An Alaskan Bump in the US-China Road

And is more trouble in store from the South China Sea?

Dear all

It has been a hectic few days in the China watching world. I was planning on writing a special piece on China’s influence in the Middle East, inspired by an announcement in the recently concluded National People’s Congress that China will seek the “safeguarding of the safety of strategic channels and key nodes”. This sounds like a declaration of interest around the Strait of Hormuz, through which comes nearly half of China’s oil and an increasing amount of its imported chemicals. 

On top of that, it has recently been leaked that China is signing a $400 billion deal with Iran: in exchange for a guaranteed flow of oil over twenty-five years, Beijing will pump in investment to rebuild Tehran’s industry and investment, shattered after years of Washington sanctions. Increased military cooperation between the two countries may also be part of the deal, something that will alarm many, not least the sworn Gulf enemies of Iran and the Western countries dependent on their crude.

Here’s an article I wrote for the Straits Times on Saturday on the strategic importance of the Middle East, one I co-authored with Alexander Wood of AWR Lloyd, the strategic consultancy. 

However, events this week have overtaken me. Instead, I am going to write about the Sino-US talks in Alaska from a few days ago, and discuss why they may have been so heated. One theory is that America was angry about the latest Chinese moves in the South China Sea.  

Please remember to like, comment, and subscribe, and I’ll be back next Tuesday with some more geopolitics, with history and culture returning on 3rd April.

Thanks for reading. 

***

The 18th of March saw the first bilateral talks between China and America since President Biden assumed office, aptly held in the chill of a late winter Alaska.

Anyone who thought that the change in Washington would herald a change of American attitude would have been disappointed with what they saw. It appears that there really is a cross-party consensus about China these days, and that consensus is Hawk. The Chinese, for their part, were fully attired in their wolf’s clothing.

With relations between the superpowers acrimonious after Covid and the trade war before that, expectations were low heading into the meeting. What followed was even worse than predicted.

The images were stark. Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, and his entourage were on the left; the Americans, under Secretary of State Antony Blinken, were on the right. A wide gap separated them. Both sides wore masks, and not just for Covid. 

Secretary of State Blinken was forthright from the first. “We'll…discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States and economic coercion toward our allies.” 

In case there was any doubt about how Washington viewed its relationship with Beijing, the Secretary made this clear too: “The United States' relationship with China will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, adversarial where it must be.”

Yang Jiechi was equally direct throughout his twenty minutes speech, which was far longer than Blinken’s opening remarks.

To the charge of Chinese cyberattacks, Yang said that “the US is the champion”. In response to the repression of Uighurs being labelled as genocide, he said that the US was guilty of the slaughter of black Americans. He then accused the American delegation of speaking to the Chinese in a condescending way, and called them “inhospitable”. 

Even the status of the meeting was argued over, with the US calling it a “one-off session”, whilst the Chinese declared it to be part of a “strategic dialogue”.

Whilst the tone of the talks caught many by surprise, there may be a reason, something that has happened in the background to make the US angry. That something may be further Chinese manoeuvrings in the South China Sea.

The Galapagos Islands Marine Reserve in the eastern Pacific Ocean, one of the largest and most biologically diverse marine protected areas in the world, and home to 2,900 marine species including whales, albatrosses, and penguins, played unexpected host to one of the world’s largest fishing fleets last year. The December arrival of more than 350 Chinese fishing in the reserve caused a world-wide outcry but also spooked the island’s owners, Ecuador: the size of the fleet was not only larger than the South American country’s navy, but also of those of Peru and Chile combined. 

Such fleets are to be expected when China has such an appetite for seafood. The People’s Republic hauls in 15.2 million tonnes of marine life annually, or 20 per cent of the world's catch, thanks to a total fleet size of anything up to 800,000 boats that includes 17,000 deep water trawlers. The UK, by comparison, has 5,911 fishing boats in total, four-fifths of which are small coastal boats less than 10m long. The US has just 300 distant water vessels

Yesterday it was reported that a new Chinese fishing fleet of some 200 vessels has arrived in the South China Sea, in and adjacent to waters claimed by the Philippines. Since at least March 7, 2021, many dozens of large, blue-hulled PRC ships have been lashed together in the lagoon of the strategically important Whitsun Reef, an undeveloped area of the Sea that is it is claimed by the Philippines as Julian Felipe Reef, by Vietnam as Da Ba Dau, and by China as 牛轭礁 Niu'e Jiao (“Oxbow Reef”). 

What makes this a potentially dangerous situation for more than just the fish is that looks like the start of another possible sea-grab by China. For a start, many of the vessels involved do not appear to be fishing and are instead crewed by The People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia. Using modern steel-hulled ships equipped with only the barest of nods to fishing, these forces have been called the “little blue men”, an echo of the “little green men” sent in by President Putin to secure the capture of Crimea in 2014. They have a smililar role, namely, to add physical heft to China’s claims on the South China Sea whilst remaining under the threshold of war.

Many have accused President Obama of having stood back and allowed China to claim the South China Sea. It was, after all, on his watch that Beijing militarised the area and started its programme of island capture and reclamation. The bust-up in Alaska may have been caused in part by President Biden’s desire to take a harder South China Sea line than his old boss.

Time will tell. The Philippines under its current President, Rodrigo Duterte, has had an on-off relationship with the United States in recent years. It is clear though that the anti-Chinese coalition in Manila has been growing thanks to what many feel to be China’s bullying, particularly when it comes to its territorial claims in the region. When Ecuador saw the Chinese ships arrive in its waters it called in help from the US Coast Guard, which dispatched a ship to monitor the fleet. It will be interesting to see if the Philippines does the same – and what the US will do if called.