U.S.–China Week: Divergent narratives on cyberspace, the AIIB backstory, California’s climate dance with China (2015.12.07)

Welcome to Issue 32 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].

U.S. and Chinese sources claim improvement on cybersecurity relations, but narratives conflict

Last week I described an emerging narrative claiming “direct and coercive” U.S. moves against Chinese online activities had produced results. This week Xinhuareported (in English only) that a bilateral meeting between the Chinese Minister of Public Security, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Attorney General included discussion of the Office of Personnel Management hack. Supposedly, “the case turned out to be a criminal case rather than a state-sponsored cyber attack as the U.S. side has previously suspected.” The Xinhua piece was released after the first day of a two-day meeting. The official U.S. release after the second day included no reference to OPM, but the Washington Post reported (based on unspecified sources) that the Chinese government had “arrested a handful of hackers it says were connected to the breach of” OPM. An unnamed U.S. official told the Post, “We don’t know that if the arrests the Chinese purported to have made are the guilty parties.” A Chinese-language article also questioned the connection. Separately, Justice Department official John Carlin implied in an important speech the U.S. indictment of five Chinese military personnel led to a shift in the Chinese government’s cybersecurity posture, from denial to the carefully worded U.S.–China joint commitment not to steal commercial information for competitive advantage.

ANALYSIS: There is quite a gap between the rosy Xinhua interpretation that the OPM incident has been shown not to be state-sponsored, and Carlin’s implication that “public attribution” had moved Chinese officials away from a strategy of denying culpability. Of course, it is possible the OPM hack was indeed the work of private hackers, but even if so, the question remains whether those hackers were routinely doing business with the Chinese government. Even if the Chinese government was indeed behind the OPM breach, the new commitment on commercial spying does not cover this kind of intelligence collection. Despite remaining disagreements and divergent narratives, further progress on a “hotline for escalation of issues that may arise in the course of responding to cybercrime and other malicious activities” could be a real positive development.

AIIB to open mid-January, as NYT reports in depth on how U.S. officials received the Chinese initiative

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will reportedly open mid-January, Xinhua reported. The New York Times‘ Jane Perlez has produced a timely report on how the U.S. government managed the Chinese initiative. Perlez reports that: failed U.S. efforts to oppose its allies joining AIIB had developed in a series of meetings held by Deputy National Security Adviser Caroline Atkinson; Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew “was not really involved in the administration’s deliberations about the bank”; future AIIB president-designate Jin Liqun sought to involve the U.S. government as “an ombudsman on transparency”; and former top White House Asia official Evan Medeiros told Jin, “I am not going to buy the cake you have cooked.” That’s quite a change from Secretary of State John Kerry’s reported first response to the AIIB when President Xi Jinping mentioned it to him in 2013: “That’s a great idea.”

ANALYSIS: Few would now defend the U.S. effort to undermine AIIB. Even those who might have hoped the Chinese initiative would falter now recognize U.S. lobbying was an embarrassing failure. Others can argue the objective of opposing increased Chinese activity in global development ran counter to historic currents or was simply wrong-headed at a time when the Bretton Woods institutions aren’t meeting global infrastructure needs. If we assume, charitably, that the U.S. government objective is to better serve developing country populations with high-standard development assistance (not simply to minimize Chinese influence), there is a lot that can be done beyond opposing new players in global development.

California governor embraces subnational climate action and cooperation with China

With a split U.S. federal government, in which climate deniers in Congress check an activist Executive Branch, state and local leaders have played an unusual role in international climate efforts—perhaps none more so than California Governor Jerry Brown. Brown’s agenda at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) included anappearance at the China Pavilion with top Chinese negotiator Xie Zhenhua, where Brown reportedly partially credited low-price Chinese solar products for California’s leadership in solar power. Brown was one of a group of state and city leaders who met before Xi’s visit to Washington in September and announced subnational-level targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

ANALYSIS: Whatever happens with COP21, both in negotiations and U.S. implementation, the value of subnational, coordinated efforts to both minimize climate change and build local economies around environmentally sound infrastructure deserves more attention than it has gotten. As my Yale colleague Angel Hsu recently reminded me, the September U.S.–China announcements were a big deal, putting Chinese and U.S. local leaders on record with timelines to peak CO2 emissions.

Singapore to allow U.S. use of its facilities for surveillance flights -report

Foreign Policy reports Singapore and the United States are to sign an agreement Monday allowing the U.S. military to use Singaporean facilities for surveillance flights: “Two Pentagon officials said the deal will permit the U.S. Navy to operate P-8 Poseidon planes from Singapore’s airfields, providing Washington with a strategic vantage point to track Beijing’s military activity in the South China Sea, which is home to more than $5 trillion worth of commercial shipping.”

ANALYSIS: Singapore has, in general, charted a careful course on South China Sea issues, and such an agreement would be a turn toward the United States in debates over conduct in the area. I would be hesitant at this stage to view this news as a major shift by Singapore, but it does directly lend support to a program of U.S. surveillance in the South China Sea, including inside China’s exclusive economic zone, that has been very contentious in U.S.–China relations.

Researchers: Countries dependent on U.S. oil purchases worse on human rights than those dependent on Chinese

Researchers from the University of Amsterdam make an interesting case: “Thisarticle explores whether human rights implications are more serious for states exporting oil to China compared to another major oil importer, the United States. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, we argue that oil export dependence on the USA affects human rights more negatively than dependence on China because of differences related to the timing of market entry. The United States established stable relationships with oil supplier states decades ago, creating dependencies that are sufficiently long-term for the implications of the resource curse to take hold, and taking place before human rights became part of the US foreign policy agenda [emphasis added]. In comparison, China’s late entry into global oil markets in the early 1990s meant that market access often required the provision of generous loan packages, which may help counteract the detrimental effects of oil dependence.”

ANALYSIS: The article depends on an index on “physical integrity rights” to stand in for the concept of “human rights” in the abstract—and the “resource curse” is certainly a contentious concept. I’ve learned enough statistics to know I’m not qualified to quickly evaluate the methodology, but given the interesting point in italics above, I wonder how the influence of U.S.-bound resource exports when they were new compares to influence of today’s new China-bound exports.


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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