U.S.–China Week: Li Keqiang meets Obama; South China Sea uncertainty (2016.09.26)

Welcome to issue 70 of U.S.–China Week.

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Li Keqiang meets Obama alongside UN meetings, expresses optimism for bilateral ties, whoever wins election

“No matter who gets elected in the U.S. presidential election, I believe that China-U.S. ties will continue to grow steadily and in a positive direction,” Premier Li Keqiang told a New York audience. Li was in New York for the UN General Assembly meetings. In his UN speech, Li pushed a framework for “sustainable development.” Li also favored a global security concept featuring “dialogue instead of confrontation, and partnership instead of alliance” (“对话而不对抗、结伴而不结盟”). That phrase has been around at least since March 2015, but the context here caught my eye, because security architectures are on my mind since last week. / Li met with President Barack Obama, and the White House readout covered familiar points plus some not-always-present trade topics—”the importance of achieving progress in negotiation of a U.S.-China Bilateral Investment Treaty and of a World Trade Organization Environment Goods Agreement.” The People’s Daily/Xinhua readout gave a bit more, with Li calling trade the “ballast” and “propeller” of bilateral relations and reiterating Chinese opposition to deployment of the THAAD missile defense system.

ANALYSIS: With Obama’s visit to Hangzhou only recently concluded, the Li-Obama meeting appears to have been a largely ceremonial event, with no reports of breaking new ground. Li’s polite optimism about U.S.–China relations under the next U.S. president no doubt masks deep uncertainty about what Donald Trump would actually do, and much more certain wariness of a Hillary Clinton presidency. (Hints about Trump’s economic opinions, mentioning China liberally, are available in a new white paper by “senior policy advisers” to the campaign Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross.)

Indonesia-U.S. joint patrols; Philippine position on U.S. partnership fluctuates as Duterte seeks ‘alliances’ elsewhere

U.S. and Indonesian forces plan to “carry out joint patrols around the outer maritime boundaries of Indonesian territorial waters,” Kyodo reported. Indonesian officials were also reportedly in talks with U.S. officials on potential support for upgrades to a South China Sea naval base. / Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly clarified that he never meant to tell U.S. soldiers to leave the Philippines, and that they are needed for the South China Sea. Duterte also reportedly complained of U.S. reluctance to sell the Philippines missiles to equip recently acquired fighter jets. U.S.–Philippine bilateral military drills were scheduled for October. And Duterte separately said he would visit Russia and China to seek ties beyond the United States: “I am ready to not really break (U.S.) ties but we will open alliances with China and… Medvedev, he is awaiting there for my visit,” Duterte said according to Reuters. / ANew York Times story reported that Scarborough Shoal was “China’s next big target for construction” but that Duterte’s positioning “has changed China’s calculation.” That story, though its macro narrative is thinly sourced, drew my attention to a July statement by top PLA Navy Adm. Wu Shengli to U.S. counterpart Adm. John Richardson that “South China Sea sovereignty rights” are a “Chinese core interest.”

ANALYSIS: The NYT story on China’s alleged change of plans regarding Scarborough is a good example of the perils of covering a lack of events. The crux of the story is the assumption by unspecified others that China had planned to build an outpost at Scarborough Shoal, plus the assertion that China has delayed those plans because of Duterte’s possible friendship. While there is plenty of good material in the story, it does not convincingly establish the Chinese plans, a change in those plans, or the reason for any change. Plans? No direct source is given for China’s alleged plans, but material suggesting they might exist includes “rumors” (one round of which were pretty well debunked) of dredgers in the area and speeches by the scholar Jin Canrong, a lively personality whose whose ties to leadership are unclear. Change of plans? If Jin was right in his speech referenced in the story, construction was planned for next year, thus the lack of activity so far is no evidence of a change in alleged plans. Cause of the alleged change? Jin is given as a source for the notion that, in paraphrase, “Duterte’s openness to talking with China, and his cantankerous attitude toward the Americans, would probably delay the construction plans.” Then again, if there was a change, perhaps it was tied to Obama’s reported warning to President Xi Jinping not to make moves that might engage U.S. treaty commitments to the Philippines—or to other factors entirely. I pick on this story not because it is uniquely problematic, but because the issues it covers are of great potential consequence and are so often discussed in over-certain terms both by “analysts” and by journalists. At minimum, I would strongly advocate for a dissenting voice in a story like this that depends essentially on a few experts’ guesses.

Chinese aluminum hearing scheduled; China extends anti-dumping duties on U.S. chicken

The U.S. International Trade Commission will hear from Chinese industry officials this week in a investigation into aluminum pricing, Nikkei reports. “In response to pressure from U.S. aluminum producers who fear cut-rate Chinese exports, the U.S. International Trade Commission in April launched an investigation of competitive factors affecting aluminum production in major producing countries, including the U.S. and China,” according to Nikkei, which reports the investigation is not expected to conclude until mid-2017. / Reuters reports: “China’s commerce ministry said it will extend anti-dumping measures on imports of U.S. broiler chicken products for a further five years, effective from Sept 27. A suspension of the measures would potentially hurt Chinese firms, according to a statement posted on the ministry’s website on Monday.” / The Chinese Ministry of Commerce and the Sichuan government hosted bilateral meetings on state/province trade and technology cooperation.

Ezra Vogel reviews French journalist’s China book, describes difficulty of China journalism in ’60s

Sept. 25, 1966: “Guillain paints the view from a distance, scarcely scratching the surface. In part, the responsibility for sticking to surfaces lies with Peking, which sees foreign journalists as a means of favorable publicity. Before 1949, when the Communists could not afford their Foreign Language Press, select sympathetic foreign journalists were invited and given a story which they happily published as a ‘scoop’ in the Western press. Today more foreign journalists are admitted, and since they are not necessarily friendly, Peking provides a guided tour of model communes, factories and cities. The leaders are still convinced that letting foreigners roam and mingle freely is not worth the risk of sabotage and the sowing of seeds of discontent. … In part, however, the responsibility lies with Western journalism. The U.S. Government has sizable numbers of Chinese-language officers well trained in Chinese culture, and the universities are now belatedly training scholars on Communist China. Virtually no Western reporters have comparable training…”

(Source: The New York TimesThis entry is part of an ongoing feature of U.S.–China Week that follows 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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