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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

A new face to US-China ties

July 25, 2010

By Peter Lee
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
July 22, 2010

The Barack Obama administration took office in
2009 determined to move beyond the unilateralism
of the George W Bush years, and reassert
America's global influence as the most principled
and powerful guarantor of rule-based multilateralism.

With respect to China, this approach was
presented as a doctrine of "strategic reassurance".

However, the policy has not yielded the systemic
breakthroughs that the Obama administration hoped
to achieve on climate change, non-proliferation,
Middle East security, still less on US-China relations.

Instead, increasingly acrimonious exchanges
between Beijing and Washington reveal the
contradictions inherent in attempting to shoehorn
an authoritarian, mercantilist and suspicious
nation into a refurbished world system that
ostensibly promotes democracy, open markets,
multilateralism, while forcefully advancing American interests.

Now the Obama administration seems to have
accepted a world of lowered expectations and
strives for the more achievable goal of advancing
US power at China's expense. Friction with China
has emerged as a regular feature of US diplomacy
- a means to score points in the game of
international diplomacy at the expense of an
unpopular, uncooperative, and, at least for the
moment, diplomatically and militarily weaker regime.

Indeed, the US's China policy today looks a lot
like good old-fashioned rollback, isolating China
instead of incorporating it into a win-win multipolar system.

The Western press, distracted by individual
issues such as Iran sanctions, Google and the
sinking of a South Korean corvette, seems
oblivious to the fact that the US-China
relationship has lurched into zero-sum territory
and relations are in deep freeze, largely as a
result of the willingness of the Obama
administration to confront China in pursuit of
its agenda. The Chinese media, on the other hand, talk about nothing else.

Observers who believe that China will yield to US
pressure as long as its access to world markets
is assured are ignoring unmistakable signs that
Beijing has decided that, while its economic
interests are vital, it must be prepared to
downplay short-term economic gain in order to
ensure its geopolitical position and national future.

Even in its inception, US demands for "strategic
reassurance" were inherently unequal, framed as
something that China had to provide up front
before the US would reciprocate. Deputy Secretary
of State James Steinberg described the doctrine
at a Center for a New American Security
conference on China in September 2009. The onus
for reassurance was put on China in a way that
Beijing undoubtedly found grating.

   Strategic reassurance rests on a core, if
tacit, bargain. Just as we and our allies must
make clear that we are prepared to welcome
China's "arrival", as you all have so nicely put
it, as a prosperous and successful power, China
must reassure the rest of the world that its
development and growing global role will not come
at the expense of security and well-being of
others. Bolstering that bargain must be a
priority in the US-China relationship. And
strategic reassurance must find ways to highlight
and reinforce the areas of common interest, while
addressing the sources of mistrust directly,
whether they be political, military or economic.

Steinberg proceeded to list five areas of
"impressive" cooperation: reviving the global
economy, denuclearizing North Korea, dealing with
Iran's nuclear program, mitigating climate
change, and anti-terrorism and anti-piracy.

In retrospect, it is clear that in only two areas
- the global economy and anti-terrorism/piracy -
do the US and China share a genuine identity of
interests, while with respect to North Korea,
Iran and climate change, among other issues, US
and Chinese positions remain fundamentally at
odds. And in the key area of the global economy,
agreement is by no means absolute.

While appreciating the massive Chinese domestic
stimulus program (and the equally massive Chinese
purchases of US sovereign debt), US plans for the
new economic order clearly include a stronger
Chinese currency - a situation that Steinberg
alluded to when he described the three "continued
areas of mistrust and disagreement": China's
military expansion, global resource competition and the economic relationship.

Indeed, in mid-2010, a bleak but accurate gloss
on "strategic reassurance" might be that the only
area of genuine mutual reassurance concerns
China's willingness to sail around the Horn of
Africa in a cautious and responsible manner in search of pirates.

The aggravated US-China relationship is
compounded by the Obama administration's difficulty in making compromises.

At first, the administration's initiatives looked
promising. They made no easy accommodation to
habitual US claims to national exceptionalism,
and even had some international appeal.

Indeed, they were designed to repudiate the
arrogant American me-firstism that had seen the
US turn its back on the Kyoto climate treaty, the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the International
Criminal Court and the Law of the Sea Treaty. In
short, rather than deploying the rhetoric of
national interest, the Obama administration
presented itself as a promoter of global norms -
and sought to impose those norms on China.

Yet the full brunt of US intentions often only
become clear in the foreign policy-making fine
print, such as the somewhat obscure speeches of
US deputy secretaries. As Steinberg put matters with respect to China:

   Now, strategic reassurance does not only apply
to the relationship between China and the United
States. Our partners, particularly in Asia, must
have the same certainty that China's expanding
role will not come at the expense of their
interests. And this not only requires that the
United States bolster its own bilateral
relationships, especially with key allies like
Japan, South Korea and Australia, but also that
we lead in updating and strengthening the
regional and international institutions that
shape the context in which China's development
occurs, so that change is constructive rather than destabilizing.

   When it comes to the international system, we
must ensure that new powers like China - and
there are others as well, of course - can take
their rightful place at the table without
generating fear or mistrust ... As we pursue
these policies, we will be open to China's
growing role, but we will also be looking for
signs and signals of reassurance from China. If
China is going to take its rightful place, it must make those signals clear.

So, when US initiatives collided with Chinese
interests, there was no graceful way to negotiate
between Obama universalism and Chinese
particularism or, as it is usually framed in the
Western press, US principle vs Chinese
selfishness. The situation has not been helped by
the fact that many of the Obama administration's
grand strategic initiatives have fizzled in
practice (or in the case of something like
economically crippling Iran through sanctions,
the outcome may be years in the future).

Complex Rubik's cube diplomacy involving
interlocking initiatives and delicate sequencing
on much tougher Iran sanctions, climate change
and nuclear non-proliferation have yielded few
breakthroughs. The reasons are numerous, but in
each case, China is part of the story. China has
challenged the US on a number of these issues.
For example, Beijing earned the Obama
administration's ire for its high-profile role in
opposing US initiatives in the Copenhagen climate
debacle and as a result of its hard bargaining on
United Nations sanctions against Iran.

Partly as a result of Chinese resistance, the
climate and nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT) treaties and Iran sanctions have, after
immense expenditures of prestige and energy by
the United States, degenerated into little more
than unproductive can-kicking down the road of
futile multilateral initiatives. In short,
strategic reassurance is not forthcoming in areas
of potential cooperation, a situation that the
Obama administration blames on China, and not on
any shortcomings of its own policies.

Frictions, on the other hand, are persistent and
apparently structural. It appears that, in
response, the Obama administration has chosen to
interpret "strategic reassurance" as the simple
and emotionally satisfying strategy of rollback -
attacking Chinese interests instead of trying to accommodate them.

 From the Chinese perspective, the Obama
administration's China policy increasingly looks,
walks and quacks like containment. Apparently,
the United States prefers a different term:
"pre-empting China's monopoly status".

On his blog Washington Note, foreign policy
insider Steve Clemons reported on a conversation
he had in early June with senior administration
officials involved in the international realm.

   One of the most interesting comments made to a
question I posed probing the administration's
strategy in Asia, was "Steve, don't watch the hand!"

   What this person was saying was "don't get
lost in everything going on at the surface" in
US-China relations or US-Japan relations, but
rather look at the other many bits and pieces of
America's engagement in the Asia-Pacific that are
enhancing US leverage and generating a greater
sense among Pacific Rim countries that America is
there, engaged, and pre-empting China from enjoying monopoly status.

Either by accident or design, US public diplomacy
campaigns involving climate change, nuclear
proliferation, Internet freedom, Iran and the
South Korean boat being sunk, while yielding few
concrete gains, have succeeded in one key
respect. They have placed China at a geopolitical
disadvantage, forcing it to line up with pariahs
or near pariahs like Iran, Myanmar and North
Korea in opposition to the Western democracies, Japan and South Korea.

The antagonistic US-China relationship shows
signs of becoming institutionalized, especially
with the Obama administration's efforts to
establish a solid strategic, legal and diplomatic
foundation for sustained and successful
third-country sanctions on the issue of Iran,
with the European Union and Japan ready as always
to lend a hand. The administration's overwhelming
desire to isolate Iran virtually assures a
confrontational posture against China.

Even as the UN resolution on the fourth round of
Iran sanctions wound its way uncertainly through
the Security Council, it was an open secret that
China would water it down. The US-proposed
solution was follow-on national sanctions that,
if not "crippling" as desired by Israel, would
hit Iran where it hurt - in the energy sector.
The perceived flaw to that solution would be that
China would honor the UN resolution, impose no
follow-on national sanctions, and scoop up Iran
contracts while the US and Europe stood on the sidelines.

United States national and EU sanctions are
useless if all they do is drive Iran - and its
energy investments, petroleum products and
import/export and financial dealings- further
into China's arms, as Glenn Kessler reported for the Washington Post:

    US and European officials acknowledge that
the administration's gambit faces uncertainties.

    China, for instance, could swoop into Iran to
replace Western investors. "China is the elephant
in the room," one diplomat said, but the hope is
that China will face political pressure not to
appear to profit from an international pullout.
Officials also say China cannot replicate some of
the technologies and products produced in Europe.

Both Russia and China have insisted that, in
return for their support of the UN resolution,
they received assurances that follow-on national
sanctions by the US and Europe would not damage
their energy and economic interests.

However, the obsessively forward-thinking Obama
administration would certainly have a plan for
addressing the underlying weakness of a massive
geostrategic effort that has consumed the
energies of the US administration for the past six months.

Perhaps the Obama administration gave Russia and
China the desired assurances with the caveat
(perhaps implied or unspoken) that, if Iran's
behavior didn't change, then promises to lay off
Russian and Chinese interests would have to be
honored, as they say, "in the breach".

The enabling US legislation on Iran sanctions -
HR 2194, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions,
Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 - was
signed by Obama in early July and provides ample
justification for imposing third country
sanctions, whether in sorrow or in anger:

   The proposed bill, announced in a joint
statement by Representative Howard Berman
(D-Calif) and Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn),
would bar non-US financial institutions dealing
with Iran's [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards
[Corps] or targeted Iranian banks from also doing
business with the US banking sector. The bill
would also penalize firms selling gasoline to
Iran through restrictions on their US bank
transactions, property transfers and foreign exchange in the United States.

   As one analyst observed, "The act presents
foreign banks doing business with blacklisted
Iranian entities a stark choice - cease your
activities or be denied critical access to
America's financial system," an outline of the
bill states, adding that it would address
problematic moves taken by international branches
of US financial institutions.

Obama made a show of asking for explicit waivers
for "cooperating countries", understood to be
Russia and China, in return for their support on
the UN resolution, as a demonstration of good
faith. He didn't get the blanket waivers, but he
is perhaps not unhappy that he didn't. He will be
able to grant one-year exemptions for individual
corporations, albeit with a "name and shame"
requirement to put the recipients on the public record.

Therefore, if China exploits Western and Japanese
sanctions to entrench itself in Iran's energy
sector or is excessively dilatory in supporting
the initiatives of the Obama administration,
financial sanctions can be deployed against its
banks, as they were earlier with respect to North
Korea in the famous case of the 2005 sanction of
Banco Delta Asia, a small bank in the Chinese territory of Macau.

The Obama administration's carefully-constructed
legal and diplomatic edifice of third-country
sanctions gives the United States a weapon that
it can wield against China, not only on Iran, but
also to advance US interests in the myriad other
areas of friction that bedevil the relationship.
The other key area of friction between the United
States and China today is the Korean Peninsula.

In a development that China affects to find
increasingly suspicious, US exchanges with China
in Asia have grown progressively more
confrontational, thereby playing to America's
primary strength - its overwhelming military
superiority while highlighting a key Chinese
vulnerability - regional fears (albeit voiced
mostly by Japan and more recently South Korea)
concerning the geopolitical ambitions of its burgeoning military.

In particular, it appears that the temptation to
exploit China's geopolitical vulnerabilities -
and take advantage of South Korea President Lee
Myung-bak's enthusiasm for using US support to
challenge Chinese hegemony in Northeast Asia -
were irresistible to the Obama administration.

The result is a destabilization of the Korean
Peninsula that has, by US design, achieved the exact opposite of reassurance.

Things started to come to a nasty head over the
sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan near
North Korean waters on March 26. The way South
Korea and the United States have allowed the
issue to play out seemed designed to put China in an ugly light.

South Korea turned to the United States and its
allies - and passed over China and Russia - to
conduct the investigation into the sinking. Then
the United States took center stage to endorse
the findings, and South Korea's call for UN
action, unequivocally. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton visited China to encourage it to support
the South Korean/US position. To date, China has declined.

The United States and South Korea profess to
believe that China prefers to protect its
feckless and dangerous ally, North Korea, instead
of standing with justice, security, the
international community and its key economic
partner, South Korea. China's statements in favor
of peace on the peninsula and greater diplomatic
efforts by the North and South to settle their differences get no respect.

Senator James Webb, the Democratic Party's most
influential spokesman on Asia in the US Congress,
put it this way in a Korea Times news article posted on his official website:

  Webb said China's position on the Cheonan
incident when it reaches the UNSC will be a
barometer of its willingness to cooperate with the international community.

  "It is a good opportunity for the rest of the
world to observe and comment on whether China is
proceeding in a mature fashion as a member of the
international community," he said. "It's a test
of whether it can participate among the leadership of the world community."

The Chinese government may feel that the South
Korean/international investigation contains
enough evidentiary and procedural shortcomings
that it can be safely disregarded. A recent
report by the South Korean Board of Audit and
Investigation, while calling for the removal of
25 South Korean military officers for their
failings in responding to the disaster, also
highlighted at least two instances of
falsification of official records of the incident.

The South Korean military was further embarrassed
by the revelation that it had displayed the
schematic of the wrong North Korean torpedo when
it rolled out its case on May 20.

However, China's ambivalence on the issue of the
Cheonan probably has more to do with the growing
suspicion that the US definition of "strategic
reassurance" now involves, above all, not just
the maintenance but the attempted enhancement of
US strategic advantage in China's backyard.

The Cheonan incident and the US response did not
occur in a vacuum. They took place at a time of
considerable uncertainty concerning the US
forward position in the Pacific. In late
2009/early 2010 the Obama administration was busy
ostracizing the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)
government in Japan, which was attempting to
establish a more equal and independent role for
Japan within the US-Japan-China triangle.

The DPJ government's unwillingness to accept the
US position on a key issue was its campaign
promise (recently abandoned) to renegotiate the
deal made by the outgoing Liberal Democratic
Party to build a new US Marine Corps air station at Oura Bay on Okinawa.

At the same time, Lee's conservative government
in South Korea was determinedly burnishing its
pro-American credentials by backing away from the
independent security policy and "Sunshine"
engagement of North Korea favored by its two predecessor governments.

The United States decided to reward Lee - and
South Korea's ambitions as a regional power and
security partner, placing it virtually on a par
with Japan - by endorsing several moves designed
to enhance the nation's stature. These included
supporting South Korea as the host for two
prestigious summits: the Group of 20 confab in
November 2010, and the next Nuclear Security
Summit - Obama's keystone diplomatic initiative -
in 2012. Part of the deal apparently included a
coordinated response on the Cheonan sinking,
extending beyond participation in the
investigation and support of its findings to
agreement to support a call for UN Security Council action.

The cost of this deepening of the South Korea-US
security relationship was China's feeling that
the two countries were ganging up on China on
matters Northeast Asian. To Beijing, the US
clearly showed the cloven hoof by endorsing the
UN Security Council as an appropriate venue for
the Cheonan sinking. This implied that the US's
idea of "strategic reassurance" involves good
relations only if China repudiates its North
Korean ally and acquiesces to sidelining the
six-party talks - a diplomatic initiative that
granted China a central role in regional and global affairs.

It also indicated that the US was promoting a
new, destabilizing security paradigm in North
Asia - promoting an enhanced role for South Korea
while pushing the future of North Korea into the
US-friendly UN Security Council at the expense of
the six-party talks. As the North Korean regime
approaches a leadership transition that might
plunge it into chaos, Beijing is surely sensitive
to the fact that America seems to be sidelining
China from the consultations that may decide the
future of the Korean Peninsula.

These issues received an airing at the Shangri-La
dialogue, a think-tank sponsored confab of
defense ministers held annually in Singapore. At
the 2010 iteration, held from June 4-6, the South
Korean president carried his campaign to exploit
the geopolitical implications of the sinking of
the Cheonan to a major Asian forum. His call for
a united anti-North Korea front by the civilized
world was overshadowed by a conspicuous spat
between US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and
China's delegation to the conference led by General Ma Xiaotian.

Gates dismissed China's Taiwan arms sales-related
anxieties with a condescension that China's
official opinion found infuriating, especially
when contrasted with a high-profile tripartite
meeting between Gates, Lee and Japan's defense
minister that pledged to "deter further provocation" in the region.

During the conference, it transpired that Gates
was not welcome to visit Beijing. This was
construed, perhaps inaccurately, as a further,
high-profile expression of Chinese displeasure at
Taiwan arms sales. The Taiwan arms sale matter
had been thoroughly hashed out earlier in January
and had already triggered the tit-for-tat Chinese
response: cancellation of scheduled military
exchanges and some US-China diplomatic exchanges
at the vice foreign minister level.

It is more likely that by June Beijing was
sending a message concerning the overall health
of the military and political relationship with
the US - a message that Gates was perhaps not
ready to share with the Western journalists covering the conference.

In the question and answer session subsequent to
Gates' speech, Chinese Major General Zhu Chenghu
took the US to task for working with Israel to
slow-walk the investigation on the assault on the
Free Gaza aid flotilla, while demanding full
speed ahead on censure of North Korea. Zhu
concluded with a remarkably straightforward
statement of dissatisfaction: "The Chinese are
taking the Americans as a partner, as friends,
and Americans take the Chinese as enemies."

In his official remarks to the forum, General Ma
criticized the traditional military mindset of
relying on zero-sum alliances that weaken an
adversary. He also made the pointed remark, "We
should not treat only the symptoms but not the
causes, still less try to put out a fire with a hammer."

This can be construed as a reference to America's
preference for casting all regional problems
within a security template simply because
military might is America's last remaining trump
card in Asia. Matters have not improved since Singapore.

Previously, mindful of the objections of the
Democratic Party's union base, Obama had resisted
pushing congress to ratify the South Korea-US free-trade agreement.

However, the US yielded to South Korean strategic
blandishments - Lee had openly stated that he
wanted to stall the agreement until after the
agreement with the US went into effect, so the US
could gain the greatest benefits - and Obama
confirmed the pro-South Korean/anti-China tilt of
his administration by coming out in support of
ratification of the South Korea-US free-trade
agreement. Obama then used the public forum of
the G-20 summit in Toronto to pointedly insult
President Hu Jintao by accusing China of "willful
blindness" in refusing to publicly endorse the
results of the investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan.

Chinese perceptions of US hypocrisy and hostility
were undoubtedly reinforced by the observations
that a) no public insults were directed at Russia
which has also declined to endorse the Cheonan
findings as yet; and b) the US stepped forward to
reject a North Korean call for a joint
investigation of the Cheonan sinking under the
auspices of the UN - an investigation that might
reveal additional embarrassing holes in the
"compelling" case that the US claimed China was
exercising "willful blindness" in disregarding.

Criticisms of the US's China policy in the
Chinese media have become less oblique and
markedly more strident. Chinese media
characterized Obama's "willful blindness" rebuke
as "irresponsible and flippant".

The next, inevitable area of friction concerns
joint US-South Korea naval exercises scheduled
for the end of July in the Yellow Sea between the
Korean Peninsula and China, which may or may not
feature an appearance by the US aircraft carrier
George Washington. With good reason, China has
chosen to interpret these exercises as a
deliberate provocation, whose purpose is not to
overawe North Korea; it is to humiliate Beijing
by demonstrating that the US fleet can sail the
oceans of East Asia in disregard of China's
sensibilities and openly expressed objections.

A June 12 People Daily Online editorial entitled,
"US Must Restrain Provocative Military Actions"
predictably adopted the framing favorable to
China, calling for "peace" instead of
"provocation" and made it clear that it expects
that it is China and not the United States that should be "reassured":

   The United States may believe that since it
conducted military drills in the Yellow Sea in
the past, it can do that now and in the future.
But the United States should understand, with
China's increasing national strength, Chinese
nationals will get more sensitive to the
provocative actions the US navy takes in a place so close to their home.

   No one would allow its competitor with guns in
hand to wander in front of their home or keep a
close watch staring through their windows, and the Americans would not too.

   China does not object to the US navy's
presence in the western Pacific and even shows
understanding that some countries in this region
still need the US military to provide a sense of
security. And no country has the capability to
replace the United States in this capacity. But,
this does not mean the United States can ignore
China's self-esteem and drive their aircraft
carrier straight to the front of China's doorstep to flex their muscles.

   Only when the United States learns to respect
the western Pacific countries and adapt to the
changes of their politics, economies and, in
particular, public opinion, can its authority in
this region be recognized. The United States
should make people feel that the US military
presence in this region is peaceful and necessary, not vice versa.

   Furthermore, the United States needs to take
into account these countries' moods if it wants
to become a peacemaker, not a troublemaker.
Otherwise, the United States will have
difficulties in staying in the region for a long
time and its interests here will be difficult to effectively protect.

The People's Daily's international affairs
mouthpiece, Global Times, ran an editorial with a
similar theme - and wording - under the title
"Yellow Sea No Place for US Carrier":

     Many Chinese are tired of the abrupt changes
in US posture. The US just stressed the
importance of partnership between the two
countries at the second Strategic and Economic
Dialogue at the end of last month. Now, it looks
as if the US could try to incite China with military aggression.

China's expression of displeasure moved from
words to munitions, as China announced its navy
would conduct live fire drills in the East China
Sea for the duration of the US-South Korea maneuvers.

On July 6, Global Times ran a blunt editorial
titled, US has to pay for provocation.

     The US provocation on the western Pacific is
a typical act born out of the Cold War mentality.

     This will only further isolate the US in
these parts, as no East Asian country would like
an outsider to mess up the region, and its neighborhood.

     Developments in East Asia over the past 10
years contributed significantly to the economic
boom of the United States in the decade before it
suffered a setback from its own financial trouble.

     As commander in chief, Barack Obama needs to
rethink his role in East Asia, as to whether he
is squandering the invaluable political heritage
left behind by George W Bush. It will be a
tragedy if the US upsets the prevalent situation
and turns the clock back on East Asian relations by decades.

     Considering the growing economic,
diplomatic, political and cultural ties the US
has with China, the price the US has to pay for
its irresponsible decision will be higher than it
can envision now. If the US does not pay for this
"adventure" now, it will pay in the future.

These are not the opinions of a strategically
reassured - or reassuring - China. These are the
words of a threatened regional power that regards
US hostility as dangerous and growing.

Scheduling the George Washington to avoid the
Yellow Sea is not going to allay Chinese concerns
about America's hostile intentions. By now,
suspicion has probably hardened into certainty.

It's a worrisome reflection on the Obama
administration's China policy that US
interactions with Beijing are now apparently
driven by frustration, rancor, inertia and
opportunism - and the acrid residue of new
American ambitions for regional leadership that China is determined to contest.

Peter Lee is the moving force behind the Asian
affairs website China Matters which provides
continuing critical updates on China and
Asia-Pacific policies. His work frequently
appears at Asia Times Online. He wrote this
article for The Asia-Pacific Journal.

(Republished with permission from Japan Focus)
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