Welcome to issue 47 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].
SOUTH CHINA SEA
Civil-military tension on South China Sea creeps into public view; More ‘assertive’ option seemingly ill-fit to challenge
The Navy Times made a big splash with a story that, based heavily on anonymous quotes, claimed the White House had imposed a “gag order” on U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) personnel over South China Sea issues. That story framed PACOM Commander Harry Harris as “arguing behind closed doors for a more confrontational approach to counter and reverse China’s strategic gains” in the area, asserting that his appeals “have met resistance from the White House at nearly every turn.” The measures reportedly proposed by Harris include conduct near Chinese installations that would be inconsistent with “innocent passage” rules and therefore demonstrate different opinions from those expressed through earlier “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPS). The article directly referenced a National Security Council memo that supposedly asked military commanders to avoid commenting on the South China Sea before President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Washington. It also suggests PACOM can independently order patrols in the region, such as a recent visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier, but FONOPS require White House authorization. / Both Harris and the Pentagon denied any “gag order” had been issued, with Harris saying “any assertion that there is a disconnect between U.S. Pacific Command and the White House is simply not true.” Harris had previously asserted that “China seeks hegemony in East Asia. Simple as that.” / Meanwhile a U.S. Navy officer
was charged with [may face charges of]* espionage, allegedly passing secrets to China [and Taiwan], according to reports. The officer reportedly had experience as an intelligence specialist on U.S. spy planes.
[*A NYT story was corrected to indicate the charges weren’t yet filed. It appears I missed the detail of the meaning of an Article 32 hearing. WaPo now adds Taiwan, with more details in NYT. I regret the distortion in any case.]
ANALYSIS: Notwithstanding Harris’ denial of discord, it is hard to disagree with the (unsourced) Navy Times remark that Harris and PACOM “have been waging a persistent campaign in public and in private over the past several months” to raise alarm on the South China Sea. What’s remarkable about the story is the contrast between the public, heated frustration with supposed White House reticence, and the really modest nature of what is supposedly being proposed—a FONOP that is not undertaken using “innocent passage” procedures. Such an operation would be a slightly more assertive move but by no means a game changer, and there is no reason at all to think it would stop China’s outpost construction efforts. The public discord undermines any “resolve” U.S. officials want to signal, and nowhere in this story does one get the impression the U.S. government has a clear objective in the region—let alone tactics matched to such an objective. What a mess.
Sec. Carter postpones already announced China stop, keeps visits to Philippines and India
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter postponed (or perhaps cancelled) an announced visit to China on his present Asia trip, which now includes stops in the Philippines and India. Carter had said publicly he accepted a Chinese invitation and looked forward “to a visit this spring.” U.S. and Chinese sources told reporters this was a postponement. A Global Times commentary (en/zh) pointed out that U.S.–China military ties sometimes pause over politics, but “it is the U.S. that is more active in resuming and improving communications.” With the China stop off the docket, Carter is scheduled to visit one of the Philippine installations where, under a new deal, the U.S. military will station some forces. / Speaking about the THAAD advanced missile defense system under discussion for deployment in South Korea, a move the Chinese government firmly opposes, Carter reportedly said, “It’s going to happen.”
ANALYSIS: Without further details, it is hard to believe Carter’s canceled China stop was merely a scheduling problem. The reported lack of any deliverables to release at such a meeting is a possible reason, but it is hard to believe they couldn’t manufacture something. Perhaps the U.S. side wants to save the trip for the announcement of some next step in confidence building measures. But by failing to credibly dispel speculation that Carter skipped the visit in disapproval of Chinese conduct, the public signal is that the U.S. government is using a pause in military-to-military dialogue to penalize China. This is a precedent U.S. officials usually would want to avoid, on the principle that mil-mil ties should stay strong, especially during times of friction, so that any potential incident is prevented from escalating into a broader crisis.
U.S. puts Chinese censorship on list of trade barriers
The New York Times reported that the U.S. government for the first time included China’s system of Internet blocks, known as the Great Firewall, in a list of trade barriers. “Over the past decade, China’s filtering of cross-border Internet traffic has posed a significant burden to foreign suppliers, hurting both Internet sites themselves, and users who often depend on them for their businesses,” a U.S. Trade Representative report stated. “Outright blocking of websites appears to have worsened over the past year… Much of the blocking appears arbitrary.” The report’s 15-page section on China outlines many other “priority issues,” including, for instance, “secure and controllable ICT policies,” “indigenous innovation,” and “theatrical film distribution.” Only India and Russia merited longer sections in this official report on “foreign trade barriers.” / Meanwhile, Adm. Michael Rogers, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency,said the “jury is still out” regarding China’s follow-through on the September 2015statements regarding government support for “cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property.”
ANALYSIS: As some have noted, including a single paragraph in a 474-page litany of trade grievances is a moderate or low-key way to raise an issue. But as NYT reporter Paul Mozur put it in a tweet they should have made the headline, “Most have thunk it for a while, but the US gov’t finally out and says it.” The question is whether there will be any follow-through in multilateral trade forums regarding this alleged “significant burden.”
Blair outlines ‘An Updated U.S.–Japan Strategy for China’ centered on ‘assertive engagement’
Dennis Blair, who served as director of national intelligence and commander of PACOM, last month published a detailed vision for the U.S.–Japan alliance and its approach to China. While much of the report is devoted to charting the uncertainty inherent in predicting the future of China’s development and its government’s security goals, Blair offers a policy approach with an eye on the period through 2030. He argues today’s China requires a new approach, because “China has simply outgrown the boundaries of the current American and Japanese policies of cooperation and deterrence.” Blair rejects both an “economic and military buildup” and “accommodation,” instead proposing “assertive engagement.” That approach involves: better coordinating U.S. and Japanese strategy toward China; strengthening both countries’ economies; “realistic economic relations with China” (“It is unrealistic to think that the United States and Japan can force China to accept a global system developed largely without China’s input.”); prevailing against China and others who advocate “cyber sovereignty” in Internet governance; stronger alliance military capabilities; response to China in the South China Sea “at a level below the use of military force”; and other points.
ANALYSIS: Blair’s report is refreshingly honest about the uncertainty of China’s future, about risks of escalatory spirals, and about the unreality of proposals to simply accommodate China’s objectives. “Assertive engagement” is no grand innovation in strategic thinking or wordsmithing, but this report is a must-read for those focusing on U.S. China policy, because it very properly puts policy choices in the context of the U.S.–Japan alliance and broader regional relationships. Still, some recommendations are more realistic than others. Blair advocates for coordination between U.S. and Japanese defense messaging on China. As we see in the first item above, the U.S. government can hardly coordinate messaging between PACOM and the White House.
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Progressive Republican group Ripon Society urges GOP to ‘fill a leadership vacuum’ in U.S. China policy
A report suggested the Republican Party should advocate a new approach to China, “continuing to ‘contain’ her militarily while also ‘opening wide an alternative realm of contact.'” The GOP should fill the gap left by ossified Johnson administration policy, the report argued, including “dropping overt opposition to Chinese admission to the United Nations.” The report advocated extending a cautious open hand while acknowledging that it would be “foolish to expect an overnight change in Chinese opinion once these initiatives are taken.”
The report came out of the Ripon Society, a group of mostly young Republicans with a progressive bent that rose to prominence (so says then-Harvard undergrad and now long-time Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson in a 1965 Harvard Crimson article) in opposition to a divisive Republican presidential candidate in 1964—Sen. Barry Goldwater. NYT quotes Ripon’s purposes as follows: “As members of a new generation of Americans and of Republicans we can no longer be silent while vital issues are discussed in a manner which is narrow-minded and unimaginative.” [If anyone out there knows where I might get a copy of this report, please drop me a line! -gw]
(Source: The New York Times. This entry is part of a new feature of U.S.–China Week, following U.S.–China relations as they developed in another era of change and uncertainty, 50 years ago.)
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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 Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, where he specializes in U.S.–China diplomatic, security, and economic relations through research and Track II dialogues. His website is gwbstr.com.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are my own (and I reserve the right to change my mind).
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