Welcome to Issue 35 of U.S.–China Week, the first of 2016. I returned this weekend from a week-long Internet connectivity fast, during which I only caught news on local front pages as I traveled. On reentry I discovered that North Korea claimed it had tested a hydrogen bomb around the time of Kim Jong-un’s birthday (read the Economist), that China’s markets had entered a volatile patch (read Bill Bishop), and that El Chapo had briefly displaced Donald Trump in the U.S. headlines. This edition does not attempt a summary of all events since the last edition, but a few developments deserve attention.
Coming tomorrow: Each year I comb through the State of the Union address and analyze how the president handles Asia. Follow me on Twitter or checkTranspacifica.net for commentary tomorrow night. Previous posts are here: 2015,2014, 2013, 2012, 2011.
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SOUTH CHINA SEA
In letter to McCain, Carter finally reveals rationale for November freedom of navigation demonstration
After a prolonged silence that led to widespread speculation, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter outlined the details of a U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) that took place October 27. In a letter to Senator John McCain, who had requested more information, Carter said the USS Lassen had traveled within 12 nautical miles of five maritime features in the South China Sea, not just the Chinese installation at Subi Reef. Carter said the Lassen conducted “a continuous and expeditious transit that is consistent with both the right of innocent passage, which only applies in a territorial sea, and with the high seas freedom of navigation that applies beyond any territorial sea.” As Adam Klein and Mira Rapp-Hooper discuss, Carter’s letter suggests that the maneuvers were designed to assume coastal states have maximum rights under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), even if they have not declared zones as outlined in the convention. “Given the factual uncertainty [about whether Sandy Cay would be entitled to a territorial sea],” Carter writes, “we conducted the FONOP in a manner that is lawful under all possible scenarios to preserve U.S. options.” Carter twice draws a distinction between challenging maritime claims and “the need to demonstrate that countries cannot restrict navigational rights and freedoms around islands and reclaimed features contrary to” UNCLOS. This is important because China has avoided clarifying its claims, but the U.S. government still opposes its actions.
ANALYSIS: The U.S. desire to keep options open is understandable, but the long delay in explaining the legal rationale for the operation caused an exceptional amount of uncertainty about the U.S. position—uncertainty that remains to some extent, since the late explanation leaves open the possibility that Carter’s rhetoric was developed in response to public pressure, not original policy intent. If, as Carter writes, the purpose of the operation was to “demonstrate” U.S. views, it would make sense to communicate what is being demonstrated at the time of the operation.
THE OTHER ELECTION
After Saturday election, Taiwan may rise again in U.S.–China calculus; Watch the results… and the exit polls
Taiwanese voters go to the polls Saturday, January 16, for presidential and legislative elections. Just two months after the historic meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Ma Ying-jeou, Ma’s party is expected to lose the presidency to DPP candidate Tsai
Ying-wen Ing-wen [typo fixed 2015.01.11]. The election also comes less than a month after the U.S. government announced new arms sales to Taiwan—timing that former White House official Evan Medeiros said was designed to avoid an announcement after the election. Richard Bush of Brookings has the best one-stop summary I’ve seen of the election in the context of relations among the United States, the Mainland, and Taiwan. Bush writes that while Tsai is likely to be less friendly toward the Mainland, we should watch exit polls on Saturdayto see where Taiwanese voters stand on cross-Strait issues apart from the present election. If Tsai seems to have won through electoral virtuosity, but voters continue to favor Ma’s relatively friendly approach to the Mainland, Bush writes, “the same democratic system that brings the DPP to power could restrain any impulses it might have to change Beijing’s bottom line.” If a Tsai victory comes with “greater caution towards China, then the Tsai administration would seem to have more—but not total—freedom of action.”
ANALYSIS: Bush’s paper embraces uncertainty and games out several possible outcomes. In the context of U.S.–China relations, he argues that the best outcome for the United States would be if Ma’s party keeps power, because Ma’s cross-Strait policies “have reduced the salience of the Taiwan issue in a U.S.–China relationship littered with other problems.” With Tsai leading 45% to 16% in the last poll before Saturday, the Taiwan issue will likely rise at least temporarily in U.S.–China relations, even if the Taiwanese and Mainland governments quickly develop a new, stable modus vivendi.
Rubio outlines approach to China with greater human rights emphasis but little else to depart from Obama era
In a speech devoted to China, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio said the country “presents both opportunities and challenges for our people.” Rubio criticized Obama: “Freedom for the people of China must be our goal; but it has not been the goal of President Obama. He has only appeased their oppressive leaders, staying silent in the face of their human rights abuses. … [He] has hoped that being more open to China would make them a more responsible nation. It has not worked.” Rubio called Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state a “disaster” and outlined three goals: “to restore our national security and defend our strategic interests, protect our economic wellbeing, and advance the cause of freedom and human rights.” Rubio blames Obama for the sequester and pledges to end it. A few specifics: “I will impose visa bans and asset freezes on Chinese officials who violate human rights. I will do all I can to empower Chinese citizens to breach what has been called the Great Firewall of China.” Rubio pledged to visit underground churches in China, to invite “dissidents and other freedom fighters around the world” to his inauguration, and to “personally engage” a variety of activists and dissidents.
ANALYSIS: While Rubio’s specific pledges on rights issues would mark a change from the Obama era, his other goals are in line with the current administration’s priorities. This is especially true on the economy: “reinforcing our insistence on free markets and free trade,” passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, “fortify[ing] our cyber defenses,” “work[ing] with other nations to pressure China to halt its use of commercial espionage,” imposing sanctions on intellectual property violators, and restricting “access to strategically sensitive technologies.” Sounds like the Obama-Clinton approach to me.
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).