U.S.–China Week: Tit-for-tat posturing, Kerry and Carter on ‘the’ order, hacking declines?, resolve and deterrence (2016.04.18)

Welcome to issue 48 of U.S.–China Week. There are two notes of clarification from last issue. First, this year was not, as many reported, the first time the U.S. government had included Chinese censorship in a list of trade barriers—though it was the first time since 2013. This Reuters story reporting a Chinese denial includes that point. Second, last week’s mention of a U.S. Navy officer accused of espionage included language saying he was “charged.” I and others missed the subtlety that charges had not yet been formally issued but instead were being sought. On the first point, kudos to Reuters for catching the previous mention. On the second, I regret the error.

As I prepare to send this issue, the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) has just sent out a new report on “U.S.–China Relations in Strategic Domains” that looks very promising and will be next on my reading list.

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
U.S.–Philippine joint patrols revealed, Carter visits carrier on patrol, Fan visits new outposts, Chinese military plane lands

On a trip to Asia, Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited a U.S. aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, accompanied by Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. Carter also said “the United States will be keeping nearly 300 troops, including Air Force commandos armed with combat aircraft and helicopters, in the Philippines through the end of the month,” AP reported. China’s navy meanwhile sent a military plane to the newly built airstrip on landfill at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. Reports said the plane had been sent to evacuate ill workers. And Gen. Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, visited unspecified locations in the Spratlys, according to a Xinhua story posted on the Defense Ministry website. / Also this week, a team of scholars and policy analysts working with NBR and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation published an extensive body of resources called the Maritime Awareness Project, with an extremely useful interactive map as its most exciting feature. And Michael Fuchs proposed imaginative and unusually plausible steps to decrease tensions in the South China Sea.

ANALYSIS: The U.S.–Philippine joint patrols are news, but everything else has been previously announced or expected. What this round of events represents is a continuation of a tit-for-tat dynamic between the United States and China in the South China Sea that, so far, takes place in the realm of posturing. The governments involved will have another round of “required” posturing following the eventual resolution of the Philippine arbitration case. I wish I could say I am confident the line between escalatory posturing and escalatory use of force would be hard to cross.

WHICH ORDER?
Kerry waxes dramatic on risks of Chinese leadership absent TPP; Plus, Carter on the ‘Chinese mind’

Speaking in Los Angeles, Secretary of State John Kerry warned of the risks of failing to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). “Right now, China is working to finish its own version of TPP, binding its market with 16 countries, extending from India to Japan. … So the choice for us is to lead and help define the rules of global trade or to witness the fastest-growing markets race to the bottom, while standards antithetical to our interests and values become business as usual for billions of people across our planet. I can’t think of anything more dangerous or damaging to the rule of law and structure we have worked for since the end of World War II.”

Speaking to Vox, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had this to say about the “Chinese mind”: “[T]here is a tinge in Chinese thinking which says not only do we need to grow and become wealthy, powerful — all that is fine, that’s what 1.3 billion industrious people will do. The United States doesn’t have any strategic problem with that, but also in the Chinese mind the idea that we need to right the wrongs of the past and dominate our region, and reject the system of rules-based order that we associated with the United States. Of course, we associate that with rules and the right way for nations to conduct, and the best climate for business, and protection of intellectual property, and all that stuff. There’s a part of the Chinese mind that thinks that that’s an American creation, rather than a good in itself.”

ANALYSIS: Neither of these statements is a great departure from recent U.S. government rhetoric, but they are worth reading together. In extending the administration’s effort to sell TPP domestically using the threat of Chinese leadership, Kerry reaches over to another rhetorical strand, the idea that China’s government seeks to undermine “the rule of law and structure” the United States has painstakingly built, a structure associated with “our interests.” Carter echoes the talking point that the U.S. government welcomes China’s rise under certain conditions, and he argues that “the” rules-based order is no mere U.S. interest but “a good in itself.” The two seem to agree that the status quo is virtuous, but they aren’t fully aligned on whether it was a U.S. creation. Meanwhile, neither seems to realize that one could be for a rules-based order but object to elements of the current rules-based order. Policy thinkers often write of “legitimate interests,” and the disagreement between the U.S. and Chinese governments seems to be over which of each other’s perceived interests are legitimate.

CYBERSPACE
Report: Chinese hacking of U.S. companies down since September

The Financial Times reports that private sector and government analysts believe China-based commercial hacking appears to be down since President Xi Jinping declared opposition to state-sponsored commercial hacking in September. “None of the 22 separate Chinese state-sponsored hacking units identified by FireEye, [a] security firm, are still active against U.S. companies, chief executive David DeWalt told the Financial Times. ‘The activity stopped after the handshake,’ said Mr. DeWalt, referring to the presidential agreement. ‘It’s been dramatic.'” / Meanwhile, media reports (double checked with a transcript) say a U.S. admiral believes Chinese hackers attack U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) networks “every day” and that “the cyber threat that I specifically face with MDA [is] on par with any intercontinental ballistic missile threat that either Iran or North Korea possesses.”

ANALYSIS: If state-sponsored commercial hacking has indeed decreased following Xi’s statement, this is a strong sign that U.S.–China cybersecurity dialogue is far more alive than many believe. A recent RAND report analyzed in depth how the U.S. government might bring China back to the table for formal talks. What if avoiding a formal mechanism (that one side can suspend over symbolic issues) is actually a better option?

RESOLVE
White: ‘Only the clear threat of a conflict with America’ would deter China using maritime disputes to challenge U.S. power

Hugh White of Australian National University, in an ongoing debate with Robert Manning and Jim Przystup, describes the trouble with a U.S. strategy based on the assumption that maintaining primacy in Asia is desirable and achievable. “[W]e all know what the [U.S.] strategy is. It is to take advantage of China’s own assertive behavior to build anxiety about China’s ambitions among its neighbors, and then harness that anxiety to assemble a coalition which will act together diplomatically to compel China to abandon its challenge, leaving the U.S.-led order intact.” White writes that the success of this strategy is doubtful because: It “overestimates the resolve of America’s friends and allies in Asia,” “underestimates China’s resolve,” and “overestimates the deterrent effect of U.S. military power in Asia today.” On the third point, White writes, “The reality is that no one in Washington has seriously asked the key question: is America willing to fight a war with China to preserve the current order in Asia? Until that question has been plainly asked and unambiguously answered in the affirmative, Washington has little chance of deterring China. And my hunch is that the answer will be in the negative.”

ANALYSIS: The basic debate here has on one side people who believe that the United States must have primacy (an ill-defined concept that many say must be “maintained,” implying the non-obvious assumption that the United States already has it). These people often argue for shows of “resolve.” White comes from another camp, where U.S. primacy either doesn’t exist or cannot be maintained without unacceptable costs, and where the difficulty of showing resolve comes not from signaling miscues but from a fundamental lack of resolve itself. His perspective leads to the harder question of what the U.S. interest really amounts to, and I think that’s where the real strategic thinking should happen.

#USChinaWeek1966 <— follow this hashtag on Twitter for more
Secretary of State outlines 10 points for future China policy

Secretary of State Dean Rusk, speaking to a House subcommittee, gave a speechabout China policy that included 10 “elements of future policy.” Two points seem especially resonant today: “First, we must remain firm in our determination to help those allied nations which seek our help to resist the direct or indirect use of threat or force against their territory by Peking. … Sixth, we must keep firmly in our minds that there is nothing eternal about the policies and attitudes of Communist China. We must avoid assuming the existence of an unending and inevitable state of hostility between ourselves and the rulers of mainland China.”

It is worth remembering, too, that U.S. discourse (in this case from a secretary of state) has long speculated about Chinese intentions: “First, the Chinese Communist leaders seek to bring China on the world stage as a great power. They hold that China’s history, size, and geographic position entitle it to great power status. They seek to overcome the humiliation of 150 years of economic, cultural, and political domination by outside powers. Our concern is with the way they are pursuing their quest for power and influence in the world. … Peking’s use of power is closely related to what I believe are its second and third objectives: dominance within Asia and leadership of the Communist world revolution… Peking is striving to restore traditional Chinese influence or dominance in South, Southeast and East Asia.” Was this true then, and is is true now?

MEANWHILE: Chinese media claimed a U.S. military plane that took off from the Philippines had been shot down after intruding into Chinese territory near Hainan. The plane, a tanker, was apparently never recovered, and online tributes to the missing pilot continue today.

(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.)<

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 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).

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 East Asia and the United States, Transpacifica.

Contact: Follow me on Twitter at @gwbstr. Send e-mail to [email protected].

1 thought on “U.S.–China Week: Tit-for-tat posturing, Kerry and Carter on ‘the’ order, hacking declines?, resolve and deterrence (2016.04.18)

  1. Pingback: U.S.–China Week: ‘Having it both ways’ on UNCLOS; steel dispute; FBI ‘optimistic’ on cybercrime (2016.05.02) – Transpacifica

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