a “cyber arms” discussion as “never true” and said, “I don’t think it makes sense to have a cyberarms treaty.” Still, on the bilateral understanding regarding commercial hacking, Painter said, “Never before had we had a commitment from the Chinese government that that was something impermissible and shouldn’t be done.” Video is available for the event Painter was speaking at.

ANALYSIS: Based on Painter’s rejection of the earlier New York Times storysuggesting an online “arms control” agreement was being negotiated, some have questioned whether Xi really agreed to anything. In my view, the inclusion of identical language in China’s “outcomes” document from the summit (see last week) indicates a public commitment, but one full of wiggle room. Clapper’s comments show skepticism but also show that intelligence agencies are preparing to assess any changes in behavior.


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].






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