Welcome to Issue 30 of U.S.–China Week. Last week I noted that President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping were not scheduled to meet even while attending G20 and APEC summits, and indeed they did not meet. Still, the leaders and their governments demonstrated what could be an emerging norm in U.S.–China relations, and a legacy of the Obama administration: working through serious disagreements on some issues, while everyday business ties and proactive government cooperation advance at the same time. While the headlines emphasized bilateral differences, I found the way the two governments dealt with those differences productively routine.
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SAME SUMMIT, DIFFERENT ASCENT
U.S. and Chinese leaders forge largely separate paths through regional summits in Philippines and Malaysia
Obama spent APEC and East Asia Summit meetings underlining alliances, developing partnerships, and attempting to present a united front against China on South China Sea issues. Xi and Premier Li Keqiang spent the meetings emphasizing China’s economic initiatives and ties among neighbors. A U.S.–ASEAN joint statement pointedly emphasized international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in reaffirming “the importance of maintaining peace and stability, ensuring maritime security and safety, and freedom of navigation including in and over-flight above the South China Sea.” Li issued a “five-pronged proposal” of familiar Chinese positions. Vice Premier Liu Zhenmin said October’s U.S. freedom of navigation (FON) operation was “a political provocation and the purpose is to test China’s response,” and he said military facilities on China’s installations are not to be confused with “militarization.” And a Xinhua commentary creatively accused the United States of violating international law.
ANALYSIS: At the open of his trip, Obama had said he and Philippine President Benigno Aquino agreed on the need for parties to pledge “to halt further reclamation, new construction, and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea.” This position, reiterated in Malaysia, was unsurprisingly rebuffed by Chinese officials, but it provided Obama with headlines showing he was “tough” on China throughout the visit. Will he be able to cooperate with Xi at the Paris climate conference that begins in a week? If so, it will be a sign that the two governments have increasingly compartmentalized areas of disagreement and areas of common interest.
ONLY SO FAR
Abe says no plans for Japan’s SDF to join U.S. freedom of navigation operations, or to operate in South China Sea
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters on Sunday Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) do not engage in regular surveillance activities in the South China Sea and have no concrete plans to do so. Meeting with Obama on Thursday, Abereportedly expressed support for U.S. FON operations and said he would consider sending SDF forces to the South China Sea, leading to speculation that Japan was considering joining U.S. FON operations. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said, “Japan should remember and reflect upon history. China will be vigilant against Japan’s interference in the South China Sea issue, its military return to the South China Sea in particular.”
ANALYSIS: Obama had congratulated Abe for “his recent legislation related to bolstering Japanese capabilities”—quite a euphemism for the controversial national security legislation recently pushed through in Japan. While U.S. planners could reasonably hope for a joint FON operation including an UNCLOS party (enabling that party to use the convention’s dispute mechanisms), Japan is not the right partner. Japanese participation would be highly and unnecessarily provocative and would underline the perception that Abe seeks to abandon Japan’s Constitutionalrenunciation of “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”
U.S.–China military ties see busy schedule during summit theatrics
The U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Stethem arrived in Shanghai for a port visit, and Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift visited a PLA Navy vessel taking part in related exchanges. “Sometimes countries may have some disagreements, yet our navies are able to operate safely at sea,” Stethem Commanding Officer Harry Marshsaid. Meanwhile, Chinese personnel attended an exchange on disaster relief near Seattle. It wasn’t all friendly this week. More anonymous reports suggest the United States is preparing another FON operation, likely in December. A new U.S. littoral combat ship is heading to the South China Sea. And Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris gave a wide-ranging speech, declaring, “We will not simply agree to disagree with the destabilizing actions taken by China. And that’s why the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows.”
ANALYSIS: If Obama’s tone during his trip was largely oppositional to China, the U.S. Navy seemed to embrace the mixed nature of the U.S.–China relationship. This pragmatism underlines the fact that U.S. officials might seek coordinated opposition to China on specific issues, but that any comprehensive strategy of containment would be a non-starter. Both militaries appear more and more comfortable completing their sometimes conflicting missions while prioritizing safe and even cooperative operations.
U.S. and China establish space hotline; ‘No competitive cybertheft’ pledge embraced by G20
Only a few weeks after the first meeting of the U.S.–China Space Dialogue, the two governments reportedly established a “space hotline” to speed communications on space-related issues. Meanwhile, at the G20 summit that both presidents attended in Turkey before the Philippines APEC meeting, the joint communiqué included language nearly identical to the Obama–Xi joint affirmation on cybertheft in September: “We affirm that no country should conduct or support ICT-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.” (The only change was to make the theft “ICT-enabled,” rather than “cyber-enabled”—an improvement.)
ANALYSIS: The utility of a bilateral space hotline is just as uncertain as the long-term meaning of the carefully hedged language on online theft. These moves do, however, reflect yet another area of incremental progress.
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).