Category: Foreign Policy

One Belt One Road – A Lot More Than Just A Weird Name

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers opening remarks at the One Belt, One Road Summit on May 14, 2017 in Beijing (Photo courtesy of New York Times)

For those in the United States who woke up this morning not realizing that China just opened one of the largest trade summits in Asia, you are not alone.  For the American press has barely mentioned China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy, let alone this inaugural, two-day summit of the initiative, with over 1,500 participants and 28 heads of state in attendance.

But One Belt, One Road is not something to be ignored. Although launched only four years ago, it reflects Beijing’s very real ambition to exert its economic influence – if not be the dominating economic force – in Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.  It also reflects the historical legacy of China’s Silk Road – a trade route between Europe and China that emerged as early as the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 B.C.) and flourished during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.).  It was the Silk Road that resulted in China becoming the economic and cosmopolitan superpower that it was during those time periods.  China’s current One Belt, One Road initiative seeks to replicate that route, creating a modern day trade route over land from Beijing to Europe.  But it also calls for creating a maritime trade route around South Asia to the east coast of Africa and the Middle East.

However, unlike the ancient Silk Road – where trade flowed in and out of China – with One Belt, One Road, China’s intention is predominately for trade to go out. As Peter Cai of the Lowry Institute argues in his report Understanding China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in many ways, China’s geostrategic interests – that it seeks to be the new global superpower over the United States, with control of key trade routes – are secondary to its domestic economic motivations for One Belt, One Road.

Lanzhou’s Airport, Terminal 2 (Photo courtesy of China.org.cn)

First, Cai highlights that the economic inequality between rich, east coast cities (think Shanghai, Guangdong, Xiamen) and China’s hinterland are at almost crisis levels.  But One Belt, One Road – with its reorientation on trade moving West – would focus on these land-locked, poorer cities and provinces like Gansu, Xinjiang, and even some of the less rich provinces of China’s northeast.  According to Cai, these areas are all competing to borrow money at low rates under the One Belt, One Road to build its infrastructure in anticipation of these new trade routes.  There is a reason why Lanzhou, in what feels like the middle of nowhere China, has one of the fanciest airports in the country.

Economic slowdown in China? (Photo courtesy of the Economist)

China’s second domestic economic motivation for One Belt, One Road is the fact that with economic slowdown recently, key industries such as steel, coal and construction, have excess capacity.  These are the same industries that took a lot of loans from the central government to get through the global financial crisis of 2008, loans that may not be re-payed if China’s economy stays where it is.  One Belt, One Road however, is a way to escape this conundrum.  But not just by selling steel or coal or cement abroad.  Instead, as Cai points out, China intends to actually move the production facilities to these other countries.  This would allow China to rid itself of a supply glut while providing less developed countries with manufacturing facilities that can help with their own economic development (although they will likely still be Chinese-owned).  In some ways, a win-win for China and these other One Belt, One Road countries.

China has already moved some factories abroad, such as this garment factory which was moved from China to Ethiopia where labor is cheaper. (Photo courtesy of Daily Mail/Getty Images)

And at the same time, by moving factories abroad, China will be able to refocus its economy from a low-end manufacturing country to one that can promote innovation and technological development.  With China as the key innovative country in the region, it can then use One Belt, One Road, to promote its new technologies – like the high-speed railways it is building in various African countries and Southeast Asian countries.  With all these countries being on the same railway system only deepens the trade partnership and economic integration with China.

While the United States turns inward and gets bogged down with needless political crises, One Belt, One Road is in many ways a genius strategy for China.  It gets itself out of its own economic straights, it ensures global integration in Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa with China at the center, and enables China to exert greater and greater global influence.

The Silk Road of the past – when camels roamed

But, while China has pledged $1 trillion to One Belt, One Road, much of that money has yet to be spent.  There is also the gamble of the Chinese government’s very deliberate and planned approach to developing this trade route: it does not enable Chinese companies themselves –companies who are best able to determine the risk in their industries and in the countries where China wants them to invest – to make their own decisions.  But as Elizabeth Economy, the Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) noted at a CFR event the other week, if fully realized, the One Belt, One Road initiative will fundamentally restructure the political landscape for over a third of the world.

But if all you do is read the U.S. press, that fact could just pass you by.

The Trump-Xi Summit – Making Plans to Make Plans

By , April 11, 2017

Presidents Trump and Xi Jingping at Mar-a-Lago, April 6, 2017 (Photo courtesy of JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

To say that the U.S. air strike on Syria overshadowed the Trump-Xi summit last week would be an understatement.  The event basically eclipsed the two day conference, pushing the meeting between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies to second page news.

But even without the Syrian air strike, the summit would not have created much news.  In fact, in the way Trump and Xi each described the outcome of the meeting – deepening their friendship  and making progress in their relationship – it seemed more reminiscent of a marriage proposal in Elizabethan England than a discussion between two powerful countries that have been having a difficult relationship.

But did anything substantive come out of the summit?  The South China Morning Post has a great review of the issues discussed – and not discussed – at last week’s summit.  But here are some highlights:

Trade

At Mar-a-Lago last week (Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Trump did raise the issue of trade and, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump “underscored the need for China to take concrete steps to level the playing field for American workers, stressing repeatedly the need for reciprocal market access.”  But it is unclear if the statement resonated with the Chinese delegation.  And, contrary to some pundits’ expectations, Xi did not come to Mar-a-Lago with a peace offering, namely proposing job-creating investments in the United States.

Instead, the two sides announced the 100-Day Plan, a policy to completely overhaul their trade relationship within 100 days.  While most countries take years to rebalance a trade relationship, Trump and Xi are going to do it in a mere 100 days.  Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross correctly noted that this approach would be a “very big sea change” but offered no explanation exactly how all of this can occur in a matter of three-and-a-half months or even why it should; why such a rush to recalibrate the most important trade relationship in the world is a good idea.

North Korea

While both countries acknowledged North Korea as a growing nuclear threat, no middle ground was met.  It appears that Trump continued to warn China that if it did not do more, the U.S. would follow its own course of action, and with the Syrian attack in the backdrop, one can only imagine what Xi was thinking in all this.  China’s foreign minister however noted that if North Korea ceases its nuclear program, then military action in the region should also cease.  Interestingly, this was the suggestion that Beijing made last month: to halt the joint U.S.-South Korea military drills to induce North Korea to coming back to the negotiating table.  The U.S. did not listen and instead continued with the drills.

Human Rights

Just say no to human rights

Neither side mentioned whether human rights was raised during the summit and, given the agendas of these two men, it likely was not.  But in a White House-approved statement after the summit, Tillerson again used the vocabulary of the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) to describe the U.S.-China relationship: one of “mutual interest.”  For the Chinese, this is not rhetoric but words that come with baggage.  Mutual interest is often used by China to scold other countries when those countries question China’s domestic policies.  Usually used in relation to China’s interest in Tibet and Taiwan, it can also be used in defense of foreign criticism of policies that seek to viciously stamp out civil society. So expect human rights to play a low role in Trump’s policy toward China.

State Visit & U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue

Trump – already big in China

Xi invited Trump to a state visit in China this year and Trump said yes.  But more importantly, the U.S. and China established a framework by which to hold high-level talks, the U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue.  Make no mistake, this is not a new idea.  Under the Obama Administration, the U.S. and China would periodically host the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the Human Rights Dialogue and on occasion, the Legal Experts Dialogue.  It appears that Trump and Xi are going to replace these dialogues with the U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue (date yet to be announced) which will have four tracks: a diplomatic and security dialogue; a comprehensive economic dialogue; a law enforcement and cybersecurity dialogue; and a social and cultures issues dialogue.  Again, human rights was not named as a specific issue and if it is unclear if this issue will merely be squished into the social and cultural issue dialogue.

So in the end, not many outcomes from the Trump-Xi summit.  Perhaps what is more telling though is what was not said at the summit.  No mention of Taiwan, no mention of human rights and no mention of increased Chinese investment in the U.S. to create jobs.  But check back in 100 days.

Trump Tough on North Korea Before Xi Meeting – Will it Work or Just Backfire?

By , April 3, 2017

Trump and Xi to meet on Thursday and Friday

On Thursday, President Donald Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping at his resort in Mar-a-Lago for their first summit meeting.  While it is not clear what will come out of this two-day meeting, what will certainly be on the agenda is North Korea.  But is Trump and his administration ready?

Trump has barely staffed up the upper echelons of the State Department or the Department of Defense and on Sunday, in an interview with the Financial Times, Trump yet again claimed that “China has great influence over North Korea.”

But, as North Korea expert Jenny Town made clear in an interview with China Law & Policy, China does not have the influence over North Korea that Trump thinks it has.  “China’s current relationship with North Korea is not very good either, especially compared to past years” Town told China Law & Policy.  “I think that there’s a lot of problems with the way that people think about China’s influence on North Korea, and I think they really over estimate that influence.”

Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the US-Korea Institute

And in a way, Trump underestimates the influence that the U.S.’ rhetoric has on North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. “I think some of [North Korea’s] antagonism with China is maybe also somewhat triggered by all this U.S. talk of ‘if we just push China enough, China will take care of this problem'” Town told China Law & Policy.

In his interview with the Financial Times, Trump also stated that if China won’t exert its influence – which, in reality, may not be that strong right now – the U.S. will go it alone.  But will it really?  Any actions the U.S. takes with North Korea will have a strong impact on South Korea and Japan, important strategic allies in the region with populations that  will unfairly bear the brunt of the U.S.’ bellicose engagement with North Korea. In terms of a preventive strike on North Korea (preemptive strike is in fact a misnomer in this situation according to Town), “North Korea is almost guaranteed to have some kind of response. The response might not even be directly on the U.S., but again our allies in the region” stated Town.

Now if the Trump Administration’s idea of going it alone is one-on-one dialogue with North Korea, that could actually be game-changing.  According to Town, the Obama Administration’s policy of

North Korea leader Kim Jong-un (Photo courtesy of CNN)

“strategic patience” – where it ignored diplomatic relations with North Korea and instead doubled-down on sanctions – was a failure, allowing North Korea to rapidly advance its missile technology.  The Trump Administration has stated that it rejects the policy of strategic patience. But in her interview, Town questions if that is true, especially if the Trump Administration is just looking to issue more sanctions: “[W]hen [Secretary of State] Tillerson said strategic patience is over, we all look at the things that he talks about after that. Those are really just tenets of strategic patience. So again without negotiation you’re still just doubling down on the same tactic and hoping for a different result. Even if you’re making them harder-edged, it’s still not a new tactic. Again, if it’s been ineffective now for eight years, what makes you think just pushing a little harder is going to help?”

To listen to the full podcast of China Law & Policy‘s exclusive interview with Jenny Town of the John Hopkins’ US-Korea Institute, click the media player below (total time – 37:08).  To read the full transcript, click here

CL&P Exclusive – Talking North Korea with Jenny Town (Part 2)

By , March 30, 2017

Part 2 – The Role of China

Yesterday, China Law & Policy published Part 1 of its exclusive interview with Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the U.S.-Korea Institute and noted expert on North Korea.  While Part 1 of the interview focused on North Korea’s military build-up and the U.S.’ prior policy toward North Korea, in Part 2, Ms. Town discusses Secretary Tillerson’s announcement that no options are off the table, the precarious future of U.S-North Korea relations, and what role can China play in all of this.  Is it really that “China has done little to help” as President Trump tweeted a few weeks ago?

Read the transcript below for Part 2 of this two-part interview where Ms. Town explains the role of China on the Korean peninsula.  Or click on the media player below to listen to the interview (total time – 20:38)

For Part 1 of the series, please click here.

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Secretary Tillerson at the DMZ, March 2017 (Photo courtesy of CNN)

CL&P:            I guess in that regard, I mean when Tillerson was over there this past month, he stated that he was going to leave all options on the table. What exactly do you think he meant by that, and is this harsher stance? I mean it sounds like it’s a harsher stance than strategic patience. Is it good or bad for peace on the Korean peninsula?

JT:      I think it’s a little bit out of context. I think that the reality is Tillerson is not a seasoned diplomat, and so when he says certain things, he says certain things in ways that a seasoned diplomat wouldn’t. The reality is right now the [U.S.] government is going through a policy review. And as part of the policy review of course, they’re reviewing all options, including military options, including negotiations, and so they haven’t necessarily come out with their policy yet. So part of what he was saying is that yes, all options are still on the table, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing in the future.

President Xi Jinping (Photo courtesy of Time)

The [U.S.] government is expected to be done with their policy review in the next couple of weeks, especially before the visit by Xi Jinping to be able to have some level of strategic discussion with Xi Jinping. But, you know, it isn’t helpful for him to have said it either, again without those qualifiers, because it does come across more aggressive and more belligerent at a time when tensions are already very high. This kind of talk is very dangerous especially if that isn’t the direction which we end up going because it already put the thought out there, and it’s already sort of antagonizing the situation more than it needs to be.

CL&P:            I think that’s true, because I think of lot of the press already have interpreted that statement as also equating it with preemptive strike. How serious of a possibility do you think right now in diplomatic circles down in D.C. people are talking about preemptive strike against North Korea?

JT:      I would say people are talking about it, and they’re talking about it a lot. But most of the discussion about that’s happening right now is why it’s a really, really bad idea because all of the things that could go wrong in the process. Here’s the problem.  It’s not even preemptive strikes. It’s not like we’re watching them load up an ICBM that we know is coming to the U.S. which would give us the right to defend ourselves from an attack. That’s what preemptive means.

What people are talking about now is more preventive strikes or surgical strikes. So basically preventing them from having the technology by trying to disrupt their systems; preventive strikes on say missile bases or missile arsenals, things like that. But, I think there’s a huge miscalculation if people think that North Korea wouldn’t retaliate. If the U.S. were to do something, North Korea is almost guaranteed to have some kind of response. The response might not even be directly on the U.S., but again our allies in the region. It makes it very dangerous. It’s a very dangerous proposition, one that could easily escalate into war.

CL&P:            You had mentioned the new Trump administration figuring out a more precise North Korea policy before Xi Jinping comes to visit Trump, and I think that’s interesting. Because in President Trump’s Tweet a couple weeks ago about the North Korean situation, in addition to saying that they were behaving badly, he also brought up China, and stating that China has done little to help. I guess just to start us off if you can explain a little bit more what exactly is China’s current relationship with North Korea.

Better times. Prior N.Korea lead Kim Jong-il meeting with prior Chinese President Hu Jintao (Photo courtesy of the Wall Street Journal)

JT:      China’s current relationship with North Korea is not very good either, especially compared to past years. Under Kim Jong-il China had a good understanding of North Korea and had a relationship with Kim Jong-il and could signal to him when he’s gone too far. They had a personal relationship with him and knew how he would react to certain things. Since Kin Jong-un has come to power, Kim Jong-un does not have a relationship with Xi Jinping. He hasn’t been to Beijing. They don’t know what to expect from him. They don’t know him. Everything that anyone is doing that’s trying to send signals to North Korea, we don’t exactly know how he will react.

We knew how Kim Jong-il would react because Kim Jong-il had been there for 20 years. He had been apprenticed under Kim Il-sung for 16 years before that. Kim Jong-un only came to the scene a year before his father died. We never got to know him as the successor before he took over, and now that he’s in power there’s a lot of times where people say he’s unpredictable. Well, of course he’s unpredictable to us because we don’t know him and we don’t have a relationship with him. And we don’t know how he’s going to react. Too many people assume that he will react like Kim Jung-il did, but he’s proven he’s not his father.

The question is now when are people finally going to take the time to accept that notion – he’s not his father – and try and build a relationship with him.  To try and get to know him and better understand how he’s thinking and how he’s going to react to things.

Kim Jong-un’s half brother, murdered in Malaysia. (Photo courtesy of the South China Morning Post)

CL&P:            I mean I guess also in that regards with Kin Jong-un taking over leadership and the relationship with China, it’s been mentioned a number of times that he hasn’t visited Beijing. Also, my understanding, correct me if I’m wrong, is that the execution of his uncle. His uncle was close to Beijing, and then also the half brother was protected by Beijing. Are any of these things being done to sever even further the relationship with Beijing or to prove something to Beijing, or do we just not know?

JT:      It clearly has had a damaging effect on an already frustrated Beijing. I think that there’s a lot of problems with the way that people think about China’s influence on North Korea, and I think they really over estimate that influence. Again, under Kim Jong-il, I think it might have had a little bit more credence just because, again, they had a legacy of working together. With Kim Jong-un, it’s a much different relationship. It’s one of those things where Beijing does not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons either. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they [China] have this secret formula where if they just did certain things, North Korea would fall in line and that they just choose not to do it.

China’s Wu Dawei (center) visits North Korea

I think this is how a lot of Americans think about China policy towards North Korea. In the meantime, I think China has done a lot to try and address the issue, but has limitations on the influence that they have. They say this to us all the time. It’s not like China has a China-North Korea joint army like the U.S. and South Korea does. They don’t have a presence in North Korea. They can certainly send messages and send signals, but even the fact that back in 2015. Was that it? No, in 2016, even when Wu Dawei had gone to Pyongyang to talk to the North Koreans about settling things down.  The fact that they announced that they were going to do another SLV launch on the day that he landed, I think shows a lot about how Kim Jong-un thinks about Beijing right now.

And I think a lot of it is the relationship has been damaged as Kim Jong-un is trying to show he can’t be pushed around. I think some of this antagonism with China is maybe also somewhat triggered by all this U.S. talk of ‘if we just push China enough, China will take care of this problem.’ I think it puts the Chinese in a very awkward position, but the Chinese always come back to us and say ‘hey look we’re doing what we can, but the U.S. should be doing more, too.’ And the doing more part has to do with direct bi-lateral diplomacy as well. So without that factor, all we’re doing is kind of skirting around the issue and just putting more pressure on an already boiling pot.

The border between China and North Korea

CL&P:            I guess in that regards, with the situation today in the relationship between China and North Korea now, then how instrumental is China in easing the tensions on the Korean peninsula?

JT:      I think China definitely plays a big role, but it doesn’t play the only role. It’s not something where if we just use China enough that China can scold North Korea and North Korea’s going to come to the table. The other problem too is that even if China – and here’s always sort of these clash of tensions – is that China’s national interest is to prevent instability in the region because instability is good for no one. The U.S., part of strategic patience, they’re kind of hoping that North Korea will collapse and that if we put enough pressure on the situation, we can get the regime to change which is sort of the path of most resistance and the most danger.

I think there is a certain degree to where China also recognizes that the more pressure it puts by cutting off,. . .Implementing sanctions is one thing, but a lot of people think ‘well if China just cuts of North Korea and all trade and all oil and all goods, that North Korea again will just bend over, and will come running back and beg for forgiveness kind of thing,’ but I think the problem is that that scenario is very unlikely. Even if China does that, North Korea’s more likely to be more belligerent. Belligerent could be belligerent towards China as well, so you never know. We talk about this a lot these days: be careful what you wish for. Getting China to cut off North Korea could go one way in a positive way. It could go really bad as well.

Xi to meet Trump next week at his Florida resort, Mar-a-lago

CL&P:            When Xi Jinping meets with President Trump, what do you think he’ll be asking the U.S. to do with North Korea? What do you think his request will be?

JT:      I’m almost positive he’s going to tell the U.S. that negotiations have to be part of any new policy. For instance if you look at the U.N. Security Council resolutions, when the U.S. talks about  the U.N. SPR 2270 or 1718 or 2048, all the different resolutions now, they always talk about the sanctions resolution. In the last round, in the 2270 resolutions for instance, in those negotiations, I think people came away thinking ‘wow China really agreed to some tougher measures.’ We’re kind of impressed that China agreed to these tougher measures definitely sending signals to Pyongyang that they were unhappy with Pyongyang’s behavior.

When the Chinese talk about 2270, they talk about resolution 2270, not the 2270 sanctions. The big difference is that in that resolution, there’s also a mandate for negotiations.  So when the Chinese talk about these things, and in response to pressure or criticism that they’re not doing enough, they always come back with ‘but you’re not fulfilling your end of the portion either.’

U.N. Security Council

CL&P:            So basically the 2270 called for not just sanctions, but also going back to the table, and that hasn’t happened?

JT:      Right.

CL&P:            Okay. So what they’re looking for, Beijing, is reverting back to the six party talks?

JT:      Not necessarily.  But at least getting some level of negotiations going and some level of engagement going because we’re not going to break this cycle of provocation and response until there’s some kind of diplomatic offer.

CL&P:            In terms of getting negotiations going again, do you think that’s even possible given the current regime in North Korea and what’s been happening and also the language that’s been being used by the Trump administration, even if Tillerson misspoke. Do you see that given the tensions between the U.S. and North Korea right now, negotiations are a possibility?

Trying to get all parties to the negotiation table

JT:      I think if it was up to the North Koreans, yes negotiations are possible. If it’s up to the Trump administration, I have increasing skepticism that we’re going to get anywhere. This is going back to your question of when Tillerson said strategic patience is over, we all look at the things that he talks about after that. Those are really just tenets of strategic patience. So again without negotiation you’re still just doubling down on the same tactic and hoping for a different result. Even if you’re making them harder-edged, it’s still not a new tactic. Again, if it’s been ineffective now for eight years, what makes you think just pushing a little harder is going to help?

CL&P:            I know the new administration’s still getting together their policy team. Do they have anybody in the administration that specializes in North Korea to advise them on some of these issues?

JT:      Well, in the State Department, there is a U.S. representative for North Korea policy, Joe Yun, Ambassador Yun.  But it’s unclear to us who else is working on these issues at this moment because there still hasn’t been an effort to staff up the State Department or senior leadership in the DOD [Department of Defense]. There’s still a lot of questions even here in D.C. that we just don’t have answers for.

North Korean soldiers. Looking for the six party talks? (Photo courtesy of Int’l Crisis Group)

CL&P:            If you had the opportunity to advise the current administration, assuming that it’s goal is to avoid war on the Korean peninsula, what would your advice be?

JT:      My advice has been pretty consistent.  The fact that yes, you can double down on sanctions and bolster defenses, but without the diplomatic track, the situation is going to get worse. The longer it takes to try and actually try to have talks about talks and see what’s even possible any more, the higher the stakes are going to be in the process and the more leverage that North Korea builds over time as it continues to grow its strategic arsenal. So if we really want to make a difference, then create a different relationship and one that serves our national interest, they’re going to need to have some kind of diplomatic track and need to be able to shoulder the criticism that’s going to come along with that from all the skeptics.

CL&P:            The criticisms within the United States?

JT:      Yes.  There’s always the arguments of ‘well we’ve tried negotiations before, but they didn’t work,’ or ‘North Korea always cheats.’ Well just because we tried it before, does that mean … Diplomacy is not a one-off, and it’s not a linear path, and national security is not a linear path. If you don’t have at least talks about talks to figure out what’s even possible within the negotiating framework, you’re losing the battle. You’re limiting yourself as to what you can do. But these days there’s so much criticism because we’ve gotten so far off track.  Whichever president decides that the situation’s gotten dire enough where we need to suck it up whether we like it or not and try some level of diplomacy, it’s going to come with criticism, and they need to be able to deal with that.

CL&P:            I guess if you’re leaving all options on the table, why would you take diplomacy off the table?

JT:      Right.

CL&P:            We talked about China, and we talked about the United States. I guess Japan and South Korea, I mean I would assume their interest is for more negotiations, or …/

JT:      Not necessarily. You have a pretty hard-line government in Japan these days. They want to build up more missile defenses. They’ve even talked about missile interception and they sort of take the lead from the U.S. as far as that goes. With South Korea, it’s different. South Korea, it’s hard to tell what they will do next because it really will be dependent on who the next president is. Their policy could change drastically towards North Korea. It could be at odds with what the U.S. decides to do as well. Then that is going to really put pressure on the U.S.-Korea alliance.

Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the US-Korea Institute

CL&P:            Well, this is a very interesting interview. It doesn’t sound like there’s any solution any time soon. I want to thank you again for spending time talking to China Law & Policy. Hopefully, people will listen to this interview, and conflict can be avoided.

JT:      I hope so, too. Thanks for having me.

CL&P:            Thank you.

JT:      Sure

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For Part 1 of this two-part interview, click here.

 

CL&P Exclusive – Talking North Korea with Jenny Town (Part I)

By , March 30, 2017

Part I – Shifting U.S.- North Korea Relations

Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the US-Korea Institute

Since January, the situation on the Korean peninsula has become increasingly tense with North Korea test firing missiles, using toxic nerve agents to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half brother, and announcing that it has the capability for its missiles to reach the West Coast of the United States. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has responded to North Korea equally bellicose and frightening with threats noting that no options are off the table in dealing with North Korea including possibly preemptive strike.

Are we on a collision course for nuclear war, and what role does China play in all of this? To answer those questions and more is noted North Korea expert Jenny Town. Ms. Town is the Assistant Director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is the managing editor and producer of 38 North, a web journal and vital resource on all things North Korea.

Read the transcript below for Part I of this two-part interview, where Ms. Town discusses shifting U.S.-North Korea relations.  Or click the media player below to listen (total time – 16:26).

CL&P: Thank you for joining us today, Ms. Town. Before we get into the current situation on the Korean peninsula, I wanted to give our listeners a little bit more background on North Korea. In the western press, North Korea is often portrayed as a hermit impoverished kingdom run by a dictatorial mad man, but is that perception true? Is that how we should view North Korea?

Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) (Photo courtesy of CNN)

JT:      Thank you. It’s great to be here. I’m happy to be a part of this podcast. I think you’re asking all the right questions. The problem is that the more we treat North Korea as a caricature and we don’t take it seriously, the harder the problem becomes in the long run. A few years ago my colleague and I, we did write an article that talked about these myths about North Korea. It’s not a hermit kingdom. I think at some point we’re more isolated from it than it is from the rest of the world. There certainly are restrictions on information access and travel and movement, but there is a lot of contact with the outside world. There’s a lot of trade that goes on. There’s a lot of businesses, a lot of tourism. There’s a lot of NGO workers and diplomats, and so they do have access to the outside world. Not the same level that other countries have, but it’s not completely isolated.

The idea that Kim Jong-un is a mad man is also a dangerous characterization because he’s actually very calculating. The North Korean regime, even when Kim Jong-il was there, people liked to make fun of his sort of eccentricities. But when it came to state security, the decisions that he made were very rational. Sometimes miscalculated, but he’s the ultimate realist. They’re a country that perceives to have many enemies, and in the process will make decision on how to protect itself and how to protect the regime.

North Korea’s missiles in a military parade. (Photo courtesy of BBC)

CL&P:            So in essence, we should see their movements as something that is rational if your goal is to protect the current regime?

JT:      Yes, and we should take them seriously for what they’re doing because discounting them is not serving anyone’s good.

CL&P:            Agreed. Recently there seems to be a lot of bellicose activity from North Korea. In the middle of February it test fired a medium long range ballistic missile, and then it used, I guess, what’s known as an illegal nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half brother at an airport in Malaysia. Then two weeks ago, it announced a successful test of a high thrust rocket engine. Then this week they had two failed missile attempts.

Why are we seeing such activity, so much activity that seems warlike in the past month or two? Why now? What’s going on?

US-South Korea joint military drills (Photo courtesy of The Sunrise)

JT:      Well, some of this is a little bit expected. This is a time when the U.S. and ROK [South Korea] are running their joint military exercises in South Korea. Over the past year, especially the last year and this year, the nature of those exercises has expanded. It’s become more belligerent and it’s also included such things as decapitation drills and strategic over flights. These kinds of things always spark some kind of response and a strong response from North Korea because again, they do see it as more than just business as usual; but as a more provocative, more aggressive signaling to North Korea. Over the past couple of months, though, we’ve really seen an acceleration of testing and demonstration of capabilities over the past year.

At the end of the Obama administration, when it was clear that the nature of U.S.-DPRK [North Korea] relations was not going to change under the Obama administration, we saw a lot of demonstrations. In the past, there might have been missile tests, but they [North Korea] didn’t send out pictures of it, for instance. They didn’t send out pictures of Kim Jong-un celebrating different successes. I think now they’re clearly trying to prove capacity to the outside world. I think it was actually though very quiet from elections until inauguration and for a short time after inauguration as they [North Korea] were trying to figure out what to expect from America and if there was room for changing the nature of our relationship.

CL&P:            Just to go back, when you were talking about the exercises that the U.S. and South Korea are doing, you’re saying because those have become stronger and more belligerent, North Korea is taking it more serious?

US and South Korean soldiers at the DMZ

JT:      Yes. The exercises have been going on for decades and part of the function of the exercise is also signaling as to how the nature of the relationship with North Korea. There are times when they’re much more kind of routine standard operations and drills, but over the past couple of years, they’ve been adding drills and expanding it. And on top of that, the messaging coming out to the media about the [U.S.-ROK] drills and to the public about the drills has really emphasized certain things like decapitation strikes and strikes on Pyongyang and things like that. So it’s really become a much more antagonistic venture.

CL&P:            Then [what about] the recent U.S. response to North Korea’s actions the past couple months, especially with the new administration. So Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, when he was visiting South Korea this past month, announced that the U.S. policy of what he called strategic patience has ended. I guess can you first explain a little bit more what this policy of strategic patience is or was?

U.S. Secretary of State Re Tillerson visit South Korea, March 2017 (Photo Courtesy of NY Daily News)

JT:      Sure. So strategic patience was the Obama policy.  Basically it was a supposedly principled approach that negotiations were only under certain conditions, and that in the meantime it was kind of doubling down on pressure on the regime to change it’s strategic calculus using such tactics as mostly sanctions. And then also trying to bolster defenses in the region, so in South Korea and Japan as well. But it was largely dependent on this whole intimidation, kind of pressure and intimidation factor to try and get North Korea to change its mind about how it wants to move forward.

CL&P:            Under strategic patience, I assume that the policy, whether or not it was a failure, was put in place to try to limit North Korea’s ability to develop its nuclear weaponry. Was it successful with that at all?

JT:      Absolutely not. It was a complete failure. If the goal of strategic patience really was to deter

President Barack Obama implements Strategic Patience

North Korea from developing it’s weapons programs, it’s WMD programs, it’s a complete failure because they have completely accelerated their programs during the Obama administration. In 2013, for instance, they restarted their five megawatt reactor to help produce more plutonium for nuclear weapons. In 2010, they had revealed that they had a uranium enrichment program, and in 2013, we saw that the main facility that they had shown to U.S. inspectors before had doubled in size. The centrifuge hall has doubled in size, potentially doubling it’s capacity to create weapons-grade uranium or highly enriched uranium.

We’ve seen several demonstrations of tests. Last year alone, we had two nuclear tests and over 20 missile tests. During the Obama administration, there’s been four nuclear tests. So, if the goal of strategic patience was to deter North Korea from moving forward and making the cost of nuclear weapons programs and WMD programs so untenable that it had to come back to the table, then of course it completely failed.

CL&P:            So then they’re not going to come back to the table?

JT:      Well, I wouldn’t draw that conclusion that they’re not going to come back to the table. What I’m saying is that the policy is not compelling the right response.

CL&P:            In terms of all this development, I mean I guess this goes back to the first question, and your answer to the first question about not perceiving North Korea as this shut in country, where do they get the ability to develop this technology? How do they have the knowledge to develop this technology for nuclear weapons?

JT:      They’ve been working on this program for a very long time, for decades. They have scientists in country. We know there has been cooperation with other states. They’ve gotten information from Pakistan and Syria and Russia in the past. There’s definitely plenty of people that they’ve worked with over the years to get to a point where some of it’s indigenous, some of it’s reverse engineering of designs that they’ve gotten from other countries. They’re a very resourceful people, and I would go back to again your first question and tying this all together, too. I think the underlying premise of strategic patience was this idea that Kim Jong-un would never be able to consolidate power under a third generation of the Kim family and that all we had to do was wait them out, and that eventually the state would collapse and then we could deal with someone else. That’s just simply not the case.

CL&P:            No, it doesn’t look that way. I guess since the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience allowed North Korea to develop it’s weapon technology, and it had all these tests and it’s really advanced, just to put it in more perspective, where exactly is North Korea as a likely  nuclear threat? What can it do right now to its neighbors in Asia, and is it really true that they could potentially in very near future have something hit at the West Coast of the United States?

JT:      We did a series of reports last year that was a technical assessment of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. And based on what we know or what we estimate to be their capacity to make fissile materials or to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, we estimate the baseline for their nuclear weapons arsenal to be somewhere between 12 to 15 nuclear weapons. They would have enough material to be able to make at least 12 to 15 nuclear weapons now. Given the capacity that they have to produce more – their five megawatt plutonium reactor, their uranium enrichment facility – we did projections that with the worst conditions for North Korea, making it most difficult for them for instance, that even by 2020 they could double the size of their arsenal.

By 2020 under mid-range with a little better conditions and getting their experimental light water reactor partially militarized as well, so they’d have more fissile materials, they would be able to produce maybe 50 nuclear weapons by 2020. Under the best conditions for them, if they have ample procurement, international procurement, and they have everything running in tip-top shape, at the high end we estimated they would have the potential to make about 100 nuclear weapons by 2020.
We see them really now in those ranges under those conditions that are laid out in the report. They’re somewhere on that mid to high range track. Then you add in the ballistic missile programs, and the fear is always for the how soon are they going to get an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile. With the new engines that they tested last year and this year, [engines] that would be suitable for missiles and not rockets, space rockets, we’re talking that once they have an operational capacity, that they would be able actually to hit the East Coast of the United States, not just the West Coast. What we see that is probably given the designs that we’ve seen in the prototypes that they’ve displayed to us, we would suggest somewhere around 2020, somewhere in that range. Some estimates have that a little bit earlier. It really just depends.

But the reality is that they don’t need ICBMs to be a strategic threat because our strategic partners and strategic alliance partners are in Asia, so it’s South Korea and Japan. They definitely have missiles that can reach South Korea and Japan already. The big question is whether or not they have miniaturization capabilities. A lot of experts do believe they have the capability even if they haven’t been able to demonstrate it. Given the number of partners that they’ve worked with and the programs that those partners have as well and how long that they’ve been working on it. We do believe they do have the capability. It’s a huge threat, and it’s a growing threat the longer it takes to be able to have a real strategic dialogue with them.

*****************************************************************************

To listen to Part 2 of this two-part interview with Ms. Town, please click here.

 

Should Obama Downgrade Xi’s Planned State Visit?

By , August 17, 2015

Last week, China Law & Policy published a post encouraging President Obama, even in light of the current crackdown on rights defending advocates in China, to move ahead with President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to the U.S. currently scheduled for September. However, China Law & Policy recommended that President Obama raise the plight of the rights defending lawyers by highlighting the important role public interest lawyers have played in the United States.

State Visit or not, the real question is: What Will the First Lady Wear?

State Visit or not, the real question is: What Will the First Lady Wear?

Our posting received a plethora of responses, including one from Adam Bobrow, CEO and Founder of Foresight Resilience Strategies, LLC, a Maryland-based strategic consulting firm to develop new solutions for companies facing cybersecurity challenges. With prior experience in the White House and the Department of Commerce, Bobrow explains the procedures surrounding a State Visit and argues that while the Xi visit must occur because of many thorny issues plaguing the US-China relationship, the visit should be downgraded to an “official visit,” not a State Visit.

Guest Blogger Adam Bobrow

Adam Bobrow

By Guest Author Adam BobrowThanks to Elizabeth for her original post which made me think more about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September State Visit to Washington.  Elizabeth’s thoughtful take addressed the question of the White House’s response to the crackdown on rights defenders in China.  I agree that President Obama’s meeting with Chinese President Xi should go forward but I have tried to take into account additional strategic and economic policy considerations in assessing whether Xi’s State Visit seems appropriate at this time.  For reasons addressed below, I do not think that incorporating a session on the crackdown will work but suggest that the White House downgrade the meeting from a State Visit to another category of Head of State visit, such as an official visit or a working visit.

The Obama-Xi meeting should take place because there are many issues that the United States and China need to discuss at the highest levels.  But the pomp and circumstances and the inherent approbation of a State Visit sends the wrong message to China about the ways in which Chinese government policies impact the U.S. economy and elements of global security that the United States has vested interests in maintaining.

Background on State Visits

A State Visit, while it does not have an absolute definition, follows certain traditional guidelines surrounding its logistics and the respect accorded the foreign Head of State or Government.  In the United States, such a visit has an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, a 21-gun salute for the visiting Head of State, a joint review of U.S. troops, and a State Dinner with the visiting Head of State as the guest of honor.  Because the last element is the easiest to measure—either a State Dinner occurred or it did not—I have used the inclusion of a State Dinner during a visit as a proxy for State Visits.

During the current Administration, President Xi’s State Visit would be only the ninth State Visit in the almost seven years since President Obama was sworn into office.  Perhaps more telling, of those nine State Visits, President Obama will have hosted two different Chinese Presidents.  No other country’s leaders have enjoyed two State Visit invitations during this Administration even though Mexico, South Korea, Japan, and India—all State Visit countries during the Obama Administration—have changed leaders since President Obama hosted their previous Head of State or Government.

Why Should Obama and Xi Meet?

In Elizabeth’s blog post, she advocates that President Obama should, “invit[e] Xi Jinping to a session with U.S. public interest lawyers and their supportive corporate law brethren” to demonstrate the United States’ support for the plight of rights defenders in China.  During President Xi’s visit President Obama can and certainly should raise the unacceptable and self-defeating nature of the ongoing roundup of weiquan (rights defending) lawyers by the Chinese authorities––either by insisting that there be a window reserved in the primary bilateral meeting (preferred) or by bringing the topic up spontaneously in that meeting or at the joint press conference. The latter is less effective to change Chinese behavior but important as a domestic political issue in the United States. But keep in mind that the Chinese officials planning the State Visit will not agree to a meeting that includes some of the private critics of their conduct in the United States.  The U.S. government cannot unilaterally control the broad agenda for the visit by insisting on certain meetings, such as one with U.S. public interest lawyers.

But even with this limitation, the larger question remains: why should the U.S. and Chinese Presidents meet?  Currently, the United States and China face a number of urgent issues that directly impact their relationship.  For far too many of these, however, neither side will agree even on the terms of reference for their differences, preferring either to deny a problem exists or to insist on a formulation that assigns the responsibility exclusively to the other party.  These thorny issues are myriad: Chinese island reclamation and freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas; alleged cyber incursions into U.S.-based systems including personnel files held by the U.S. government and commercially valuable data held by a wide range of U.S. businesses; the devaluation of China’s currency in response to slowing growth in China; the creation of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, a new international development institution created with China as the leading shareholder; national security limitations on Chinese investment in the United States; the impact of China’s own National Security Law on U.S. businesses operating in China; and even China’s continued non-market economy status in U.S. antidumping investigations. Today’s New York Times reveals another agenda item: Chinese public security agents operating in the United States and allegedly intimidating or threatening some Chinese expatriates suspected of graft to return to China. This is an additional issue for which the two countries offer incompatible explanations. Unfortunately, political leaders in both countries have framed these issues in ways that make them difficult to discuss, much less resolve.

The meeting of the two Presidents could advance bilateral cooperation, however, on two issues of current importance.  First, both sides seek to advance negotiations on the U.S.-China Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) by exchanging updated negative lists of excluded investment areas.  Second, each side also wants to advance cooperation on curbing greenhouse gas emissions in advance of the 21st session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP 21) in Paris in December.  Obama and Xi could announce concrete and meaningful progress on BIT and greenhouse gas emissions based on strong preparation at the staff- through Cabinet-levels and help provide negotiating teams on each topic with clear instructions on the way forward in both cases.

When weighing the decision of whether to downgrade the meeting, political and protocol reasons for the level of the visit must also contend with the substantive policy questions already discussed. The issue of face plays a role in this calculation as President Xi hosted President Obama for a State Visit in Beijing last year, complete with State Arrival Ceremony at the Great Hall of the People and a State Banquet. Refusing to accord President Xi the same courtesies would cause great offense. In addition, leaders meet to increase opportunities to get to know one another and build a relationship that might advance issues or prevent future conflicts. Two years ago, the White House cited this reasoning in meeting in a more relaxed setting away from Washington in the lead-up to the two Presidents’ summit at the Sunnylands Estate in California. The very specific intention of the informal setting away from Washington was to reduce the pressure to make public pronouncements and face the increased scrutiny of a scripted and formal visit so that the leaders could get to know one another better. Whether the more informal setting did allow greater candor, the added scrutiny of a State Visit can only undermine efforts by the two Presidents to build their relationship as a hedge against growing frictions in any meaningful way.  Next month, the two Presidents will meet farther apart on urgent bilateral issues than at any prior meeting they have had and with often conflicting visions of the world as they would like it to be.  Ranging from President Xi’s marketing of China’s New Model of Great Power Relations, which premises more space for Chinese actions on the world stage free of American interference or even commentary, to President Obama’s preference for selling the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) as a way of writing new international trade rules to prevent China from writing those rules instead, these competing visions are not currently amenable to building trust during a one-day visit.

Where does that leave us in terms of a verdict on the impending visit?  Looking at the list of issues where no progress is likely, it is probable that each President will raise a differing subset of those issues without actually hearing what the other has to say.  They will talk past each other and reach no conclusions nor even advance the terms on which officials at lower levels will address these issues going forward.  On the other (skimpier) hand, the Presidents may make meaningful progress on the two issues identified above:  BIT negotiations and climate change measures ahead of the Paris negotiations in December. The non-policy considerations present a trickier, more qualitative question of whether the slim possibility of greater candor in a less formal set of meetings makes it a better bet to risk the strong negative reaction of a Chinese government that sees the downgrade as a personal snub to President Xi. The White House needs to decide based on the best interest of the United States and the American people, of course, rather than how its decision in Washington will be received in Beijing or even by some larger subset of the Chinese people.

In this instance, the pomp and circumstance of a State Visit will reduce the efficacy of the potential positive outcomes of the meeting and send a misleading positive message about the current parlous state of U.S.-China relations.  Rather than providing additional space for the two Presidents to increase mutual understanding and provide clear guidance to their bureaucracies on how to resolve some outstanding issues, the Presidents may make some small and specific progress in two areas.  But the strictures of a State Visit also make it likely that the two governments will feel compelled to send a message that the visit demonstrates a highly productive bilateral relationship on firm grounding. That message would obfuscate real differences in search of solutions, potentially setting back relations rather than moving them forward, and backfire as the evidence clearly belies such a positive message. The White House should downgrade the meeting, restore the informal approach of Sunnylands, and hope that more time focused on substance and less on meaningless public praise by each country of the other may permit more candid discussion and advance solutions to pressing problems.

China Passes National Security Law

Ready for National Security!

Within a day of its publication of the second Draft Foreign NGO Law on May 5, the Chinese government also published for comment a Draft National Security Law.  Today, that document became law. Although criticized for its vagueness and breadth, the passed law is still just as broad if not more so.  The new law also covers protection of seabeds and adds the word “extremism” to the provision on terrorism (Article 28), a provision that immediately follows the one that protects “normal religious activity” and calls for the opposition to foreign influences and interference in domestic religious affairs (Article 27).

The law itself comes off more as abstract principles. But make no mistake, the Chinese government and the Public Security Bureau which has oversight of the Law, means business.  The fact that they elevated this abstract document to the level of a law is a telling sign and foreign governments should be looking at it carefully.

The full English translation of the National Security Law has been published at China Law Translate and can be found here.

Where’s Your Tracksuit – Will Xi Jinping be China’s Putin?

By , February 13, 2014
President Xi waving to the Chinese Olympic team during the Sochi Opening Ceremonies

President Xi waving to the Chinese Olympic team during the Sochi Opening Ceremonies

Last week’s opening ceremonies were full of Russian stereotypes – ballet, nutcrackers, revolution, really bad techno.  But one image that was far from a cliché was the cozy relationship between Russian President Vladamir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.  Over at Concurrent Opinions, law professor and China expert Margaret K. Lewis, mused about what appears to be a deepening friendship and what this could mean for China.  Will Xi be wearing a tracksuit anytime soon?  Read Lewis’ post here.

CORRECTION on NY Times Reporter’s Departure from Beijing

By , February 10, 2014
CL&P issues a correction

CL&P issues a correction

Yesterday, China Law & Policy published a post regarding New York Times reporter Austin Ramzy and the circumstances surrounding his effective expulsion from China this past January.  After the post went up, some readers emailed me to comment that my analysis may be wrong, in particular my examination of Article 14 of the Regulation on News Coverage by Permanent Offices of Foreign Media Organizations and Foreign Journalists (“Foreign Media Regs”).

Here’s the background.  On January 27, 2014, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”) spokesperson Qin Gang addressed the Ramzy situation stating that by not changing the status of his visa (presumably to a tourist or some other non-journalist visa) when he re-applied for a new press card with MOFA, Ramzy was in violation of the regulations.

As I wrote yesterday, Qin Gang’s assessment is correct under Article 14 of the Foreign Media Regs) if Ramzy’s prior press card with Time Magazine was “canceled.”  Article 14 reads:

The cancellation of the Certificate for Permanent Office of Foreign Media Organization in China and the Press Card (R) shall be made public.

The Journalist Visa of a resident foreign journalist whose Press Card (R) is cancelled automatically becomes invalid ten days after the date of cancellation.

A resident foreign journalist whose Press Card (R) is cancelled shall, within ten days from the date of cancellation, present the relevant certifying documents to the public security authority of his place of residence to apply for the alteration of his visa or resident permit.

I concluded that Ramzy, who was permitted to apply for a New York Times press card in June 2013, did not have a canceled press card,

When obtaining press cards were a bit easier: Edgar Snow's press card for Beijing

When obtaining press cards were a bit easier: Edgar Snow’s press card for Beijing

making Article 14 inapplicable.  But a few emails came in, including from individuals with experience with press cards in China, that based on their experiences, it was more likely that Ramzy’s Time Magazine press card was canceled in order to apply for the New York Times press card, making Article 14 applicable.  Fox News also highlighted this reading of the Foreign Media Regs.

I stand corrected and I thank the readers who wrote to me.  Under Article 14 of the Foreign Media Regs, it does appear that when a foreign journalist in China switches employers and tenders her prior press card, that card is effectively canceled and to be in line with the Foreign Media Regs, the journalist presumably has to apply for a change in visa status.

But the reason why I still continue to hedge and question if Ramzy was in fact in violation of the law, as opposed to just these regulations, is because when read in conjunction with China’s Exit-Entry Administration Law (“Exit-Entry Law”), Ramzy’s situation is a little less clear.  The Foreign Media Regs do not address what happens when the prior press card is canceled but the journalist is waiting on a new press card to be issued.  But the Exit-Entry Law permits an individual to stay until the expiration of a residency permit even when an application for a new one was denied (see Exit-Entry Law, Arts.29 & 32).  Additionally, the Regulations on Exit-Entry Aministration for Foreign Nationals (“Exit-Entry Regs”), which further define the Exit-Entry Law, acknowledge that there will be times when the visa and residence permit process is delayed.  In those situations, the foreign national can rely on the “acceptance notice” from the Public Security Bureau (“PSB”) to lawfully reside in China until her visa or residency permit is processed (Exit-Entry Regs, Arts. 13 & 18).

Qin Gang, stepping up the game!

Qin Gang, stepping up the game!

The Exit-Entry Regs do not apply to MOFA in its review of press cards, but did it take a page from the Exit-Entry Reg’s play book?  Did MOFA reassure Ramzy and the New York Times that with MOFA’s acceptance of the application, Ramzy could continue to reside in China on his Time Magazine visa and resident permit until the new press card was processed?  Article 21 of the Foreign Media Regs leaves it within the discretion of MOFA to determine the penalty, if any, for a violation of the Foreign Media Regs.  Unfortunately, emails to the executive and managing editors of the New York Times for clarification were not answered.

But at any rate, what the Ramzy incident reflects is that journalism just got a heck of a lot harder in China, especially for any news agency that seeks to cover sensitive issues.  Back at the beginning of January, Jill Abramson, the New York Times‘ executive editor, seemed to think things had blown over in China, that the earlier problems in securing journalist visas for their reporters had mostly been resolved.  But Abramson spoke too soon because with the Ramzy incident, the Chinese government just stepped up its game.

This is not the first time that the Chinese government has cited to law to provide a veneer of legality in its efforts to suppress criticism (or

Rights Attorney, Xu Zhiyong, recently sentenced to 4 years

Rights Attorney, Xu Zhiyong, recently sentenced to 4 years

more aptly suppress criticism that is not directed by the Party).  Chinese public interest lawyers and activists have been treated in a similar fashion.  Liu Xiaobo is likely the last activist the West will see tried for “subversion of state power” and since the lawless abduction of civil rights attorney  Gao Zhisheng, the recent prosecutions have been “in accordance with law.”  The Chinese government has become increasingly sophisticated in how it handles what it perceives as threats to its one-party rule.   In January, rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong was tried and found guilty for disturbing public order.  Back in 2010, civil rights lawyers Tang Jitian and Liu Wei were disbarred on highly technical regulations that govern the legal profession.  By turning to more administrative and technical punishments, the Chinese government can state that it is merely following the law, a defense it has come to realize the West finds a bit harder to counter.

game-changerSimilarly, the Chinese government now appears to be using the same strategy with foreign journalists and the visa application process.  It’s a labyrinth of regulations, making it easy for the Chinese government to point to a violation.  With the Ramzy incident, foreign media outlets in China can no longer rely on the assurances of MOFA or even how things were done in the past.

Ramzy might have been the sole casualty of the New York Times-China feud for the 2013 cycle.  But his forced departure is a game-changer and should be a warning to the U.S. government and U.S. media outlets that they too need to step up their game; things are far from “blown over.”

Another One Bites the Dust But Does Anyone Care? Congress is Silent as NY Times Reporter Leaves Beijing

By , February 9, 2014

New York Times journalist Austin Ramzy

New York Times journalist Austin Ramzy

Last month, while another U.S. journalist was packing his bags, forced to leave China, the U.S. Senate was poised to hold the confirmation hearing for Max Baucus, the Administration’s nominee to replace Gary Locke as ambassador to China.  You would think that central to the Baucus hearing would be the issue of journalist visas, or at least it would be mentioned by the candidate himself as a troubling development.  But you would be wrong.   Instead, after a December where the issue of U.S. journalists in China reached crisis level, Congress reverted to its shortsighted old ways, barely even raising the issue.

But, as the recent expulsion of the U.S. journalist clearly demonstrates, such a lackadaisical approach is increasingly dangerous as the Chinese government attempts to develop a more sophisticated response to try to maintain control of foreign journalists and U.S. media outlets through the visa process.

New York Times Reporter Austin Ramzy Effectively Expelled from China

For ten years, Austin Ramzy diligently covered Asia and China for Time Magazine, first out of Hong Kong and then since 2007, out of Beijing.  While his pieces were thought-provoking for a Western audience, they were hardly the type that would illicit anger from the Chinese government.  There were no articles exposing government officials’ vast wealth and while Ramzy did report on certain human rights issues in China, those articles were interspersed among other more general pieces.  In other words, he was likely not on the Chinese government’s target list in terms of renewing a visa.

But Ramzy’s status changed when, in April 2013, he took a job with the New York Times.  Since October 2012, when it published a Pulitzer-Prize

Former Premier Wen Jiabao

Former Premier Wen Jiabao

winning series on former premier Wen Jiabao’s questionable role in his family’s lucrative business holdings, the New York Times has become the Chinese government’s Enemy Number One.  Its website, including the Chinese-language portion, has been blocked in China, its U.S. website allegedly hacked from China, and every December, when it comes time to renew their visas, the New York Times China correspondents have faced excessive delays and effective expulsion.  The New York Times Fall 2013 coverage of the U.S. investigation into J.P. Morgan’s cushy ties with the children of China’s government elite, including the daughter of Wen, likely did not help its situation.

Ramzy’s visa troubles began almost as soon as he started working for the Times.  Although Ramzy had a journalist visa good through the end of December 2013, because he switched employer, under Chinese law, Ramzy was required to first apply for a new press card with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”).  Once issued, Ramzy then, with his new press card, would be required to apply for a new journalist visa and residency permit with the Public Security Bureau (“PSB”) to reflect his new employer (see Regulations on News Coverage by Permanent Offices of Foreign Media Organizations and Foreign Journalists -“Foreign Media Regs” – Art. 10).

But, according to a source familiar with the matter, MOFA began giving Ramzy a hard time from the beginning.  For two months, the Beijing MOFA office refused to accept his press card application, informing him first that he would have to apply through Hong Kong, and then informing him that it would have to be through the New York consulate.  However, Article 10 of the Foreign Media Regs clearly states that the application can be made within China and directly to MOFA.

As the source told China Law & Policy, it was not until June 2013, two months later, that MOFA finally accepted his press card application.  But MOFA would sit on Ramzy’s application, and come December 2013, Ramzy was part of the New York Times contingent that was almost effectively expelled en mass when MOFA failed to process any Times correspondents’ press card applications and renewals.

Photo from Ramzy's Twitter feed showing that he had mostly packed his things

Photo from Ramzy’s Twitter feed showing that he had mostly packed his things

While the pressure from the Obama Administration, in particular Biden’s December visit to Beijing where he publicly raised the issue, appeared to have averted the de facto closure of the Times‘ China bureaus, Ramzy seems to be the lone casualty.  Ramzy’s vulnerability likely came from the fact that he was the only New York Times correspondent who was hired in the middle of the year.  For some reason, MOFA processes “new” applications for a press card with a news agency differently than a mere renewal of the press card for a reporter that continues to work for the same news agency.  This is what happened to New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley the year before.  Like Ramzy, Buckley took a job with the Times in October 2012 but MOFA failed to process his press card.  When his prior journalist visa and residency permit expired on December 31, 2012, Buckley was forced to leave China.  For the past year he has been reporting for the Times from Hong Kong while MOFA allegedly is still processing his press card application.

Similarly, by the end of this December, without a press card, Ramzy was unable to apply for a new journalist visa.  His prior visa and residency permit was set to expire on December 31, 2013.  At the end of December, MOFA provided Ramzy with a one-month “humanitarian” visa so that after seven years, he could pack up his life and leave.  On January 30, 2014, Ramzy left Beijing and relocated to Taipei, Taiwan to cover China from there.

Stronger Response from Both the US & China

With his departure, the White House issued a strong statement, condemning China on Ramzy’s effective expulsion.  This was a marked departure from the White House’s prior strategy of silence when other U.S. reporters were effectively expelled or banned from reporting from China (Melissa Chan in 2012, Philip Pan in 2012, Andrew Higgins from 2009 to 2012 and Paul Mooney in 2013).

But the U.S. was not the only country with a changed strategy.  For all of these prior expulsions and bans, the Chinese government has never

MOFA spokesperson Qin Gang

MOFA spokesperson Qin Gang

provided a specific reason for its delay or denial.  But in Ramzy’s case, the Monday before his departure, MOFA spokesperson Qin Gang addressed the issue and tried to put a fig leaf of legality over the situation.  While Qin implied that MOFA was still processing Ramzy’s press card application, he accused Ramzy of violating Chinese regulations because he continued to enter and leave China on his old visa connected to his prior employer and never applied for a new visa or residence permit.

Qin was correct that Ramzy did not apply for a new visa and residence permit once he took the job with the Times, but that was not a willful act.  For a journalist visa and residency permit, part of the application is submission of a valid press card (Foreign Media Regs, Art. 10).  Here Ramzy was not able to apply for a new visa where MOFA was sitting on his application for a new press card, failing to process it.

Regardless of that fact, the law does not require Ramzy to apply for a different type of visa (presumably a non-journalist one) while waiting on a new press card.  The only time that a journalist must apply for a different type of visa to remain in China is if his press card has been “canceled,” a decision that must be made public (Foreign Media Regs., Art. 14).  Here, Ramzy’s prior press card was not cancelled; rather he was applying for a replacement.*  Nowhere in the Foreign Media Regs is there a requirement that a journalist change his visa type while waiting on a replacement press card.

PassportsFinally, China’s Exit-Entry Administration Law permits a foreign resident to stay in China to expiration of a prior residence permit even when a new one is denied: “[I]f an extension is denied, the foreigner concerned shall leave China on the expiry of the validity period specified in their residence permits” (Exit-Entry Administration Law, Art. 32).

Ramzy was within the law in entering and exiting China on his prior visa while waiting on his press card.  But MOFA’s citation to the law, even if inaccurate, is an interesting development and not restricted to foreign journalist visas.  Rather, it has been a trend in dealing with criticism from abroad.  An examination of how the Chinese government has dealt with public interest lawyers shows a government increasingly using the law – even if only a fig leaf – to explain its suppression of dissent.  The Chinese government has come to realize that the rhetoric of law is often an effective defense and silencing device in dealing with the West.

The Danger of the Senate’s Silence

It is this more sophisticated response that should put the U.S. government on warning that Beijing does not intend to back down in toying with

The Baucus Senate Confirmation Hearing - Why Bother?

The Baucus Senate Confirmation Hearing – Why Bother?

foreign journalists visas.  That is why the absence of this issue during the Baucus hearing was a dangerous disappointment.  During the hour and a half session, not a single Senator specifically asked what Baucus intended to do about this issue.  Instead, the hearing descended into the verbal embodiment of a high school social studies essay on the “interconnectedness” of the world, how they are like us, and with Baucus addressing human rights only superficially, stating that its protection “is the bedrock of American society.”

By not focusing on the issue of journalists visas during the hearing, Congress has effectively signaled to Beijing that it can go back to the status quo; the Senate is too concerned with how to sell beef in China to pay attention  to one journalist unable to stay there.  This is certainly a missed opportunity because if there is one thing the Chinese government does not understand and fears as a result, it is Congress.  Even if five minutes of the hearing addressed the issue, that might have given the Chinese government food for thought.

And it would also have been useful for Americans to know what Baucus’ strategy will be.  As Ambassador, Baucus will have a lot of power to determine if there should be a policy of visa reciprocity.  Does he think that is an appropriate approach?  Does he think there are other ways to deal with this issue?  How public will he be when the Chinese government again trifles with a U.S. journalist’s visa?

The U.S. government – both Congress and the Administration – cannot allow this issue to slip into the background.  While the White House should be commended for issuing a statement on Ramzy’s expulsion, it needs to use every opportunity to remind the Chinese government that this is a key issue.  Just stating it is not enough.  Last week, when Daniel Russell, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs at the State Department held a press conference, two reporters in the audience were from Chinese government-run media outlets.  Perhaps starting the press conference with a comment about how the U.S. allows a free foreign vis-a-vis China might demonstrate just how important the issue is to the current Administration.

Goodbye New York Times?

Goodbye New York Times?

Consistent pressure on the Chinese government from all parts of government must continue until Pan, Buckley, and Ramzy’s visa applications are processed.  Back in December, when it looked like the New York Times and the Bloomberg China bureaus would effectively close, the U.S. government was able focus its resources and pressure China to renew the correspondents’ visas.  But here, the danger is no different.  Where the New York Times is unable to get a new press card for any new employees in China, it will be unable to replace its current correspondents.  How long can David Barboza, 10 years in China and Ed Wong, six years, stay there?  It might be a slow death for the Times‘ China offices, but, unless something changes, its end inevitable

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* After publication of this post on February 9, 2014, it was brought to my attention that Ramzy’s prior press card with Time Magazine could have been “cancelled” under Chinese law and that Article 14 might apply to him.  A correction in the form of a new post can be found here.  Apologies in advance.  — EML

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