Recent writing: Obama–Xi summit and picking your cyber fights

(1) Before President Barack Obama traveled to Beijing this month, I made a short contribution to a conversation at Asia Society’s ChinaFile, calling for President Xi Jinping and Obama to get down to the hard strategic questions. In part, I argue:

Xi and Obama should start by recognizing some facts. First, the rise of China is an important factor in changing global power dynamics, and this effect can’t be stopped or “contained.” Second, the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific promotes stability, and U.S. commitment to global norms and the security of its allies will not evaporate. Third, despite deep economic integration and strong common interests in peace and prosperity, a dangerous dynamic of political and military competition between China and the United States and U.S. allies is now evident in the region. [more]

(2) After Obama moved on from Beijing to Myanmar and Australia for other meetings, I gave a tentative but positive assessment of what Obama and Xi achieved in Beijing. Writing for the Nikkei Asian Review, I argued in part:

The U.S. and Chinese governments made a big splash this week with a joint announcement on efforts to combat climate change that surprised even the most optimistic observers. But the overall significance of President Barack Obama’s visit to Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and a state visit with President Xi Jinping is still in question — as is the outcome of Obama’s trip to the region.

The climate announcement and other new efforts produced an upbeat moment in U.S.-China relations at a time when mutual suspicion and negativity have been on the rise in both capitals. Now the question is what progress was made, and whether this will be enough to establish a “new normal” in bilateral relations. [more]

(3) Most provocatively, I argued in The Diplomat that the U.S. government has committed itself to the wrong cyber fight with China with its emphasis on commercial spying. Instead, I write, the United States and China urgently need to address the rising risk of strategic conflict online—and deal with commercial disputes in other forums.

Since 2013, the Obama administration has publicly pressed China on one particular cybersecurity problem: the alleged theft of U.S. trade secrets by units of the Chinese government for the benefit of Chinese firms. The pressure, which administration officials said will continue at this week’s Obama-Xi summit in Beijing, has produced no significant results and has stalled dialogue on a much more dangerous aspect of cybersecurity: the quiet arms race to develop the ability to disrupt critical computer systems, potentially leading to chaos and civilian deaths. [more]

Speaking 9/4 in NYC: How bad is the U.S.–China relationship?

I will be giving a talk in New York next Thursday, Sept. 4, hosted by the Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies of Temple University Japan. I hope those interested in the big question of “How bad are U.S.–China relations?” will consider attending.

Registration is required but free. Here are the details:

Host: Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies (ICAS), Temple University Japan Campus

Date: Thursday, September 4, 2014
Time: 20:00 (Door open at 19:30)
Speaker: Graham Webster (Senior Fellow, US–China Relations, The China Center, at Yale Law School)
Venue: NYC (details after registration)
Moderator: Robert Dujarric (ICAS Director)
Admissions: Free
Language: English
Registration: Required. Contact ICAS ( to register.
Facebook: Check out this event’s Facebook page for discussions.
—Yoshiko Tanaka-Shichinohe (in Sapporo)
—Nancy Yao Maasbach, Executive Director, Yale-China Association
—Robert Dujarric, Temple University Japan Campus, Tokyo
—Devin Stewart, Carnegie Council, New York City
—Mao (Nogawa) Nakai, New York City

A move to New Haven, an op-ed, and quotes in the South China Morning Post

A few items of news by way of links.

  1. Alongside the U.S.–China Strategic and Economic Dialogue last week, I offered my pessimistic assessment that little would come of this round of meetings in regard to cybersecurity. The issue, I argued, is seeing little progress but if left unaddressed will undermine strategic stability between the United States and China. This was my first contribution to the very lively new English-language publication Nikkei Asian Review, which has people spread around East Asia.
  2. South China Morning Post reporter Teddy Ng quoted me today on prospects for U.S.–China relations after the S&ED. The thrust of the story is one I largely agree with: that U.S.–China trust and cooperation is on a downslope. My quote, however, represents what I think is the reality of the situation: that security and economic fundamentals mean the two countries have huge common interests, but also that emerging factors such as cybersecurity risk undermining stability despite commonalities. My quote:

    Graham Webster, a Beijing-based senior fellow at the China Centre at Yale Law School, said both countries had compelling reasons to resolve their differences. “The US and China have far more common interests than conflicting ones. Both countries need a peaceful Asia-Pacific region and a stable world economy if they want to thrive.”

    He said there was a looming risk of escalation if the two nations failed to develop confidence over cybersecurity.

    The joint cybersecurity working group was suspended following the US indictment of five Chinese military officers for hacking into US companies. “A crisis of [large] scale is unlikely in the short term, but without real effort, it could become a real risk in coming years,” Webster said. [read more]

  3. I am presently in the process of moving my home base from Beijing, where I have been based as a fellow for the Yale Law School China Center for two years, to New Haven, where I will be setting up shop as a senior fellow at the same center. My Track II work will continue, and so will my frequent trips between the United States and China, but I am delighted to dig into the Yale community and its libraries, as well as some new research projects.

Quoted by AFP on Biden visit, which I (barely) witnessed

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's motorcade drives west for his meetings with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s motorcade drives west for his meetings with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013. (Photo: Graham Webster)

As U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visits East Asia, a lot of the media focus has centered around the recent Chinese announcement of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, a move apparently directed at Japan and the two countries’ territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. In an AFP story yesterday by Carol Huang, I am quoted cautioning that this long-planned Biden visit is not just about the most recent flare up.

Biden and Chinese leaders — he is also expected to meet Xi and Premier Li Keqiang — were unlikely to let ADIZ friction derail broader efforts to strengthen relations, said Graham Webster, a Beijing-based fellow at the Yale Law School China Centre specialising in US-Chinese ties.

“I don’t think it will be the main topic of conversation on this trip despite the recent news,” he said.

The overarching goal from such senior meetings was “about continuing the spirit of high-level cooperation and bilateral work in the common interest”, he added. [Full Story]

I was also an attendee at the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) conference in Beijing this week (where Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said alliances in the Asia-Pacific—implying the U.S. hub-and-spoke relationships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines,  Australia, etc.—are “an outdated concept in international relations”).

On the way out of the conference, I noticed a police presence that was, it turned out, preparing for Biden himself to cruise by (above).

Obama’s missed Asia trip is no disaster—if he follows up strong (my latest)

In my latest piece for China-US Focus, I look at the impact of Obama’s decision to cancel planned travel to Asia and suggest that he can make up for missed opportunities.

Obama’s Missed Asia Trip Is No Disaster—If He Follows Up Strong

As the financial crisis gripped the United States in September 2008, Senator John McCain “suspended” his campaign for president to return to Washington and attend to Senate business. His opponent, Senator Barack Obama, refused to follow suit, saying “I think that it is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.”

President Obama’s cancellation of his trip to Asia this week indicates that the government shutdown and the possibility of a default on U.S. government debt in the coming days have, in a sense, “suspended” U.S. foreign policy. Canceling this trip does matter, but it does not nullify broader U.S. policy on Asia, including the rebalance to the Asia Pacific. Instead, the cancellation is an unwelcome reinforcement of the perception that the Obama administration is neglecting its Asia policy.

Most journalists and commentators have argued that Obama’s cancellation is either disastrous for U.S. Asia policy or not a big deal. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between. In the following four points, I argue that: the cancellation was unfortunate but not a disaster; the shutdown might be a disaster; and there are still good options for the Obama administration and U.S. relations with Asia and China.

[Continue reading at China-US Focus]

Real progress on U.S.–China cybersecurity means facing core differences

New at China-US Focus, I argue that there is real potential for progress on cybersecurity in the U.S.–China relationship, but basic differences in the way the governments and peoples view the Internet cannot be brushed aside.

Probe Deep Differences to Make Real Progress on Cybersecurity

In a U.S.–China relationship confronting numerous challenges, perhaps no topic is as hard to discuss as cybersecurity. Unlike other strategic challenges, such as minimizing the potential for inadvertent clashes at sea or in the air, smoothing bilateral economic investment regulations, or even reducing the severity and effects of climate change, cybersecurity cuts across policy areas with a blade of uncertainty and mutual suspicion. Some observers have suggested U.S.–China differences are so deep that dialogue is futile, but even if it doesn’t produce a swift resolution, a recent increase in public and private discussions on the topic can build a foundation of understanding.

[Continue reading.]

Recent writing at Transpacifica

Here’s some recent writing I’ve posted at Transpacifica.

  • A critical reading of three recommendations in Jon Huntsman and Dennis Blair’s new report on protecting U.S. intellectual property. I made efforts to explain background throughout, but this would be of greater interest to specialists. The short version: I think the report comes out as moderately hawkish.
  • Two offerings in the mess of signals and interpretation in Sino-Japanese relations. Transpacifica started out in 2006 as Transpacific Triangle, and I’ve had a long-lasting if not in-depth interest in China-Japan ties as viewed from the United States. First: Is the China-Japan confrontation Xi’s inside political play, or part of a broader move? Second: Did the Chinese government really call Diaoyu/Senkaku a ‘core interest’? (Verdict: unclear, but definitely not as explicitly as some reports would lead you to believe.)
  • I’ve been trying to write more about what I read. Today brings a half-formed thought on similarities between British colonialists in Burma (as viewed through Orwell’s Burmese Days) and anglophone expatriates in China. For the true nerds, I offer my first “review” of an academic paper—“How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?” by my one-time professor Iain Johnston.

Running errands and across the Pacific

In the tradition of the ever-present “why I am leaving China” posts, I offer instead the news that I will be in the United States—New Haven, New York, and California—for most of April, beginning tomorrow. But really, I wanted to share my first post on Vine, made last night as I went out for an errand. Get in touch if I’ll be passing through where you are.

A call to think more carefully about who’s behind cyber attacks, by me at Al Jazeera

My latest for Al Jazeera English asks for more recognition of pluralism and ambiguity when governments and firms accuse “China” or the “Chinese government” of hacking.Check it out!

For fun, my first piece for Al Jazeera fought the notion of a “cyber cold war” between the United States and China. In 2011.

[Crossposted on]

Facebook filters my content. I’m thankful for these four regulars.

By way of being thankful (a little late), I was thinking about the role of some especially thoughtful Facebook users in keeping me up-to-date on various issues. Of course, these people have been selected through whatever opaque process Facebook uses to decide whose posts I see, and I am no doubt being deprived of entire wondrous enclaves of insight and humor.

I’ve given Facebook some guidance, by downgrading people who post just a little too much about families I don’t know, about political campaigns I either support or oppose, or about memes I simply don’t get. But for the most part, Facebook seems to have given me a selection of increasingly consistent characters. Some of them are awesome. In alphabetical order, here are four.

Javier Cha, Ph.D. Candidate in Korean History, Harvard University

Javier is a friend from my master’s days who has been an energetic participant in the emerging “digital humanities” movement. His academic work, I must admit, is hard for me to fully digest, due to my near total ignorance about Korean history. His theoretical interests, excitement for source materials, and discussion of computationally-assisted and traditional historial methods, however, have kept me engaged. So much so that there is always a creeping possibility I will defect from present-day-affairs and devote myself to the study of the past. Just maybe.

Check out Javier’s profile at Harvard’s Korean Institute, which has links to his various feeds.

Eveline Chao, Writer on China, Language, Culture, Politics

Eveline is a writer of many things, from Niubi, her guide to developing a solid potty mouth in Mandarin, to a recent account in Foreign Policy of working with her censor at a government-supervised magazine in Beijing, to memoirs of strange and off-putting encounters with strangers. She wins the award for variety.

Check out her writing at her site.

David Halperin, Political and Legal Adviser, Writer, and Former Boss of Graham

I’m  not sucking up. I swear. But David used to be my boss when I worked as an editor on, the Center for American Progress’ online magazine for young people. David headed up the broader Campus Progress division of CAP, which advocated for issues important to young progressives and helped amplify voices from across the country. Now, on Facebook, David serves as one of my only conduits for good-humored righteous indignation on a selection of issues I actually care about—educational reform (specifically the for-profit college industry), open government information (in collaboration with, and things worth laughing at.

Check out David’s writing at Republic Report, a new website devoted to rooting out money in politics.

Vincent Ni, Correspondent for Caixin Media, and Columbia Journalism School China Fellow

Vincent and I met when we were on a panel together several years ago, and we’ve had the opportunity to keep in touch. In the meantime, he became a U.S. correspondent for Caixin, one of China’s most prominent and independent voices for news, and now, a fellow at Columbia Journalism School. On Facebook, he posts a steady stream of China and international news that I would otherwise miss, and he currently makes me miss New York with pictures.

Follow  his Twitter feed: @nivincent.