White House Official Calls for a More Predictable China

China’s challenge to order in Asia said to be of concern to United States
February 11, 2014 Updated: February 11, 2014

WASHINGTON—A top security official at the Obama White House said that the oft-fretted about question of strategic “trust” is not such a big deal when it comes to the U.S. relationship with the People’s Republic of China. The key issue, he said, is “C.C.P,” which in this case does not refer to the Chinese Communist Party.

“Clarity, consistency, and predictability. Those are the standards we should focus on in our communication between the U.S. and Chinese governments,” said Evan S. Medeiros, the Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. 

Medeiros gave what was effectively a policy address at the Center for American Progress, a think tank founded by John Podesta, recently named by President Obama as chief of staff. The address took the form of a question and answer with the Center’s senior fellow Nina Hachigian. Medeiros made a swift departure after making his points.

The detailed and sometimes keen remarks by Medeiros could be called a hook following a couple of jabs made by Daniel R. Russell, the State Department’s point man for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. 

Contested Waters

Russell spoke at the Foreign Press Center last week on U.S. policy toward Asia, and noted America’s growing disquiet at China’s behavior in the South and East China Seas, waters neighboring China that the Chinese regime sees as part of its historical territory.

“We’re concerned with the current status of stability in the South China Sea and East China Sea. We have a strong national interest in freedom of navigation, and an interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes,” Medeiros said on Tuesday.

“We’re worried about incremental steps China has been taking over disputed areas” in those waters, he added. 

These include the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone off China’s coast, done in what has been described as an uncustomary and provocative manner. This is in part because it overlapped territory administered by other states (whose administration China disputes).

The Chinese also unilaterally set forth a series of fishing regulations in the South China Sea — a body of water that, according to international law, does not belong to it. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has also seized control over shoals that are not, according to international law, part of Chinese territory.

All these actions and many others were taken by the Chinese without any prior consultation with other countries. The Chinese authorities say that they are only defending China’s core interests, though they do not provide an official definition or list of what constitute these core interests. 

‘Raises Questions’

The Chinese have typically avoided pressing their territorial claims through the existing international legal system. In fact, some Chinese thinkers believe that the current system is merely a product of U.S. hegemony that they are bound to resist.

According to Chinese official statements — or what can be extracted from them — these land features and areas of water have historically been part of Chinese suzerainty. It was only during the 20th century, when China was weakened by war and external aggression, that the international system arose and defined these areas as something other than Chinese. 

Now that China is strong, due to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the argument continues, it is time to seize back control of these large areas of Asian waters. 

Many other countries in the region are concerned about China’s strategic agenda. The Philippines has initiated legal action against China, seeking arbitration by a tribunal of judges at the United Nations, along with other countries. China has refused to participate in that process. Japan has beefed up its defenses and sought alliances with other states in the region.

Evan Medeiros points to this broad pattern of behavior on the part of the Chinese, and says that it “raises questions in our minds about the nature of China’s territorial claims and the degree of China’s commitment to peaceful resolution of them.”

Universal Human Rights

At one point during the discussion, Medeiros was asked to respond to the constant barrage of anti-U.S. messages found in the Chinese media, and in statements by some Chinese officials. 

“Well, I can’t explain this phenomenon,” he responded. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to guess at the motives of… those who run the propaganda bureau and promote these negative images. What I can say is that we’re aware of them, and they’re of concern to us.”

He added: “What concerns me most is that by promoting these negatives images of the U.S., it probably constrains the space for Chinese leaders to grow cooperation with us, because the U.S. is often seen as trying to change China.”

A number of prominent Chinese communist strategic thinkers indeed say that the United States is bent on limiting and containing China, and even that it works to undermine the communist regime through its advocacy of what it calls universal values, like freedom of speech and belief. 

Medeiros happened to include some of these remarks in his talk. 

“We think an independent judicial system and greater respect for the rule of law will be important for realizing China’s important economic reforms,” he said. 

“Religious freedom and protection of minorities are important for building an economy that is truly innovative… but for innovation to be unleashed, some of these universal human rights, of expression and assembly, need to be realised.”