The Cold War Daily

Notes on the new great power struggle.

Tag: Senkaku

An American message – made in China: Biden and media freedom

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Is it just me or is Biden growing more confrontational in his approach to China?

The word from China was that there would be no budging on the air defense identification zone after five and a half hours of talks between Biden and Xi, which ran overtime. Although early reports also suggest there has been some face-saving de-escalation on both sides, too. Frankly, China can make a case for maintaining its ABIZ, as the US and other nation’s do.

What seems to bother the world about the ABIZ is:

1) China’s decision to include the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands firmly in the map.
2) Moreso, the abruptness of the announcement. And here, China is either disingenuous to claim they had no idea other countries would care. It’s just as likely this is an example of China more or less addicted to surprise as a tactic.

Nonetheless, the zone likely took up considerable amounts of Biden’s time with Xi. And with the roll-out of the ABIZ and the inflexible attitude from Beijing has sent shudders through the region and beyond, arousing memories of past countries who asserted their will on their neighbors and looked for acommodation in response. Possibly the growing recognition from Biden that China, for all its talk of “peaceful rise” is a one-way train on issues like this, has begun to look for other levers to pull.

I can’t imagine the PRC being pleased by Biden’s decision to meet with US journalists who are about to get their work visas cancelled for unfavorable coverage of the government and Communist Party. Never a good look. But don’t expect CCTV and Xinhua to show pictures of Biden meeting with American journalists excluded from China. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful message, made in China, for external consumption.

And it’s another dividing line between China and US. It’s a barrier in an era of open borders.

If the outside would can’t prevail in getting China to abandon its policy of diplomacy by surprise and slow erosion of Japan’s place in the East China Sea, the US has little incentive to keep quiet about media freedom.

Rather, the US has more incentive to talk up the fundamental disagreement on media freedom in China. In fact, media freedom increasingly acts an issue with very little downside to the US, even as political masters in China (and Russia for that matter) cringe at its mention.

Based on the images of Biden, you could be forgiven for concluding the trip was a success, and a fun one at that.

But in this way, Biden is the classic American politician armed with an inscrutable smile – a grin not unlike Obama’s in St Petersburg days after cancelling the US-Russia summit amid the Snowden affair.

In the case of Biden, going mano-a-mano with Xi over the air defense while smiling broadly for all the cameras gives a hint of what kind of happy warrior he would likely be as president. Biden recognizes that China is a trade issue, a security issue, a civil society issue. It won’t be going away anytime soon, certainly not before the 2016 presidential campaign. So for now, he can only grin hard for the cameras and grapple with it.

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What ‘Diaoyu’ means and five other things you don’t know about the Senkaku island dispute

1) The Chinese word for the islands means “fishing platform.”

2) Although the media frequently refers to the September 2012 decision by the government of Tokyo to purchase the islands at the escalation of the diplomatic row, an earlier flare-up occurred on September 7, 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japanese coastguard ships. The Japanese arrested the captain and crew triggering a diplomatic spat between China and Japan.

3) Despite being an ally of Japan, the US takes no position on the ultimate ownership of the islands.

4) A Japanese politician claims that in 2012 Japan was close to reaching a resolution over the islands with China. The lead-up to China’s leadership change, however, prevented that. According to DPJ lawmaker Akihisa Nagashima (at the time a special adviser to then PM Yoshihiko Noda on the Senkaku/Diaoyu issues) wrote recently that Japanese officials became “positive about the prospects of being able to elicit a ‘tacit acceptance’ from China…[but] “a group of Chinese leaders who were inclined to accept (Noda’s policy) lost its clout” in the power struggle ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress.

5) Taiwan, which calls the islands the Diaoyutai, has an ownership dispute over the islands with China and Japan as well. But Japan and Taiwan have signed an agreement to share fishing rights around the islands.

6) The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is likely not about undersea gas and oil. Yes, China and Japan are energy-hungry nations. Both countries have shown a great willingness to engage in resource diplomacy to secure steady supplies of resources around the world. But frankly, they have found easier, more reliable sources of supply than in a highly contested zone with planes and ships from four different countries patrolling. The reality is the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute provides a tangible issue for an intangible struggle between two nations that have a long history of antagonism. After WWII, the power rested with the US-backed Japan. Now the world watches to see if China can successfully change the status quo created by the post-war US-Japan alliance.

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