Friday, November 30, 2007

Le Roi Soleil as a Responsible Regional Player: L'Affaire Kitty Hawk

Yesterday China came out with a claim that it had denied Kitty Hawk a berth in Hong Kong because it was angered by US support for Taiwan (IHT has a similar story):

The Global Times, a tabloid published by the official party mouthpiece People's Daily, cited an unidentified People's Liberation Army senior colonel, as blaming Washington's decision to sell Taiwan an anti-missile defense system.

That «obviously sent the wrong signals» to Taiwan's leader, Chen Shui-bian, who China abhors for his campaign to assert the self-ruling island's independent identity.

«At a time when the U.S. side is seriously harming China's interests, there is no logic under heaven by which China should then be expected to open its heart and embrace him,» the paper said.

The Defense Department issued a formal protest to China on Wednesday over the two incidents and a Chinese military officer who is Beijing's defense attache in Washington was called to the Pentagon to accept the protest from a Pentagon Asia policy official.

China's foreign minister also met with U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday and blamed the incident on «a misunderstanding.

So China denies port entry to US ships twice, first says it is a misunderstanding, then presents this decision as a response to US moves in support of Taiwan and Tibet....

US decisionmakers are utterly flabbergasted. Recent incarnations of the Washington insider Nelson Report have captured the perplexity of the US Navy and official Washington at the behavior of the Chinese, who appear to have twice denied port calls to US navy vessels -- this despite the fact that the US Navy is the one service that has consistently attempted to forge relationships with the Chinese. From a couple of days ago:

....But its China's "attack" on the US Navy which has everyone really flummoxed. (Repeatedly noted, in our private conversations with DOD types, was the human cost of the expensive airline tickets purchased by the enlisted sailors for their families to join them in Hong Kong...all non-refundable. Happy holidays from your Chinese friends!)

As we noted last night, in the Bush Administration, China has had NO better friend, in terms of adult supervision of the relationship, than the US Navy. It was the Navy which worked to get around the stupid and self-defeating hostility of then-DOD Secretary Rumsfeld, by constantly seeking ways to build mil/mil relations...and thus confidence that in a crisis, adults on both sides could talk to each other in hopes of heading off something neither side desired.

Clearly, today, the US Navy has concluded that its efforts may have been for naught...and its senior leaders may fear there ARE no adults in power on the Chinese least not in terms which a sophisticated (dare one say civilized?) international power would recognize.

A measure of the Navy's concern is that Roughead had his first press conference as CNO today, and this is what he talked about: China's willful violation of the most basic first law of the sea, by denying help actually requested by ships in distress.

The case in point...something which had gone un-reported until the Kitty Hawk incident...Beijing refused to allow two US Navy minesweepers to seek refuge in Hong Kong from an approaching storm, two weeks ago.

"As someone who has been going to sea all my life, if there is one tenet that we observe it's when somebody is in need you provide [assistance] and you sort it [the politics] out later," Roughead said, adding, "And that, to me was more bothersome [than banning the Kitty Hawk]..." Speaking in Hawaii, PACOM Keating echoed his boss, calling the minesweepers' denial "a different kettle of fish for us, in some ways more disturbing, more perplexing" because it violates the unwritten international code understood by all seafaring nations.

Press reports have speculated, some quoting unidentified Chinese sources, that the snubs against the US Navy, and what is being called a "wave of cancellations" of mil/mil contacts since the early Fall, are all due to Beijing's political ire at Bush Administration decisions on Taiwan arms, the Dalai Lama's Gold Medal, and the like. But there does seem to be a belated sense of the limits on this.

The rapid reversal of the Hong Kong decision, presumably attempted by Chinese Leadership political supervisors of the PLA, came too late to salvage the Kitty Hawk PR gaffe.

So it is not known if adult supervisors in Beijing concluded that blocking the minesweepers was "sufficient" message-sending, and that banning the Kitty Hawk was self-defeating over-kill.

And that's why even the experts now ask whether the PLA gets to make these decisions free of the civilian supervision required in all other advanced countries.

Note that not only has China prevented port visits twice, including once by vessels in distress, they have also been canceling military-military contacts. Next week China is scheduled to send a delegation to the Naval War College for a conference on maritime cooperation -- but Beijing has already killed plans for a reciprocal visit by US military representatives. Observe also the US language -- China's actions are the actions of an irrational child. They are not adult, unlike Us. We'll return to that, because that is how each side perceives the other.

Willy Lam over at the conservative Jamestown Foundation had a piece on the affair, arguing that the cancellation was due to a massive military exercise (highlights are mine):

The military drills, which started on November 19, covered a wide swath of the Pacific, including sensitive terrain east of Taiwan and north of the Philippine archipelago. While official PLA media have been reticent about the exercises, Hong Kong papers and military-related websites in China noted that their purpose was to simulate a “pincer attack” on Taiwan as well as a naval blockade. Elite battalions from PLA Air Force (PLAAF) units under the Guangzhou and the Nanjing Military Regions, as well as the East and South China Sea Fleets, were involved. They deployed hardware including Russian-made Kilo-class submarines, Sovremmy-class destroyers and indigenously developed Flying Leopard jet-fighters. Among new weapons tested at the maneuvers were 022 stealth missiles and Russian-made SS-N-27 “Club” anti-ship cruise missiles. (Ming Pao, November 24;, November 24; United Daily News, November 25)

Several hundred commercial flights along China's southeast coast—the majority of which originated from airports in Shanghai and Guangzhou—were postponed during the exercises. It was not until last Saturday that the East China Civil Aviation Bureau lifted the highly disruptive aviation control (People's Daily, November 26). Li Jingao, an official of the CAAC East China Air Traffic Management Bureau, claimed: "The delay was resulted from a backlog caused by the control in previous days." Military analysts noted that PLA authorities did not want the Kitty Hawk battle group—whose 8,000-odd sailors had earlier planned to spend Thanksgiving in Hong Kong—to be in the vicinity. This is despite the fact that during his visit to Beijing earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his hosts made new pledges to boost confidence-building measures, including establishing a military-to-military hotline. On a deeper level, the Kitty Hawk incident reflected Beijing’s anger at Washington’s plan to sell Taiwan a $940 million upgrade to its Patriot II anti-missile shield. Beijing apparently also wanted to protest President Bush’s presence at a Congressional ceremony last month honoring the Dalai Lama, deemed a “splittist,” or leader of Tibet’s pro-independence movement (Washington Post, November 23; Associated Press, November 23).

There are also indications that this stupendous muscle-flexing was targeting more than the usual suspects; for examples Taiwan and the United States. Parts of the exercises took place close to the disputed Paracel Islands, including the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos in the South China Sea, a few islets whose sovereignty are claimed by Vietnam. Last Friday, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry pointed out that the war games were a “violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty.” Le Dung, the Ministry's spokesman, said that “It is not in line with the common perception of senior leaders of the two countries as well as the spirit of the recent meeting between the two prime ministers on the sidelines of the 13th ASEAN Summit in Singapore” (Vietnamese News Agency, November 23).

US Sec of Defense recently visited Beijing and issues of military transparency were raised. Let's test how well you understand China. Did China:

(a) notify relevant media, local administrative centers, and foreign nations of this exercise?

(b) not tell anyone

If you answered (b), the cigar is yours. Lam reports:

Most notably, there is the issue of military transparency, which was raised by Secretary Gates during his visit to China. The military drills were not reported by any official Chinese media. There are also indications that the PLA did not alert relevant Chinese government departments, let alone countries in the Asia-Pacific region, of the maneuvers.

All this was followed by the inevitable US protests and calls for re-assessment:

In response, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Duncan Hunter, urged Bush in a letter Thursday to sit down with top lawmakers to discuss "an adjustment of US policy towards China."

"As these two incidents clearly demonstrate, China is embarking on a new more confrontational relationship with the US and we need to be prepared," wrote Hunter, a candidate for the party's presidential nomination.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asian affairs David Sedney complained formally to the Chinese military attachi in Washington on Wednesday.

"It is not, in our view, conduct that is indicative of a country who understands its obligations as a responsible nation," said Admiral Tim Keating, the head of the US Pacific Command.

Of course, this is all wrong. China is not embarking on a "new, more confrontational relationship" with the US. This is because China does not have any "relationship" with the US, or rather, it has the same relationship with the US as it does with every other nation.

Anyone who has observed China's relations with the outside world for any length of time has seen this pattern again and again. In the midst of negotiations with the Vatican, it consecrates two bishops for the state Church. In the midst of negotiations over the Torch coming to Taiwan, it denies a visa to the representative of the city of Kaohsiung to discuss games held there in 2009. Arriving in India for negotiations, its ambassador announces a whole Indian state is part of China. Some months back the Chinese government shut down an expat magazine in China that was widely considered the most sympathetic and supportive expat rag in the nation. China gets the Olympics, and crackdowns on the internet, and journalists intensify, while state security arrests double. Catch the pattern?

Now Bejing has denied Kitty Hawk a berth in Hong Kong, thus abusing the one service in the US government that has consistently supported it, to the extent that the previous head of PACOM apparently instructed his underlings not to hold military exercises using Beijing as the imagined target. The one service that has consistently displayed an eagerness to form relationships with China. The one service that has imagined itself in partnership with China.

The fact is that in doing all these things, the Navy demonstrated that it had arrayed itself in the proper position of suppliant to the Dragon Throne. Just like those petitioners living in the petitioner's village outside of Beijing, or the local peasant who comes before the mighty magistrate to ask for his benevolence. The Navy thinks it has a right to reciprocity, since it has given so much. But in China there are no rights that apply to one's superiors -- superiors give things out of benevolence, and in both receiving petitions and in handing out benevolence, the great demonstrate their greatness. (In addition to displays of benevolence, the Throne also demonstrates its greatness by abusing those who abase themselves before it. They should be grateful for Our Attention.) From this perspective, when the Navy petitioned China for openness, it validated the greatness of China, and presented itself as a suppliant for imperial benevolence. When it made offerings of information and access to the Throne, that is only right, for gift-making is the proper behavior of suppliants, and the Throne in its Benevolence accepts all gifts. Most regrettably, with its insistence on reciprocity, the Navy has defined itself as a collection of small children making wearisome demands on Throne. If the Navy really understood its relationship to the greatness of the Dragon Throne, it would wait humbly for some display of benevolence, just like those petitioners in the petitioners village outside of Beijing.

The Chinese leadership is not annoyed at US weapons sales to Taiwan or President Bush's escapades with the Dalai Lama, no what really annoys them is that these barbarians -- like small children -- require explanations. Nobody gets explanations from the Great Man, his decisions are final, and wasn't it benevolent of him to have considered your petition in the first place? So when Beijing explains its actions in terms of weapons systems to Taiwan or awards to the Dalai Lama, Washington is simply getting an explanation at a level it can understand. Like a small child. Hopefully someday official Washington will grow up, shut up, and array itself in a properly obeisant position with respect to the Dragon Throne, patiently awaiting such drib-drabs as the Throne, in its greatness, may grant it. By the way, when are you going to give us Taiwan? That would make a nice token of your devotion to Our Greatness.

Louis XIV of France described himself as the Sun King -- as the planets revolve around the Sun, so France should revolve around him. Like modern China, absolutism in 17th century France struggled to impose its will on the provinces, which maintained strong local power bases, and convened "courts of reunion" to provide a legal fiction for annexing neighboring territory. Like modern China, seducing a never ending stream of foreigners into buying into its special, exotic status -- China must be treated like a Ming vase, Chris Patten once remarked -- France dazzled all with its myth and pomp, making France the court language of diplomacy throughout Europe. Like France of Louis XIV, China, as Lucian Pye once observed, is an empire struggling to become a state, and in no place is that clearer than in foreign policy. Be grateful, US Navy, that Le Roi Soleil has chosen to permit you to align itself with its light. And if you're really, really contrite and humble, we may allow you to sacrifice yourself on Our Behalf again.

UPDATE: The Pentagon says China has refused 9 Navy vessels and an aircraft were refused entry in the last month:

China has refused nine U.S. Navy ships and one Air Force jet entry to Hong Kong in the past month, U.S. military officials said Friday.

Senior Navy officials said that Beijing denied permission for the USS Reuben James, a Navy frigate, to make a holiday port call for sailors at the end of December.

The rejection occurred last week, at the same time China refused to allow the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier battle group into Hong Kong for a Thanksgiving holiday port call.

A U.S. Air Force C-17 flight that had been scheduled for a routine resupply of the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong also was denied permission to enter, Navy officials said.

The Kitty Hawk battle group was eventually granted permission to enter, but by then the ships were well on their way to port in Japan.

Days earlier, China refused to give two U.S. Navy minesweepers safe harbor in Hong Kong during a storm on the high seas.

The United States has filed a formal protest with China over the decisions.

U.S. officials are baffled about the reason or reasons for the port call refusals. China recently has expressed concerns about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Bush's October presentation of a Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

The US has protested these refusals.

A friend reminds: For an in-depth academic study of this, see James Hevia's excellent work.


Anonymous said...

The Taiwan excuse is all the more ridiculous in that the desired outcome (making sure the US children know that they have committed a wrong) is completely opposite to the probable short term outcome (the US authorities don't feel China can be trusted to be a responsible military stakeholder, so feel justified in selling a Patriot missile upgrade to Taiwan).

China does have my admiration on one point though. They can manage to 1) offend the Navy, the Pentagon, the President (Dalai Lama medal reaction), 2) Vindicate Chen Shui Bian and any sensible Taiwanese through a huge military maneuver targeting them, and 3) Piss off the Vietnamese, all at once. And they can do it through what should have been a PR disaster that was actually, if one believes Beijing's latest excuses, premeditated (because who wouldn't premeditate a PR disaster? That sounds like a lot of fun!). Peifu! Zhen peifu!

. said...


Very well written.

Eddy said...

The US Vessels should have come into Keelung or Kaohsiung Harbor if they ever needed refuge. I'm sure they would have gotten a warm welcome :)

Michael Turton said...

Anon, that is exactly the point several US officials made. Each time CHina dicks on the US, it sets into motion administrative and contigency plans that cannot be undone. The sad part is not that China dicks on the US. It is the US Navy's continued expectation that China would come around. How many demonstrations of China's inability to play along do you need before the light dawns?

Now I can't wait to read the Panda Huggers explain how poor little China is misunderstood, and how we Panda Bashers just don't get the new China, and we demonize it.

Eddy, I don't like the idea of US naval vessels responding to China by docking here. Then we are still playing their game. The trick is to find a move that exits that game, perhaps something like NOT sending KH back to Hong Kong, but instead flying all the fmailies back to Japan and meet the carrier there. You don't want us? Fine. We don't need you, you don't even exist. Flap? What flap? Your actions don't even count as a flap.


Mark said...

"Now I can't wait to read the Panda Huggers explain how poor little China is misunderstood, and how we Panda Bashers just don't get the new China, and we demonize it."

I think ESWN was right in saying that the general market for the demonization of China is slowly shriveling up. Yes, it's still common in parts of Taiwan, and Japan, but most of the world is gradually treating China more and more as an equal, particularly Europe.

Now that "panda hugger" Kevin Rudd, is Australia's new prime minister, they'll likely be taking a less hostile stance towards China as well.

Anonymous said...

Good article Michael!

I think the attitude in the US is turning against the Chinese because of all this crap they're pulling. A few years ago there was this polite welcoming feeling for the Chinese..."oh, aren't they exotic, it's nice that they're becoming rich and civilized like us, and we're going to have another best friend like Japan!"

These days, it's more like China is doing everything it can to piss on everything Americans hold dear...

"Hey Americans! You love your kids? We're going to poison them!

You like your big corporations? Well, we just poisoned your kids, so let's make Mattel apologize!

You like recycling and the environment? No, not us, we love pollution!

You're proud of your military? Let's blow up a few of your satellites and snub the navy!

Oh, and wait...Thanksgiving is an American family tradition right? Maybe if we tried hard enough, we can screw them on this one too..."

What's next? Burn down churches? Piss on the American flag?

Go China!

Anonymous said...

It is a political game, just like the one we used to play with USSR. We won that one. This one we are facing a far trickier opponent. Don't read too much into it. When China invades Taiwan, trust me we, US, will seat and watch.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Should be forwarded to the Pentagon, for starters. Only problem is: Not everyone in China is playing the same game. Some appear to be stuck in imperial mode, and others are struggling to get to their feet in state mode, not unlike a slippery new-born calf. So, the question: where are the two groups (loosely speaking) positioned throughout the military and political machines? To what extent will this flap affect the fortunes of the two groups?

Michael Turton said...

I think ESWN was right in saying that the general market for the demonization of China is slowly shriveling up. Yes, it's still common in parts of Taiwan, and Japan, but most of the world is gradually treating China more and more as an equal, particularly Europe.

My point was, it isn't a hugger vs demonization issue.

Did you see Kerim's post on Rudd. I think he'll be great for East Asia.


Anonymous said...

Gregory Cl...I mean Mark is right. Once you look past the gross human rights violations, the ongoing military buildup, the suppression of self-determination movements in Tibet and Xinjiang and the constant threats to attack Taiwan, China really is a lot like Europe, and should be treated just like any other democratic country governed by the rule of law.

Michael Turton said...

Mark didn't mean that China was like Europe. He only meant that European nations would start treating China as equal to them, relations-wise.


channing said...

Wow, somebody in here is suggesting that the Chinese government fouls the environment on purpose and poisons American kids for pleasure...

Anonymous said...

"Wow, somebody in here is suggesting that the Chinese government fouls the environment on purpose and poisons American kids for pleasure..."

No, not at all. More like amazement that China can do all the wrong things without trying. Like the bad guys in kid's movies, who in trying to rob a house, slips over a banana, falls down stairs, lands in a pile of garbage and the Christmas tree falls on his head.