China Policy Institute: Analysis


Sino-American relations

Trump Swings for the Fences on Taiwan

Written by Wayne Pajunen.

When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump respectfully referred to China’s debased “leader on Taiwan” as “President Tsai Ing-wen” in a historic phone call that still rings around the world, controversy over China–U.S. relations stepped up to the plate.

Why would Trump in the spring training of his presidency choose confrontation with Beijing in his first at-bat in the ballpark of international diplomacy? Continue reading “Trump Swings for the Fences on Taiwan”

Parsing the Significance of the Tsai-Trump Call

Written by Courtney Donovan Smith.

The news that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump took a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)  – breaking over 40 years of precedent of no direct contact – exploded across the internet here in Taiwan and around the world with seemingly everyone having something to say about it. The international news media went into a tizzy speculating on China’s reaction, frequently repeating the standard Chinese propaganda line on Taiwan in the process (an excellent analysis here).  Many on the American left are already hand-wringing at this 10-minute conversation, calling it “risky” and “provocative.” in spite of praising Obama for breaking previous diplomatic precedent in Cuba.  Some supporters of Taiwan, however, are ecstatic, calling the call a “major breakthrough” in U.S.-Taiwan relations, but others openly questioned Trump’s abilities: “More likely is that he doesn’t fully understand cross-Strait relations, and is completely, bumblingly, unaware of what he’s just done.” So what does this portend for U.S.-Taiwan-China relations under the Trump administration? Continue reading “Parsing the Significance of the Tsai-Trump Call”

Defining China’s Identity

Written by Chen Jimin.

In recent years, the development of Sino-US relations has increasingly concerned the international community. It can be explained by the growing importance of Sino-US relations, which have gone beyond the scope of bilateral relations to have global impact, and the inherent complexity of the relationship. The competitiveness in their relations has been highlighted via issues such as the South China Sea disputes, cyber security, and overall global rules-making. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the United States. Indeed, according to Huntington’s argument, one defines the “self” – and from there our own interests and strategic orientation – precisely because the “other” exists. However, this state of affairs will inevitably produce negative impacts on US primacy in global affairs if the United States defines China’s own identity improperly.

Continue reading “Defining China’s Identity”

China’s strategic confusion in the South China Sea

Written by Nie Wenjuan.

Since Xi’s ascendancy many observers have noted a growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS). Among other developments, China has increased the size of some of the land features in the islands it controls and created completely new land features that had previously been submerged reefs.

However, from China’s perspective, these actions are at most a kind of “passive assertiveness”. Put differently, China’s assertiveness stems from a natural response to challenges posed by the rival claimants, which include the international arbitration lodged by the Philippines in 2014 as well as the joint submission made by Vietnam and Malaysia to CLCS to extend their continental shelves beyond 200 nm in 2009. Of course, there are good reasons to believe that the rhetoric of “passive assertiveness” coming from Chinese elites and policymakers is partly self-serving in justifying its behaviour.

Continue reading “China’s strategic confusion in the South China Sea”

Responsible Stakeholder with Chinese Characteristics

Written by Beverley Loke.

In September 2005, Robert Zoellick urged China to become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the international system. The basic premise of his speech was that China should be more heavily invested in strengthening and sustaining the system from which it has benefited. This involved global stewardship: providing public goods, upholding existing norms and rules, and contributing to the maintenance of international order.

More than a decade on, the concept of responsibility has very much continued to frame China’s rise and impact on the international order. This is evident both in terms of US projections as well as China’s self-claims to be a responsible power. The Obama administration has at various junctures called China a ‘selective stakeholder’ or ‘free rider’ in the international system. And during Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the US last September, Obama had this to say: ‘we can’t treat China as if it’s still a very poor, developing country, as it might have been 50 years ago. It is now a powerhouse. And that means it’s got responsibilities and expectations in terms of helping to uphold international rules that might not have existed before.’ Continue reading “Responsible Stakeholder with Chinese Characteristics”

How the push to unite South-East Asia against Chinese expansionism could backfire

Written by Scott Edwards.

After years of rising anxiety, China’s push for dominance in the South China Sea is still rattling nerves among its neighbours, and in the world beyond. Beijing’s territorial claims and its military assertiveness have inflamed tensions with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, all of whom lay claim to territory on which China is now planting its flag.

The US, for its part, has openly accused the Chinese of militarising the region, pointing to satellite images showing that artificial islands China has constructed are now host to radar stations, air strips, and anti-aircraft missiles.

Washington is pushing back on Chinese influence with Freedom of Navigation patrols and an increased military presence, and recently announced that a carrier group would begin operating in the contested area. The US is also seeking to strengthen its defence ties with allies in the region. Obama has made commitments to bolstering Philippine defencethrough an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. The US’s relationship with Vietnam has also grown through a Joint Vision Statement on future military co-operation.

But above all, the US has one particular diplomatic ally in mind: the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which it sees as the crucial diplomatic force that can help take the heat out of the crisis. But the Obama administration’s attempts to get the organisation working as an effective bloc have yet to show much promise.

Despite Washington’s best efforts, the ASEAN states are increasingly divided over how to deal with the conflict. At a major US-ASEAN summit at the start of 2016, Obama called for ASEAN to present a united stance on the South China Sea, but the talks ultimately yielded only a vague declaration on shared commitments that skirted around China’s behaviour.

This failure to reach a consensus on how to deal with China’s military expansionism shows just how divided the ASEAN member states are – and that bodes ill for the US’s approach to the trouble brewing in the region.


These countries’ core interests do not always match, and their relationships with China all have their own complexities. This disunity has been sapping ASEAN’s potential for some time: back in 2012, the ASEAN failed for the first time to agree on a joint statement.

By contrast, China has this year declared a consensus with ASEAN members Brunei, Cambodia and Laos, opposing any attempt to “unilaterally impose” an agenda on other countries – a clear rebuke to the US-ASEAN relationship.

The world beyond South-East Asia is deeply disappointed. After the US-ASEAN summit turned out to be a damp squib, there were calls for ASEAN to look beyond national interests for the good of the region. When China announced the 2016 consensus, worried international onlookers fretted that ASEAN’s faultlines are being exploited to curb its influence.

The ASEAN countries seem condemned to choose between striving for a unified outlook where one does not exist, or relying on alliances and bilateral relations outside of the ASEAN framework. The first option is often the one that observers, especially in the West, seem to prefer, apparently convinced that a strong, united ASEAN would be the best counterweight to China.

But accepting ASEAN’s weakness might be much wiser. Whatever its utility in the South China Sea dispute, ASEAN is still a crucial mechanism for building trust, something vitally important in a region with an array of issues to deal with beyond the South China Sea. Forcing it to hammer out a consensus where none exists would greatly disrupt that function, and could send shockwaves through delicate relationships on other sensitive issues.

A delicate balance

A little restraint from the US and the West could still leave ASEAN a vital part to play. It has been building confidence among its members ever since the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which declared a commitment to dialogue with China and to finding peaceful means of dispute resolution.

This was strengthened in 2003, when China signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. The hope was that inviting China to abide by the same rules as ASEAN would help build confidence and consensus among the group’s members.

So far, the ASEAN states have generally stuck to these principles. If they turn their backs on them, the organisation’s chances of playing a serious diplomatic role will be greatly diminished.

The hope is that ASEAN will continue to facilitate discussion with China, creating a snowball effect of co-operation rather than choosing sides explicitly. This path makes more sense than forcing ASEAN’s members into lockstep, as the US seems inclined to do. If ASEAN becomes the main focus of efforts against Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, the weak links of trust and co-operation between its divided members could quickly start to fray.

Scott Edwards is a Doctoral Researcher in International Relations at the University of Birmingham. This article was first published on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Abhisit Vejjajiva/Flickr. 

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: