Author Archives: Graham Webster

U.S.–China Week: First Anniversary Edition (2016.02.15)

Welcome to the special first anniversary edition of U.S.–China Week.

One year ago this week, I sent out the first “beta” issue of U.S.–China Week to 10 friends and colleagues. Today, after 49 issues and only three weeks off all year, this issue goes out to more than 800 subscribers. You are diplomats and journalists, scholars and defense professionals, think tankers and businesspeople. About three-quarters are from the United States and China, with at least 20 other countries represented. My sincere thanks to all of you for reading. I am grateful for the dozens of thoughtful and informative comments readers have sent. It has been a special pleasure to meet new friends and colleagues through this work, and I look forward to meeting even more of you as I travel to Beijing and Washington in the coming days.

To celebrate this anniversary, I am introducing a new series of U.S.–China flashbacks, with the first appearing as the last item below. This material is based on a reading of the week’s news from both countries—from exactly 50 years ago. Since I have the rare privilege of access to a great library, I’ve been reading publications from early 1966 on both sides of the Pacific in under-loved bound periodicals and some electronic archives. In the coming weeks, I’ll feature some of what people reported and argued at the time. As time goes on, I may shift to other decades, but early 1966 was very rich, and history ensures there will be plenty to discuss in the coming weeks.

Again, thanks for reading.

As always, but especially on this one-year anniversary: Please encourage friends and colleagues to subscribe to U.S.–China Week. Here is the web version of this issue, ideal for sharing on social media. And please send your comments, quibbles, and suggestions to [email protected].

Obama hosts Southeast Asian leaders at Sunnylands in bid to solidify ‘rebalance’ as regional legacy

President Barack Obama is to welcome the leaders of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) today at the Sunnylands estate where he hosted President Xi Jinping for their first in-depth meeting in June 2013. Michael Fuchs, who has just returned to the Center for American Progress (CAP) after most recently serving as a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for multilateral affairs in East Asia, writes that “ASEAN-centered institutions are the most effective mechanisms through which the United States can forge solutions to Asia’s biggest threats.” At CAP, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes previewed the trip, and the top East Asia officials from the White House and State Department both told reporters the Sunnylands U.S.–ASEAN summit is “not about China.” Reporters disagree, framing China issues as “an underlying goal” and ASEAN as “increasingly sandwiched between Washington and Beijing.” In a seeming fight to emphasize the “not about China” point, the White House took the unusual step of issuing a “fact sheet” before the meeting even started, detailing the substantive policy areas on the agenda.

ANALYSIS: As I write today at The Diplomat, and as Obama’s initial top Asia adviser Jeff Bader has publicly lamented, the U.S. press is going to make any East Asia story into a China story. By hosting ASEAN leaders at Sunnylands, Obama is hardly avoiding that impression. Despite persistent suggestions that the Obama administration has not delivered on the promise of the “pivot” or “rebalance” rhetoric, U.S. engagement in the region, with ASEAN and the related East Asia Summit meetings as a hub, has increased. Holding this summit helps cement those efforts on the U.S. side and makes it harder for a future president to deemphasize ASEAN.

Top U.S. intelligence officials tell Congress Chinese commercial hacking may be down

Speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said “I think there has been a decline” when asked about whether China was adhering to the September 2015 joint declaration against state-sponsored commercial espionage online. NSA Director Michael Rogers, in the same hearing, said “we have seen some lessening in activity, but we’re not yet prepared to say that that’s a result of the systematic policy choice on the part of our Chinese counterparts.” Clapper described the remaining uncertainty as determining “whether this is a case where these … cyber actors that are under the control of the state have actually reduced their activity or if they were told, ‘Don’t get caught.’ … And of course, there’s also the challenge of determining whether, per the agreement, that any information that was purloined is actually used for economic advantage.”

ANALYSIS: These statements are pretty clearly hedged, but it is certain at minimum that the administration has not decided to sustain its public shaming tactics that led up to (and may have helped produce) the September declaration. It is always important to remember that Xi never agreed to stop national security-related spying, and the meaning of “knowingly support” is pretty vague.

Debate and conflicting reports over whether U.S. ‘freedom of navigation’ program may gain partners

U.S. and Indian officials have held talks about the possibility of conducting joint naval patrols, potentially in the South China Sea, Reuters reported. A State Department spokesperson said “at this time, I can say there’s no plans for any joint naval patrols.” Mira Rapp-Hooper writes that Australia was conducting surveillance flights and was considering operations that would challenge Chinese claims, that Japan announced an intention to patrol the South China Sea by air, and that the Philippines has expressed a desire to conduct joint patrols with U.S. forces. / Meanwhile, reports emerged that a decision is expected from the arbitral tribunal in the Philippine case against China in May, and the Philippine foreign minister said the Philippines should engage in bilateral talks with China if the award favors the Philippines.

ANALYSIS: Significant sectors of regional governments have apparently come around to the idea that demonstrating objections to Chinese activities through patrols is a desirable course of action. Introducing joint patrols or “freedom of navigation” operations would significantly change the equation. For one, a U.S. partner that has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea might use the convention’s dispute settlement mechanisms to challenge Chinese practices the U.S. government considers illegal. On the other hand, such activities with U.S. allies would reinforce the perception that U.S. alliances are directed against China. Any joint patrols, therefore, should target excessive claims made by multiple countries.

U.S. Congress passes new sanctions; Chinese official calls on U.S. and North Korea to return to talks

The U.S. Congress passed a new package of sanctions against North Korea by wide margins and there was no sign Obama would veto the bill, which requires the president to investigate and designate individuals or entities that do business with North Korea in ways that benefit the country’s military and nuclear weapons programs. Also targeted are those who “imported, exported, or reexported significant luxury goods to or into North Korea,” potentially including Chinese people or businesses not directly related to proliferation or weapons. / Meanwhile, a Chinese spokesperson, echoing the readout from Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s meeting in Munich with Secretary of State John Kerry, urged the United States and North Korea “to be seated, talk and discuss how to address each other’s reasonable concerns.” This is consistent with the Chinese position favoring a return to the six-party talks.

ANALYSIS: In an engaging panel at the Munich Security Conference, Senate Foreign Relations Chair Robert Corker and National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Chair Fu Ying reenacted the persistent difference of perspective between the two governments, with Corker asking why Chinese authorities won’t exert more pressure (and Fu suggesting he meant starve the North Korean people), and Fu asking why the U.S. government won’t pledge not to invade (and Corker saying it’s a non-issue, “unless”). It seems unlikely the U.S. position will change. Will China’s?

Accusations of imperialism as U.S.–Taiwan military agreement enters force; NYT reporter describes ‘the new China experts’

» A commentary declared a new “status of forces” agreement between the United States and the Republican government in Taiwan “illegal, null, and void.” “According to the agreement,” read a recap of the Beijing Da Gong Bao commentary, “the U.S. can station its invading troops in Taiwan without limit and can arbitrarily occupy Taiwanese territory. This way, the American imperialists are free to turn Taiwan into a base for invasion and war in Asia. The U.S. invaders also threaten to use Taiwan as a transit station to ‘support the Vietnam War’ and as the ‘closest large base’ to the mainland.” A short New York Times report on the agreement when it was signed in August 1965 saw things differently, saying “the agreement details criminal jurisdiction to be applied against American personnel charged with violating Chinese Nationalist laws,” but the United States could opt to prosecute its own personnel for “death, rape, robbery, security offenses against the Chinese Nationalist Government, narcotics, and arson.”

» “Who are the experts who sit in on the great decisions and calculate China’s reaction,” asked the journalist James Reston in The New York Times. “Most of the ‘old China hands’ of the Bohlen-Thompson generation—John Paton Davies, John Carter Vincent, Edmund Clubb, etc.—were shunted aside in the McCarthy raids on the State Department, and the new China hands are not invited to the critical White House policy sessions.” Reston identified “a new generation,” whether or not out of the loop, in then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Edward Earl Rice, the diplomats Oscar Vance Armstrong, John H. Holdridge, Assistant Secretary William P. Bundy, and others. Reston argued that “the people who know the most about China in this Government are not in touch with the President personally, and at least some of them certainly do not share his confidence that the war in Vietnam can be enlarged without bringing China into the struggle.” Reston speculated that the new generation remembered “the fate of the old China hands” and “do not want to get caught between President Johnson and Senator Fulbright, and who can blame them?” (Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more on Fulbright and Bundy.)


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 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

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].

U.S.–China Week: North Korea, a key ‘defector,’ ivory’s uncertain progress, internal affairs and detention, what FON? (2016.02.08)

Welcome to Issue 39 of U.S.–China Week, and Monkey’s Greetings to all those celebrating the Lunar New Year.

As always: Please encourage friends and colleagues to subscribe to U.S.–China Week. Here is the web version of this issue, ideal for sharing on social media. And please send your comments, quibbles, and suggestions to [email protected].

U.S. and China differ on responses to North Korea rocket launch

North Korea launched a rocket that reportedly put a satellite in orbit and was part of the country’s program to develop a long-distance nuclear missile system. The launch came on the eve of Lunar New Year and days after China’s top diplomat for North Korea affairs, Wu Dawei, travelled to Pyongyang in a effort to, reportedly, stop the launch. President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping spoke on the phone before the launch to discuss responses to last month’s nuclear test, and “they agreed that North Korea’s planned ballistic missile test would contravene multiple UN Security Council resolutions and represent another provocative and destabilizing action,” according to a White House readout. The Xinhua readout was less firm, saying Xi called the situation “complicated and sensitive.” Before the launch, Congress was already working on new unilateral sanctions, while the UN Security Council debated its response. After the launch, South Korea’s government said it would begin talks with the United States about installing the THAAD missile defense system. A Chinese spokesperson said “moving ahead with deployment of anti-missile systems in the region will further raise tensions.”

ANALYSIS: In contrast to the episodic and calculated interplay among governments in the South China Sea, developments in the North Korea situation reveal strategic differences between the United States and China and the paralysis that stems from them. Both governments are advocating solutions that have so far failed in either denuclearizing the peninsula or otherwise stabilizing the situation—in the U.S. case stronger international pressure, and in the Chinese case a return to direct talks. It seems contrary to both governments’ priorities to spin their tires in these opposing and uncharted directions. U.S. officials should try to avoid thinking of the Chinese government as merely an obstacle to a preordained solution, and the Chinese side should pursue new thinking with each of the key parties.

Reports: Chinese ‘defector’ Ling Wancheng shared nuclear secrets with U.S. officials

Reports by Bill Gertz and Financial Times journalists Jamil Anderlini and Tom Mitchell say U.S. intelligence officials have been interrogating Ling Wancheng, the brother of the key Hu Jintao deputy Ling Jihua. Chinese efforts to repatriate Ling have not been successful, the reports say. Gertz writes that U.S. officials believe Ling Wancheng was holding a cache of secrets as leverage to prevent the Chinese government from taking action against his brother, who was accused of corruption over the summer. The FT report cites “two people familiar with some of the intelligence he has provided” and suggests that part of the purpose for Politburo Member Meng Jianzhu’s visit to Washington in September was to attempt to recover Ling.

ANALYSIS: Without knowing more about the sources for these stories, it is impossible to know what elements, if any, are true. If the U.S. government has indeed gained access to sensitive national security secrets from Ling, this is one link in a chain of events suggesting the U.S. and Chinese security establishments already treat each other as Cold War–style adversaries. At what point might it be better for strategic stability to acknowledge that dynamic rather than silently living it?

U.S. needs to seriously debate goals, not just details, of ‘freedom of navigation’ program

In a ChinaFile Conversation about the second U.S. “freedom of navigation” (FON) operation in the South China Sea since October, I argue in part: “The Chinese reaction in this case seems to be about as measured as could be expected. The U.S. government should not, however, assume Chinese authorities will show the same restraint in all cases. If, as expected, the FON program continues in the South China Sea, U.S. officials should expect intercepts and the possibility of unsafe encounters. This risk is increased because, despite the military-to-military work on safety in unplanned encounters, not every Chinese ship in the area is part of the Navy.

“This second FON operation sent a far clearer message than the October transit near Subi Reef. A U.S. spokesperson promptly described the legal point the mission was to demonstrate. It remains an open question, however, whether the U.S. government needs to send warships to make its legal point. If the United States would ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, it could use dispute resolution mechanisms under the convention. Even without ratification, consistent diplomatic statements and documentation can make a strong representation.

“It is clear, however, that the U.S. missions are not just about making a legal point. They are also a show of force, and they help satisfy a constituency inside the U.S. policy community pushing for the White House to ‘do something’ about China’s island construction. But what do FON operations ‘do’? Their goals and effects should be debated just as ferociously as the legal positions they advocate.”

MEANWHILE: Australia debates conducting similar operations. The United States is to upgrade five military installations in the Philippines. The U.S. ambassador to the Philippines said the possibility of joint patrols with Philippine forces has been discussed.

State Department spokesperson calls on China to clarify status of recent cross-border detainees

State Department spokesperson John Kirby said: “We remain deeply concerned by the disappearance of five Hong Kong residents associated with Mighty Current Media and the Causeway Bay bookstore. We continue to follow closely the developments of these cases. They – these cases, including two involving individuals holding European passports, raise serious questions about China’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework as well as its respect for the protection of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. We urge China to clarify the current status of all five individuals and the circumstances surrounding their disappearances and to allow them to return to their homes.” Reuters reports Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said China’s law enforcement officials would not act illegally, but the ministry’s transcripts do not apparently include the remark. / Meanwhile, Kerry Brown argues China’s “domestic repression has a strong international dimension” and questions whether the Chinese government’s longstanding commitment to non-interference in internal affairs has changed shapes.

ANALYSIS: It does not require any special knowledge of the cases at hand to see that domestic events can have a strong influence on international opinions. When Chinese authorities target individuals outside China, however, sensitivities are far greater, as in the reported Obama administration warning against Chinese agents operating illegally in the United States. The many unanswered questions include: At what level are these apparent cross-border renditions authorized? Should we take it from the absence of Lu Kang’s remarks in the published transcripts that the central government has not yet decided how to play this issue?

U.S. diplomat wrestles with whether China’s commitments on ivory have translated into action

In a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield answered lawmakers’ questions about actions taken after U.S.–China joint commitments to fight the ivory trade. Those commitments, announced in September when Xi visited Washington, included a pledge from both governments to “take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.” Brownfield, who co-chairs the U.S.–China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement,said “we got the Chinese…to agree that we would form a working group to develop details on how we would work to make this happen. Now, with many countries in the world you would say this sounds laughably little to have accomplished. With China it is I would say a step in the right direction.” Later, Brownfield also said “I would describe [China’s new draft wildlife protection law] as I have read it and understood it so far is it moves in the right direction in some ways, in the wrong direction in some ways. And it unquestionably does not go as far as we wish it would go.” Brownfield called the China “issue” the “800-pound gorilla who’s actually not in the room” and said four years of work had “moved from something that they are not willing to talk about at all to something that they are willing to acknowledge is an issue, and that they have taken some ownership of.”

ANALYSIS: Brownfield is cautious in assessing progress on this issue, though he does highlight a public “ivory crush” in which Chinese authorities made a show of destroying a large amount of ivory to publicize the government’s stated policy. The public rarely gets a clear vision of how successful, or on the other hand how pro forma, individual lines in the U.S. or bilateral “fact sheets” that come out of major diplomatic events turn out to be. When, as in cybersecurity, success is partially measured in just getting both sides to talk about an issue, it is clear that more substantial progress will be a long time coming.


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 China Center at Yale Law School, where he specializes in U.S.–China diplomatic, security, and economic relations through research and Track II dialogues. A full bio is available here.

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 U.S.–East Asia politics, Transpacifica.

Contact: Follow me on Twitter at @gwbstr. Send e-mail to [email protected].

U.S. diplomat wrestles with whether China’s commitments on ivory have made a difference

Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield and USAID Associate Administrator Eric Postel answered questions in a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on wildlife trafficking. The witnesses’ comments on working with China on ivory issues highlight the uncertainty about whether agreements like the joint commitment on ivory announced in September produce results.

Brownfield portrays Chinese efforts as a work in progress, and says a draft law on wildlife trafficking in China doesn’t go as far as he would have hoped.

[BROWNFIELD:] Second, China, and thank you for waiting until well into this hearing before we move into the issue which I would call the 800-pound gorilla who’s actually not in the room, but that is very much at play here.

Working with the Chinese on this issue, something that I have been doing now for nearly four years, is a slow process. We work with them through their law enforcement organizations and institutions. My own summary would be in four years we have moved from something that they are not willing to talk about at all to something that they are willing to acknowledge is an issue, and that they have taken some ownership of.

FORTENBERRY: What about this? I’m sorry, the time’s running out. What about this agreement? What level of agreement was reached? Would you explain that?

BROWNFIELD: In September of last year during President Xi’s visit, President Obama and President Xi agreed that they would take steps to eliminate the commercial trafficking in ivory. Important because China today is overwhelmingly the largest market for ivory in the world. And as Mr. Postel has pointed out, we are not blameless in this regard as well.

Two months later at something called the U.S.-China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement, which I co-chair, we got the Chinese — this is their Ministry of Public Security and their customs service, to agree that we would form a working group to develop details on how we would work to make this happen.

Now, with many countries in the world you would say this sounds laughably little to have accomplished. With China it is I would say a step in the right direction.

Also in the course of last year for the first time they did a public ivory crush, where they in public, before the media with hundreds of people watching, did destroy beyond possibility of reuse, a substantial amount of ivory.

Does that stop the problem? No. Is it symbolic and therefore has at least some potential impact on their own officials and their own criminal elements? Yes.

I would describe the Chinese issue as a work in progress. It is moving in the right direction. It is by no means moving as fast as we wish it would. And we still have a lot of work to do before we’re both going to be in a position to say we’re satisfied with where are with…

A questioner returns to the issue of what concretely has been done…

POSTEL: I’ll start. And thank you for the question.

We have seen work going on there, both on the official side as well as by civil society. And I think both are equally important.

One thing that can’t be attributed strictly to the crush, but there seems to be some evidence that progress is being made because the price of ivory and the illegal market in China has fallen 50 percent in the last 18 months. And some of that is just getting consumers to understand that you know they don’t — a lot of Chinese don’t even know where the ivory comes from.

That’s why there’s so many on the civilian side, so many efforts, whether it’s Chinese actresses tweeting a picture of a butchered elephant so people understand. I don’t know if you’ll be able to see it, but this is a picture of Yao Ming in the Bangkok airport in Mandarin, sponsored by us as part of a whole campaign, where the point is to tell the tourists you know that this is not a good thing to be done.

So the government is pledging some things. And of course there’s ivory, but also the government pledged in other areas. They banned sharkskin soup from all their official government banquets. And there’s a whole range of species with whom on which we have to work with them.

So there are concrete steps. But as the ambassador said, it is — it’s a grind. It’s slow.

But fortunately sometimes they’re wanting to follow what we’re doing. So they were very pleased to brag about their crush having seen — having matched our crush. And so sometimes our actions are another goad for them.

BROWNFIELD: Congresswoman, you asked specifically what have they done since the September announcement by the two presidents. I would offer three things.

First, the crush that we’ve talked about. They — in their defense, they did it publicly and it is something that they have never done before.

Second, two months later they did agree to establishing with us a bilateral working group among law enforcement officials to work this issue and provide — put more flesh on the commitment that they made at the presidential level.

And third, they have not yet promulgated, but released for circulation and consideration, a new wildlife trafficking law. It has been reviewed by many people of the entire conservation community.

I will not speak for everyone. But I would describe the law as I have read it and understood it so far is it moves in the right direction in some ways, in the wrong direction in some ways. And it unquestionably does not go as far as we wish it would go.

LOWEY: Just one last comment because I’ve seen many working groups being established. Anything specific coming out of it? Or are they going to take a year to study it again?

BROWNFIELD: It’s joint, congresswoman. So my guess is we’ll be able to push it to a certain extent. The question will be how far are they willing to go?

What I will commit to you is we will push them as far as we can push them. And we will see how far they are willing to go to comply with their own president’s commitments on this issue.

Sanders and Clinton on Asia at the New Hampshire debate

Here are some excerpts from the February 4, 2016, Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire, in which Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comment on China and Asia.

Sen. Bernie Sanders on outsourcing to China

Can I work with corporations? Are there good corporations doing incredible cutting edge research and development? Absolutely they are. And we should be proud of them.

But on the other hand, there are many corporations who have turned their backs on the American worker, who have said, if I can make another nickel in profit by going to China and shutting down in the United States of America, that’s what I will do.

I will do my best to transform our trade policy and take on these corporations who want to invest in low income countries around the world rather than in the United States of America.

and on North Korea…

Clearly North Korea is a very strange situation because it is such an isolated country run by a handful of dictators, or maybe just one, who seems to be somewhat paranoid. And, who had nuclear weapons.

And, our goal there, in my view, is to work and lean strongly on China to put as much pressure. China is one of the few major countries in the world that has significant support for North Korea, and I think we got to do everything we can to put pressure on China. I worry very much about an isolated, paranoid country with atomic bombs.

I think, clearly, we got to work closely with China to resolve the serious problems we have, and I worry about Putin and his military adventurism in the Crimea and the Ukraine.

and on trade…

TODD: If you do that as president, how are you not essentially letting China, who will do all of these deals around the world, how are you going to prevent China from essentially setting the rules of trade for the world?

SANDERS: Chuck, I believe in trade, but I do not believe in unfettered free trade. I believe in fair trade which works for the middle class and working families of this country and not just large multinational corporations.

I was not only in opposition to NAFTA — and this is an area where the secretary and I have disagreements. I was not only in opposition to NAFTA, I was on the picket line in opposition to NAFTA because I understood — I don’t think this is really rocket science.

We heard all of the people tell us how many great jobs would be created. I didn’t believe that for a second because I understood what the function of NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR with China, and the TPP is, it’s to say to American workers, hey, you are now competing against people in Vietnam who make 56 cents an hour minimum wage.

I don’t want American workers to compete against people making 56 cents an hour. I don’t want companies shutting down in America, throwing people out on the street, moving to China, and bringing their products back into this country.

SANDERS: So, do I believe in trade? Of course, I believe in trade. But the current trade agreements over the last 30 years were written by corporate America, for corporate America, resulted in the loss of millions of decent-paying jobs, 60,000 factories in America lost since 2001, millions of decent-paying jobs; and also a downward spiral, a race to the bottom where employers say, “Hey, you don’t want to take a cut in pay? We’re going to China.”

Workers today are working longer hours for lower wages. Trade is one of the reasons for that.

Secretary Hillary Clinton on trade agreements

I did hope that the TPP, negotiated by this administration, would put to rest a lot of the concerns that many people have expressed about trade agreements. And I said that I was holding out that hope that it would be the kind of trade agreement that I was looking for.

I waited until it had actually been negotiated because I did want to give the benefit of the doubt to the administration. Once I saw what the outcome was, I opposed it.

Now I have a very clear view about this. We have to trade with the rest of the world. We are 5 percent of the world’s population. We have to trade with the other 95 percent. And trade has to be reciprocal. That’s the way the global economy works.

But we have failed to provide the basic safety net support that American workers need in order to be able to compete and win in the global economy. So it’s not just what’s in the trade agreement that I’m interested in.

I did help to renegotiate the trade agreement that we inherited from President Bush with Korea. We go the UAW on board because of changes we made. So there are changes that I believe would make a real difference if they could be achieved, but I do not currently support it as it is written.

U.S.–China Week: A clearer ‘freedom of navigation’ op., Kerry frustrated in Beijing, an uncertain rebalance, Clinton on women’s rights (2016.02.01)

Welcome to Issue 37 of U.S.–China Week. Readers in New York City may be interested in attending a talk I am giving Tuesday evening at the CUNY Graduate Center, in which I will offer a preliminary assessment of U.S. policy toward Asia in the Obama administration. The talk will be in Midtown from 6–7:30 p.m., and details are available here.

As always: Please encourage friends and colleagues to subscribe to U.S.–China Week. Here is the web version of this issue, ideal for sharing on social media. And please send your comments, quibbles, and suggestions to [email protected].

With new ‘freedom of navigation’ operation, U.S. claims to challenge rule requiring permission for ‘innocent passage’

A U.S. statement said the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur “transited in innocent passage within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island” in the Paracel Islands. “This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson (English/中文) cited Chinese domestic law requiring foreign military ships to gain approval before entering Chinese territorial seas. A Defense Ministry spokesperson said the U.S. operation was “unprofessional and irresponsible,” that the Chinese law concerned was in accordance with international law, and that many other states have comparable laws.

The Defense Ministry statement also cited a 1996 Chinese declaration of “straight baselines” (boundaries from which territorial seas and other maritime zones would be measured) around the Paracels. Those baselines are considered incompatible with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by the U.S. government. Speaking days earlier, U.S. Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris said more freedom of navigation (FON) operations would be forthcoming “and you will see them increasing in complexity and scope and in areas of challenge.” This operation won the praise of Senator John McCain, who had been calling for further FON operations. / Meanwhile, a U.S. spokesperson said Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s trip to Taiping Island in the Spratlys was “extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.”

ANALYSIS: This FON operation sent a much clearer message compared with October’s transit by the USS Lassen near Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands. Last time, the U.S. ship followed the conventions of innocent passage when no territorial sea had been explicitly declared. That left Chinese officials with plenty of room tomaintain ambiguity about the nature of their objection, and they settled on language accusing the U.S. ship of threatening security and sovereignty interests, but not necessarily violating China’s sovereignty. This time, since China has declared straight baselines, Chinese officials complained specifically of U.S. entry within a Chinese territorial sea.

An even greater difference lies in the fact that the U.S. government explained the legal rationale for the operation immediately. In October, silence from the U.S. government led to days of reports based on anonymous sources and great confusion about the operation’s legal significance. This time, the operation was declared to be targeting “permission or notification” requirements for military vessels traveling through territorial seas. Despite some commentary, the operation did not appear designed to challenge China’s legally questionable straight baselines. To do so, one might have a ship enter within the straight baselines but not within 12 nautical miles of a land feature, meanwhile ensuring that the ship did not follow the conventions of innocent passage.

Friction over North Korea on display as Kerry visits Beijing

In a visit just before the latest FON operation, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Beijing and met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and President Xi Jinping. The international response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test was the most-watched aspect of the visit, and the two governments appeared in only partial agreement. In their joint press conference, Wang said “sanctions are not an end in themselves” but agreed that “the Security Council need to take further action and pass a new resolution.” There was no indication the two governments were in agreement about the content of that resolution, however. Kerry said “it’s good to agree on the goal, but it’s not enough to agree on the goal” and called for “a strong resolution that introduces significant new measures to curtail North Korea’s ability to advance its proscribed nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” / On the South China Sea, Kerry revealed some of the content of his discussions with Wang, saying “we had a good discussion about what is the definition of militarization and what began first, who began what, et cetera”—language that doesn’t suggest any progress but rather a repetition of conflicting views. / In a rhetorical shift, both Kerry and Xi included cybersecurity not in their list of differences but in their list of areas where the governments have “made progress in cooperation” (Xi) or “made progress and discussed the issues” (Kerry).

ANALYSIS: It seems likely that Kerry hoped his visit would make more headway on the North Korea issue. Agreement that something ought to be done at the UN Security Council is a bare minimum. Reading the Kerry-Wang press conference gives the impression Kerry had previously held high, perhaps unrealistic hopes for a breakthrough, and that those hopes were dashed. It seems likely the FON operation was delayed until after Kerry’s visit to increase the chance of a breakthrough. I don’t see the cost in holding off, but those favoring a more active FON program could reasonably ask whether a delay helped anything.

Congressionally mandated report finds ‘rebalance’ incoherent and calls for it to be strengthened; My take at ‘The Diplomat’

A team from the Center for Strategic and International Studies published an extensive report on the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, finding “consistent confusion about the rebalance strategy and concern about its implementation” and recommending that the administration “develop and then articulate a clear and coherent strategy.” At The Diplomat, I discuss the report in greater depth.

Hillary Clinton again turns to Twitter to criticize China over women’s rights

Last April, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clintontweeted a link to a New York Times story on the detention of feminist activists in China, saying, “This is inexcusable.” In September, she called Xi “shameless” in a tweet linking to another NYT article on women’s rights. This week, in a tweet signed with a “-H,” indicating it was a statement from Clinton herself, the campaign linked to yet another NYT story, about the closing of a women’s legal aid group run by the prominent public interest lawyer Guo Jianmei. “True in Beijing in 1995, true today: Women’s rights are human rights. This center should remain—I stand with Guo -H,”Clinton wrote.

ANALYSIS: Clinton has not often discussed China during the 2016 campaign so far, but her criticism of women’s rights in China goes back to her 1995 speech at the UN World Conference on Women, and she made reference to that speech in the 2008 campaign, saying she “stood up to the Chinese government on human rights, women’s rights.” (See my cub analyst take on that November 2007 remark here.) These periodic tweets may serve as a way to inoculate the campaign against criticism that, as secretary of state, she explicitly prioritized economic crisis, climate change, and security above rights issues.

Noah Smith: Economics research shows trade with China has a long-lasting negative effect on U.S. jobs

Bloomberg View columnist Noah Smith cites a paper by economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson in arguing that a common assumption among economists that “free trade is good” is not necessarily true when it comes to U.S. workers and trade with China. Smith writes: “Autor, et al. show powerful evidence that industries and regions that have been more exposed to Chinese import competition since 2000—the year China joined the World Trade Organization—have been hit hard and have not recovered. Workers in these industries and regions don’t go on to better jobs, or even similar jobs in different industries. Instead, they shuffle from low-paid job to low-paid job, never recovering the prosperity they had before Chinese competition hit. Many of them end up on welfare. This is very different from earlier decades, when workers who lost their jobs to import competition usually went into higher-productivity industries, to the benefit of almost everyone. In other words, the public might have been wrong about free trade in the 1980s and 1990s, but things have changed. Popular opinion seems to be exactly right about the effect of trade with China—it has killed jobs and damaged the lives of many, many Americans.” / Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders has repeatedly pointed out his opposition to trade liberalization legislation including permanent normal trade relations with China, for instance in a CNN town hall debate.

ANALYSIS: Smith allows that what economists mean by “good” is often at odds with the interests of certain sectors of the economy. It seems unlikely U.S. public opinion could get more sour on the jobs implications of trade with China, but it’s interesting to note these findings at a time when U.S. businesses, traditionally the “ballast” of the U.S.–China relationship, have such a tall wish list in their dealings with China.


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 China Center at Yale Law School, where he specializes in U.S.–China diplomatic, security, and economic relations through research and Track II dialogues. A full bio is available here.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are my own (and I reserve the right to change my mind).

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