An interesting thing has happened on the way from strategic competitor to regional ally (or whatever it is that President Obama labels China these days). During the economic malaise of the world's largest economy, and during Japan's lingering inability to escape the grips of recession, the Chinese economy has grown to become the world's second largest, behind only the U.S. (Japan's former position).
Of course this is not necessarily a bad thing. Economic growth hopefully will bring more freedom to China's people. At a minimum it'll allow more of its citizens to buy widgets that help them get around the Great Firewall.
The part that is troubling is that China's economy is not becoming more transparent. All of their statistics come from a national statistics bureau ultimately beholden to political leadership. The numbers are spartan, and even if the numbers are accurate they are far too broad to dissect an economy as complex as China's. The traditional data sources for the Chinese economy have remained the same and are no longer sufficient for the world's second largest economy, not for the financial world. The shortcomings of the NBS is a topic covered in depth here), here or here. If you're not interested in reading more there, just consider that China's quarterly stats, for an economy of 1.3 billion people, is tabulated in just two weeks. By comparison, the same tabulation takes the U.S. over a month. Amazing given China's size and the very restricted resources of the statistical bureau. Likewise, the headline numbers often seem to be edited to match other economic indicators -- and yet, the quarter-on-quarter and year-on-year numbers often don't make a lot of sense when compared. There is also no attempt to report stats like urban and rural employment. The Statistical Bureau makes revisions but they are only upward revisions and always create a discrepancy between revised and unrevised reports. Most obviously, there's a built in incentive for provincial officials to report higher numbers. You see the result of this in the creative math used in tabulating GDP for China's 32 administrative regions. Every single region reported forecasts of 8 percent of GDP or higher last year. Yet, the nationwide forecast was 8 percent.
But before Tom Friedman or Ray Lahood can say that it's just because China is better managed or uses better math, let me posit the obvious: China is publishing numbers to fit a set storyline and not vice versa. (Full disclosure: I am co-founder of a company that publishes The China Beige Book, a private quarterly survey that uses exclusively independent data to produce an accurate, real-time snapshot of the Chinese economy -- the views here are my own and do represent those of CBB, LLC). In a healthy economy, the government will publish data, and hoards of private companies will do their own research to either support or argue with the official results. That's not happening in China.
It's a real problem because of China's importance to the world market. Bad data begets bad policy. The White House is making decisions based on a limited view of what China's policy freedom of action may be because they're reacting to inadequate economic data -- and we know U.S. policymakers don't have better data. All over the world decisions are made on the perceptions -- not facts -- about what is going on.
How many G20 meetings have there been since the financial crisis during which this issue -- better and more transparent data -- was raised (Hint: Zero)? How about any special point raised by the IMF or World Bank -- all institutions the West controls? This is the world's second largest economy and every leader on earth may be flying blind, and doesn't seem to care. This has ripple effects throughout the financial world. National-level policy makers, hedge and pension fund managers, and even people controlling their own 401k all need better data. Yet, we seem all to be ok flying blind.
With the U.S. locked in horrific growth, no demand from Japan, and the eurozone's fiscal profligacy having made it a ticking time bomb, China's economic growth -- and how it deals (or does not deal) with the serious imbalances in its economy -- is becoming more important to the world economy, not less. The world of finance (including the Treasury Department and the Fed) are hanging their hat on world GDP growth impacted greatly by China's economy. Those decisions will impact your pocketbook directly. Like it or not China is deeply integrated into the world economy and into the U.S. economy in particular.
The fact is that we can't be sure what's going on there (is the bottom falling out of the real estate market, are unregulated non-banks easing credit, are they stockpiling valuable commodities?) We think we know the answer to some of these questions but we're not sure. Just this morning, the Wall Street Journal's Tom Orlick, one of the best commentators on this subject, penned a piece guessing about China's current inflation rate.
It's a very serious issue because the reality -- not the perception -- of China's economic health will impact the world economy. Decisions regarding U.S. government policies, Fed policy, world stock markets plays, and even your 401k are all made based on those perceptions. But the outcome will be based on reality. Tiny Greece is a good lesson -- it's a different situation but the same concept. Europe was cruising along blissfully on the perception that Greece was doing fine. But when the Greek government decided to come clean about the reality of debt off the books the euro crisis began in earnest. I'm not suggesting China necessarily has something to come clean about (though China's non-performing loans make for interesting reading) or that we are at some inflection point. But this is a dangerous time to be leaning on such dubious statistics.
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First the good:
1) The Obama administration has stopped calling its efforts to focus on Asia the "pivot" which implies turning your back on other crucial parts of the world.
2) The Obama administration is building upon diplomatic and strategic efforts of its predecessors and has dropped the White House adolescent trash-talking of "we are back" in Asia.
3) These efforts include serious attempts to build the free trade area of the Pacific first envisioned by the George H.W. Bush administration; upgrading relations with Taiwan and Japan begun by the Clinton administration; and the breakthrough in relations with India, the creation of "mini-laterals" such as the U.S.-Japan-Australia, and the movement of more forces into the Pacific that was the work of the George W. Bush administration.
4) For its part the Obama administration has started a relationship with Burma, tightened relations in South East Asia, and increased the tempo of U.S. military presence in the region.
Now the bad:
1) There is a danger of overpromising. The new defense guidelines were released in January 2012 at same time as talk of a "pivot" began. Concurrently, details of a new operational concept called Air Sea Battle were released, that despite protestations to the contrary, is more or less about how to defeat China in a conflict. This coincidence of events has regional allies believing that the U.S. has carefully developed some new "secret sauce" to keep the peace in Asia. The reality so far is two Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore, some good speeches in Vietnam, and some marines in Australia.
2) The administration is making critical strategic choices that will affect its posture in Asia. One choice is to slash the defense budget. It already did so in 2009 to the tune of about $400 billion. This year the Budget Control Act will kick in lopping off hundreds of billions more. The president has every right to choose the salvaging of and creation of more social welfare programs over the defense that is needed in Asia, but it is dangerous to misalign your stated strategic goals and your resources -- this is the famous "Lippman Gap."
3) The defense cuts badly affect the forces we need in Asia. The stealthy F-35 program has taken a big hit. The navy has said it needs anywhere from 500 to 313 ships in its fleet. It will end up with around 285 total ships by the end of the next five year defense program. The much touted next generation long-range bomber is underfunded -- by 2017 it is unlikely that we will have more than an industrial competition to build it, which means years before it comes on line. The list goes on: missile defense takes a hit, as does most certainly the workhorse of any Asian contingency -- attack submarines.
4) India. There is simply no way to check China's power if Afghanistan descends into chaos and India has to respond. In the rough and tumble of international politics it is very difficult to get regions to conform with U.S. government flow charts. India can only fully integrate into East Asia if there is some semblance of security along its land borders.
5) It is also unrealistic to think we can spend less time on the Middle East in order to spend more time in Asia for two reasons. First, the Chinese are competing with us in that critical region to mostly bad effect. Second, our allies depend on the stability we provide in the Middle East for oil.
Now the ugly:
1) Things with China will get ugly. Our talk of rebalancing is a response to Chinese power and provocations. The competition is intensifying. We repeat the mantra that our efforts in Asia are not about China as if saying it makes it true. In reality, politics, like physics, has an action-reaction cycle. While we are doing the right thing, China certainly views our actions as hostile. We should expect China to up its game militarily.
2) Related to the above, we need presidential leadership to explain to a war-weary public the need to maintain the power advantage in our competition with China. The public will ask understandable questions like why die for Taipei, or Manila or even Seoul and Tokyo? (Remember the questions "why die for Danzig or Berlin?") The debate will arise and could get ugly. It would be better to start this public education campaign now. We seek no conflict or quarrel, rather the commitments we are making are to maintain our position in a critical part of the world.
The best course is not to cut down commitments at this dangerous time, but rather to bring resources in line with those commitments. Any other course will not lead to a "peaceful retrenchment." Rather, if the U.S. stopped playing the role of benign hegemon in Asia chaos would ensue. No one would lead efforts to further build upon a economically vital region, stem proliferation, or keep great power peace. Deterrence is expensive, chaos more so. The president should explain to the public what he means to do in Asia and why.
In concluding his elegant book On China, Henry Kissinger describes an ongoing debate within Chinese leadership circles. Some of its ruling class believes China should maintain its "peaceful development" strategy in accordance with a rules-based international order, while others demand that China now adopt a more aggressive posture that directly challenges American primacy. I've just returned from a month in China and experienced some of this debate firsthand. Visits to several cities, and meetings and conversations with Chinese officials, scholars, foreign business leaders, American officials and, yes, taxi drivers produce an amalgam of impressions.
The best way to make sense of the current state of affairs in China is to think of not one but several "Chinas" -- each is real, but none by itself is the full reality. The following are six of the "Chinas" that exist today; the question is which of these will command the future.
Rising Power: Chinese leaders are obsessed with their nation's rise, and see it reclaiming its historic position as a dominant world power. Many Chinese strategists also believe the U.S. is in decline. But their opinion splits on what this means. Those who see the U.S. primarily as an adversary (see below) welcome America's declension, while those who see the U.S. more as a partner in China's rise worry about the consequences of a diminished U.S. Several Chinese thinkers expressed their frustration with what they see as erratic American policy under the Obama administration, which has veered from the "G-2" embrace of 2009 to the now perceived hostility of the "pivot." Some Chinese interlocutors also pointed out the same fact that troubles many Americans: A White House pursuing massive defense cuts cannot adequately resource a bolstered posture in Asia.
Security Threat: The debate within the U.S. over whether or not China poses a threat often misses the Chinese perspective: many (though certainly not all) Chinese strategists see America as their principle adversary. The People's Liberation Army is operationalizing this attitude in its development of weapons platforms designed to counter the U.S. As I pointed out in a discussion with some Chinese scholars and officials, the standard American talking point demanding more "transparency" from China about its military modernization and expansion may be diplomatically requisite, but it elides the real issue. The U.S. does not merely want "transparency" from China; we want China to stop developing weapons directly targeted against American force projection capabilities -- if it doesn't intend to become our adversary.
Economic Dynamo: While China's growth is slowing and some of its numbers may be contrived, its economic strength is real and its long-term trajectory still looks promising. Virtually all Chinese speak with tremendous pride about their nation's economic boom, which they have experienced firsthand in materially-improved lives. Many Chinese believe that their nation weathered the global economic crisis relatively unscathed, which in their minds vindicates their model and equips them to meet future challenges such as the transition from export reliance to domestic consumption. Massive infrastructure projects such as the many new airports and high speed rail may excessively dazzle some Western visitors, but this should not diminish the genuine accomplishment they represent. Nor have corruption, bureaucracy and stacked decks dissuaded many international investors from still hungering to grow their stakes in the China market.
Fragile Kleptocracy: My own Tom Friedman-esque moment of analysis-via-taxi-drivers came one evening when all of the Beijing taxi drivers in the central part of the city had turned off their meters and were charging rates five times the metered rate for a ride back to our hotel. After some customary evasions, one of them admitted that this was their version of a work slowdown. Strikes are illegal, but the frustrations of Beijing taxi drivers, whose rates haven't been increased in ten years amidst surging expenses despite many pleas to the government, boiled over into illicit protest. Such resentments are multiplied across the country, crossing industries and rural and urban lines, resulting in tens of thousands of protests annually. Then there is the Bo Xilai case, which continues to reverberate, especially as Bo's fate is negotiated amidst maneuverings for the upcoming Party Congress and leadership transition. The Bo case is only exceptional in that it became public. Otherwise it is all too familiar in China, where corruption is pervasive, governance is brittle and a senior Party post commonly also includes control of a favored industry or company.
Reforming Autocracy: Yes, China remains a repressive autocracy, but nevertheless ongoing reforms and liberalizations are taking place, many enabled by communications technology that the government cannot entirely suppress. A major news story during my visit was the heinous forced abortion on a Chinese woman seven months' pregnant in Shaanxi province. Social networks in China erupted with popular outrage, as heartbreaking photos of the mother next to her dead baby circulated widely, and an embarrassed Chinese government responded by suspending the local officials responsible. This is a woefully deficient punishment, and the manifestly unjust one-child policy remains in force, despite China's looming demographic nightmare. But even a few years ago this crime would have never been disclosed at all, let alone prompted public protest and an official response.
Insecure Bully: Some revealing yet head-scratching moments came when Chinese interlocutors expressed their consternation at the U.S. Embassy Beijing's Twitter feed reporting on air quality in Beijing, while in the next breath they defended China's provocations such as its anti-satellite missile test, bellicose territorial claims on the South China Sea and support for North Korea. These are not the actions of a confident, responsible stakeholder, but of an insecure bully, obsessing over its international image while engaging in obnoxious behavior that does much more damage to its image than any American report on human rights or environmental quality. This insecurity also prevents China from coming to terms with its own history. While the Cultural Revolution is widely lamented, the Tiananmen Square massacre (whose 23rd anniversary passed with censorship even of the Shanghai Stock Exchange) cannot be mentioned, and Mao remains valorized. China's insecurities also help explain its foreign policies to shield the Syrian regime and Iranian nuclear program, and prop up the Kim dictatorship in North Korea -- all of these are short-sighted decisions, but short-term thinking is a hallmark of an insecure government obsessed with maintaining its hold on power.
Some of the "Chinas" above are positive, others are negative. Yet in understanding China all of these variations must be taken into account.The U.S. has a major stake in encouraging political reform and economic growth while discouraging the internal repression and truculent behavior towards its neighbors. Mistakes in China policy come from privileging one scenario over all the others -- for example the "China Fantasists" who believe the growing economy will inevitably lead to a democratic, peaceful China, or the offensive realists who focus on the Chinese military threat while ignoring the economic benefits the U.S. receives in the relationship, let alone China's internal fragilities.
This is also why China policy is such a challenge. Taken together, the multiple realities of China today defy any simple historical analogies about the management of rising powers, and demand an unprecedented wholeness of vision from the United States.
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Read more about the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership here.
Critics of the civilian-nuclear deal between the United States and India -- proposed in 2005 and ratified in 2008 -- have more recently charged that its supporters oversold the broader benefits of Indo-U.S. strategic partnership. Their critique has been given unearned momentum by the Indian parliament, which passed nuclear liability legislation that does not meet international standards, effectively making it impossible for U.S. companies to build civilian-nuclear plants in India. Critics have also been emboldened by a certain drift in U.S.-India relations since 2009 -- for which both sides bear responsibility -- and by India's own lackluster economic performance, which diminishes its attractiveness as the pivotal U.S. partner in 21st century Asia. But these developments do not mean the relationship was oversold. The more accurate charge is that it has not yet been fully consummated.
The Obama administration sent decidedly mixed messages to New Delhi upon taking office in 2009. Bush administration officials had argued convincingly that a shared appreciation for managing the balance of power in Asia was at the core of the U.S.-India entente -- music to the ears of leaders in a country that has still not recovered from the psychological scars of a war with China in 1962. However, early in their tenure, senior Obama administration officials reportedly told Indian counterparts that the United States was no longer "doing balance of power in Asia," while senior U.S. officials, including the president and secretary of state, gave credence for a time to the notion of a Sino-American "G-2" condominium in Asian and global affairs.
This unnerved Indian officials who believed Washington had chosen New Delhi -- not Beijing -- as its privileged partner in rising Asia. Spurned Indian officials fell back on old non-alignment instincts and began speaking of "triangulating" between the United States and China. But events happily changed the discourse: China's militant assertiveness in 2010-11 reminded officials in Washington and across Asia of the growing danger posed by budding Chinese power. President Obama's self-declared "pivot" to Asia in 2011 moved the United States much closer to the Indian position of sustaining a regional equilibrium not tilted in China's direction -- a project of such immensity that India cannot achieve it absent close alignment, if not alliance, with the United States. Nonetheless, the early damage to a U.S.-India relationship whose central logic is rooted in the balance of power caused mistrust that still lingers.
More recently, Indians have been disappointed that the United States, after reassuring them for a decade that U.S. forces would finish the job they started in Afghanistan, will withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan through 2014. Beyond its intrinsic importance, Afghanistan was in fact a key test of the proposition that the United States, as a new strategic partner, could help India solve its toughest security challenge: the propensity of its neighbors to export terrorism into India, with state support. The Taliban's eventual return to control in at least parts of Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan's virulently anti-Indian security services as NATO forces draw down, will undermine Indian security in tangible ways. For many Indians, the United States' lack of staying power reconfirms old suspicions about American unreliability. It reinforces the conviction that India may have more to gain from collaborating with Russia and Iran to support Afghan groups committed to the Taliban's defeat than from relying on (and working with) the United States to do the job.
Americans, in turn, have been disappointed by India's apparent willingness, for a time, to risk its U.S. relationship over energy trade with Iran. The good news is that India has moved to reduce oil and gas imports from Iran, earning New Delhi a waiver from U.S. third-party sanctions set to take effect next month. This is particularly significant in light of India's energy-import dependence and its previous reliance on Iran as a top supplier. But American officials have spent precious time and energy over the course of several years urging India to cut back on its Iran trade -- time and energy that would have been better spent forging ahead on a wider agenda for Indo-U.S. cooperation, were it not for Indian reluctance to take American appeals to heart. New Delhi would have benefited more from early movement on this issue, rather than making a show of standing up to the United States even as India, out of concern for its own interests, systematically reduced its dependence on Iranian energy supplies.
Americans excited about the rise to great-power status of the world's largest democracy have also questioned how India's passivity toward the Arab uprisings has served Indian interests, much less prospects for partnership with both Washington and reformist Arab regimes. While India's election commission did assist in organizing Egypt's first democratic elections, New Delhi has been seriously behind the curve in Libya, Egypt, and Syria (though it has not blocked U.N. Security Council actions on the latter). It is Indian interests that suffer from such passivity, in the form of cool relations with post-revolutionary countries strategically positioned on its western doorstep. Such passivity has undermined the case, not just in Washington but internationally, that India is ready to provide global public goods and assume genuine responsibilities beyond its borders as a permanent member of the Security Council.
Nonetheless, over the past three years India and the United States have made quiet progress in consolidating their new relationship. India is the world's largest arms importer, and the United States is at the top of its list of defense suppliers -- notwithstanding American disappointment that India did not choose a U.S. fifth-generation fighter jet as part of its ongoing military modernization. Indian armed forces exercise more with U.S. counterparts than those from any other country -- a remarkable development for two countries that were on opposite sides of the Cold War divide. Intelligence-sharing is at historic highs; Washington and New Delhi cooperate more actively on counter-terrorism than ever before. The two countries are also more closely aligned on Pakistan as a result of the degeneration of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance over the previous three years. Perhaps most importantly, India and post-pivot America see eye-to-eye on the immense strategic challenge posed by China's ascendance; the Indo-American dialogue on East Asian security has been richly rewarding for both sides.
The hard truth is that Indo-U.S. relations would be better were India and the United States each doing better. India was a most attractive partner when it was growing at near-double digit rates annually, putting it on track to emerge as the world's largest economy before 2050. For many Americans today, India is a less attractive partner as economic growth slumps, the government stalls on key reforms necessary to unlock the economy's vast potential, populism trumps effective policymaking, and politicians seem unable to break partisan gridlock to govern effectively. Funnily enough, Indians could say exactly the same thing about America under President Obama.
Secretary of Defense Panetta's speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Shangri-La Dialogue has received considerable attention in the press. I was a delegate to the dialogue and was in the hall when Panetta spoke. Having had an opportunity to discuss the speech with officials from across the globe at the conference, and also to reflect upon it during a flight home that crossed half the globe, I'd like to share some thoughts.
Panetta gave a good speech and even better answers to questions from the audience. He provided a clear statement of the United States' enduring role as a Pacific power. As a native of Monterey, California, he spoke evocatively of how America has influenced, and been influenced by the Pacific. He also put more meat on the bones of the Obama administration's pivot/re-balance to Asia, noting that by 2020 the United States would deploy 60 percent of its navy in the Pacific, including six aircraft carriers and a majority of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. He also pledged to increase the number and size of exercises it conducts with allies and friends in the region.
Panetta's strong words were mirrored in the size of the U.S. delegation, the largest ever sent to the Shangri-La dialogue. The Chinese, by contrast, kept a much lower profile. For reasons still unclear, Panetta's Chinese counterpart, Minister of National Defense Liang Guanglie, decided to stay away this year after having attended last year's event.
Perhaps ironically, then, much of the discussion on the margins of the summit was about American staying power in the region. One word in particular hung over the conference like Singapore's oppressive humidity: "sequestration." Even without sequestration, however, there are real questions as to whether the Obama administration's defense program is sufficient to back its words with action.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of sea power. The Pacific is a maritime theater, and warships remain a major yardstick for measuring military strength. The size and composition of the U.S. navy is key both to assuring allies and deterring adversaries in peacetime as well as to fighting and winning the nation's wars. The Pacific is a theater where numbers matters. A ship, no matter how powerful, can only be in one place at a time.
In his speech, Panetta noted that the Obama administration has decided to retire a number of warships ahead of schedule, so that today's navy, which is already the smallest it has been since before the United States entered World War I, will get even smaller. He argued, however, that the United States would eventually replace retired ships with more modern, and more capable, combatants. That is only partially true: The upgraded Arleigh Burke-class destroyers will have more modern radar and combat systems than the Ticonderoga-class cruisers that are set to be retired. However, the Littoral Combat Ships that make up the bulk of the surface ships that the Navy is procuring are considerably less capable than the warships that are being retired.
There is, in fact, a growing gap between our commitments in Asia and our capability to protect them. It is a gap that both friends and competitors see emerging. As several colleagues and I argue in a newly released American Enterprise Institute report, the United States will need to go beyond current defense plans if it is to continue to play its historic role in the Pacific. We cannot just devote a larger slice of a smaller pie to the region. Rather, we will need new resources to modernize and expand the navy. We also need to explore new initiatives to enhance the credibility of the U.S. commitment to the region. These include working with our allies and friends to develop a coalition intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance network in the Western Pacific; expanding cooperation with our allies in undersea warfare; expanding the range of bases open to the United States; and enhancing nuclear deterrence. Unless we back our words with action, the United States will have difficulty bridging the capabilities-commitment gap.
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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta leaves on Wednesday for a nine-day swing through Asia. After stopping in Hawaii at the Pacific Command, he travels on to Singapore for the annual Shangri-La dialogue among defense ministers, then to Hanoi for follow-up meetings with his counterparts on last year's defense cooperation memorandum, and finally India. The secretary's commitment to continue showing the flag at the Shangri-La dialogue is a good thing, but he had better be ready for three tough questions when he gets to the region.
Is the "pivot" to Asia hollow? The administration's much ballyhooed "pivot" out of Iraq and Afghanistan and "back" to Asia was initially well-received in the region (though not in Europe or the Middle East, unsurprisingly), particularly given Hillary Clinton's active Asia diplomacy and President Obama's first time participation in the East Asia Summit. However, as the klieg lights have cooled, friends and foes alike across Asia are asking where the beef is, particularly on defense capabilities. It has become a cliché for U.S. defense secretaries to proclaim emphatically at Shangri-La that the United States is a Pacific power, as if the McKinley administration hadn't established that fact over a hundred years ago. What our friends and allies really want to know is whether this administration is prepared to resource its Asia strategy. Plans for about $50 billion in annual defense cuts over the coming decade (equivalent to the size of Japan's defense budget each year) are perhaps still tolerable to our friends and cautionary to our foes. However, sequestration would double these cuts and gut our ability to sustain Asia strategy, let alone global commitments. It is well known in regional defense ministries that the U.S. navy wanted to cut one carrier out of the force even with current plans for defense cuts, until being rebuffed by an administration worried the move would clash with the "pivot." Sequestration would definitely remove carriers from the fleet (for starters), and Asia would notice. Initially, Secretary Panetta warned as much in testimony to the Congress. As the November election looms, he has been silent on the subject, but he should be prepared for tough questions on whether the U.S. is committed to leadership in Asia beyond attending multilateral meetings -- and hopefully he will begin pressing the case for a robust defense budget within the administration.
What will the United States do about Chinese pressure on the first and second island chains? China's "Near Sea" doctrine should leave little ambiguity about the PLA's intention to not only establish anti-access and area denial capabilities in the first island chain (connecting Okinawa down through the Philippines to the South China Sea), but eventually beyond the second island chain as well (stretching straight south from Japan through Guam). China has swarmed the Philippine Sea with fishing and paramilitary vessels in recent months to press claims against a virtually defenseless Philippines, with PLA-Navy surface action groups dwelling just over the horizon. Beijing has found considerable support within the administration and in Washington more generally for the narrative that Hanoi and Manila are to blame for all the trouble, even though the Philippines have one old U.S. Coast Guard cutter in the face of over 100 Chinese vessels just off their coast. Philippine President Aquino will visit Washington early next month, and Panetta will need to be unapologetic to the Chinese about our support for a beleaguered treaty ally, while making it clear that the United States remains neutral on the territorial questions and committed to confidence building with Beijing. It is a difficult balancing act, but the administration has been too coy with Beijing and would be far better off laying down a clear and unapologetic marker that recent aggressive Chinese maritime operations will pull the United States closer to friends and allies in the region. Of course, it would help if the sequestration shadow were not looming so large.
What is the secretary's strategic vision for India? After going gangbusters during the Bush administration, the U.S.-India defense relationship has hit headwinds. On the Indian side, the problem stems from the political weakness of the Manmahon Singh government and unrealistic expectations about American willingness to transfer technology to Indian industry in order to sell defense systems. The rejection of Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Boeing's F-18 from the Indian Air Force's next generation fighter competition was particularly disappointing. But the Obama administration also shares some responsibility for the listlessness: the American defense bureaucracy is second only to India's in its intransigence and the Pentagon (not to mention the White House) have lacked senior champions for the relationship comparable to Steve Hadley, Nick Burns or Doug Feith in the previous decade. Delhi has also been profoundly disturbed by the consequences for Indian security of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Broad U.S. and Indian strategic interests align well in Asia, just as the two countries' bureaucracies naturally clash. That requires senior-most officials like Secretary Panetta to lay out a clear and forward-looking vision for a defense relationship that will be as important as it is sometimes frustrating.
The Obama administration's deal with the Chinese government over the blind lawyer-activist Chen Guangcheng initially appeared to be a diplomatic triumph, but now has turned into a serious test. The question is why.
Based on the information available at the time, I initially thought the deal was a success, as I wrote here. This was because it appeared to honor Chen's desire to stay in China, and it appeared to represent a dual set of commitments: by the Chinese Government to respect China's rights, and by the Obama administration to hold Beijing to the agreement. Unfortunately neither of those commitments has been fulfilled. The Chinese government is most to blame. It has brazenly targeted Chen and his family members, supporters, and fellow activists, to the point that he has now reversed course, and as he told a Congressional hearing yesterday, he is now seekign to leave China for the U.S. However, the Obama administration appears to have made some significant missteps as well.
In breaking this agreement with the U.S. in such a public, defiant manner, China is also questioning the credibility of the Obama administration. This was of course not a confrontation that the administration sought, focused as it was on the now-dashed hopes for a smooth Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Yet this is the test that China has presented. Signature moments in foreign policy are often not the carefully-crafted pageantry of summit meetings but the unexpected crises that test presidential leadership.
Here is where the Obama administration seems to be wanting. For all of the diplomatic skill initially shown by the U.S. negotiators, at the end of the day China's commitment to the agreement depended on their perception of how much it mattered to the top American leadership, especially Secretary Clinton and President Obama. Secretary Clinton erred in not demanding a personal meeting with Chen as soon as she landed in Beijing, as a way to show her investment in his welfare. Embassy Beijing erred by not keeping embassy officers with Chen at the hospital, at least for the duration of the SED.
While I am not privy to any personal communications that President Obama may have had with Chinese president Hu Jintao on the case, the White House's apparent silence has been telling and perhaps constitutes the biggest error. The Chinese government seems to have read this as a sign of lack of U.S. resolve, and made the calculation that it could break the agreement and resume tormenting Chen and his family without incurring any costs from the U.S.
What could President Obama have done? He should have communicated to Beijing his personal interest in Chen's welfare and made clear that any violation of the agreement would have severe repercussions for the U.S.-China relationship. The specifics of such repercussions would not need to be specified, but options could include delaying or denying a state visit for Xi Jinping once he takes power after the leadership transition this fall.
There is some precedent for this approach. As I shared in a radio interview yesterday, in 2007 President Bush arranged to meet at the White House with three prominent Chinese human rights and religious freedom advocates who were visiting the U.S. for a short time and then planned on returning to China. (As a sidenote, the Chinese activists were in the U.S. for a series of legal advocacy seminars organized by the irrepressible Bob Fu, whose own life shows that Chinese dissidents who find asylum in the U.S. can still have a substantial influence).
The morning of the meeting, the Chinese government sent an ominous threat to the White House saying that if these activists returned to China their safety could not be guaranteed. In other words, they faced the prospect of imprisonment or worse. We informed the dissidents of the threat against them and told them that the decision on whether or not to have the meeting was up to them; after saying a prayer, each one remained resolved to do so. Then President Bush had a senior NSC official send a back channel message to the Chinese government saying in no uncertain terms that President Bush took personal interest in the welfare of these three dissidents and that any harm befalling them would cause a severe disruption in U.S.-China relations. After Bush met with them, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing sent staff to meet the dissidents at the airport in Beijing when they returned, made sure they returned safely to their homes, and kept in regular contact with them. And for the duration of the Bush administration they were left alone (for more on this meeting, see Mike Gerson's book Heroic Conservatism).
Thus far President Obama has not even commented publicly on Chen's case, despite Chen's own pleas that Obama do so, and despite the Chinese government's brazen challenge to Obama's credibility. As of this writing, a way forward seems to be emerging for Chen and his family to come to the U.S. and pursue legal studies. For this deal to work, the Obama administration needs to recapture the initiative and craft the agreement in terms that make clear its commitment to the many other Chinese human rights activists who have been targeted for their support of Chen. And when Chen arrives in the U.S., President Obama should invite him to the White House for a personal meeting.
The plight of a fugitive blind Chinese legal activist was no doubt not where President Obama expected to face a serious foreign policy test, especially during a week that his campaign tried to devote to chest-thumping on the anniversary of the Osama bin Laden operation. How Obama responds now will determine much about the near-term future of U.S.-China relations. And while investing a president's reputational capital is always a risky move, it is not as risky as trusting the assurances of the Chinese Communist Party.
Today's agreement in Beijing for Chen Guangcheng to leave the U.S. embassy yet remain in China heralds a success for the Obama administration's diplomacy, and for the cause of human rights in China. While there were no ideal solutions, this seems to be the best possible one, and was probably agreed to only with great reluctance by the Chinese government. Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and one of the Obama administration's most capable senior officials, served as the lead negotiator and merits particular credit. The pressures on the case were heightened by the imminent arrival in Beijing of Secretaries Clinton and Geithner for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED), one of the most important events on the U.S.-China calendar and a cornerstone of the complex bilateral relationship.
Yet in this case Campbell and his fellow negotiators (including State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh and U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke) appear to have leveraged the SED to their advantage based on the strategic insight that China needs the SED more than the U.S. does. This may be sound counter-intuitive, given the many issues on which the U.S. has important "asks" of China, including pressure on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, currency reform, and maritime rights in the western Pacific. But China has been buffeted and embarrassed in recent months by the revelations of the Bo Xilai case, the tensions surrounding its upcoming leadership transition, and the growing alienation of many of its neighboring countries. Beijing needs a smooth and successful SED to help restore its image, and hence realized that it needed to compromise to achieve a quick resolution to the Chen case. Shadow Government's uber-boss, FP editor-in-chief Susan Glasser, is accompanying Secretary Clinton's delegation to Beijing and filed a thoughtful account that lays out the difficult balancing act and frailties in the deal.
Earlier this week it seemed likely that Beijing would only agree to Chen's release if he left China for asylum in the U.S. Yet this would not have been the best outcome, given that Chen would be separated from his family and no longer able to continue his activism. This recent story tells of the anonymity and ennui that afflicts many Chinese dissidents once settled in the U.S., a sad trajectory that might have been Chen's as well. Yet such is not always the case, as other Chinese dissidents have found the U.S. a congenial home from which to continue their advocacy. Such is the case with Bob Fu, now based in Midland, Texas, and whose connection to Chen included assistance with Chen's initial escape and eloquent advocacy on his behalf with the U.S. media. Bob's compelling story can be viewed here at the Bush Center's Freedom Collection.
The Chen case also occurs against the backdrop of a fascinating and largely ennobling history of dissidents in repressive countries seeking refuge in U.S. embassies. Early in the Cold War, the Catholic anticommunist leader Cardinal Josef Mindszenty of Hungary fled to the embassy in Budapest and lived there for 15 (yes, 15) years. The seven Siberian Pentecostals lived in the U.S. embassy in Moscow for 5 years until the Soviet Union agreed to their release after consistent pressure from President Reagan. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese dissidents Fang Lizhi and his wife Li Shuxian lived in the embassy in Beijing for 13 months. In each of these cases, the presence of the dissidents on U.S. diplomatic soil proved to be an irritant in the bilateral relationship -- in the short-term. But from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear that the protection offered by U.S. embassies proved a potent demonstration of America's commitment to liberty. It is a telling reminder that, for all of America's imperfections and internal challenges, our nation is still seen by freedom activists across the globe as the world's premier symbol of liberty and power. It is this combination of values and strength that explains why dissidents in authoritarian countries consistently seek out the American embassy for succor and support.
Yet these same dissidents often carry outsized and unrealistic expectations of just how much the United States can do on their behalf. As powerful as the U.S. is, there are profound limits on America's ability to reshape conditions within other countries, and particularly to guarantee the safety and freedom of dissidents. Here is where the Chen agreement seems to have accomplished about as much as it can. The Chinese government promises to allow Chen to seek medical treatment, enroll in law school, and be reunited with his family. But as an informal agreement between two sovereign states, there is no enforcement mechanism beyond the investment of U.S. prestige and credibility, and China's desire to maintain a good relationship. Still, all things considered, Chen's lot is much improved from just two weeks ago, when he languished under de facto house arrest (no doubt with Beijing's approval). He now enjoys even more global prominence, the explicit support of the United States, an opportunity to gain formal legal training, and most crucially, the chance to continue his work on behalf of his fellow citizens. Moreover, the issues to which he has dedicated his life -- freedom of expression, religious freedom, an end to forced abortions and sterilizations, respect for rule of law -- are now thrust back into the international spotlight and the agenda of the U.S.-China relationship.
The Chen situation is much more than an isolated human rights case. His life and work symbolizes the powerful contradictions besetting China: a strong state whose government seems to fear a blind self-taught country lawyer; an economic powerhouse whose overall growth still produces resentments, instabilities, and unmet expectations from many of its citizens; an emerging yet brittle superpower whose greatest strength may be found not in its growing military or economy, but in the courage of ordinary citizens like Chen Guangcheng.
The day after Biden's "big stick" speech, arguing the case for Obama's toughness, the administration caved under the pressure of Senator Cornyn and, as Josh Rogin writes, committed to the sale of new (not refurbished and old, but new) aircraft for Taiwan. In this case, Obama's lack of resolve under congressional pressure could actually advance U.S. national security interests.
According to Rogin, Cornyn received a letter from White House in return for lifting a hold he had put on Mark Lippert's nomination to become the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian Pacific Affairs. Here are some critical points from the letter:
We recognize that China has 2,300 operational combat aircraft, while our democratic partner Taiwan has only 490. We are committed to assisting Taiwan in addressing the disparity in numbers of aircraft through our work with Taiwan's defense ministry on its development of a comprehensive defense strategy vis-a-vis China.
This work will be a high priority for a new Assistant Secretary of Defense in his dialogue on force transformation with his Taiwan counterparts. The Assistant Secretary, in consultation with the inter-agency and the Congress, will play a lead role as the Administration decides on a near-term course of action on how to address Taiwan's fighter gap, including through the sale to Taiwan of an undetermined number of new U.S.-made fighter aircraft.
Rogin goes on:
The White House does not explicitly promise to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighter jets, as Cornyn wants, promising only to give the matter "serious consideration." But it does pledge an "underdetermined number" of new aircraft."
So the administration recognizes that Taiwan has 490 operational combat aircraft while its rival China has 2,300. Presumably, because of the Congressionally-mandated review of Taiwan's air defense, the administration has known about this "fighter gap" for some time. It could have acted on it at any time. Indeed, Obama decided not to sell new fighter aircraft last fall after a policy review. Has it just now decided that the "fighter gap" is important? What changed?
What changed is a hold by a senator -- pure and simple. Taiwan asked for new fighters long ago (the Bush administration ignored the request). Last fall, the administration informed Congress of an upgrade to old aircraft ignoring the "fighter gap" of which it was well aware.
Obama should be held to his now public commitment. Already allies and others are asking whether the much vaunted "pivot" to Asia is all hat and no cattle. Here is the nonpartisan (and non-American) IISS: "For all the talk of the military rebalancing to Asia, the steps taken towards this in the FY2013 budget are quite modest. The number of troops in Europe is to be cut by 10,000 to about 70,000, while Marines are to be deployed to Australia and LCS to Singapore...the overall amount to be spent on defence is set to fall from $645.7bn in FY2012 to $613.9bn in FY2013." The assessment points to specific "pivot" relevant programs that are taking hits such as F-35s, missile defenses, and attack submarines.
Moreover, most allies haven't a clue how the pivot will manifest itself and what role they should be playing. If a "pivot" means anything, it is at the least keeping security commitments. Now Obama has made one -- helping Taiwan close the "fighter gap." Biden tried to channel TR's "speak softly and carry a big stick" mantra. Just how big a stick Obama wields can be determined after he just spoke loudly about his commitment to Taiwan.
In the last couple of days, Western media has been abuzz with rumors sourced from Chinese social media websites, Falun Gong-sponsored news outlets, and analysts in Hong Kong of an attempted coup in Beijing. The only thing lending credence to these rumors is the seeming existence of a power struggle that resulted in the sacking of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. This is the most significant removal of a government official since 2006 when Shanghai Party Chief Chen Liangyu was fired during a corruption probe.
The recent string of events have made for exciting political drama, but let's remember that only nine men in China know what is really going on. This holds true in the case of Bo Xilai and his deputy Wang Lijun, as well as the current status of security chief Zhou Yongkang (some of the recent rumors are swirling around him). Given the uncertain political environment, those nine will not be talking much anytime soon.
While we do not know why Bo was removed and other bits of "Zhongnanhaiology," recent incidents have revealed some useful information about the respective roles of power and ideology in China. And these, in turn, show that change is coming to China, even if we don't know what that change will look like.
First, Bo Xilai's ouster was about power, rather than ideology. From the central leadership's rhetoric, especially Wen Jiabao's statements about the need to avoid another Cultural Revolution, one would think that Bo's fall from grace had mostly to do with his embrace of some form of Maoism. Indeed, it's a convenient picture for the central leadership to paint for an international audience -- that they ousted Bo to prevent China from making a "left turn." While there may be a kernel of truth to this, the "red songs" were more of a means to an end for Bo. Likewise, Bo's supposed "red ideology" provided Chinese leaders a good pretense to remove a threat to central power.
Bo was aiming for a place in the Standing Committee to increase his own power. And his real "crime" according to the leadership is not what he did in Chongqing, but how he did it. In executing his dual "sing red strike black" campaigns, Bo established a separate center of power around himself that did not rely on the central leadership. Bo was establishing his own power base and as a result became somewhat of a national sensation (some Chinese citizens were even writing songs about him). His power resulted from his own self-promotion, and not because he was favored by the leadership. He was a populist, but more importantly he was a populist operating as the face of the party and demonstrating a way of governing that was different from the central leadership.
Second, power is what is propelling Chinese politics during this time of transition. China is now run more like a mafia state with a dozen or so powerful families in charge. Bo's was one of them. The rules of the game are as such: "If you go after us, then we will go after you." This might be another contributing factor to Bo's demise. His deputy was allegedly probing Bo's own family for corruption, and Bo responded by allegedly interfering in the investigation and attempting to sideline his once powerful chief. Unfortunately for Bo, his power struggle with Wang was not as important as Beijing's struggle with him. The leadership's longtime reservations about Bo's political style combined with his sudden vulnerability made for an excellent pretext to "go after" him.
While Bo's story is about power, it should not obscure the fact that there is an ideological struggle going on inside China. The struggle is a competition of ideas pitting those aligned with Chinese reformers and the "real" Chinese private sector against very powerful state owned enterprises and the party bosses who benefit from them. The former know that Beijing's growth model will come to an end unless serious capitalist reform is enacted. The latter know that if those reforms are enacted the party (and party) is over for them.
Even more so than the sacking of Bo and the evident tension it is creating, the existence of a struggle over the future of the Chinese economy demonstrates a lack of consensus in China, notwithstanding the intellectual faddishness about the "Beijing Consensus." This intellectual fad -- a battle between Beijing's model of state-led economics and Western liberal economics -- is a creation of the West. But the real battle is inside China -- will it become more capitalist and grow or will it sputter?
This lack of consensus shows that while it is impossible to predict what will happen in China (muddling along, collapse, stagnation), one thing is becoming clear -- China will change over the next decade. As the economic model comes increasingly into question, other internal problems will come home to roost, including disastrous population policies, widespread corruption at the highest levels of government, and inert political leadership.
As we watch these events unfold, it behooves us to remember that one of the reasons outsiders are paying attention to the idea that there may be a coup in China is that the military is the only institution that can keep the country together. Political crisis in China could pave the way for a PLA-led China. If anything, the downfall of Bo tells us is that the transition in China is not as smooth as it seems. Power struggles are real as party leaders fight over an inverted Golden Rule -- in China, he who makes the rules gets the gold. While the particulars of the Bo case are uncertain, two things are clear: The leaders are no longer all powerful and reform is badly needed. The question is, will China make the kind of changes it objectively needs or will it become a stagnating PLA-led state?
Nelson Ching/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Last week might turn out to be a very significant week in U.S.-China relations, but perhaps not for the reasons most people would think. For foreign policy mavens, the big news last week was the visit of Chinese vice-president and heir-apparent to the Party throne, Xi Jinping. For almost everyone else in the country, the big news was the supernova-like emergence of NBA star Jeremy Lin.
Ten or twenty years from now, when we look back on this past week, which event will be seen as more important for U.S.-China relations and the future of China itself? No one can yet say, and while the safe bet from the policy-maker's vantage point might be the Xi Jinping visit and its anticipation of his decade-long rule, we shouldn't make the same mistake made by the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, and count out the Jeremy Lin story. Before I go any further, I admit that even indulging in these speculations risks tripping headlong over the "wait just a second, people" admonition wisely offered by Dan Drezner against investing Jeremy Lin with any Deeper Meaning. And as my former NSC colleague Victor Cha (a scholar of sports and Asia policy) points out, those who hope that Lin's stardom might help improve the complicated U.S.-China relationship are probably indulging in wishful thinking.
First, some context. Continuing in our occasional theme of reflecting on what history can bring to policymaking, one thing history offers is a sense of perspective, a reminder that the most consequential events are often not immediately apparent at the time they occur. As my University of Texas-Austin colleague Frank Gavin has observed, three separate developments from California in the space of a few months in 1976-77 were the creation of Apple computer, the release of the movie Star Wars, and the unprecedented medals awarded to a group of Stag's Leap Napa wines in a Paris tasting contest. Though seemingly unrelated and not fully appreciated at the time, together these events heralded a new era of American culture's global influence, historically far more consequential than the Carter administration's first few months in office. Or more recently, who could have predicted on Dec. 17, 2010 that the most globally important event that day would be the self-immolation of an obscure street vendor in a seemingly insignificant North African country?
Turning back to the two China-related events of last week, the Xi visit and the Lin stardom, Steve Walt makes some persuasive points about why Xi as an individual leader might not be a primary factor shaping the U.S.-China relationship. I suspect this could underplay Xi's importance, given the hard choices China will have to make over the next decade on issues such as rebalancing its economy, addressing its many restive borders, decreasing corruption, and clarifying its strategic intentions in the western Pacific. Much of that, however, depends on the Communist Party continuing to hold its monopoly on power, and here is where Jeremy Lin could bring an added complication.
Lin has already become a cultural phenomenon in China, benefitting in part from the legions of Chinese basketball fans first cultivated by Yao Ming. Yet if Yao Ming's roots and identity were unequivocally mainland Chinese, Lin's identity is not so straightforward. His Taiwan roots could at the least complicate the mainland's popular attitudes that see the island as a renegade province. Perhaps more significantly, his evangelical Christian faith appeals to the tens of millions of house-church Christians in China, who sometimes at great risk worship outside the control of government-approved religious bodies. And his faith might also inspire otherwise non-religious Chinese, further adding to Christianity's explosive growth in China. All of this in turn poses a delicate challenge for a Communist Party that has thus far co-opted every successive new communication technology to surveil and tightly manage the information available to its citizens: How to control the message and image of Jeremy Lin that an adoring public perceives? Especially if Lin continues to play well and popular demand for information about him grows?
How this develops will depend on many factors, including whether Lin continues to play great hoops (hopefully), whether he continues to speak openly about his faith (likely), whether he ever comments about political issues such as religious freedom in China or the status of Taiwan (possible but less likely), and especially how the tension between the Chinese government's need for control and the Chinese public's hunger for information plays out (anything is possible). To be clear to readers (especially those named "Dan Drezner"!), this is not a case of feverish "Linsanity" arguing that Lin will cause democratization in China. (Only rabid Duke fans such as my Shadow co-curator are prone to investing basketball with such cosmic significance). Rather, this is a speculation that China's response to Lin's emergence could possibly play a part in fueling a movement for political change based on a host of other pre-existing factors. Or not. Only time will tell, and history will judge.
Regardless, it seems that the White House's overemphasis on the role of the Communist Party in the U.S.-China relationship may account for the Obama administration's one major mistake in its otherwise successful management of Xi's visit. This was the White House's refusal to support Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook's visit to China. Ambassador Cook's long-planned maiden trip was blocked by the Chinese government, while the White House, concerned about the Xi visit, apparently failed to press Cook's case with Beijing. This was strategically shortsighted, especially since in the long run religious citizens in China may well do more to shape China's future than an individual party leader. Furthermore, the failure to support Ambassador Cook's visa set a bad precedent for U.S. credibility on a range of issues, and conceded undue leverage to the Chinese government. After all, Beijing needed the Xi visit more than the U.S. did, and a quiet message from Washington to Beijing stressing that denying Cook her visa "would not be helpful" to the optics of Xi's trip would have likely done the trick.
How to remedy this? Next time President Obama, Vice President Biden, or Secretary Clinton meets with one of China's leaders, they should make sure that Ambassador Cook is also at the table, and should tell the Chinese that she enjoys the president's support on this important issue. Then to keep the tone agreeable, perhaps the conversation can turn to a topic everyone would find of interest, such as Jeremy Lin's most recent game.
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
The pageantry surrounding the visit of Vice President Xi Jinping, China's next leader, reflects the best tradition of U.S.-China summitry since 1972. There is no symbolism in international politics like that presented by meetings between the leaders of the world's two most powerful nations, with their utterly different histories and traditions. Washington is preoccupied by the new Kremlinology: is Xi a reformer or a hard-liner? Who will become his deputy responsible for managing the Chinese economy? Are former rising star's Bo Xilai's allies being purged from the leadership group? More broadly, American officials are grappling with the overriding question of how to stabilize U.S.-China relations amidst political contests in both countries -- and growing strategic mistrust following China's heavy-handed military assertiveness in 2009-10 and President Obama's China-focused "pivot" to Asia in 2011.
In Washington's internal debates over China policy, several schools of thought are vying for primacy. One -- call it the "China-first" school -- believes the People's Republic is an ascendant superpower, whose newfound confidence is well-justified, and which America must do more to accommodate as the United States itself declines. In this view, America's existing position in Asia is unsustainable. Military surveillance in international waters near China is too provocative to continue indefinitely. America cannot reasonably continue to control the maritime approaches to China, in the Western Pacific and East and South China Seas, without a justified Chinese counter-reaction. Washington must recognize that new power realities in Asia require it to cede China much more strategic space, in ways that will reassure its leaders rather than reinforcing indefensible red lines. Better to negotiate a new arrangement with China on our respective "core interests" now than to find ourselves forced into a confrontation -- over Taiwan, access to sea lanes near China, or particular alliance relationships -- that we cannot win.
For this school, it really is unduly provocative for the United States to be strengthening its military relations with China's neighbors. If China were deploying troops and securing military access agreements in Canada and Mexico, wouldn't the United States object? Even the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to multilateralize a set of bilateral free-trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific appears, in this light, to be a form of economic containment of China, since the negotiations exclude it. The policy takeaway from this perspective is that Washington should back off its forward posture in Asia, drop the TPP in favor of trade and investment treaties with Beijing, do more to tangibly reassure China that we will not threaten its interests as a rising power, and otherwise reassure China that America sees the writing on the wall and will peaceably cede the primacy it has enjoyed. Such a policy, we are assured, would help encourage China to behave as a good international citizen.
A second school of thought - call it the "Asia-first" school -- reverses the China-first logic of the perspective above. It focuses on influencing Beijing's strategic choices by constructing a robust balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region that hedges against Chinese assertiveness -- and reassures America's many friends and allies that we will not subordinate their acute concerns about China's growing strength out of deference to China's grievances, real or imagined. It acknowledges the pluralism of Asia, America's historic role as a Pacific power, and the central truth that none of Asia's great and regional powers is willing to allow Beijing to speak for the region.
American proponents of this approach do not favor containing China. Indeed, they understand that stable U.S.-China relations are intrinsically in the U.S. interest -- as well as enabling stronger U.S. relations with America's Asian partners. But they believe that Chinese assertiveness is best managed through coalitions of states that share a determination to sustain the rules and norms that have made possible the Asian economic miracle. They also believe that American leadership is a surer foundation for continued stability in Asia than a managed American retreat.
This school of thought also understands that China, like the Soviet Union of George Kennan's day, suffers from "internal contradictions" -- an unsustainable growth model distorted by the heavy hand of the state, an increasingly restive citizenry fed up with corruption and the absence of rule of law, and a demographic time bomb. A prudential U.S. policy of shaping an Asian balance of power that China cannot control ultimately should create the time and space for China to undergo an internal evolution that mellows the dangers posed by its authoritarian power. This would allow its government to enjoy peaceful and cooperative relations with its people, its neighbors, and the West.
Such a policy approach calls for the intensification of President Obama's newly robust approach to sustaining American leadership in Asia -- through intimate relations with our allies, new and diversified troop deployments, expanded military prepositioning and access agreements, closer ties with non-traditional partners like Indonesia and Vietnam, and stronger leadership on free trade. It would be boosted by enactment of presidential candidate Mitt Romney's calls to increase the U.S. defense budget (rather than cutting it, as Obama would); increase naval shipbuilding (rather than overseeing the shrinkage of the U.S. fleet to its smallest since 1917, as Obama has); put allies rather than competitors first in formulating foreign policy; and get America's fiscal house back in order to give it the domestic capabilities to lead abroad (rather than proposing annual budgets that increase America's national debt, as Obama has just done).
This second school understands that the audience for U.S. policy towards China is not just China's leaders, but the Chinese public, as well as America's many friends and allies in Asia. U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon points out that there is strong and growing demand for U.S. leadership in Asia, even as China's economic and military power expand. Joseph Nye, Lee Kuan Yew, Robert Kagan, and other thought leaders correctly point out that China may well never surpass the United States in comprehensive national power, despite much-hyped predictions to the contrary. By extension, it would be strange indeed for America to peremptorily cede its leadership in Asia at a time when Asian states want more of it, and U.S. interests in the coming Pacific century so directly hinge on it.
The blind spot of the China-first school is its basic misunderstanding of the sources of regime anxiety in Beijing. Chinese leaders' most deeply rooted insecurities do not derive from U.S. policies in Asia; China has prospered mightily from them, in fact. Rather, the most acute fears of Chinese leaders derive from the danger China's own people pose to the political monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party. America's Sinologists should have a little more confidence that the United States can compete with China, not only in the contest for power but in the contest of ideas -- which ultimately will determine whether Beijing and Washington can build a fruitful condominium of cooperation in the 21st century, or whether strategic competition will define our shared future.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Next week Xi Jinping, China's Vice President and the heir-apparent to President Hu Jintao, will make his much anticipated debut in Washington. The playbook for Xi's visit will be the May 2002 visit that Hu himself made when he was preparing to move up from Vice President to the top leadership positions. On that trip Hu did everything he could to demonstrate his credentials as the future steward of Sino-U.S. relations without making any compromises, missteps or news. The White House understood the drill: this was about investing in the long-term relationship with the next leader of China and not shopping for "deliverables." The White House Spokesman, Ari Fleischer, was careful to tell the press that the President raised tough issues from Tibet to trade, while lowering expectations of major breakthroughs. It generally paid off in the longer-run, as Bush and Hu developed a level of trust that helped them navigate subsequent crises in North Korea, Taiwan and later the international financial system.
Presumably both Beijing and the White House would like to repeat that success. It will not be as easy ten years later, though. In 2002 the United States was focused on the threat from terrorism and not the threat from China; the business community was united behind the President's efforts to advance U.S.-China relations; there was some modest progress on human rights issues; and Hu himself was absolutely committed to Deng Xiaoping's admonition to bide time, gather strength and not challenge the United States.
This time around the environment is clearly more difficult. Chinese cyberattacks, aggressive territorial claims, anti-satellite missile tests, and non-transparent military modernization are all impossible to ignore, for the United States and for China's neighbors. The human rights situation has deteriorated, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang and for political dissidents. The American business community is much more divided about China policy and more willing to criticize trade theft and non-tariff barriers (in particularly unfortunate timing for Xi, this week Dupont sued another Chinese scientist for industrial espionage, the second time in three years). The one issue that is quieter than 2002 is Taiwan, for which both governments are probably thankful.
And while Xi is unlikely to change the fundamental direction he is inheriting from Hu (and Hu from Jiang and Jiang from Deng), the new leader has a different style and faces considerably more domestic pressure to look forceful than his predecessor did a decade ago. Hu, for example, took extreme care to avoid any ideological collisions with the United States and the West, co-opting terms like "democracy" and "responsible stakeholder" rather than respond directly to the premise that China's value system needed to change. Xi, in contrast, gained kudos from nationalists at home for his 2009 statement on the "Three Did Nots" in Mexico City, in which he explicitly fired back at the critics of China. It is also hard to find evidence Xi is a more progressive thinker on human rights and political space. The Dalai Lama had a good relationship with Xi's father Xi Zhongxun decades ago, but Tibetan hopes for improvements under the son were dashed when the younger Xi denounced supporters of the Dalai Lama during a heavily policed visit to Lhasa last summer. Similarly, China watchers in Singapore and Southeast Asia have hoped that Xi would be more accommodating and reasonable on maritime disputes given his background as party boss in the coastal province of Fujien, yet as current Vice Chair of the Central Military Commission he has presided over Beijing's expanding military operations in contested waters around Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.
On the other hand, Xi is a more confident and charismatic presence than Hu, knows more about the United States (next week he will revisit the Iowa town where he led an agricultural delegation in the early 1980s), and will likely announce major commercial agreements while he is here. So the jury is still out. As the U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, recently confessed, "it is going to take a while to really understand how he might move forward." Meanwhile, Xi's visit to the United States could prove a success despite the tougher environment because for both Washington and Beijing, failure is not an option.
Late last month, the front page of the Washington Post contained the kind of story that I, as a professional educator, like to see. The piece discussed the work of Georgetown University's Asian Arms Control Project. Specifically, it chronicled the laborious effort of a couple dozen Georgetown graduate students to uncover, over the course of years, China's "underground great wall," a network of thousands of kilometers of underground tunnels constructed by the People's Liberation Army Second Artillery Corps - the same branch of the Chinese military that controls Beijing's nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles. The students have amassed a lot of evidence, including some eye-catching pictures, of China's tunnel system.
The Georgetown project demonstrates the value of open-source basic research on the Chinese military. Unlike the Soviet Union, which closely guarded even the most mundane bits of information, China publishes quite a lot on its military, including voluminous information on its underground tunneling program. The problem is that, until the Georgetown students began to document the program, few in the United States paid much attention to the fact that China has poured massive amounts of resources into underground facilities over the course of decades. Indeed, it was not until this year's edition of the Pentagon's Congressionally mandated report on Chinese military power that China's tunneling program received official acknowledgement.
China's tunneling program is of more than academic interest, however. It raises legitimate questions about the ability of the United States to verify the scope of Chinese military modernization, including the size of China's missile force and its nuclear arsenal.
It is that inconvenient fact that has drawn the ire of the arms control community. Over the past month, arms controllers, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the blog Arms Control Wonk have launched a series of vitriolic attacks on the Georgetown students; their professor, Phillip Karber; and that staunch member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, the Washington Post, which had the temerity to report on the students' efforts. The Post's Ombudsman summarized the attacks - and stood by the paper's original story - yesterday.
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"What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?" famously asked the early church father Tertullian. His question in the third century addressed the relationship between the reason of Greek philosophy embodied by Athens and the revelation of Judeo-Christian religion embodied by Jerusalem. Today's foreign policy equivalent of Tertullian's query could be "What hath Damascus to do with Darwin?" (the Australian city that is, not its namesake English naturalist)
Plenty, because oftentimes strategic opportunities transcend just one region. This is the case with the Middle East and Asia today. Looking at those regions together, the Obama administration has a strategic opportunity to push far-reaching changes that will anchor American interests for a long time to come. Here I will echo many of the good points that Dan Blumenthal makes in his post below. The White House (and the Asia policy shop at the State Department) should be applauded for last week's moves in Asia, including plans to base a small contingent of Marines in Darwin, Australia, support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and further development of the AirSea Battle Concept. If one doubts the significance of these moves, just a glance at the querulous reactions from China tells another story. This new posture is all the more significant -- and welcome -- considering that the Obama Administration took office less than three years ago intent on pursuing a dubious "G-2" partnership with China.
While I share Dan's concerns about the administration's commitment to resourcing America's forward posture in Asia and political will to follow through on free trade, the fact of these decisions is still encouraging and merits bipartisan support. Basing a small contingent of Marines in Australia sends a political signal that far surpasses its military significance, and will bring positive reverberations not just in Canberra but also in Jakarta, Hanoi, Manila, and Bangkok. And more may be yet to come, if the recent liberalization trends in Burma continue and Secretary Clinton's upcoming visit, encouraged by Aung San Suu Kyi, helps lure Naypyitaw out of Beijing's orbit. If even Burma comes in from the cold, Beijing will have realized the dubious geopolitical distinction in the last two years of having alienated almost every other nation in its neighborhood (or at least everyone not named "North Korea").
Yet as Dan argues, the White House would be undercutting its own strategic initiative if it treats these moves in East Asia as pivots away from the Middle East and South Asia. Our nation's actions in one region shape our credibility and power in other regions. India realizes this, hence its hesitation to partner with an America that it worries will be drawing down prematurely in Afghanistan and further complicating India's rough neighborhood. China and Russia realize this, hence their efforts to constrain American influence by vetoing the recent U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria and watering down an emerging resolution on Iran, which as Mike Singh and Jacqueline Deal point out remains China's favored partner in the region.
Syria represents the crucible of strategic opportunity. The once-timorous Arab League has now spoken boldly that Assad must go. The European Union, too politically paralyzed to deal adequately with its own economic crisis, has marshaled the political will to impose severe sanctions on Damascus that are now bearing fruit. The people of Syria have braved the massacres of over 3,500 of their fellow citizens and persist in their demands for a new government in Damascus. It is time for the Obama Administration to capitalize on this multilateral momentum by leading a concerted diplomatic effort to end Bashar Assad's barbaric rule.
While moral concerns alone justify the demise of the Assad regime, the strategic consequences would be enormous. Iran would lose its only regional ally. Hamas and Hezbollah would lose a valuable patron state. Lebanon would have the chance to reclaim its sovereignty. Turkey would see the benefits of being a responsible regional actor. Iraq's border security would improve. The Green Movement in Iran would likely be resuscitated and pose a new challenge to Ayatollah Khameini's regime in Tehran that is otherwise barreling ahead with its nuclear weapons program. China and Russia would lose both a client state and international credibility, and democratic reformers in China might even be energized.
China, after all, sees its subtle rivalry with the United States playing out not just in East Asia but across the world. As David Ignatius describes, when American leadership is perceived to be diminishing in a region, other actors will step in to fill the void, such as the Saudis are doing in the Middle East. And if America abdicates our leadership in the Middle East, the effect will be to undercut rather than strengthen our posture elsewhere such as Asia. This is why Marines in Darwin and democracy reformers in Damascus are important players on the same global chessboard.
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There has been much ado in the media and from the Obama administration about a great strategic shift from the Middle East and South Asia to East Asia. Obama and senior administration officials are making the case for this shift by claiming that we have accomplished our Iraq and Afghanistan goals, and that the time has come to focus on the "real problem": China. This week, the president announced the basing of 2,500 marines in Australia and a pushed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional free trade agreement that excludes China. The U.S. military has also released some details on its new AirSea battle concept -- an answer to the dense network of submarines, mines, anti-aircraft capabilities, and missiles that China has created to keep the United States out of China's periphery. All of these moves are to be commended. However, they do not and should not add up to a new "pivot." Here are some reasons why:
1) There is no way for the U.S. to project the necessary influence into East Asia if Aghanistan and Pakistan are on fire. One major reason is that if India is tied down in a competition with Pakistan, China, and Iran in Afghanistan, it cannot become the kind of East Asian power we wish it to be. The Bush administration's India strategy was designed to help India break out of its squabbles in South Asia and exert influence in East Asia. A hasty pull-out of Aghanistan will reverse that sensible strategy.
2) China is exercising more influence in the Middle East in ways harmful to our larger goals (e.g., support of Iran). To compete with China in East Asia, we must retain our influence in the Middle East and South Asia and check destabilizing Chinese diplomacy.
3) The deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia and the highlighting of a military concept to respond to China's military build-up are necessary but insufficient first steps. These developments cannot make up for the fact that our military has faced deep cuts in its budget and will face more. No matter what administration officials say, these cuts will affect our posture in Asia profoundly. We need more ships, more aircraft, more missile defense. To be a bit flippant, we are putting Marines in Australia without sufficient equipment to get out of Australia. Our allies and China need to see and feel our presence. That can only be accomplished with more sea patrols, surges in exercises that promote freedom of navigation, and so on.
4) The AirSea battle concept is a serious effort to meet the China challenge. But based on information released about it, the concept suffers from two flaws. First, the resource question -- how would we shut down Chinese military operations without sufficient platforms and munitions? Second, AirSea battle fails to take into account China's nuclear ambitions. China is already a nuclear-armed country with every incentive to continue its build-up of nuclear forces. That is because we have agreed on a bilateral (with Russia) rather than multilateral basis to cap our nuclear forces. Since China is bound by no important arms control treaties, and because we are openly talking about major conventional strikes on the Mainland, China has every reason to seek nuclear parity with us over time.
5) The TPP is a great idea. In particular, securing Japanese agreement to an FTA would be a great success . The question is, are we serious? It took the better part of Obama's term to ratify the FTA with South Korea. Are we really to believe that he will take on his base and sign more major FTAs?
There is no dispute that we need to take serious steps to balance China's power. But we cannot do so by "pivoting" away from two critical areas of the world. We need India to have peaceful borders in order to compete with China, and we need to diminish China's influence in the Middle East. And finally, the Obama Administration needs to resource its stated Asia strategy, which it so far shows little sign of doing.
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With a nod to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, when it comes to China the central neoconservative truth is that the regime matters most. The central realist truth is that we have limited capacity to change the regime.
The Sino-American competition is not about whether "state capitalism" (whatever that means) will beat out "democratic capitalism." China does not have an exportable economic and political model. No one is rushing to the streets in the Arab world or elsewhere to push their governments to adopt the "Beijing Consensus." Arabs (and others) want representative government, not tyranny. The Chinese people themselves are not fond of the Chinese model. The uptick in daily protests in China against corruption and injustice speaks for itself.
The Sino-American competition is also not really about the "structure of the international system." Yes, there is historical evidence that rising powers tend to challenge the reigning power for hegemony. But sometimes they do not (see India, the European Union, and Japan circa 1990). The current international system made and maintained by the United States has plenty of room for China to succeed.
Instead, we are in a security competition because the Chinese Communist Party has made it so. The CCP is trying to make the world safe for its continued rule. This desiderata is very difficult in a liberal international order dominated by the United States. The CCP has to beat back attempts by its people to push for democracy. And, because the CCP has made the restoration of a Sinosphere in Asia synonymous with its own legitimacy, the Party must "reunify Taiwan," pacify Xinjiang and Tibet, keep Japan down, and make sure any other pretenders to the throne in Asia (India, Vietnam) are put in their place. Washington cannot be trusted to simply go along with any of these projects. So China must extend its military ambitions. If Washington seeks to undermine China's plans, than it is also imprudent for Beijing to rely on the U.S. Navy to secure its energy supply lines. So Beijing has decided it needs a military that can coerce Taiwan, push around its neighbors, and thwart American attempts to help its allies and protect its long sea lanes. That is why we are in a security competition with China. Beijing has decided upon a set of goals that are rather uncongenial to our own vision of peace and security.
If China was ruled by a regime whose legitimacy rested on the consent of the governed, perhaps it would not see the need to build a big military to: 1) protect itself from its own people; 2) beat back American "containment; or 3) to embark on revanchist projects. If China had a different sort of regime, I submit, we would not be in a security competition with China.
But, there is little the United States can do to affect democratic change in China. We can do more at the margins (e.g. try harder to speak directly to the many reformers in China -- the entrepreneurs, the Christian leaders, the social activists). But in the end this is only moral support. Whether or not as a policy matter our moral support matters for change in China, we have and always should stand with the Chinese people.
Until China changes we are left with the fundamentally realist project of protecting ourselves and our interests by maintaining a strong military presence in Asia and building up our alliances. For now, the central realist truth carries the day. We must engage with China when it is in our interests to do so. But our most urgent task is to successfully play balance of power politics in Asia until a new regime emerges in China that is more accepting of the international order and less afraid of its own people.
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We don't often have reason to celebrate political developments in Africa, but Michael "King Cobra" Sata's Sept. 23 victory in the recent Zambian presidential elections is a reason, indeed. The 74-year-old tough-talking opposition leader has managed to score a victory for democracy in Zambia and against Chinese neocolonialism.
Credit is due to the recent incumbent, Rupiah Banda of the Movement for Multi-party Democracy, who gave up power peacefully after a clear defeat to Sata and the Patriotic Front Party. In the aftermath of the election, both men appear determined that the peaceful change of power be accepted as normal with both retribution and sour grapes being set aside.
But a larger and more interesting issue is the fulfillment in Zambia, and in the person of the new president, of the idea that Africa should not become prey to a new colonial power, that of the Chinese. China-watchers have been observing for about a decade now the growing influence of China as it buys friends in the developing world among the producers of raw materials to feed the growing Chinese economy. A combination of Chinese party, government, military and preferred businesses have been extracting and importing raw materials -- in the case of Zambia, copper -- by means of cheap labor and sometimes abusive labor practices and with the complicity of the host country's government.
Sata was transparent about his plans and tough in his talk regarding the Chinese during his campaign for office. He called the Chinese investors "infestors" and vowed that if elected he would put an end to the flouting of labor and tax laws and other abuses, abuses that cannot happen if the government is determined to stop them. In other words, through corruption and neglect, many African governments allow foreign interests to treat their countries as easily commandeered cheap resource pools. Sata was so insistent that the Chinese threatened, in an obvious attempt to sway the election, to divest in Zambia should the people elect Sata. The people were undaunted, Sata is now elected, and there is no sign that the Chinese will make good on their threat. They can hardly afford to do so given that Zambia is the continent's largest copper exporter.
Sata has no intention of closing Zambia for business; rather, he simply is requiring that his country's labor laws and safety regulations be respected by both foreign firms as well as the government itself. He has embarked without delay on his promised 90 days of reform, sacking people and reforming the government. He sounds like he'd perform well in the current GOP debates: not only is he announcing plans to battle corruption -- that is a given for a newly elected leader in a developing country -- but he is also announcing his intention to slash the size of government. Further, he intends to review all mining contracts with the Chinese to ensure they are in the interests of Zambians and to make sure that the wealth of Zambia is shared with the nation as a whole through fair contracts, fair wages, and a distribution of wealth not encumbered with corruption, cronyism, and bloated government.
We should wish him luck and our government should support him, because he will need it, but we should be encouraged given that few African leaders have been so bold to have staked their election in part on such a program of reform. Importantly, Sata's election represents the working out of the predictions of some observers that if the Chinese, in collusion with dictators and de facto presidents for life, continued to unfairly exploit developing countries, there would be a backlash redounding to the harm of both the incumbent governments as well as the foreign interests. Those of us who have worked in foreign assistance often heard how unwise we were to let the Chinese provide visible support such as the building of infrastructure and schools while we supported the intangibles of democracy, the rule of law, fair labor practices and economic freedom. We averred that if we did the right thing, the best thing, in time the fruit of our labor would be the movement of developing states from the category of failed and dependent to stable and flourishing. I trust that we are being proven right in Zambia and that this example will spread. It is too soon to predict that a backlash is building generally across the globe against the Chinese exploiters and against aid practices that only further dependency, but the ripples of the Zambian election -- and what it could mean for development policy -- are likely to be felt beyond its borders.
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A unicorn is a beautiful, make believe creature. But despite overwhelming evidence of its fantastical nature, many people still believe in them. Much of China policy is also underpinned by belief in the fantastical: in this case, soothing but logically inconsistent ideas. But unlike unicorns, our China policy excursions into the realm of make believe could be dangerous. Crafting a better China policy requires us to identify what is imaginary in our thinking about China. Author James Mann captures some in his book.
Here are my own top ten China policy unicorns:
1) The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. This is the argument that has the most purchase over our China policy. Treat China like an enemy, the belief goes, and it will become an enemy. Conversely, treat China like a friend and it will become a friend. But three decades of U.S.-China relations should at least cast doubt on this belief. Since the normalization of relations with China the aim of U.S. policy has been to bring China "into the family of nations." Other than China itself, no nation has done more than the United States to improve the lot of the Chinese people and to welcome China's rise peacefully. And, rather than increase its deterrence of China -- a natural move given the uncertainty attendant to the rise of any great power -- the United States has let its Pacific forces erode and will do so further. We may soon go through our third round of defense cuts in as many years. Here is just one example of how unserious we are about China: As China continues to build up its strategic forces, the United States has signed a deal with Russia to cap its strategic forces without so much as mentioning China. Unless Beijing was insulted by this neglect, surely it could take great comfort in an anachronistic U.S. focus on arms control with Russia. But despite our demonstrations of benevolence, China still views the United States as its enemy or, on better days, its rival. Its military programs are designed to fight the United States. The self-fulfilling prophesy is far and away the most fantastical claim about China policy and thus the number one unicorn.
2) Abandoning Taiwan will remove the biggest obstacle to Sino-American relations. Since 2003, when President Bush publicly chided then-Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian on the White House lawn with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at his side, the United States has been gradually severing its close links with Taiwan. President Obama's Taiwan policy has been the logical dénouement. Arms sales have been stalled, no Cabinet members have visited Taiwan since the Clinton years, and trade talks are nonexistent: there is essentially nothing on the U.S.-Taiwan policy agenda. The reaction from China? Indeed, it has moved on. But rather than bask in the recent warming of its relationship with Taiwan, China has picked fights with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and India. It does not matter what "obstacles" the United States removes, China's foreign policy has its own internal logic that is hard for the United States to "shape." Abandoning Taiwan for the sake of better relations is yet another dangerous fantasy.
3) China will inevitably overtake the U.S. and we must manage our decline elegantly. This is a new China policy unicorn. Until a few years ago, most analysts were certain there was no need to worry about China. The new intellectual fad tells us there is nothing we can do about China. Its rise and our decline are inevitable. But inevitability in international affairs should remain the preserve of rigid ideological theorists who still cannot explain why a unified Europe has not posed a problem for the United States, why post-war Japan never really challenged U.S. primacy, or why the rising United States and the declining Britain have not gone to war since 1812. The fact is China has tremendous, seemingly insurmountable problems. It has badly misallocated its capital thanks to a distorted financial system characterized by capital controls and a non-market based currency. It may have a debt to GDP ratio as high as 80 percent thanks again to a badly distorted economy. And it has created a demographic nightmare with a shrinking productive population, senior tsunami, and millions of males who will be unmarriageable (see the pioneering work of my colleague Nick Eberstadt).
The United States also has big problems. But we are debating them vigorously, know what they are and are now looking to elect the leaders to fix them. China's political structure does not yet allow for fixing big problems.
4) (Related to 3). China is our banker. We cannot anger our banker. In fact, China is more like a depositor. It deposits money in U.S. treasuries because its economy does not allow investors to put it elsewhere. There is nothing else it can do with its surpluses unless it changes its financial system radically (see above). It makes a pittance on its deposits. If the U.S. starts to bring down its debts and deficits China will have even fewer options. China is desperate for U.S. investment, U.S. treasuries, and the U.S. market. The balance of leverage leans towards the United States.
5) We are engaging China. This is a surprising policy unicorn. After all, we do have an engagement policy with China. But we are only engaging a small slice of China: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The party may be large -- the largest in the world (it could have some 70 million members). We do need to engage party leaders on matters of high politics and high finance, but China has at least one billion other people. Many are decidedly not part of the CCP. They are lawyers, activists, religious leaders, artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs. Most would rather the CCP go quietly into the night. We do not engage them. Our presidents tend to avoid making their Chinese counterparts uncomfortable by insisting on speaking to a real cross section of Chinese society. Engagement seen through the prism of government-to-government relations keeps us from engaging with the broader Chinese public. Chinese officials come to the United States and meet with whomever they want (usually in carefully controlled settings, and often with groups who are critical of the U.S. government and very friendly to the Chinese government). U.S. leaders are far more cautious in choosing with whom to meet in China. We do not demand reciprocity in meeting with real civil society -- underground church leaders, political reformers and so on. China has a successful engagement policy. We do not.
6) Our greatest challenge is managing China's rise. Actually, our greatest challenge will probably be managing China's long decline. Unless it enacts substantial reforms, China's growth model may sputter out soon. There is little if nothing it can do about its demographic disaster (will it enact pro-immigration policy?). And its political system is too risk averse and calcified to make any real reforms.
7) China's decline will make our lives easier. China's decline may make the challenge for the United States more difficult for at least a generation. It could play out for a long time even as China grows more aggressive with more lethal weaponry (e.g., what to do with surplus males?). Arguably both Germany and Imperial Japan declined beginning after World War I and continuing through the disaster of World War II. Russia is in decline by all useful metrics. Even so, it invaded a neighbor not too long ago. A declining, nuclear-armed nation with a powerful military can be more problematic than a rising, confident nation.
8) We need to extricate ourselves from the "distractions" of the Middle East and South Asia to focus on China. This is a very popular unicorn among the cognoscenti. But how would this work? As Middle Easterners go through a historic revolution that could lead to the flowering of democracy or the turmoil of more extremism, how do we turn our attention elsewhere? Are we supposed to leave Afghanistan to the not-so-tender mercies of the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence? This view is particularly ironic given China's increased interests in the Middle East and our need for a partnership with India to deal with China. There is no way to create the kind of order we wish to see in Asia without exerting a great amount of influence over the oil producing states in the Middle East and by allowing India to become tied down in a struggle in South Asia. We are the sole superpower, our foreign policy is interconnected. "Getting Asia right" means "getting the Middle East and South Asia right."
9) We need China's help to solve global problems. This is further down on my list because it is not really a fantastical unicorn. It is true. What is a fantasy is that China will be helpful. We do need China to disarm North Korea. They do not want to, and North Korea is now a nuclear power. The same may soon be true with Iran. The best we can get in our diplomacy with China is to stop Beijing from being less helpful. It is a fact that the global problems would be easier to manage with Chinese help. However, China actually contributing to global order is a unicorn.
10) Conflict with China is inevitable. A fair reading of the nine "unicorns" above may lead to the conclusion that we are destined to go to war with China. It may be a fair reading, but it is also an inaccurate one. Sino-American relations will be determined by two main drivers; one we can control, the other we cannot. The first is our ability to deter aggressive Chinese behavior. The second is how politics develop in China. The strategic prize for Washington is democratic reform in China. Democracy will not solve all Sino-American problems. China may be very prickly about sovereignty and very nationalistic. But a true liberal democracy in China in which people are fairly represented is our best hope for peace. The disenfranchised could force their government to focus resources on their manifold problems (corruption, misallocated resources, lack of social safety net). The United States and the rest of Asia will certainly trust an open and transparent China more, and ties would blossom at the level of civil society. Historically, the United States has almost always been on China's side. It is waiting patiently to do so again.
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The Obama administration is getting itself in trouble trying to satisfy both Beijing and the Congress by providing Taiwan with upgrades of its F-16 A/Bs instead of the new F-16 C/Ds Taipei has requested. Administration efforts this week to spin a skeptical Congress about what a great deal this is for our friends in Taipei only made matters worse.
By any objective measure Taiwan needs the additional -- not just retrofitted -- F-16s. The Taiwan Relations Act requires the United States to provide Taiwan with arms and services of a defensive nature. Commitments such as the Six Assurances provide clear policy guidance: decisions about Taiwan's military requirements should be made on the basis of Taiwan's defensive needs and not U.S. diplomatic relations with Beijing. U.S.-China relations are obviously important, but U.S. resolve in standing by our friends and allies is a critical backstop to ensure that our policy towards Beijing works. The PLA Air Force is growing in leaps and bounds, including the fast-tracking of stealth aircraft. Taiwan needs to replace its aging fleet of F-5s to keep planes in the air, let alone counter the PLAAF's rapidly growing advantage. Taipei repeatedly requested F-16 C/Ds only to be told by the Pentagon not to ask again. Leading officials in Taipei are now being quite open in their disappointment and concern at the U.S. decision not to provide the F-16 C/Ds.
Efforts to spin the A/B upgrades as an even better deal for Taiwan simply are not flying on the Hill, including among leading Democrats. There are three dubious arguments being deployed by the administration and its defenders. The first is that the retrofits can be done faster than the sale of new F-16s. Not only is this wrong, it is beside the point. As Taiwan retires older fighters such as the F-5s and Mirages (in part because France is no longer willing to supply the ROCAF because of Chinese pressure), the size of Taiwan's air force will shrink. Upgrading the F-16 A/Bs will cut that fleet in half for several years as the other half is being upgraded. The upgrades are necessary ... and so are new fighters. It's not politics ... it's math.
The second claim made against Taiwan's request is that the PLA would overwhelm them anyway. Ballistic missiles would destroy the ROCAF on the ground, it is said, but is this not the same operational challenge facing the U.S. Air Force in Japan and Korea and isn't the answer the same -- missile defense, hardening and redundancy? Others point to simulations that show the whole ROCAF being shot down in two hours by the PLAAF, but these simulations mistakenly assume that the ROCAF would scramble all their fighters in the first fight like the Battle of Britain, instead of preserving assets to attrit key PLA forces and continue the fight until international support is mobilized. More importantly, the U.S. decision to continue abiding by the TRA is itself a deterrent against Chinese use of force. Friends and foes in Asia will ask a reasonable question: if we are nervous about selling weapons, how willing would we be to actually fighting if it came to that?
The third claim thrown around is that the United States is helping maintain a positive environment for cross-Straits reconciliation with a "prudent" level of arms sales. Why then, is the architect of cross-Straits reconciliation, President Ma Ying-jeou, adamant that Taiwan needs adequate defense capabilities, including F-16 C/Ds, in order to continue rapproachment with Beijing from a position of strength?
We both expressed public frustration that in its final year the Bush administration chose not to respond to Taiwan's first request for F-16 C/Ds. However, President Bush had already approved 30 billion dollars worth of arms sales to Taiwan at that point. The Obama administration's current package merely finishes the remaining sales queued up by Bush and presents a Solomon like political compromise on the new tactical air requirement identified by Taiwan. The Pacific Command and the Air Force have been dutifully silent on what recommendations they gave the administration on Taiwan's tactical air needs a year ago, but one has to wonder how much that assessment was massaged over the last year to reach the current conclusion.
After some initial stumbles vis-à-vis China, the Obama administration has gone a long way to reassure friends and allies in Asia that the United States will not accommodate a rising China at their expense. The transparently self-restrained decision on Taiwan arms sales will set that strategy back.
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For those who believe it is just a matter of time before China rides its commercial success to global hegemony, this week offered some compelling imagery: Europe, on its knees, reeling from political discord, rising bond yields, and bank downgrades; China, sitting atop its $3.2 trillion hoard of foreign exchange reserves, condescending to dictate the terms of European surrender.
Of course, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was not so tactless as to describe it as surrender. He actually expressed a "readiness to extend a helping hand and a readiness to increase (Chinese) investment in Europe." It wouldn't hurt, he went on, if Europe should decide to grant China market economy status, effectively lowering trade barriers.
Fareed Zakaria translates this into great power politics terms:
In a world awash in debt, power shifts to creditors. After World War I, European nations were battered by debts, and Germany was battered by reparation payments. The only country that could provide credit was the United States. For America, providing desperately needed cash to Europe was its entry into the councils of power, a process that ultimately brought a powerful new player inside the global tent. Today's crisis is China's opportunity to become a 'responsible stakeholder.'"
That's a twist on the original conception of what it meant to be a responsible stakeholder, but no matter. This interpretation falls apart as soon as one scratches at it a little.
The idea that a big infusion of Chinese cash would set Europe aright misinterprets the problems facing the Eurozone. Although the troubled countries there -- Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy -- each took their own paths into difficulty, they are all in unsustainable fiscal situations. These require difficult choices about future taxes and spending, not just a quick bridge loan. Oddly enough, Zakaria recognizes this early in his piece, when discussing the implausibility of a "eurobond" solution, under which France and Germany would effectively co-sign loans taken out by their neighbors:
The minute such bonds are floated, Italy, Greece and the others would lose all incentive to make painful reforms; they could borrow all the money they need at German-subsidized rates, so why go through the dreary work of restructuring? The Germans know this -- hence their opposition."
We hope that more writers of Traub's caliber will be similarly startled by China's growing menace. The truth is that like every rising power in history (including the United States) China wants to change rules, territorial delineations, and laws written while it was weak.
Traub notes that China is "famously patient and slow-gestating" and thus it "seems odd" that it "would have so radically, and so quickly changed its posture to the world." But he is intellectually honest enough to allow for the possibility that its famous "patience" may have been "an elaborate show, or a transitional phase."
But maybe that patience was always overstated. Throughout its history, China has lumbered into disaster after disaster, costing untold sums in lives and treasure (e.g. the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Beijing's war with Vietnam). Certainly as China re-emerged as a power it had its chance to "bide its time and hide its capabilities" as Deng Xiaoping instructed. But instead, it decided to build a highly destabilizing military (see the last decade of Department of Defense reports on China's military power, the latest of which is here) and has proceeded to rattle its saber against Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, and, most troublingly, the United States. It has now created the conditions for the encirclement is so fears.
It is not only former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg who, as Traub writes, "noted that China's "enhanced capabilities" and "overbroad assertion of its rights" in the South China Sea had caused Washington and its allies to "question China's intentions." America's diplomatic and military leaders have expressed similar unease. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a very sober man, noted his concern about China's military to the Washington Post. The Chinese military, he said, "clearly has the potential to put our capabilities at risk... We have to respond appropriately in our programs."
And speaking on China's military buildup last June, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen stated, "I have moved from being curious to being genuinely concerned." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also spoken on the matter. Responding to years of Chinese harassment of U.S., Japanese, Vietnamese, and Philippine ships, last year Clinton broke new ground by declaring at a summit in Hanoi that "The United States, like every nation, 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." This is a diplomatic way of telling China that we will continue to exercise our forces inside its exclusive economic zone, consistent with international custom, and we will ensure that our partners in Asia are able to resist Chinese bullying.
With exquisite timing, the Pentagon released its annual China military report on Wednesday just as Chinese state television broadcast a documentary trumpeting the PLA's cyberwarfare capabilities. For those following security issues in Asia, there was nothing particularly new in the Pentagon report. It noted the challenges posed by China's new doctrine of maritime power projection, plans for multiple aircraft carriers, the new J-20 stealth fighter, and PLA interest in cyberwarfare (exclamation point helpfully provided by CCTV). Nor was there any real news in the delay of the report, which is also an annual event because of the tedious but necessary bureaucratic process of ensuring the contents are credibly presented.
The fact that the PLA is aggressively pursuing cyberwarfare is also not news, though CCTV's bravado about it did catch some analysts by surprise (visitors to Beijing should make a point of watching CCTV-7, the PLA channel, which provides a steady stream of military propaganda, uniformed game shows, and gorgeous singing colonels in jackboots). Many of us in the national security or Asia fields receive repeat "visits" from Chinese-based hackers. Sometimes these come in the form of crashing Google accounts or targeted "phishing" attacks -- seemingly from other colleagues' email addresses with attached reports on "PLA modernization" or the "Hu-Obama Summit" that contain malware. I have also enjoyed démarches from Chinese officials expressing concern about travel plans to Dharamsala (seat of the exile Tibetan government) or Taiwan. My stern but courteous callers were generally better informed about my itinerary than my own travel agent and made little effort to conceal their knowledge. A Chinese academic friend confided to me a few years back that one of his former students is working with 20,000 other tech-savvy youth for the Ministry of State Security -- and that was just the unit in charge of domestic surveillance. It is hard to maintain operational security when the operation is that massive and the PLA propaganda machine is openly encouraging a culture of aggressive defense of China's "core interests."
The administration refrain is that we must have more military-to-military transparency with the PLA. This may be necessary, but it is hardly sufficient and it carries some negative consequences. For one thing, the administration seems fixated on sustaining mil-to-mil dialogue with Beijing to the point that it is distorting decision-making on arms sales to Taiwan (this because the PLA will routinely cut off military-to-military dialogue in retaliation for the sales). The other problem with a focus on mil-to-mil transparency is that it exacerbates the larger problem of PLA autonomy within the Chinese system. Yes, the Central Military Commission (CMC) ensures that the "Party controls the gun" and the chair and vice chair are Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, respectively. But every other member of the CMC is uniformed military, and Hu and Xi have no independent sources of oversight or expertise on the operational practices of the PLA (particularly the PLA Navy). By pushing for more mil-mil dialogue with the PLA, we risk reinforcing PLA autonomy and further weakening civilian control. Instead, we should put the priority on working collectively with other states to insist that China's leaders be held accountable for the actions of the PLA and that the PLA be held accountable to the leadership. This burden will have to be carried by the president and other leaders since the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is too weak to make a difference on its own.
The China military report and the CCTV cyberattack documentary should also cause U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to begin making the case for reversing the administration's planned cuts in defense spending. Mil-to-mil dialogue is no substitute for necessary recapitalization of our air and naval forces in the Pacific.
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All who hope for the democratization of mainland China should celebrate a recent development in Liaoning province. Upwards of twelve thousand Chinese converged on the public square in Dalian, seat of the province's government, to demand that a petrochemical factory be closed and moved due to the public's concerns that the plant puts their health at risk. This story comes amid a continuing outpouring of stories over the last few years of the environmental degradation and health risks attendant with the booming Chinese economy, a boom the Communist Party government is desperate to keep alive as its only hope to ensure stability and thus stay in power. The Tiananmen Papers revealed how nervous China's leaders are when citizens speak out. While it is no surprise that "growth at any cost," including the costs of the safety and health of citizens, is the strategy of a government that expects citizens to trade political freedom for prosperity, it is striking to see that the citizenry increasingly seems determined to renegotiate the bargain.
In this latest event, riot police and demonstrators clashed and there was some violence, but many among the protestors were savvy enough to sing the national anthem and wave patriotic banners in an apparent attempt to avoid the fate of most Chinese that dare to criticize the government.
Perhaps the tactic worked: the mayor and a party official, within hours of the beginning of the protest, announced that the plant would be closed and moved in response to public concern. They did this after it was clear that simply saying they would do so was not sufficient for many of the demonstrators; they demanded a timetable for the action. Of course the state got very busy censoring and cleansing the Internet as best it could of any reporting of the events, but Western media outlets have widely reported the protests and the government's backing down.
I know the U.S. is still recovering from the financial crisis.…Under such circumstances, it is still spending a lot of money on its military. Isn't that placing too much pressure on the taxpayers? If the U.S. could reduce its military spending a little and spend more on improving the livelihood of the American people and doing more good things for the world -- wouldn't that be a better scenario?"
This was the Chinese People's Liberation Army Chief of General Staff Gen. Chen Bingde's suggestion to Americans during the visit of his counterpart Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen. Well, we are obliging the Chinese general -- at least in part. We are cutting defense. General Chen would be especially happy to know that in particular we are foregoing investment in the types of systems that help keep us "present" in Asia -- though Admiral Mullen assured Asian audiences that we will be there for the long haul. Whether we are cutting defense in order to improve the livelihood of the American people is a separate, hotly debated question. Color me skeptical.
But on the first part of General Chen's suggestion, here is how we are heeding his advice. We are not properly resourcing: a) the submarines the Navy says it needs, or, for that matter, the number of ships in its own shipbuilding plan; b) stealthy tactical aircraft (by the Air Force's own account, they will face an 800-fighter shortfall later this decade); and c) a long-range bomber, now called "the long-range strike family of systems," particularly by those who think this system is silver bullet for our Asia posture. We were supposed to be deploying new bombers by 2018. Not a chance. The program is estimated to cost $40-50 billion in total, and respected aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia predicts that we will not see a new bomber until well into the next decade. Yes, that's right, a new bomber somewhere in the 2020s.
So General Chen, no need to worry about our defense spending -- we will not have enough submarines or tactical aircraft, and there is no new bomber on the horizon. All are supposed to play a role in the much vaunted AirSea Battle strategy that is our answer to China's growing military power.
But Mullen insists, as did Secretary Gates and other top U.S. leaders, we will still be there for our friends and our allies. Given the numbers, the next time a leading U.S. official insists that we are going to be "present" in Asia, journalists have a duty to ask, "With what?"
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Is there an ideological basis for the emerging rivalry between the United States and the People's Republic of China? This question is at the heart of an article that I recently published in The National Interest and which I address at greater length in my forthcoming book.
It is sometimes said that because China is no longer a "Communist country" ideology is no longer a factor in U.S.-China relations. Like most truisms about China ("economic growth will lead inevitably to democracy;" "treat China like an enemy and it will become one") this one is, at best, only partly true. China's present leaders may not longer be Marxists, but they are most certainly Leninists; they believe that the one party authoritarian regime they lead should continue in power and they are determined to crush any opposition or dissent. Preserving CCP rule is the ultimate aim of all elements of Chinese policy, foreign as well as domestic.
As seen from Beijing, the United States appears as a crusading liberal democratic hegemon, intent on undermining the authority of regimes of which it disapproves and ultimately of remaking the entire world in its own image. This fear colors the Chinese government's perception of every aspect of U.S. policy and shapes its assessment of America's activities across Asia, which it believes are aimed at encircling it with pro-U.S. democracies.
The American people, meanwhile, are inclined to view with skepticism and distaste a regime that they regard as oppressive, illiberal, and potentially aggressive. While it is usually dressed in diplomatic language, the long-term aim of U.S. policy towards China is, in fact, to encourage "regime change," albeit gradually and by peaceful means.
Differences in ideology thus tend to heighten the mistrust and competitive impulses that are rooted in the dynamics of geopolitics. Since Athens and Sparta, dealings between dominant powers and fast-rising potential challengers have always been fraught with tension and have often resulted in conflict. Relations between the United States and China were never going to be smooth but, for as long as it persists, the ideological gap that now separates them is going to make it much harder to achieve a stable modus vivendi.
Now for the good news: if China does liberalize there is good reason to hope that relations between the two Pacific powers will improve, perhaps markedly. Hardcore "realists" doubt this, arguing that China's interests and policies will remain essentially the same, regardless of the character of its domestic regime. But this is a dubious assertion. A strong, democratic China would certainly seek a leading role in its region. But it would also be less fearful of internal instability, less threatened by the presence of democratic neighbors, more confident of its own legitimacy, and less prone to seek validation at home through the domination and subordination of others. For its part, while it will resist the efforts of an authoritarian regime to displace it from the region, the United States would probably be willing eventually to relinquish its position in Asia to a democratic China.
Those who believe that the United States is no longer capable of strategic planning should pay a visit to the Pacific Command (PACOM), headed by the impressive Admiral Willard. Besides the almost unimaginable number of tasks associated with running a command of 325,000 personal that covers half of the globe, Admiral Willard has also charged himself and his staff with long-range strategic planning for this most vital of regions. Unfortunately, Washington is of little help. Not only can the bureaucracy (under any administration) no longer respond to anything but a day's events, but political leaders on both sides of the aisle have been asking PACOM to do more and more with less and less for over a decade.
What's more, PACOM has little strategic guidance. As a country, we vaguely know that we want to deter Chinese aggression while encouraging "responsible behavior"; integrate India as a full strategic partner; empower Southeast Asian countries as independent, prosperous, and hopefully democratic partners; encourage Japan to play a "normal" role; and denuclearize North Korea while working for eventual unification of the peninsula under Seoul's governance. But military staffs need to plan -- and no one knows for what exactly we are planning. Will we or won't we come to Taiwan's defense? Will we get into a conflict over disputes in the South China Sea? Will we intervene in a Sino-Japanese conflict? What if China is the main aggressor in a Korea conflagration? All unclear.
The situation is most akin to the years of "Orange" planning at the Naval War College that unfolded over the three decades before the Pacific War. We knew we might one day have to fight Imperial Japan, but we had no idea over what. We possessed the Philippines but we certainly would not go to war over those islands alone. Taiwan today is the closest analogue. It may be the trigger over a fight for, as Aaron Friedberg has put it, "mastery" or "supremacy over half the world."
While Taiwan may seem today to be an idiosyncratic American concern about democratic friends, if attacked the island may look like the place where China has chosen to change the global balance of power. Unfortunately, the years of "Orange" planning ended up in a horrific Pacific War. American ambiguity over red lines played its part in triggering that conflict. Japan attacked China with no response. Tokyo did not know if an invasion of Southeast Asia would be met with similar passivity. Finally, Japan decided that one decisive blow against the U.S. fleet in Hawaii would keep Washington out of the sphere of influence it was building in Asia. It was wrong.
Ambiguity has its place -- it allows for flexibility. In the case of Sino-American relations, ambiguity allows the United States to respond both to an aggressive China and one that does not repeat the mistakes of Imperial Japan. But clarity serves its purposes too. Secretaries Clinton and Gates, for example, proclaimed "core interests," as the Chinese would say, in freedom of navigation through the South China Sea; PACOM is now trying to interpret and operationalize Washington's guidance.
But an uneven commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act, a law that has helped to keep the cross-Strait peace for decades, only invites more Chinese probing and testing in the place where Beijing is most likely to challenge American staying power.
PACOM is doing its part to, as the military likes to say, "shape" the region in concert with U.S. interests -- through its planning, its robust program of engagement with allies and partners, and its very active and enduring presence. Besides the lack of clarity from Washington -- a function of the absence of effective strategic planning mechanisms -- political leaders are overtaxing the command charged with defense of the world's most vital region. We are slowly and without due deliberation heading toward the famous "Lippmann Gap" -- our declared interests in Asia keep growing, we ask PACOM to do what it can to advance them, but we starve them of resources to do the job. We are coming to a point where either we retrench from our commitments in Asia (a policy with untold consequences) or we decide as a nation to properly fund them.
Hana'lei Shimana/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
International Relations theorist Charles Glaser has joined a growing chorus calling for the abandonment of Taiwan. His take on why we should abandon the island is tucked into his "nuanced version of realism" argued on the pages of Foreign Affairs. As do most "abandon Taiwan" arguments, he begins with a "realist" argument for why war between the United States and China is unlikely. Why? Because besides Taiwan, Sino-U.S. interests are compatible.
Parting company with other "pessimistic" realists who believe that "power transitions" -- the historic condition of a rising power challenging the existing hegemon -- more often than not lead to war, Glaser believes that this time it is different. The security dilemma (in pursuing our security we take steps which decrease their security which leads them to take steps which decrease our security, a process that can end in conflict) in the Sino-U.S. case. The task for Beijing and Washington (but mostly Washington) is to trust that each country just wants security, not domination.
For example, the United States should not fear China's nuclear build-up because of Beijing's limited ability to strike the U.S. homeland. According to this logic, the United States should forego temptations to increase its own nuclear arsenal in response to China's own increases. All China is doing is increasing its security with a second strike capability. In turn, China should not fear U.S. conventional capabilities because most are resident across the Pacific.
But ultimately, the argument goes, it is up to the United States and not China, to make adjustments to its security posture and not exaggerate threats that China poses. The United States is safe because China will never have the means to destroy its deterrent.
Glaser concedes that this theory overlooks the fact that U.S. security alliances could seem threatening to China. Here we get to the nub of his argument. The United States must ask itself how important its security alliances are. Unlike "Neo-isolationists," Glaser, an advocate of "selective engagement," believes that the alliances with South Korea and Japan are important. And the United States could defend those alliances without creating a debilitating arms race if it provides just enough conventional deterrence, plus the threat of nuclear retaliation should those countries come under attack.
To Glaser, Taiwan is different. China's belief that Taiwan is part of it is non-negotiable, and Beijing and Washington have very different views of what constitutes the status quo across the Strait. The Taiwan dispute has no diplomatic solution and the risks of nuclear war are getting too high, particularly with China's advancing second strike capability. His answer is for the United States to make the necessary "adjustments" and abandon Taiwan.
He acknowledges potential critics who may say appeasement usually whets the appetite of the appeased. But, says Glaser, not all adversaries are Hitler, and China has limited territorial goals. Even if China has more expansive territorial claims, the United States can remediate any military imbalance through a greater conventional presence.
In the end, the real danger is a self-fulfilling prophesy, a failure by the United States to realize that its basic goals are compatible with China's. Glaser fears that this is already happening -- the United States is taking a much more competitive military stance because its ability to operate along China's periphery is in danger. According to Glaser, this dilemma has two solutions. The first is for Washington to realize that U.S. interests are changing -- Taiwan is not really vital. And second, the United States should forego the kind of nuclear superiority that could counter China's second strike capability. Problem solved.
This is a fairly conventional international theory argument about the relative stability of Sino-American relations. Glaser is essentially taking a side in an old debate. His innovation is the abandonment of Taiwan, a necessary step to decrease the security dilemma and reveal China's truly limited aims.
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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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The past two
months have witnessed a series of revelations regarding China's growing
military power. In December 2010, Admiral Robert Willard, Commander of U.S. Pacific
Command, declared that the aircraft carrier-killing DF-21D anti-ship ballistic
missile had achieved initial operating capability. Last month, photographs and
video of the J-20 fifth-generation stealth aircraft, a plane considerably more
advanced than observers expected of China, appeared on the internet.
On Monday, Ross Babbage, the founder of Australia's respected think tank, the Kokoda Foundation, issued a monograph, Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030 that examined the changing military balance in the Western Pacific and its implications for Australia. It is a report that demands the attention of policy makers in Washington.
Babbage argued that China's aggressive military modernization is rapidly undermining the pillars that have supported American presence in the Western Pacific for more than half a century. As he puts it, "China is for the first time close to achieving a military capability to deny United States and allied forces access to much of the Western Pacific rim." He catalogues China's anti-access efforts, which include cruise and ballistic missiles that can attack ships and fixed targets; a massive investment in cyber-warfare capabilities, with reports of tens of thousands of Chinese cyber intrusions daily; new classes of both nuclear and conventionally powered submarines; a substantial increase in the Chinese nuclear stockpile; a huge investment in space warfare; and a massive increase in fighter bomber and other airborne strike capabilities.
Babbage argued that Australia will need to take drastic action in order to protect its interests in a region increasingly dominated by China. These include acquiring a fleet of 12 nuclear-powered attack submarines (the report hinted at leasing or purchasing Virginia-class SSNs from the United States), developing conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, increasing Australia's investment in cyber warfare, and hosting American forces on Australian soil.
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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.