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Is Washington Getting China Policy Wrong?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
May 22, 2014

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping talk before the opening ceremony of the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Shanghai May 21, 2014. REUTERS/Aly Song Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping talk before the opening ceremony of the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Shanghai on May 21, 2014. (Aly Song/Courtesy Reuters)

It would be easy to think that U.S. policy toward China has gone off the rails. Washington is at odds with Beijing in the East and South China Seas; accusations of cyber espionage are flying across the Pacific; and Beijing is signing big oil and gas deals and talking about shared security concerns with Moscow, even as the United States is trying to coordinate sanctions against Russia for its crisis-inducing behavior in Ukraine.

A number of U.S.—and certainly most published Chinese—analysts place the blame for this deteriorating relationship at the foot of the Obama administration. They wonder why the United States had to levy public charges against specific Chinese individuals for cyber theft of intellectual property (IP). What could possibly be gained except a downward spiral in U.S.–China relations? Yet the question people should be asking is what better options exist for U.S. companies and the White House? The United States has attempted for decades to persuade China to improve its protection of multinationals’ intellectual property rights, and the advent of cyber espionage takes IP theft to a whole new level. If quiet diplomacy and relatively quiet intermittent pressure don’t work, what should be next? Moreover, China certainly has the right to pursue action against U.S. firms or individuals engaged in cyber theft. It has already launched a massive anti-corruption campaign against multinationals; it should appreciate the U.S. need to protect its economic interests as well. While the U.S. move may appear either bold or foolhardy depending on one’s perspective, it was not without reason.

White House critics also claim that the pivot has produced more problems in the Asia Pacific than it has solved. Indeed, the line out of Beijing is that the U.S. rebalance to Asia is responsible for all of the conflicts in the region. Yet the reality is that while U.S. policy has taken on a catchy new name in the pivot, it hasn’t really changed. It is Chinese behavior—and in some cases that of other countries in the region—that has caused new flashpoints to flare. Chinese rhetoric has become more bellicose and its maritime behavior more risky. In just the past few years, Beijing has established an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, redrawn its passport map to include disputed territories, declared new regulations on foreign fishing and survey vessels near Hainan Island, assumed effective control over Scarborough Shoal, and initiated oil exploration activities off the coast of Vietnam, even as it was ostensibly in the midst of discussions with Hanoi for joint development of resources. Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam have each played their own role in exacerbating tensions at different points in time, but for those who believe the U.S. pivot was the starting point for the rising tensions, a simple look back at the timeline of events proves otherwise.

Finally, there is a nascent concern that hardball U.S. policies are responsible for the apparent blossoming of Sino-Russian ties: the signing of a massive oil and gas deal, ten years in the making, and discussions between Moscow and Beijing of enhanced security relations. Again, context is important: Russia and China have long partnered in the United Nations Security Council, often adopting policies counter to those advocated by the United States; they already share a common security platform through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; and while tensions with the EU may have pushed Russia into a less than financially optimal gas pipeline deal with Beijing, the United States had no real influence on the deal. Moreover, any notion that China supports the U.S. position on Crimea should be put aside; it supports its own middle-of-the road position for its own reasons—it doesn’t like interventions into sovereign territory and has serious economic interests at stake in Ukraine. Thus far, it hasn’t changed its position—even with Russian president Putin’s recent visit—and if it does so, it won’t be as a result of U.S. policy.

To spend a day in Washington is to spend a day meeting with scores of people doing nothing but trying to think of ways to improve the U.S.-China relationship. It hasn’t been easy for the past thirty years, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any easier, despite the best efforts of our committed government servants and their counterparts in Beijing. Each country has its own interests and its own priorities, and for now they are not as aligned as anyone would like. At the very least, however, to find common ground necessitates that we understand the reality of the problems at hand.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Kevin Sheives

    Reasonable and solid analysis. Thanks for recognizing this especially: To spend a day in Washington is to spend a day meeting with scores of people doing nothing but trying to think of ways to improve the U.S.-China relationship. It hasn’t been easy for the past thirty years, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any easier, despite the best efforts of our committed government servants and their counterparts in Beijing.

  • Posted by Jack Kalpakian

    Europe and Asia are a single geopolitical unit. Attempting to pressure both Russia and China at the same time will inevitably lead to their alliance. But the ultimate proof that there is no rationality in US foreign policy is what has been taking place with India. Not only did the US create a whole new set of tensions over diplomatic relations, but it has participated in the demonization of Narendra Modi for a decade even before he became Prime Minister. Expect Indian and Chinese conflicts to be quietly resolved by Russian mediation and expect that India to join the other two soon. The US has allowed its prior friends, particularly those in the Atlanticist community to determine its interests, and it will now have to pay the price.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    “Yet the reality is that while U.S. policy has taken on a catchy new name in the pivot, it hasn’t really changed.” Hear, hear.

    Perhaps the most positive lesson that can be learned from all of this is that developments in Asia offer to the United States great opportunities for foreign policy achievements: far greater opportunities than are present elsewhere in the world.

    China’s territorial disputes with neighboring countries do in fact offer to the United States a great opportunity to serve as a power broker, and thus advance its interests, while earning good will and respect. Here is my formula for taking advantage of these developments.

    Daiayu/Senkaku islands:

    Note that they are a long way from Okinawa, let alone mainland Japan. They are in fact closer to Taiwan. While it may be true that Taiwan is headed towards closer ties with China, it is probably not the case that it will someday submit to mainland Chinese rule.

    Whether the base of the dispute is economic or not, the likely solution would seem to be the same. Does Japan have a treaty of Peace and Friendship with Taiwan (R.O.C.) ? If not, make one. If so, amend it. And cede sovereignty of the islands and a reasonable surrounding area to the “Republic of China”. The U.S. is in a position to facilitate this.

    Next, a multi-lateral treaty regarding the South China Sea, in which everyone gets something. Let China join, if it chooses, or be excluded.

    Vietnam, the Phillipines, and Malaysia agree to divide the Spratly Islands and everything else closer to their shores than to China, and agree on closer military ties and collaboration on use and development. Let this include a role for Japanese commercial interest.

    To make this work in the face of Chinese opposition, all of these parties will need to acquire stronger navies, and quickly. And work it must, if there is to be a peaceful resolution to these claims.

    In each case, cost is the major obstacle. None of the countries involved are prosperous enough to support powerful navies. Here again, the United States has a role to play. And so does Japan. Perhaps Taiwan, as well.

    The quick solution. The United States Congress is wrangling with itself, the Department of Defense, and the Obama administration, over the fate of 11 Aegis class navy cruisers which the DOD wishes to pull from service and hold for refit as a cost cutting move. A majority in the House of Representatives is opposed to this.

    Very well. The President of the United States is commander in chief of its armed forces, and he can order the U.S. Navy to do what he wants with its ships, notwithstanding spending directives from Congress. (In this respect, he stands in a much better position than did Nixon in the matter of National League of Cities v. Usery, where Housing and Urban Development was forced to spend money.)

    Let him sell five of these cruisers on easy terms to the Republic of Phillipines. Let the sale include a maintenance contract and technical assistance. Better yet, let it be a lease with an expiration date reasonably related to the useful life of the vessels.

    In return, the U.S. gets renewed rights to Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay. Voila. The US-Phillipine partnership is restored. New life is given to SEATO. The Phillipines get a navy. And the U.S. can now get out of Okinawa, or reduce its presence there.

    Next, let the U.S. sell a few of these cruisers to Japan. Say: two. Let the Japanese in turn sell some naval assets to Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as the Phillipines.

    Next, sell two of these cruisers to the highest SEATO bidder. And let the proceeds pay for overhaul of the remaining.

    Voila, a budget problem goes away, boundaries are placed on China’s offshore territorial ambitions, and SEATO’s strategic frontier acquires a defense.

    Next, let Vietnam be encouraged to cede the Paracels to China, and let the Chinese know that we did them a favor in this regard, since the last thing these two countries need is to go to war again. Vietnam suffers a loss here. But in return, it gains the naval strength to resist further Chinese expansion, in partnership with the Phillipines and Malaysia. And some of the offshore drilling rights that everyone is after.

    Next, let Taiwan be encouraged to negotiate the return of Quemoy and Matsu to the PRC with some commercial and civil guarantees.

    Conclusion: all parties benefit from the resolution of territorial disputes. There is something for everyone, including U.S. commercial interests. The U.S. makes a lot of friends and improves its position in Asia. It comes out looking great.

    Tyler Harwell
    New London, NH

  • Posted by Rodney W. Nichols

    The blog by Elizabeth Economy is a superb example of careful and cogent analysis of the actual situation, rather than sloganeering. One domain in which there is fierce competition and tension, in parallel with robust cooperation and exchange, is science and engineering. Chinese students are all over the US, often in the most productive laboratories, working with American colleagues. Many international projects in physics and chemistry reveal Chinese and Americans in vigorous teamwork. Yet China’s weak protection of intellectual property, and suspicions of Chinese threats to national security, often fray bilateral bonds. “Science diplomacy” has its limits, but must be pushed for mutual benefits.

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