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Trump-Xi Summit, a Month Later – So What and What’s Next?

By Tuan N. Pham

Who came out relatively stronger from the summit, what are the ramifications for the U.S.-China relations, what to expect when Trump visits China next, and where are the U.S. strategic opportunities?  

The heavily choreographed Trump-Xi Summit held on April 6-7 seemed more about atmospherics than substance and did not yield any concrete accomplishments beyond pledges of increased cooperation, new frameworks for dialogue, and a state visit to Beijing by President Trump later in the year. One month later, as the dust settles and more disclosures are made, what can be said now of the summit, and more importantly, so what and what’s next?

Part 1 of this two-part series outlined the perceived and actual outcomes from a Chinese, American, and international perspective. With this as a backdrop, Part 2 now discusses which leader came out relatively stronger, the ramifications for the U.S.-China strategic relations, what to expect when Trump visits China later in the year, and finally where the strategic opportunities lie for the U.S. and how Washington can leverage them.

Who Came Out On Top?

On the whole, Trump came out relatively stronger than Xi in terms of managing expectations and creating and shaping favorable visuals. From the beginning, Xi pressed for an early summit in the hopes that by acting first and boldly, he could seize the strategic initiative and set parameters for the new U.S. president who had yet to fully form his national security team and settle on his China policy. Xi’s advance team pushed hard for exacting protocol demands to make sure that Xi appeared to be a strong and resolute leader who could hold his own against the U.S. president on a global stage, and for China to project an international image of a rising global power that is equal in stature and standing to the United States, a declining global power.

All things considered, Xi gained little and Trump gave little away during the summit. Xi sought, but did not get Trump to publicly reaffirm the One-China policy, endorse China’s new model of great power relations, or give concessions in the areas of trade and commerce, North Korea (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system), Taiwan (arms sales), and maritime sovereignty (South China Sea). Xi did, however, lower heightened tensions, dampen the risk of a destabilizing trade war (for now), and secure an agreement for his proposed four dialogue mechanisms covering diplomacy and security, economics, law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and people-to-people exchanges.

Still, Trump largely controlled the setting, atmospherics, and strategic narratives from start to finish due to what can essentially be boiled down to homecourt advantage. As the summit’s host, he arrived later and did not greet Xi when Xi first landed in Florida. The tone-setting slight, among other later maneuvers, incrementally diminished Xi’s stature as a world leader – a perception that Xi wanted to avoid at all costs. Hence, Xi calculatingly made a state visit to Finland, a stop-over en route to visit Trump in an initial attempt to sidestep such a suppliant visual. Then at the end of dinner on Thursday, Trump personally informed Xi that he had ordered missile strikes against Syria before announcing the action to the world moments later. Xi was left flat-footed and awkwardly expressed an appreciation for Trump for letting him know and providing the rationale, and indicated that he understood that such a response was necessary when people are killing children. Remarks had to be clarified later by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reiterating that China “opposes the use of force in international relations and maintains that disputes should be peacefully resolved through political and diplomatic means such as dialogue and consultation.” Xi’s perceived failure to stand up to Trump and defend his country’s interests on a global stage will likely have consequences back home. The charismatic Chinese leader rose to power by looking strong, but Trump, Xi’s political opponents will say, made Xi appear weak and consequently made China look weak.   

Another possible tell-tale sign that Trump got the upper hand was the subdued summit coverage by the Chinese media relative to their American counterparts. While U.S. media provided extensive coverage of arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world, Chinese media was surprisingly low-key. Normally when Xi travels overseas there is full press coverage as part of a larger public diplomacy campaign to dominate the strategic narratives. For a trip to the United States to meet his equivalent, greater coverage would certainly have been appropriate and warranted. Only after the conclusion of the summit did the Chinese media start to report more details of the meeting, albeit, with only basic information at first.

Yet another anecdotal indicator that Xi underperformed during the summit was the high level of interest among Chinese netizens on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, and Sina Weibo’s attempts to restrict online discussion on the topic by deactivating the comment function on some relevant posts and removing critical posts that attempted to link the U.S. missile strikes on Syria to the summit.

That said, the self-imposed media censorship may have been driven partly by Beijing’s hyper-concerns about Trump’s unpredictability and the high likelihood of an embarrassing atmosphere. Still, subsequent media reports, official public releases, and think tank commentaries in the weeks that followed appeared largely cautious and defensive, and in many cases, in full spin control. They expended an inordinate amount of attention on the intangible personal relationship between Xi and Trump, on the former’s proposed four dialogue mechanisms, and resumed their public diplomacy campaign to underscore the two countries’ economic interdependence, imperative of avoiding a destabilizing trade war, and the importance of preserving the China-U.S. strategic relations.     

Ramifications for U.S.-China Strategic Relationship  

The Trump-Xi Summit injected much-needed certainty and stability back into the strategic relationship. From Beijing’s perspective, Trump unhelpfully introduced unpredictability and friction to bilateral relations on trade deficits, the RMB exchange rate, North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, Taiwan, and the South China Sea (SCS). So, despite not yielding any concrete accomplishments beyond pledges of increased cooperation, new frameworks for dialogue, and a state visit to Beijing by Trump later in the year; the summit did indirectly bring some stability (albeit temporarily) into the strategic relationship in terms of dampening the risk of a disruptive trade war (for now), setting aside the contentious issue of Chinese currency manipulation (for now), tacitly reaffirming the One-China policy, and repeating the importance of adherence to international norms in the East and South China Seas and to previous statements on non-militarization.  

It’s been over two months since Trump took office, but leading up to the summit some pundits were still arguing that the U.S.-China relationship remained in transition. This is no longer the case. The summit signaled the reset of bilateral relations from a collaborative nature (Obama’s approach) to a more competitive one (Trump’s approach) as codified by the guiding principle of “America First.” Washington will now pursue foreign policies that unequivocally put U.S. national interests first, as evidenced by Trump’s inclination to change the status quo and possibly use Taipei as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with Beijing (and possibly North Korea too), focus on the growing U.S.-China trade imbalance and Chinese currency manipulation that puts the U.S. economy at a competitive disadvantage, flexibility to re-prioritize the aforesaid economic interests below the more pressing North Korean nuclear and missile threat, and willingness to use military force to uphold international rule of law or when faced with threats abroad.          

What to Expect When Trump Visits China

The Trump-Xi Summit gave the United States “relative, tenuous, and transitory” strategic advantage over China in terms of initiative and narrative. Trump appears to have successfully co-opted Xi as a strategic partner in stabilizing the situation on the Korean Peninsula, in exchange for concessions in the areas of trade imbalance, currency manipulation, and Taiwan. If so, the partnership is strictly transactional. A North Korean buffer state will remain a core Chinese national interest, and Beijing will undoubtedly take steps in the near future to regain the initiative that it enjoyed for most of the past eight years. It will do so more cautiously and subtly this time around, perhaps at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing (14-15 May), Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore (2-4 June), and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and East Asia Summits in Vietnam and the Philippines respectively (November).   

Xi may be under intense political and personal pressure to do much better at the next state visit to Beijing by Trump, especially if the meeting precedes the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in late 2017. There is widespread speculation that he is trying to build political momentum to ensure that more members of his faction are promoted to the Central Committee and the Politburo, a necessary interim step if he wants to change CPC’s rules to serve an unprecedented third term as president (and/or retain his other two titles of general secretary of the CPC and chairman of the Central Military Commission) and maintain power and influence beyond 2022.

If so, Washington can expect intense shaping and robust deal-making from Beijing in the coming months. Xi will do his utmost to reset the conditions in China’s favor to not only regain the strategic advantage (initiative) prior to the second summit but also to look personally strong and in control during the summit for his domestic audiences (Chinese people and fellow CPC members). He will certainly leverage his homecourt advantage to control the setting, atmosphere, and narratives much like Trump did. Hence, could this back-and-forth jockeying for relative strategic advantage be the start of a new Cold War between the United States and China? Or can Trump and Xi reach a strategic accommodation that manages strategic competition and avoids the Thucydides Trap?    

U.S. Strategic Opportunities and Ways Washington Can Leverage  

Embrace Strategic Competition. When two powers, one status quo and one rising, with competing regional strategies extend into one’s another security and economic spheres, the geopolitical landscape is ripe for friction. This competition is not to be feared but to be expected and embraced. If Beijing insists and persists on a “new type of great power relationship” with Washington, then give China what it wants – but on U.S. terms. Define, codify, and enforce the conditions of any negotiated bilateral relations such as no militarization of the SCS and balanced trade, and most importantly, be willing to redefine the relationship when necessary. Play the Chinese game of “go” and not the Western game of “chess.”

Leverage the Strategic Advantage. Both Washington and Beijing share the same strategic goals for the Korean Peninsula – strategic stability and denuclearization. Continue co-opting Beijing to exert pressure on Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear ambitions and return to the negotiating table. To be successful, Trump must be willing to give and take with Xi across the spectrum of strategic interests, while making sure Xi clearly understand the risks and implications of not playing an active role in moderating Kim Jong-un and stabilizing the Peninsula. This will allow the two presidents to build trust, which could, in turn, open opportunities in other areas of disagreement (trade, currency manipulation, Taiwan, SCS, etc.).          

Protect the Global Commons. In pursuing the aforesaid strategic opportunities, one area where Washington must be careful not to concede too much is in the contested and interlinked global commons of maritime, space, and cyberspace. Giving unwarranted ground in these strategic domains will undermine American preeminence and encourage China to press for additional concessions in return for vague and passing promises of restraint, while quietly and steadily expanding and strengthening its position in the global commons. Play the long game.       

Maintain the Strategic High Ground. Do not let Xi unilaterally set the conditions and impose his will when he meets Trump again in Beijing later in the year. Xi will have the homecourt advantage and will be pressured to put on a strong showing, so negotiate for everything to level the playing field and mitigate expected protocol payback from Xi for Mar-a-Lago. Or else, the United States will prematurely return the strategic initiative to China. Remain firm. China respects strength.

Conclusion

From Beijing’s perspective, the Xi-Trump Summit at Mar-a-Lago achieved a great deal. It not only “charted a course and provided a roadmap for China-U.S. relations, but also established a new cooperation mechanism that will enhance and protect the all-important strategic bilateral relationship.” So how much of this narrative is congruent with Washington’s views of the summit? And more importantly, if the summit was as significant as Beijing claimed, then what and how much did it impact the U.S.-China relations? It may be too soon to fully answer this critical question. The latter half of the play has yet to unfold. Until then, it behooves Washington not to give too much ground in one area in exchange for gains in another without careful thought and consideration of any enduring implications. Otherwise, the United States risks inadvertently ceding its strategic position in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, undermining its roles and responsibilities as the global leader, and paving the way for China to become a regional hegemon.  

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are their own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: President Donald Trump talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with their wives, first lady Melania Trump and Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan as they pose for photographers before dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Palm Beach, Fla. (Alex Brandon / AP)

Trump-Xi Summit, Looking Back One Month Later

By Tuan N. Pham

As the dust settles and more disclosures are made, what can be said now of the Trump-Xi Summit a month later? 

Last month, I wrote an article titled “After the Summit: Where Do U.S.-China Relations Go From Here?” where I posited that China appeared to have a lot to be gratified about in 2016 in terms of advancing its rising regional and international role. The 6-7 April Trump-Xi Summit was the latest strategic signaling to the world that Beijing has abandoned its longstanding state policy of “hide capabilities and bide time” and will now assume its rightful place on the world stage as a destined global power. I also suggested that the heavily choreographed summit seemed more about atmospherics than substance as evidenced by President Xi’s exacting protocol demands prior to the summit, President Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes against Syria during the summit, and the summit itself not yielding any concrete accomplishments beyond pledges of increased cooperation, new frameworks for dialogue, and a state visit to Beijing by Trump later in the year. One month later, as the dust settles and more disclosures are made, what can be said now of the summit?

Part 1 of this two-part series asks what the perceived and actual outcomes are from a Chinese, American, and international perspective. Part 2 will then ask which leader came out relatively stronger, what the ramifications for U.S.-China strategic relations are, what to expect when Trump visits China later in the year, and finally where the strategic opportunities are for the U.S. and how Washington can leverage them.

The Chinese Perspective

Looking back at China’s official public releases, think tank commentaries, and authoritative media reports of the summit, an overarching strategic communications theme was apparent across the tightly controlled and synchronized Chinese public information domain – “the summit charted a course and provided a roadmap for the China-U.S. relations, and established a new cooperation mechanism that will enhance and protect the all-important strategic bilateral relationship.” Supporting talking points shared (and probably coordinated) amongst the various Chinese interlocutors encompassed: (1) complementarity between the economies of China and the United States far exceeds any competition between them, (2) a thousand reasons for two countries to be good partners and not a single reason to damage the China-U.S. relations, (3) that China is firmly committed to the path of peaceful development, does not wish to play a zero-sum game, is not seeking hegemony, and is willing to work with the United States to maintain world peace, stability, and prosperity, and (4) that the U.S. relationship with China will depend on the hope for a “new pattern of relations between great powers” based on the principle of “no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” Common catchphrases used by Chinese government officials, pundits, and news media to characterize the summit included “mutual understanding, mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual shaping.”

Given the circumstances, it seems that the Chinese public diplomacy apparatus – which Beijing uses to signal its policy priorities – struggled to make the case that the summit resulted in any substantive or tangible outcomes. Instead it expended an inordinate amount of attention on the intangible personal relationship between Xi and Trump and on the former’s proposed four dialogue mechanisms covering diplomacy and security, economics, law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and people-to-people exchanges. This is not too surprising considering that Chinese think tank punditry and authoritative media reporting prior to the summit were, by and large, focused on building up Xi, jockeying for summit positions, expressing desired outcomes, and in some cases, grandstanding and hedging.            

What may be more telling is the coverage by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, think tanks, and authoritative media of areas of bilateral tensions – North Korea, Taiwan, South China Sea (SCS), and trade and commerce – during and after the summit. To date, they have been largely limited, vague, positive, and most importantly, provided no indication that Beijing is considering major changes in its policies in the aftermath of the summit.

The one exception may be North Korea. There have been sporadic dialogues in the Chinese media – most notably in the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper run by the state-run People’s Daily, that suggest a growing policy debate within China questioning Beijing’s longstanding support to North Korea, warn of potential sanctions, and caution Pyongyang if it “carries out a sixth nuclear test as expected, it is more likely than ever that the situation will cross the point of no return…all stakeholders will bear the consequences, with Pyongyang sure to suffer the greatest losses.” These media commentaries, while sometimes used to test reactions to potential foreign policies, do not necessarily represent the views of the state. But the warnings appear consistent with Beijing’s recent actions to include implementation of previous United Nations Security Council sanctions and the Xi-Trump phone call on 24 April to discuss possible solutions to the North Korean nuclear issue and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

However, while encouraging, these latest Chinese cooperative moves may be motivated more by Xi’s desire to project goodwill with Trump than to help resolve the North Korean problem. Beijing has shown time and time again that its strategic interests in maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula and ensuring a stable North Korea along its border override its desire to cooperate with Washington to denuclearize the peninsula. The coming months will reveal Beijing’s true intent, and more importantly, its sincerity and resolve this time around. Placating words are meaningless without persistent and consistent actions. Washington should trust but verify.   

The American Perspective 

The White House praised the summit as a positive and productive opportunity for both presidents and their wives to get to know one another, and for their respective staffs to build rapport for the work ahead in reviewing the state of strategic bilateral relations and generating results-focused outcomes that would benefit both countries. Trump and Xi agreed to work in concert to expand areas of cooperation while managing differences based on mutual respect and to elevate existing bilateral talks to reflect the importance of making progress on strategic issues of mutual concern. 

Overall, the meeting details were rather sparse for policy flexibility and probably indicative of the U.S. limited objectives for the summit considering the timing and duration of the meeting: (1) get through the state visit without any enduring policy encumbrances; (2) size up Chinese counterparts for future negotiations (trade, commerce, North Korea, Taiwan, SCS, etc.); and (3) set favorable conditions for the forthcoming and more substantive cabinet-level dialogues and state visit to China. Generally speaking, a major summit within the first 100 days of taking office may be too soon, particularly with the principal nation-state competitor, understaffed national security team, and an unsettled China policy.

Despite the positive and upbeat portrayals of the summit by Beijing and Washington, there was a wide divergence on whether the state visit was a success or not amongst U.S. think tank and media analysts. Some read the lack of a joint press conference or joint press statement as a failure; while others judged the summit as successful simply because it provided an opportunity for Trump and Xi to meet, lower heightened tensions, and set the conditions for future dialogues and negotiations. However, most agreed that the U.S. missile strikes on Syria overshadowed the summit and the summit itself produced few substantive or tangible results. That being said, many saw enough pleasantry between the two sides for restrained optimism in the coming year.

The International Perspective

Most foreign media outlets were cautiously hopeful prior to the summit. Many welcomed the meeting as an occasion to reduce the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, lower the risk of a disruptive trade war with global ramifications, and explore a new constructive and stabilizing relationship between the two economic and military juggernauts. After the summit, the same foreign media outlets largely acknowledged that there were few substantive or tangible outcomes and the U.S. missile strikes against Syria detracted from the meeting. Some even intimated that the latter may have been a subtle signal to China that the United States is ready to act militarily and unilaterally when faced with threats abroad to include North Korea. Nevertheless, the cordial tone and lack of controversy were generally considered positive steps towards ameliorating tensions in U.S.-China relations during the first eventful months of the Trump Administration.  

U.S. regional allies and partners were rather anxious that Washington would make some sort of unilateral accommodation to Beijing without consultation and at their expense. In Tokyo, there had been apprehensions that the Trump Administration would attempt to use “the scent of a huge deal with China” as leverage to extract concessions from Japan, ease plans to step up pressure on Pyongyang, and give ground in the East China Sea (ECS) and SCS. In Seoul, there were fears that Washington would offer uncoordinated peninsular concessions to Beijing in exchange for pressuring Pyongyang. In Taipei, there were concerns that Trump would continue to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in its trade negotiations with Beijing and possibly for North Korea, too. In Canberra, there were worries of being left behind on potential economic agreements.

All appear relieved with the summit’s lackluster outcomes. Trump’s telephone calls with Japanese Prime Minister Abe before and after the meeting seemed to allay the Japanese concerns. The Korean response was generally mixed with the Korean Foreign Ministry hailing the summit as successful and meaningful, while the Korean media calling out the meeting for its lack of any agreement on the North Korean nuclear and missile issue. The Taiwanese were likely reassured that the Chinese proposal for a Fourth Communique did not come up, in which Trump would again accede to Xi’s wishes by agreeing that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of it, instead of the U.S. longstanding policy that it acknowledges the Chinese viewpoint but does not accept the viewpoint. The Australians were simply content that no economic agreements were made that upset their robust bilateral trade relations with China. As for the rest of the region, the media provided limited coverage – as is typical for events outside the region – with post-summit commentary predominantly observed in Singapore. As expected, Singapore took a neutral and measured position of the summit – “does not appear to have gone badly…and achieved little more than just sketching out the challenges which lie ahead on North Korea, SCS, and trade and commerce.”

Conclusion    

This concludes the short discourse on the perceived and actual outcomes from a Chinese, American, and international Regional perspective on the Trump-Xi summit and sets the conditions for further discussion in part 2 on the assessment of which leader came out relatively stronger, ramifications for the U.S.-China strategic relations, expectations of Trump’s visit to China later in the year, and U.S. strategic opportunities and how Washington can leverage them.     

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are their own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday and Friday have put bilateral ties back on track. (AFP)

China: Connected Strategic Themes Across Global Commons Pt. 2

Are there connected Chinese strategic themes that cut across the contested and interlinked global commons (domains) of maritime, space, and cyberspace? If so, what are they and what could the United States do about them?

By Tuan N. Pham

Part 1 of this two ­part series explored the cross-domain nexus between the maritime, space, and cyberspace global commons by examining the latest Chinese white paper and strategies. Repeated refrains included the Chinese Dream (national rejuvenation); global interests, peace and development, security, and the development of national laws to advance China’s national interests in the three contested battlespaces. Special emphasis was given to the contentious concept of cyberspace sovereignty in support of national security and social stability. With this backdrop, Part 2 will now derive possibly connected strategic themes that cut across the interlinked global commons and discuss how the United States could best respond.   

The Chinese Dream

Chinese Manifest Destiny. Chinese strategists have long called for a comprehensive and enduring set of strategies to better integrate and synchronize the multiple strategic lines of effort in furtherance of national goals (ambitions) and as part of a grand strategy for regional preeminence, and perhaps ultimately global preeminence. China’s dream of national rejuvenation may be the answer to their calling. The prevailing leadership’s sentiment appears now expansionist and revisionist. The time has come for Beijing to finally abandon the long-standing state policy of hide capabilities and bide time championed by the iconic former President Deng Xiaoping; right a perceived historical wrong; put behind the painful humiliation of the past; and assume its rightful place on the world stage as a destined global power. China is unquestionably a confident economic juggernaut and rising global power, able to manifest its own national destiny – the Chinese Dream – and dictate increasing power and influence across the contested and interlinked global commons in support of national rejuvenation.     

Global Commons Sovereignty (Economic Prosperity vs National Security). Beijing’s maritime activities are driven by its strategic vision of the ocean as “blue economic space and blue territory” crucial for its national development, security, and status. China seems to regard space and cyberspace very much in the same manner in terms of economic potential (value) and sovereign territory that requires developing and defending respectively. For now, there appears more policy clarity, guidance, and direction for sovereignty in cyberspace, while space sovereignty seems more fluid and may still be evolving policy-wise. Nevertheless, Beijing still needs to balance two competing national priorities – developing the domain economy (economic prosperity) and defending domain rights and interests (national security) – in all three contested and interlinked global commons. Many anticipate the initial emphasis will be on the economy since it is an enduring asymmetric counterbalance to the preeminent United States. The rationale calculus is simple for Beijing. Why would China opt to directly confront a militarily and economically stronger United States now when it can subtly and quietly undermine American preeminence through lasting economic partnerships and enduring political agreements (bilateral preferably and multilateral when necessary)? Beijing can always recalibrate later based on the fluid strategic conditions and confront Washington more directly and forcibly when opportunities arise, or if and when the balance of power shifts more in its favor.     

Shaping Law to Support Strategy. Last year, China announced its intent to create new domestic maritime laws in support of its evolving maritime strategy. These developing domestic maritime laws bear watching as a possible harbinger for the other contested and interlinked global commons of space and cyberspace and as an attempt to right a perceived historical wrong. The former is part of a continuing effort to set the terms for international legal disputes that Beijing expects will grow as its domain reach expands; the latter reflects China feeling disadvantaged (and taken advantage of) by a Western-dominated system of international laws established when it was weak as a nation and had little say in its formulation. In general, the broad legal approach makes a lot of legal, political, and military sense from Beijing’s perspective. China wants to set the enabling conditions for its future strategies across the contested and interlinked global commons in terms of implementation and sustainment. Beijing seeks to expand its domain borders through buffer zones. It will buttress and justify with legal underpinnings its growing domain presence and operations and also exert greater control within those buffer zones. China seeks to eventually shape international laws and norms (and develop accompanying domestic laws) to be more equitable and complementary to its national interests.

U.S. Strategic Opportunities

Maintain Preeminence. Just as maritime preeminence is necessary to guarantee the freedom of the seas, so too are space and cyberspace preeminence needed to guarantee the freedoms of space and cyberspace. By committing to preeminence in all three contested and interlinked global commons, the United States will better protect its critical strengths; enhance its deterrence posture by being able to impose larger costs, deny greater benefits, and encourage more restraint, and reverse the growing perception of American decline. Having complementary domain policies and strategies fosters unity of effort, optimizes resource allocation, sends a strong deterrent message to potential adversaries, and reassures allies and partners. To do otherwise invites strategic misalignment and miscommunication and encourages potential competitors like China to further advance their counter-balancing efforts in the maritime, space, and cyberspace global commons.    

Protect the Global Commons. Now is not the time to cede territory in the contested and interlinked global commons of maritime, space, and cyberspace. China pursues very broad, long-term, and synchronized domain policies and strategies, and may view any perceived U.S. force posture reduction as another opportunity to reset the international accepted norms in its favor. Reduction may also increase Beijing’s confidence in its ability to shape and influence Washington’s decisions and encourage China to press the United States for additional domain concessions in return for vague and passing promises of restraint while it quietly and steadily expands and strengthens its positions in the global commons.                               

Dominate the Narrative. To compete with Beijing short of conflict, Washington needs to reframe the narrative that China dominates with accusations of containment. The United States could be more proactive and seize the messaging initiative like it does in the maritime domain. Former Secretary of Defense Carter hit the right resonance notes during the Shangri La Dialogue in June and in the November/December 2016 edition of Foreign Affairs with his gentle reminders to the region of America’s traditional role as the principal underwriter of maritime security, political stability, and economic prosperity in the Indo-Asia-Pacific; warning China not to build a “Great Wall of self-isolation”; and using the catchall concept of “principled security network of alliances and partnerships” to outline a vision that the United States has long sought to describe. The same needs to be done in the contested and interlinked global commons of space and cyberspace. The “balancing” message needs to be reiterated at every opportunity and at the highest level, and synchronized throughout the whole-of-government and with allies and partners. There can be no U.S. policy seams or diplomatic space for Beijing to exploit. In short, acknowledge that both countries have competing visions and encourage China to act as (or become) a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.

Seize the Initiative. The maritime strategy and accompanying domestic maritime laws are coming, but China has not said when. The same can be largely said in the space and cyberspace global commons. Hence, Washington could privately and publicly ask Beijing now for discussions and briefings on its developing domain strategies and laws; challenge vague or problematic content and context, such as how the security and economic pieces fit together, and inquire how they comport with international law and rule of law, and if they do not, why not. Otherwise, silence concedes the strategic initiative to Beijing and allows it to control the strategic narrative.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the strategic window of opportunity to shape and influence Beijing’s developing domain strategies may soon close for Washington. To China, U.S. inaction implies tacit acknowledgement and consent to execute its domain strategies and strategic ambitions unhindered and unchallenged. At stake is nothing less than U.S. preeminence in the contested and interlinked global commons of maritime, space, and cyberspace, and ultimately as a global power. For decline is a deliberate choice, not an imposed reality. 

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: The Tianhe-2 Chinese supercomputer at the National University of Defense Technology in Changsha. (Zhao Zilong/Imaginechina, via Associated Press)

Hainan’s Maritime Militia: All Hands on Deck for Sovereignty Pt. 3

By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson

Part I and II of this conclusion to our series on Hainan’s maritime militia discussed the Hainan Provincial Military District (MD) leadership’s approach to constructing maritime militia forces in response to national militia guidelines and how they address challenges during construction efforts. This final installment in our series offers a glimpse into what the Hainan MD’s efforts have yielded in force scale. It also examines the incentivizes motivating the builders of this force, such as political drivers and pressures confronting local officials. The conclusion also outlines issues meriting further observation and analysis, such as the significance of the Sansha Maritime Militia force for China’s third sea force more broadly, and the degree to which Chinese officials frame related efforts as part of a “People’s War.”

Although this series has discussed in depth four key locations for maritime militia development, they are part of a far broader effort by the entire Hainan MD. The maritime militia units of Sanya, Danzhou, Tanmen, and Sansha should not be seen in isolation, but rather as elements of the Hainan MD militia force system. Directed by national militia construction guidelines and a highly publicized visit by paramount leader Xi Jinping to the Tanmen Maritime Militia, every other county in Hainan Province has established singular or multiple maritime militia units. These include districts of the provincial capital Haikou and many other directly administered and autonomous counties. Additional noteworthy maritime militia units are located in Lingshui County, Chengmai County, Changjiang Li Autonomous County, Wanning City, and Dongfang City. While our research to date has not revealed them to be on the same level of the four leading units in the totality of their documented capabilities or achievements, they nonetheless merit further examination. Dongfang and Wanning Cities’ maritime militia, for example, participated in defense of China’s HYSY-981 oil rig alongside the better-known Sanya and Tanmen maritime militia units.

Below is a map depicting all of the 31 maritime militia units under the Hainan MD jurisdiction identified as we conducted research for this series.

While local conditions produce considerable variety in unit scale and type, one can notionally estimate the total number of personnel and vessels in Hainan’s maritime militia force by assuming that the 31 units displayed are the rough median size of a militia company. Most maritime militia units, often referred to using tactical-level unit organization terms such as “fendui” (分队) or “company” (连), may comprise around 120 personnel and 10 vessels. This would yield a hypothetical total of 3,720 personnel and 310 vessels in Hainan’s maritime militia force. Such estimation is admittedly imprecise: Chinese organizational terms often lack both alignment with Western equivalents and consistency with regard to precise status and numerical size. As Kenneth Allen and Jana Allen explain, “Different Chinese and English dictionaries translate fendui (分队) as subunit, detachment, element, or battery…Although fendui refers specifically to battalions, companies, platoons, and sometimes squads, which together comprise the grassroots level (基层), a fendui can also refer to an ad hoc grouping of personnel organized for a particular function.” Moreover, characteristics specific to China’s maritime militia may accentuate organizational and numerical variation: some units lack vessels organic to the unit and rely on the requisitioning of civilian vessels for training and missions. Other detachments vary in size from 70 to over 300 personnel. Units also vary considerably in capability. Sansha City’s new maritime militia fleet, for instance, is vastly superior to the Chengmai County Maritime Militia Company.   

The overall distribution of Hainan’s maritime militia force reflects the militia-building responsibility given to each locality as contained in the commonly invoked guidance that “provinces build battalions, cities build fendui, and counties build companies” (省建大队、市建分队、县建中队). While Hainan Province lacks a battalion-level unit and adherence to this formulation is less than exact, its various cities and counties have all established maritime militia fendui or companies. Required by the Hainan MD, every single Hainanese coastal city and county with a harbor has established its own maritime militia force.  

Incentivizing Cadres

As documented throughout this series, China’s civilian and military leaders find strategic and operational advantages in the maritime militia, and have made use of these forces at sea. While key cities and counties with marine economies are sufficiently robust to support capable maritime militia forces, other localities with far less potential to form an elite maritime militia are nevertheless developing their own units. Other factors may also be driving this buildup. While this series has already surveyed the carefully-calibrated incentives available to maritime militia personnel for their services, it has not yet directly addressed the motivation of local officials involved in building the militia. This is ever-more critical: local civilian and military officials represent the key force in building the militia, which do not organize autonomously. This section will therefore consider the role of provincial politics and bureaucrats’ incentives in maritime militia building.

There is an obvious political dynamic involved in militia building, harking back to China’s radical past when revolutionary zeal constituted a criterion for cadres’ selection or promotion. To further their Party careers, local officials naturally embrace and support major political campaigns and policies. As China pursues regional predominance in maritime power militarily and economically, major national resources are being lavished on coastal provinces and their maritime forces. China is also actively working to boost the population’s maritime consciousness through a variety of measures, including by cultivating and publicly praising maritime militia leaders and their units. Hainan MD Commander Zhang Jian and Political Commissar Liu Xin wrote that leaders of People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD) should strive to be “rights protection commanders and political commissars,” and government leaders should serve as “rights protection secretaries or mayors.” Cadre evaluation, according to Zhang, rewards those who take the initiative in upholding China’s claimed maritime rights, suggesting increased opportunities for career advancement by local officials thus dedicated. Such grassroots forces are also intended to spread maritime awareness and consciousness among the masses, forming a component of national defense education on maritime affairs conducted by local People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Commands.  

Success in maritime militia work can help local officials impress their superiors, potentially facilitating advancement. Numerous accolades are accorded governments, institutions, enterprises, units and individuals that contribute exceptionally to national defense efforts. Sansha City recently garnered national attention when it was designated a “National Double-Support Model City” in recognition of its exceptional assistance to the military, with which the Sansha Maritime Militia cooperates. The famous Tanmen Maritime Militia Company, which received a visit from President Xi Jinping in 2013 on the first anniversary of the Scarborough Shoal Incident, had previously earned numerous plaudits from the PLA for its persistent sea service. Having recently garnered multiple awards for its armed forces work, Lingshui County has made major progress in developing its maritime militia force. Reflecting such success, nine civilian armed forces cadres who worked with the militia have since risen to township deputy mayor and deputy party secretary positions, suggesting opportunities for career mobility through militia work.  

Numerous reports celebrate the diligence of the Lingshui County PAFD Political Commissar Colonel Xing Jincheng on building up the maritime militia under his authority. After transferring to the Lingshui PAFD from his position as deputy political commissar of a PLA regiment, Colonel Xing expressed an unwillingness to relax in an easy “reserves” job. Dismissing suggestions that he rest after a long career, and ride out his final posting on Hainan’s scenic southern coast, Xing is lionized for instead devoting great energy to enforcing strict discipline in the PAFD staff and in building the Lingshui Maritime Militia. Extensive media coverage of Xing puts his efforts in the context of the latest PLA reforms; and the growing mission role of maritime rights protection, extending down to even grassroots PAFDs.  

Other reports indicate that local government officials must fulfill their responsibilities in supporting national defense mobilization work as a key function of their position or else risk losing their jobs. For example, an article in the November 2016 issue of China’s Militia featuring Guangxi Autonomous Region’s efforts in this respect included an unattributed quote referencing military work by local civilian government and Party leaders: “[those] who don’t stress the importance of and cannot grasp armed forces work are incompetent and derelict in their duties.” The article then explains how Guangxi Party and government officials have increased their maritime militia force in response to the growing mission of rights protection in the South China Sea. China has raised Military-Civilian Fusion to the level of national strategy, as documented in the 2013 doctrinal volume Science of Military Strategy. As a result, officials in coastal provinces can be subject to performance metrics in construction of “maritime mobilization forces” (such as maritime militia) when considered for career advancement.

October 2016: Sansha Maritime Militia in the Paracels prepare to conduct a joint patrol with troops of the Sansha PLA Garrison (Wen Wei Po).

A Patriotic Employment Release Valve

The reduction in PLA Army personnel by 300,000 announced in September 2015 will likely exacerbate the growing number of PLA veterans who feel neglected by China’s government and society. Recent protests in Beijing by veterans groups highlight the fact that provincial MDs and governments are ill-prepared to deal with the newly demobilized troops that are currently or will soon be deprived of their previous employment. PAFDs are the front-line military departments that handle veteran’s affairs and work to reintegrate veterans into society. Responsible for organizing and managing local militia units, the thousands of county PAFDs across China can easily funnel these veterans into various militia units, affording these former soldiers a new chance to serve in leadership positions among the militia force. Indeed, news coverage of Lingshui County states more and more demobilized veterans are entering the maritime militia, becoming “the ‘vanguard’ in maritime rights protection.” The Hainan MD thus occupies advantageous terrain for converting demobilized PLA troops into a new grassroots force for furthering Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea.

The Sansha Maritime Militia fleet exemplifies this new trend. Our installment on this unit documented how this new “state-run militia fishing fleet” functions primarily as a force for maritime rights protection. A break from the more traditional mode of maritime militia construction, as exemplified by the Tanmen Maritime Militia, this new fleet is manned by professional mariners, law enforcement, and PLA veterans who earn substantial salaries regardless of fishing catch performance. Chinese sources anticipated correctly that most of this fleet’s 84 vessels would be delivered by the end of 2016. In December 2015, the Guangzhou Taicheng Shipbuilding Industry Co. Ltd. featured one such vessel on its website, whose interior it furnished as a subcontractor following its construction by Xijiang Shipyard. The accompanying description stated that the vessel had a “weapons and equipment room” (武备库) and an “ammunition store” (弹药库). Open sources reveal this vessel, Qiongsanshayu 000212, to be part of the new fleet of Sansha Maritime Militia vessels delivered to the state-run Sansha City Fisheries Development Company, which operate under the guise of fishing. Details available in other open sources, some of which show the Sansha Maritime Militia training to load “light weapons” onto the deck of these new vessels, help confirm the intended roles and identities of this new militia fleet.

Openly available AIS data has identified all of the 84 Sansha Maritime Militia vessels operating in the South China Sea. Intermittent AIS transmissions (available via the website Marine Traffic) indicate that at least seven different Sansha Maritime Militia vessels were present at Scarborough Shoal at varying times, and 17 more vessels observed at Mischief Reef. While vessels may transmit AIS signals when operating singularly or in small groups, maritime militia vessels most likely move in larger groups: the Sansha Maritime Militia fleet comprises six companies, which generally operate as units. Openly available satellite imagery (e.g., from Google) also shows such vessel groups moored at Mischief and Subi reefs. In September 2016, the Philippine Ministry of Defense released photos of Sansha’s maritime militia vessels at Scarborough Shoal. Despite Philippine statements in October 2016 that PRC ships had left the shoal, AIS data reveal that Sansha Maritime Militia and CCG vessels were present there as recently as February to mid-April 2017. As this report went to press, AIS data and satellite images confirmed the presence of Sansha Maritime Militia vessels at Scarborough Shoal, Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef.    

7 September 2016: The Philippines released photos showing two Sansha Maritime Militia vessels present at Scarborough Shoal.
A Google Earth image dated 30 April 2016 shows a Sansha Maritime Militia vessel alongside a China Coast Guard cutter at the recently built wharf at Subi Reef.

Sansha City Fisheries Development Company, the commercial name for its state-run militia fleet, was established quietly with little mention in the PRC press. This contrasted markedly with the often widespread fanfare and in-depth reporting on even minor economic achievements by Sansha City and Hainan’s marine economy. After all, local officials have every incentive to promote their advancement by trumpeting economic development, a key performance metric—unless instructed otherwise for information security reasons. The rapid construction of this militia fleet since its establishment in February 2015 raises the prospect of China replicating this new model of maritime militia building elsewhere, perhaps in the East China Sea. As part of any Chinese effort to prepare for East China Sea operations, one might imagine an analog to the Sansha Maritime Militia in another archipelagic municipality, such as Zhejiang Province’s Zhoushan City. It is clear that China has not abandoned the standard model of building the maritime militia out of existing commercial fishing and shipping fleets. However, the combined pressures of a commercial shipbuilding slump, large numbers of unemployed veterans reentering civil society, and benefits to political and military careers in local officials may make the Sansha Maritime Militia model attractive to other provinces.

With numerous projects and investments, Hainan Province is striving to become a global tourism destination. Major influxes of Chinese and foreign tourists toting smartphones and digital cameras make the Hainan MD’s task of ensuring security and secrecy in its military facilities increasingly arduous. Sanya City, for instance, is not only a popular vacation destination but also contains the Yulin Naval Base, a leading home for China’s secretive ballistic-missile submarine force. One of the militia’s missions is the security of important infrastructure and operations such as key ports or coastal patrols. Militia personnel also reportedly perform security functions to protect military facilities and national defense construction projects.

Finally, an additional security function of Hainan’s advanced maritime militia units is escorting China’s growing fleet of research vessels that perform hydrographic and geologic surveys. We introduced one example in our installment on Sanya’s maritime militia: the Sanya Fugang Fisheries Co. Ltd.’s 30-day escort mission for China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s April 2013 exploration in the Zhongjiannan basin south of Triton Island. This was the location of the HYSY-981 oil rig incident a year later. In another example, the Guangzhou Marine Geological Survey Office stated on its website in an undated article that “for years, our office has hired fishing vessels as escorts during every seismic and drilling operation for the protection of underwater cables and to ensure the smooth and safe progress of operations.” U.S. Naval War College professor Ryan Martinson has made public some of the most recent escort operations conducted by fishing vessels for PRC survey vessels. While the extent of the Hainan Maritime Militia’s continued involvement in these escort operations remains unclear, it appears to be a growing mission for China’s maritime militia overall and worthy of additional research.      

Conclusion: People’s War Turns Seaward

This series has surveyed only a small portion of China’s total maritime militia force, the world’s largest. Part 1 examined national militia development guidelines and how they were translated by Hainan Province during its recent spate of maritime militia construction. Part 2 explored challenges confronting Hainan Province in its development of maritime militia forces and some of the solutions introduced to address them. Hainan Province is a key maritime frontier province, charged with administering all of Beijing’s expansive South China Sea claims. Yet Hainan as a province and military district does not build its maritime militia in isolation. It is, rather, one of many coastal provinces that raise such forces. In fact, other more economically and technologically advanced provinces—such as Guangdong and Zhejiang—possess greater socioeconomic bases on which to develop larger-scale, more technically sophisticated maritime militia units. Provinces construct militia forces in response to national militia guidelines under a dual-responsibility system between government/Party and PLA leaders. The resulting maritime militia fleets are thus made available to operate alongside the PLA Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard, as well as other provinces’ maritime militia forces. Case in point: China’s defense of its HYSY-981 oil rig in 2014. PLA senior colonel and Professor Jiao Zhili of the Nanjing Army Command College’s National Defense Mobilization Department described the event as mobilization for military struggle: “during the ‘981’ offshore platform’s struggle with Vietnam in the South China Sea, the emergency mobilization of militia from Hainan, Guangdong, and Guangxi to the front lines on the perimeter was a major strategic deterrent for Vietnam.” The mobilization orders for this event originated in the former Guangzhou Military Region, now the Southern Theater Command. While maritime militia units are raised and directed by individual provinces, they fulfill roles within a grander regional military structure.

These forces are often discussed by outside observers in reference to China’s gray zone operations, while Chinese authors often invoke the tradition of People’s War when discussing the militia. The study of these irregular maritime forces begs the question of whether we are witnessing a form of “Maritime People’s War.” In Chinese strategic thought, People’s War is regarded as the mixed use of regular and irregular forces in peacetime (and wartime if necessary) to overcome a superior adversary (or multiple adversaries) through the adroit use of various tactics, deceit, and protraction. The PLA continues to uphold the core concept of People’s War, adapting and evolving specific elements of the strategy to suit modern strategic and operational needs. China’s 2006 Defense White Paper, for instance, states that the PLAN is “exploring the strategy and tactics of maritime people’s war under modern conditions.” As current strategic considerations call for prioritizing the enhancement of China’s maritime defenses, the PLA is likely expanding the operational space of People’s War to cover Chinese maritime claims to the maximum extent feasible.

For China’s provinces, the MD system is described as the “practical application of people’s war thought in the military system” and an important channel through which civilian-military integration efforts are implemented. Hainan MD Commander Zhang Jian also describes the missions of the Hainan MD’s maritime militia in terms of a Maritime People’s War. He advocates “us[ing] maritime people’s war as a means to declare sovereignty, participate in development, cooperate with law enforcement, and support combat operations.” Zhang outlined how the maritime militia will conduct missions within joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense operations, essentially making combined use of the main forces of the PLA services and the local forces of the provinces. Such amalgamation is a defining feature of People’s War. The incidents this series has explored illustrate the multifarious tools that China utilizes in order to seize tactical advantages envisioned in traditional concepts of People’s War. Provinces and their local forces undoubtedly comprise the fundamental elements of People’s War, and remarks by Chinese officials like State Councilor and Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan’s in August 2016 suggest official endorsement of such strategies. This raises questions beyond the scope of this series that require further research, particularly in reconciling China’s continued national tradition of militia building with the realities of modern warfare. This topic is certainly not absent from debate in China, as analysts wrestle with the adaptation and evolution of People’s War to suit supporting roles for the PLA of today. As China adapts a time-honored concept to serve growing maritime security interests, the maritime militia is proving critical to its operationalization.

At the very least, this series demonstrates the widespread local mandate for maritime militia building in Chinese provinces such as Hainan. Maritime militia building is directed by official policy in China’s coastal provinces. Most coastal counties and cities raise and sustain their own maritime militia units according to the scale of their respective marine economies. While the Chinese government may not often admit openly and outwardly to using its maritime militia forces to support its objectives at sea, the voices of key stakeholders inside China and the central guidance passed down to the provinces reveal much about plans to construct and use these forces. Regardless of how these forces are characterized, provinces use them to protect China’s claimed maritime rights and interests and to support an increasingly blue-water-capable PLAN by dispatching greater numbers of militia personnel away from their shorelines to increase China’s strategic depth at sea.

Numerous PLA authorities, including Commander Zhang Jian, articulate the value the presence of fishing vessels has in all of waters claimed by China to demonstrate sovereignty and protect maritime rights and interests. Deputy Director Xu Kui of the National Defense University’s National Defense Mobilization Research Department explains how the maritime militia is a key force under China’s new “military strategic guideline” of preparing for maritime military struggle, and that it must “maintain a regular presence in disputed waters.” Echoing others, Xu cites the longstanding success of the Tanmen Maritime Militia in preserving Chinese presence in the Spratlys. The Tanmen Maritime Militia offers living testimony to how even a single township or county can impact the status quo in maritime East Asia. This consideration is not lost on China’s leaders, and Hainan’s leading maritime militia units represent prime examples of the diverse avenues of force that Chinese provinces can develop and contribute in the service of overall national maritime ambitions.

For all these reasons, Hainan’s maritime militia—both the bulk of its forces overall and the elite vanguard units probed deeply in this series—will remain a key component of China’s statecraft and security efforts the South China Sea: as a standing, front-line force, with its leading units celebrated as models for others to emulate.

Conor Kennedy is a research associate in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He received his MA at the Johns Hopkins University – Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com. The views expressed here are Erickson’s alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Featured Image: February 2017: Head of the Lingshui County PAFD Colonel Xing Jincheng, in plain clothes, speaks to the maritime militia under his command (CCTV News).