Welcome to Issue 119 of U.S.–China Week. This edition comes after a period of busy travel and an energy-sapping cold (for me) and (for everyone) a torrent of fragmentary news emerging from President Donald Trump’s travel in East Asia, including a state visit to China. I thus do not aim for a comprehensive retelling, but rather an accounting of important take-aways from the two weeks. Trump is to return from Asia Tuesday after attending the East Asia Summit in the Philippines—a meeting at one time trimmed from his schedule but added back as final preparations for the trip concluded.
Programming note: I will be in China from approximately Nov. 26–Dec. 6. Please drop me a line if you want to connect in Bejing or Shanghai. Publication will remain irregular until my return to the United States.
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- A visit devoid of U.S. values on human rights, openness.
When a U.S. president travels abroad, it’s not uncommon for reporters to gripe about lack of access to key meetings—but U.S. officials generally bring elements of the free press to bear. This time, however, the White House also reportedly acceded to Chinese wishes that the Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping not take questions when giving statements to reporters. Meanwhile, there was little indication that the U.S. government pushed any human rights, internet freedom, or other concerns associated with what used to be touted as “U.S. values.” It’s not just Democrats and rights NGOs who hoped for more. Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (both Republicans) in a letter sought Trump administration support for “Internet freedom,” a halt to repatriation of Chinese citizens “until the Chinese government can demonstrate that they are meeting the standards set forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Hong Kong autonomy, the release of Liu Xia, and other matters—all apparently to no avail.
- Business deals provide tweetable deliverables, but trade negotiations absent.
U.S. and Chinese officials touted the signing of a series of commercial deals supposedly worth $250 billion. At least some of that dealing, however, was old wine in new bottles. Of $37 billion in announced Chinese purchases from Boeing, Bloomberg reported, “the pact is largely for jets that have been parts of deals since 2013.” Twenty-nine business leaders, including CEOs of Boeing, DowDuPont, Qualcomm, and Goldman Sachs, were reportedly to travel with Trump to China. Descriptions of each deal are published by the Commerce Department. It’s hard to tell how much of this economic activity was actually assisted by the two governments and made possible by Trump’s visit to China.
Meanwhile, outcome documents from the U.S. and Chinese (zh/en) governments gave little indication of broader market access negotiations. Neither government mentioned formerly much-hyped talks toward a bilateral investment treaty in any documents I saw. With individual deals apparently substituted for systemic negotiations over market access, this trip presents little more than a blip on the bilateral economic radar. The conclusion of the U.S. Trade Representative’s “Section 301” investigation into Chinese trade and investment practices regarding tech and intellectual property looms much larger. And the revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—this time without U.S. involvement—underlines the fact that trade negotiations are sure to continue even if U.S. participation doesn’t.
- An emphasis (but not innovation) on the “Indo-Pacific.”
Some commentators and reporters made much of the Trump administration’s use of the phrase Indo-Pacific to refer to a region broader than the vague old Asia-Pacific, explicitly including India. It’s worth nothing this is nothing new, even if it’s risen in emphasis. Last year, the term seemed to rise in prominencewith U.S. Pacific Command officials. Rory Medcalf in 2013 noted the phrase was “thoroughly inducted into the U.S. rhetorical armory.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for his part, pushed a “free and open Indo-Pacific” in a speech at CSIS last month. Until there’s some kind of action associated with the change in regional framing, it’s quite a stretch to mark the phrase’s use as significant.
- Despite Trump’s rhetoric, little new on North Korea—but case for war picking up in Washington
Trump’s inconsistent rhetoric on North Korea remained consistent, sending a variety of signals in succession. It’s not worth summarizing two weeks of screaming headlines and childish tweets. But it is definitely worth noting a remarkable statement by Obama’s first Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair:
“If North Korea does in fact launch a nuclear missile into the Pacific, the reaction should be a massive American and South Korean air and missile strike against all known DPRK nuclear test facilities and missile launching and support facilities. The strike should be launched from South Korean and Japanese bases, as well as U.S. ships and bases in the United States. Now is the time to consult with Japan and South Korea about this possibility as well as responses to other potential DPRK provocations. To launch a retaliatory strike of such scope, all three countries will need to increase their military readiness in case of North Korean retaliation and take steps to provide civil defense in South Korea and Japan to protect their citizens and the tens of thousands of Americans who live in both countries.”
If the U.S. debate over policy toward East Asia often pits pro-alliance arguments against strong-China-ties arguments, Blair usually falls in the former camp. But as a former commander of U.S. Pacific Command, he is as conscious as anyone that what he called here a “retaliatory strike” could result in devastating war. Evan Osnos wrote that “members of America’s political class—the ‘blob’ of government officials, donors, and media types—have started to talk about war with Pyongyang as an increasingly likely prospect.” His observations match mine from two recent trips to Washington.
A long-expected proposal to revise the process by which the U.S. government reviews incoming investments for national security risk emerged with bipartisan sponsors in both the Senate and the House. Senators John Cornyn, Dianne Feinstein, and Richard Burr introduced the Senate bill, known as FIRRMA, which would revise the function of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). In essence, the proposed bill broadens CFIUS’s mandate. According to a release from Cornyn’s office, it would “expand the CFIUS jurisdiction to include certain joint ventures, minority position investments, and real estate transactions near military bases or other sensitive national security facilities” and “update the Committee’s definition of ‘critical technologies”’ to include emerging technologies that could be essential for maintaining the U.S. technological advantage over countries that pose threats, such as China.” As my Yale colleague Rob Williams wrote at Lawfare, “At its core, FIRRMA is an effort to close the gaps in CFIUS that Congress fears China is exploiting.” It would also apply special scrutiny to deals involving “countries of special concern,” almost certain to include China.
‘Harriman Foresees Talks By Soviet and U.S. on China’
“WASHINGTON, Nov. 4[, 1967] (UPI) — Ambassador at Large W. Averell Harriman predicted today that the Soviet Union will be ready one day to discuss with the United States ‘how we can both protect ourselves against China’s nuclear capabilities’ The 75-year-old statesman said in an interview that he thought the Kremlin was ‘very much concerned’ about Peking’s nuclear progress and that this was a principal reasonwhy the Soviet Union was anxious to get agreement on a treaty to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. With such an agreement, he said, ‘We will be in the same boad and automatically be able to bring some kind of pressure on Peking.'”
(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, and he is based in Oakland, California.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are my own (and I reserve the right to change my mind).
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