Tag Archives: South China Sea

Former Obama Asia advisor: Media's US-China rivalry articles 'represent lazy journalism'

Jeffrey Bader, a former senior director for East Asia at the U.S. National Security Council during the Obama administration and a key Obama advisor, spoke at Beijing’s Tsinghua University Tuesday, almost a year after he appeared the last time. While a lot of what he said was not especially new if you follow Bader, he closed his speech with a fairly sharp line on the U.S. news media’s handling of Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a trip to to Southeast Asia because of the domestic political crisis in the United States.

Specifically, Bader took issue with the tired frame that assumes a U.S. absence is a victory for China:

We all read a steady drumbeat of articles and media of both sides focusing on U.S.–China rivalry. They are not wrong, but they are seriously unbalanced and, I believe, frankly represent lazy journalism. Nevertheless, perceptions affect reality. If, for example, western analysts interpret Obama’s failure to attend APEC and the East Asia Summit as a victory for China—and I read many articles describing these events as “Xi wins, Obama loses,” as if it were a football game—then I can understand why Chinese analysts respond by imposing a similar zero-sum framework of analysis on U.S. and Chinese behavior.

I hope sophisticated Chinese and Americans will transcend this kind of interpretation. In fact, not everything, indeed not most things that the U.S. and China do are aimed at the other. We each have substantial interests and relations including with other countries in Asia without regard to any rivalry for influence.

This analyst agrees with the former White House advisor.

A few other notes:

  • Bader noted there has been a significant increase in U.S.–China military-to-military exchange, cooperation, and  participation in international exchanges. My far less informed observations confirm this impression.
  • He divided U.S.–China issues into four realms: global issues, Asia-Pacific issues, global hotspots, and purely bilateral issues. Of these, he said, Asia-Pacific issues such as the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas are likely to pose the greatest challenge in the coming years.
  • Increased nationalism throughout the region, he said, is worrisome and creates conditions where concessions are impossible in territorial disputes. Accordingly, Bader said he likes China’s proposal of joint development of undersea resources in the South China Sea, since it sets the sovereignty issue aside and sidesteps arguments over exclusive economic zones that may radiate from some land features under UNCLOS.
  • “Diaoyu islands doesn’t matter,” Bader said in a refreshingly frank and lighthearted discussion of the sticky Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. He continued: “If there were global warming—and there’d have to be a lot of global warming, because they’re pretty high—but if there were somehow miraculously global warming and these islands disappeared, no one would care. But China and Japan would still have issues.” The root of Bader’s argument on Japan and China is that the island dispute was nearly absent for decades before coming up, and that Sino-Japanese relations have hit an unusual rough spot that allows the island dispute to flare up.

Shameless plug:

  • I wrote here about Bader’s dislike for the term “pivot,” which he brought up again today.

Is the China-Japan confrontation Xi's inside political play, or part of a broader move?

Is China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, flexing military muscle with Japan to solidify rule within the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, or is the heightened dispute with Japan best viewed in a broader context?

At Foreign PolicyJohn Garnaut examines the relationship between Xi and the PLA. The article is worth a read, but the thrust of it can be captured in this passage, speculating that the Chinese agitation on islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan is the result of an effort by Xi to shore up internal power.

The dizzying display of hard power is sending fear and awe throughout the Asia-Pacific region. But Xi, it seems, is unconvinced that all this shiny hardware can be effectively deployed by an organization that was designed for civil war and adapted in recent decades as a political force to ensure the party’s grip on power.

That’s where China’s rapidly escalating territorial showdown with Japan, its largest trading partner and still the world’s third-largest economy, comes in. In September, the Japanese government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands as they are known in China, from private owners to prevent them from falling into the hands of Tokyo’s governor at the time, a hawkish nationalist provocateur. But China responded with fury. It launched a propaganda blitz against Japan, facilitated protests and riots across China, and escalated its maritime and air patrols of the disputed area. For Xi, according to his close family friend, the otherwise baffling diplomatic crisis that resulted has offered a priceless opportunity to “sort the horses from the mules” and mobilize willing generals around him. Claims that Xi has exploited or even orchestrated the brinkmanship with Japan might seem preposterous to outside observers, given that a miscalculation could lead to war. But the logic is compelling for those who have grown up near the center of China’s endless and unforgiving internal struggles.

This claim should be taken with a grain of salt. It is, after all, an anonymous source coming out of the highly opaque world of Chinese elite politics. On the other hand, Garnaut’s sources in recent months have seemed quite good. Either way, the idea is worth discussion.

What if the current surge of Sino-Japanese confrontation over the islands really are in large part the result of internal political plays?

Though all-out war is unlikely, the risk of accident or miscalculation is significant whenever military or civilian law enforcement vessels or planes are put in proximity with those they believe to be adversaries. If Xi Jinping has calculated that this risk is worth taking, we might assume he is deeply insecure in his new position. Perhaps he sees the danger of a PLA outside his close command as greater than that of accidental violence or escalation with Japan—an outcome that could cause untold damage to commerce and the largest decline in China’s international status since at least 1989. Of course, a military out of control could cause its own violence, but this is no small gambit.

As Garnaut notes, there is also a real possibility that in a full-scale conflict Japan’s highly modern, well-trained forces would defeat China’s modernizing, untested military. If Xi is worried about the strength of his rule, this potential outcome would be devastating. For a new leader to lose a battle (a war?) to a great historical adversary at the center of China’s so-called “century of humiliation” could very well be crippling.

An alternative: What if the Japan initiative is no mere internal play, but also aligns with a broader strategy of pushing China’s maritime claims now that it has stronger forces?

China’s increased military and Maritime Surveillance (armed civilian law enforcement) activity in the East China Sea, where the dispute with Japan is centered, should not be viewed in isolation. Though it’s possible the logic of the Japan dispute is independent, Chinese forces and diplomatic staff have recently taken a harder line with maritime neighbors in the South China Sea. Especially with the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s official statements and deployments reflect a renewed assertion of ill-defined territorial claims. The Philippines has brought a seemingly well-crafted case under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both states are party, and the Chinese government has not sent anyone to participate in the arbitration process so far. Meanwhile, regular Chinese patrols are reported by state media, and active development is under way on one island under the banner of a new city called Sansha, which supposedly administers a wide swath of South China Sea territory under Chinese law.

There are significant parallels between the South China Sea and East China Sea situations. The Philippines and Japan are both treaty allies of the United States. (Vietnam is not, though Vietnamese-U.S. dialogue and coordination appear to have increased along with this dispute.) In each case, Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels have been the most visible, though some PLA presence is involved. Why not view these initiatives as parallel?

One reason to differentiate the South China Sea mobilization from the China-Japan dispute is that the former predates Xi’s rise to power, while the latter seems to be developing largely under his watch. But it’s equally possible to view the rise in island disputes as part of a broader flexing of Chinese military muscle, perhaps also including a recent increase in action on the China-India border dispute.

As always, it could likely be a combination of both. But while it’s worth taking seriously the internal political intrigue that may drive international events, broader trends must be kept in view. Missing from this account is potential competition for resources and action between different military commands in China. Though it’s often disputed which came first—the U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific or China’s increased assertiveness on maritime disputes—the two moves have emerged at similar times. And perhaps in each case the strategic logic has been the same all along, but people making decisions in China have decided that now is the time to start pushing, either because military strength has risen sufficiently or because they believe long-term claims need periodic renewal. While it would be a neat narrative, and a pleasingly dramatic one, to root these events in one man’s struggle to establish control, the reality is far less pleasingly simple. Garnaut’s coverage of elite politics is invaluable, but it should be taken as one part of a broader picture.

China News Update, July 5, 2012 – U.S.–China ties, South China Sea

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai speaks at the Asia Society in Hong Kong July 5, 2012.

  • Today’s news opens with a speech July 5 in Hong Kong by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, a key figure in Chinese relations with the United States. The speech calls for “building a new type of relationship between major countries here in the Asia-Pacific,” a key Hu Jintao phrase from the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) between the United States and China in May [speech in Chinese / in English]. The Xinhua storyabout the speech also emphasized this new relationship, suggesting that the idea of something like a U.S.–China “special relationship” is gaining traction in Chinese policy circles.

    The remainder of the speech emphasizes the need for expanded mutual trust between the two countries, and the importance of the Asia-Pacific region as a locus for this relationship. None of this is groundbreaking, but I think it’s worth noting that this is one of the highest-level speeches on the United States since the May meetings that coincided with a diplomatic tangle over the fate of Chen Guangcheng, the self-taught lawyer who escaped home detention and entered the U.S. embassy in Beijing, eventually ending up as a special student at New York University Law School. Cui specifically mentions S&ED as a successful development, and calls out U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who, along with Cui, was reportedly at the center of tense negotiations over Chen.

  • The other big news come from U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration has filed a WTO complaint against China over auto tariffs. The timing had clear political content, as Obama is beginning a campaign trip in the Midwest, where much of the U.S. auto industry makes its home.
  • Meanwhile, the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans, released its 2012 survey of U.S.–China public opinion [pdf] about bilateral ties. The executive summary is worth a skim, as it contains a laundry list of findings.
  • Zhou Yongkang, for one, is not a fan of U.S. opinions on China. According to an AFP story:

    “We will never change in our endeavour to defend the party’s leading role and socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he wrote in the latest edition of a Communist Party publication, “Qiushi”.”We will resolutely resist the attacks of hostile forces on our nation’s political and judicial systems, and we will resolutely resist the influence of mistaken Western political and legal views.”

    Zhou was writing in his position as head of the party’s Politics and Law Commission, which oversees China’s courts, prosecution and police.

  • And the U.S. State Department expressed displeasure with Chinese online censorship after Bloomberg News’ website after its blockbuster story on the family finances of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping.

As always, there has been movement in the South China Sea

  • The Philippines may ask for U.S. spy plane assistance in areas disputed with China, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said, reportedly referring to P3C Orion aircraft. (July 2)
  • The People’s Daily that day also accused the Philippines of attempting to stir up trouble in the region ahead of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting July 9. (English of full article.)
  • The Philippine military has “no problem” with Chinese patrols near disputed islands, according to a media report, as long as they stay in the “freedom of navigation area”—i.e. international waters where any ship has a right to be. (July 3)
  • The Philippines issued a new “note verbale,” a type of diplomatic communication, objecting to China’s plans with its newly upgraded administrative distinction for the administration of some of the islands it claims in the South China Sea, a Philippine news site reports. “Sansha city” officially includes both an island disputed with Vietnam and the Scarborough Shoal, which China and the Philippines disagree over. (July 4)
  • Chinese Maritime Surveillance ships are patrolling within 1 nautical mile of the Nansha islands, Xinhua reported.
  • The Chinese government announced it would open a research station in the “Zhongsha” islands, part of the controversial Sansha City. A quick check suggests these “islands” are not even above water all of the time, and they have not been part of the recent dust-ups with Vietnam or Philippines. (July 5)
  • An Economist story comes with a nice map that includes oil claims.

China News Update for July 1, 2012 – U.S.–China relations and South China Sea update

The first set of links are on things other than the South China Sea. The second set are devoted to that ongoing issue. See also my new post on the Global Times referring to the South China Sea as one of China’s “core interest.”

  • The People’s Daily reported that preparations are on track for the fall party congress and leadership transition.
  • In an apparently newly released speech to a track II meeting between the United States and China, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai spoke about common U.S.–China interests, adding:

    Upon his acceptance of Lifetime Achievement Award VDZ Publisher’s Night in November 2011, Dr. Kissinger said that the current international system thus faces a paradox: its prosperity is dependent on the success of globalization, but the process produces a political dialectic that often works counter to its aspirations. Indeed, we need to think carefully about how to go beyond political differences and achieve common prosperity. The United States is the most powerful nation in the world. Does the United States regard globalization as a zero-sum game or a win-win process? Does it view the development of China and other big countries as posing challenges to the position of the US or as offering greater development opportunities with more cooperative partners? These are crucial questions. Whether the United States can make a correct choice will to a large extent influence the development of the world situation in the 21st century.

  • In an interview published on China.org.cn, Peking University Professor Wang Jisi speaks about the persistent differences between the United States and China:

    Q: Will the mutual suspicion be lessened by the increasing number of non-governmental exchanges between the two sides?

    Wang Jisi: Not really. Most people, whether in the U.S. or China, who acquire information via domestic mainstream media, will not get a true picture of the other country. Even getting involved in people-to-people communication does not negate wider existing differences. For instance, say that a person travels in America and becomes genuinely fond of the country and people, this individual experience will not eliminate the political differences and mutual suspicion which exist between the two countries. Simply learning more about a country does not necessarily mean you will trust it more. …

    Q: Some scholars think that the U.S. is behind the South China Sea and Diaoyu Islands disputes. Is that true or is the U.S. simply being opportunistic as far as these disputes are concerned?

    Wang Jisi: From the U.S. point of view, increased tension between China and the Philippines over the disputed Huangyan Islands can only be an advantage because, to some degree, the dispute will contain its biggest opponent. On the other hand, it will make the Philippines more reliant on the U.S. China cannot openly blame the U.S. for provoking or exacerbating the disputes, despite the fact that it will certainly suspect the U.S. of being is behind these disputes. Despite this, the U.S. will definitely not become involved in the dispute.

Now on to the South China Sea

  • Four Chinese Marine Surveillance ships on Sunday reached “Huayang Reef,” a coral formation in the disputed Spratly Islands, Chinese state media reported. The Spratlys are at the core of a China–Vietnam maritime territorial dispute. [China.org.cn] [AFP]
  • Anti-Chinese protests erupted in Vietnam Sunday. Hundreds [Reuters] or about 200 [AP] protested an announcement by the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) that it is seeking foreign collaborators to develop fuel resources in the disputed Spratly Islands. Vietnam’s government claims the areas up for exploration are within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
  • A Human Rights Watch representative told the Voice of America that some prominent bloggers were prevented from attending the Vietnamese protests.
  • The nationalist-leaning government-controlled Chinese newspaper Global Times issued an editorial on the South China Sea that could be read as a threat against Vietnam and the Philippines:

    As to China, it is not interested in being involved in frequent wrangles with Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea, which is merely one of its core interests.* As a great power, China has strategic concerns all over the Asia-Pacific region and even the world. But if Vietnam and the Philippines continue to provoke and go too far, they must be prepared to face strong countermeasures from China.

  • *The use of the term “core interest” is politically charged, and I’ve devoted an entire post to the issue.
  • Meanwhile, the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, spoke with the Global Times for an interview. Not especially ground-breaking, but it’s worth a skim.

'Global Times' calls South China Sea a 'core interest'

The nationalist-leaning state-controlled newspaper Global Times on its English-language website Sunday made what might be a significant statement in the ongoing Chinese dispute with Vietnam and the Philippines, among others, in the South China Sea. In an unsigned opinion piece, the paper states:

As to China, it is not interested in being involved in frequent wrangles with Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea, which is merely one of its core interests. As a great power, China has strategic concerns all over the Asia-Pacific region and even the world. But if Vietnam and the Philippines continue to provoke and go too far, they must be prepared to face strong countermeasures from China. (emphasis added)

The question of whether the South China Sea has been identified as one of China’s “core interests” is important to diplomats, because it puts the waters on the same level as Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Quoting the International Crisis Group‘s excellent recent report on the issue:

In early 2010, speculation arose that China had defined the South China Sea disputes as one of its “core interests”, a term traditionally reserved for matters of national sov- ereignty such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, where China is unwilling to compromise its position and would resort to force, if necessary. Reports first suggested that Chinese officials used this expression during a private meeting with U.S. officials in March 2010, and then cited U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as claiming that the sen- ior Chinese leader responsible for foreign policy repeated this declaration in May 2010. However, another senior U.S. official* has since asserted that the term “national priority” rather than “core interest” was used. Chinese researchers almost unanimously agree that the government has not made any conscious policy decision to rank the South China Sea as a core interest at the same level as an issue such as Taiwan.

What does something like this mean from the Global Times? First, it’s critical to note that this paper is not regarded as authoritative in the same way that observers take the People’s Daily as the vetted mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. It is not even as strong a source as the official Xinhua News Service, which is the source of dependably “correct” political news for the broader Chinese media sphere.

What does this mean? One way to discount this statement would be to speculate that there has been a mistranslation, but the Chinese version of the editorial also uses “core interest” (核心利益). It seems unlikely to me that the paper, in an unsigned piece, would use this term lightly. What it indicates is that the consensus view of more hawkish voices in China is that the government and national defense establishment should be more protective of the country’s claims than compromising.

The headline of the piece claims that China is “patient, not reckless, over [the] islands,” and this suggests that the threat of “strong countermeasures” is meant as an “or else.”

On the face of it, the argument that joint development should be pursued as a way out of this dispute might seem relatively fair, but various accounts from the region suggest that Vietnamese and Philippine analysts view Chinese proposals of “joint development” as giving them little autonomy. Moreover, recall that some of the islands in question unquestionably lie within a 200-nautical mile distance of Vietnam—an area generally regarded as one country’s exclusive economic zone.

This issue is not likely to be resolved any time soon, but watch carefully for other uses of the term “core interest” from the Chinese side. If they start emerging from more authoritative sources, this may signal a significantly harder line than the current mixture of patrols, protests, and accommodations.

See today’s China Update for more South China Sea links for the last few days, or see previous updates.

*This refers to Jeffrey Bader, in his new tick-tock book on U.S. Asia policy during his time in the National Security Council during the early Obama administration: Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy