U.S.–China Week: North Korea, a key ‘defector,’ ivory’s uncertain progress, internal affairs and detention, what FON? (2016.02.08)

Welcome to Issue 39 of U.S.–China Week, and Monkey’s Greetings to all those celebrating the Lunar New Year.

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 China differ on responses to North Korea rocket launch

North Korea launched a rocket that reportedly put a satellite in orbit and was part of the country’s program to develop a long-distance nuclear missile system. The launch came on the eve of Lunar New Year and days after China’s top diplomat for North Korea affairs, Wu Dawei, travelled to Pyongyang in a effort to, reportedly, stop the launch. President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping spoke on the phone before the launch to discuss responses to last month’s nuclear test, and “they agreed that North Korea’s planned ballistic missile test would contravene multiple UN Security Council resolutions and represent another provocative and destabilizing action,” according to a White House readout. The Xinhua readout was less firm, saying Xi called the situation “complicated and sensitive.” Before the launch, Congress was already working on new unilateral sanctions, while the UN Security Council debated its response. After the launch, South Korea’s government said it would begin talks with the United States about installing the THAAD missile defense system. A Chinese spokesperson said “moving ahead with deployment of anti-missile systems in the region will further raise tensions.”

ANALYSIS: In contrast to the episodic and calculated interplay among governments in the South China Sea, developments in the North Korea situation reveal strategic differences between the United States and China and the paralysis that stems from them. Both governments are advocating solutions that have so far failed in either denuclearizing the peninsula or otherwise stabilizing the situation—in the U.S. case stronger international pressure, and in the Chinese case a return to direct talks. It seems contrary to both governments’ priorities to spin their tires in these opposing and uncharted directions. U.S. officials should try to avoid thinking of the Chinese government as merely an obstacle to a preordained solution, and the Chinese side should pursue new thinking with each of the key parties.

Reports: Chinese ‘defector’ Ling Wancheng shared nuclear secrets with U.S. officials

Reports by Bill Gertz and Financial Times journalists Jamil Anderlini and Tom Mitchell say U.S. intelligence officials have been interrogating Ling Wancheng, the brother of the key Hu Jintao deputy Ling Jihua. Chinese efforts to repatriate Ling have not been successful, the reports say. Gertz writes that U.S. officials believe Ling Wancheng was holding a cache of secrets as leverage to prevent the Chinese government from taking action against his brother, who was accused of corruption over the summer. The FT report cites “two people familiar with some of the intelligence he has provided” and suggests that part of the purpose for Politburo Member Meng Jianzhu’s visit to Washington in September was to attempt to recover Ling.

ANALYSIS: Without knowing more about the sources for these stories, it is impossible to know what elements, if any, are true. If the U.S. government has indeed gained access to sensitive national security secrets from Ling, this is one link in a chain of events suggesting the U.S. and Chinese security establishments already treat each other as Cold War–style adversaries. At what point might it be better for strategic stability to acknowledge that dynamic rather than silently living it?

U.S. needs to seriously debate goals, not just details, of ‘freedom of navigation’ program

In a ChinaFile Conversation about the second U.S. “freedom of navigation” (FON) operation in the South China Sea since October, I argue in part: “The Chinese reaction in this case seems to be about as measured as could be expected. The U.S. government should not, however, assume Chinese authorities will show the same restraint in all cases. If, as expected, the FON program continues in the South China Sea, U.S. officials should expect intercepts and the possibility of unsafe encounters. This risk is increased because, despite the military-to-military work on safety in unplanned encounters, not every Chinese ship in the area is part of the Navy.

“This second FON operation sent a far clearer message than the October transit near Subi Reef. A U.S. spokesperson promptly described the legal point the mission was to demonstrate. It remains an open question, however, whether the U.S. government needs to send warships to make its legal point. If the United States would ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, it could use dispute resolution mechanisms under the convention. Even without ratification, consistent diplomatic statements and documentation can make a strong representation.

“It is clear, however, that the U.S. missions are not just about making a legal point. They are also a show of force, and they help satisfy a constituency inside the U.S. policy community pushing for the White House to ‘do something’ about China’s island construction. But what do FON operations ‘do’? Their goals and effects should be debated just as ferociously as the legal positions they advocate.”

MEANWHILE: Australia debates conducting similar operations. The United States is to upgrade five military installations in the Philippines. The U.S. ambassador to the Philippines said the possibility of joint patrols with Philippine forces has been discussed.

State Department spokesperson calls on China to clarify status of recent cross-border detainees

State Department spokesperson John Kirby said: “We remain deeply concerned by the disappearance of five Hong Kong residents associated with Mighty Current Media and the Causeway Bay bookstore. We continue to follow closely the developments of these cases. They – these cases, including two involving individuals holding European passports, raise serious questions about China’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework as well as its respect for the protection of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. We urge China to clarify the current status of all five individuals and the circumstances surrounding their disappearances and to allow them to return to their homes.” Reuters reports Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said China’s law enforcement officials would not act illegally, but the ministry’s transcripts do not apparently include the remark. / Meanwhile, Kerry Brown argues China’s “domestic repression has a strong international dimension” and questions whether the Chinese government’s longstanding commitment to non-interference in internal affairs has changed shapes.

ANALYSIS: It does not require any special knowledge of the cases at hand to see that domestic events can have a strong influence on international opinions. When Chinese authorities target individuals outside China, however, sensitivities are far greater, as in the reported Obama administration warning against Chinese agents operating illegally in the United States. The many unanswered questions include: At what level are these apparent cross-border renditions authorized? Should we take it from the absence of Lu Kang’s remarks in the published transcripts that the central government has not yet decided how to play this issue?

U.S. diplomat wrestles with whether China’s commitments on ivory have translated into action

In a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield answered lawmakers’ questions about actions taken after U.S.–China joint commitments to fight the ivory trade. Those commitments, announced in September when Xi visited Washington, included a pledge from both governments to “take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.” Brownfield, who co-chairs the U.S.–China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement,said “we got the Chinese…to agree that we would form a working group to develop details on how we would work to make this happen. Now, with many countries in the world you would say this sounds laughably little to have accomplished. With China it is I would say a step in the right direction.” Later, Brownfield also said “I would describe [China’s new draft wildlife protection law] as I have read it and understood it so far is it moves in the right direction in some ways, in the wrong direction in some ways. And it unquestionably does not go as far as we wish it would go.” Brownfield called the China “issue” the “800-pound gorilla who’s actually not in the room” and said four years of work had “moved from something that they are not willing to talk about at all to something that they are willing to acknowledge is an issue, and that they have taken some ownership of.”

ANALYSIS: Brownfield is cautious in assessing progress on this issue, though he does highlight a public “ivory crush” in which Chinese authorities made a show of destroying a large amount of ivory to publicize the government’s stated policy. The public rarely gets a clear vision of how successful, or on the other hand how pro forma, individual lines in the U.S. or bilateral “fact sheets” that come out of major diplomatic events turn out to be. When, as in cybersecurity, success is partially measured in just getting both sides to talk about an issue, it is clear that more substantial progress will be a long time coming.


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].






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *