Saturday, June 08, 2013

Is Sunnylands America’s Munich?

Nah.  Just clickbaiting you.

Despite the dim prospects for concrete results, the Sunnylands summit between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama has provoked a disproportionate frenzy of chinstroking among serious pundits.

Much of it is along the lines of “the United States must not make nice with the PRC, thereby validating Xi’s ‘New Type of Great Power Relationship’   --basically peaceful coexistence—and legitimizing the regime.”

This is something of a challenge, since Xi Jinping is clearly determined to reset US-PRC relations and US policy toward China towards engagement and negotiation and away from “confrontainment” (I think that’s a coinage of mine, at least as it applies to US China policy, but not sure) and coercive diplomacy.

The certainty that Xi will try to engage with the United States and the possibility that he may even offer and deliver on some concrete inducements in order to achieve it (think North Korea and cyberwar) has provoked the American commentariat to put in its thinking caps in a heroic attempt to sustain and institutionalize US-PRC hostility despite Xi’s overtly conciliatory gestures.

The subtext of the commentary seems to be an anxiety, either real or feigned, concerning China’s rise that, quite possibly, is not shared either by the PRC regime or US government.

The basic theme in US China watching, as I can follow it, is the United States nurtured the treacherous Chinese lizard in its bosom, and now Uncle Sam is being buttravished by a firesnorting dragon prepared to deliver the climactic donkey punch against the American way of life.

In the real world, the rickety Chinese economic and political system is undergoing a stressful and risky transition surrounded by hostile-to-unfriendly neighbors.  The United States is gradually pulling out of recession, has succeeded in mobilizing if not leading an extensive anti-PRC diplomatic coalition, and still has enough military might to defeat the PRC’s military forces several times over.  

To my mind—and apparently to Tom Donilon’s mind—this is a golden opportunity for the United States to update the “core interest” narrative beyond the traditional red lines of Taiwan and Tibet, which were defined when the PRC was a Maoist basket case struggling to maintain order within its own borders, an insignificant presence in international trade and security, and terrified of a war with the Soviet Union.

One would think that the definition of China’s “core interests” is due for upgrade in concept if not extent now that China is the second-largest economy on the planet and a linchpin of the world economic order. 
Certainly, the PRC thinks so and, in fact, has been trying to promote a “core interest” redefinition since at least 2009—one that moves the definition of “core interest” as “war worthy” to “a Chinese priority acknowledged by the United States” and today seems to mean “let’s work toward a US-China grand bargain on North Korea, cyberwar, and Iran, including a shared position on the territorial disputes which we mutually impose on Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines”.

However, the Obama administration has steadfastly refused to entertain any modification of the “core interests” framework and, indeed spun China’s approach into a narrative of heightened PRC aggressiveness .  In the public sector there is also a wagonload of analysis that urges President Obama not to accommodate China’s desire for acceptance of the PRC and its system in the international order at the expense of our smaller allies.

I think it is driven by the same awareness of current Chinese vulnerability, but informed by a distaste for the possibility that opportunistic exploitation of this weakness for the sake of shorter term albeit tangible and valuable geopolitic and economic gains will compromise a long-term rollback strategy and the prospect of Victory! over a PRC that is no longer rising but declining to a second-tier regional power.

The PRC’s territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam are not, by this reading, open sores.  They are precious jewels, the strategic foundation of the pivot, and the basis for a firm, relatively united anti-China alliance that enables confrontation on the early side and on US terms.

 Any effort by the PRC to resolve them bilaterally, either by intimidation or inducements applied to its neighbors or through deal cutting with the United States, should be resisted.  By no means should they be bartered away for transient and illusory gains on issues like North Korea.  God forbid that tensions should slacken and give China more time and opportunity to nullify the US military and geopolitical advantages.

 I'm of the "cash in the geopolitical gains and reduce tensions" persuasion, but some combination of conviction, interest, and hopeful/wishful thinking seems to be driving pundits into the Gordon Chang alternate universe of collapsing China.

Peter Mattis of the Jamestown Institute wrote an op-ed (actually rewrote history) to draw a dire parallel between China today and the time America gave away the geopolitical store: the Shanghai Communique. 

In sum, Donilon echoed a Chinese concept that does little to address U.S. interests and reiterates a set of principles for the U.S.-China relationships that are unpalatable for Washington. This misstep keeps with the long U.S. practice of over-promising to Beijing that goes back to Henry Kissinger’s promises on Taiwan and the Third Communiqué. Contrary to their defenders, this over-promising does not allow the Chinese to save face. Instead, it creates unmet expectations, which leads to frustration in Beijing as subsequent Americans deny them the fruits of past promises. With so many other real issues challenging the two sides, it would seem better to avoid such unnecessary frustrations. In this light, giving any policy significance to the “New Type of Great Power Relations” seems like a bad idea, no matter how well it resonates rhetorically with U.S. questions about integrating a rising power into an established order.

Actually, Kissinger promised that arms sales to Taiwan would be sustained at existing level and gradually phased out.   At the time, the United States expected the Republic of China—a KMT mainlander dictatorship facing a growing challenge from its alienated indigene majority-- to be relegated to the dustbin of history. Then, when the China Lobby started cranking in the US Senate and Taiwan democratized, the US had second thoughts.  Reagan elevated Taiwan doctrine to “maintaining parity”; subsequent administrations have pursued and refined the concept of “throwing enough armaments Taiwan’s way to satisfy US domestic military and political constituencies but not enough to make any kind of difference.”

I leave it to Gentle Reader to decide if this was “overpromising” or “the US reneging on an agreement” or “a redefinition of US core interests”.  I think it means that China’s core interests have always been, in IR speak, a “contested space” and are a legitimate arena for engagement and negotiation.

I don’t think the China bashing quadrant has much to worry about.  President Obama has a marked distaste for the PRC and its regime, not just the wooden diplomatic stylings of Hu Jintao, so even if Xi and Obama split a case of PBR, share a pair of hookers, and go skinnydipping in the Sunnylands pool together, the US government is going to sustain a fundamentally suspicious orientation to the PRC.

Tom Donilon is on the way out and Susan Rice and Samantha Power and their moralizing liberal interventionist stylings are in.

The only question, to me, is how offensive Obama has to get with Xi in the public arena in order to avoid the “Sunnylands = America’s Munich” narrative that is bubbling below the surface.

Sinocism’s June 8 page has a good Sunnylands wrap-up (which pointed me to the Pettis article).   
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