THE US-CHINA RELATIONSHIP…A CRISIS IN THE WORKS / C. Nelson
It now appears that an imminent, possibly major regional crisis over Hong Kong has been postponed, if not resolved. That of course could change overnight, especially if China really imposes its threatened legal takeover of Hong Kong’s judicial system, thus sparking almost certain mass rallies similar to the “Black Lives Matter” protests which have inflamed the United States. ＜June, 2020＞
A second major “wildcard” could also change overnight: whether President Trump’s threat to officially withdraw Hong Kong’s “special status” exempting her from US tariffs, and removing her extensive investment incentives, helped “persuade” Pres. Xi to hold-off, for now. Trump so-far has promised only to do this “if”, and so-far, Xi has not completed the required “legislative” process.
Frankly, our reaction was that functionally, Trump was throwing the people of HK under the bus since, if the US does what's threatened, and if Beijing passes the law it says it will...the pain will be primarily on Hong Kong, not Beijing. Xi knows that Guangzhou and Shanghai have now achieved virtual Hong Kong-like functional status for China.
But even if the US-China-Hong Kong-Asia crisis can be put “on hold”, there are grave, well-known concerns which may never be fully resolved, including cooperation on the Corona virus, global warming, regional maritime tensions, and North Korea.
And recently, there’s renewed pressure on Trump to “revise” US-Taiwan relations due to the increased potential for greater PRC pressure, citing the Hong Kong situation as proof Beijing can’t be trusted. Continued US and Japanese support for the people of Taiwan, keeping them as free as possible from overt Chinese interference, has been a fundamental Beijing-Washington dispute preceding “normalization” of relations in 1978.
Remember, Republican-led support for continued arms sales was, in effect, the Congressional “price” which both Carter and Deng agreed to “pay” for official US recognition of the PRC in 1979.
Also worrisome now, China seems to be increasing pressure on its maritime claims, and regional territorial disputes “using” the Corona virus: Asia commentator Nayan Chanda's take for the Times of India:
...The world's quest for accountability for the coronavirus's spread from Wuhan into a global pandemic appears to have provoked a particularly virulent form of Chinese nationalism. It has enabled China to play the victim of what it sees as a dastardly Western plot to keep it down. From the South China Sea to the streets of Hong Kong, and from Australian farmland to the Silicon Valley, everyone can feel the effects of Beijing's increasingly aggressive posture.
Even the tense exchanges between Chinese and Indian troops in the Himalayas must be understood not as a scuffle for a sliver of land, but as a diplomatic warning shot. India, Chinese leaders reckon, must understand the price it will pay for siding with the West in the contest for global leadership.
Here's today’s big challenge: from Nixon/Kissinger in 1972, the Deng Xiaoping reform period (the Tiananmen tragedy notwithstanding), right through the Jiang Zemin use of WTO access to consolidate economic and financial reforms in late Clinton/early Bush, US policy and debate basically accepted the goal of bringing China into what became then-Deputy Secretary of State Bob Zoellick’s famous “responsible stakeholder” paradigm: working with the leadership in Beijing to integrate into the existing “western” global governance and values systems.
In Zoellick’s first iteration the policy sought to integrate China into the existing system. As China was being integrated, the policy question became now that they are in, will they be a ‘responsible stakeholder’ ? It was not a question of the US making China one, but whether China would make such policy choices, and a key goal of US policy was to create an environment conducive to China making those choices.
But midway through the Hu Jintao administration, symbolized by global business concerns over China’s “indigenous innovation” policies, and reinforced by increasing awareness of the PLA’s systematic buildup for the purpose of using military force to pressure Japan and China’s S.E. Asian neighbors on China’s maritime claims, US and Japanese policy debates replaced optimism to increasingly center more on resistance than integration.
But keep in mind the challenge posed as noted by Dr. Jim Przystup, NDU, who served with Bob Manning, the Atlantic Council, on then-Sec. State Baker’s Policy Planning staff:
You remember what we called the “Baker rule”: that political support is prerequisite for policy success, since without it there is no ‘policy’. And today with respect to China there is no political consensus on the road ahead, just the problems. Conceptually, at least, the starting point for China should be the recognition that China policy is not an ‘America Alone’ issue. To deal successfully with the myriad challenges posed by China will require the support of allies in Europe and Asia – the recognition that we’re all in this together.
In sum, at best, Japan, the US and the global economic supply chain built since China joined the WTO 20 years ago, are trying to navigate increasingly “stormy waters” that, especially under Trump, have become more and more difficult since the relatively positive Clinton and Bush Administrations.
Here's the problem for today’s US policy-makers and their advisors: no matter what one’s policy preferences, China is no longer a “rising power”, she’s “risen”, and is now acting out the “normal”, historic levels of great-power economic, military and diplomatic power, and, especially, aspirations. And this seriously altered the goal of creating a positive “environment” for China to “responsibly” join.
Thinking about China policy, and issuing detailed recommendations, has long been a staple of the leading ‘”think tanks” in Washington, led by a select group including the Democrat-leaning Brookings Institution, the bi-partisan CSIS, the principally Republican American Enterprise Institute, and the very conservative Heritage Foundation.
But for the past couple of years it’s been the pessimistic, hard-line Hudson Institute that increasingly dominates Trump Administration thinking, planning, and policy pronouncements. More on that later.
Important staff of all major “think tanks” come mostly from senior officials of recent administrations, and their most active analysts are often professionals still in play for policy-making jobs in the next administration at DOD, State, the CIA, and the White House/NSC. This accounts for the unique American “revolving door” where players go in and out of government over the course of their careers, rather than spending their lives at one ministry.
One benefit is it allows the bureaucracies to have a senior cadre of politically sophisticated and connected players. A clear downside is as soon as someone gets really experienced in their current job, the administration changes or they just get burned out and have to go back to academe, or the lucrative law firm, consulting and business sectors.
On balance, while the work of the think-tanks is both focused and professional, the not-so-secret secret is that once someone gets a senior position, especially on the NSC, State, USTR or DOD, the daily grind amounts to “24/7” to the point where intellectually, the players are like winter bears “living off the body fat”.
In practice, this means they can barely keep up with the daily over-night cables and the pressure to draft intelligence summaries with policy recommendations. No one has the time, even if they have the energy, to dive-into long policy papers, much less actual books. So their world view comes from their life-experiences to this point, and whatever books or grand theories they long-ago absorbed, or helped develop.
To compensate for this the players try to keep up with their friends and former associates in academe and the various think-tanks, few of whom are “shy” about passing on advice and criticism.
Given the events-imposed time constraints, in practice, the best chance of influence for past and future “players” often comes via brief “OpEd’s” in the New York Times and The Washington Post, or by appearances on the Sunday morning “talk shows” that are such a staple for Washington’s policy-making elites.
The purpose of those things is to help frame and, ideally, drive current policy. (And not incidentally, they help give journalism a strong role in policy development and criticism of existing policy.)
A major result of the realities of job pressures is that US policy rarely is based on “grand schemes”, or long-thought out, step-by-step policy prescriptions or recommendations, although by the very nature of military “contingency planning”, the work of many DOD bureaus and affiliated think-tank associates often does reflect a more disciplined, even history-based set of principles.
But by definition, an “experts paper” from “outside” will never be as important as a working document produced by the current administration. Senior officials rapidly learn if they didn’t already know from prior experience that that immediate policy concerns and the domestic US political situation can only be acceptably factored (or “brokered” with State and DOD) from within the NSC.
And under Trump this year, without question the leading geostrategic policy “think tank” is the Hudson Institute, as long-time Japan-Korea expert Dan Sneider reports in his recent Toyo Keizai column.
To show how “politics” can determine “policy”, Sneider quotes former Obama NSC China director Jeff Bader on the Trump White House political strategy, with the virus-caused economic crisis:
He had to find a new villain. He had to come up with all these conspiracy theories about how the Chinese handled the virus. There is a whole disinformation campaign these guys are orchestrating."
Trump is pushing for the U.S. intelligence community to provide evidence to support this effort, according to reports in the New York Times and other publications, and confirmed to me by a senior intelligence official.
"Regarding Trump's next steps, he has tasked the entire US intelligence community, including CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), NSA (National Security Agency), and DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), to search all of their files--intercepts, humint (human intelligence), whatever--to find out if China is responsible for COVID-19," the senior official told me. "When this kind of tasking takes place, it is almost certain there will be some type of 'intelligence' that can be overstated, manipulated, overblown, to make the case--any case."
The official compared this to the pressure brought by former Vice President Dick Cheney on the CIA to provide evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qai'ida and the September 11 attacks to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Enter Hudson, led in this case by W. Bush White House staffer “Scooter” Libby, a VP Cheney associate and lead in the false “intelligence” on Iraq nuclear weapons used to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. As Sneider reports:
The alarm over China's assertiveness is widespread in U.S. policy circles. But Hudson is home to a group of policy makers who articulate a much darker view of China as both a totalitarian state and one with long-term plans for global domination. Writers like Michael Pillsbury, who enjoys access to the President, as well as Libby and others are based at the thinktank. Vice President Mike Pence delivered his major hardline China policy speech in late 2018 at Hudson, as did Secretary of State Pompeo in October 2019.
Hudson has also become the favored channel for the Abe administration to reach the White House. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has delivered several major addresses at Hudson where Libby, a personal friend, introduced him. Hudson President Kenneth Weinstein, another Abe friend, has been nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Tokyo.
While Trump's views of China seem mostly to reflect his obsession with trade imbalances and his neo-isolationist impulses, men like Pompeo, Navarro and Libby have deeply held views on the China threat.
"For the ideologues, this was their magic moment to overcome resistance," Bader argues. "Trump went along with it because he needs an election plank. The true believers don't know if Trump is going to win or not but they are putting as much in place as they can before November."
Whatever one’s background and capacities, on your best day “doing China” is very, very difficult.
As we saw during the badly mis-managed Obama Administration opposition to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the US has been struggling for years with the dilemma of how to accommodate China’s legitimate Great Power actions and aspirations, vs opposition based on negative assumptions and interpretations.
Since these views may or may not be shared by China’s neighbors and trading partners, when Washington is out of step the result risks diminishing US influence at a critical point in the 21st Century. Whether “right, left or center”, this would be a problem even if Trump had not systematically questioned, and in the case of S. Korea significantly undermined, vital security alliance relationships with “transactional” demands.
And there is little partisan disagreement that whatever may be the views on TPP per se, Trump has seriously set back Asia economic management with his idiosyncratic tariffs, and so-far successful effort to retard the TPP. It remains to be seen how Biden will deal with the effects of a freeze on TPP, given his and the Democrat’s traditional difficulties with trade agreements…see Hillary Clinton’s disavowals of her previous support, due to inter-party political realities and the critical need for “Labor” support.
Although poor “leadership”, this is realism, not cynicism.
Adding it all up long before the past year of inflated US-China rhetoric, a rising concern throughout Asia has become the threat of US strategic, even military confrontation with China, as dramatized by Harvard’s Graham Allison and “The Thucydides Trap” in his Foreign Policy article of 2017:
“When one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result -- but it doesn’t have to be.”
Indeed, an important new White House China policy paper (“US Strategic Approach to The People’s Republic of China” issued in May) explicitly declares that “strategic competition” is now reality, and urges all aspects of policy be refocused to meet this. More on this paper shortly, but for now, for Japan as the rest of the world, the question Prof. Allison asks: is China working to “displace” the US?
Increasingly, that is the mainstream concern of most American China policy experts, however much they differ on what to do about it. Unfortunately for those who would reject an inherently confrontational approach, China’s mercantilist trade and financial policies continue unabated, Xi Jinping has broken all of his promises not to “militarize” its new bases throughout the S. China Sea, and the PLA continues using armed force to pressure Japan over the Senkakus, and the rest of S.E. Asia over fishing rights.
All this sets the context, or agenda, as the US presidential campaign now heats up, and it’s not an encouraging picture. As former St. Dept. Policy Planning official Bob Manning, the Atlantic Council, worries:
It’s frustrating. There’s no ‘market’ now for rational argument on China. The ‘Big Question’ getting fuzzed up: what larger footprint for a rising China is acceptable, that we can live with, vs. its clear transgressions? Where is the line between the insanely excessive ‘I’m tough too’ campaign rhetoric and a policy to move beyond the current contagion?
For better and perhaps for worse, however, Trump vs. Joe Biden is likely to play out more as a media-debate amongst the “elites” than for the electorate at large. As our former colleague on the US Senate Democratic Policy Committee Kevin Nealer reminds:
This election won’t be about ‘China’. Ask yourself: when in modern American politics has an incumbent succeeded in making the election turn on a theme and not be about themselves?
Absolutely, and both Biden and Trump know it, witness their immediate and bitter focus on each other’s fitness and character. But that doesn’t mean “China” won’t come up during the campaign, and definitely any debates Trump may agree to join. So here’s the problem: as the pre-eminent US political expert Charlie Cook told us recently, reinforcing Nealer’s point while providing the theme for this article:
…despite all the noise, China won't be an issue in itself for November, because now there's no partisan disagreement on the bad stuff. What it will be is a club for Trump and Biden to bash each other with…who was and will be the toughest, who was wrong back then so will be wrong next time?
Trump’s “case” is more difficult to argue, given the still very-underperforming “greatest trade deal ever”, and the tariff-produced economic devastation in Republican “farm country’s” lost sales to Argentina, Australia and other suppliers of meat and grains which, once lost, are unlikely ever to be regained.
Based on the Libby/Hudson arguments, Trump’s White House released this in May.
From its Introduction, spelling out the themes of confrontation across the board:
…Since the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) established diplomatic relations in 1979, United States policy toward the PRC was largely premised on a hope that deepening engagement would spur fundamental economic and political opening in the PRC and lead to its emergence as a constructive and responsible global stakeholder, with a more open society.
More than 40 years later, it has become evident that this approach underestimated the will of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to constrain the scope of economic and political reform in China. Over the past two decades, reforms have slowed, stalled, or reversed. The PRC’s rapid economic development and increased engagement with the world did not lead to convergence with the citizen-centric, free and open order as the United States had hoped. The CCP has chosen instead to exploit the free and open rules-based order and attempt to reshape the international system in its favor. Beijing openly acknowledges that it seeks to transform the international order to align with CCP interests and ideology. The CCP’s expanding use of economic, political, and military power to compel acquiescence from nation states harms vital American interests and undermines the sovereignty and dignity of countries and individuals around the world.
To respond to Beijing’s challenge, the Administration has adopted a competitive approach to the PRC, based on a clear-eyed assessment of the CCP’s intentions and actions, a reappraisal of the United States’ many strategic advantages and shortfalls, and a tolerance of greater bilateral friction. Our approach is not premised on determining a particular end state for China. Rather, our goal is to protect United States vital national interests, as articulated in the four pillars of the 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS).
As you can see, basically this is an “indictment”, but the key point is it is the “bipartisan consensus mainstream” noted by Charlie Cook, hence the rising “Cold War” and “Thucydides Trap” worries. Where it differs from most analysts, whatever their concerns, is in its 100% pejorative factual characterization and emotional, value-laden adjectives.
And there is something lurking in this which is inherently dangerous, as Bob Manning argues:
I think it’s less a ‘consensus’ than a bipartisan ‘contagion’ in our 2nd stage of grief (anger at the rising contradictions) having spent too long in the 1st stage (denial of the end of reform and positive integration). But in this paper, the WH seems to be aimed at regime change: note they no longer refer to ‘China’, only the ‘Chinese Communist Party’ (as if the party-state has been around since 1949) and the ‘Chinese people’.
However much you despise them, any sustainable policy has to assume that there is no evidence that the CCP and its 80 million members is going away anytime soon. So we need to define the terms and bounds of competition, redlines and strategic restraint with a nuclear weapon state, and areas of overlapping interests where cooperation should be possible.
Also, we seem to assume there is no difference between Xi’s aspirations and what he is willing to live with. Diplomatic strategy to probe the differences? Not much of that in WH strategy.
Indeed, see Deng’s “adjustment” on opposing but not moving to stop a continued US-Taiwan arms relationship, still in effect today. Parsing the difference between containment and confrontation, especially maritime, is of course one of the big, long-standing conundrums, and where the Hudson influence is so worrisome. Cooperate with US allies? Good luck under Trump. The paper’s claimed commitment to the WTO and alliances is at best ironic!
And the White House paper claims to seek common interest cooperation but offers not one positive suggestion. So an opening for Biden on potential cooperation on climate, obviously, especially on the no doubt coming at some point sea-level rise catastrophe which will devastate coastal China, most of Indochina, coastal Japan etc. etc. Virus, and N. Korea, obviously.
(And our personal hobby-horse…to counter-act mindless nationalism, how about a joint Mars Program?) In any event, much food here for Biden, despite his basic agreement with the critique concerns.
To conclude for now, from Dan Sneider's cogent look for Toyo Keizai at what's behind the Trump/Pompeo-led "blame game" on China, including its Asia and broader ramifications:
.. The rhetorical clash between China and the United States over the Covid-19 pandemic escalated to new heights this past week. Harsh language and taunts are now a daily event, feeding growing concern that the war of words could lead to more serious tensions over Taiwan or the South China Sea...Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump face challenges to their legitimacy and political future from the pandemic and are equally eager to deflect responsibility for the crisis."
That’s a good place to end for now, as we enter the hot summer months, literally and figuratively.■