Welcome to Issue 95 of U.S.–China Week. First, a bulletin for those in or near New Haven. This week at Yale Law School, the Paul Tsai China Center and I are hosting a Conference on Cyberspace and U.S.–China Relations on Wednesday. We’re welcoming a great line-up of experts and policy practitioners from the United States and China, and former U.S. Trade Representative Amb. Charlene Barshefsky will close out the program with a keynote conversation on “Digital Trade and the Future of U.S.–China Relations.” Check here for details, and come by if you have the time and interest.
There’s a great amount of material on last week’s Florida meeting between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping. There was not, however, an official outcome document from either side. So this issue will highlight 10 things worth noting from their visit. My overall assessment of the meeting is up this morning at Foreign Affairs. I argue in part:
It’s possible that the United States decided to strike Syria during Trump’s dinner with Xi in part to show China that it would not hesitate to act unilaterally against North Korea. If that was the administration’s intention, its choice was misguided. The strike against Syria did not add weight to Trump’s implied threats against Pyongyang, since Trump had not threatened Syria before the chemical attack that triggered the U.S. action: only after the attack did Trump say that Assad had “crosse[d] many, many lines.” What’s more, for Trump to have signaled that he would follow through on his warnings to North Korea, he would first need to have made those warnings clear, and, so far, his administration has not done so. On the same day that Trump said that the United States would “solve North Korea” if China did not, for example, his ambassador to the United Nations told ABC that China was “the only country that could stop North Korea.” Finally, North Korea’s recent provocations are not comparable to Assad’s use of poison gas: although Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests are alarming, they still represent the development of a weapon—not the use of one. North Korean and Chinese officials surely know that the relatively strong international support Trump received for the strike in Syria would not be present in the case of a preemptive attack against North Korea.
Trump may have demonstrated to Chinese officials that he can use force without warning and that he can quickly change his mind about when to do so. This may keep China on its toes—it recalls a form of deterrence thinking from the Richard Nixon era known as the madman theory—but it will not help the Trump administration coax Beijing into further pressuring North Korea to curb its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Indeed, together with the United States’ decision to send an aircraft carrier group toward North Korea over the weekend, the Syria strikes may signal Washington’s turn away from the belief that sanctions will solve its problems with North Korea. By surprising Xi at dinner and by turning up the military pressure in the region, Trump has made it harder for the United States and China to manage their interests on the Korean Peninsula in a coordinated way. [read more]
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- The Strategic and Economic Dialogue is dead… Long live the “diplomatic and security” and “comprehensive economic” tracks of the U.S.–China Comprehensive Dialogue! Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the new dialogue would be “overseen by the two presidents” and would have “four pillars”—the two listed above, plus “the law enforcement and cybersecurity dialogue; and the social and cultural issues dialogue.” This sure sounds like a rearrangement of basically existing mechanisms. Time will tell what these changes amount to, but the diplomatic/security and economic groups reportedly held initial meetings in Florida. To watch: Earlier, SCMP had reported the four tracks were a Chinese proposal.
- No “tweetable deliverables,” but how about a “100-day plan”? Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the two governments agreed to a 100-day schedule for dialogue on the U.S.–China trade balance. Ross said outright that 100 days “might be ambitious,” but he promised “way stations along the way.” (Ross had an FT op-ed last week on “making trade fair again” that credited Peter Navarro as having contributed.) The agreement to seek further agreement fell short of some expectations, since reports had said the Chinese side was coming armed with “tweetable” gifts for Trump.
- Recycling trade concessions. FT reported that despite the lack of any concrete announcements during the leaders’ meeting, China was ready to offer “better market access for financial sector investments and US beef exports.” These offers seem to have been already prepared for another context—the now-stalled bilateral investment treaty negotiations. A Chinese official told FT: “China was prepared to [raise the investment ceilings] in the BIT but those negotiations were put on hold [after Trump’s election victory]… Had Obama been in office for another six months we would have gotten there.” The beef move might have a small effect on the trade deficit issue, but the financial sector wouldn’t, since the deficit the Trump people are talking about is regarding the trade in goods, not services. Larry Summers argued in an FT op-ed that a focus on trade balance or currency is misguided.
- By the way, Mr. President… Tillerson said “The President did directly inform President Xi near the end of the dinner yesterday evening as the missiles that are launched were impacting, which was about 8:40 p.m. last night. … President Xi I think expressed an appreciation for the President letting him know and providing the rationale and said, as it was told to me, indicated that he understood that such a response is necessary when people are killing children.” As I argue above in the excerpt from Foreign Affairs, I don’t think Xi was pleased by the timing. Julian Ku noted that the Chinese government at least initially seemed to avoid calling the U.S. bombing illegal.
- Alliance maintenance included. Before the Florida meetings, the White House announced that Vice President Mike Pence would travel to South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, and Hawaii next week. Trump spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe both before and after the Xi meeting. He also spoke with acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-Ahn afterward.
- Northern exposure. Xi bookended his Florida sojourn with a trip to Finland and a stopover in Alaska, where he met with Governor Bill Walker. Some speculated that it might have been an impromptu visit during a refueling stop, but Chinese diplomatic agendas aren’t known for spontaneity, and the “motorcade of 24 cars” probably took some planning to put together. People’s Daily posted on Facebook that Xi “suggested that the two sides should further cooperate in industries of mineral, oil, gas, fishery and tourism, initiate more exchanges in winter sports and enhance friendship among the peoples.” Various natural resources may be more accessible if Obama-era environmental protections are rolled back.
- Grandkids and social media. Ivanka Trump posted a video of the First Grandkids performing a Chinese song for Xi. Xinhua jumped on board with its own Twitter post.
- Chinese side follows normal publicity protocols. Though there was no joint press conference, joint statement, or negotiated outcomes documents, the Foreign Ministry still posted an official account of the meeting, and Xinhua had an official story on the greetings and dinner the night before. Here is the most complete English-language Xinhua readout.
- U.S. side replaces careful readouts with briefings and tweets. Trump tweeted of the meeting, “Tremendous goodwill and friendship was formed, but only time will tell on trade.” Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Tillerson, Ross, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin gave the most detailed briefing immediately after the meetings closed.
- To be continued… The Chinese reports said Trump agreed to visit China for a state visit in 2017. The U.S. briefings were noncommittal on the date, but said they were working on timing.
‘Peking Says U.S. Carrier Rammed a Fishing boat’
“TOKYO, Friday, April 7[, 1967] (AP)—Communist China accused the United States today of having recently sent warships and aircraft into its territorial waters and air space, ‘ramming, damaging and sinking Chinese fishing boats and killing and injuring Chinese fishermen.’ The Hsinhau [sic.] press agency quoted an unidentified official as having said: ‘The United States aggressors must be served a stern warning.’ The broadcast said a United States aircraft carrier rammed a Chinese fishing boat west of Hainan Island last March 14. The agency said the vessel had been damaged and its mast broken. On March 15, at the same place, the broadcast went on, ‘a number of United States military aircraft again carried on provocations’ against another fishing boat and one of the aircraft strafed the boat.”
(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.)
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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. 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).
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