Welcome to Issue 87 of U.S.–China Week, marking two years since I sent out the first beta edition. In the past year, subscriptions have grown by more than 50 percent and recently passed 1,250. My sincere thanks to all of you for following along with me as history unfolds.
In recent months, several readers have asked whether I work with other people to produce each issue. Others have asked whether the effort receives outside funding or is affiliated with my institutional home at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. The truth is that, although it could benefit from collaboration (especially by a good editor), U.S.–China Week is so far a solo effort; and while I am tremendously fortunate that my job both allows and requires close attention to bilateral developments, this publication is independent (and doesn’t reflect anyone’s views but my own).
Since producing U.S.–China Week is such a solitary process, I am especially grateful that subscribers seem to be as engaged as ever—sharing on social media, writing in with comments or quibbles, and spreading the word. This leads me to U.S.–China Week’s birthday wish list: (1) If you have a reaction to what you read, agree or disagree, please drop me a line or post about it on social media; (2) if you find this project useful, make sure interested friends and colleagues subscribe; and (3) if you have ideas about how U.S.–China Week can improve, whether on its own or in collaboration with others, please send me your thoughts. I look forward to making improvements in the coming weeks and months. Now, without further ado, onward to the week’s news…
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AT YOUR REQUEST
In call with Xi, Trump reaffirms support for ‘our “one China” policy,’ but clarifies little else
A White House readout said President Donald Trump spoke with President Xi Jinping in the duo’s first phone conversation since Trump’s inauguration last month. “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘one China’ policy,” the readout said. WSJ reported that Trump’s actual words on “one China” came in a scripted exchange planned by officials on both sides, with Xi saying “I would like you to uphold the ‘One China’ policy,” and Trump replying, “At your request, I will do that.” The call, which had been the subject of speculation before it took place Thursday night Washington time, hit the U.S. headlines as an embarrassing reversal by Trump that made him look weak, and a win for Xi on the assumption that Trump gained no concessions in exchange for backing away from his earlier suggestion that the policy was negotiable. A ChinaFile conversation has a good spread of views.
Taipei Times reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was reportedly “on hand” during the Trump–Xi call, had reaffirmed the three communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the “six assurances” in written testimony before he was confirmed. Reuters reported that Tillerson, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and others intervened to persuade Trump to reaffirm the “one China” policy, which several sources reported was a precondition for a Trump–Xi phone call. In the hours leading up to the call, NYT was at work on a story on that apparent ultimatum. The original story, saying no call had happened, was quickly updated online, but the unchanged print version probably led to a Trump tweet claiming “major FAKE NEWS.” The Weekly Standard reported on how NYT reporters were kept in the dark amidst the tick-tock of arranging the call, which had included a letter from Trump to Xi on the occasion of the Lantern Festival the previous day.
Though the White House called the call “lengthy,” its readout was not. Most detail of what the two discussed comes from a Xinhua readout (en/zh). A sharp-eyed reporter noticed there was no mention of the “new model of major-country relationship” in either side’s release and got Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang to say “China’s will and proposition to build [the “new model”] remain unchanged.”
ANALYSIS: The initial reaction among U.S. foreign policy instapundits on Twitter and in many of the headlines following Trump’s reversion to the longstanding U.S. status quo on the “one China” question was remarkable in its uniformity: Trump caved, and Xi won this round. (A much smaller counter-chorus asserted that, no, Trump’s earlier questioning of “one China” was part of a winning grand plan—and who knows, maybe Trump extracted some concessions from Xi before the call.) Taylor Fravel eloquently captured the reasonable protest in the face of this punditry: “Diplomacy is not a boxing match.” Nothing is certain at this stage. The Trump administration still has an extreme credibility problem, because Trump and his team have been so inconsistent over time. Chinese officials can’t be sure what U.S. counterparts will do next with regard to any of the many volatile issues in bilateral ties. What is certain is that penalizing Trump for moving toward a more sober approach to China policy is misguided. As Fravel said, “The rush to keep score is premature.” Instead, critics should push the administration to decrease uncertainty about its intentions and, wherever one stands on the issues, lessen volatility and get down to business.
Abe visits; Trump affirms U.S.–Japan treaty covers Senkaku/Diaoyu; North Korean missile test interrupts dinner
Trump met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House before they traveled together to Trump’s resort in Florida. In a joint statement Friday, the two governments said: “The two leaders affirmed that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands,” reinforcing a clarification made by the Obama administration that, since the disputed islands are deemed under Japan’s administration, the bilateral treaty would be invoked if they were attacked. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said “China is gravely concerned about and firmly opposed to” the reiteration. The U.S.–Japan joint statement said the two governments also “call on countries concerned to avoid actions that would escalate tensions in the South China Sea, including the militarization of outposts, and to act in accordance with international law.” Geng responded in the same briefing, saying “countries either send vessels and aircraft to the South China Sea to flex muscles or sow discord” and calling that “the largest contributor to militarization” there.
In Florida, where Trump and Abe golfed together, the two were at dinner when reports came in that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile in Japan’s general direction. Pictures emerged of Trump and Abe conferring following the news and Trump taking a call at the dinner table—not, as one imagines would be prudent, in a private and secure environment. A U.S. military statement said the missile had medium- or intermediate-range and “did not pose a threat to North America,” NYT reported. Reuters reported on the missile’s details, and North Korea called the test a success. The South Korean, U.S., and Japanese governments called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting. A Global Times commentary noted the launch came after China’s Lantern Festival, less troubling for China than last year’s test on the eve of the Lunar New Year. In a quickly arranged joint appearance, Abe called the test “absolutely intolerable” and called for North Korea to comply with UN obligations; Trump said simply, “the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.” Neither leader mentioned South Korea. MFA’s Geng said four times that, “The root of the DPRK nuclear and missile issue lies in the differences between the DPRK and the US and between the DPRK and the ROK.”
Asia Society, UCSD publish task force report; Stanford’s APARC has Asia-Pacific recommendations for Trump
- The Task Force on U.S.–China Policy, led by Orville Schell of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.–China Relations and Susan Shirk of the University of California San Diego’s 21st Century China Center released a wide-ranging set of recommendations for U.S. policy toward China. Top-line recommendations include working with China to solve dilemmas on the Korean Peninsula and prioritizing reciprocity in trade and investment relations, but there is something for everyone in the 71-page report’s detailed recommendations. (Full disclosure: I was fortunate to attend several meetings and offered very minor assistance, but was not a task force member.) The report, an executive summary, and some of the coverage of its launch are available here.
- Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center has published “President Trump’s Asia Inbox,” with short recommendations on U.S. ties with China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia, plus chapters on military strategy in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and on trade with Asia.
- Nina Hachigian, until recently the U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, argues that with the right careful planning, the administration could “ratchet up U.S. military activity to defend U.S. interests,” but emphasizes also the need to work in support of international law and “ASEAN unity and centrality.”
SOUTH CHINA SEA
U.S. military reports ‘unsafe interaction’ between U.S., Chinese planes in South China Sea
AP reported: “The U.S. Pacific Command says a Chinese aircraft and a U.S. Navy patrol plane had an ‘unsafe’ encounter over the South China Sea this week, raising concerns. Pacific Command spokesman Robert Shuford said Friday that the ‘interaction’ between a Chinese KJ-200 early warning aircraft and a U.S. Navy P-3C plane took place on Wednesday in international airspace over the waters.” Later, AP added, “The Pentagon said [the encounter] appeared to be unintentional and both pilots maintained professional radio contact.” The Chinese plane reportedly flew within 1,000 feet and “crossed the nose” of the U.S. plane, forcing it to turn. Ankit Panda made a table of similar reported incidents. / Meanwhile: CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative took its satellite-imagery analysis to the Paracels, reporting Chinese military developments; Navy Times reported U.S. Navy and Pacific Command leaders want to conduct more “freedom of navigation” (FON) operations in the South China Sea and that Obama “specifically prohibited” such operations from 2012–15; Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said of China, “If we allow them, they will build” on Scarborough Shoal; and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly asked China to conduct anti-piracy patrols near the Philippines.
Commerce pick Ross to ‘keep stake in Chinese-government-backed company’; China steel capacity didn’t decrease
- Wilbur Ross, Trump’s billionaire nominee to be Commerce Secretary, will keep a “co-investment with the Chinese government’s sovereign-wealth fund in Diamond S Shipping Group Inc.,” WSJ reported.
- A new report by Greenpeace East Asia and the consultancy Custeel said most steel production capacity Chinese authorities had said was eliminated in 2016 referred to idle or already-closed capacity. From the Washington Post: “‘Impressive as they seem, China’s current steel capacity reduction targets won’t suffice to limit oversupply, as local governments maneuver to shield zombie steel mills and minimize the impact of the policies,’ said Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace global coal campaigner. ‘Global markets are awash with steel and the people of northern China continue to choke on the industry’s major byproduct, smog. Increasing steel capacity makes neither economic nor environmental sense.’” Steel overcapacity has been an important area of dispute between China’s government and counterparts in the United States and Europe.
- WSJ reports: Hollywood Seeks New Business Terms With China: U.S. studios’ priority is increasing their share of Chinese box-office receipts
‘Victory for Mao Held Best for U.S.: Experts See Chinese-Soviet Rift as an Advantage’
“CHICAGO, Feb. 9[,1967]—A conference of academic specialists on China closed today with several participants asserting that it was more in the American interest in the short run to see the militant faction of Chairman Mao Tse-tung win Communist China’s power struggle than his opposition. These experts reasoned that Mr. Mao’s opposition, judging by past statements, would have tried to heal the split with the Soviet Union and would have pressed for unity of action with Moscow on the war in Vietnam, possibly leading to a more direct clash with the United States. One participant also contended that a break in diplomatic relations between Moscow and Peking, while remote a few weeks ago, was now likely. He and a colleague considered that the possibility of limited Soviet intervention in the Chinese power struggle, while still unlikely, could not be ruled out in some border areas, such as Sinkiang Province.”
(Source: The New York Times. This 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.)
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. He is also a fellow for China and East Asia with the EastWest Institute. 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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