China Policy Institute: Analysis


November 17, 2015

Under the sea: Russia, China and American control of the waterways

Written by Simon Reich.

In the summer of 2007, in a bizarre incident shown live on Russian television, scientists accompanied by a couple of senior politicians descended 4,300 meters to the floor of the Arctic Ocean in two Mir mini submarines. Divers then planted a Russian flag on the seabed, and Russia officially notified the United Nations that it was claiming the ridge as part of its sovereign territory.

In effect, the Chinese did the same kind of thing when they decided to start building islandsin the South China Sea by dredging sand from the bottom of the ocean.

In both cases, the countries were creating new sovereign territory.

One implication of their declaration was that anyone traveling within the 12-mile limit defined by international law was traversing through their sovereign waters, and could only do so subject to their approval.

Indeed, the Chinese take their claim so seriously that last week it even threatened that it “is not frightened to fight a war with the US in the region” to protect its sovereignty.

So the question is: why do American policymakers care about seemingly insignificant tracts of land so far away from America’s shores?

International law and American concerns

International law is pretty clear. You can’t declare any territory submerged under the sea outside the conventional 12-mile limit as your own, although you may have some privileges in the waters that lie immediately beyond it. You certainly can’t build up some land to above the waterline, thus creating an island, and call it part of your own territory. And in neither case can you legitimately control access by other vessels. Indeed, no international commission has upheld the Russian or Chinese claims. But that hasn’t stopped either the Chinese or the Russians from trying.

Americans, however, are pretty emphatic when it comes to denying such claims have any legitimacy.

In the Russian case, American policymakers were understandably caught off guard and bemused by this strange symbolic act.

But, at the same time, American policymakers have a right to be worried. Climate change could vastly increase sea traffic through the Arctic Ocean. And the future implications of Russian control of these sea-lanes have lots of potential downsides, given recent friction over Ukraine and Syria.

In the Chinese case, Americans were caught off guard and bemused when they shouldn’t have been.

The Chinese have been making claims for a long time about their sovereignty over huge portions of both the East and South China Sea. But in this case, Americans are worried about what China’s control of these waterways might do now to these commercial shipping lanes. Every year an estimated 50% of the world’s total of commercial trade plus oil passes through the area.

Global trade and American national security

The question of why we do care isn’t as obvious as it may seem.

America’s policymakers declare that the maintenance of global trade and commerce is in its national security interests. So America needs to keep these shipping lanes open to what they call “freedom of navigation.”

What that means is that they can send an Aegis class destroyer (so this was a powerful ship, not the equivalent of a coast guards vessel) and sail it past the Subi Reef (think of an island so small it would drive you mad if it was deserted and you had to live on it alone). It’s the equivalent of a drive-by – just to send a message.

Then you put the US secretary of defense on an aircraft carrier, the USS Roosevelt, and do it again – just to ensure that both the Chinese and America’s important regional allies understood the message:. “This isn’t your territory – and our mighty navy is not about to allow you to push us out.”

You might understandably assume that the Chinese, with their huge volume of exports, would also want to maintain open seas. And that the Russians would want to ship oil and gas to keep their economy afloat by water. So there is nothing to worry about.

But that’s where more modest concerns about global trade are replaced by those about deeper, hardcore national security interests. For Americans there is a difference between “our” open seas and “their” open seas.

Freedom of navigation and American doctrine

A central element of American national security doctrine is the notion of “Freedom of Navigation” or FON.

In effect, we (Americans) assert our right to sail where we want, when we need to. Behind that, however, is the deeply embedded concept of “control of the commons..”

Military historian Alfred Thayer Mahan popularized this idea over 130 years ago. He stressed the importance of America’s navy in ensuring the free flow of international trade. The seas were his “commons.”

Mahan argued that the British Empire was able to retain its commercial and military advantage by ensuring its ships could go anywhere. And that it could deny anyone else from doing so, if needed, in times of war. The overriding lesson is that wars are not won on the land. They are won on the sea by denying your adversary access to resources.

Today, Mahan’s work remains a core element of America’s military doctrine. It is taught to America’s naval officers at their major training academy where he himself once worked and where his work is still regarded as having biblical significance. But it no longer is just applied to commercial trade. It now is applied to the access of its military in all kinds of commons – in the air, on the sea, in space and even in cyberspace.

So American policymakers become frustrated when they believe Chinese hackers spy on the US or they build islands because it demonstrates that the US can’t “control” that commons.

The answering message is clear. As Ash Carter, the US Secretary of Defense, said in a speech about Russia last week “At sea, in the air, in space and in cyberspace, Russian actors have engaged in challenging activities.” Carter went on to make it clear that the US wouldn’t tolerate Russian efforts to control those domains. Responding to Chinese threats, he also clearly implied in the same speech that China’s continued activities could indeed lead to conflict.

The importance of chokepoints

But the sea remains the priority when it comes to controlling the commons.

And Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea offers the prospect that a key trading route located in a narrow strip of water between land masses either side, what they call a chokepoint could be closed by the Chinese, in the future, if not today.

The Malacca Strait on the Western end of the South China Sea is one chokepoint – the immediate object of the US’ concern last week. The Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, where much of the world’s oil passes through, is another. And, at least according to the US Congressional Research Service, the Arctic Ocean, where the Russian planted their flag, could become another.

So this leaves the Americans with an abiding dilemma.

They are saddled with a grand military doctrine built on the principle of keeping the globe’s key access points freely accessible to the US. The barely audible counterpart is that it should maintain a capacity to deny that access to any potential adversary in case of war. The doctrine, however, in practice can itself engender conflict – as we saw with the Chinese.

America may have a much bigger military capacity and even newer technologies that allow it to fight conventional wars. But defending the open seaways is expensive and often counterproductive. The Chinese, for example, are the world’s largest importer of fossil fuelsand China is far more dependent on foreign oil than the newly fossil fuel independent United States.

So critics ask why the US is defending the Persian Gulf when the Chinese are the prime beneficiaries?

The answer, it appears, has far more to do with military strategy than with global commerce.

Simon Reich is a Professor in The Division of Global Affairs and The Department of Political Science, Rutgers University Newark. This article was first published on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: CC by US Navy/Flickr.

The Impact of Replacing Hung Hsiu-Chu

Written by Timothy S. Rich and Hannah Neeper.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Taiwanese presidential election campaign has been the nomination and later replacement of Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Hung Hsiu-Chiu. Partly due to the declining popularity of the party and several presumptive candidates opting not to run, Hung easily cleared the 30% threshold in three KMT primary polls in June and formally accepted the nomination in July. This set up a first for Taiwan and a rarity in presidential democracies as the two main candidates were both female.

Nearly from the moment she passed the threshold Hung faced backlash within her own party, seen as an extremist in part due to her views on cross-strait relations. That Hung might have difficulty appealing to the median KMT supporter, much less the median voter, should not have been a surprise as she never had to appeal to a wide base to be elected as a legislator, having been elected either under the previous single nontransferable vote (SNTV) system or placed on the party list. One poll found her support dropping eleven points between her nomination and her claims of “One China, same interpretation” which conflicted with her party’s position of “One China, different interpretations”. Furthermore, public opinion polls consistently found her trailing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s Tsai Ing-wen by twenty points. Tsai’s and Hung’s positions provide stark contrasts, with the former not supporting the One China Principle which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) sees as prerequisite for improving cross-strait relations. Hsu’s divisiveness likely encouraged People First Party (PFP) founder James Soong to enter the race again, despite having only managed 2.77% of the vote in his 2012 president bid.

Intra-party tensions and poor polling results resulted in the party replacing Hung in October, with the KMT president Eric Chu ultimately chosen as the replacement. On the heels of this change (October 17) we conducted a web survey through PollcracyLab October 20-21 asking people to evaluate two statements on a five-point scale from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5).

  1. The Kuomintang’s replacement of Hung Hsiu-Chiu as their presidential candidate is excusable.
  2. The Kuomintang’s replacement of Hung Hsiu-Chiu as their presidential candidate benefits the KMT.

On the first question, only 25.63% agreed (4 or 5 on the measure) with the statement, compared to 55.22% disagreeing (1 or 2 on the measure), with average score 2.44. On the second question, only 34.58% agreed with the statement, with 22.29 disagreeing (average score 2.80). As expected, a clear partisan divide emerges on both questions, consistent with DPP legislator opposition to Hung’s removal and intraparty disputes in the KMT. In regards to the first, DPP identifiers were largely negative, averaging a 1.96, compared to a 3.22 among KMT identifiers. On the second, DPP identifiers averaged a 2.67 compared to 3.25 among KMT supporters.

Figure 1: Summary Responses

Excusable to Replace Hung and Replacement Benefits the KMT

1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strong Agree)

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 09.25.05

We wondered if a gender divide would also be evident in the evaluations of Hung, especially among female KMT identifiers. In terms of excusing her, we found a clear distinction. KMT men averaged a 3.34 compared to a 3.04 among KMT women. Ironically, DPP men were more likely to disagree with Hung’s removal than DPP women (1.85 and 2.16 averages respectively). Regarding whether Hung’s replacement aided the KMT, less of a distinction emerged on gender (KMT males vs. females: 3.32 vs. 3.16; DPP males vs. females: 2.72 vs. 2.57).  Further statistical tests find that even after controlling for age, Mainlander ethnicity and those that support unification, that partisanship and gender influenced perceptions regarding Hung’s replacement. Specifically, women and KMT supporters positively correlated with approval for replacing Hung, although KMT women were consistently less supportive than their male counterparts. This distinction suggests that female KMT supporters may view the removal of Hung as influenced by her gender and not simply due to policy.

What does this mean for the election?  Our polling results suggest at best tepid support for replacing Hung even within the KMT, suggesting that the media attention to this switch will do little to improve the image of the party among non-identifiers. Reports that the KMT offered Hung financial incentives to withdrawal, rumors Hung vehemently denies, further fuels distrust of the KMT among those on the fence. While the replacement of Hung may marginally improve the KMT’s poll numbers in the presidential election, the change appears too late to change the party’s fortunes as Eric Chu remains considerably behind Tsai (see examples here and here).

Furthermore, it remains unclear to what extent Hung’s supporters will turn out. Hung had argued that her removal threatened the legitimacy of the KMT’s democratic rules, with her supporters leading up to her removal making similar statements. While our survey did not directly address this, indirect evidence of tension within the party was still president. For example, of KMT identifiers, only 58.2% stated they planned to vote for Eric Chu, with 31.97% undecided. Among KMT identifiers that found replacing Hung excusable, 77.59% planned to vote for Chu, whereas only 28.21% of party supporters who disagreed with her replacement planned to vote for Chu. In contrast 91.29% of DPP identifiers planned to vote for Tsai.

Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor in political science at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on electoral politics in East Asia (Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan). Hannah Neeper is a junior at Western Kentucky University majoring in English and Chinese with a minor in Political Science. She is currently researching gender perceptions in Taiwan through an internal research grant (FUSE). 

Preventing Smog Crisis: New Thinking for Energy Policy-Making in China

Written by Jingzheng Ren and Liang Dong.

China’s smog crisis and air pollution has become an inescapable topic once more. Almost in the same period as the Indonesian haze made the headlines, China has also been suffering from severe smog, in which straw burning is one of the culprits, despite local governments’ efforts to provide environmental-friendly guidance, financial support and drafted strict regulations to guide the recycling of straw. However, many farmers in China still chose the cheapest and crudest way to dispose of straw, burning it rather than recycling for sustainable use, e.g. power generation, bioethanol production and biogas production, because compared with burning, straw recycling is more expensive and labour intensive.

Subsidies from the local governments exist, but they far from sufficient, even if the bioenergy companies are ready to purchase agricultural waste. It is also difficult for the local governments to give enough financial support to the farmers for straw recycling due to the limited fiscal budget. What is more, the farmers will also suffer from declining soil fertility without burning straw. Therefore, the policies for promoting biomass to energy face a bottleneck and innovative policies design is required.

The above case calls for a rethink in China’s policy-making for promoting the development of renewable energy. The policy-makers lack in-depth understanding of the key points for promoting straw to energy: improving the recycling efficiency and lowering the recycling cost. To some extent, straw recycling suffers from a dilemma: It is rather difficult for the farmers to balance the environmental and economic gains and trade-offs. Policy makers need to take more effective fiscal incentives and measures to resolve the bottleneck, such as subsidies, tax exemption and low interest credit to encourage the large energy enterprise to participate in the recycling of straw for sustainable development, and improve the consciousness of environment protection of Chinese farmers to cooperate with the large enterprise for collecting straw on a large scale.

Meanwhile, strict supervision is needed to guarantee effective and efficient policy implementation. The critical questions include: is there the new thinking that can be used for policy-making in China for making it more effective? According to our investigations, there are two problems in China’s energy policy-making: (1) the policy-makers cannot fully represent the stakeholders in policy-making; (2) the policy-making cannot achieve democratic or judicial decision-making.

The purpose of energy policy-making is to promote the industry development, and the stakeholders are the key actors in the value chain. The experts in China are usually top scholars or high-level administrators who have abundant knowledge and experience, and their technical judgements may be accurate and objective for addressing the energy security and climate change problems, but they cannot represent the real preferences and willingness of the stakeholders.

The straw recycling case highlights that in practice, policy effectiveness and efficiency is far beyond pure technical factors, the social factors should also be taken into consideration, especially in countries like China, which have large regional disparities and gaps between rich and poor regions. Therefore, the policies made based on the technical judgments of the experts sometimes will deviate from the original goals of the policy-makers, and cannot effectively incentivise the stakeholders. 

The experts of bioenergy may not completely understand the preferences of these farmers due to the difference in preferences. Sometimes, China’s policy-makers may feel surprised that China’s farmers insist on burning straw rather than collecting it for utilization in a sustainable way even if the government sets various policies for supporting them, but they do not really know the income of the farmers well, so the subsidy determined in the policy is far away from the requisite level. We suggest that the experts in China’s policy-making need to put themselves in the shoes of the stakeholders and consider the preferences of the stakeholders when providing the technical judgements.

Meanwhile, policy-making is a complicated science in China, a politics-dominated country with vast regional disparities and development gaps, and the results should benefit both the development of energy and the public. We would also like to emphasize that diverse policy-makers/decision-makers should be incorporated to assure that the judgements are convincing and judicial to the public. Effectiveness, efficiency as well as social equity should be taken into consideration at the same time. Although there is usually a panel of experts participating in China’s policy-making, the correctness and justice of the results are still questioned due to the limitation of the diversity of the experts.

For instance, some Chinese people doubt scientific judgements that the nuclear power industry is secure because most scientists in China work directly or indirectly for the government. They suspect that research outcomes are dominated by political priority. We argue that the diversity of experts should be increased to avoid black-box operations in China’s policy-making and should incorporate multiple experts in terms of nationality, affiliation, profession, age and preference for energy policy-making in China.

Dr. Jingzheng Ren is Assistant Professor at Department of Technology and Innovation, University of Southern Denmark. Dr. Liang DONG is current a researcher at CML, Leiden University. Image credit: CC by Josh/Flickr

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