Welcome to Issue 26 of U.S.–China Week. This week the Chicago Council released anew installment in its long-running series of public opinion surveys, this time covering the United States, China, Japan, and South Korea. Perhaps the most interesting finding was that Chinese respondents, asked about how to improve Sino-Japanese ties, emphasized strengthening political and security relations (33%), while Japanese respondents didn’t seem to see a particular opportunity there. Meanwhile, in discussing how to improve U.S.–China ties, Chinese respondents emphasized strengthened economic relations (45%) far more than U.S. respondents (29%), while U.S. respondents emphasized political-security relations (33%) more than Chinese (19%). There is a lot more to digest in the report.
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THE FORCED HAND
‘We intend to do this,’ says State Dept. as speculation about South China Sea ‘freedom of navigation’ mission lingers
A U.S. State Department spokesperson, asked about rumored freedom of navigation (FON) operations within 12 nautical miles of Chinese outposts in the South China Sea (SCS), said: “I think we’ve been very clear about – that we intend to do this.” Pacific Fleet Adm. Scott Swift implied the decision had not been made, saying “We’re ready. … We have the resources to support whatever those policy decisions are and whatever policymakers may ask us to do to demonstrate the U.S. resolve with respect to the operations that we conduct in the South China Sea.” Sam Batemanargued that the rumored U.S. plans “constitute greater militarization” than China’s actions. Adam Klein and Mira Rapp-Hooper compiled a good guide to what potential operations would mean. Lyle Morris and others discussed China’s Coast Guard with Bloomberg.
ANALYSIS: It has been more than two weeks since the first anonymous source toldFT FON operations would start within two weeks. A new rumor suggests President Barack Obama might have given a go-ahead during President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, more than a month ago. How can we square these rumors (which is what they are, in absence of better sourcing) with Swift’s statement and apparent inaction so far? Are proponents planting stories to force Obama’s hand? Whatever happens, analysis of the effects will have to figure in the extended public deliberation.
CORRECTION: In last week’s edition, I alluded to a recent statement by an “experienced China watcher” regarding the South China Sea (SCS). In reconstructing the remark from insufficient notes, I significantly distorted its original content. The person who originally made the remark, Robert Kapp, was kind enough to share the more interesting original thought. The Chinese government would not, as I put it last week, say “China is not intimidated by lawful passage near its sovereign territory.” Instead, the original idea was: “China could resolve this whole SCS situation, while retaining all its prerogatives, by simply inviting the [U.S. Navy] to sail wherever it pleased, as close to the various PRC ‘properties’ as it wished.” By doing so, Kapp says, China would eliminate the grounds for U.S. irritation while exercising its claim of ownership through issuing invitations to visitors. I regret the error.
U.S. officers visit Chinese carrier; Glaser and Hindel parse the joint statement that never was from Xi’s visit
In what Chinese media called the first visit by foreign front-line commanders to China’s first aircraft carrier and the first large-scale visit by U.S. commanders to China, 27 U.S. Navy officers visited the Liaoning. This followed a Chinese delegation’s U.S. visit in February. Online searches revealed no U.S. release on the Liaoning visit. / Bonnie Glaser and Hanna Hindel published a smart analysis of the parallel releases each government put out following Xi’s visit to Washington, starting with the insight that “the Chinese domestic audience is likely unaware of the absence of a joint statement.”
ANALYSIS: The carrier visit carries two messages. One is that, even at a time when rhetoric of confrontation dominates coverage, military dialogue continues. The other comes from the contrast in coverage, with Chinese media carrying photos and highlighting positive interactions amidst South China Sea tensions, and U.S. officialdom apparently silent. / Glaser and Hindel’s piece is all about a similar contrast in messaging. Which topics included identical language, and which statements were unilateral, tells a detailed story about what the two governments want the public to think.
PLA seeks to unify cyber warfare assets; Lewis argues White House pressure on China is producing movement
Chinese military commanders “are seeking to unify the country’s cyber warfare capabilities,” Bloomberg reported. “A consolidated cyber command would, in theory, lead to greater central control of units and individuals involved in cyber activities,” Dennis Blasko told Bloomberg. “This organization could, in theory, limit the moonlighting and freewheeling that some units and individuals allegedly are involved in.” Adam Segal said: “̆On the positive side, the PLA could now engage the Pentagon in discussions about rules of the road and responsible behavior on an equal footing, and might make them more willing to pursue these discussions.” / Meanwhile, James Lewis argues the U.S. government “got almost everything it wanted, except agreement for ‘mil-to-mil’ talks” as the result of a slow but successful series of pressure tactics on Chinese behavior in cyberspace, including the PLA indictments and the threat of sanctions.
ANALYSIS: Taken together, the PLA news and Lewis’ support for taking the Obama–Xi “agreement” seriously are grounds for very cautious optimism. Lewis does not deny difficulties but writes, “There is no credible alternative to the agreement. Sermons and chest-beating, while pleasing to a domestic audience, do not work.” Some perma-hawks on Twitter were quick to declare the Obama–Xi statement dead after unconfirmed hacking reports discussed last week, but their perspective jumps to conclusions and seems to assume broader conflict is inevitable. Luckily, the governments do not appear to share that assumption.
Differences over TPP, currency appear to dissipate
A spokesperson for China’s National Bureau of Statistics said the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), if realized, “will have some impact but it won’t be significant in the short-term,” FT reported. He also said China has opportunities through bilateral trade agreements, the One Belt One Road initiatives, and China’s new free trade zones to mitigate anticipated “pressure on our foreign trade.” An article in the Study Times (in Chinese/Reuters story) said China’s reform path is in line with the TPP, and China should join TPP at an appropriate time while attempting to avoid costs in doing so. / Meanwhile the U.S. Treasury stopped calling China’s currency “significantly undervalued” in a recent report. And Reuters reported sources believe the IMF will approve the currency’s addition to its “SDR” basket of currencies, a measure sought by Chinese officials.
ANALYSIS: There is so much uncertainty when it comes to TPP: What is in the agreement? Will the U.S. Congress approve it? Did negotiators include provisions that would make it exceptionally hard for China to join in the future, or is the door as open as officials have claimed? In any case, it is positive to see that, despite White House rhetoric selling TPP as a way to limit China’s influence, Chinese comments see the opportunity for convergence and helpful outside pressure for reform. We’ll see.
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).