The flags of China and the United States stand displayed next to each other

2/21/19: A Viewpoint on the National Defense Strategy and Competition with China

The flags of China and the United States stand displayed next to each other

A Viewpoint on the National Defense Strategy and Competition with China

By Yehna Bendul, Research Staff Assistant, Sigur Center for Asian Studies

The National Bureau for Asian Research’s (NBR) latest publication, Strategic Asia 2019: China’s Expanding Ambitions, defines China’s strategic goals and analyzes its attempts to reshape the international order. On February 7th, the Sigur Center and NBR held a series of discussions to mark the release of the publication. Randall G. Schriver, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs and the keynote speaker for the event, discussed how the Department of Defense characterizes the future with China as well as how the United States plans to respond.

Assistant Secretary Schriver began his remarks by acknowledging that past defense strategies have been unclear in their hierarchies of priorities but emphasized that the 2018 strategy sees interstate competition as its primary focus. Within this focus on interstate competition, China is seen as the most prominent competitor to the United States. Assistant Secretary Schriver cited China’s simultaneous exploiting and undermining of international norms and the liberal rules-based international order as the primary reason for competition. This was followed by a concern for China’s authoritarian principles and violations of other countries’ sovereignties with the intent to spread such principles. Lastly, Assistant Secretary Schriver stressed that the fact that China sees itself in competition with the United States is reason enough to reciprocate.

Assistant Secretary Schriver discussed five ways in which the United States plans to adapt and respond to China’s challenge. First is that the U.S. armed forces need to understand that it can be contested and that this conflict will not be “an easy win,” as China is rapidly modernizing its military. Second, the United States can no longer look at competition through a binary lens. That is to say, the mindset of expecting clear wins and losses on a day-to-day basis is unproductive. Not only does China engage in “salami-slicing tactics” – or a piecemeal style strategy that seeks to gradually and selectively change the status quo – but China also keeps its activity in the “gray zone.” In other words, China acts in coercive and aggressive ways but deliberately limits its activities to remain just below the threshold of what would trigger military retaliation. Thus, Assistant Secretary Shriver argues that competition with China will require the United States to remain vigilant even among seemingly innocent action.

The third, and one of the most crucial, components of the U.S. defense strategy in the Asia-Pacific is strengthening relationships with allies and partners in the region. China has both a geographical and a first-mover advantage which limit the scope of unilateral U.S. action. Thus, the United States must rely on good relations with countries in the region to project power and counter China. Fourth, Assistant Secretary Schriver stressed the importance of informing allies and others of the reality of the Belt Road Initiative and other ostensibly economic ventures like 5g infrastructure investment. While more countries are becoming aware of the military and political objectives associated with these projects, Assistant Secretary Schriver acknowledged that simply shining light on the situation is not enough. Competition on this front will require the United States to ensure that it can provide alternative options for countries to turn to, thus requiring investment in our own infrastructure projects and 5g technology. Lastly, the United States needs to recognize that this competition will extend beyond the current generation, and as such must conduct long-term planning accordingly. Assistant Secretary Schriver concluded his talk by stating that this strategy is inclusive and positive in that its priority is protecting important and enduring principles. To him, the trajectory of the conflict can be peaceful, but the onus is on China to stop violating these principles.

This last note echoes a point that NBR panelist and Senior Policy Analyst at USIP, Dr. Patricia Kim, made during her remarks which was that U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region should not just be a policy of containment of China but rather something broader and focused on more positive goals. She added that states in the region have no desire to be forced to choose between the United States and China and that it is U.S. support for democracy, free trade, and other such principles that fundamentally underpin its soft power in the region. While it is essential to signal to China that destabilizing actions will not be tolerated, a necessary part of this kind of positive strategy is reassuring China that the United States does not seek to keep China down. Dr. Kim asserted that an aggravated and isolated China is just as destabilizing, if not more, than what it is now.

A serious problem with this strategy, however, is that the United States’ own track record of following international norms and laws is not an exemplary one. This question of how the United States can claim to be acting out of a desire for global justice and according to norms and laws when it has historically failed to do so was brought up in the Q&A session. Assistant Secretary Schriver’s response was that the question cherry-picked examples and that in every case, there were justified trade-offs. However, there is a plethora of examples to look to where the United States either explicitly violated laws (such as the Iran-Contra Affair) or took morally and legally questionable actions (such as the “Highway of Death”). Even now, the United States has yet to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but holds China to those exact standards in the South China Sea. Consequently, any attempts to try to convince China and others in the region that United States intentions are based more on principle than geopolitical interests seem somewhat futile or questionable at best.

Moreover, there are major concerns about the U.S. Department of Defense’s ability to actually implement its strategy. Analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies not only stress a history of dysfunctionality but a number of structural and budgetary concerns that would make effectively implementing a long-term strategy in a cohesive manner improbable. The departure of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis only adds to the troubles and challenge of China. While the United States is not alone in facing internal challenges, it is clear that China is quickly becoming, if not already, a genuine competitor. Whatever the outcome is between these two great powers, there will be significant and complex impacts on the rest of the world.




Yehna Bendul is a sophomore in the Elliott School studying Philosophy and International Affairs. Her concentration is in international politics with a focus on Latin America and East Asia.  


Image: The US and Chinese flags. 2012. Source


Map of the northern hemisphere with the country Mongolia colored red

11/28/18: A Viewpoint on Mongolia’s Position Between Russia and China

Map of the northern hemisphere with the country Mongolia colored red

A Viewpoint on Mongolia’s Position Between Russia and China

By Yehna Bendul, Research Staff Assistant, Sigur Center for Asian Studies

While discussions about Russia and China are increasingly pervasive in international affairs, Mongolia is often overlooked despite its unique geographic positioning between the two powers. On November 12, the Sigur Center hosted Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Otgonbaya Yondon of Mongolia to the United States for a seminar titled “Mongolia’s Position Between Two Global Powers, Russia and China.” With his extensive experience in both Mongolia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, Ambassador Otgonbaya provided many historical and contemporary insights into the Mongolian perspective. While valuable in their own right, these insights also provide a platform to examine current events in the region.

Ambassador Otgonbaya stressed that an understanding of the historical relationships between Mongolia, China, and Russia is critical to grasping the current geopolitical landscape. At the origin of these relationships is the Mongol Empire. While often depicted as a bloodthirsty regime, Ambassador Otgonbaya explained that it made numerous contributions to the modern world. For example, he noted that Mongolian invasions were a key impetus for unified Chinese and Russian identities. Low tax rates and protection of the Silk Road caused economic growth and prosperous trade of goods and information. Moreover, the Mongols introduced economic and political systems to the two countries that are evident in the etymology of the Russian and Chinese words for treasury, profit, money, and others. Thus in many ways, Russia and China’s paths to global power were paved by the Mongolians.

However, after the collapse of the Mongol Empire, the roles reversed and asserting sovereignty became a central and constant issue for Mongolia as it fell under the rule of China’s Qing Dynasty. Mongolia’s geographic position became a critical part of its fight for independence, as Russia only decided to support Mongolian autonomy to the extent that it would serve as a buffer zone from Japan and China. According to Ambassador Otgonbaya, this was so much a priority that Russia often referred to Mongolia as a nation whose territory was more important than its population.

Mongolia’s precarious location also influenced major decisions about domestic politics throughout history. For example, Ambassador Otgonbaya posited that the establishment of a communist government was not so much an ideological choice as an existential necessity. Similarly, Ambassador Otgonbaya adds that the 1990 Democratic Revolution in Mongolia can be viewed as a move to resist Soviet influence and solidify independence.  

Important foreign policies have also risen as a result of Mongolia’s sandwiched location. The principal one is Mongolia’s Third Neighbor Policy which was practiced throughout the 1990s and formally articulated in the early 2000s. This policy essentially aims to establish relations with states other than Russia and China in order to decrease dependency on and limit influence from these two countries. Significance of the Third Neighbor Policy can be seen in Mongolia’s recent acceptance of an $85.6 million dollar loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for renewable energy projects. That is to say, amidst China’s push for the Belt and Road Initiative, seeking developmental loans from a bank primarily financed by Japan and the United States clearly exemplifies Mongolia’s multi-pillared approach to foreign relations. Another and more explicit example of this policy is a trade bill introduced in the United States in July of 2018, titled the Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act, which aims to increase Mongolia-U.S. trade by reducing tariffs for various resources like textiles. Mongolia has also officially declared a policy of equidistance between Russia and China, meaning it pursues comprehensive economic and political ties with both countries. Ambassador Otgonbaya explains that peaceful relations with both countries are paramount given how expensive and difficult it would be to secure two long land borders.

Whether these policies will be enough to maintain independence from global superpowers is still a major question according to Ambassador Otgonbaya. While on the one hand, he acknowledges that being positioned between China and Russia is in itself a security guarantee, he counters that this is only true insofar as the two countries themselves do not turn on Mongolia. The Ambassador adds that international norms are stronger now than before, meaning Russian or Chinese violations of Mongolian sovereignty would be met with scorn. However, he conceded that while the world may seem more cooperative now, he still thinks the world is operating in a zero sum game that leaves the question of Mongolia’s fate with no clear answer.

However, it seems that even more pressing than Russian and Chinese influence may actually be Mongolia’s own domestic situation. During the Q&A session of his talk, the Ambassador acknowledged rising economic inequality in Mongolia that is contributing to a growing feeling of social injustice. He claims that if this issue is not tackled soon, then there is “every possibility for authoritarian regression.” Contributing to this issue is a recent corruption scandal implicating several senior Mongolian government officials. According to reports from the South China Morning Post, parliamentarians have channeled more than $1 million in government money meant for small businesses to friends and family. While hundreds gathered to protest these officials and government corruption in front of the parliament building on November 14, many more are frustrated with the condition Mongolia’s domestic politics.

Consequently, looking to the state of international relations for answers about Mongolia’s future may be slightly premature as domestic stability is integral to Mongolia’s ability to handle two neighboring global powers. Regardless, Mongolia proves to be a fascinating and unique case study that should not be overlooked.



Yehna Bendul is a sophomore in the Elliott School studying Philosophy and International Affairs with a concentration in international politics. She is currently studying Spanish but is also interested in U.S. relations with East Asia. In her position as Research Assistant with the Sigur Center, Yehna hopes to learn more about other regions of Asia and develop a more holistic understanding of the continent.


Image: A map of the hemisphere centered on 104, 47, using an orthographic projection. 2014. Source


The destroyer ship USS Decatur transits off the coast of Bangladesh

10/24/18: A Viewpoint on Tensions in the South China Sea

The destroyer ship USS Decatur transits off the coast of Bangladesh

A Viewpoint on Tensions in the South China Sea

By Yehna Bendul, Research Staff Assistant, Sigur Center for Asian Studies


On October 2nd, a Chinese destroyer came within 45 yards of an American destroyer, the USS Decatur, as it sailed near disputed islands in the South China Sea. This near collision reflects increased tensions between the United States and China which show little to no signs of de-escalating anytime soon. This trend warrants an update on the South China Sea situation and an examination of U.S. strategy in the region.

The near collision of destroyers is only one close-call in a series of events which have increased tensions between the United States and China in recent months. Towards the end of September, the United States flew B-52s over the South China Sea despite knowledge that such activities usually upset Beijing. Washington also sanctioned the Chinese military on September 20th after China purchased Russian fighter jets and surface-to-air missile equipment, citing a violation of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act. These sanctions follow a trade war which has so far resulted in the United States imposing tariffs on about 40% of Chinese exports worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded that China was “strongly outraged by these unreasonable actions” and retaliated with sanctions of its own.

The most recent point of contention between the United States and China is the Pentagon’s decision to sail two U.S. warships through the Taiwan Strait on October 22nd. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang stated that the United States should “correct its mistakes and stop any official contact, military ties, and arms sales to the Taiwan region.” While Washington only has unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it serves as Taiwan’s main source of arms. However, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Rob Manning responded that Chinese frustration was unwarranted as “the ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait simply demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” and that “the U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law permits.”

The consequences of increased tensions has been a breakdown in military, diplomatic, and economic cooperation between the United States and China. In May, Washington disinvited the Chinese navy from taking part in a multinational naval exercise known as Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC. While President Obama considered withholding a Chinese invite to RIMPAC in 2016, this is the first time China has not participated since its first invite in 2014. In October, China abruptly cancelled an annually scheduled security meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis shortly after calling off trade talks in Washington. Given that degradation of relations does not seem to be slowing, the United States should examine its priorities in the region and craft a clear strategy to prevent further escalation of conflict.

Before choosing a strategy, however, the United States needs to resolve debate on whether the South China Sea is even a matter of American national interest. Robert Farley, senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, posits that U.S. interests in the region are not particularly strong. He argues that the Chinese island installations are of “negligible economic value” to the United States, that conflict poses no real threats to maritime trade patterns, and that the the South China Sea has no direct military value. While Washington has commitments to regional allies, Farley adds that it inadequately fulfills these commitments as U.S. forces are at “a disadvantage more here than almost anywhere else on Earth” given the close proximity of Chinese aircrafts, missiles, and land forces. Consequently, he believes that the United States has no useful negotiating position and has to be willing to compromise some of its goals in the region.

Professor Joseph Liow from Nanyan Technological University supports the other side of the debate and argues that oil and natural gas deposits, threats to the principle of freedom of navigation, and security risks posed by Chinese domination in the region make conflicts in the South China Sea significant matters of national interest. However, he adds that the current U.S. strategy is neither coherent nor adequate to satisfy U.S. goals. One potential action that the United States can take in the South China Sea is increasing military support of ASEAN initiatives. This is distinct from current U.S. actions of increasing its own military presence, as it would send the message that the United States is a non-claimant who values the perspectives and internationally codified claims of other countries. Along this line, Washington could more strongly signal its support for international law by ratifying the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Lastly, Professor Liow posits that the United States could be more careful with its use of economic sanctions and incentives by synchronizing them with diplomatic and military actions.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments proposes a litany of other options that the United States could choose from with respect to the South China Sea. However, it agrees with both Robert Farley’s and Professor Liow’s underlying argument that current U.S. escalations of military operations are worthless without some larger cohesive strategy that seriously weighs U.S. values against potential costs of aggravating China. Therefore, it’s clear that the U.S. needs to decide on its priorities and clearly delineate a strategy to avoid misunderstandings with China and reduce tensions in the region.


Yehna Bendul is a sophomore in the Elliott School studying Philosophy and International Affairs with a concentration in international politics. She is currently studying Spanish but is also interested in U.S. relations with East Asia. In her position as Research Assistant with the Sigur Center, Yehna hopes to learn more about other regions of Asia and develop a more holistic understanding of the continent.


Image: The guided-missle destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73) transits off the coast of Bangladesh during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2012. Picture taken September 20, 2012. Sean Furey/ U.S. Navy/ Released


A Lockheed Martin F35-b Lightning 2 Joint Strike fighter jet lands on the USS Wasp

10/4/18: Here’s America’s New Plan to Stop China’s Island-Building

A Lockheed martin F-35B Lightning 2 Joint Strike fighter jet lands on the USS Wasp

Here’s America’s New Plan to Stop China’s Island-Building

By Zachary Haver, a research assistant at George Washington University focused on China. Zachary is a recipient of the GW Undergraduate Research Award.

This was originally published in The National Interest on October 1, 2018. Please find the original publication here

The latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allocates defense spending for the fiscal year 2019, sets the stage for a stronger U.S. response to China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea. Passed by Congress on August 1 and signed by President Trump on August 13, the NDAA contains several promising measures , including authorization for greater transparency from the Pentagon on China’s coercive activities.

Following “any significant [land] reclamation, assertion of an excessive territorial claim, or militarization activity by the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea,” Section 1262 of the NDAA calls for the Secretary of Defense to “immediately” submit a report to Congress and the public.

Up until this point, a persistent lack of transparency has plagued the South China Sea, forcing the public, researchers, and the media to rely on commercial satellite technology for information on these disputes. Advocates for greater transparency such as Ely Ratner have argued , “the dearth of public information about China’s activities in the South China Sea has hampered regional coordination and abetted China’s ability to take incremental steps to consolidate control.”

Considering the concurrent evolution of China’s assertive behavior in, U.S. policy toward, and the American conversation on the South China Sea, the reports mandated by the NDAA would be game changers if effectively implemented. Seizing control of the narrative would help Washington to reinvigorate public interest in the disputes, unite regional partners, and pressure China.

Creeping Coercion

The South China Sea territorial disputes began in the mid-twentieth century,periodically heating up between the 1970s and 1990s. After a period of relative stability in the early 2000s, tensions steadily increased from 2009 onward thanks to Beijing. Notably, China wrested control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, and a sparked a two-month-long standoff with Vietnam by deploying an oil rig in contested waters in 2014.

The next phase of escalation began when China’s land reclamation projects took off in 2014. Evidence of China’s island-building in the Spratly Islands first hit the news in May 2014. Researchers report that China actually began its land reclamation in late 2013. China’s island-building projects grew rapidly, in total reclaiming over 3,200 acres of land.

Since 2014, China has installed radar facilities , airstrips structures intended to house missiles, and military jamming equipment on its artificial islands. Though China is not the first country to construct such facilities in the South China Sea, the scope of its activities far surpasses that of any other claimant.

On May 2, 2018, a bombshell CNBC report revealed that China deployed YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles and HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef. Though China installed missiles in the Paracel Islands in 2016, this incident marked the first time that China placed missiles in the Spratly Islands—an unambiguous escalation of its militarization program. Later that May, China landed long-range bombers in the Spratly Islands for the first time.

In reaction to these developments, the United States disinvited China from the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). The Department of Defense described this disinvitation as an “initial response.” Now, with the fiscal year 2019 NDAA passed, we are about to see the follow-up from Congress.

Increasing Involvement

In recent years, growing instability has pushed the United States to intervene more directly in the South China Sea. At a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in July 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States was now prepared to play a direct mediating role in the disputes—a significant policy shift. In the years following Clinton’s announcement, the United States upgraded its defense partnership with the Philippines, lifted its lethal weapons embargo on Vietnam, and deepened its ties with ASEAN—among other measures.

Since October 2015, the U.S. Navy has conducted several Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea to challenge the legitimacy China’s land reclamation projects. However, as the past few years demonstrate, FONOPs cannot halt China’s steady military buildup, nor are they designed to do so.

The American Conversation

Washington’s reactions to turmoil in the South China Sea receive the lion’s share of attention, but rising tensions have also drawn the interest of broader American audiences. According to ProQuest’s U.S. Newsstream database, coverage of the South China Sea in American newspapers increased from 239 articles tagged as “news” in 2009 to a peak of 4061 articles in 2016.

While the media started devoting greater attention to the disputes, so too did American politicians. Candidates from both major U.S. political parties debated the South China Sea for the first time during the 2016 presidential election cycle—further evidence of the issue’s increased saliency in the American public sphere.

However, interest in the South China Sea seems to have slipped since 2016. Only 2245 news articles mentioned the South China Sea in 2017, reflecting a “ false calm ” narrative that emerged in the wake of the 2016 Hague ruling and the absence of any significant incidents. This downward trend appears to have continued so far in 2018, with potential for China’s recent provocations reinvigorating American interest.

Seizing the Narrative

Section 1262 of the NDAA will be crucial in reversing this worrying trend. Washington will need the American public’s support if it hopes to counter China’s “ maritime insurgency ” in the South China Sea. If evidence of China’s coercion remains shrouded behind layers of classification, Americans will have little reason to support tougher and possibly riskier measures. The White House, Congress and the Pentagon all must take their case to the people.

Moreover, Washington needs the support of regional partners and their publics, especially the Philippines. Since coming into power, the Duterte administration has frequently downplayed the significance of the disputes and yielded to China. If the people of the Philippines had greater access to information about China’s coercion, Duterte might face pressure to stand up to China.

Additionally, the NDAA offers Washington an opportunity to counter Beijing’s disingenuous narrative. For example, Beijing often responds to criticism by accusing the United States of militarization and pretending that other claimants engage in similarly assertive behavior. Regular public reports on China’s coercion and militarization would go a long way in challenging Beijing’s disinformation campaign.

Information Is King

The potential benefits of greater transparency become even more obvious when considering the efficacy of previous transparency efforts. The availability of public information about the South China Sea expanded from 2014 onward, facilitating an explosion of interest that lasted through 2016.

Most notably, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) launched the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) in late 2014. CSIS launched AMTI with the explicit purpose of increasing Americans’ access to information about the South China Sea—as well as other Asian maritime issues. By 2015 media outlets heavily circulated AMTI’s satellite imagery of China’s land reclamation projects.

Actors in the U.S. government also appear to have initiated a campaign to raise the profile of the South China Sea. For one matter, starting around the first U.S. FONOP, “unnamed [defense] officials” began leaking information about the South China Sea to the Reuters on a regular basis. Given the consistency of these “leaks,” there is a good chance that somebody authorized them.

Furthermore, the Pentagon allowed CNN reporters on board a P-8A Poseidon for the first time, allowing them to capture and publish attention-grabbing footage of the Chinese navy warning off the American plane over the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy itself also published surveillance footage from the flight and the audio of the incident on its YouTube page.

The information provided by AMTI and U.S. government actors allowed interested parties across the world to grasp the extent of China’s maritime coercion, generating much interest in the disputes. However, these measures themselves were implemented by several different parties, each faced with their own limitations. Section 1262 of the NDAA promises a coordinated transparency effort, synthesizing government resources to provide Congress and the public with timely intelligence.

On April 17, 2018, the new head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Adm. Philip Davidson informed Congress, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” While greater transparency alone cannot counter China’s coercion, seizing control of the South China Sea narrative is a necessary step in the right direction.

Zachary Haver is a research assistant for George Washington University focused on China. Parts of this article are adapted from his working paper, “Constructing a Revisionist China: American Narratives of the South China Sea Territorial Disputes, 2009-2016.” Find him on Twitter at @zacharyhaver.

Image: A Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike fighter jet touches down on the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, marking the first time the aircraft has deployed aboard a U.S. Navy ship and with a Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Indo-Asian-Pacific region in East China Sea, March 5, 2018. Picture taken March 5, 2018. Michael Molina/U.S. Navy/Handout

Satellite view of Australia

10/1/18: A Viewpoint on the Great Australian China Debate

Satellite View of Australia

A Viewpoint on the Great Australian China Debate

By Yehna Bendul, Research Staff Assistant, Sigur Center for Asian Studies


Earlier this year, Australia passed legislation that would combat and criminalize malicious foreign interference. While the laws were not targeted at a single country, Australia’s recent banning of high-profile Chinese companies from developing its 5G network suggests that Australia’s most immediate concern is China. On September 10th, 2018, the Sigur Center hosted Professor Rory Medcalf for a presentation titled “The Great Australian China Debate: Issues and Implications for the United States and the World.” Professor Medcalf is the Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra and has had a career in diplomacy, intelligence analysis, and journalism. With this unique perspective, Professor Medcalf aimed to answer the question of how to manage rising Chinese power and assertiveness in a way that neither leads to conflict nor contradicts Australia’s national interests and values.

According to Professor Medcalf, Australia’s relationship with China has been long and only recently complicated. Australia is home to around 1.2 million residents of Chinese heritage that include both recent immigrants and well established communities that go back to the 1850s. Medcalf explained that this deep societal connection and China’s role as Australia’s largest trading partner created the perception of a good relationship. However, tension in the relationship became most evident in the last three or four years after what Medcalf calls a “reality check.”

This “reality check” included the recognition that China was not going to liberalize under Xi Jinping, that China has been taking advantage of Australia’s open democracy through its dominance of Chinese language media and its infiltration of Australian community organizations, and that resisting Chinese interference would only get more disruptive and difficult the longer Australia waited to act. These insights were first brought to the Australian public discourse by persistent journalists and intelligence agencies. Political parties and members of the business community were slower to pay attention to the issue due to dependencies on Chinese political donations and financial investments respectively.

Medcalf cited four reasons as to why China chooses to engage in disruptive activities in Australia. First, Australia is a key ally to the United States, so any disruption of Australia would also be a disruption to China’s main rival. Second, Australia has important technology and intelligence secrets. Third, Australia has a reputation of being outspoken and resistant against China. Lastly, China is interested in ensuring that the large populations of Chinese peoples in Australia are either supportive of the Communist Party of China or otherwise silent and passive.

As mentioned previously, Australia has taken steps to resist Chinese interference through a number of new laws that criminalize foreign attempts to disrupt Australian society, politics, and economy. However, the passage of these laws led to a period of intense heat and tension within the country due to worries that the broad definitions of criminal activity violate civil liberties and would promote racist tendencies. Medcalf outlined and responded to seven myths about Australia’s relationship with China that arose from these debates.

The first myth is that Australia faces a crude choice between committing to China or the United States. Medcalf called this a “characatured notion” of Australia’s interests and foreign relations that ignores the many levels at which foreign relationships function. The second myth is that Australia only pushed back against China as a proxy of the United States. Medcalf’s response was that Australia passed the new legislation for its own sovereign reasons and that,  if anything, the United States has been the one to follow Australia’s resistance to China. The third myth is that national security institutions have taken over Australian policy making. Medcalf countered that the recent actions are new methods of solidarity and transparency and that caution towards China is a multilayered effort by the economic establishment, defense institutions, and domestic policy makers. The fourth myth is that everything will go back to how it was before the “reality check”. Medcalf pointed to “full bipartisan support” for the new laws as reason to believe change is permanent.

The fifth myth Professor Medcalf addressed was the idea that Australia will be more accommodating to Chinese preferences because of its economic dependency on Chinese businesses. Medcalf argued that Australia’s greater vulnerability is political and not economic, as Chinese economic leverage is limited by its equal dependency on Australian resources. The sixth myth is that resistance against China is influenced by racism and will unleash racist sentiments. Medcalf argued that careful outreach and public engagement can ensure that national interests will be protected in an inclusive way. The last myth is that Australia did not need new laws as they would be too prohibitive to civil society. Medcalf responded that bipartisan revisions to the law have eliminated these critiques.

Professor Medcalf ended his presentation with the actions he thinks Australia must take in the future to protect its national interests. He argued that the primary concern of Australia should be to distinguish between criminal interfereence and mere influence and diplomacy (with foreign interference being covert, coercive, or corruptive behavior). He then explained that the spirit of the China debate moving forward must be focused on finding a new equilibrium, not on rejecting China outright. Moreover, there must be consistent transparency and outreach to all parties involved including the Chinese-Australian communities, business communities, and other countries about Australia’s actions. Lastly, Medcalf stressed that Australia must be clear that it is acting in accordance with its own national interest and not as a pawn of U.S.-Chinese competition.

While Professor Medcalf briefly addressed the concerns of those opposed to Australia’s new laws, his responses seemed to downplay the gravity of dissent and did not engage with the core arguments of the opposition. This may just have been a function of time constraints on the presentation; however, it is still important to fully understand the hesitancy behind supporting Australia’s new laws given that Medcalf correctly suggested that many other liberal democracies may follow in Australia’s footsteps.

Australia’s new legislation created 38 new crimes and broadened the definition of multiple existing crimes like espionage. Those opposing these laws are concerned that the legislation can be implemented in ways that infringe upon civil liberties. The New York Times article “How Australia’s Espionage Laws Could Silence Whistleblowers and Activists” outlines several scenarios in which this would occur. Professor Medcalf mentioned that revisions to the laws have limited the potential for these negative repercussions; however, the amendments to which he referred to only narrowed secrecy offenses and allowed for a “public interest” defense for journalists. Political scientist Joseph Nye has not directly addressed Australia’s new legislation but would most likely join the opposition, as he posits that a democracy’s openness remains its best defense. In his article “How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power,” Nye argues that democracies “have to be careful not to overreact [to Chinese and Russian sharp power], so as not to undercut their own soft power by following the advice of those who advocate competing with sharp power on the authoritarian model.”

Medcalf stated he was confident that the new legislation would act mostly as deterrence and thus would not lead to any prosecutions. However, the potential for Australia’s quality of democracy to be degraded warrants continued monitoring. Furthermore, Medcalf’s faith in the Australian parliamentary system and resilience of Australia’s civil society may not apply to other liberal democracies, so following this model may have even more dangerous consequences in the United States and elsewhere.

It is interesting to see this debate play out in public discourse, but it is also surprisingly intriguing to see it seep into popular culture. In 2016, Netflix released a show titled Secret City, which focused on an Australian journalist as she uncovers conspiracies involving Chinese attempts to interfere in Australian politics. The show ended on ominous notes, but hopefully reality will prove to be more positive.


Yehna Bendul is a sophomore in the Elliott School studying Philosophy and International Affairs with a concentration in international politics. She is currently studying Spanish but is also interested in U.S. relations with East Asia. In her position as Research Assistant with the Sigur Center, Yehna hopes to learn more about other regions of Asia and develop a more holistic understanding of the continent.


Sai-kit Jeremy Lee

Sai-kit Jeremy Lee identifies as a second-generation Hong Kong Thai Chinese American, born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. As a junior at the George Washington University in DC, he is majoring in Asian Studies and Chinese, and minoring in Korean and Organizational Sciences. At GWU, Jeremy co-founded GW’s Asian American Student Association Spring 2017 and currently serves as its president. He hopes to use this student organization to bring light to issues surrounding the AAPI community while also creating community for the Asian American students on campus. He’s also a member of Circle K, an international service organization, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship where he leads a small group that focuses on the intersection of the Asian American identity and faith. As a linguaphile, whenever Jeremy has free time, you’ll probably see him trying to study a new language or listening to music in a language he can’t fully understand yet.

“From March 2nd-4th I had the opportunity to attend and help facilitate ECAASU’s annual student conference at Cornell University as their advocacy research intern. ECAASU’s, East Coast Asian American Student Union, mission is to inspire, educate, and empower those interested in Asian American and Pacific Islander Issues. This year the conferences theme was continuum which focused on exploring racialization, incarceration, labor, and civil rights movements, settler colonialism, immigration policy, ethnic enclaves, and many more facets of the Asian American story. The conference was composed of performers, speakers, and workshops. As an Asian studies major at GW, it was really interesting to learn about the experience of Asian Americans in a more formal setting because in my classes at GW we only focus on Asians in Asia. We heard speakers talk about the impact DACA had on them, how people in New York’s Chinatown are fighting against gentrification by uniting the community through art, and we heard Paul Tran perform poetry about the effects of the Vietnam war on their family. As for the workshops, topics ranged from toxic masculinity to the effects of colonialism. I ended up helping facilitate the Asian Americans and Christianity workshop. This workshop allowed us to talk about Asian American theology, which basically focuses on the idea that God has created all of us and sees all of us, as well as post-colonialism theology. Essentially, what does it mean to be an Asian American Christian and how can we use this intersection to lift other people up? Compared to my interactions with religion while studying abroad in Hong Kong and learning about Asian religions at GW, one major difference between Asians, of any religion including Christianity, and Asian American theology is that Asian American theology seems to put a large emphasis on racial reconciliation and loving those that are different from you. I’m grateful that I had the chance to learn about Asian American history and the issues surrounding the AAPI community at ECAASU’s conference and am excited to go again next year!”

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