Isn't this the era of the "Rise of the Rest," isn't the unipolar moment over yet again? Isn't China already a global leader, pushing for what it wants internationally? Alas, despite all the predictions about the new international politics, the world is waiting to see what Washington will do. When it comes to the biggest issue of the day -- the revolt of Middle East publics against their leaders -- China has nothing to say. To the contrary: Rather than show any leadership at all, China has run home and hidden under a very large stone (or behind a Great Wall and Firewall).
The expectation that a Chinese regime scared of its own shadow would ever take a leadership position on a matter of high diplomacy -- especially regarding political transitions -- was always far-fetched. Beijing is terrified of its own upcoming authoritarian transition in 2012. True, China's successions have gone off relatively smoothly in the past, but that does not mean future successions, cloaked in secrecy, will be trouble-free. So much can go wrong: a last minute challenge, a call by reformers for more openness in succession decisions, and so on. Even one mistake by China's leaders can set off leadership splits and spark protests that would make Egypt's transition appear relatively manageable.
As in the Middle East, if (when?) there is a leadership crisis in China, Washington will look back on the last thirty years and wish it had done more to push for evolutionary changes in China - among these, the creation of a real civil society independent of the Party and outreach to groups in China outside the Party. If China were to face an internal crisis, Washington would not have a clue with whom to speak.
The unrest in the Middle East reveals, then, two important facts about China. First, talk of its impending global leadership is greatly exaggerated. Second, we should adequately prepare for China's day of reckoning as well. A tired United States may wish someone else would help manage the global order; wishing is not going to make it happen.
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After campaigning on the untenable promise that he would meet with leaders like Kim Jong Il without preconditions, President Obama has actually approached North Korea with a firmness that sometimes eluded the Bush administration in its last year. The Obama administration has strengthened trilateral security coordination with Japan and South Korea; implemented tough U.N. Security Council sanctions against the North after its nuclear tests; and rebuffed Chinese pressure for emergency six-party talks in the wake of Pyongyang's unprovoked attacks on South Korea. Given the North's escalating provocations and nuclear cheating and Beijing's dangerous complacency, this is the only strategy that has a prospect of deterring further belligerency and reversing the incentives the North sees in proliferation on the peninsula and beyond.
This past week, however, senior Japanese and South Korean officials are reporting that the administration has begun signaling to them that the United States is ready to "shift back to dialogue" with the North. The Blue House in Seoul now feels under pressure to accelerate its own resumption of North-South dialogue so that U.S.-DPRK talks can get under way (since the administration has rightly stated that it would not get ahead of its ally South Korea's own diplomacy toward Pyongyang). In Tokyo there is an eerie sense of déjà vu at yet another potential swing in the pendulum of U.S. North Korea policy. Both Tokyo and Seoul want some dialogue with the North, and the administration deserves credit for how closely it has coordinated strategy with both capitals. But since the Hu Jintao visit to Washington, the dynamic seems to have shifted from U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral pressure on China to rein in the North to a new pattern of U.S.-China pressure on Seoul to pick up the pace of engagement (that, at least, is how one senior ROK official put it to me). Given our inconsistent history on North Korea to date, one can understand why our allies would be a bit nervous about where all this might go.
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Next week Chinese President Hu Jintao will travel to the United States for his eighth meeting with President Obama, his first state visit with an U.S. president, and his valedictory call on the American people before he retires as part of the Chinese leadership transition in 2012. There will be no breakthroughs, transformations, or stirring visions for the future of U.S.-China relations, but the trip is badly needed in terms of relationship management. It will also serve as a good opportunity for a stock-taking of U.S.-China relations.
The Good News
1. Obama Gets It
The Obama administration came into office intending to continue the broad Bush policy of engaging China based on strong alliance relationships in Asia, particularly with Japan. The Obama team hoped to build on that basic approach by establishing a more enduring formula for mutual strategic reassurance with Beijing. To set the right tone early on, the White House delayed sensitive arms sales to Taiwan and a meeting with the Dalai Lama in advance of the president's first trip to China in November 2009 and then sought language in a joint statement in Beijing that would signal U.S. understanding of China's "core interests" with respect to Tibet, Taiwan, and other issues. Set against the backdrop of the financial crisis and increasing confidence in China, these gestures backfired and the administration soon found itself responding to a series of assertive Chinese moves at the Copenhagen climate summit, in the South China Sea, on the Korean peninsula, and in the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute over the Senkaku or Diaoyutai Islands. To its credit, the Obama administration adjusted and spent much of 2010 reminding Beijing of the depths of U.S. strategic power and influence in Asia, as countries from India to Vietnam and Japan sought closer security ties with Washington to re-establish a stable strategic equilibrium vis-à-vis Beijing. The top national security team -- Donilon, Gates, and Clinton -- have now replaced the administration's earlier dreamy visions of transformational U.S.-China cooperation on global issues with a much more hardheaded appreciation of the underlying power realities of dealing with Beijing.
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President Obama had a good year in Asia in 2010. It featured a more realistic China policy, a breakthrough visit to India, the shelving of an irritating base dispute with Japan, a surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan that is creating results, intensification of a successful drone campaign against terrorists in Pakistan, and closer cooperation with key Southeast Asian nations. But challenges loom: China's growing assertiveness, mercantilistic trade policy, and development of anti-access capabilities that erode U.S. deterrence commitments in Asia; North Korean belligerence; Burmese repression and proliferation; and the continuing weakness of the Afghan and Pakistani states. How can President Obama counteract these trends in the new year while building on previous successes?
1.Implement a long-range strategy to sustain U.S. primacy in Asia in the face of China's challenge.
This means diversifying U.S. military-access and basing rights beyond Japan and Korea, deepening missile defense collaboration with these and other countries (including Taiwan), building up naval power in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and investing in next-generation technologies to counteract asymmetric Chinese weapons systems. With sustained commitment and smart investments, the United States is well-positioned to sustain its military edge in Asia, in part because nearly all regional powers find it reassuring and want to enable rather than constrain it. The harder work may be at home: decisively investing in the domestic reforms that liberate the United States to shape a new century, rather than wallowing in growing indebtedness and domestic discord.
2. Invest in the rise of key countervailing Asian powers that can contribute public goods of stability and security.
This includes prodding Japan, with its enormous but latent military and technological capabilities, to act on its new defense guidelines to become a "normal country" that is a net security provider in Asia; investing further in India's ascent to the top tier of global powers and partners; and working with Indonesia and Vietnam to develop the means to contribute to regional stability while maintaining their independence vis-à-vis their giant neighbor. It also means incorporating Russia into the Asian strategic equation in ways that reinforce common interests in sustaining the balance of power.
3. Unite the democracies.
Concern about China is accelerating the development of an array of minilateral groupings among regional democracies. These include U.S.-Japan-Australia, U.S.-Japan-Korea, and U.S.-Japan-India trilaterals as well as new security pacts between Japan and India, Japan and Australia, Australia and India, and India and South Korea. In the meantime, all these countries are working to forge closer strategic ties with Indonesia, a next-generation BRIC. An infrastructure of democratic security cooperation could help deter proliferation from problem states like North Korea and Burma, incentivize China's peaceful rise, and secure increasingly contested maritime commons.
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The Obama administration had a relatively good year in Asia (relative, that is, to its disastrous first year), but it still must follow up and break bad habits, as my colleague and former State Department official Randy Schriver likes to say. They stood up to China's bullying in the South China Sea, declaring that freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disputes are American "core interests." They finally signed the most significant free trade agreement since NAFTA, with South Korea. When President Obama went to India he removed barriers to high-technology exports and pressed for more business-to-business ties. In Indonesia, he signed a number of agreements that should help both trade and defense relations. The administration accepted an invitation to the East Asia Summit, which is very important to Southeast Asians and will make it easier to forge lasting bonds in the region.
Now for the critique. The administration seems ready to go wobbly on North Korea, and in the process China. It has shifted from supporting whatever tough measures President Lee Myung-bak wanted to take to nudging him back to the failed six-party talks and congratulating China for its diplomacy in getting North Korea to signal agreement to talk. This is the worst of the bad habits in Asia we must break. The North did not just test a missile this time; they twice killed South Koreans in cold blood last year. No president can allow his people to be killed without responding. We seem not to understand that. The first task for the U.S. and South Korea is to re-establish deterrence, which could well mean proportionate retaliation against the North.
Instead, we are falling back on the same old failed patterns. The North commits an act of aggression and eventually China urges their ally back to the table. Washington then falls over itself complimenting China for its diplomatic skill. This will not get the North to denuclearize or stop its aggression. And it is dangerous. North Korea can continue to commit acts of war with impunity while China simply looks the other way. It will only lead to more attacks on South Korea and is more likely to lead to conflict -- South Korea will eventually have to strike back. Instead, we should thank China very much for its efforts, cut Beijing out of any future talks we wish to have with North Korea, re-establish deterrence, and implement a number of coercive measures against the North to rebuild our negotiating leverage. Not only would direct talks backed up by coercion put us in a more powerful position with North Korea, if carefully orchestrated with our allies, but China might fear being excluded from future arrangements on the peninsula and pressure its friends in Pyongyang to abide by international rules.
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Congratulations to President Obama and his team for successfully concluding negotiations on the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement (KORUS) on Friday. Republicans should applaud and support the president when he pursues such a market-friendly policy. So should Democrats, of course, but the early indications are that the agreement will face critics on the left. More on that anon. Herewith eight questions and answers about what just happened.
1) What changed in the agreement?
The original KORUS was signed in the summer of 2007, more than three years ago. Up until late last week, Obama and other critics had derided that accord as unsatisfactory. So what changed?
The headline revisions were in the auto sector. Ford, in particular, was upset about the obstacles it faced trying to sell into the Korean market while Korean producers like Hyundai enjoyed lucrative access to the U.S. market. In the revised agreement, Korea promises changes to emissions and safety restrictions that Ford argued were discriminatory. Tariff schedules were also reworked to slow market access for car producers on each side (i.e., less rapid liberalization).
Korea, in turn, will phase out its tariffs on U.S. pork exports more slowly than previously planned, will get more favorable visa treatment for workers coming to the United States, and will slow down changes to its patent system that U.S. pharmaceutical makers wanted.
2) Is it better than the first version of KORUS in 2007?
One agreement is indisputably better than another if it makes some groups better off and leaves no one worse off (that's "Pareto efficiency" for those who enjoy slinging econ jargon). This revision is not that. Ford is happier while pickup buyers and pork exporters are not. Weighing one group's interests against another's is a political calculation. The answer depends on who your friends are.
3) Was it
worth the wait?
No. The bulk of the benefits of this agreement could have been had years ago and U.S. trade policy has been held hostage ever since.
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to the New
York Times, the Obama administration is resisting Beijing's call to respond
to the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula by launching another round of the six-party
talks. The administration is wise to resist the temptation to put the
short-term desire to respond to heightened tensions ahead of the long-term need
to resolve the North Korean problem once and for all.
As Mike Green explained, this is a temptation to which previous Administrations, including the Bush administration, fell prey. When all of the options look bad, sitting down and talking with North Korea can seem, on the surface at least, to be a least-bad way of "doing something." But it has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work this time.
The theory behind the six-party talks was plausible, and many people (including myself) endorsed the approach as a way of breaking a regional impasse that derived from several structural conditions.
The six-party talks were a plausible way to change these conditions. The idea
was to give China an equity stake in the success of the non-proliferation
effort. As host and co-leader, failure of the six-party talks would become
China's failure. North Korea's belligerence would, of necessity, be directed at
all of the six-party members, including China. Few people thought the six-party
talks would by themselves yield a diplomatic solution. More people, myself
included, thought that the collapse of the six-party talks, if demonstrably
North Korea's fault and demonstrably China's problem, might adjust the
incentives sufficiently to elicit more responsible Chinese leadership on the
That theory was tested and found wanting. As expected, North Korea repeatedly demonstrated bad faith. Yet the hoped-for response from China never materialized. Instead of ratcheting up pressure on North Korea, China has responded to North Korean belligerence with successive rounds of concessions and cover-ups. The situation rather resembles a weak parent seeking to excuse the public misbehavior of a spoiled child.
The Obama administration is wise not to rush in to rescue China from this latest embarrassment, and it is wise not to make other concessions that China is demanding -- for instance, restricting U.S. naval activity in the Yellow Sea. Instead, the United States should take visible steps to deepen cooperation with our regional treaty allies. And we should insist that China take similarly responsible steps to reign in North Korea.
The six-party talks only make sense if China is willing to shoulder its regional security responsibilities. Until that is demonstrated, there is not much to talk about.
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The pattern is sickeningly familiar. North Korea reveals (or is caught with) a previously unknown nuclear weapons program (except that the intelligence community had warned it was there all along). The United States and its allies vow that this will only lead to further "isolation" of the North (next the comfy pillow). North Korea pledges to bring all out war to the peninsula and engages in dangerous military escalation. The North then invites some well-meaning Americans to Pyongyang to profess their sincere interest in de-nuclearlizing the Korean peninsula, if only the United States would abandon its "hostile policy." Beijing calls for restraint on all sides and an immediate return to talks. The administration is skeptical, but seeing no other path agrees to return to the talks. An agreement is finally hammered out where the North freezes the least interesting part of its fissile material production (temporarily, of course) in exchange for sanctions relief, heavy fuel oil, aid or other concessions. The North waits, cheats on the agreement, creates another crisis, and continues marching towards its goal of marrying nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles and winning acceptance as a full nuclear weapons state.
....repeat as necessary.
And repeat North Korea has. With the North-South denuclearization accord in 1991 (violated); the Agreed Framework in 1994 (violated); the DPRK-Japan Pyongyang Declaration in 2002 (violated); the 2005 Six Party Joint Statement (violated) and the 2007 and 2008 Six Party agreements (violated).
But this time, according to former President Jimmy Carter in the November 24 Washington Post, North Korea really is interested in an agreement for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
Anyway, back to what is really happening. And that is this. Kim Jong Un, the 27-year-old third son of Kim Jong Il (recently promoted to Four Star General) needs to demonstrate that he is willing to go all the way to war (in the worlds of the DPRK's Japanese language website). When Kim Jong Il had his coming out party in the 1980s, he demonstrated his bona fides by directing operations to blow-up the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon and plant a bomb in a Korean Airlines Flight, killing everyone aboard.
That is the first goal. The second goal is to knock the United States and its allies off guard after revealing to former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Sigfried Hecker that the North had built an advanced uranium enrichment facility in violation of all its prior agreements. Sanctions and pressure? Only if you are prepared to be met with massive firepower. That is the message to the outside world.
This round of the North Korean game is more dangerous though, for two reasons. First, Kim Jong Un is on much shakier ground than Kim Jong Il was three decades ago. The fabric of North Korean society and the legitimacy of the regime are much more fragile. It is not clear whether the younger "Great General" or the aging "Dear Leader" will be able to pull back from escalation as easily as they have in the past.
The second reason this is more dangerous is because uranium enrichment opens a new production line of potentially a bomb a year to the North. This is particularly threatening when one considers North Korea's support for Syria's El Kibar reactor construction, which Israel bombed in 2007, and Pyongyang's dialogue with Burma about a similar capability. It is also worrisome since the centrifuge facility shown to Hecker may only be one part of the North Korean uranium enrichment (and probably highly enriched uranium) capability.
The Obama administration's opening response has been smart. They have not fueled the sense of crisis in a way that would give Pyongyang more leverage, but they have shown resolve by deploying the USS George Washington to the coast of the peninsula. Now comes the hard part: changing Beijing's calculus so that China deters the North from further escalation (at a minimum) and perhaps brings enough pressure to bear to change North Korea's calculus about its nuclear weapons program (much harder). Beijing's opening response- an expression of sympathy and a call for restraint on all sides and immediate resumption of the Six Party Talks--is not promising. If we are going to dissuade North Korea from repeating business as usual, we will first have to find ways to convince Beijing that the United States is no longer going to respond as usual. That means visibly enhanced defense cooperation with Japan and Korea, a refusal to return to the Six Party Talks without North Korean moves to return to the status quo ante, and enhanced interdiction operations against North Korea based on existing UNSC resolutions. That will be uncomfortable for an already heavily laden U.S.-China bilateral agenda, but so be it.
Further to Will Tobey's excellent post below, the last thing that the Obama administration wanted to deal with during Thanksgiving week is another crisis with North Korea. The administration's policy thus far of "strategic patience" has rightly avoided the past traps of rewarding the DPRK's bad behavior and broken agreements with further concessions. But the Kim regime's latest round of belligerence -- including artillery attacks on civilian populations in South Korea and ominous advances in its uranium enrichment program -- show the limits of strategic patience alone in the face of an adversary willing to escalate its provocations to dangerous levels that cannot be ignored.
In the short term there are no good options on the table, only a difficult set of choices as the White House seeks to avert war on the Korean peninsula while dissuading the DPRK from further aggression and reassuring U.S. allies in the region, especially South Korea and Japan. The announcement of joint military exercises with the South Koreans is a good start, but more will need to be done. Just what that "more" entails is the hard part. As my former NSC colleague and Korea expert Victor Cha said in the Washington Post yesterday, "in many ways this is our worst nightmare… the administration has really got its work cut out for it."
Will Tobey is correct that beyond the tactical challenges of this current flare-up, the administration should develop a long-term North Korea strategy that includes seeking the end of the Kim dynasty dictatorship. Such a strategy will entail many components. One pillar it needs to include, especially for a peaceful change in North Korea, is human rights promotion. In the midst of the current policy stalemate, a pivot by the U.S. towards a renewed focus on the plight of the North Korean people and the illegitimacy of the Kim regime could provide a strategic game-changer.
The regime's greatest vulnerability is its appalling barbarity and decades-long torment of its own citizens. It also represents an area of potentially overwhelming international consensus. With the unfortunate exception of the cynical Chinese government, virtually no global power supports North Korea's mistreatment of its people.
What might be done? There are many possible steps; here are just a few:
Finally, don't expect help from China. Beijing ostensibly shares an interest with the U.S. in curtailing the nuclear adventurism of its most problematic client state, and has on occasion (though not consistently) been helpful in restraining Pyongyang. But when it comes to the regime itself, China's interests diverge from the United States', at least insofar as Beijing has made the short-sighted calculation to keep propping up the Kim dynasty as a buffer state on its border. The United States should leave the short-sightedness to the Chinese. A more visionary long-term strategy for the United States should include concrete steps to support the North Korean people in ending the tyranny that afflicts them.
President Obama’s failure to conclude the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) is a disaster. It reveals a stunning level of ineptitude and seriously undermines America’s leadership in the global economy. The implications extend far beyond selling Buicks in Busan.
Unlike some of the trade agreements the United States has pursued in the last decade, this one is with an economically significant partner. KORUS could bring billions of dollars of new trade opportunities and the Obama administration had cited it as one part of its National Export Initiative, a plan to double U.S. exports in five years.
But there are really two distinct issues in contemplating the significance of the failed talks: the economic merits and questions of diplomatic competence. The latter is really the story of the day.
The economic merits and demerits have been in full public view since the agreement was originally concluded in the spring of 2007. The agreement offered substantial market opening, but left some questions regarding access to the South Korean market, especially for U.S. autos and beef. Those products face barriers other than simple border tariffs. Such non-tariff barriers are harder to negotiate away, though the KORUS agreement certainly tried. There was substantial political opposition to the agreement within both countries, though the Koreans managed to overcome theirs. Influential voices such as Ford Motor Co. and organized labor in the United States criticized the agreement as inadequate.
The well-established opposition just brings us to the stunning, perhaps unprecedented diplomatic incompetence just displayed by the White House. The concerns and obstacles that impede a new KORUS agreement were fully apparent in June when Obama announced he would have an agreement in time for the Seoul G-20 meetings (now underway). The announcement was remarkable at the time because so much of the U.S. president’s statements on trade have been vague, aspirational, and timeless. This was a promise to have a specific agreement concluded by a specific date.
Reflecting on the health care battle, Obama recently told 60 Minutes, "When you're campaigning, I think you're liberated to say things without thinking about, ‘OK, how am I going to actually practically implement this.'" That may be true, but the rules change once a president takes office. Most White Houses are exceedingly careful about making such public commitments. If the president’s credibility is to be put on the line, there is an absolute imperative to deliver. This is at least as true in international diplomacy as in domestic affairs. The debacle in Seoul is a slap in the face of a critical U.S. ally in a critical region, and it will cast doubt on U.S. trade promises in other negotiations elsewhere. But if an American president loses his credibility, the damage spreads beyond the narrow confines of economic deals and Northeast Asia.
Of course, Obama did not admit defeat. He spoke of the setback as a mere postponement. "We don’t want months to pass before we get this done. We want this to be done in a matter of weeks." If the agreement really is just a few weeks' work away, the administration ought to be deeply embarrassed. After the president made his June commitment, no formal talks were held with the Koreans until the end of September. Even then, the Koreans complained that the U.S. negotiators were not being sufficiently specific in their proposals. If the problems really are just technical ones, the Obama team has played the role of the student who procrastinates on a term paper, counting on the ability to have a really productive all-nighter. Such a work program evokes little sympathy when it doesn’t succeed.
More likely, though, the obstacles are not technical but political. The lineup of advocates and opponents for KORUS poses difficult choices for the White House. Traditionally, governments around the world make such tough trade choices when they are right up against a deadline. But if the deal could not be concluded under the pressure of a high-profile bilateral meeting between presidents in Seoul, is it really plausible that it will be wrapped up because negotiators want to be home for Thanksgiving?
The breakdown could not have come at a worse time. The United States has been working to assert its relevance in Asia. Concerns about protectionist pressures amidst economic troubles raise the stakes in bolstering the global trading system. Beyond economic questions, countries around the world are wondering about the strength of a president who just suffered a major political setback.
Though he may not have foreseen all of the difficulties he would be facing at this juncture, last summer Obama named the time and place of his global credibility test. And he just failed it.
Photo by South Korean Presidential House via Getty Images
China has ever so clumsily drawn attention again to the unpleasant topic of its human rights record. President Barack Obama is traveling to democracies around Asia and making it a point to emphasize that their economic prosperity is in part a result of their democratic systems. A week earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that China will need to reform politically if it is to continue to grow. And yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron prodded (ever so gently) China to respect its citizens' human rights.
These are not the Bush and Blair governments. None of these leaders is a crusader for democracy. Quite the contrary, Secretary Clinton began her China policy by downplaying China's human rights abuses. And President Obama came into office thinking that he had to apologize for Bush's attempts to promote democracy. Rather, what is clear to all of these leaders is that there is a strong connection between China's external behavior -- increasingly aggressive -- and its internal repression, in some ways worsening. In fact, this proposition is controversial now only among some political scientists. It is noteworthy that contrary to what so-called realists would predict, as the administration (and the world in general) grows more hard-headed about China, its human rights abuses are receiving more attention.
Indeed, China is making its human rights abuses more of an issue in international affairs. This is partly because China is a victim of its own success -- the media pays more attention to it as it grows in stature. In turn, China is no longer content with simply jailing activists such as Liu Xiaobo, a common practice in the PRC. It now internationalizes its human rights abuses: it has bullied the Britain, Japan, and South Korea, among others, not to attend Liu's Nobel peace prize ceremony and it has downgraded relations with Norway, the committee's host country.
The comments of British and U.S. leaders certainly provide succor to China's many reformers. And the West (by which I mean liberal democracies) must stand up for the rights it holds dear. But ultimately, political leaders will not convince the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to change based on "its own self interest." (This line of reasoning is not unique to Clinton or Cameron. Former President George W. Bush also used it to try and convince Hu Jintao that democracy was in his interest.) The CCP knows very well what its interests are, and democracy is not one of them. Indeed, democracy would threaten the vast array of perquisites enjoyed by CCP leaders and their families. Instead, democratic leaders should find ways to engage the many Chinese who embrace liberal values, so that when and if the CCP really does face a ruling crisis, there are Chinese democrats ready to take the helm -- and we know their cell phone numbers.
While U.S. voters were not particularly interested in foreign policy (certainly not Asia policy) during this election, Asia is always interested in U.S. voters. The economic growth of countries such as China and India, and the technological and innovative dynamism of much of the rest of Asia, are significantly impacting the structure of the U.S. economy. Newly elected Republicans have a chance to help the United States continue to benefit from Asia's growing prosperity.
Though the election was not about foreign policy, it is worth noting that former Vice President Dick Cheney's early 2009 critique of Obama's counter-terrorism policies first exposed the chinks in the administration's armor, demonstrating signs of life for a Republican Party declared dead and providing moral support to others in his party who soon voiced their own powerful critiques. Still, this election was about economics and the size and structure of government, not foreign policy. So, I am about to practice economics and politics without a license.
While voters still do not seem to trust the GOP, the party can regain their trust by reclaiming the mantle of economic leadership. Newly-elected Republicans can insist upon free market, pro-free trade policies that can push the president to create a friendlier climate for foreign investment in the United States as well as to ratify a free trade deal with South Korea and pry open other Asian markets for U.S. investment and exports.
By committing to fiscal responsibility, Republicans can provide a more credible case for the global rebalancing that economists agree needs to happen. A collective economic rebalancing, rather than a trade war or legislating punitive tariffs, is the answer to our current economic troubles with China. And a broader commitment to U.S. leadership in trade liberalization throughout Asia will contribute to setting the United States back on the road to economic growth and low unemployment.
But the United States is on the horns of a dilemma in Asia, one that new Republican leaders must resolve. Our huge debt and uncertain fiscal position calls into question our ability to sustain a robust diplomatic and military presence in the region; if fiscal austerity includes cuts to the defense budget, Asians will continue to conclude that we are not going to be present in Asia for the long haul. In the context of Asia policy, then, the key challenge for Republican leaders both in Congress and aspiring to the presidency is to strike the right balance between pursuing long-term measures to restore fiscal health without making short-term cuts on defense spending that create deep regional unease.
The first chance for Republicans to reconcile long and short term goals with respect to Asia is during Obama's trip to the region. They should pledge to work with him if he agrees to ratify the FTA with Korea, hold his feet to the fire if he panders to special interests on the issue of outsourcing to India (or what I like to call trading based on comparative advantage), and pledge to support him if he commits to keeping our alliances strong by making the military investments we need to keep the region stable.
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Within a week of suffering the biggest midterm drubbing in generations, President Barack Obama will depart on a trip to India, Indonesia, Japan and Korea. How the president handles this trip will speak volumes about how he sees his agenda for the next two years and how much of an international president he really is.
The first test will be whether he takes the trip at all. Democratic Party strategists and other influential pundits have already begun questioning why he would go abroad and let Republicans seize the narrative at the most crucial point in his presidency. On CNN, former advisor to President Bill Clinton, David Gergen, warned the White House against making the same mistake Clinton made when he went abroad in the wake of Republican midterm victories in November 1994. Will they cancel? The president has already put off previously scheduled trips to India and Indonesia because of domestic political developments. On the other hand, the White House likes to claim this is the first "Pacific president," because Obama grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii (though other presidents like William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy had plenty of experience in the Pacific as well, of course), and that the United States is "back" in Asia (though commentators across the region are asking when the United States ever left). All of this spin -- the first "Pacific president" and the "we're back in Asia" mantra -- would go flying out the window if the president cancelled his trip. Clinton was right not to cancel his international travel in 1994 -- it would have made the presidency appear even weaker. That would have been disastrous politics and worse geostrategy. So odds are pretty good that the president will go on the trip (fingers crossed).
The next test will be how the president handles ten days of hounding from the press about electoral defeats while he is in Asia. And the press will hound -- no doubt about it. Maybe if North Korea fires artillery across the DMZ during the G-20 summit in Seoul or China attacks the Senkaku Islands while the president is in Japan, the press corps might be distracted from domestic U.S. politics to focus briefly on international events. Or maybe the president will dig deep into his oratorical tool box to help shift the media's focus to U.S. interests in Asia -- the continent projected to contribute 60 percent of global GDP in our lifetime. He will have real occasion to look presidential again if he avoids the trivia of fact sheets and joint statements and presents a vision for international U.S. leadership. The visit to Indonesia -- the world's largest Muslim nation and one that proves Islam and democracy coexist-- could be a moment for articulating a real message about the compatibility of democratic values and Muslim faith. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Yokohama would be the place to remind Americans that over 50 percent of our trade is with this dynamic region, and that the United States can and must compete. The stops in India, Japan and Korea would be the right settings for explaining why investing in our strategic partnerships and alliances will pay dividends in terms of tackling the challenges we face internationally. The president must not re-fight the midterm, appear defensive, or make the narrative about himself (the last of these being the default narrative of the White House on foreign trips thus far). He must ignore what John McCain would call the "ground noise" and talk about the United States and Asia. The press might just listen. The region certainly will.
The third test will be on trade. If there is one area where the White House should be able to work with a more Republican Congress, it is on trade. And if there is one policy area Asia is watching to see if Washington is committed, it's trade. The president has said that he wants the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) ready to present to Congress (again) by the end of the year, but the administration has done no heavy lifting to get to that point (all the action has been aimed at pressing the Koreans to make further compromises). Fair enough -- there were elections coming up, and it may have been unrealistic to expect a Democratic White House to take on its labor union base when turnout was so critical to their electoral strategy. This trip is the time to demonstrate not only the hope that KORUS will be introduced this year, but the intention to do so in partnership with Republicans willing to work for its passage. It would set a tone that Asia would welcome and that Americans desiring more bipartisanship in Washington would be thankful for.
The president's Asia trip should not be seen by the White House as an unfortunate distraction, but instead as a real test of presidential leadership -- one that will help the president and the country if he approaches it the right way.
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The anointment of a new leader of the Chinese Communist Party has usefully re-focused the world's attention on how China might use its growing economic, military and diplomatic power and influence in the coming years, and how its neighbors, and especially the United States, will respond. A lot is riding on China's decision. The regional and even the international order for the coming decades, and perhaps longer, will depend on which pathway it selects.
The Chinese have a talent for developing aphorisms that can apply to any situation, and so I've decided to borrow from that tradition and call my remarks "The Four Hopes, the Five Preferences, and the One Test."
Now, a rising China is nothing new. It has been predicted, and feared, for well over two centuries. In the United States, it has long been a repository of hope for those people who had both the vision to understand China's potential and the arrogance to think that the United States could actually shape China to meet our desires.
During the 20th century, these hopes found expression in three separate areas. In the early part of the century, China was viewed as a vast and lucrative market for American goods. The Harvard historian Ernest May tells us that one of the books on China that was popular at the time was called Four Hundred Million Customers. The thinking was that U.S. factories could be prosperous beyond belief if only each Chinese would buy one ... well, one of anything we produced.
Coexisting with this first hope of unimagined riches from trade with China was a second hope, one more concerned with the next world than this more temporal one. Many Americans saw China as a great opportunity to convert pagans to Christianity. More important than four hundred million consumers, there were four hundred million souls waiting to be saved.
The middle of the 20th century saw a third U.S. hope for China: that it would become a thriving democracy. Henry Luce and his media empire of TIME, Life, and Fortune magazines relentlessly trumpeted to the American people the potential waiting to be unlocked by a China comprised of unfettered markets, religious converts, and especially Jeffersonian democrats.
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How can we make sense of a People's Republic of China that is supposed to be, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, "biding its time and hiding its capabilities," but in fact is picking fights with most of its neighbors, including the United States? The Chinese were supposed to be using their deep reservoirs of "soft power" and practicing a highly skilled diplomacy aimed at assuring all that China is rising peacefully. But over the past year, Beijing has been rather more clumsy than the caricature of Chinese cleverness might suggest. China has in effect declared the entire South China Sea -- a body of water that is of critical importance for its abundance of natural resources and for its position as the maritime connection between the Indian and Pacific Oceans -- to be its territorial water.
Needless to say, this has not gone over well with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations. And, just when it appeared that China would return to a lighter touch in the face of strong U.S. resistance to its South China Sea claims, Beijing bullied and coerced Japan into circumventing its legal processes after a Chinese fishing trawler rammed Japanese ships in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu island chains. In sum, China's exercise of power has been more hard than soft. Beijing seems to be neither "biding its time" nor rising peacefully.
A recent book helps explain how PRC leaders think about the world and what may lead China to engage in the behavior we and our allies find offensive. In The Mind of Empire China's History and Foreign Relations, Christopher Ford makes a persuasive case for hardwired cultural conditioning as an explanation for China's imperious behavior. China possesses, well, the mind of an empire. According to Ford, Chinese history has no precedent for stable coexistence among sovereign equals. Moreover, struggle over primacy within China and later with other states is a fairly continuous characteristic of Chinese history. Here is Ford:
The Chinese tradition has as its primary model of interstate relations a system in which the focus of national policy is in effect a struggle for primacy and legitimate stable order is possible when one power reigns supreme-by direct bureaucratic control of the Sinic geographic core and by at least tributary relationships with all other participants in the world system.
According to Ford, China has an enduring sense of global order. Beijing assumes that the "natural order" of the political world is hierarchical and the idea of truly separate and independent states is illegitimate.
But wait, some might argue, what about China's embrace -- if not sanctification -- of the Western construct of international relations: Non-interference in the affairs of other sovereign states? If China's natural place is atop a Sino-centric hierarchy, and other sovereign states are lesser entities that should pay deference to China, then why use the histrionic defense of Westphalian norms which codifies equal status among states?
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Well, that was awkward. The world's leading economic authorities just gathered in Washington for a weekend session of policy glowering. Heading into the regular fall meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, there was some hope that some constructive, multilateral dialogue could defuse tensions and calm talk of currency wars. It was not to be.
What happened? The United States went into the meetings pushing for multilateral solutions, in particular an enhanced role for the IMF. In a speech at the Brookings Institution last week, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner addressed the issue of global misalignments:
This problem exposes once again the need for an effective multilateral mechanism to encourage economies running current account surpluses to abandon export-oriented policies, let their currencies appreciate, and strengthen domestic demand.
He noted that this was part of the long-standing mission of the IMF, then went on to argue that the world's powers had already agreed to address these issues:
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Over the past decade, Washington's Taiwan policy has created unnecessary dilemmas for Taiwan's political leadership. On the one hand, if a president of Taiwan is considered too provocative toward China, Washington, rightfully irritated over undue tensions, will freeze relations with the democratic island. On the other hand, if a president of Taiwan reconciles with China, Washington's impulse is to neglect relations, confident that the cross Strait "problem" is resolving itself. It's a small wonder why many Taiwanese believe that Washington is unreliable.
President Chen Shui-bian faced the former from Washington. While no one in Taiwan doubted that he would protect Taiwan's de facto independent status and its hard won democracy, or fight for its international dignity, he lost the confidence of Washington and then his own people when relations with both China and the United States soured.
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Anybody who spends time in Singapore, Delhi or Seoul will appreciate how much anxiety China's aggressive new stance on territorial disputes is causing in Asia. Japan is the most recent recipient of Beijing's growing chutzpah. For several years now, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been surging its operations around the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan (the islands are called the Diaoyutai in Chinese). PLAN submarines have circumnavigated Japan and PLAN destroyers have trained their deck guns at unarmed Japanese patrol planes. Over the past few months, Chinese fishing vessels have been swarming around the Senkakus in what Japanese authorities suspect is a coordinated operation. When a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese Coast Guard cutter on September 7, the Japanese ship arrested the Chinese captain on charges of obstructing law enforcement activities. China immediately responded by severing all high level diplomatic interactions with Japan and staging a series of predictable anti-Japanese protests.
The stand-off ended on September 24 when local Japanese prosecutors in Naha (Okinawa) announced that they would return the Chinese captain without pressing charges. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley welcomed Japan's decision, commenting that this is how "mature states resolve these things -- through diplomacy."
The Obama administration deserves credit for sending a strong signal of solidarity with Japan publicly throughout the confrontation with Beijing. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and others came out early and often to restate the U.S. commitment to the alliance with Japan and to reconfirm that U.S. obligations under Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty extend to the security of the Senkaku Islands, since they are administered by Japan. However, the administration should be deeply worried about the way this stand-off ended. Japan may have acted as a "mature state" and used diplomacy in search of a quick resolution, but Beijing unleashed a mercantilist assault on Japan that went far beyond the pale of international norms, including the arrest of four Japanese workers in Northern China on charges of "espionage" and threats to embargo critical rare earth metal exports to Japan (Chinese officials later denied the embargo threat after other advanced industrial economies howled, but markets gave that denial little credence).
In all likelihood, the Japanese government counted on Washington's strong support to provide adequate cover for an exit strategy from the showdown and did not anticipate the seventh hour escalation by China. Now the Japanese media have universally declared the outcome a diplomatic defeat for Japan (even the Communist Party's Akahata newspaper has demanded the government give an explanation). Prime Minister Naoto Kan will probably take a major hit in public support in the next round of public opinion polls. Worse, Beijing has come away from the crisis triumphant over Japan's apparent capitulation in the face of overwhelming countermeasures. China's hyper-nationalistic netizens and PLA officers will now expect the government to continue using blunt economic and military tools to put Japan in its place.
The administration can feel satisfied that it provided effective reassurance to Tokyo during this crisis, but the dissuasion message to Beijing has been inadequate. China's neighbors are looking to the United States for leadership -- this includes now even the ruling Democratic Party of Japan which not too long ago campaigned on the promise to distance its foreign policy from Washington. The administration should take full advantage of this opening by enhancing joint military exercises with allies and like-minded maritime states and by using Asia's normally sleepy multilateral institutions to spotlight regional concerns about China's more aggressive stance on territorial disputes. Secretary Clinton won kudos and diplomatic support across the region when she openly addressed China's push for control over the South China Sea during her appearance at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July. Now it would be useful to find ways to demonstrate U.S. and regional concern about Beijing's disproportionate escalation against Japan in the most recent dispute. This case is not closed. As one influential Indian politician put it to me on Friday, "this time it is Japan, but next time it could be us."
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Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill aimed at addressing China's currency practices. It is scheduled for a vote by the full House sometime this week. In hearings, Committee Chairman Sander Levin (D-MI) stated, "the status quo with currency imbalances is unacceptable and unsustainable." He argued that China's "mercantilist policies" distort trade and slow U.S. economic growth and job creation.
Levin had listed a number of potential policy responses. None of the remedies promise quick or significant relief to America's jobs deficit. A number of them risk serious side effects. The committee settled on one which may be more symbolic than potent. The bill seeks to increase the chances for American businesses to win tariff protection by treating China's currency policy as an illicit subsidy. The bill was watered down significantly so it would not run afoul of global trading rules.
The fundamental problem is a disconnect between U.S. policymakers' sense of what global rules of economic conduct ought to say and what they actually say. Two prominent examples of this disconnect can be found in the rules of the World Trade Organization: An agreement on subsidies and countervailing measures establishes the conditions under which a nation can retaliate against a trading partner's export-encouraging practices; Another specific provision -- Article XV -- says that exchange rate manipulation should not be used to frustrate the intent of the trade agreement.
These provisions form the basis of some of the most prominent U.S. plans for action against China. This week's House bill would let U.S. firms seek tariff protection from Chinese goods "subsidized" by an undervalued exchange rate. A WTO case on Article XV would take China to task for the trade distortions resulting from a misaligned exchange rate.
But the WTO does not allow retaliation against any and all subsidies. It sets some strict conditions on which ones are actionable. According to veteran international trade lawyers, there is serious doubt that a distorted currency would meet those conditions. Nor does Article XV offer much clarity about lines that cannot be crossed. In each case, there is an important gap between the rules as they stand and the rules as envisioned by China's U.S. critics.
With such a disconnect, there are three options. The United States government could pretend global rules read more favorably; it could ignore the rules and strike out, perhaps by imposing a broad unilateral tariff; or it could seek to modify the rules through negotiation. The first approach risks the appearance of flouting international agreements and sparking new trade conflicts. The second approach would leave no doubt about U.S. contempt for global accords and would risk destroying the rules-based multilateral trading system.
The remaining option, then, is to seek new agreement on proper international economic behavior. Fortunately, the groundwork for such an agreement is already in place. The Group of 20 leaders, meeting in Pittsburgh last year, endorsed a framework for "Strong, Sustainable, and Balanced Growth." Earlier this month, John Lipsky of the International Monetary Fund said in a speech that, while there had been substantial "buy-in" to the idea of rebalancing, the plans that had been put forward to date fell short of what was needed.
While discussions of the principles undergirding the global economic system should be inclusive, the implementation problems are really the concern of a small number of large countries. This suggests a new solution. A G-20 Implementation Subgroup, consisting of the United States, Japan, China, and Germany, would be well-positioned to craft a more serious program than we have seen to date. Representatives of the European Central Bank and the IMF could also attend, given those institutions' relevant roles.
This should not be a meeting to talk down the dollar, nor to vent criticisms of China. Rather, the Subgroup would have a mandate to discuss the broad range of macroeconomic policies needed to achieve the kind of global rebalancing that meetings of the full G-20 have already endorsed. This would certainly include ways for China to address its unhealthy global surplus, but it would also include discussion of deficit reduction measures to reduce U.S. borrowing. If the subgroup meeting were held in January, it could take into account the recommendations of the U.S. bipartisan deficit reduction commission.
This approach has the virtue of engaging the key players in a multilateral discussion in a group sufficiently small that it might reach agreement on action. The multilateral approach is preferable to unilateral or bilateral pressure both in that the underlying problem is multilateral and in its avoidance of the kind of national rivalries that can emerge in bilateral discussions.
There are obvious potential pitfalls to such an approach. There could be a complete failure to reach agreement, for example. These are deep-seated problems that run up against serious domestic concerns. Or there could be ill-advised attempts at a quick fix, as some have characterized a previous effort at coordinated action, the 1985 Plaza Accord.
But the other options on the palette are unpalatable. There is a broad sense among U.S. policy folk (and some abroad) that bounds of proper international economic behavior have been crossed. The problem is that those bounds are not spelled out anywhere. This mix of ambiguity and discontent seems like a recipe for serious conflict. A meeting with a pre-set mandate to address imbalances would offer the best opportunity to defuse some of those festering tensions.
The latest round of tension between Japan and China reveals the underlying instability in East Asia. The Chinese are in high dudgeon over Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing captain, whom Japanese officials claim rammed Japanese vessels in disputed waters in the East China Sea. They have apparently shut off exports of rare earth materials (though China denies it) to Japan and threatened greater sanctions unless Japan complies with its demands to release the captain (the Japanese did).
The incident reveals that Beijing is willing to use its increased economic strength as a tool of coercion, no matter the consequences, for its own standing in international markets. But that is not all it reveals. Indeed, this is one in a series of arguments and incidents between China and Japan over the last decade related to sovereignty, territory, rights to natural resources, and China's expanding maritime capabilities in and around Japan.
The key factor in Asia's underlying instability, then, may not be the perception of China's rise relative to the United States' decline. Rather it may be China's rise relative to Japan's decline. The Chinese economy has now overtaken Japan's. China spends more on defense than does Japan. And within Japan as well as the rest of the region, there is a perception that Japan cannot shake its stagnation.
Great power conflicts often begin when a once stronger country believes it is losing its relative position to a rival. This is a more accurate description of Japan's attitude toward China than of the U.S. attitude toward China. In addition to this perceived change in power position is the emotional aspect. These two countries harbor great reservoirs of mutual resentment and hatred, which may not drive their disputes but certainly makes them worse.
For Washington, the lesson is that the era of great power politics is far from over in Asia. Its finite diplomatic energy should be spent on the "high politics" among Asia's great powers -- issues of war and peace (or how to avoid the former and maintain the latter), rather than on the "low politics" of climate change and currency disputes. The diplomatic task with respect to Japan, one that should be carried out at senior and sustained levels, is to help shake Tokyo out of stagnation, and to help Japan become a more coherent and powerful strategic actor. Washington's future in Asia depends upon a rich, strategically active Japan.
The diplomatic task with respect to China, one that should also be carried out at senior and sustained levels, is not to paper over the many disagreements and clashing political objectives that characterize China-U.S. relations. The task at hand is to manage the growing Sino-U.S. security competition -- a competition that increasingly appears to be about two very different visions for Asia -- so that rivalry does not lead to conflict.With its economic coercion in blocking the export of a strategic commodity, mixed with its use of gunboat diplomacy, Beijing is looking, as security expert William O'Neil has said, a bit too much like Imperial Japan.
This post has been updated.
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Over the weekend, the Taipei Times reported that the United States will soon begin operating high-altitude, long-endurance RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) out of Guam. When operational, these drones will monitor Chinese forces opposite the Taiwan Strait. Ultimately, they will replace the U-2 and RC-135 aircraft that conduct reconnaissance in the west Pacific.
The Obama administration deserves credit for such efforts to keep a close eye on Chinese military modernization. Although the term "transformation" has fallen out of favor in Washington, it has not in Beijing. China is deploying a range of capabilities aimed at blunting U.S. military power in Asia, including the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, a large family of precision-guided ballistic missiles, anti-satellite weapons, and cyber warfare capabilities. As Jacqueline Newmyer writes in a thought-provoking article in the latest issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies, Chinese strategists believe that the so-called "revolution in military affairs" offers Beijing a historic opportunity to alter the military balance with the United States. Having concealed its military buildup for years, the Chinese leadership has become increasingly open and bellicose in discussing its ability to inflict damage on U.S. forces.
The deployment of Global Hawks to Guam offers more than just an opportunity to monitor Chinese military deployments; it also holds with it the possibility of new methods to enhancing security and strengthening deterrence in Asia -- something that should appeal to an administration that has favored multilateral approaches. The United States' Asian allies are all concerned about Chinese military modernization, and about U.S. staying power in the face of a rising China. They are also interested in purchasing or developing high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs like the Global Hawk. The door would thus appear to be open for bold action: What if the United States spearheaded a multinational effort to field a constellation of high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs and share the data produced by their sensors to establish a common picture of the west Pacific? With some vision and bold action, U.S. drones could become the core of an Asian allied airborne reconnaissance network. Such a network could increase transparency in the region. Having many eyes watching the region could also represent a powerful deterrent to Chinese aggression, whether across the Taiwan Strait or in the South China Sea.
The deployment of UAVs to Guam is a good move. With a bit of boldness and creativity, it could yield much more.
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What was the administration trying to achieve by sending Larry Summers to Beijing? What message was it trying to convey? And was the intended audience American or Chinese?
Taken at face value, Dr. Summers, as head of the National Economic Council, was there to deliver a message about American economic concerns. Foremost among these has been the stubborn stasis in China's exchange rate against the dollar. If this was the real purpose of his trip, he achieved little; the Chinese did not even pretend to accommodate. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Chinese officials have consistently said that they won't change key economic policies because of foreign pressure, and argued that the exchange rate has little bearing on the U.S. trade imbalance with China. "Our exchange rate reform can't be pressed ahead under external pressure," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular press briefing Tuesday.
If Dr. Summers' mission was to describe mounting political pressure in Washington, it is not clear what he could have said that would have surprised his hosts. The Chinese have certainly already heard of Sen. Schumer (D-NY) and they have undoubtedly read the Ryan-Murphy bill in the House.
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Subtle shifts in the balance of power are difficult to detect yet of foremost importance to peace and stability. And even if detected in a timely fashion, policymakers can be slow to react. But maintaining a balance of power favorable to one's interests is one of a president's key tasks. On that score, our leaders have been negligent for over a decade.
Occasionally, presidents detect shifts in the military balance when it is too late and then compound the problem by responding with questionable policy choices. For example, President Eisenhower's policy of massive retaliation was, in part, a response to what seemed to be a loss of the U.S nuclear monopoly and Soviet conventional supremacy in continental Europe. (Eisenhower also wanted to maintain U.S superiority on the cheap -- by cutting Truman's conventional defense build-up).
A policy of responding with a nuclear attack to Soviet aggression anywhere did not seem very prudent to many at the time, but at least the president took the perceived shift in the balance of power seriously. Some of President Nixon and Carter's questionable arms control ideas were a response to a shift in the strategic balance in favor of the Soviets. Unfortunately, most of the time, policymakers do not react to an adversary's growing capabilities until met with disaster (e.g. Pearl Harbor, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 9/11).
Today the balance of power in Asia is shifting. Since the end of World War II, Washington has kept the peace in Asia through its forward presence of military forces and its uncontested ability to project force into the region. Take an example from just 14 years ago. Realizing how destabilizing were China's missile tests conducted in the waters around Taiwan, President Clinton sent carrier battle groups near the Taiwan Strait. The missile tests stopped, Taiwan held its elections, and conflict was avoided.
Today, any president would think twice about doing the same. Why? China has arguably gained conventional supremacy around its periphery. Without remediation this could become a hard fact. China's growing short-range missile arsenal (maybe up to 1,500) and fleet of modern aircraft could not only be used to destroy much of Taiwan, but could also be used to strike devastating blows against U.S. forces in Japan. Together with its fast-growing submarine fleet, the Chinese missile force will, within the next decade, be able to cause serious harm to U.S. carriers steaming into the region.
Beijing has been focused like a laser beam on how to coerce and intimidate Taiwan while deterring U.S. and Japanese intervention. Washington has not given the same attention to defense. Our shipbuilding program has atrophied, our ability to protect the bases from which our aircraft fly is non-existent, and there is nothing in the current navy or air force programs of record that demonstrate our attentiveness to this problem.
As a country, we have become so accustomed to projecting air and sea power with impunity anywhere in the world that the idea that our aircraft could be shot down or surface ships sunk seems like science fiction. But China has been studying how to undermine the way we do battle for decades, and its efforts are bearing fruit.
A president choosing to respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan would now face a host of bad options, most of which are dangerously escalatory. If U.S. forces or those of an ally were attacked, Washington could eventually bring its superior power to bear from other theaters of conflict, but it would take time, and, as shown both in the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment's AirSea Battle and in RAND's A Question of Balance, would probably require hitting military targets in China itself. Considering China's growing conventional superiority, a president's response to a devastating blow by the Chinese against U.S., Japanese, and Taiwanese assets may, by necessity, be highly escalatory.
The good news is that it is not too late to restore some stability to the equation. The United States is a far richer and more stable nation than China. With marginal adjustments in how we spend our finite tax-payer dollars, we can restore a favorable conventional balance in the Pacific that would lessen Chinese temptations to use force and provide us with more strategically stable defensive options should Beijing succumb to those temptations. We seek a cooperative relationship with China, which makes it difficult to think about the unthinkable -- a conflict with China. But a conflict with the United States is just about all the PLA thinks about, and for the sake of peace we must take them seriously.
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The Washington Post recently reported that China is pushing for a resumption of the Six Party Talks. This means one thing: President Obama's North Korea policy is working. The relationship with China works best when China needs something from us. Consider this: former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld refused to see the Chinese for a year after the PLA rammed our EP3 surveillance aircraft with a fighter jet. The Chinese were begging to see him, and DOD got what it wanted from the relationship. That is the proper way to handle Beijing -- the deft use of leverage.
Now we want China to use its influence to disarm North Korea, join our contingency planning for a political transition in Pyongyang that could get messy, and discuss the eventual unification of the peninsula. The fact that China is practically begging the other Six Party participants to come back to the table means that China is feeling the pain of Obama's policy. The administration has conducted joint exercises with the Republic of Korea, enacted harsh sanctions on Pyongyang, and refused to negotiate with Pyongyang unless it stops its provocations. We are demonstrating to Beijing that if it does not control its North Korean ally, China should be ready for intense U.S. pressure on its periphery. The administration should stick with its approach until Beijing forces Pyongyang to abide by international law and give up its nuclear weapons.
But the Washington Post article closes on a somewhat troubling note: the administration wants some contact with Pyongyang. This is not the time to talk to Pyongyang. Obama should not repeat President Bush's mistake -- as soon as he used U.S. leverage over North Korea and China in the form of biting sanctions, he lifted them only to receive more dangerous provocations in return. Obama should wait until China is clear about its choices: disarm Kim or face unrelenting U.S. pressure.
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There are strange goings-on in Pyongyang these days. First, former President Jimmy Carter arrived in the North Korean capital to secure the release of Aijilon Gomez, an American human rights activist who had been sentenced to seven years hard labor after wandering across the border from China. Then, within 12 hours of Carter’s arrival, North Korea leader Kim Jong Il suddenly shows up in China for his second visit in several months. All these moves are leading to speculation that the United States is about to slide back to the pattern of engagement and concessions that has followed every other confrontation with Pyongyang over the past two decades.
I think the odds are probably against such a replay of history. But then again, the temptation of “parking” the intractable North Korea problem in slow motion talks has proven irresistible to two previous administrations nervous about sustained confrontation with the North. The Loyal Opposition would be doing the Obama team a favor by scrutinizing its next steps for similar wobbliness.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have just completed a very successful trip to Asia. Their foray into Asia stands in stark contrast to the president's own disastrous trip (see Leslie Gelb's critique here), and the inappropriate "we are back" braggadocio displayed by his White House advisers (see Dan Twining). Despite the White House's smack-talk, the President has now cancelled his return to Asia three times, to the great consternation of Asian leaders.
Here is what Clinton and Gates accomplished: They shored up the South Korea alliance, and in so doing, they reassured Japan. Mrs. Clinton deftly forged closer ties with Vietnam while at the same time pushing them to respect human rights. Mr. Gates lifted restrictions on cooperating with the Indonesian military, paving the way for a stronger defense relationship. And both spoke out strongly about the South China Sea, which China has provocatively claimed to be its territorial waters. Here is Clinton on the matter: "The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea."
Clinton and Gates are practicing what one might call a distinctly American realism. The realism is manifest in the return to balancing China's power in the region, something the president said he would avoid as anachronistic. The distinctly American approach is practicing balance of power politics without abandoning our principles. We want and need a better relationship with authoritarian Vietnam. But we need not ignore Hanoi's poor human rights record. On Indonesia, the military undoubtedly committed abuses in the past. But Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a democrat who has done a remarkable job consolidating his country's democratic transition. There are sound strategic reasons to closely engage Indonesia, and Jakarta's president is removing obstacles to a tighter partnership.
There is still much the Obama administration must do. It desperately needs to lead on trade arrangements in the region. Washington cannot continue to let its military investments in air and maritime forces needed for the Pacific recede (a practice begun under Presidents Bush and Clinton). It needs to put far more energy and creativity into the India relationship. It has to find a way to continue engaging Southeast Asia while isolating Burma and halting its drive for weapons of mass destruction. And it needs to find innovative ways to help Taiwan out of its international isolation.
But the Clinton and Gates trip may represent a new Asia policy tack -- one that promises to reverse the President's initial missteps and strengthen our position in the region.
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What happened to China's much vaunted "soft power" and "good neighborly" diplomacy about which we have heard so much in recent years? China's supposed "soft power," always overstated, has passed from the scene in short order.
Over the past few months, the Chinese have not-so-softly declined to invite Secretary of Defense Gates to visit Beijing; called the South China Sea a "core interest" (akin to claiming that the sea is China's territorial water); threatened to retaliate if the United States proceeds with the sale of additional F-16s to Taiwan; and refused to so much as condemn the North Koreans for killing 46 South Koreans sailors in cold blood.
Why are the Chinese coming out swinging now? Two reasons. One is the smell of American weakness, which Obama appears to be correcting. The second is that all is not well within China.
On reason one: As master practitioners of it, the Chinese Communist Party understands and respects power. It was no accident that Sino-American relations were stable, and at times even constructive, while President Bush was balancing China's power by upgrading relations with Japan, selling arms to Taiwan, and developing a strategic partnership with India.
President Obama approached China differently, eschewing balance of power politics and going out of his way to avoid ruffling Beijing's feathers. For example, the U.S. relationship with India was not considered an important part of Asia's balance of power, China's human rights abuses were ignored, and the administration put off selling needed arms to Taiwan or meeting with the Dalai Lama for as long as it could. While Obama saw these moves as strengthening a partnership with Beijing, China jumped at the chance to end what it views as America's irritating practice of meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader and helping Taiwan defend itself.
On top of these misguided policies, Japan was going through its own political turmoil and, through no fault of President Obama's, thus unavailable to help maintain the balance of power.
Predictably, Beijing saw a U.S. government it could push around and wanted more. Now it is going for the jugular, demanding an end to arms sales to Taiwan and declaring the South China Sea a Chinese lake.
China's manifold domestic problems are another cause of China's belligerence. With an upcoming political succession in 2012, featuring party cadres without any ties to the communist revolution vying for leadership roles, the politburo has every reason to worry. Popular unrest is also becoming more political, sophisticated, and organized, as many migrant workers have worked in different places, and seen inequalities and injustices all over the country (see Minxin Pei's recent article in The Diplomat).
It is likely that the People's Liberation Army and China's anti-American nationalists see a ripe time to put pressure on the political system and to "get tough." What one hears from the Chinese is, "we are strong and not going to take it in anymore." The "it" includes arms sales to Taiwan and U.S. military activity in China's periphery.
The Obama administration appears to have gotten the message. They did sell a much needed package of arms to Taiwan. Secretary Gates did not mince words in talking about U.S. and allied interests in the South China Sea and the administration appears to be going forward with joint anti-submarine warfare exercises with the South Koreans despite howls of protests from China.
Washington still has a strong hand to play. China is growing stronger, but, for all of its chest thumping, it pales in strength compared with the United States and its allies in Asia. And none of our Asian allies want a dominant China. Indeed, one of the untold stories in Asia is the region's military modernization. Almost all of our allies are buying advanced tactical aircraft (mostly the F-35), maritime surveillance capabilities, and diesel submarines -- to deal with a rising China. The atmosphere is ripe for us to begin creating an informal network of alliances operating more closely together, particularly since much of what our allies are buying is American equipment. Washington should start to build the institutions today that will allow the allies to train together on their fifth-generation aircraft, patrol the South China Seas, and hunt for submarines. How about announcing the creation of a fifth generation aircraft "center for excellence" in Singapore, where all allies can train?
The point is that there is still a chance to present China with a choice: act like a responsible power or face a great wall of resistance. The good news is that there are many Chinese who want the former.
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After rumors that the Obama administration might back down in the face of Chinese pressure, the Pentagon confirmed on July 14 that the United States and the Republic of Korea would in fact go ahead with joint naval exercises off both coasts of the Korean peninsula in response to North Korea's March 26 sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan. Time will tell, but this could be the moment that Barack Obama finally found his inner realist when it comes to China strategy.
From the beginning, the Obama administration has had a schizophrenic view of China's growing power and influence. On the one hand, realists in the administration continued the prevailing "Armitage-Nye" strategy (named after former Bush administration Deputy Secretary of State Rich Armitage and former Clinton Defense official Joe Nye) of engaging China while maintaining a favorable balance of power in the region through tighter relations with U.S. allies. Consistent with that strategy, Obama made a point of inviting Japanese Premier Taro Aso for the first bilateral summit in the Oval Office and Secretary of State Clinton made Japan her first overseas stop last March.
At the same time, however, other senior members of the Obama administration argued that balance-of-power logic was inimical to the kind of accommodation the United States would have to make towards China in order to deal with new transnational challenges such as climate change. They argued in a formula that undermined the realists' approach that no major international challenge could be resolved without China's cooperation -- a message that was internalized in Beijing as meaning that China had earned a veto on all major international issues from the Obama administration. When Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement last November in Beijing, the two leaders acknowledged each others' "core interests." Since then, the Chinese side has steadily expanded the list of Chinese "core interests" to include U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and suzerainty over the South China Sea while yielding virtually nothing in terms of military transparency, human rights or curbing North Korea's nuclear program.
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The signing by Taiwan and China of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement is a welcome development. The agreement cuts tariffs on 539 Taiwanese products bound for China and 267 Chinese products exported to Taiwan. The cuts on the Taiwan items are valued at $13.84 billion and those from China $2.86 billion.
Economically, Taiwan, the PRC, and the United States will all benefit. Politically, the agreement means a reduction in tension across the Strait, and it provides incentives for Chinese restraint (it is easy to forget that interdependence works both ways -- Taiwan may rely on China for final assembly and low-end manufacturing, but China is dependent upon Taiwan's investment and managerial know-how).
However, Washington should not be lulled into complacency -- the cross Strait problem has not disappeared. With over a thousand missiles pointed at it, Taiwan faces Chinese coercion every day: All of Taipei's negotiations, including those over the ECFA, are conducted with the equivalent of a gun pointed at its head. We should view the ECFA as only the first step in a series of measures that will strengthen Taiwan, stabilize the Strait, and liberalize trade in Asia.
Next up, we should sell Taiwan the additional F-16 aircraft it has requested, which it needs in order to counter China's daunting threat to the island's airspace. An F-16 sale would demonstrate America's abiding commitment to Taiwan's security and strengthen the hand of Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou as he continues to negotiate stability in the Strait. Would Beijing raise a stink? Of course. But it has no leg to stand on. Taiwan already has F-16s and simply needs more to replace the numerous aging aircraft in its fleet. Moreover, it is China that has decided to negotiate and threaten at the same time. In response, Taiwan needs to simultaneously negotiate and deter. Finally, the cost to Washington would be low: Beijing has already thrown its quarterly temper tantrum by cutting off bilateral military talks and prohibiting Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from visiting China.
Beyond arms sales, the United States can help Taiwan become the place to do business in Asia, a move that would benefit both Washington and Taipei. Taiwan has already liberalized its trading relationship with China, its high-end manufacturing and design capabilities are world class, and its businesses succeed in the China market where many others fail. Washington should negotiate a free trade agreement with Taiwan for three reasons. First, an FTA with Taiwan will provide economic benefits to both sides. Second, now that Taiwan has liberalized trade with China, U.S. businesses can use Taiwan as a launching pad to succeed in the China market. Third, other Asian economies will only move forward with their own FTAs with Taiwan -- necessary for both Taiwan's security and its future prosperity -- if Washington provides political cover.
With some help from Washington, Taiwan could make itself into the region's business hub. If Taiwan becomes Asia's economic nerve center, its security will improve immeasurably.
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From an otherwise tepid weekend of international economic summitry, the most striking development was the Obama administration's declaration that it intends to move forward with the Korea free trade agreement (FTA). President Obama announced that he wanted renegotiations completed by his visit to Seoul in November and that he would submit the agreement to Congress shortly thereafter.
Amidst faltering progress on global trade talks and discord over stimulus and deficit reduction at the global talks in Canada, it would be easy to miss the import of the Korea announcement. The Korea-United States (KORUS) FTA was completed in 2007 but President Bush could not persuade the Democratic-controlled Congress to put it to a vote. The Koreans passed the agreement long since, but it has lingered in U.S. legislative limbo under the Obama administration. The Obama team had characterized KORUS as unsatisfactory, citing shortcomings in barriers to auto trade and beef, but had been unwilling to present the Koreans with a list of necessary fixes. To do so would have been to imply that remedies would lead to passage.
This new move represents a sharp break with Obama administration trade policy to date, and arguably with the administration's approach to legislation more generally. Administration trade policy so far has been characterized by deliberate ambiguity and an avoidance of deadlines. The Obama administration joined the G-20 nations in calling for a conclusion to the WTO trade talks last year, but resisted deadlines like a ministerial review last March. It stated general support for mending and passing the pending FTAs with Colombia, Panama, and Korea, but never put forward a timeline. It called for "engagement" with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but left details vague and did not set a target end-date for those negotiations.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.