us china relations

Did the Washington Post Appease China?

I didn’t have time to post about it till today, but the Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton had a great piece out Friday criticizing the Post for “caving in to China’s demands” and publishing a boilerplate interview transcript on Feb 13. with China’s visiting vice president Xi Jinping.

I too was struck by the flowery rhetoric in the transcript when I first read it. But I didn’t realize the process that resulted in it. Apparently, instead of just replying to written questions submitted by the Post as governments usually do (including last year with Hu Jintao’s visit), the Chinese this time modified, deleted and added questions to the ones that the Post submitted for Xi, and provided answers that did not address the paper’s original questions. The Post decided to publish just the answers, but then issued a correction the next day that read:

The introduction to a transcript published Monday of comments made by China’s vice president, Xi Jinping, inaccurately described the nature of that material. The Post had submitted questions to the Chinese government, which did not respond to all of them and provided questions and answers of its own. The vice president’s comments therefore were not direct answers to the original questions submitted by The Post, and The Post should have made that clear.

Pexton thinks the paper should not have published it:

Sure, The Post was the only U.S. newspaper to get even that much out of Xi. The transcript amounts to his only public statement during his trip. But his words were boilerplate, and they were studded with diplomatese that the U.S.-China relationship is built on mutual benefit, mutual respect, mutual understanding. Yawn.

Pexton also briefly delves into the dilemmas faced by the paper in dealing with the Chinese. He notes that there may be an incentive to appease the Chinese since they hold the cards with respect to visa approvals for correspondents – a typical access issue. More interesting was the dependence of The Post on advertising revenue from China:

Once a month The Post prints “China Watch,” an advertising supplement in English that consists of stories aimed at a U.S. audience but written by China Daily, the house organ of the Chinese government. And The Post’s Web site hosts a regularly updated version of China Watch.

Pexton concludes with a rather clear resolution on the issue:

That’s the thing about China, whether you are The Washington Post, the U.S. government or Apple computers. There is interdependence in the relationship, and constant negotiation and compromise. The Chinese know it, and they take advantage of it. The Post’s job is to point that out, be transparent about it and report the truth regardless.

As Pexton himself knows and has pointed out though, that position can be much more muddled in practice than it is in theory.

Will China Contain Itself?

At a key conference on US-Singapore relations in Washington, DC which I attended yesterday, Singapore’s foreign minister K Shanmugam urged the United States to resist the temptation to ‘contain’ China both in rhetoric and reality.

I emphatize with Mr. Shanmugam’s remarks. Southeast Asian countries, which are surrounded by great powers, live in an almost persistent fear of having to choose between one power or another, instead of engaging all of them to maximize their interests. This sense of vulnerability is arguably even more acute for a small country like Singapore. And a re-rising China, for its part, does smell a US containment strategy designed to thwart its growing regional ambitions and preserve American dominance in Asia. That suggests that a great degree of attention needs to be devoted in order to manage misperceptions and mistrust, both publicly and privately.

But it takes two hands to clap. Yes, American policymakers should assuage Chinese concerns that the Washington is trying to prevent it from re-rising. One of the main lessons of the Cold War is that acts that seem on one side to be harmless may be seen by the other as provocative, and ‘facts’ can be interpreted very differently once they are filtered through different prisms. Regardless of differences in interests, engaging others in a strategic way is one way of potentially bridging this divide.

In this regard, officials within the Obama administration (and former officials too) have been extremely mindful of Chinese fears and have gone out of their way both publicly and privately (sometimes even more than they should) to dismiss notions of containment, avoid seeing things from an exclusively zero-sum perspective, and reassure China. In fact, the main thrust of the Obama administration’s China policy early on, as I’ve pointed out earlier, revolved around ‘strategic reassurance’.

But China should also understand that the United States is, and will continue to be, the dominant global power for some time to come, with strong interests in Asia that it has no intention of abdicating. That means not overreacting to every US move in the region – whether it is stationing troops in Darwin or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – as some sort of strategy designed to contain China.

It also means explaining to the public the more complex reality of mutual accommodation needed for China’s peaceful coexistence with the world: in order for everyone, including the US, to accept the re-rise of China as a world power with its own interests, Beijing will have to play by the rules of the existing international order and act like a responsible stakeholder.

If not, Beijing, so fearful of US containment, may end up containing itself much like the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Moscow was ultimately a victim of its own fears, which led it to overmilitarize and repress, alienating its allies (including Mao’s China) and ultimately resulting in its own collapse. China is still learning to cope with its own growing strength in the world, and its diplomacy has seen both startling successes (after the Asian financial crisis, for example) and unwieldy missteps (its rhetoric on the South China Sea in recent years). But if Washington needs to learn to share the world with a new potential competitor, then Beijing equally needs to understand that seeing everything from a competitive lens inhibits cooperation. Otherwise, soon the greatest thing China will have to fear, to paraphrase FDR, will be fear itself, and the grave consequences that result from it.

What China’s New J-20 Stealth Fighter Actually Means

The latest China-related media frenzy has focused on whether Beijing’s newly-tested stealth fighter was so stealthy it may have even crept up on Chinese President Hu Jintao.

But the key question is what it says about the balance of power in the Pacific moving forward. At least three things are important to keep in mind in this regard.

First, in terms of the plane itself, the J-20 appears reasonably stealthy but bulky. That means that it can travel a larger distance, carry more stuff, and pierce through air defense networks. Some say this would allow it to more precisely penetrate and target Taiwanese defenses and shoot down the key weapons and related infrastructure that underpin US-led air campaigns as far as Guam. If this analysis is right, then the fighter is clearly an instrument of power projection rather than area denial; that is, Beijing is focusing not just on preventing others from infringing on its perceived territory, but seeking to move into potentially new spaces as well.

Second, in terms of component technology, as David Axe argues over at The Diplomat, China’s ability to produce the fighter in large numbers is constrained by its weaknesses in engines and supporting systems. The Chinese aviation industry’s main handicap has been its inability to produce fighter engines indigenously. If Beijing has fitted the J-20 with imported engines from Russia, they will likely be inadequate and the fighter will not be able to realize its full potential. Beijing has also yet to master all the supporting systems that a modern fighter requires (up to 11 by one estimate, including sound mission planning).

On the other hand, perception-wise, the balance of power at the moment clearly seems to be shifting much faster than Washington’s estimates. The Pentagon had predicted Beijing would not have a stealth fighter for a decade or more, and had little idea that its anti-ship missile would be nearly operational as early as late last year. Lest this be written off as a one-off incident, director of US Navy Intelligence David Dorsett admitted:

We have been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery…of Chinese technology and weapons systems. They enter operational capability quicker than we frequently project.

Perceptions of a threat tend to go through cycles of underestimation and overestimation, and this case is no different. It will still take years before the stealth fighter is actually deployed. Muscle-flexing aside though, it is becoming much clearer that Chinese military modernization is moving more rapidly than initially thought, with potentially profound consequences for the Asia-Pacific.

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.