us china cooperation

US-China Cooperation in Pakistan?

With the U.S-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue just concluded earlier this month, all sorts of wonkish proposals for bilateral cooperation are in the air.

But the most colorful suggestion is that of potential US-China cooperation in Pakistan. A growing chorus of voices is arguing that, since both Washington and Beijing desire a stable, prosperous, moderate and terrorism-free Pakistan, now is the time for both powers to forge some sort of strategic convergence.

While that’s a cozy idea and certainly one plausible reality if certain dynamics profoundly shift, as of now it strikes me as nothing but a fantastic notion based on a fundamental misreading of US and Chinese interests and positions in Pakistan.

US interests in Pakistan revolve around ensuring that it does not serve as a base for al-Qaeda, a flashpoint for potential nuclear war or illicit trade, or a complicating factor in the US war in Afghanistan. Washington also views Islamabad through the lens of the broader South Asian region, within which it would like to see more economic prosperity and political freedom and moderation rather than extremism and war.

Chinese interests are more complicated. Yes, on the one hand, China also desires a stable Pakistan because it is concerned about Islamic terrorism in its own backyard in Xinjiang and views Islamabad as not only a key destination for Chinese infrastructure and military investment, but a key energy and trade link with the Middle East and Central Asia.

But, on the other hand, flowery rhetoric aside, the main anchor of the now 60-year old Sino-Pakistani relationship is the Indian threat, and China needs Pakistan to be a destabilizing force to check its Indian rival. That is why Beijing has lavished Islamabad with weapons to use against New Delhi and has steadily bolstered its nuclear program. Put simply, while Washington desires a stable Pakistan, Beijing is quite happy with a Pakistan that is stable enough to allow Chinese investment and domestic stability but unstable enough to check India.

China also has much less incentive to change the current status quo relative to the United States. Beijing enjoys high favorability ratings in Pakistan (84% in 2009, for instance), compared to Washington which has been a victim of virulent anti-Americanism (16% favorability ratings that same year). Many Pakistanis view China as an all-weather friend and harbinger of economic development, and see the US as an unreliable ally and threat to their security.

Beijing has not only won over the hearts and minds of Pakistanis, but exerts significant influence on the levers of power in Pakistan to achieve its own interests where necessary. In the past, China has been very effective in using its collaboration with the military and intelligence services to suppress militant groups that threaten Chinese workers in Pakistan or support Uighur separatists in China. As for regional security, China has been more than happy to rely on NATO forces to stabilize the Af-Pak region while not even contributing logistical support to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Given the the added complexities within Chinese interests in Pakistan and its relative success in realizing its foreign policy objectives there, what is Beijing’s incentive to suddenly abandon the status quo and cooperate with the embattled United States today? Such a policy shift may occur if conditions become so unstable that Beijing feels the need for more bilateral cooperation, or if it is convinced that its ascension to great power status means not only being accorded more representation and respect, but assuming greater global responsibilities as well.

So far, I see neither scenario materializing. Until they do, Sino-US cooperation in Pakistan will remain a idealistic notion infused with too much grand strategy and too little ground reality. Forgive the play on words, but talk abottabad idea.

Is Obama Expecting Too Much From China?

Maybe, hints John Pomfret in yesterday’s Washington Post.

He recounts a May 24 U.S.-China meeting at a state guesthouse in Beijing, where Rear Adm. Guan Youfei of the People’s Liberation Army, went on the following tirade:

Everything, Guan said, that is going right in U.S. relations with China is because of China. Everything, he continued, that is going wrong is the fault of the United States. Guan accused the United States of being a “hegemon” and of plotting to encircle China with strategic alliances. The official saved the bulk of his bile for U.S. arms sales to China’s nemesis, Taiwan — Guan said these prove that the United States views China as an enemy.

The Obama administration, which some say has already spent too much time reassuring the Chinese — from postponing Mr. Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama to downplaying human rights concerns — with little gain on issues like North Korea or climate change,  has dismissed Mr. Guan’s remarks as an outlier:

U.S. officials have since depicted Guan’s three-minute jeremiad as an anomaly. A senior U.S. official traveling on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s plane back to the United States dismissed it, saying it was “out of step” with the rest of the two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue. And last week in Singapore, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought to portray not just Guan, but the whole of the People’s Liberation Army, as an outlier intent on blocking better ties with Washington while the rest of China’s government moves ahead.

That doesn’t seem to be Mr. Pomfret’s reading:

But interviews in China with a wide range of experts, Chinese officials and military officers indicate that Guan’s rant — for all its discomfiting bluster — actually represents the mainstream views of the Chinese Communist Party, and that perhaps the real outliers might be those in China’s government who want to side with the United States. More broadly, many Chinese security experts and officials view the Obama administration’s policy of encouraging Chinese participation in solving the world’s problems — including climate change, the global financial crisis and the security challenges in Iran and North Korea — not as attempts to elevate China into the ranks of global leadership but rather as a scheme to enmesh it in a paralyzing web of commitments.

“Admiral Guan was representing what all of us think about the United States in our hearts,” a senior Chinese official, who deals with the United States regularly, said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter. “It may not have been politically correct, but it wasn’t an accident.” “It’s silly to talk about factions when it comes to relations with the United States,” said a general in the PLA who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The army follows the party. Do you really think that Guan did this unilaterally?”

Dean Cheng over at the Heritage Foundation also counsels against taking this Chinese tone too lightly. PLA Major General Zhu Chenghu, who was Mr. Gates’ interlocutor at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and bluntly stated: “You, the Americans, are taking China as the enemy”, is also far from an ‘outlier':

General Zhu is the same officer who, in 2005, broached the idea that China’s nuclear “no first use” policy on nuclear weapons might not apply if China was attacked with conventional weapons. Except that Zhu was subsequently appointed to head the Defense Affairs Institute at the PLA’s National Defense University (NDU). The PLA’s NDU is the equivalent of a military region, with precedence ahead of the actual military regions. More to the point, he is now attending the Shangri-La Asia Security Summit, representing the PRC…Beijing knows exactly what it was doing. In which case, Secretary Gates is seriously misreading the message that China is sending — China’s leadership, both military and civilian, are not interested in deepening military-to-military relations unless the US abandons its commitment to Taiwan.

I would only add that a worrying number of people knowledgeable about China have also expressed grave doubts about Beijing’s willingness to cooperate in recent months. “The truth”, one U.S. official told Council on Foreign Relations China expert Elizabeth Economy late last year, “is that the Chinese do not want to cooperate”. After extensive discussions with foreign policy analysts and Chinese strategists and elites, Brad Glosserman, director of Pacific Forum CSIS – a think tank — concluded that China tends to attribute problems like North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan-Pakistan to these countries’ desire to reshape their bilateral relationships with the United States,  and therefore feels like Washington should bear the burden of resolving these dilemmas, while Beijing has a small, if any role to play (this is similar to the kind of sentiment Mr. Pomfret found). A CSIS survey of Chinese elites also showed that few saw any sense of international responsibility for Beijing globally, with a whopping 90 percent rejecting an international leadership role for China.

Chinese conduct up to this point mostly confirms this. With the exception of not vetoing fresh Iran sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, China wrecked last year’s Copenhagen conference, has thus far refused to take a tougher stance on North Korea despite its clear involvement in the sinking of a South Korean ship, and declined to lift a finger to assist in the Af-Pak region. Meanwhile, China’s blistering military modernization is sounding alarm bells among Washington’s allies in Asia (consider Singapore’s patriarch Lee Kuan Yew’s concern about China expressed during his last trip to Washington , or Australia’s recent defense white paper). Secretary Gates himself admitted last year that China “could threaten America’s [previously unchallenged] ability to project power and help allies in the Pacific”. And a handful of U.S. experts from across the political spectrum, including some who were previously more optimistic about China, recently concluded almost universally that Beijing had reverted to an aggressive stance in the South China Sea (others also seem to agree).

I agree that U.S. cooperation with China is essential in order for progress to be made on a range of important global issues, and that both Washington and Beijing should try to make this come about. I also realize these matters are tough and don’t yield quick results. I just think the Obama administration, like any other administration in office in the United States, ought to be more honest and realistic about how much and how far the Chinese are willing to go to cooperate. So far, I suspect that even some State Department officials would agree with me when I say that the record hasn’t been very encouraging. If so, the United States should start acting like this is the case, instead of harboring illusions about how China perceives Washington as recent reports seem to suggest.