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China Threatens to Deny Passage Rights through Peripheral Seas

On Tuesday, Chinese state media reported that the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council is considering amendments to the 1984 Maritime Traffic Safety Law. “The revisions are based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and Chinese laws on the seas, adjacent areas, and exclusive economic zones,” noted the Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily.

If enacted, the amendments, slated to take effect in 2020, would violate Beijing’s obligations as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Specifically, the changes would require foreign ships to obtain permission to pass through “Chinese waters.”

China’s rules are inconsistent with the internationally accepted concept of “innocent passage,” which is incorporated in Section 3 of UNCLOS, as the UN convention is known, and recognized by customary international law.

China’s Timed Provocation Challenges the US

On Monday, three Chinese coast guard cutters entered Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea, just two days after Secretary of Defense James Mattis publicly reassured Tokyo that the United States would defend the islands. The Chinese craft, which did not have permission for the incursion, loitered for two hours.

If Mattis’s words are to mean something, the US and Japan need to respond to China’s aggressive behavior.

In December 1971, China made an official claim to the Japanese-administered islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyus. Taiwan also believes it has sovereignty over the barren and uninhabited outcroppings.

Taipei, a model international citizen when it comes to sovereignty disputes, has engaged in negotiations with Tokyo to settle differences. Indeed, Japan and Taiwan reached a landmark fishing agreement in 2015 regarding waters around the Senkakus.

Missile Defense, North Asia Security on Mattis's Agenda

James Mattis, the new secretary of defense, spoke to his South Korean counterpart Tuesday, confirming to Defense Minister Han Min-koo the US commitment to defend his country “against the evolving North Korean threat.”   

The pledge, given over the phone days before his visit to Seoul, followed President Trump’s telephone conversation with the South’s acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, Sunday. During that call, the American leader reiterated the US’s “ironclad commitment” to defend the Republic of Korea, as South Korea is formally known.

Trump, according to the White House, also mentioned “the provision of extended deterrence, using the full range of military capabilities,”code for America’s willingness to use its nuclear arsenal.

Church Condemns Duterte's Bloody War on Drugs

“It looks like he’s having a breakdown,” said John Batchelor on his nationally syndicated radio show on January 18. That day, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had told Catholic priests to take shabu, methamphetamine, if they wanted to understand his war on drugs. 

Or more precisely, his war on drug dealers, which according to a recent count has claimed the lives of 7,042 people since he took office last June 30. During this time, police had been “pro-actively gunning down suspects,” the conclusion Reuters draws from a 97 percent kill rate in police raids.

Can Japan's Abe Bridge the Duterte-Washington Divide?

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Philippines Thursday and Friday last week. He is the first head of government to pay a call on President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office at the end of June.

The meeting between the two leaders reminds one of Abe’s common touch and how valuable he could be to help bridge the divide that has grown between the US and a most troublesome ally.

Will North Korea Conduct Intercontinental Missile Test?

Within hours of Kim Jong Un’s televised New Year’s address, the Pentagon issued a statement urging countries to impose “consequences” on North Korea should it test a ballistic missile. The North’s leader suggested his regime will soon conduct an “intercontinental ballistic rocket launch,” which appears to be code for a missile test prohibited by the UN Security Council. 

Donald Trump also reacted. On Monday, he suggested the young Kim will not make good on his first boast of 2017. “It won’t happen!” declared the president-elect in a tweet.

Kim has three missiles—the Taepodong-2, the KN-08, and the KN-14—capable of reaching the lower 48 states. None of them is thought to be reliable or accurate. But a test firing, especially an unsuccessful one, will provide Kim’s technicians with data to help them correct deficiencies.

Did Trump Renew the Nuclear Arms Race?

“Can a tweet start an arms race?” asked Joseph Cirincione of the Plowshares Fund. “This one may just have done that.”

Arms-control advocate Cirincione was referring to President-elect Donald Trump, who declared last Thursday on Twitter that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Trump’s statement was right on the mark, even if it lacked months of interagency review. And, no, it did not start another competition to build the world’s most destructive weapons. That contest, unfortunately, is already under way.

Many wonder why the president-elect, seemingly out of the blue, would tweet about this subject.

China’s Smog Refugees Flee Poisonous Air

Much of northeastern China was under an air emergency the early part of this week, with 460 million people affected according to one estimate. On Tuesday, 24 cities had posted the red alert signal.

Under the alert, Tianjin closed all roadways leading to the city but one. In next-door Beijing, more than 700 enterprises stopped production. Airports cancelled flights as planes could not land in the goop. Governments warned people not to go outside. Even short travel to North China, a friend wrote to me this week, is a “Death Warrant.”

No surprise North China’s residents are temporarily leaving the region, making them “smog refugees.” As the South China Morning Post reports, “Legions of Beijing residents are fleeing the capital and heading south in search of cleaner air as the year’s worst smog lays siege to the city.”

Will China Retaliate Over Trump’s Taiwan Moves?

American businesses seem concerned they could be subject to Chinese retaliation for the recent pro-Taiwan moves of President-elect Donald Trump.

And there is reason for apprehension. On December 2, Trump took a call from Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen. The Trump staff summary of the conversation reports the president-elect called Tsai “President of Taiwan,” suggesting he considered the island a sovereign state, a position anathema to Beijing.

Moreover, on Sunday in comments to Chris Wallace of Fox News, Trump questioned whether he was bound by America’s One-China policy, thought to be the foundation upon which relations have developed since 1979 when Washington broke off formal relations with Taipei.

Will China Shrink in 2018, Ten Years Ahead of Schedule?

The South China Morning Post recently reported that Chinese demographers expect their country’s population to peak in 2018. That year is a full decade earlier than the highpoint projected in the UN’s most recent estimates and is yet another indication that China’s demographic problems are accelerating.

And there is little relief in sight. The official National Bureau of Statistics reports that China’s total fertility rate or TFR, the number of births per woman living through childbearing age, was a stunningly low 1.05 last year, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

A New Way of Looking at China

“I continue to believe that a constructive US-China relationship benefits our two peoples and benefits the entire globe,” said President Obama before beginning his meeting with Xi Jinping in Lima on Saturday. “And the structure and framework of cooperation, the frequent meetings and consultations that we’ve established I think have been extremely productive.” 

The meeting in the Peruvian capital with his Chinese counterpart was undoubtedly the final one of his term.

Obama, although expressing concerns, could nonetheless not stop talking about cooperation between his country and Xi’s. Yet after so many opportunities to exchange views—this was the ninth meeting of the two since Xi became the Communist Party’s general secretary in November 2012—China’s behavior has deteriorated, almost across the board. 

Taiwan's Hung Hsiu-chu Freelances with China's Xi on 'One China'

On the first of this month, Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping met his counterpart from Taiwan’s Kuomintang, Hung Hsiu-chu, in Beijing. It was the first time the two spoke to one another as heads of their respective political parties.

The event highlights the continuing failure of Beijing, for all its evident power, to have its way with Taiwan. 

During their meeting, both Xi and Hung expressed full support for the so-called 1992 Consensus, an understanding that there is only one China, that Taiwan is a part of that country, and that Beijing and Taiwan have their own interpretations of the situation.

The Communist Party believes Beijing is the sole legitimate government of that “one China,” while the KMT, as the Kuomintang is commonly known, maintains Taipei is.

China’s Meddling Sparks Hong Kong Protests

Residents of Hong Kong spilled out into the streets Sunday in two separate demonstrations—one of them violent—to protest an impending ruling further restricting the city’s autonomy.

The incidents highlight Beijing’s increasingly hardline and inept handling of Hong Kong, one of China’s Special Administrative Regions.

Estimates vary, but on Sunday afternoon between 8,000 and 13,000 residents marched from the Wanchai to Central districts to protest the anticipated interpretation of the Basic Law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. An unruly group of perhaps 4,000 gathered in front of Beijing’s Liaison Office in the Sai Wan district that evening.

Duterte's Claims of Diplomatic Success Are Premature

On Sunday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that, contrary to earlier reports, Chinese vessels had not left the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. He said, however, China was allowing Filipino fisherman near the contested feature.

The opening of the shoal was an important achievement for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte after his visit to Beijing earlier this month.

Lorenzana said that at least four of China’s coast guard craft were still around Scarborough, which is just 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon. The feature, just rocks forming a coral lagoon, guards the mouths to strategic Manila and Subic bays. The shoal is about 550 nautical miles from the closest Chinese landmass, Hainan Island.

China’s Xi Jinping Creating Succession Turmoil

On Monday, China’s Communist Party began its Sixth Plenum, a closed-door four-day gathering during which the party is considering disciplinary rules and membership standards.

The meeting is also a run-up to next year’s crucial 19th Party Congress, where various succession issues will be decided. And, because some believe that General Secretary Xi Jinping is attempting to break decades-old norms designed to ensure stability and continuity, the meeting will be scrutinized for clues as to the degree to which he has consolidated power inside the ruling organization.

Deng Xiaoping, the successor to founder Mao Zedong, sought to regularize the succession process. He and his successor, Jiang Zemin, put in place various guidelines designed to reduce the scope of disagreement as power passes from one ruler to the next. One such guideline was limiting the party’s general secretary, the most powerful post in China, to two five-year terms.

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