U.S.–China Week: Red line at Scarborough? Selling TPP to beat China, PACOM’s communicator (2016.05.09)

[NOTE: If you’ve arrived here looking for Issue 53 (May 23, 2016), my apologies! Please click here.]

Welcome to issue 51 of U.S.–China Week. For a day at least, the attention of U.S.–China relations watchers is diverted to the Philippines, where early reports suggest today’s presidential election will result in a win for Rodrigo Duterte, who has attracted attention for impolitic statements and a stated intention to break with the current government’s strategy and engage in talks with the Chinese government over the South China Sea. This introduces considerable uncertainty to the situation surrounding the Philippines’ arbitration case against China, which is expected to conclude this month or next. With the next Philippine president scheduled to take office June 30, we’re likely in for several weeks of intrigue. Meanwhile my Yale colleague Paul Gewirtz discusses some other elements of uncertainty in a new Brookings paper on the “limits of law.”

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Framing Scarborough Shoal as a test case for U.S. resolve and deterrence

As observers and regional governments await the result of the arbitration case the Philippines brought against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), speculation has turned to China’s likely reactions to an adverse award. At the center of that speculation has been the possibility that China would begin land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal, which lies near the Philippines and far from China’s existing outposts in the South China Sea. A Washington Post editorial set up Scarborough reclamation as a test: “A failure by the administration to prevent this audacious step could unravel much of what it has done to bolster U.S. influence in the region.” In a well-constructed “hypothesis” essay, Zack Cooper and Jake Douglas read U.S. activities as a “plan for deterring China at Scarborough [that] relied on demonstrating not only that the United States would stomach some risk of military escalation to prevent reclamation there, but also that Washington would avoid overt public pressure and give Beijing a face-saving way to climb down the escalation ladder.” A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson reiterated the Chinese stance that “Whatever decision the arbitrar[al] tribunal makes on the South China Sea case, it is illegal and null and China will not accept nor recognize it.” And a Chinese diplomat outlined positions on the South China Sea, repeating the “do not accept, do not participate, do not recognize” language about the arbitration. / The New York Times reported that President Barack Obama warned President Xi Jinping not to build at Scarborough or declare an air defense zone in the South China Sea.

ANALYSIS: Military analysts identify a substantive difference between China’s existing installations and a potential outpost at Scarborough Shoal. Aside from the expansionist implications such construction would carry, Scarborough is in relatively close proximity to Manila and Philippine facilities that host U.S. military activity. Given that Scarborough has been rhetorically elevated in the public discussion to a kind of (dare I say it?) red line, the stakes are high for all involved. If Cooper and Douglas are right, the U.S. government is walking a very fine line and, if Chinese ships take action, it may find itself faced with the choice of either following through on “resolve” to prevent Chinese development of this feature (thereby risking a confrontation at sea or more broadly), or being seen to back down. Have Chinese authorities been persuaded not to test U.S. statements of resolve?

Obama op-ed: ‘TPP would let America, not China, lead the way’; MFA: ‘China stays open to TPP’

In a Washington Post op-ed, Obama offered the latest and most prominent iteration of his 2015 State of the Union argument that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal deserves Congressional support because it would prevent China from “writ[ing] the rules.” TPP “would give us a leg up on our economic competitors, including one we hear a lot about on the campaign trail these days: China,” Obama wrote. The op-ed used a recent meeting of negotiating parties for another trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), to imply that the United States could be left in the dust of history. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespersonresponded: “The U.S. seems to have a big ambition but a narrow vision. It is China’s stance that world trade rules should be jointly written by all countries, instead of being dictated by any single country. China stays open to TPP.” / Meanwhile, Robert Orr, the recent former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) examined prospects for cooperation between ADB and the Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Orr wrote that cooperation would at least initially be contingent on AIIB meeting ADB standards, declared that “Washington and Tokyo were less than thrilled with the creation of the AIIB” but “the U.S. position was not to discourage other countries from joining the AIIB,” and noted that the U.S. government was also skeptical about the ADB in the beginning.

ANALYSIS: It’s hard not to be cynical about the White House effort to gain TPP approval from the U.S. Congress by resorting to a kind of economic “China threat” discourse. Especially in the context of the weekend’s NYT profile of National Security Council communications chief Ben Rhodes, it is clear that salesmanship has taken over for rational argument on the TPP issue. Will Congress, in a lame duck session, buy what Obama and Rhodes are selling? I hope that, if the Senate ratifies TPP, it does so in endorsement of the deal itself, not a facile us-versus-them narrative. TPP would have significant effects on international economics, but it cannot negate the size and centrality of China’s economy.

Harris profiled amid speculation about White House–Pacific Command tension; China’s RIMPAC attendance reconfirmed

In a profile in the NYT, Admiral Harry Harris, who leads U.S. Pacific Command, said, “There is a natural tension between elements of the government and the chain of command, and I think it’s a healthy tension. … I’ve voiced my views in private meetings with our national command authorities. Some of my views are taken in; some are not.” The profile noted racially-tinged Chinese commentary about Harris, who is the son of a Japanese mother and a U.S. father. Jane Perlez, the reporter, wrote: “The admiral has added another facet to his job: communicator, an unusual objective for a military leader. In his ‘commander’s intent,’ a document he drew up last year describing his goals, he wrote, ‘We must communicate clearly with key audiences, including allies, partners, and potential adversaries.’” / Meanwhile, Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the Seventh Fleet, said a recent denial of permission for a U.S. aircraft carrier to dock in Hong Kong will not interfere with China’s participation in the multinational Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises to be held in coming weeks, according to The Wall Street Journal. / And another PACOM officer followed Harris in arguing that the Chinese Navy is generally “professional” but the U.S. concern is about “non-military vessels who have poor… communications systems on board.”

ANALYSIS: What has fueled intrigue about potential tensions within the U.S. government has been, in no small part, a long string of anonymous quotes parceled out from uncertain sources with unknown levels of endorsement by unnamed bosses. The ambiguities produced through this kind of information flow certainly play into Chinese calculus about likely U.S. actions under various conditions. Does that ambiguity support White House goals or undermine them? In recent days, one can perceive an effort to ensure U.S. sources are on the same page, but there remains considerable flexibility in the public U.S. position on South China Sea issues. We’ll have to wait a long time to find out what messages have been sent behind closed doors.

#USChinaWeek1966 <— follow this hashtag on Twitter for more
‘Red China Explodes Device Viewed as Step to H-Bomb’

“HONG KONG, May 9[, 1966]—Communist China announced today that it had successfully detonated a device containing ‘thermonuclear material.’ The Peking radio said the explosion, third in a series of nuclear tests, took place yesterday at 4 P.M. Peking time over western China.” / EARLIER: “Japanese Desire to Rearm Grows“: “The prospect of a mushroom cloud over China intruded subtly on Japan’s usually exuberant celebration of the annual Constitution Day holiday today. The resulting expressions of concern seemed to indicate a significant growth in sentiment in favor of protective rearming of Japan. … If people are not thinking much about the Constitution today, the major newspaper Yomiuri commented, the situation merely ‘reflects the postwar success of constitutional government.’ ‘But frank consideration must also be given to the problem of insuring that this country is protected from attack in view of the realities of the present world,’ Yomiuri continued. This was an allusion to the growing national debate surrounding the 1947 Constitution’s article 9.” And the debate about Article 9 has not subsided or been resolved.

(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.)


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].






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