Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Who Lost China? The Secret War Between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

 A version of the piece posted below appeared at Asia Times in September 2012.  It is reproduced here with the permission of Asia Times.  Parties interested in reproducing the piece should contact Asia Times.

As a corrective to the current cataract of punditry concerning the rise of scary China under Xi Jinping, here's a piece I wrote in 2012 on the occasion of Xi apparently snubbing Hillary Clinton ("bad back!") during her farewell tour of Asia as Secretary of State.

Clinton's China strategy was, in my opinion, careless, opportunistic, rooted in impunity, tunnel vision, and moral hazard, and rich in unexpected consequences...like the PRC's urgent push to superpower status.

As far as China is concerned, the signature US rollback ploy under Clinton was encouraging the return to Japan to the regional stage as a power-projecting state.  Since Japan enjoys the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, this was an important and destabilizing shift in the Asian equation for the PRC.  And the PRC has been counter-programming actively and successfully ever since.

The anti-Clinton element in the PRC's worldview and geopolitical calculations is quite apparent in my 2012 piece.

In my opinion, the China hawk containment strategy failed because it was fundamentally flawed and incompetently formulated.  And that's the dead end America's trying to get out of today.

 China hawks prefer to think their policies are sound and, if executed with sufficient determination, sure to succeed.  The PRC's current advantages, by this view, are largely attributable to insufficient US focus and will and, if you scratch a little deeper, appeasement.

There's some  moonshine getting peddled that there was a "China fantasy": that the PRC would, through engagement, become "more like us".  After Tiananmen in 1989, nobody believed this.

The "China fantasy" legerdemain is, I think, meant to obscure the fact that the China hawks, Clintonites and others, are trying to escalate out of their own failures of the last decade, not  reverse course from previous appeasement by their rivals.

The largely unspoken subtext is the accusation that President Obama failed to deliver the China-containment goods.

Unspoken, because Clinton Dems are not quite ready to publicly criticize the China policies of  Barack Obama, one of the most successful and popular Democratic presidents of the post-war era, and take Democratic ownership for what is now seen as a major geopolitical fail.

The Obama administration, both with Clinton and afterwards, was committed to China rollback.  

US rollback efforts began under the Obama/Clinton administration in 2009.  Remember the "Pivot"?  "America's Pacific Century"?  "No G2"?

The real debate was whether it would be executed a la Clinton.

An interesting but unexplored angle to US China policy during the second Obama administration is that Obama and Clinton apparently weren't really that close and President Obama maybe wasn't super enthusiastic about Clinton's execution of the rollback policy. 

One of the most interesting/damning suspicions concerning the Obama/Clinton relationship is the implication that President Obama was ready to remove the Senkakus from coverage under the US-Japan defense pact, and Hillary Clinton and Seiji Maehara short-circuited that initiative by ginning up the Captain Zhan/rare earths brouhaha in 2010.

In fact, maybe President Obama took to heart the ostentatious display of PRC hostility to Clinton (and had limited enthusiasm for pursuing an alliance with Japan's conservative and historical-revisionist trending government), and tried to do things differently in his second term.  For a few months, anyway.

If so, President Obama's inclination to muddle through with a less confrontational PRC policy probably only survived through 2014, when Chuck Hagel was purged as Secretary of Defense and Admiral Harry Harris (who had served as Pentagon liaison to Hillary Clinton's State Department) and Team China Hawk seized the reins at PACOM.

The Clinton China policy, in other words, survived Clinton's term as Secretary of State, persisted! through the second Obama administration, and even, I argue, prevailed after Clinton's defeat as a presidential candidate.  In my opinion, the Clinton China policy is alive and well today, and is being implemented via PACOM and like-minded types in Australia and Japan despite whatever objections and ambitions Donald Trump...or Barack Obama...might hold.

Read all about it here: Chuck Hagel's Demise...and James Fanell's Rise...and Australia!

China Hand Feb. 2018

 Swan Song in Beijing

A version of this piece appeared at Asia Times in September 2012

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently paid what is expected to be her final official visit to Beijing.

She received a stern reception from Chinese officialdom, including the official media, and also suffered what appears to have been a personal rebuke.

Secretary Clinton’s press entourage was abuzz concerning the cancellation of a meeting with PRC president-in-waiting Xi Jinping.

Of course, it is possible that the excuses that circulated through the press corps—that Xi had a scheduling conflict and/or a bad back—were the truth.  Xi also cancelled a meeting with the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong.

However, the CCP may have decided that Secretary Clinton’s last visit was the final and most appropriate opportunity to administer a snub—and a message.

Per her position as Secretary of State, Secretary Clinton is entitled to meet with her opposite number in Beijing, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

Full stop.

However, because of a variety of circumstances both historical (the importance of the relationship between the US and China, Secretary Clinton’s special status as spouse of an ex-President) and immediate (the fraught current state of Sino-US relations, the fact that this is probably Secretary Clinton’s last official visit to China), she also met with PRC President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

From an official perspective, there are no grounds for Secretary Clinton to feel snubbed on this trip.
And also from an official perspective, there are no grounds for Secretary Clinton to meet with Xi Jinping.

After all, Secretary Clinton and her team are on the way out, regardless of whether President Obama wins election or is replaced in the White House by Mitt Romney.

Xi Jinping, on the other hand, is not yet in the office of President of the PRC.  That is still Hu Jintao’s job.  Perhaps Mr. Hu did not take pleasure in the idea that the United States was going around him to cultivate relations with Mr. Xi before Mr. Hu had vacated his presidential chair.

Possibly, the Chinese leadership also felt that Secretary Clinton wanted to meet with Mr. Xi to pad her Rolodex so she can claim that she has guanxi to burn with the new generation of China’s leaders as she embarks on her post-Secretary of State career as politician, pundit, think-tank leader, and/or corporate advisor.

If so, the CCP could have used cancellation of the meeting with Xi to send a message (to paraphrase the immortal smackdown of Dan Quayle by Lloyd Bentsen during a vice presidential debate many years ago):

I knew Henry Kissinger… And, Secretary Clinton, you are no Henry Kissinger. 

Actually, Xi Jinping does know Henry Kissinger (who is, by the way, still alive) and has met him more than once.

Xi met with Kissinger and a host of other retired US State Department worthies during his trip to the United States in February of 2012.

But he also met with Kissinger one-on-one in Beijing several weeks before his trip to send the message that China was ready to "seize the day, seize the hour," in order to promote bilateral ties.

The CCP leadership value Kissinger as the symbol, custodian, and advocate of a US-China relationship that is special.  

When relations between the Chinese leadership and President Obama teetered into the deep freeze following the disastrous Copenhagen climate summit (which featured China’s furious negotiator screaming and waving his finger at President Obama for what China perceived to be the cynical US decision to use the PRC as scapegoat for the collapse of the talks), the PRC publicized a meeting between then Vice President Li Keqiang (the title that Xi holds now, by the way) and Kissinger in Beijing to demonstrate that China wanted to continue relations in a spirit of positive engagement.

However, President Obama decided for political, economic, moral, and geostrategic reasons (and perhaps also because of his unsatisfying personal interactions with the Chinese leadership cadre) he had to deal with the PRC from a position of greater regional strength and eschew immediate accommodation.

The rest is history, specifically the strategic pivot to Asia, executed by Secretary Clinton. 

China’s relationship with the United States is now special only in the sense that it is especially awkward and difficult.  The closest Beijing probably has to a US champion of a special relationship with China today is Robert Zoellick, the ex-head of the World Bank who now serves as an advisor to Mitt Romney.

From the Chinese perspective, the pivot has done little other than make trouble for China, specifically by emboldening US allies in the region to make trouble over maritime issues.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines passed maritime laws to formalize their challenges to Chinese claims to rocks and shoals in the South China Sea.  The Japanese government, goaded by Tokyo governor and Sinophobic hothead Shintaro Ishihara, is taking steps to buy the Senkakus from their private owner.

The United States danced around the issue of whether or not it would back up security guarantees with the Philippines and Japan on island issues in a rather equivocal manner.  

And Washington further upped the ante by promoting the line that the South China Sea disputes should be addressed in negotiations between the PRC and the various claimants collectively through ASEAN, instead of through bilateral talks between the PRC and its smaller adversaries.

This situation pleases fans of interminable multilateral jaw-jaw, although a case can be made that the best way to actually settle claims is for the PRC to cut joint development deals with its neighbors one-by-one in order to unlock in a reasonably timely manner the immense riches we are told lurk below these miserable islands.

In the run-up to Secretary Clinton’s visit—and a spate of ugly demonstrations (not suppressed with notable vigor by the Chinese government) and incidents such as the snatching of the flag from the Japanese ambassador’s official vehicle on one of the Beijing ring roads(presumably a thuggish one-off by a Chinese citizen)—the Chinese government clearly took the tack that it was time to tell the United States that enough was enough and it was time for the US to back up its rhetoric as guarantor of security in China’s neighboring seas by reining in its overenthusiastic allies in Hanoi, Manila, and Tokyo.

Xinhua laid out the case in a story datelined from Washington:

Many of the U.S. actions so far have been counterproductive to promoting peace and stability in the Asia Pacific, as indicated by the fact that the security situation in the region has been worsening, rather than improving, mainly due to the recent escalation of the territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

Washington, which claims not to take sides in the disputes, is partly blamed for fueling the tensions because it has apparently emboldened certain relevant parties to make provocations against China in order to achieve undeserved territorial gains.
Washington owes Beijing a thorough, convincing explanation of the true intentions of its Pivot policy, especially on issues related to China's vital or core interests. And the United States also needs to take concrete steps to prove that it is returning to Asia as a peacemaker, instead of a troublemaker.

Secretary Clinton’s visit was marked by a blizzard of articles in the official media on this theme:

Washingtonneeds to take concrete steps to promote China-U.S. ties

U.S.owes China convincing explanation of true intentions of its Asia Pivot policy

Commentary:U.S. should refrain from sending wrong signals over South China Sea

That is all Xinhua, starting to sound a lot like nationalist headknocker Global Times.
Global Times, well, sounded just like Global Times:

The PRC has a right to wonder if US infatuation with the pivot—and poking China in the eye—is matched with a responsible stewardship of its real security responsibilities in East Asia.

For the PRC leadership, the true indicator of the sincerity and utility of the US security role in East Asia is probably the amount of influence that the United States can bring to bear on Japan on its military and security agenda in general and on the symbolic issue of the Senkakus.

There is one compelling reason for the PRC to acquiesce to the continued US military presence in East Asia: that is if the United States can forestall the emergence of Japan as an independent, nuclear-capable regional military and security actor.

Thanks to US support of its demands for a closed nuclear fuel cycle and an otherwise unnecessary space program, Japan has the reserves of weapon-grade plutonium and the ballistic missile delivery systems to become a major nuclear weapons power virtually overnight.  In an interesting analysis, AP reviewed the evidence that Iran has perhaps studied and copied the Japanese strategy of positioning itself as a nuclear weapons threshold state—one without nuclear weapons but with the resources to weaponize its nuclear capabilities rapidly if needed.

By forestalling a nuclear-tinged regional arms race and keeping the Japanese self-defense forces preoccupied with self defense instead of power projection, the United States delivers a real and significant security and economic benefit to China, and to East Asia in general.

But the elevation of the Senkakus to a political, cultural, and security fetish is helping change that.
So far, Japan’s national governments, thanks to US suasion, incentives, and the security provided by the presence of US forces, have kept the military genie in the bottle.

Currently, the Noda government in Japan has conducted its demeaning competition with Ishihara to purchase the Senkakus with a combination of restraint, frustration, and disgust that the Chinese leadership probably finds very gratifying--despite its public fulminations.

However, past results are no guarantee of future performance.

If Japan slips the leash or, even worse, decides that it can yank America’s chain in the style of the Israeli government by forcing the US to support Japan and Japan’s objectives in the region through deliberate escalation of tensions, the perceived utility and value of the US military role in East Asia will be significantly compromised in China’s eyes.

In May, The Wall Street Journal reported on the relatively extreme security views of Shintaro Ishihara, the Tokyo governor who began the whole Senkaku purchase brouhaha:

Japan must guard itself from China’s expansionary ambitions, which, Mr. Ishihara said, are now turned outward after conquering Mongolia and the Uighur people and decimating Tibet. …“China has declared it would break into someone else’s home. It’s time we make sure doors are properly locked on our islands,” he said.  “Before we know it, Japan could become the sixth star on China’s national flag. I really don’t want that to happen.”

Throughout  the speech, Mr. Ishihara referred to China as “Shina”,  the name normally associated with the era of Japanese occupation of China.

Ishihara also advocated beefed-up Japanese military spending justified in part because the US is “unreliable” at least on the issue of the Senkakus.

It would be comforting to dismiss Ishihara as an aging, racist crackpot.  However, as Japan’s wartime generation and mindset fade away, political pressure for Japan to assume the role of an armed world power with its own security policy—and stand up to China—is growing.

And Ishihara has gone the extra mile in passing on his xenophobic legacy to the next generation, via his son Nobuteru.

One theory is that Ishihara ginned up the Senkaku purchase in order advance the political fortunes of Nobuteru, who is Secretary General of the opposition LDP and has an extremely good chance of becoming Japan’s next prime minister if the requisite amount of intra-party and inter-party skullduggery can be brought to bear.

The prospect that the Japanese government and foreign and military policy may soon be in the hands of a group of China-bashing reactionaries—and the US government in the hands of China-bashing neoliberals or neoconservatives indifferent to Chinese anxieties—is not a recipe for Chinese restraint.

The harsh official Chinese rhetoric concerning the pivot is perhaps more than a farewell rebuke to Secretary Clinton.  

It should be regarded as an effort to cut through the China-bashing clutter of the US presidential campaign with a strident and unambiguous declaration of the PRC’s concern that infatuation with the pivot has caused the United States to lose its focus on the critical regional priority of encouraging restraint among all its allies, but most of all Japan.

Fans of the pivot—and advisors to whatever president takes the oath of office in Washington early next year—may wish to start thinking about the worst case if the PRC’s new leadership thinks it has to escalate to confrontation sooner rather than later so it can either force US Asian policy onto a track more favorable to China or start crowding US military power out of the region before it’s too late.

One piece of advice: if a crisis erupts—and the United States genuinely wants to resolve it—maybe it is better not to send Hillary Clinton to Beijing.


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