Shadow Government

Japan and China: Not Yet 1914, but Time to Pay Attention

The growing tensions between Japan and China are coinciding menacingly with the 100th anniversary of the First World War. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe evoked this parallel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week when he said the two countries must avoid the fate of Britain and Germany. A Chinese government source helpfully responded by stressing that China's senior leadership had formally decided not to have a war with Japan (well, that's a relief…). But another senior Chinese business leader at Davos said that China could put an end to the impasse by suddenly seizing the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by force before Japan or the United States had time to respond. This same bravado and visceral anti-Japanese sentiment was on display with recent senior visitors from Beijing to Washington just before Davos.

If there are parallels to be drawn to 1914, they had better be the right ones. The prevailing narrative in Barack Obama's administration seems to be drawn from Christopher Clark's book The Sleepwalkers, which portrays the Great War as a tragic escalation by all sides with equal complicity and moral failing. The administration has formally accepted Chinese President Xi Jinping's proposal for a "new model of great-power relations," despite high-level démarches from some allies that it not do so. Why? Because Xi has described this formula as the best way to avoid the tragic wars between rising powers in the past. This may be a perfectly reasonable approach by Washington, if not for the great uncertainty surrounding China's strategic aims. For example, what does Xi have in mind? A peaceful handover of the reins of global leadership from Washington to Beijing? It is unclear that Washington has thought through the implications of this "new model" for global order. And what the rest of Asia sees, even if this is not what the administration intended, is a deliberate shift in Obama's second term toward a bipolar condominium with China. Those living in Beijing's neighborhood want China to emerge as one of many, hopefully democratic, powers in Asia with the United States as the security partner of first resort.

A better read on 1914 comes in Max Hastings's new book, Catastrophe 1914, or the classic studies on origins of war by Donald Kagan. Here the narrative is not a failure to accommodate a rising power, but rather the failure by Britain, then the prime actor in the international system, to maintain a favorable balance of power and meet its alliance obligations, and the resulting imperative to fight rather than have Germany upend the prevailing European order. Not that he wants to fight, but this is much closer to the scene that Abe and many of his Asian neighbors see unfolding in Asia, with the United States now wavering in similar ways as did Britain before World War I. It is China's use of military, diplomatic, and mercantilist coercion in an effort to undermine Japan's current administrative control that is at the heart of current tensions. But China's current coercion of Japan over the islands is but a symptom of a larger illness in the international system. China has been leveraging its naval modernization to increase its movements through the seas and choke points surrounding Japan to break out into the Pacific. Last November, for example, flotillas of People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy destroyers and submarines backed by air power encircled Japan for the first time, as PLA officers bragged about splitting and demolishing the first island chain. China is changing the regional balance with little resistance from the United States. Counter to Chinese public claims of surprise at a U.S. "overreaction," recent discussions with Chinese officials over Beijing's December air defense identification zone announcement suggests that the United States' response was much weaker than the response the Chinese leadership had expected.

What is Japan really doing do merit all this venom from China? What we have asked for since John Foster Dulles: reorienting its self-defense forces to help defend the first island chain -- a key part of U.S. defense strategy in the Pacific since the end of World War II -- and revising interpretations of the Japanese Constitution to allow for more collective self-defense with the United States and other partners like Australia. Abe has increased Japan's defense budget by less than 1 percent after a decade-plus of slow decline. China's military has exploded with double-digit defense budget increases for decades. And Abe's changes are occurring in an entirely transparent and incremental manner under close scrutiny from the Diet and the media.

Since the end of the Cold War, successive U.S. administrations have dealt with China's rise through a combination of engaging Beijing and balancing with closer alliance ties. This approach is now out of equilibrium. It is time for tighter security relations and clearer commitments to Japan and other allies like the Philippines that are now under pressure from Beijing. If the administration maintains a cool distance in hopes it will prevent escalation, the result will be more hedging by America's allies and a greater temptation for Beijing to think a quick grab of disputed territories will go unanswered. In other words, the current state of affairs increases the chance of escalation. Nobody is sleepwalking in Beijing. It seems as though Washington is.

Photo: ARCHIVES/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Bringing Freedom House to the White House

Freedom House has just issued the 2014 edition of its indispensable "Freedom in the World" report. Regrettably, the distinguished, nonpartisan organization offers a bleak assessment of democratic deterioration around the world. This continues a negative global trend. For the eighth consecutive year, political rights and civil liberties have eroded overall, with Freedom House's scrupulously compiled ratings finding that 14 more countries have backslid than have progressed.

The causes of these declines are sundry, including economic stagnation, resurgent Islamist movements, tactical missteps by democracy activists, and crafty innovations by authoritarians determined to preserve their hold on power. Unfortunately, American policy is not blameless. As erstwhile Shadow Government contributor David J. Kramer (now the head of Freedom House) and his colleague Arch Puddington wrote, "no less worrisome than these trends is the democratic world's passivity in response.... [T]he Obama administration has signaled, in words and policies, that the encouragement of democracy is no longer a priority."

Will the White House even read the Freedom House report? I hope so, but I fear not. Many others and I have commented on this before, but it bears revisiting because it continues to be such a costly missed opportunity: Barack Obama's administration has abandoned the promotion of freedom precisely when it is most needed. The irony is poignant: The Obama presidency held abundant potential to be a potent force for global human rights and democracy because of this president's historic role as the first African-American president of the United States and because of the tremendous political capital his inauguration brought around the world. The turn of history compounded this opportunity, as global shifts including the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, the Arab Awakening, and the fragilities of other authoritarians in the wake of the global economic crisis.

Presidents cannot anticipate momentous events that might happen on their watch, but they are responsible for how they respond. To take two recent examples, when George H.W. Bush took the oath of office in January 1989, he did not know that within 12 months the Iron Curtain would fall, but he did preside over artful statecraft that brought the Cold War to a peaceful end and brought liberation to millions of people in Eastern Europe. Or when George W. Bush took office 12 years later, he had no inkling that within eight months the United States would endure perhaps the most catastrophic and costly surprise attack in its history, but his response did help ensure that America would not suffer another such attack during his presidency.

In contrast, the Obama administration's uncertain responses to the Arab Awakening and the ascendant authoritarianism of China and Russia have been wanting. It appears that a big part of the problem stems from an inflexible, dogmatic invocation of an otherwise sound observation. The Obama administration starts with some basic premises that are true: There are significant limits to how much American policy can change internal conditions in another country, and ham-handed American involvement can make things worse. But, most ironically for a president who revels in his own appreciation of "complexity," the White House turns these premises into simplistic shibboleths that seem to indicate belief that the United States can do absolutely nothing to influence internal conditions in other countries and that any efforts to try will only make things worse. An oddly fundamentalist adherence to these dogmas appears to be at the root of the administration's almost nonexistent democracy policy.

Of course the promotion of democracy and human rights is hard and slow. But some skeptics too often seem to focus only on the internal challenges to democratic institutions within any given country, such as limited economic development, weak institutions, corruption, and cultural traditions inimical to democracy. What is less acknowledged is the role that mischievous outside powers -- such as Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, and Arab funders of intolerant Islamist movements -- play in squelching democratization efforts in other nations. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has been so successful in exporting Russian-style authoritarianism that the new Freedom House report finds Central Asia to have outpaced the Middle East as the region with the most pronounced democratic backsliding. Democratization skeptics in the United States often focus only on the daunting internal factors while downplaying the autocratic interventions of authoritarian powers.

In contrast, many authoritarians see themselves playing a geopolitical contest to expand their influence and put the free world in retreat. This may not have been a contest that the Obama administration sought, but it is the one America has been handed.

In modern American history, when the executive branch equivocates on an important foreign-policy issue, Congress often steps in. There is a robust bipartisan tradition in Congress of support for democracy and human rights, especially when the White House fails to do its part. While Obama's White House appears at this juncture to have the worst presidential record on global democracy and human rights promotion since Richard Nixon's administration, Congress can play its historical role of correcting this imbalance.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of one of the most consequential human rights laws ever, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Designed to support the particular issue of the rights of Russian Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union, Jackson-Vanik soon came to exemplify the broader American commitment to supporting the rights of oppressed peoples around the world. It also represented Congress's effort to correct the Nixon administration's embrace of détente and its apparent acquiescence in Soviet repression. Now Congress is once again intervening. In the wake of the successful passage of the Magnitsky Act targeting Russian oppression of dissidents (and appropriately revoking the now-obsolete Jackson-Vanik Amendment), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have introduced the Global Human Rights Accountability Act.

The White House will likely oppose it, just as it opposed the original Magnitsky Act. Yet with just under three years left in his presidency, as Obama and his team begin to consider not just short-term political expediency but long-term legacy, now is an opportune time to recalibrate some policies. The authoritarians of the world have made their moves; now it is time for America to make its moves and develop a more sophisticated effort to support liberty efforts worldwide. Reading the new Freedom House report would be a good place to start.

Image: Freedom House, www.freedomhouse.org/report/overview-fact-sheet