U.S.–China Week: Arms for Taiwan, cyber sovereignty, an errant B-52 bomber, IMF, WTO, ITA (2015.12.21)

Welcome to Issue 34 of U.S.–China Week. This will be the last edition of 2015, and publishing will resume on January 11, 2016.

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Obama administration announces $1.8 billion arms sale to Taiwan; MFA says China will sanction involved U.S. firms

The Obama administration announced the first U.S. arms sale to Taiwan in four years, “including two frigates, anti-tank missiles, amphibious assault vehicles, and other equipment,” according to Reuters. Zheng Zeguang, recently promoted to vice foreign minister, told a U.S. diplomat “China decided to take necessary measures including imposing sanctions on the U.S. enterprises selling arms to Taiwan this time,” according to the Foreign Ministry. Some reports noted sanctions had been threatened in the past and would have little impact, since U.S. firms are barred from exporting weapons to China. Firms involved reportedly include Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, which do have non-military business with China. Bonnie Glasertold a reporter that, “in a break from the past, Beijing is not likely to suspend military-to-military exchanges with the U.S.” “The timing clearly was calibrated to avoid having to do it after the [Taiwanese] election,” Evan Medeiros said.

ANALYSIS: This small sale of arms to Taiwan does not fundamentally alter the Taiwan–Mainland military balance, which has been shifting in the Mainland’s favor for years. Sanctions could have some effect if the firms targeted do enough business in China to feel the impact. If China indeed keeps U.S.–China military channels open, it will be a remarkable sign of the maturity of that relationship.

Xi headlines campaign to legitimize internet controls under banner of ‘cyber sovereignty’

“Freedom is the goal of order, order is the guarantor of freedom. While we must respect netizens’ exchange of ideas and right of expression, we must also construct a good internet order according to law.” So said President Xi Jinping at the Chinese government–affiliated World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang. A partial English summary of Xi’s speech puts the rhetoric surrounding “cyber sovereignty” this way: “We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber development and model of cyber regulation and participate in international cyberspace governance on an equal footing.” Xinhuawent into high gear with numerous variations on these themes, with one headlinedeclaring it’s “Time to reconsider internet freedom touted by U.S.” Meanwhile, at the United Nations, the international battle over internet governance continued, with China pushing a related agenda.

ANALYSIS: As Danwei’s Jeremy Goldkorn points out, the language about sovereignty brings domestic Chinese controls out of the shadows and under an umbrella of legitimate state power. Some observers objecting to the notion of “cyber sovereignty” conflate sovereign rights with how a state exercises them. There is no doubt that states have the power to regulate internet infrastructure and use within their borders. Cyberspace, constituted by concrete machinery and used by people sitting right here in meatspace, is not unreachable by law and state power. Distributing child pornography or attacks on critical infrastructure are examples of activities virtually everyone would agree should be regulated. What produces such strong aversion abroad is that China’s government uses its regulatory power for censorship, and some regulations effectively exclude foreign firms from the Chinese market. It is a sign of confidence that China’s leader will openly discuss competing priorities of freedom and order, but the recent attack on Github suggests China’s commitment to sovereignty online may stop at its own borders.

U.S. bomber had ‘no intention’ of flying within 12 nautical miles of Chinese outpost; PLA warns off BBC reporter

U.S. officials said a B-52 bomber was on a routine mission when it unintentionallyflew within two nautical miles of Cuarteron Reef, a Chinese-occupied feature in the South China Sea. Cuateron is thought by many to be a “rock” as defined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and therefore it might be capable of generating a 12 nautical mile territorial sea and corresponding airspace rights under the convention. In protesting, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson echoed previouslanguage, condemning harm to “China’s sovereignty and security interests,” not declaring sovereignty was violated. A Defense Ministry statement said the B-52 had entered “airspace adjacent to” Chinese-claimed reefs or islands “without permission,” but did not use legally specific language. A U.S. spokesperson said the flight was not a freedom of navigation (FON) operation. Anonymous sources told Reuters the next U.S. FON operation in the area would likely take place in 2016. / Meanwhile, a BBC reporter, flying in a civilian aircraft out of the Philippines, was apparently misidentified as a military aircraft and and warned away from Mischief Reef. The reporter also heard someone identifying himself as Australian saying he was “exercising international freedom of navigation rights,” leading to speculation that Australia was quietly undertaking FON operations.

ANALYSIS: The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott Swift, seemed to refer to China in denouncing “superfluous warnings that threaten routine commercial and military operations” and said “so-called military zones” are interfering with international commerce. Swift’s speech suggests that third-party dispute resolution is the way forward for the South China Sea laimants, but China’s government opposes this. China’s outlay of power and its increasingly well-documented use of extralegal but official-sounding language have changed the status quo, but championing a road to resolution explicitly opposed by a key party won’t solve the problem.

U.S. diplomat jostled by Beijing authorities outside trial of rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang

A U.S. diplomat outside the courthouse where the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was on trial was videotaped being jostled amidst a group of journalists as he attempted to read a statement on the trial. “We remain concerned that Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent Chinese defense lawyer, is being tried under vague charges of ‘inciting ethnic hatred’ and ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’ Lawyers and civil society leaders such as Mr. Pu should not be subject to continuing repression, but should be allowed to contribute to the building of a prosperous and stable China,” the diplomat, Dan Biers, said in the statement, which video suggests he gave in full nearby. In a statement not included on in the published transcript, a Chinese spokesman said“authorities carried out order management” and all countries should “respect China’s judicial sovereignty.”

ANALYSIS: From the perspective of the Chinese government, going after people like Pu through legal procedures for essentially political crimes has significant reputational costs abroad. Either officials do not understand these costs, or they believe the costs are acceptable in pursuit of the objectives of neutralizing potential threats to stability and making an example of prominent individuals. I suspect the latter.

Congress approves IMF reforms, allowing a greater Chinese role; U.S. and China help expand IT tariff agreement

After languishing for lack of U.S. Congressional approval, reforms agreed in 2010 by members of the International Monetary Fund were approved as part of the U.S. “omnibus” bill that passed this week. The IMF reforms increase China’s voting rights to 6% from 3.8%, while the United States drops from 16.7% to 16.5%. IMF chief Christine Lagarde said the reforms “improve the IMF’s governance by better reflecting the increasing role of dynamic emerging and developing countries in the global economy.” / U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Chinese Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng released a joint statement on the expansion of the WTO Information Technology Agreement (ITA), which marks a significant elimination of tariffs on IT products.

ANALYSIS: Some have attributed China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative in part to U.S. unwillingness to share power with China in existing international institutions. Exhibit A was U.S. blocking of the modest 2010 IMF reforms. Just like the U.S. government’s new open stance on AIIB, approval of IMF reforms should have come a long time ago. The ITA news is a good example of how items long on the bilateral agenda can quietly come to fruition.


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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