South China Sea
We aren't sure how much method to place in Donald Trump's madness. Right on the heels of the outrage over his diplomatically incorrect telephone conversation with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen comes word that he's appointed Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as the next US ambassador to China—news that will apparently be welcome in Beijing. The New York Times says that Branstad describes China's exceptionally authoritarian President Xi Jinping as an "old friend." Reuters tells us Branstad said he's had a "30-year friendship" with Xi, and added: "The president-elect understands my unique relationship to China." A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reciprocated the warmth, calling Branstad an "old friend" of China.
This is very telling. While Kremlin mouthpiece RT is now bashing the anti-Trump protesters in the US, China Daily is gushing with enthusiasm for them. At first, this seems a little counter-intuitive. In some obvious ways, Trump's victory is good news for Beijing. Trump says he will pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on his first day in the White House. (BBC News) On the campaign trail, he blasted the TPP as "a disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country." (ChinaWorker) Beijing views the TPP as a bid for US dominance in the Asia-Pacific region, and a reaction to China's territorial ambitions and superpower aspirations. Just as the US-backed TPP excludes China, Beijing is pushing a rival Pacific Rim trade initiative, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), that excludes the United States. After the US election results, China's Commerce Ministry announced a new push to conclude negotiations on the RCEP. (Reuters)
The Philippines' ultra-hardline President Rodrigo Duterte arrived in China Oct. 18 for a high-profile visit that western media accounts are portraying as a tilt away from the United States. Washington has historically been the Philippines' imperial patron, providing investment and military aid—but relations are now strained over Duterte's murderous anti-drug crackdown, which is believed to have claimed 3,000 lives. Arriving in Beijing, Duterte blasted Washington and the European Union for their criticisms of his lawless crackdown, and praised his hosts for giving him free rein. "China is the only country to come out freely and [make] a firm statement that they are supporting the fight against drugs in my country," Duterte told Chinese state news agency Xinhua in a comment picked up by the Philippine Star. "The other countries, United States, EU, instead of helping us, they know that we are short of money... all they had to do was to criticize. China never criticized."
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled (PDF) in favor of the Philippines on July 12 in its dispute with China over most of the South China Sea. Manila brought the case in 2013 disputing Beijing's territorial claims, a move China decried as "unilateral." The PCA concluded that China does not have the right to resources within its "nine-dash line," an area covering nearly the entire 3.5 million square-kilometer Sea—believed to be rich in oil and minerals. The tribunal found that none of the disputed Spratly Islands are "capable of generating extended maritime zones." Therefore, the tribunal wrote that it could "declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China." China entirely denies the PCA's jurisdiction in the matter, and rejected the ruling.
Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou made a provocative visit Jan. 28 to Taiping Island in the South China Sea—the largest natural island in the dipsuted Spratly chain. Taiwan has controlled Taiping Island (also known as Itu Aba) since 1946, but it is also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam—and, significantly, China. The island is inhabited by only 200—all Taiwanese military personnel. In his visit, Ma boasted infrastructure developments, including a new hospital and a lighthouse—but his comments made clear this was aimed at establishing what the diplomats call "facts on the ground." The island already hosts fortifications, military barracks, a hospital, radar and satellite facilities. "All this evidence fully demonstrates that Taiping Island is able to sustain human habitation and an economic life of its own," Ma said in a press release. "Taiping Island is categorically not a rock, but an island." He also officially unveiled a monument during his visit, with an inscription reaing: "Peace in the South Seas, Eternally Secure the National Borders."
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled (PDF) Oct. 29 that it has jurisdiction to hear a dispute between the Philippines and China over parts of the South China Sea. At issue are a number of islands and shoals, which the Philippines says China has annexed illegally under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China has long held that the PCA lacks jurisdiction to hear the case, saying that it would be open to bilateral negotiations with the Philippines over the issue. China has boycotted the proceedings, rejecting the court's authority in the case. Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, maintaining that its rights are based on history rather than legal precedent.
Japan's lower house on July 16 approved legislation that would allow an expanded role for the nation's Self-Defense Forces in a vote boycotted by the opposition. The vote came one day after Prime Minster Shinzo Abe's ruling LDP-led bloc forced the bills through a committee despite intensifying protests. Opposition lawmakers walked out after their party leaders made final speeches against the bills. Abe cited China's growing military presence in the region in support of the legislation. The bills were drafted after his Cabinet last year adopted a new interpretation of Japan's pacifist constitution. Opponents counter that the new interpretation is unconstitutional. A criticism of the reform is that it is unclear what the new legislation actually does, but it is clearly intended to permit Japanese troops to be deployed on combat missions for the first time since the end of World War II. The package will now be passed on to the upper house of the Diet, and could be approved as early as next week.
Here's another one to file under "Life's little ironies." Vietnam's Communist Party boss Nguyen Phu Trong (the country's "paramount leader") meets with Obama at the White House—a first, coming exactly 20 years after US-Hanoi diplomatic relations were restored. Why now? The Washington Post flatly states that Obama "is seeking to reconfigure a historically difficult relationship with Vietnam into a strategic partnership against China." White House officials "said Hanoi has been signaling interest in forging deeper economic and military ties with the United States," and also emphasized that Vietnam "is among the 12 nations involved in an expansive Pacific Rim trade pact." That's the Trans-Pacific Partnership—which is nearly openly conceived as a counter-measure to China's economic rise.