LOOKING FORWARD IN U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS: OPPORTUNITIES AND RISKS

By Angela Luh
Staff Writer 

As we approach the mid-year point, the U.S.-China relationship faces critical opportunities that could either enhance or impede their cooperation in the years ahead. On both economic and political fronts, the year 2015 is a decisive one for the Obama and Xi administrations, particularly as a number of policy deadlines draw near. In what has become a buzzword for U.S. foreign policy in China, the “pivot to Asia” requires the U.S. to react to China’s fast-changing domestic dynamics and a number of new policy strategies released by the CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) and NPC (National People’s Congress), China’s ruling bodies, in March’s Parliamentary Sessions (Lianghui). Leading up to key moments for U.S.-China cooperation, notably June’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the US in September, Washington should address China’s domestic and regional concerns; pinpoint shared international security interests; and promote economic initiatives that benefit bilateral trade. At the same time, the U.S. needs to take a strong position on actions in China that undermine U.S. national security and democratic principles.

Opportunities:

1. A “new normal” for China’s economy
The phrase “new normal” was coined by Premier Li Keqiang in the March Parliamentary Sessions, where he set China’s growth target in 2015 at 7 percent, as opposed to last year’s 7.5 percent. This is the slowest growth rate China has experienced in a quarter-century. A slowdown in economic growth means an expansion in service industries and domestic consumption, resulting in benefits like an increased number of jobs and higher wages, particularly in China’s robust cities. However, it also forces China to concentrate its efforts in cultivating labor-intensive growth industries, of which it has less experience. The US could help by encouraging market reforms that are already underway, which could lift current restrictions to market access for US goods. A healthy Chinese economy is good for the U.S.

2. Shared international security interests
In light of high-profile ISIS threats in the past year, Beijing and Washington have expressed a commitment to act collaboratively in counterterrorism efforts as well as peacemaking efforts in the Middle East. As the U.S. slowly withdraws from Afghanistan, China has heightened its efforts in Afghanistan diplomacy, with plans to play a prominent role in the reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban. China is a leading member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that facilitates cooperation between China, Russia, and their Central Asian partners, many of whom are Afghanistan’s neighbors. The U.S. would benefit through strategic dialogue with China on foreign policy in the Middle East.

China also has the financial bandwidth to pursue development projects in the region. In Pakistan, economic projects for a “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” are part of a broader effort for Chinese engagement in the country. In Egypt, the U.S. and China share a stake in its economic growth, which could foster joint efforts to explore investment opportunities in Egypt. This would give the U.S. and China a ripe opportunity for collaboration.

3. Trade and investment
A US-China Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), a policy initiative that encourages increased cross-border investment, has been in the works for a while now. The treaty would incentivize Chinese foreign direct investment in the U.S. and vice versa. It would also give the U.S. and China a rules-based apparatus for their transactions. A BIT can serve two important purposes. One, it would encourage China to move forward with open market reforms. Improved market access could deter China’s anti-competition policies that have blocked U.S. businesses from entering the Chinese market. Second, it is crucial for the U.S. to open its own doors to Chinese investment. One of the areas that would greatly benefit from Chinese investment is the renewable energy sector. China is the world’s largest investor in renewable energy technology; a recent report suggests that China could get 85 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2050. Industry sensitivities have prevented large-scale Chinese energy investments in the U.S. in the past. The U.S. should put its resources behind the BIT and encourage U.S.-China cooperation in the development of renewables.

Risks:

1. China’s improved relations with Russia
One of the impediments to U.S.-China cooperation is China’s partnerships with countries that have poor relations with the U.S. The most notable of them is Russia. Xi is currently in Russia to attend a commemorative parade for the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe (an event that originally was also to be attended by North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un). Since Putin’s presidential term in 2012, Russia and China have elevated their relationship, especially in energy cooperation and infrastructure projects. Aside from the high-profile $400 billion Gazprom contract signed last May, China and Russia are also cooperating on the construction of a high-speed rail in Russia. Amid increasing acrimony between Russia and the West after the U.S. renewed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, China has not only increased its cooperation with Russia but also condemned the U.S.’s use of sanctions. China’s support of Russia’s geopolitical aggressions is indicative of its own problematic regional ambitions.

2. Growing military strength and maritime aggression
China continues to be the main aggressor in territorial conflicts in the South China Sea. In spite of U.S. warnings to China to de-escalate its military presence in the area, China still invokes the “nine-dashed line,” a historic marker of China’s territory, to justify its legal claims to the sea. The U.S. has an interest in maintaining free trade and secure sea lines in the area, both for its own economic activities and its commitment to support democratic trade principles on behalf of its South China Sea allies. China has also recently chosen not to join international arbitration efforts initiated by the Philippines and Vietnam. China’s emboldened claims are increasingly problematic as the U.S. has little power to hold it responsible in adhering to international laws.

3. China’s anti-democratic values
The world today has experienced an interesting trend of democratic recession, and the Asia Pacific is no exception. Alongside countries in Southeast Asia that have either undergone incomplete democratic transitions or collapse (i.e. Thailand), China is still the greatest presence in the Asia Pacific region that promotes values that undermine democracy. In one of the most recent cases of social suppression in civil-society China, the Chinese government arrested five young feminists on the eve of International Women’s Day for promoting disorder. This is just one glaring example of China’s divergent position on human rights, freedom of expression, and free trade – all fundamental democratic values. Along with an escalation of internet censorship and mandates for American tech firms to release sensitive information to Chinese authorities, China’s policies reflect a continued support for the centralized government power. The anniversary of Tiananmen Square on June 4, which will see heightened Chinese security forces, and CPC Founding Day on July 1 are likely to affirm the fundamental differences that impede U.S.-China relations.

Image By: U.S. Embassy The Hague

WINTER OF DISCONTENT PART II: HOW WESTERN MEDIA IS FAILING THE AMERICAN PEOPLE

Protestors in Taipei
A Taiwanese protestor holds a sign featuring a “V for Vendetta” quote, which reads “The country belongs to the people. People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

By Kirstie Yu
Staff Writer

In the first part of this series, I reviewed the current situations in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand. In this second installment, I will provide a brief update on the status of each of these countries as well as present information about a new protest movement in Taiwan that emerged in mid-March. Additionally, I will discuss why the U.S. should be focusing more on these countries due to both economic interests and human rights violations, and attempt to explain why I believe the U.S. and Western media focuses so heavily on the Ukraine crisis when it really should provide more coverage of other equally important movements. Although there is definitely some coverage of other conflicts, Ukraine is always on the front page of the news.

Since the publication of Part I in early March, the protests have continued in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand. In Ukraine, Russian troops took over the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine at the end of March, and 97 percent of voters in Crimea supported secession from Ukraine to Russia in a referendum held March 16. As Ukraine awaits presidential elections scheduled for May 25, it has just launched its own anti-terror operation against armed pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine on April 13. In Venezuela, violence abounds as the death toll has risen to 41 and about 650 people have been injured since early February. Since the beginning of March, additional groups of people, including doctors, medical students and mothers, have joined the student protests against the Venezuelan government’s handling of commodity scarcity issues and the economic crisis. Students also set up tents outside of United Nations offices in Caracas on March 26 to complain that not enough international attention has been paid to the Venezuelan crisis. In Thailand, a Constitutional Court decision on March 21 that nullified the February general election bolstered a second wave of protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government in Bangkok. Most recently, protestors started targeting government buildings on the outskirts of Bangkok.

One additional protest that is personally important to me as a Taiwanese American is the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan that lasted from March 18 until April 10. Tensions over the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) that was signed between China and Taiwan reached a boiling point when the ratification of the CSSTA was pushed through Congress and passed in 30 seconds without a line-by-line review of the clauses. President Ma Ying-Jeou and his pro-China Kuomingtang (Chinese Nationalist Party) faced heavy backlash from students and supporters of the pro-Taiwanese-independence Democratic Progressive Party. The predominantly student protestors stormed the Legislative Yuan (parliament) and refused to leave for 24 days until Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-Pyng conceded and made promises to create an oversight mechanism to make the CSSTA review process more transparent and democratic. Within the three weeks that the students stormed the Legislative Yuan, protestors took to the streets to demonstrate their displeasure against not only the CSSTA, but also the Ma administration in general, with about 350,000 people participating in a rally outside the Presidential Office in Taipei.

Individually, the Venezuelan, Thai, and Taiwanese protests each have an impact on U.S. economic interests. First, Venezuela, which is perhaps most directly linked to the U.S. economy, is one of the top five suppliers of foreign oil to the U.S. according to the U.S. Department of State. Additionally, the U.S. is Venezuela’s most important trading partner for both imports and exports; 500 U.S. companies are represented in Venezuela. However, relations between the two countries are only becoming more strained as President Nicolás Maduro keeps blaming the U.S. government, specifically Secretary of State John Kerry, for inciting protests and a “Ukraine-style coup”. This is problematic for the U.S. because even if it wants to improve relations with Venezuela, enduring accusations from President Maduro prevent the U.S. from taking even the slightest actions that would make the U.S. appear to be imposing its will on Venezuela. With the International Monetary Fund recently releasing its World Economic Outlook that states that Venezuela’s economy is expected to shrink 0.5 percent, the U.S. is virtually powerless and must sit idly by as the Venezuelan economy declines while its government fails to answer the demands of the people.

Next, the U.S. is Thailand’s third-largest bilateral trading partner and has more than $13 billion in direct foreign investment for Thailand. The Department of State also notes that the U.S. supports many other aspects of the Thai government, such as law enforcement, science and technology, wildlife trafficking, public health, and education. Similar to the situation in Venezuela, the protests in Thailand have caused the Bank of Thailand to cut its economic growth projection from 3.7 percent to 3 percent. A country that relies on tourism for 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product, Thailand has steered tourists away from its country due to its inability to control the protestors. Furthermore, both Western and Asian corporations may begin to think twice about basing their operations in Thailand due to its ongoing risky conditions. Although the U.S., as in the case of Venezuela, has little direct leverage in this situation, it can take advantage of the fact that it is one of the key investors in Thailand and use this as leverage to ensure that human rights are being protected during the protests. Cutting off aid to Thailand could be devastating for the Thai economy. Moreover, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes that “it is critical that U.S. officials not ignore Thailand while it goes through this crisis” and should “engage the business community, the military, and other sectors of the society.” The protestors’ desire for anti-democracy is an unprecedented theme that has gone unnoticed. The lack of coverage of these protests has reinforced that this region does not seem to be a priority to the U.S. despite CSIS recommendations.

Lastly, although the Taiwan protests have stronger and more direct implications for the Taiwanese economy than for the U.S. economy, the protests ultimately affect China, which in turn affects the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Department of State, Taiwan is the United States’ 11th largest trading partner, and the United States is Taiwan’s largest foreign investor. Whether the treaty in question is ultimately ratified or not by congress will either expand economic ties with China or keep the economic situation the same in Taiwan. The most important issue here is the fact that since Taiwan is still technically owned by China, China has the final say in controlling the extent of foreign trade Taiwan is allowed to engage in. If the CSSTA is sent back to China for renegotiations and China wants to force the CSSTA to be ratified by Taiwan, it could threaten Taiwan by not allowing it to sign free trade agreements with other countries. President Ma believes that if the CSSTA is not passed, “it will have a grave impact on [Taiwan’s] international image,” which would result in a long-term threat to foreign trade.

Collectively, the three conflicts in Venezuela, Thailand, and Taiwan highlight various human rights and due process issues. The peaceful protests in all three countries are often met with police force. In Venezuela, police have retaliated with buckshot, tear gas, and water cannons, while in Taiwan, police officers have used batons and physical force to try to drag and remove the protestors. Protestors have demanded an end to police brutality, yet it seems that these demands for a respect of human rights, especially the rights to life, physical integrity, and free speech, are not being met by the governments of these three countries. In addition, the belief that the Thai general election in February was rigged and the corresponding refusal to vote by many citizens threaten the future integrity of free and fair elections in Thailand. The undemocratic passing of the CSSTA without an article-by-article review coupled with a lack of transparency and responsiveness to the people’s concerns threatens democracy itself in Taiwan.

The economic interests the U.S. has in Venezuela, Thailand, and Taiwan, as well as the growing human rights concerns in those countries, should make the conflicts within these countries a priority to the U.S., yet the U.S. and Western media only focuses on the conflict in Ukraine and Russia. One possible explanation for this is that the U.S. is stuck in a Cold War mentality, where it still sees Russia as its biggest enemy and will always support the side that is against Russia. Even though the media believes it may be more interesting for readers to have alarming front cover news about Ukraine day after day, it is unfair to other countries that have just as important conflicts. Another explanation is that the media might think that since Americans in general do not care about the news, it is easier to focus on one news story at a time rather than change headlines every day. Less coverage may also seem to indicate to readers that the U.S. will not intervene in these conflicts so the American public will not be as upset with the U.S. government, which has a historic reputation for sticking its nose in other countries’ business. A final possible explanation could just be that the media does not like reporting on conflicts until something drastic actually happens, such as violence and bloodshed or a President being ousted or impeached. For example, President Viktor Yanukovych has been ousted in Ukraine, but President Maduro of Venezuela and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand are still in power despite mass demonstrations. However, just because a ruler has not been ousted does not mean that the situation is more stable by any means, and the media should still monitor these conflicts and update the public.

Why does the Western media insist on focusing on one conflict for headlines day after day when they could just as easily view these conflicts as a collective problem of democracy and middle class revolt throughout the world? There is growing global unrest, better coordinated with the advent of social media. The unparalleled situation the world finds itself in should garner more recognition from both the international community and from Western media, especially considering the economic and human rights ramifications these conflicts have. Society today relies heavily on media to give us real-time updates on events happening halfway across the globe. By favoring certain news stories over others because they are more convenient to cover, media outlets fail in their duty to provide fair coverage of world news. This failure ultimately causes the public to be grossly uninformed about important current affairs that affect U.S. interests.

Image by billy1125