Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Erase that war with China 'in 2014'

Erase that war with China 'in 2014'
By Peter Lee

At the end of 2011, in an article on this site titled "Maybe that war with China isn't so far off after all", I drew that gloomy conclusion because the United States, thanks to the justifications, excuses, and pretexts surrounding its desire to "pivot to Asia", had created the doctrinal and public relations

justification and institutional incentives for military hostilities with the PRC. [1]

The slowly developing pivot has certainly created problems for the People's Republic in 2013, energizing its antagonists, marginalizing its supporters, and turning China's search for advantage in its East Asian environment into a grinding, costly slog, marked by incessant friction between Japan and China, the escalating defiance of the Philippines, and the alarming emergence of India as Japan's explicit security partner.

Despite talk of a "new model" of US-China relations, the new regime of Xi Jinping has not hit many of the conciliatory marks that the United States pointedly set for it (and, in the case of Syria, its resistance to the Obama administration's policies have been rather clearly vindicated).

In East Asia, China continues to claim objectionable security prerogatives, particularly in its maritime zone. Western elite opinion is set against the country as an assertive, uncooperative, and disturbing force - witness the media uproar against the PRC for failing to supply the level of typhoon aid to the Philippines that might validate China's legitimacy as a benign regional power, at least in the eyes of the West - and the outlook for 2014 is more complaints and more coercion.

Increasingly, this attitude manifests itself as the assertion in the Western public sphere that US relations with the PRC are veering from the model of peaceful competition to an existential good versus evil cage match. This is demonstrably not the opinion in PRC pundit-land, nor does it seem to be the case when considering the actual application of US pivot policy. In fact, a closer reading of the events of 2013 imply that there are more pressing and productive priorities for the US in Asia than teeing up World War III.

The general trend in 2013 was to nibble away at the PRC's weak points in relatively peaceful, economic-centric ways, and shy away from the genuine fire-eating confrontations that might cause an armed clash and upset the shaky global economic applecart.

The new trend was typified by US engagement with Myanmar. The Myanmar junta, aware that its wholesale reliance on the unpopular PRC presence was pushing it into a political and economic cul de sac, reached out to the United States in 2011 by postponing the Myitsone dam, a high-profile PRC-funded hydro project, and by negotiating an accommodation on political reform with Aung San Suu Kyi. (If executed uncle and pro-Beijing asset in Pyongyang Jang Song-thaek turns out to be North Korea's Myitsone Dam, we may be in for an interesting year of awkward US-DPRK outreach on the Korean peninsula as well).

The United States also exploited fears of the Chinese boogeyman to push its "Trans Pacific Partnership", a trade pact that is perhaps more significant for the sovereignty-eroding giveaway it represents for global corporate interests than as an engine of economic growth or weapon for China-bashing. The TPP got a big boost, at least politically, through the Shinzo Abe government's determination to push Japan into the pact. Pragmatic Asian powers also jumped on the bandwagon, while declaring conditional and partial allegiance to the PRC-sponsored alternative: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP.

In response, the PRC even expressed an interest to join the TPP itself (certainly to block Japan's efforts to use the TPP to secure its anti-China economic alliance and possibly in order to treat the pact seriously as cover for domestic economic reforms) which would certainly dilute the pact's China-bashing panache.

The biggest setback for the United States was l'affaire Edward Snowden, which scuppered the US effort to lead the discussions of the world's economic agenda with China - and deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by the retirement of that old warhorse, yuan undervaluation, paired with the concurrent US attempt to weaken its currency through quantitative easing - by depicting the PRC as a cyber-gangster who had stolen its way to prosperity by filching American secrets, so completely that some observers declared that Snowden was actually a Chinese agent.

Nevertheless, the successful US effort to deny the PRC a legitimate regional and global voice chugged on, in the form of the "assertive China threat" narrative supported by the PRC's highhandedness in the South China Sea, particularly with the incensed Philippine government, further fueled by the media vaporings over the PRC's declaration in November of an air defense intelligence zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, and advanced more systematically by the increasingly independent Shinzo Abe and the cycle of provocations that Japan and the PRC cautiously execute around the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Abe took advantage of US forbearance to stick his finger in the Senkaku sore and use the resulting Chinese squeals as cover for his agenda of remilitarizing Japan's global presence through security cooperation with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, and - somewhat further afield - Turkey. (I patiently await the discovery by an alarmed and aroused Western media that Japan, thanks to its enormous stock of plutonium metal and its otherwise useless space program, is a threshold nuclear weapons power. As to the canard that metal recovered from spent reactor fuel cannot be used in nuclear weapons, I direct the interested reader here.)

At the same time, the PRC encouraged the Senkaku friction with its own calculated affronts, including announcement of the ADIZ to cover the islands. In addition to "slicing the salami" with incremental assertions of its maritime position, the PRC appears to be implementing a strategy quite similar to the North Korean program of calculated aggravation, trying to lure the United States into taking a constructive position between Japan and China to resolve the issue.

The United States has not risen to the bait and has explicitly reaffirmed the coverage of the Senkakus in the US-Japan Defense Treaty (a position that, I never tire of pointing out, [2] the Obama administration was poised to abandon in 2010 just before the miraculous event of the detention by Japan of Chinese fishing-boat captain Zhan Qixiong triggered Chinese reprisals and forced the US to side with Japan), thereby enabling the "China threat" narrative that forms the cornerstone of Shinzo Abe's efforts to redefine Japan's place in Asia, reinvigorate the Japanese economy, and build a network of regional alliances keystoned by India, Vietnam, and the Philippines as a complement to US backing.

More subtly, Prime Minister Abe took advantage of the defiance of the Chinese ADIZ by US military aircraft (an oft-asserted and exclusive right of the world's military hegemon certainly not reciprocally extended to any foreign power approaching the US) to claim the same privilege for Japanese aircraft, thereby virtually guaranteeing that if and when the South China Sea's ADIZ number comes up, everybody will be asserting the same right to fly their military aircraft wherever they want.

If the goal is to render any South China Sea ADIZ moot and thwart the PRC's regional pretensions, success is at hand. If, on the other hand, one would prefer that the purpose and utility of an ADIZ was respected and countries would not fly their military aircraft through other people's sensitive airspace without filing flight plans and talking on the radio, creating a regional ADIZ-defying regime is perhaps not the happy high road to aviation safety and avoidance of the dread "accidents and misunderstandings" that otherwise obsess anxious observers of the frictions in China's maritime near-beyond.

The purpose of the pivot, as it was originally presented, was not to stick it to the PRC for the sake of pure pleasure (albeit a pleasure that some pundits and politicians yearn to taste again and again and find almost fatally addictive); the threat and exercise of the pivot were intended to redirect Chinese behavior into avenues more advantageous to the United States.

Middle East again, but further east
By this metric, US success has been more equivocal. The pivot has modified the PRC's behavior, but indirectly, in response to regional forces unleashed by the pivot, and in ways that do not redound automatically to the benefit of the United States. The pivot to Asia threatens to replicate the US adventure in the Middle East, where US policy was very much in thrall to local allies - Israel, Saudi Arabia - that influenced and sometimes drove US regional policy into places the United States really didn't want to go.

This situation threatens to replicate itself in US relations with Japan. Prime Minister Abe enjoys remarkably good press in the United States, which is perhaps a tribute both to the energy his government puts into public relations and the considerable slack that Japan gets cut as an Asian democracy and US ally. However, it should be recalled that Abe is:

a) an old-school imperial nationalist;
b) a historical revisionist deeply resentful of the framing of the Pacific War as the virtuous US versus evil Japan (and, for that matter, innocent, victimized China); and
c) has first-hand bitter experience of the unreliability of US government support when the George W Bush administration threw him under the bus on the abductees issue in its rush to make a deal with North Korea during Abe's first term as prime minister in 2007.

Abe's desire to have Japan master of its own fate - in defense, security, and foreign policy - is not just a matter of his nationalistic preoccupation with the Chinese threat. It reflects his desire to transform Japan's relations with the United States from subservient ally to independent peer - and potential tail wagging the dog.

The PRC government has continually pounded on the issue of the divergence between the Asian visions of the Abe administration and the United States. Outgoing PRC premier Wen Jiabao made an unlikely visit to Germany to praise the Postdam Declaration (which called for unconditional surrender of Japan to the United States and its allies - including Chiang Kai-shek's China - in World War II) as the enduring foundation of the Asian security order.

PRC affirmations of the crucial US security role in East Asia have not mollified Western public critics, perhaps since the PRC has combined endorsement of the general principle with its irritating bullying of the Philippines and Vietnam, and most recently, the arousing the US Navy's indignation with its interference with US surveillance of the Chinese navy's aircraft carrier Liaoning in international waters.

But it appears that understanding of the PRC position - and the additional leverage it offers US diplomacy - has quietly found its way into US China policy.

One could say that in 2013 the US tiptoed to the edge of the abyss, looked in, realized it contained some bad things - such as Shinzo Abe calling the Asia shots instead of President Obama - in addition to the seductive mirage of liberal democratic triumph, and is learning to live with a new status quo of managed hostility and cautious opportunism.

Unexpectedly, the US China brief found its way into the reassuring hands of John Kerry, while new National Security Advisor Susan Rice was given ample leisure to reflect upon the miserable outcomes in Libya and Syria that her campaigns of confrontation (and anti-Chinese and anti-Russian vituperation) at the UN had yielded.

The United States government held Japan in check by reiterating its neutrality on the Senkakus sovereignty issue (a position that China hawks are pressing it to abandon) and refusing to replicate Japan's orders to its airlines to defy the East China Sea ADIZ (in one of those little-noted developments, South Korea decided to honor the Chinese ADIZ once its own ADIZ extension had been successfully announced, leaving Japan as the only country in the world whose civil airliners refuse to respect the Chinese air defense identification zone).

Secretary of State Kerry's pre-emptive harrumphing on the inadvisability of a PRC ADIZ declaration in the South China Sea, delivered in Vietnam with the concurrent announcement of increased maritime security assistance to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, appears to represent the US attempt to be ahead of the curve (and ahead of the determinedly confrontational Philippines) in the South China Sea, instead of reacting to the PRC and Japan as it did in the East China Sea ADIZ fracas.

The fact of moderation beneath the veneer of extreme rhetoric on both sides seems lost on the Western media, perhaps thanks to the PRC's decision under new supremo Xi Jinping to abandon the futile soft-power stylings of his predecessor Hu Jintao and crack down on the media.

PRC President Xi apparently decided that his plans for securing power and advancing his agenda, reform and otherwise, involved tight controls over dissent and the media, foreign as well as domestic. Fruitlessly currying favor with the Western corporate media is not on Xi's to-do list. Reducing the space for news outlets to discover and propagate information embarrassing to the regime and deleterious to its prestige and authority, on the other hand, clearly is.

Western journalists in Beijing and their employers have been subjected to a barrage of harassment, exemplified by the government declining to renew visas for Bloomberg and New York Times in a timely manner in retaliation for their temerity in reporting on the corrupt wellsprings of the immense wealth enjoyed by the PRC's leading families and individuals.

It seems that this aggravating state of affairs has caused some journalists to conflate the travails of Western media organizations in China with an overall Chinese agenda of confrontation with the West.

There are certain rumblings in the China-watching side of the Internet that we are entering an era of containment, with invocations of George Kennan's doctrine of containment against the Soviet Union presented in his seminal 1947 essay, "The Sources of Soviet Power".

Kennan's containment theory drew its strength - and America's self-satisfying posture of moral superiority - from the idea that the USSR was a failed system that couldn't handle the truth. Unable to face up to its political, social, and moral failings, the USSR would instead dishonestly define the West as its hostile, active enemy, wall itself up within its nasty communist Iron Curtain, and eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

At the popular level, the Cold War containment analogy is a tribute to the heroic ability of people in the West to forget the erosion of US hegemony over the last 20 years and turn their

thoughts to the infinitely more gratifying vision of the PRC falling on its ass for the same reasons that the USSR did.

In the case of the People's Republic of China, which has done rather well for itself over the last 25 years - and has increasingly integrated itself into the West-led capitalist economy - the containment framing looks mistaken, both as an explanation for China's behavior and as a justification for Western policy. The PRC renounced war on the West and on capitalism when Mao withdraw support for communist struggles in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War and invited Nixon to China. Deng Xiaoping threw North Korea under the bus by normalizing relations with South Korea.

The PRC's response to the slide of Myanmar toward the Western camp has been to step up diplomatic and economic engagement, not to recapitulate the Warsaw Pact invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. And the last war that China fought - the 1979 incursion into Vietnam (only one war in the last 35 years? What kind of great power is that?) - was a joint project of the US and the PRC to balk the Soviet Union's push into Southeast Asia.

In 2013, if anybody is trying to use the threat of an alien system and an implacable enemy to revitalize national and security doctrines challenged by disturbing national and global trends in the way Kennan envisioned, it's not the People's Republic of China. Interested observers would be advised to look (*cough* Japan *cough* United States *cough*) elsewhere.

Xi Jinping's PRC doesn't want to confront the West - it wants to do business with it and to minimize disruptions as the Chinese leadership wrestles with its large and intractable domestic economic and social problems. In foreign affairs, the PRC if anything wants the United States as an ally, or at least a sympathetic participant, in its effort to create a new security tripod that somehow incorporates the PRC, the US, and China's increasingly hated rival Japan, into an advantageous regional security and economic framework.

It will be interesting to see if in 2014 Xi decides to follow through on some vague rumblings in the Chinese press and bids farewell once and for all to the archaic nine-dash-line that delineates its claims in the South China Sea, in order to regularize the situation there and put maritime relations with ASEAN on a truly modern footing.

It can be argued that the key feature of the world in 2013 is not the bifurcation of into Chinese and anti-Chinese camps. Chinese foreign policy and diplomacy are still largely driven by its desire to avoid isolation before the West and dilute the polarizing power of "the pivot to Asia".

A better model for China, and arguably for relations in Asia, instead of Soviet-style containment, might be "Balance of Power", the arrangement that kept hostile nations in Europe at peace for several decades until the whole edifice came crashing down in World War I.

Given the PRC's interest in solving its extremely vexing domestic problems - and, I think, awareness that xenophobic nationalism directed at Japan might offer some political breathing space but a war in East Asia will only serve to exacerbate China's difficulties - the next few years will see it try to avoid the cathartic Good versus Evil confrontation that China-bashers long for.

Pivot 2.0
As long as the PRC is an authoritarian state, the West will presumably never completely abandon the rhetoric of containment. But the emerging reality might be something different - and beneficial to the United States and the overall security order in Asia.

Pivot 2.0 might not involve roiling Asian security in order to forestall Chinese regional hegemony from supplanting US preeminence; instead it might involve acceptance of a shift toward military parity within the region as burgeoning economies, threat perception (and inflation), and the desire for independence in security policy drive defense spending of all the Asian countries. At the same time, economic interrelatedness of the various antagonistic parties would hopefully heighten awareness of the dangers to all sides of unbalanced reliance on the military/security narrative.

If things break the Chinese way, the United States will respond to its evolving role in Asia to play the honest broker and counterbalancer-in-chief, instead of clinging to its role as my-way-or-the-highway hyperpower lawgiver-in-chief on behalf of the Asian democracies confronting China.

Of course, things might not break the Chinese way, a not unlikely scenario since the current generation of US leaders lacks the doctrine, experience, skills, or inclination to function effectively in an environment that demands more than the determined exercise of hegemony.

And, unfortunately for America's allies as well as its enemies, the US track record as the practitioner of hegemony is decidedly mixed.

That the United States is the responsible, omni-competent steward of the world's freedom and prosperity is a pleasing assumption that Washington does nothing to dispel. Indeed, this sunny view provides the much of the underlying justification for the assertion that the US "pivot to Asia" will make things much, much better for everybody, instead of recapitulating the three decades of misery that the United States has helped perpetuate in the previous focus of its attention and abilities, the Middle East.

For a worst-case look at what the United States could inflict on Asia, consider the presidency of George W Bush.

Thanks to the unexpected appearance of a Middle East quagmire beneath the carpet of rose petals scattered for Iraq's American liberators, the Bush administration did not have much opportunity for Asian mischief.

However, countering the China threat was a touchstone for vice president Dick Cheney, who considered the application of a chokehold to the PRC's energy supplies an important justification for the adventure in Iraq. His allies in the Department of Defense were not afraid to play the Taiwan card and with it the promise of more creative destruction in East Asia.

In 2007, Congressional Quarterly relayed the recollections of former secretary of state Colin Powell's chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, concerning the neo-conservative perspective on Taiwan independence:

    The Defense Department, with Feith, Cambone, Wolfowitz [and] [defense secretary] Rumsfeld, was dispatching a person to Taiwan every week ... essentially to tell [president at the time, from the Democratic Progressive Party] Chen Shui-bian ... that independence was a good thing.

Wilkerson said Powell would then dispatch his own envoy "right behind that guy, every time they sent somebody, to disabuse the entire Taiwanese national security apparatus of what they'd been told by the Defense Department".

"This went on," he said of the pro-independence efforts, "until George Bush weighed in and told Rumsfeld to cease and desist [and] told him multiple times to re-establish military-to-military relations with China."

The head of the American Institute in Taiwan in this period was Theresa Sheehan, who was married to Larry DeRita, Donald Rumsfeld's chief press flack at the Pentagon. She used her bully pulpit to push for Taiwan independence and support the credibility of the Department of Defense approach until Colin Powell demanded her resignation and she was removed.

For those that draw reassurance from the fact that Cheney is now out of office, recall that the evil that men do lives on…

Even after the various foreign policy and political debacles of president Bush's second term had discredited Cheney's aggressive foreign policy posture, the vice president shrugged off Condoleezza Rice's attempts to assert control over US foreign policy and embarked on a "going rogue" tour to rally support for a confrontational anti-PRC alliance of Japan, India, Australia, and the United States in 2007.

Shinzo Abe, in his brief first prime ministership, was the receptive focus of Mr Cheney's attentions. He enthusiastically endorsed the four-way "diamond" containment policy, made it the centerpiece of his Asian strategy, and has sought to implement it with a major security outreach to India during his current term.

With this background, one of the most significant metrics for mischief in Asia is the political situation in Taiwan and in particular the unpopularity of the Republic of China's determinedly pro-mainland President Ma Ying-jeou. As a November 13 item from the Taipei Times tells us, he has been unable to spin any political gold out of his tilt toward Beijing:

    The poll, conducted from Tuesday to Thursday, found that just 15.5 percent of respondents approved of Ma's performance, the lowest since the think tank began conducting a bi-monthly poll in March last year. His disapproval rating also hit a record high of 75.9 percent. [3]

If Ma is unable to turn things his way, the independence-minded Democratic People's Party and its presumptive presidential nominee, Su Tseng-chang, will be in the driver's seat in 2017. Su cultivates ties to Japanese ultra-nationalist Shintaro Ishihara as a counterweight to the Kuomintang romance with Beijing and is quite possibly mulling endorsement of Japan's claim to the Senkakus as part of his strategy of realignment.

If the DPP takes power, Prime Minister Abe continues his productive meddling in regional geopolitics and the PRC continues to get the back up of its neighbors with its maritime policies, then forbearance of the United States becomes more important in coping with a destabilizing scenario of a successful Taiwan independence referendum with Japanese backing.

In that case, the PRC is faced with either accepting a huge knock on its prestige and power or pushing the war button. [4]

If Taiwan moves toward independence, the United States is not faced with a comfortable containment model, where the United States and its allies are slapping the snout of a Chinese dragon trying to intrude into regions beyond those considered right and proper. Instead, it will be dealing with an overt repudiation of the one-China system, major disruption to the regional balance of power, and the need to push back against an angry adversary driven by irredentist sentiment, nationalism, and a sense of existential threat.

That is a situation that I believe the Obama administration is not keen to find itself in. But the Obama administration will not be in power in 2017.

I think that the politicians today have the foresight not to roll the dice on war in Asia. But, as they say, past results are no guarantee of future performance. No war in 2014. But 2017? I wouldn't take any bets right now.

1. Maybe that war with China isn't so far off after all, Asia Times Online, December 22, 2011.
2. Japan spins anti-China merry-go-round, Asia Times Online, October 29, 2010.
3. Ma’s rating hits rock bottom: poll, Taipei Times, November 9, 2013.
4. DPP chairman risks Beijing backlash by meeting Ishihara, South China Morning Post, February 3, 2013.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

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