What to watch for in U.S.–China relations this fall (2018.09.10)

Welcome to Transpacifica Issue 10, coming to you from my new base in Los Angeles for the coming year. In the five weeks of vacation and moving since the last issue, U.S.–China relations and their intersection with technology issues have seen a great deal of action—but yet again, none of the big questions has been resolved.

In the back-to-school spirit, this issue presents five “research questions” or persistent uncertainties I’ll be watching in the coming months. If I had convictions deserving of courage, I would offer predictions; as it happens, my greatest conviction is that we’re experiencing highly uncertain times, and so I muster the lesser courage to tell you all what I certainly don’t know.

Lest you conclude I’ve given up opinions in favor of a sunny Southern California disposition, please see my recent Foreign Policy piece with Scarlet Kim of Privacy International. We argue against the trope that China has a national advantage over the United States in artificial intelligence development due to a supposed lack of privacy consciousness or data governance. Instead, we argue, despite scant limitations on surveillance and privacy abuses by the state, companies in China are increasingly subject to data protection requirements; besides, extremely large data sets are not a cure-all for AI developers. Most importantly, the United States should not let competition be an excuse to avoid meaningful privacy reforms. Companies that respond to rising citizen and regulatory demands for better protections will be positioned to compete around the world. –Graham

As always: Please encourage friends and colleagues to subscribe to the Transpacifica newsletter; here is the web version of this message, ideal for sharing on social media; and you can follow me on Twitter at @gwbstr. Please send your comments, quibbles, and suggestions to [email protected].

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Five big questions for U.S.–China relations this fall

  1. How will domestic U.S. politics evolve as a factor in U.S.–China relations? 

    Midterm elections are coming in November. Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to evolve and may or may not directly touch the president—either before or after the midterms. Republican solidarity against attacks from the center or left appears strong, but the party is internally divided, including on key elements of the Trump administration’s trade policy toward China. Will their solidarity hold? Will a power shift in Congress and put impeachment realistically on the agenda? Will Mueller or other factors lead to bipartisan opposition that could paralyze the White House or lead to resignation? How long will Trump be president, and what on Earth should Chinese officials expect after he’s gone?There are reasoned arguments for a wide variety of outcomes, and while Trump’s election and the ensuing shifts in policy toward China were initially a shock to the Chinese government, officials in Beijing now appear to be in general holding the line on Chinese positions, even in the face of “trade war” and tariffs. Holding the line is not a robust tactic for all possible outcomes.

  2. Will China or the United States “break” in the tariff and economic policy confrontation?With tariffs affecting $50 billion of Chinese imports in effect, further measures targeting $200 billion expected in the coming days, and administration threats to target $267 billion more, China’s trade surplus with the United States still rose last month. Trivium argues that, “for now,” this indicates U.S. tariffs are backfiring as importers rush to buy Chinese goods before further tariffs potentially go into effect. “[A]s long as there is the threat of more to come, the incentive will be for Americans to purchase MORE Chinese goods.” (If you’re not subscribed to Trivium’s daily, now is a good time to sign up—as long as you can handle a daily.)

    The political impacts of the U.S.–China trade confrontation are still in their early stages. There has not been enough time (nor have tariffs advanced sufficiently) for most U.S. consumers to feel the higher prices and other potential disruptions likely to result from the administration’s policies.

    The U.S. bottom line remains vague, and Chinese responses mixed. WSJ‘s Bob Davis and Lingling Wei reported that Chinese negotiators had “divided U.S. demands into three buckets. Roughly 30% to 40% of the U.S. requests involved additional Chinese purchases of U.S. goods, which Chinese officials believe could be met immediately. Another 30% to 40% involved market openings, such as allowing foreign financial firms to own a greater percentage of Chinese ventures and giving them broader authority to operate. Those could take several years of negotiations. The remaining 20% to 40% involve U.S. demands for changes in Chinese industrial policy.” The third category, WSJ sources say, is not up for negotiation—and I would argue that this third category is where the central, intractable U.S. demands lie.

    U.S. grievances with China cannot be settled without a highly unlikely overhaul of China’s development efforts. The realistic question is whether a set of deals can be reached that provides a way to back off on the truly intractable. From some people’s perspective, such a result would constitute the United States “breaking” in the face of pain from the trade war it began. U.S. bottom-line positions, however, could shift with U.S. political winds.

  3. Will human rights return to the bilateral agenda with a vengeance, as international alarm grows over abuses in Xinjiang?NYT placed a Chris Buckley story reporting on indoctrination, detentions, and surveillance in Xinjiang on its Sunday front last weekend. Human Rights Watch released an in-depth report on a growing crisis. The present surge of attention to rights abuses comes after about a year of powerful and high-profile reporting by journalists including Megha Rajagopalan of Buzzfeed, Ben Dooley of AFP, and Josh Chin and Clément Bürge of WSJ, among others.

    Meanwhile, the Trump administration is reportedly considering sanctions against Chinese officials and companies over the government’s behavior in Xinjiang. The widely respected China law scholar Jerome Cohen of NYU has advocated such sanctions. And the highly visible former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on China to allow monitors in her first speech in the rights position.

    Will the Chinese government continue to hold off international pressure, or will international actions bring the issue to the fore? What does this mean for bilateral relations and for human rights more broadly? Will Chinese tech firms, many of which are identified as supplying infrastructure to an increasingly digitized Xinjiang apparatus, see consequences abroad?

  4. Do the U.S.–China cybersecurity accords from Xi Jinping’s September 2015 visit to the White House still hold?The Trump administration is reportedly considering sanctions “on Chinese entities caught stealing U.S. intellectual property via cyber attacks,” Bloomberg reported. Such sanctions would employ an Obama-era executive order that set up grounds for such sanctions and served as part of an escalating pressure campaign by the White House that led to a late-night marathon meeting before Xi’s visit and a heavily-lawyered statement by each leader that neither government would “conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.”

    The leaders at the same time announced two new dialogue channels, one on cybercrime and related issues, and the other on norms for state behavior in cyberspace. Progress was limited in these channels in the remainder of the Obama administration, and the initial Trump-Xi meeting in Florida reset the table.

    Present dialogue conditions are unclear, but there is no evidence of major progress beyond the tentative moves of the late Obama years. If the U.S. government imposes sanctions for activities in violation of the 2015 statement by Xi, any sense of accord on IP theft would be deeply weakened. Already, the techno-nationalist competition frame of the Trump administration’s trade and investment policies undermines prospects for trust in technological fields.

    If it is true, as Bloomberg reports, that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is standing in the way of new sanctions, this is another indication that the answer to question 1 above will be crucial in the near-to-mid term.

  5. How will traditional geostrategic dynamics evolve as so much focus is placed on future technologies? (How much longer will the South China Sea stay off the daily agenda?)A British Navy ship last week reportedly challenged Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Reports suggest the ship, which was said not to have entered within 12 nautical miles of any land feature, demonstrated the U.K. view of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by entering waters enclosed by boundaries around the Paracel Islands known as “straight baselines” that China has drawn in clear contravention of the convention.

    Nothing has fundamentally changed in the South China Sea since China rejected the UNCLOS Tribunal’s award in its dispute with the Philippines in 2016. China still refuses to accept the authority of a duly constituted tribunal under the convention, and it has continued construction in the Spratly Islands, as well as other activities that violate the convention. The United States, meanwhile, has still not ratified UNCLOS, limiting its legal leverage.

    What has changed is the level of publicity and public attention to the issue in the United States—which is now much lower. If in the present bilateral climate a significant incident involving Chinese and U.S. forces, or Chinese forces and allied military or civilian personnel, it’s entirely possible that a major military standoff could emerge. Chinese attention to the region has not been diverted, and U.S. moves to reframe regional security concepts around the “Indo-Pacific” are advancing quietly—for now.

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NYU Shanghai Hiring Faculty in Interactive Media Arts Program
NYU Shanghai is hiring for several open-rank faculty positions in its Interactive Media Arts program. The interdisciplinary program is seeking faculty with expertise in manipulation of data, contemporary aesthetics, and the study of technology—as well as those engaging with China or East Asia. [Apply here.]

About Transpacifica

The Transpacifica newsletter is produced by me, Graham Webster, a senior fellow with Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and fellow with New America, where I am coordinating editor of the DigiChina project, working from a home base in California. The opinions expressed here are my own, and I reserve the right to change my mind. For three years and 131 issues after its founding in February 2015, this newsletter was known as U.S.-China Week. It now appears biweekly, delivered by free e-mail subscription.

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