Strategic Ambiguity in the South China Sea

The following quotation is taken from a good article about the South China Sea issue written by my compatriot Roberto Tofani for Asia Times Online (you can find it here).

… “Big powers have advantages in maintaining strategic ambiguity,” said Huang Jing, director of the Center on Asia and Globalization at the National University of Singapore. He suggests that China has learned how the United States often makes use of strategic ambiguity in its international relations.

The PRC still has to clarify its position on several issues concerning the South China Sea dispute. There are two main questions:

  • What is the exact meaning of the nine-dashed line, on which its claims are based (what is included in it and what not) ?
  • What is China’s interpretation of UNCLOS? The PRC has repeatedly declared that it wants the dispute resolved according to international law. The only international law there is at the moment regulating such disputes is UNCLOS. China’s claims seem to be based more on historical grounds rather than on UNCLOS, which would instead regulate the issue in favour of the other claimants, granting Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia with their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), portions of sea well inside the boundaries of the nine-dashed line . If China would like to have the concept of the EEZ applied to the nine-dashed line it presents as its claim, this would go beyond the territorial waters of Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia as calculated from the coast of these countries (and not from the islands and reefs they claims as theirs).

That is why some strategic ambiguity, at least for the time being, serves PRC interests. Since the actual contended territory isn’t clear, this allows the PRC to continue on its nine-dashed line rhetoric even though this is not exactly in line with maritime legislations and there aren’t enough evidences to support the historical grounds. This keeps the situation volatile enough for Beijing to alternate assertive and cooperative actions and continue its oil-research expeditions whenever it has the opportunity to do so.  I wouldn’t know if the People’s Republic has learnt exactly from the U.S. how to play this strategic ambiguity card in its favour. It is sure, though, that it is much easier for a bigger and richer nation (like PRC or the U.S.) to do so because there’s a much larger and more complicated decision making system over which to diffuse (and thus, in a way, hide) the responsibility for infamous actions or statements. The recent International Crisis Group report “Stirring Up the South China Sea” has pointed exactly to this kind of trend in describing the quantity of actors at stake in the chinese side of the dispute.

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On Official Statements (with an analysis of Xi Jinping’s speech at the Boao Forum)

Many experts while analysing China’s domestic and international politics tend not to pay much heed to official speeches, preferring to base their theories on pure economic data or concrete diplomatic and political actions. There isn’t much to blame them of. If it is always hard to read through the layer of rhetoric present on official statements from head of states and ministries all over the world, this task is particularly difficult in China, where the words used by leaders and representatives are sometimes so mystifying as to completely twist the truth. Just think about the verb “to harmonize” (often applied to Chinese society) which has in many cases meant censor and persecution in practical terms. Or the discrepancy between the ideas of “joint development” or “peaceful development” Beijing often insists on and the non-cooperative or even assertive behaviour the PRC has showed in issues like the East and the South China Seas. Or the presentation of China-Africa relationship as of the south-south kind – hence equal and mutual – when in reality it is biased towards China.

On the other hand, if one is shrewd enough to recognize rhetoric when he sees it, official statements can be interesting for several reasons:

  • They provide first hand information. The words one reads or hears in official statements come directly from head of states and ministries, they haven’t been reworked by journalists or scholars. They can therefore be considered a direct line between powerful institutions and the single.
  • They are public and official. This implies that the mistakes and promises are amplified because they are made in a formal context and under the scrutiny of everybody. The expression “the emperor has no clothes” sounds much truer in the case of official statements.
  • Rhetoric, granted that one is able to detect it (of course), can act as an alarm bell. There where the layer of rhetoric is thicker it is normally where the more skeletons in the closet are to be found.

This is why I believe that official statements are always worth a read, often interesting and from time to time enlightening. This is also why I have read the entire opening speech to the Boao Forum that PRC’s neo-elected president Xi Jinping gave on April 7th. I’ve decided to report it here, with my comments (in red), to give an example of the quantity of interesting insights one can extrapolate from official statements.

Your Excellencies Heads of State and Government,

Speakers of Parliament,

Heads of International Organizations,

Ministers,

Members of the Board of Directors of the Boao Forum for Asia, Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear Friends,

In this balmy season with clear sky and warm, coconut-scented breeze, I am so glad to meet all of you at the Annual Conference 2013 of the Boao Forum for Asia here in Hainan, a picturesque island embraced by the vast ocean.

Let me begin by extending, on behalf of the Chinese government and people and also in my own name, heartfelt welcome to you and warm congratulations on the opening of the Annual Conference of the Boao Forum.

In the past 12 years since its birth, the Boao Forum for Asia has become an important forum with growing global influence. In the Chinese culture, 12 years form a zodiac cycle. In this sense, the Boao Forum has reached a new starting point and I hope it will scale an even greater height.

The theme of the current annual conference, namely, “Asia Seeking Development for All: Restructuring, Responsibility and Cooperation”, is a highly relevant one. I hope you will engage in an in-depth discussion on promoting development in Asia and beyond and thus contributing, with your vision and commitment, to peace, stability and prosperity in Asia and the world at large.

The world today is experiencing profound and complex changes. Countries have become increasingly inter-connected and inter-dependent. Several billion people in a large number of developing countries are embracing modernization. The trend of the times, namely, peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit, is gaining momentum.

On the other hand, our world is far from peaceful. Development remains a major challenge; the global economy has entered a period of profound readjustment, and its recovery remains elusive. The international financial sector is fraught with risks, protectionism of various forms is on the rise, countries still face many difficulties in adjusting economic structure, and the global governance mechanisms call for improvement [ this all sounds like a subtle criticism to the US: he brings up the financial crisis issue (which started in America), the many protectionist measures taken by Washington to help its domestic economy (which also affected the economic ties with China) ]. Achieving common development for all countries remains an uphill battle.

Asia is one of the most dynamic and most promising regions in the world, and its development is closely connected with the development of other continents. The Asian countries have energetically explored development paths suited to their national conditions and greatly boosted global development through their own development. Working side by side with the rest of the world in time of difficulty to tackle the international financial crisis, Asia has emerged as an important engine driving world economic recovery and growth [ If US was presented as the cradle of the crisis, China now presents itself as a rescuer from the crisis ]. In recent years, Asia has contributed to over 50% of global growth, instilling much needed confidence in the world. What is more, Asia’s cooperation with other regions of the world at regional and sub-regional levels has great vitality and promising prospects.

But we should also be keenly aware that Asia still faces many difficulties and challenges in boosting both its own development and joint development with other regions. The road ahead remains a bumpy and twisted one.

— Asia needs to transform and upgrade its development model in keeping with the trend of the times. Sustaining development is still of paramount importance to Asia, because only development holds the key to solving major problems and difficulties it faces. It is important that we should shift the growth model, adjust the economic structure, make development more cost effective and make life better for our people.

— We need to make concerted efforts to resolve major difficulties to ensure stability in Asia. Stability in Asia now faces new challenges, as hotspot issues keep emerging, and both traditional and non-traditional security threats exist. The Asian countries need to increase mutual trust and work together to ensure durable peace and stability in our region [ In many cases, like in East and South China Seas disputes, China has hindered rather than encouraged this mutual trust ].

— We need to build on past success and make new progress in promoting cooperation in Asia. There are many mechanisms and initiatives for enhancing cooperation in Asia, and a lot of ideas on boosting such cooperation are being explored by various parties. What we need to do is to enhance mutual understanding, build consensus, and enrich and deepen cooperation so as to strike a balance among the interests of various parties and build mechanisms that bring benefits to all[ We have to understand what we mean by building trust here… in recent times China, while pursuing this goal, has focused too much in economic cooperation and too less in other fields. Economy is just one aspect, mutual trust can’t be built just on that ]

Mankind has only one earth, and it is home to all countries. Common development, which is the very foundation of sustainable development, serves the long-term and fundamental interests of all the people in the world. As members of the same global village, we should foster a sense of community of common destiny, follow the trend of the times, keep to the right direction, stick together in time of difficulty and ensure that development in Asia and the rest of the world reaches new highs.

First, we should boldly break new ground so as to create an inexhaustible source of power for boosting common development. Over the years, many countries and regions have developed a lot of good practices in maintaining stability and promoting growth. We should continue such practices. However, nothing in the world remains constant, and as a Chinese saying goes, a wise man changes as time and event change. We should abandon the outdated mindset, break away from the old confines that fetter development and unleash all the potential for development. We should redouble efforts to shift the growth model and adjust the economic structure, raise the quality of development and make life better for the people. We should steadily advance the reform of the international economic and financial systems, improve global governance mechanisms and provide support to sound and stable global economic growth [ Fair the point about shifting the growth model, but what Chinese leaders should know is that what many economists in the West are questioning and many social groups are criticising now is growth itself. Is infinite growth what we really want? How can infinite growth be possible in a world of finite resources? ] . Asia, with its long-standing capacity for adjusting to change, should ride on the waves of the times and make changes in Asia and global development reinforce and benefit each other.

Second, we should work together to uphold peace so as to provide security safeguard for boosting common development. Peace is the ever-lasting wish of our people. Peace, like air and sunshine, is hardly noticed when people are benefiting from it. But none of us can live without it. Without peace, development is out of the question. Countries, whether big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, should all contribute their share to maintaining and enhancing peace. Rather than undercutting each other’s efforts, countries should complement each other and work for joint progress. The international community should advocate the vision of comprehensive security, common security and cooperative security so as to turn our global village into a big stage for common development, rather than an arena where gladiators fight each other. And no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains [ This sentence can be read as a blatant incongruity with what PRC has been doing in South and East China Seas ] . With growing interaction among countries, it is inevitable that they encounter frictions here and there. What is important is that they should resolve differences through dialogue, consultation and peaceful negotiations in the larger interest of the sound growth of their relations. [ Dialogue, consultation and peaceful negotiations is exactly what hasn’t been seen in the above-mentioned disputes in the last 2 years and on different other occasions in the past ]

Third, we should boost cooperation as an effective vehicle for enhancing common development. As we often say in China, a single flower does not make spring, while one hundred flowers in full blossom bring spring to the garden. All countries in the world are closely linked and share converging interests. They should both pool and share their strengths. While pursuing its own interests, a country should accommodate the legitimate concerns of others. In pursuing their own development, countries should promote the common development of all and expand common interests among them. We should enhance South-South cooperation and North-South dialogue, promote balanced development of the developing and developed countries and consolidate the foundation for sustaining stable growth of the global economy. We need to work vigorously to create more cooperation opportunities, upgrade cooperation, and deliver more development dividends to our people and contribute more to global growth.

Fourth, we should remain open and inclusive so as to create broad space for enhancing common development. The ocean is vast because it admits hundreds of rivers. We should respect the right of a country to independently choose its social system and development path, remove distrust and misgivings and turn the diversity of our world and difference among countries into dynamism and driving force for development. We should keep an open mind, draw upon development practices of other continents, share development resources and promote regional cooperation. During the first decade and more of the new century, trade within Asia has increased from 800 billion U.S. dollars to 3 trillion U.S. dollars, and its trade with other regions has grown from 1.5 trillion U.S. dollars to 4.8 trillion U.S. dollars.[ See? The only field in which there are concrete data to be shown and on which China so eagerly insists is economy. But cooperation doesn’t just mean economic exchanges ]This shows that cooperation in Asia is open and it goes hand in hand with Asia’s cooperation with other regions, and everyone has benefited from such cooperation[ I’d say that many factory workers in Europe or the States who lost their jobs because their employers have moved factories to Asia haven’t benefited that much from this trend ] . Asia should welcome non-Asian countries to play a constructive role in ensuring stability and development of the region. Likewise, the non-Asian countries should respect Asia’s diversity and its long-standing tradition of cooperation. This will create a dynamic environment in which Asia and other regions enjoy mutually reinforcing progress.

China is an important member of the Asian family and the global family. China cannot develop itself in isolation from the rest of Asia and the world. On their part, the rest of Asia and the world cannot enjoy prosperity and stability without China.

In November last year, the Communist Party of China held its 18th National Congress, which drew the blueprint for China’s development in the years to come. The main goals we set for China are as follows: By 2020, China’s GDP and per capita incomes for urban and rural residents will double the 2010 figures, and the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects will be completed.[ This looks like a tremendously ambitious project that Xi Jinping has in mind for China. We will see if he’s able to realize it. The odds are against him, though. So many internal socio-economic and political problems to be solved… ] By the mid-21st century, China will be turned into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious; and the Chinese dream, namely, the great renewal of the Chinese nation, will be realized. Looking ahead, we are full of confidence in China’s future.

On the other hand, we are aware that China remains the world’s largest developing country, and it faces many difficulties and challenges on its road to progress. We need to make relentless efforts in the years ahead to deliver a better life to all our people. We are unwaveringly committed to reform and opening up, and we will concentrate on the major task of shifting the growth model, focus on running our own affairs well and make continued efforts to boost the socialist modernization drive [ China plays once more its “developing country” card, which it has been also using on other occasions, always in a instrumental way: for example to present its relationship with other African and Asian countries as of the South-south kind or to justify its bad conduct in environmental matters ].

As a Chinese saying goes, neighbors wish each other well, just as loved ones do to each other. China will continue to promote friendship and partnership with its neighbors, consolidate friendly ties and deepen mutually beneficial cooperation with them and ensure that its development will bring even greater benefits to its neighbors.

China will vigorously promote development and prosperity in both Asia and the world. Since the beginning of the new century, China’s trade with its neighbors has grown from 100 billion U.S. dollars and more to 1.3 trillion U.S. dollars. China has become the largest trading partner, the biggest export market and a major source of investment of many of these countries. China’s interests have never been so closely connected with those of the rest of Asia and the world in both scope and depth. Going forward, China will maintain robust growth momentum. Its domestic demand, particularly consumption-driven demand, will continue to grow, and its outbound investment will increase substantially. It is projected that in the coming five years, China’s import will reach some 10 trillion U.S. dollars, its outbound investment will reach 500 billion U.S. dollars and the number of its outbound tourists may well exceed 400 million. [ Economy, economy, economy ] The more China grows itself, the more development opportunities it will create for the rest of Asia and the world.

We are firm in our resolve to uphold peace and stability in Asia and the world. Knowing too well the agonizing sufferings inflicted by war and turbulence, the Chinese people deeply cherish peace. China will continue to develop itself by securing a peaceful international environment and, at the same time, uphold and promote world peace through its own development. China will continue to properly handle differences and frictions with relevant countries. On the basis of firmly upholding its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, China will maintain good relations with its neighbors and overall peace and stability in our region [ Another non-sense if we consider the East and South China Seas disputes which are incredibly complicated by PRC’s susceptibility and inflexibility in sovereignty and territorial integrity ] . China will continue to play a constructive role in addressing regional and global hotspot issues, encourage dialogue and talks for peace, and work tirelessly to solve the relevant issues properly through dialogue and negotiations.

We will energetically promote regional cooperation in Asia and around the world. China will increase connectivity with its neighbors, actively explore the building of a regional financing platform, advance economic integration within the region and thus increase its competitiveness. China will take an active part in Asia’s regional cooperation process and promote regional and sub-regional cooperation with non-Asian regions and countries. China will continue to champion and promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, step up bilateral investment with other countries and boost cooperation in new priority areas. China firmly supports Asia’s opening up to and cooperation with other regions so as to promote their common development. China is committed to narrowing the North-South gap and supports other developing countries in their efforts to enhance capacity for self development.

Promoting good neighborliness is a time-honored tradition of China. To enhance peaceful development and win-win cooperation in Asia and the world is a race that has one starting point after another and knows no finishing line [ Considered the amount of money China aims to invest in several Southeast Asian countries (Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia) and the competition it is facing with the US for investments in Myanmar, such a statement is addressed mainly to Southeast Asian nations ]. We in China are ready to join hands with friends from across the world in a concerted effort to create a bright future for both Asia and the world and bring benefit to the Asian people and the people around the world.

In conclusion, I wish the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2013 every success!

(The text of the speech is from People’s Daily Online – Link: http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90785/8198366.html)

Another Cold War?

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Photo Credits: Earth & Industry

Someone has already used the Chinese expression “Same bed, different dreams” to describe the relationship between PRC and U.S. In my personal interpretation of it, the bed they lie upon is made of economic interests and the dreams they dream are about politics. The economies of the two countries have increasingly become intertwined and interdependent in the last 20 years and, even though now we are witnessing a substantial slowing down of this trend, the trajectory is pretty much the same: U.S. needs Chinese goods to keep its economy going and China needs U.S. cash flows to sustain its financial system. On the other hand, in politics, strong, almost irreconcilable differences have marked the relationship between the two countries. The casual confrontations about human rights, democracy, freedom of speech, interference/non-interference etc… are all different expressions of one core difference which has to do with how China and the U.S. conceive themselves and their role in the world order, their self-representations. This interpretation, already suggested by Lyle Morris in his article “Incompatible Partners”, is far more worrisome because it portrays the differences between the two countries as deriving from their forma mentis, hence presenting the problems in their relationship as pathological.

Thanks to the role inherited from WWII and reinvigorated with the end of the Cold War, America feels it has the right to intervene wherever in the world democracy or liberalism seem to be threatened: it has decided to undertake war in Afghanistan for these ideals, it has intervened via the UN to bring “peace” and “democracy” in far-away places like Cambodia, East Timor and the Balkans, it is now getting closer to China by increasing its military presence in Asia-Pacific where, according to its view, the political stability and commercial routes are at stake.

On the other hand, China has a diametrically opposite stance. During the Century of Humiliation, ended less than 70 years ago, it has learned on itself how it feels like for a nation to lose its sovereignty to foreigners. That wound still hurts. Hence, Beijing’s susceptibility and inflexibility on disputes like Taiwan, South China Sea or East China Sea, which to us look like fanaticism or exaggerated nationalism, from a Chinese perspective perfectly falls within PRC’s rights. Through its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, China has set sovereignty and non-interference as core values for its foreign policy and even as a model for international relations by and large, something known as the “Beijing Consensus”.

So, we have the two most powerful countries of the next century with contrasting world views: one democratic and self-elected as the guarantor of World’s peace and order, the other authoritarian and non-interventionist. Two different world orders, one American and the other non-American, are confronted. Can we talk about a new Cold War?

Just consider the following facts:

  • The recent China – U.S. cyberwar and cyber espionage debate. (One worth-reading article about it is Mandiant’s “Exposing one of China’s Cyber Espionage Units”)
  • U.S. and China’s competition for winning influence in Myanmar, which is now apparently favouring U.S.
  • Xi Jinping’s trip to Russia (his first official visit). When talking about the “Clash of Civilizations”, Huntington referred to Russia as a borderline civilization, which could be drawn into the European or the Asian sphere of influence. In last years, Moscow has shown a clear propensity towards Europe, but this doesn’t mean that it could change in the future, especially if we consider European Union’s internal (economic) crisis. Beijing, by gaining the Kremlin’s trust, would gain a lot of leverage in central Asia, too.
  • The next visit on Xi Jinping’s agenda: Africa. It is there that the “Beijing Consensus” has exercised its deepest influence.
  • Two different trade agreements which are in the process of being formed in the Asia-Pacific region. One, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would include China and not the U.S. ; the other, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) would include U.S. and not China. Several reassurances have come from both sides, saying that joining one organization won’t compromise the membership to the other (ASEAN secretary Le Luong Minh even said he sees the two as mutually reinforcing) but there’s still a lot of open questions to be sure of that.
  • U.S. has just signed an agreement with South Korea in which it promises a major involvement in case of attacks by DPRK. A move that Beijing will probably feel uneasy to cope with, especially if seen in relation to American increased presence in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.

We can therefore see some features of a Cold War already outlined: PRC and the U.S. seem to be struggling to gain their sphere of influence and a silent battle, made on the internet rather than on the field, is being fought.

To be fair, a lot of things are different now from the cold war situation between U.S. and U.S.S.R. Even though the differences explained above between China and the U.S. are in a way ideological, the era of a world divided by great ideologies is over. The world now is too globalised and interconnected to be divided into closed ideological blocks. Ideas circulate more freely and rapidly, for those who care enough to look for them. There are now a plethora of actors (academic institutions, think tanks, NGOs…) which encourage exchange and debate between Western and Chinese counterparts about their pressing issues, thus acting like a bridge that wasn’t there before.

I am not an alarmist or a catastrophist myself: I tend to reject such theories like “The China Threat” and I do not entirely believe ideas like “China Grand Strategy” or the “Beijing Consensus”, especially when they are used to create and foster barriers of suspicion and diffidence. Nevertheless, one  common practice (and, to be honest, one of the most fun) in the field of political analysis consists in searching for analogies and comparisons. Considered all the facts listed above regarding the current Sino-American relationship it is impossible not to think about what was going on between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (and the rest of the world with them) until 24 years ago.

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Photo Credits: Kearny Alliance

“Does China Have a Foreign Policy?”

Some days ago this article by Zheng Wang was published on the NYT website. It asks the question “Does China Have a Foreign Policy?”. The answer of the author leans towards a no rather than a yes. In a nutshell, the argument of Zheng is that Chinese leadership largely underestimates the importance of Foreign Policy and demonstrates to be rather underprepared about it.

I agree with the conclusion that the chinese scholar draws but not at all with his argument. Chinese Foreign Policy still has a long way to go to keep up with the rest of the world, especially considered the importance the PRC is increasingly acquiring internationally, however I’m not so sure that, as Zheng suggests, the reason for the underdevelopment in China’s international relations is to be found in a lack of understanding and confidence in it by Beijing’s decision-making apparatus. Chinese bureaucrats could be a little Sinocentric but they’re not ignorant or stupid. They know how important the relations with the outside world are. If we look at China’s recent history, they have several times demonstrated to be rather shrewd and savvy in managing PRC foreign relations: just think about the juggling with pushes coming from US and soviet blocks during Cold War, or Deng’s “hide our capacities and bide our time” policy, which has acted as a steady political ground for China’s economy to rise. Besides, nowadays, Chinese nomenklatura is more cosmopolitan than ever: they study in the West (a quick look into any American or European university is enough to confirm that), they casually travel and work around the globe. Chinese people are increasingly aware of how things work economically and politically outside of China, whatever their opinion about them might be.

To me, the problem of PRC’s recent foreign policy lies in the decision-making system rather than in decision makers. The old times when Mao and Deng despotically decided on the policies to adopt are over. The system has in the meantime modernized, becoming more sophisticated and thus complicated. More agencies within the government have a say in the decisions that are made. In the field of Foreign Policy there are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Politburo Standing Committee and the People’s Liberation Army. Despite the non-transparent nature of the dynamics between these institutions in the decision making process (which is another problem altogether, hindering a proper understanding of China’s foreign policy), we do know that there is a high degree of corruption, factionalism and competition between and within these agencies. An apt example of such a situation regards one of the most salient foreign policy issues for China nowadays: South China Sea. In an excellent report published in April 2012 (“Stirring Up the South China Sea”, downloadable online) International Crisis Group has showed how the disorganization and competition between different government agencies directly or indirectly involved in foreign-policy-making have affected PRC’s attitude in the issue, often making it contradictory and inconsequential.

Just like the new leadership has promised some reforms in domestic politics, making some part of the system more simple and transparent, it wouldn’t be bad (and, to me, it won’t be unlikely) to see something like that in the field of international politics as well. One good point to start from would be a containment of the power and prestige that the PLA now enjoys in China’s foreign policy. Zheng Wang makes a good point when he talks about the detrimental effects of hardcore nationalism on PRC’s foreign relations. Well, more often than not nationalistic (and sometimes offensive) statements about international issues like South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan and the relationship with US, come from PLA officials.

Finally, I concur with Mr Zheng that the last leadership turnover have seen a lack of foreign affairs experts in the highest governmental ranks, nevertheless I wouldn’t say that this automatically jeopardizes Beijing’s foreign policy. People like Wang Qishan (now in the Politburo Standing Committee, who has in the past worked extensively with Western institutions), the new ambassador in the US Cui Tiankai (international studies alumni of Johns Hopkins university, an institutions which has been bridging PRC and US politics for years), the new Foreign minister Wang Yi (who has until recently worked in the difficult position of Minister in the Taiwan Affairs Office)… are not to be underestimated.