This week the US and China held high-level, annual talks and on the most contentious issues, it seems like we’re not getting anywhere with China.
In a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang, Vice Premier Liu Yandong and State Councilor Yang Jiechi, President Obama “raised ongoing U.S. concerns about China’s cyber and maritime behaviour,” according to a White House Statement.
But there were no major developments on the matters.
The US and China can talk climate change, they can talk trade, they can talk cultural exchanges, but on the thorniest issues, China’s message needs to be read between the lines, and that message is — step off.
“There was an honest discussion, without accusations, without any finger-pointing, about the problem of cyber theft and whether or not it was sanctioned by government or whether it was hackers and individuals that the government has the ability to prosecute,” Secretary John Kerry said after meeting with Chinese officials.
Earlier this month, the US government traced a recent hack into the records of federal employees back to China. China denies any involvement.
And when it comes to cyber security in general, China’s official government line at last week’s talks was that the US should “respect the facts.”
Ask the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China about it, though, and they will tell you something totally different. The PLA published a memo last month called “Cybersovereignty Symbolises National Sovereignty” about how the internet has become a stage for war.
“The internet has become the main battlefront for struggle in the ideological area,” it said.
And that battle never ends. The memo said:
Western hostile forces and a small number of “ideological traitors” in our country use the network, and relying on computers, mobile phones and other such information terminals, maliciously attack our Party, blacken the leaders who founded the New China, vilify our heroes, and arouse mistaken thinking trends of historical nihilism, with the ultimate goal of using “universal values” to mislead us, using “constitutional democracy” to throw us into turmoil, use “colour revolutions” to overthrow us, use negative public opinion and rumours to oppose us, and use “de-partification and depoliticization of the military” to upset us.
So there’s that.
The South China Sea
For a year or so China has been steadily building islands on top of reefs in the South China Sea. At this point it has reclaimed 2,000 acres of land. In April, satellite imagery showed that the Chinese military had built an airstrip big enough for military aircraft.
The problem is that this is driving its neighbours crazy.
US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter has said that this building violates “international rules and norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific security architecture, and the regional consensus that favours diplomacy and opposes coercion.”
China says it has a historical claim on this land and that the reclamation and do not affect or target any particular country.
State run media is more bombastic about it.
“If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a US-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea,” wrote state-owned paper, The Global Post. “The intensity of the conflict will be higher than what people usually think of as ‘friction.'”
Naturally this issue was discussed at the talks, but according to Bloomberg, Chinese officials simply “reaffirmed China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea region and said the U.S. isn’t a party to disputes in the area.”
According to William Choong, a senior fellow at International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, this is part of China’s desire to be treated as an equal — this game is about respect.
“The Chinese, they have always tried to avoid the more contentious issues and therein lies the problem with the Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks,” Choong said. “If you’re not able to, number one, raise contentious issues and recognise them and number two, try to work at a kind of a workable solution… then in a sense you’re not going to go very far from where we are now.”
That’s a problem.