Welcome to Issue 37 of U.S.–China Week. Readers in New York City may be interested in attending a talk I am giving Tuesday evening at the CUNY Graduate Center, in which I will offer a preliminary assessment of U.S. policy toward Asia in the Obama administration. The talk will be in Midtown from 6–7:30 p.m., and details are available here.
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SOUTH CHINA SEA
With new ‘freedom of navigation’ operation, U.S. claims to challenge rule requiring permission for ‘innocent passage’
A U.S. statement said the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur “transited in innocent passage within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island” in the Paracel Islands. “This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson (English/中文) cited Chinese domestic law requiring foreign military ships to gain approval before entering Chinese territorial seas. A Defense Ministry spokesperson said the U.S. operation was “unprofessional and irresponsible,” that the Chinese law concerned was in accordance with international law, and that many other states have comparable laws.
The Defense Ministry statement also cited a 1996 Chinese declaration of “straight baselines” (boundaries from which territorial seas and other maritime zones would be measured) around the Paracels. Those baselines are considered incompatible with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by the U.S. government. Speaking days earlier, U.S. Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris said more freedom of navigation (FON) operations would be forthcoming “and you will see them increasing in complexity and scope and in areas of challenge.” This operation won the praise of Senator John McCain, who had been calling for further FON operations. / Meanwhile, a U.S. spokesperson said Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s trip to Taiping Island in the Spratlys was “extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.”
ANALYSIS: This FON operation sent a much clearer message compared with October’s transit by the USS Lassen near Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands. Last time, the U.S. ship followed the conventions of innocent passage when no territorial sea had been explicitly declared. That left Chinese officials with plenty of room tomaintain ambiguity about the nature of their objection, and they settled on language accusing the U.S. ship of threatening security and sovereignty interests, but not necessarily violating China’s sovereignty. This time, since China has declared straight baselines, Chinese officials complained specifically of U.S. entry within a Chinese territorial sea.
An even greater difference lies in the fact that the U.S. government explained the legal rationale for the operation immediately. In October, silence from the U.S. government led to days of reports based on anonymous sources and great confusion about the operation’s legal significance. This time, the operation was declared to be targeting “permission or notification” requirements for military vessels traveling through territorial seas. Despite some commentary, the operation did not appear designed to challenge China’s legally questionable straight baselines. To do so, one might have a ship enter within the straight baselines but not within 12 nautical miles of a land feature, meanwhile ensuring that the ship did not follow the conventions of innocent passage.
Friction over North Korea on display as Kerry visits Beijing
In a visit just before the latest FON operation, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Beijing and met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and President Xi Jinping. The international response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test was the most-watched aspect of the visit, and the two governments appeared in only partial agreement. In their joint press conference, Wang said “sanctions are not an end in themselves” but agreed that “the Security Council need to take further action and pass a new resolution.” There was no indication the two governments were in agreement about the content of that resolution, however. Kerry said “it’s good to agree on the goal, but it’s not enough to agree on the goal” and called for “a strong resolution that introduces significant new measures to curtail North Korea’s ability to advance its proscribed nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” / On the South China Sea, Kerry revealed some of the content of his discussions with Wang, saying “we had a good discussion about what is the definition of militarization and what began first, who began what, et cetera”—language that doesn’t suggest any progress but rather a repetition of conflicting views. / In a rhetorical shift, both Kerry and Xi included cybersecurity not in their list of differences but in their list of areas where the governments have “made progress in cooperation” (Xi) or “made progress and discussed the issues” (Kerry).
ANALYSIS: It seems likely that Kerry hoped his visit would make more headway on the North Korea issue. Agreement that something ought to be done at the UN Security Council is a bare minimum. Reading the Kerry-Wang press conference gives the impression Kerry had previously held high, perhaps unrealistic hopes for a breakthrough, and that those hopes were dashed. It seems likely the FON operation was delayed until after Kerry’s visit to increase the chance of a breakthrough. I don’t see the cost in holding off, but those favoring a more active FON program could reasonably ask whether a delay helped anything.
Congressionally mandated report finds ‘rebalance’ incoherent and calls for it to be strengthened; My take at ‘The Diplomat’
A team from the Center for Strategic and International Studies published an extensive report on the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, finding “consistent confusion about the rebalance strategy and concern about its implementation” and recommending that the administration “develop and then articulate a clear and coherent strategy.” At The Diplomat, I discuss the report in greater depth.
Hillary Clinton again turns to Twitter to criticize China over women’s rights
Last April, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clintontweeted a link to a New York Times story on the detention of feminist activists in China, saying, “This is inexcusable.” In September, she called Xi “shameless” in a tweet linking to another NYT article on women’s rights. This week, in a tweet signed with a “-H,” indicating it was a statement from Clinton herself, the campaign linked to yet another NYT story, about the closing of a women’s legal aid group run by the prominent public interest lawyer Guo Jianmei. “True in Beijing in 1995, true today: Women’s rights are human rights. This center should remain—I stand with Guo -H,”Clinton wrote.
ANALYSIS: Clinton has not often discussed China during the 2016 campaign so far, but her criticism of women’s rights in China goes back to her 1995 speech at the UN World Conference on Women, and she made reference to that speech in the 2008 campaign, saying she “stood up to the Chinese government on human rights, women’s rights.” (See my cub analyst take on that November 2007 remark here.) These periodic tweets may serve as a way to inoculate the campaign against criticism that, as secretary of state, she explicitly prioritized economic crisis, climate change, and security above rights issues.
Noah Smith: Economics research shows trade with China has a long-lasting negative effect on U.S. jobs
Bloomberg View columnist Noah Smith cites a paper by economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson in arguing that a common assumption among economists that “free trade is good” is not necessarily true when it comes to U.S. workers and trade with China. Smith writes: “Autor, et al. show powerful evidence that industries and regions that have been more exposed to Chinese import competition since 2000—the year China joined the World Trade Organization—have been hit hard and have not recovered. Workers in these industries and regions don’t go on to better jobs, or even similar jobs in different industries. Instead, they shuffle from low-paid job to low-paid job, never recovering the prosperity they had before Chinese competition hit. Many of them end up on welfare. This is very different from earlier decades, when workers who lost their jobs to import competition usually went into higher-productivity industries, to the benefit of almost everyone. In other words, the public might have been wrong about free trade in the 1980s and 1990s, but things have changed. Popular opinion seems to be exactly right about the effect of trade with China—it has killed jobs and damaged the lives of many, many Americans.” / Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders has repeatedly pointed out his opposition to trade liberalization legislation including permanent normal trade relations with China, for instance in a CNN town hall debate.
ANALYSIS: Smith allows that what economists mean by “good” is often at odds with the interests of certain sectors of the economy. It seems unlikely U.S. public opinion could get more sour on the jobs implications of trade with China, but it’s interesting to note these findings at a time when U.S. businesses, traditionally the “ballast” of the U.S.–China relationship, have such a tall wish list in their dealings with China.
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).