Wednesday, March 31, 2010

China-American Relations Reset...

...And China Matters Gets to Write a "Toldja So" Post

I'm not saying that the U.S. government China boffins reads China Matters. Hell, they don't. But that allows me to take enhanced pleasure in the realization that we do a pretty good job of tracking the U.S.-China relationship.

The big news is that, as of March 30, as extensively reported in the U.S. press, China has decided to join the exercise to torque Iran's gonads by drafting a new UN Security Council sanctions resolution.

For China watchers, the significant backstory was the Chinese government posting the quid pro quo on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website:

To quote the key bits of the item, entitled US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg Reiterates the One China Policy:

In the small hours on March 30, Beijing time, US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg [the top China boffin in the Obama administration--ed.] held a media briefing at the Foreign Press Center in Washington D.C.


Steinberg stated that the United States adheres to the one China policy and maintains only unofficial relations with Taiwan. This is a long-standing and firm policy pursued by Democratic and Republican administrations alike since President Nixon, President Carter and President Reagan. The centerpiece is the one China policy, which has not changed. The US side does not support independence for Taiwan and opposes unilateral attempts to change the status quo. The US side welcomes the continued improvement and development of cross-Straits relations. The US side hopes that the two sides of the Straits will resolve the issue peacefully through dialogue. The US side reiterated that it considers Tibet to be a part of China and does not support independence for Tibet. The US side supports continued dialogue between the central government of China and the representatives of the Dalai Lama.

On economic and trade issues, Steinberg stressed the need for all countries to do their part to avoid zero-sum solutions that in the end benefit no country and to assure sustainable global economic growth. The US side looks forward to the second round of the S&EDs in Beijing.

Steinberg also touched upon China-US cooperation on security and regional hotspot issues.

The MOFA reported posted one exchange in spokesperson Qin Gang's press conference under a special separate heading:

Q: According to reports, on March 30, Beijing time, when accepting the letter of credence from the newly-appointed Chinese Ambassador to the US Zhang Yesui, US President Obama said that "our two countries should build a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship for the 21st century, and we will both take concrete actions to steadily build a partnership to address common challenges". On the same day, US Deputy Secretary of State Steinberg said at a press briefing that the US sought to develop positive, pragmatic and cooperative relations with China and adhered to the One China policy pursued by previous US administrations. He reiterated that the US recognized Tibet as a part of China and disapproved "Tibet Independence". How does China comment?

A: China appreciates the positive remarks on the China-US relations made by President Obama and Deputy Secretary of State Steinberg and values the US side's reiteration of its principled commitment on issues concerning Taiwan and Tibet.

Since the Obama administration took office, the China-US relations have witnessed positive development thanks to joint efforts of both sides. Not long ago, the China-US relations suffered undue disruption, which is in the interest of neither side. Both China and the US are countries of major influence around the world and a sound China-US relationship serves the fundamental interest of the two countries and their people and contributes to peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and the world at large.

etc etc. etc.

One might think, what's the big deal? Well, not if you read China Matters.

Setting the wayback machine to March 5, I wrote:

China’s playpen [according to the Obama administration] is supposed to be Greater China: the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong.

A pretty major chunk of the world, but still not an attractive option for China, which sees itself competing with Japan for regional supremacy in Asia and isolated and relegated to second citizen status in key resource regions such as the Middle East and Africa.

According to this theory, the Obama administration should give China a free hand in dealing with Taiwan and Tibet.

But, of course, the Obama administration isn’t doing that.

I’ll repeat the bolded excerpt from Qin’s statement here:

But in the past two months, on the Taiwan and Tibet-related issues, the US violated the principles enshrined in the three joint communiqués and China-US Joint Statement, seriously disrupted the development of China-US relations and caused difficulties for the bilateral cooperation in major fields.

What Beijing is saying is, You’re trying to stick me in the Greater China box…and now you’re f*cking with the box! Are you trying to say China’s only legitimate sphere of influence is the 25% of the PRC’s area that is occupied by Han Chinese?

Clearly, China was anxious for reassurance that U.S. policy would not condone concerted meddling, on human rights or democratic grounds, with China's fraught relations with the government on Taiwan (with the potential for Japanese mischief) and the Tibetan ethnic minority (with the potential for Indian mischief).

We probably think of these issues as symbolic, and useful mainly to play to the domestic bash-China lobby.

But it appears that China regards satisfactory respect for its freedom of action in these spheres as the minimum necessary acknowledgement of its role as a dominant regional power.

This reassurance is probably even more important to Beijing as Tokyo and New Delhi show a renewed tendency to slip the U.S. leash and pursue their own, potentially anti-PRC policies. If Japan or India starts something, China wants to know ahead of time that the United States won't pile on.

Steinberg's invocation of a non-zero-sum relationship also brought a contented smile to China Hand's lips.

Back on February 13, I wrote a post on China's Iran conundrum entitled, Rollback: Is the Obama Administration Going Zero Sum on China?

My point was: China felt that the Obama administration was engaged in a systematic rollback of Chinese influence around the globe, the Chinese felt it was zero-sum, and Beijing would not play ball on Iran unless it received strategic reassurance from the Obama administration and James Steinberg--reassurance it did not receive a couple weeks ago when Steinberg visited Beijing.

In response, China even rolled out Henry Kissinger to emphasize its desire that the traditional bases of U.S.-China relations be reaffirmed.

Based on the conspicuous play given to Steinberg's remarks and Qin's reply, the fat lady has definitely sung and Beijing believes a reset has finally taken place.

This news prompted the only possible response from Iran.

As the headline in People's Daily reports Iran's Top Nuclear Negotiator Heads to Beijing.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

China: Emboldened? Anxious? Or Invincible Zombie Masters?

Beijing Resurrects Henry Kissinger

Readers of this blog have been aware of a certain back and forth on the issue of China’s current geopolitical posture vis a vis the United States.

I’ve argued that China is anxious over the Obama administration’s rollback against Chinese economic and diplomatic penetration in the Middle East and Africa and the forthcoming high-stakes fracas over the RMB exchange rate, and is seeking “strategic reassurance” that U.S. pressure on China will stop short of measures that will endanger the core interests and survival of the CCP regime.

Specifically, China is looking for a U.S. reaffirmation that Taiwan and Tibet are the PRC’s internal matters.

That reassurance was not forthcoming during the visit of the Obama administration’s top two China hands, James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader, to Beijing last week.

Instead, China’s position was re-spun in the foreign policy press as “China emboldened” i.e. China feeling its geopolitical and economic oats and trying to push for new U.S. concessions at the expense of the Taiwan government and the Dalai Lama.

And the beat goes on.

In a March 15 article titled “China slams U.S., defends money policy” the LA Times covered Wen Jiabao’s annual press conference at the National People’s Congress:

“In an annual news conference in which he took direct aim at the United States, Wen Jiaobao defended his country’s currency policy and said it was up to Washington to mend Sino-American relations.”


Wen rebuffed international criticism that China had become arrogant and was engaging in triumphalism—charges made after the Copenhagen climate-change summit talks ended without a binding agreement.

I cover the Copenhagen debacle here (with a link to my article on the subject at Asia Focus).

China could certainly be accused of engaging in self-interested obstructionism in the face of concerted Western efforts to push it toward a cap on total emissions, but the borderline racist accusation of “arrogant triumphalism” by uppity Orientals doesn’t really reflect the Copenhagen dynamic—or the initial anti-China spin (amoral, irresponsible money-grubbing saboteurs) that emerged from the confab.

I guess in the run-up to the RMB clash, the anti-China PR brief has been put in more determined and capable hands.

To a perhaps oblivious audience, Wen reiterated his concerns about the Taiwan, Tibet, and the U.S.-China relationship:

Wen said Washington had violated China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity…”These have seriously disrupted Sino-U.S. relations,” Wen said. “The responsibility does not lie with the Chinese side but with the United States.”

Those are pretty strong words for a head of state. I’m waiting for the Chinese press to trot out the “selling arms to Florida and encouraging the Texas independence movement” analogies to try to get the message across.

But China will have to find other ways to cut through the informational clutter.

Now, close your eyes and think of the one image that Beijing could produce to show that it was simply asking for a reaffirmation of the historic bases of U.S.-China engagement, and not sounding the battle cry for a new campaign of world conquest.

Ready? Here it is:

The embalmed corpse of Henry Kissinger, exhumed from the shag-carpeted Studio 54 annex to Chairman Mao’s tomb for a grip and grin with Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang this week in Beijing!

I suppose the “emboldened China” crowd could argue that Beijing is demonstrating its cutting edge zombie reanimation and control technology as a warning to foolish nations of the world that might otherwise dream of resisting its invincible brain-eating army.*

But I think it would be safer to guess that China is openly pining for the halcyon 1970s, when Nixon and Kissinger cut off the guerrillas in Tibet, withdrew national diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China, and saw “rising China” as a useful adjunct to their geostrategic plans.

*Wikipedia has an informative entry on Chinese zombies ( 僵尸 ):

A supposed source of the jiang shi stories came from the folk practice of "Traveling a Corpse over a Thousand Li " (千里行屍), where traveling companions or family members who could not afford wagons or had very little money would hire Taoist priests to transport corpses of their friends/family members who died far away from home over long distances by teaching them to hop on their own feet back to their hometown for proper burial. Taoist priests would transport the corpses only at night and would ring bells to notify other pedestrians of their presence because it was considered bad luck for a living person to set eyes upon a jiang shi. This practice (湘西趕屍) was popular in Xiangxi where many people left their hometown to work elsewhere. After they died, their corpses were transported back to their rural hometown using long bamboo rods, believing they would be homesick if buried somewhere unfamiliar. When the bamboo flexed up and down, the corpses appeared to be hopping in unison from a distance.

Kissinger image from People's Daily; Zombie Family movie poster from

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Who’s Bold? Who’s Ignoring Obama’s China Rollback Strategy?

Not China.

In the secret history of the Obama administration’s campaign to roll back Chinese inroads in Africa, Western shenanigans in the Democratic Republic of Congo will deserve a separate chapter.

The West blocked China’s massive $9 billion dollar ore-for-infrastructure project in order to protect its flagship project—Freeport McMoRan’s Tunke Fungurume copper mine--and show the DRC who was boss down in the heart o’ darkness (hint: it wasn’t the DRC government or the Chinese).

The Chinese project is going ahead, albeit on a reduced scale.

However, looking at the current balance of forces in the DRC, the project now looks as much as another point of Chinese exposure to Western leverage as it does a masterstroke in China’s African diplomacy.

I document the atrocities at Asia Times in my article: China has a Congo copper headache

When trends in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are examined, I think the US-PRC dynamic is pretty clear.

The Obama administration is reasserting U.S. influence in resource-rich regions that China penetrated during the distracted and internationally unpopular Bush administration.

Now the U.S. is cannily framing and choosing fights that unite the U.S., the EU, and significant resource producers, and isolate China and force it to defend unpopular positions alone.

Cases in point: Copenhagen climate summit, non-proliferation, and Iran sanctions. Next up: RMB valuation.

By my reading, China is pretty much a one-trick pony in international affairs.

It offers economic partnership and cash.

What it doesn’t have is what the U.S. has: military reach, moral leadership, heft in the global financial markets (Beijing’s immense overexposure to U.S. government securities is, I think, becoming less of an advantage and more of a liability), or a large slate of loyal and effective allies that help it dominate the global discourse and exert a decisive influence over international organizations.

When President Obama recommitted the United States to multilateralism, the countries that had grudgingly sided with China during the Bush years quickly fell into line with the U.S.

China got stuck with the rather miserable roster of Sudan, Myanmar, North Korea, and Iran and a political, economic, and human rights regime that provides a ready-made justification for criticism and containment by the liberal democracies of the West.

And the U.S. is quietly chipping away at Myanmar and Sudan.

The United States is also making good progress in pursuing the most destabilizing initiative (I’m not making a value judgment here, just a factual statement) of the next twenty years: encouragement of India’s rise from Afghanistan through to Myanmar as a rival and distraction to China.

The Chinese realize this and they are nervous.

As I wrote last week on the occasion of the Beijing visit of the top Obama China hands, James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader:

China’s playpen [according the Obama playbook] is supposed to be Greater China: the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong.

A pretty major chunk of the world, but still not an attractive option for China, which sees itself competing with Japan for regional supremacy in Asia and isolated and relegated to second citizen status in key resource regions such as the Middle East and Africa.

According to this theory, the Obama administration should give China a free hand in dealing with Taiwan and Tibet.

But, of course, the Obama administration isn’t doing that.

I’ll repeat the bolded excerpt from Qin’s statement here:

But in the past two months, on the Taiwan and Tibet-related issues, the US violated the principles enshrined in the three joint communiqués and China-US Joint Statement, seriously disrupted the development of China-US relations and caused difficulties for the bilateral cooperation in major fields.

What Beijing is saying is, You’re trying to stick me in the Greater China box…and now you’re f*cking with the box! Are you trying to say China’s only legitimate sphere of influence is the 25% of the PRC’s area that is occupied by Han Chinese?

What Beijing wanted from Steinberg and Bader was an acknowledgment of a legitimate sphere of interest for China by the United States—including Taiwan and Tibet—in order to alleviate the PRC’s worries about President Obama’s geopolitical initiatives, initiatives that, by accident or design, are pushing China into a corner.

Pretty clear to me.

But it looks like I’m the only one who thinks so.

After Steinberg and Bader came back from Beijing, Foreign Policy Josh Robin posted a blog piece whose tone was one of headshaking disbelief at China’s Taiwan obsession:

Several China experts close to both sets of officials said that Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and National Security Council Senior Director Jeffrey Bader went to China with the understanding that they would have substantive discussions on some key issues of U.S. interest, but the Chinese side used the opportunity to try to bargain for an end to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, something Beijing has wanted for decades and now feels bold enough to demand.

"It was all about Taiwan," said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), "The message that the Chinese are giving us is ‘We've had enough; we're fed up. We've been living with this issue of U.S. arms sales for too long and it's time to solve it.'" [emph. added]

For bonus points, we can also play the game, Who’s clueless? Beijing or Washington?

"There is a strong push from Beijing to get that core issue as their big ask and there's a desire to reopen discussions about what a plan to eliminate arms sales to Taiwan would look like," [Charles Freeman of CSIS] explained. "There is some sense that we can trade Iran for Taiwan, but that's a non-starter for the Obama administration. The Chinese don't seem to understand that."

China considers Taiwan part of China.

Nobody considers Iran to be part of the United States.

Which might mean that China’s call for non-interference on Taiwan might more legitimate than U.S. demands that everybody join in a united front dogpile on Iran.

And the Obama administration’s invocation of the stern god of political convenience to ignore Chinese concerns on Taiwan begs the question of why it’s not OK for China to simply declare that Iran sanctions is a “non-starter” for them.

The true significance of whether China feels it has a legitimate and significant beef on Taiwan issue brings up the talking point:

China: nervous or emboldened?

The Cable piece takes the “emboldened” China side, stating that China apparently “now feels bold enough to demand” changes in Taiwan policy.

And Willy Lam, the veteran China watcher who got his walking papers from the South China Morning Post because of his informed and critical views on the PRC, made the same point in Asia Times.

Say it ain’t so, Willy!

What is new is China's much-enhanced global clout in the wake of the world financial crisis, which is coupled with a marked decline in America's hard and soft power.

More importantly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is gunning for a paradigm shift in geopolitics, namely, new rules of the game whereby the fast-rising quasi-superpower will be playing a more forceful role. In particular, Beijing has served notice that it won't be shy about playing hardball to safeguard what it claims to be "core national interests".

However, the only “core national interest” Lam identifies are…Taiwan & Tibet, which the U.S. has already recognized as parts of China.

And the “hardball” tactics, he invokes are pretty tame measures: like withholding China’s OK for U.N. sanctions, complaining to Western countries over providing a welcoming haven for dissidents, and playing footsie with Pyongyang.

I think of “hardball” more along the lines of using missile defense systems in Eastern Europe as a bargaining chip, threatening sanctions that would cut off some of China’s oil imports, hey, maybe even selling arms to a renegade province and holding a White House meeting with the leader of a Tibetan dissident outfit.*

You get the picture.

Finally, Lam indirectly undercuts his point and supports mine by citing China’s fears of containment.

A likely factor behind the apparent softening of Beijing's diplomatic gambit could be fears of a backlash from countries that have been burnt by the fire-spitting dragon. General Yang Yi has warned of the danger of the emergence of an "anti-China coalition" in the West. "Some Western nations may adopt the formula of 'making individual moves to produce the effect of concerted action' - and join the 'contain China' camp one after the other," he said. Under this scenario, the well-known strategist added, "[anti-China] measures may come one after the other the rest of the year."

A late February commentary by the Beijing-run Hong Kong journal Bauhinia also drew attention to the possible worsening of the international climate this year. The monthly magazine noted that Western countries' dependence on China might lessen in the wake of the global economic recovery. "It is possible the West will put more pressure on China over issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, human rights, the value of the yuan as well as trade protectionism," the commentary said. "Forces calling for the 'containment of China' may also rear their head."[emphasis added]

Note, by the way, all of the areas of concerns cited by Lam in the Bauhinia article are within China’s borders—not exactly the priorities of a self-confident, burgeoning superpower eager to make its mark on the world.

And notice that they are couched in terms of the West’s decreased reliance on China—may I say boldness?--not as a reflection of China’s indispensability and heightened assertiveness.

So I’m willing to remain the outlier vis a vis The Cable and Willy Lam.

I don’t think the Obama administration is unaware of the nature of China’s Taiwan and Tibet concerns—rooted in geopolitical anxiety, not boldness.

I also don’t think that it is unhappy that media commentary buys into the “emboldened China” line, making its job of rolling back China that much easier.

*The Obama administration’s arms sale to Taiwan and meeting with the Dalai Lama were rather nuanced and not particularly provocative. However, from Beijing’s perspective, I think they feel the U.S. already has its thumb firmly planted in China’s eye; grinding it a little less isn’t much of a concession.

Friday, March 05, 2010

What President Obama Has to Look Out for on China

Washington’s top China hands, James Steinberg and Jeffrey Rubin, just left Beijing.

Judging from the Chinese reaction, it doesn’t look like they were able to deliver the kind of “strategic reassurance” that might elicit an enthusiastic or supportive Chinese position on Iran sanctions.

Readers who have been following my analysis of China’s ambivalence about the Obama administration’s effort to reorganize the international security regime around the principle of non-proliferation (and U.S. leadership) will note that China did not commit to the attendance of Hu Jintao at the Jedi Council of nuclear state leaders that President Obama hopes to convene in April.

Here’s what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Qin Gang, said on March 4:

Q: Today, the US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader, Senior Director for the National Security Council for Asian Affairs have concluded their short visit here. Has the visit eased the disrupted China-US relations? Will President Hu Jintao attend the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington this April? With what kind of efforts from the US, will President Hu attend the summit?

A: State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai met with James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader respectively during their visit here. Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya had talks with them. The two sides had an in-depth and candid exchange of views over China-US relations and other issues of mutual interest. The Chinese side noted that thanks to the joint efforts of both sides last year, China-US relations had a good beginning, which serves the interest of both sides.
But in the past two months, on the Taiwan and Tibet-related issues, the US violated the principles enshrined in the three joint communiqués and China-US Joint Statement, seriously disrupted the development of China-US relations and caused difficulties for the bilateral cooperation in major fields. It is but natural that China has made necessary response. It is imperative for the US to take the position of the Chinese side seriously, respect the core interests and major concerns of China, and display sincerity and take concrete actions so as to push China-US relations back to the track of healthy and stable development.

The two sides also exchanged views on other issues of mutual interest.

As for the Nuclear Security Summit, China has been making preparation to attend the summit. Now I have no further information to share with you.

Q: Some western countries have proposed new sanctions against Iran. Will you support the proposal?

A: China always supports the maintenance of international nuclear non-proliferation regime and holds that the Iranian nuclear issue shall be solved through dialogue and negotiation so as to safeguard peace and stability of the Middle East. This is in the interest of all parties concerned. We have been proactively participating in the international diplomatic efforts for the resolution of the issue in a responsible attitude. We will continue our mediation efforts and the constructive role for the proper resolution of the issue through dialogue and negotiations.

Q: How do you comment on the China-US relations after Steinberg's visit to China? On the Iranian nuclear issue, is China still ruling out sanctions against Iran?

A: I have already answered the first question on the future development of China-US relations. Our position is very clear on what needs to be done to bring China-US relations back to the track of healthy and table development.

As for the second question, China has all along supported a long-term, comprehensive and proper resolution of the issue through dialogue and negotiation by diplomatic means. We believe that currently there is still room for diplomatic efforts, and call on related parties to exert utmost efforts to solve the issue through dialogue and negotiations.

Note the part I’ve bolded there.

When you look at the Obama administration’s geopolitical strategy, it looks a lot like achieving global stability (and preserving American leadership) by defining, respecting, and, when needed, enforcing reasonable and sustainable spheres of influence.

On the issues I follow, it’s clearest in the Middle East (tag team by the U.S., Europe, Russia, and Israel to contain Iran and reconcile the Arab countries to the continuation of the Palestine mess); Africa (U.S., Europe, and India only, thank you); and South Asia (India’s playground all the way from Afghanistan to Burma).

A lot of it involves pushback to Chinese economic and diplomatic penetration in the Middle East and Africa.

China’s playpen is supposed to be Greater China: the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong.

A pretty major chunk of the world, but still not an attractive option for China, which sees itself competing with Japan for regional supremacy in Asia and isolated and relegated to second citizen status in key resource regions such as the Middle East and Africa.

According to this theory, the Obama administration should give China a free hand in dealing with Taiwan and Tibet.

But, of course, the Obama administration isn’t doing that.

I’ll repeat the bolded excerpt from Qin’s statement here:

But in the past two months, on the Taiwan and Tibet-related issues, the US violated the principles enshrined in the three joint communiqués and China-US Joint Statement, seriously disrupted the development of China-US relations and caused difficulties for the bilateral cooperation in major fields.

What Beijing is saying is, You’re trying to stick me in the Greater China box…and now you’re f*cking with the box! Are you trying to say China’s only legitimate sphere of influence is the 25% of the PRC’s area that is occupied by Han Chinese?

It’s unclear that President Obama is willing or able to provide the kind of “strategic reassurance” that China is looking for. And the longer the United States pursues a geopolitical reset at China’s expense, the more difficult, unlikely, and costly that reassurance will become.

Google "confident" but still censoring

Thank you to Shane McGlaun’s blog at Daily Tech for this immortal piece of reporting, dated March 5.

Google Confident in Decision to Stop Censoring Search Results in China

I love the contrast between the bold, freedom-friendly title and the behind-covering subtitle:

Google has no firm date set for censorship to end

I'm confident I'm going to lose 20 pounds--but I haven't set a firm date yet.

Google's expression of tender regard for the fate of its 800 or so employees--as opposed to the future of Google’s brand equity and profits in a market of 1.6 billion people—as the reason for continuing the censorship of search results also softened China Hand’s lips, usually frozen in a cynical O, into a fond smile.

Per McGlaun:

PC Magazine reports that Google has no firm timeframe for eliminating the censorship of its search results in China. Google's Nicole Wong, VP, and general counsel for the search firm said that Google's big concern is its employees in China.

Wong said, "We have many employees in the ground, some of whom are very dear colleagues of mine and so we recognize both the seriousness and both the sensitivity of the decision we're making and we want to figure out a way to get to that end … in a way that's appropriate and responsible. It's a very human issue for us."

Google doesn't come out and say it, but the feeling is that the search firm fears its Chinese employees might be held accountable if the search engine stopped the government mandated censorship of search results.

Google was the only tech firm invited to testify before a Senate subcommittee this week who agreed to testify. Wong testified in front of the subcommittee saying, "We are firm in our decision that we will not censor our search results in China and we are working toward that end."

Wang’s remarks dovetail nicely with this January 18 headline from the Guardian:

Google investigates China Staff over cyber attack

And a report from TechCrunch on Jan. 14 that told us:

…the IM conversation that we were forwarded reveals that Google China workers no longer have access to company systems.

The fact that Google employees are seemingly unable to log onto internal systems could be a result of the internal security tests and scans, but Google has apparently also asked China employees to ‘relax at home’ for an unspecified time.

Somewhere, Google CEO Eric Schmidt is writhing.

Don't be evil, guys! At least not while everybody’s looking.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Israel, Iran, and Obama’s NPT “Grand Bargain”

A Great Deal for Russia, But Not for China

I have an article up at Asia Times titled US seeks to turn China over Iran sanctions.

I go over the evidence that the United States is trying to shift gears and engage China as a great power with an acknowledged stake in Iran, and not just an amoral, oil-grubbing obstacle to America’s Middle East diplomacy.

I make the case that the Obama administration’s top two China hands, James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader, don’t have a lot of levers when they go to Beijing this week. The U.S. is intent on rolling back China in the Middle East and elsewhere, and there is little in the way of concrete “strategic reassurance” (Mr. Steinberg’s coinage describing the current U.S. policy) that we have to offer.

That doesn’t mean that China won’t look at the disposition of forces and abstain or even vote “aye” or “yea” or “yippy-ki-yay m***” in the Security Council; it means whatever they do, they won’t be happy about getting pushed to the wall on Iran and they’ll be thinking about short-and-long-term countermeasures.

One of the things that the Chinese will be thinking about is the NPT Reform Conference in New York City in May 2010.

This extremely boring-sounding conference is actually the linchpin of President Obama’s strategy to re-order the international security order on the basis of a multilateralized commitment by the developed world to forestall proliferation of nuclear weapons technology—instead of building military and diplomatic coalitions around America’s need to assert full-spectrum dominance over its enemies and competitors.

I think the correct frame to view America’s rather over-the-top campaign to bring Iran to heel through sanctions is not “mad mullahs must not be allowed to gain nuclear weapons and bully our buddies in Middle East sandbox”.

Instead, neutralizing Iran should be viewed in the context of the Obama’s administrations efforts to universalize its non-proliferation doctrine by dealing with the most aggravating and problematic proliferation issue.

Not Iran.


The presence of Israel at the forefront of the effort to impose “crippling” sanctions on Iran is something of an anomaly.

Israel is itself a proliferation bad boy. It isn’t a member of the NPT; it has a highly destabilizing undeclared arsenal of over 200 nuclear weapons; and it proliferated in a major way to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Arab countries have routinely deplored the West’s double standard in ignoring Israel’s existing nuclear weapons transgressions while fixating on Iran’s unproved and unprovable intentions.

It would appear to be paradoxical for the Obama administration—which makes a fetish out of deep thinking and forward planning—to send Israel around the world to carry the flag for Iran sanctions.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Israel’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, just concluded a trip to the United States to lobby for sanctions.

Benjamin Netanyahu paid a high-profile visit to Russia to bargain for its UNSC vote.

An Israeli delegation just returned from beating the sanctions drum in China.

The action is not limited to permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Israeli delegations are also lobbying non-permanent members of the Security Council—countries that can’t veto a sanctions resolution but can contribute to the nine-vote yes tally needed to pass it—far from Israel’s conventional sphere of influence and interest.

Countries like Brazil, Gabon, and Uganda.

To me, all this activity makes sense only in terms of the Obama administration’s overarching desire to reshape the global security regime around non-proliferation.

And I think those plans include an as yet publicly undisclosed role for Israel.

President Obama’s claim to global moral and geopolitical leadership rests in considerable part on his championing of the cause of nuclear disarmament—the primary justification for his Nobel Peace Prize.

The Obama administration’s ambitions for a “grand bargain” reconciling nuclear-weapons and non-nuclear states within the framework of a new and improved NPT are a matter of detailed public record.

They involve universal participation in a stringent NPT regime achieved by a full toolbox of carrots and sticks: a de facto ban on domestic enrichment by nuclear have-nots enabled by an internationalized LEU fuel supply facility in Russia and universal adoption of the adversarial Model Additional Protocol; a new START treaty with Russia, a U.S. commitment to a denuclearized security regime by promulgation of a new, no-nukes Nuclear Posture Review, and negotiation of a ban on creation of new fissile material to deliver on the forgotten promise of disarmament by the nuclear weapons states under the NPT; and U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The whole Obama approach, with its core elements of a new START treaty and Russian hosting of the LEU facility, seems designed to welcome Russia—the most significant player in nuclear weapons outside of the United States—into the world security-regime fold as a key partner instead of an antagonist.

Beating on Iran for its unpopular nuclear program at Washington’s behest would seem to be a small price to pay for the opportunity for Moscow to join Obama’s non-proliferation team, end the U.S. campaign to isolate and harass it geopolitically, and perhaps gain acceptance of the “near-beyond” in Eastern Europe and Central Asia as Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence.

It’s not surprising that Moscow is interested in playing ball with Washington as a result.

Despite all these interlocking and complementary initiatives, it is difficult to see how the nuclear-weapon lions will lie down with the nukeless lambs unless the U.S. also has plans to bring Israel into a new non-proliferation regime, perhaps as part of an India-style deal that allows it to declare and keep its weapons.

In the past, Israeli participation in any international nuclear arms control regime was considered to be impossible.

Israel has not declared its nuclear arsenal and is not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which, as recently as May 2009, it derided as totally ineffectual.

However, the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran in early 2009 and a contemporaneous call for all nations—with Israel explicitly named—to sign the NPT treaty elicited great dismay in Israel.

Israel faced the possibility that, in the case of a U.S. nuclear deal and rapprochement with Tehran, Israel would be isolated as the nuclear rogue state and would have to negotiate the status of its arsenal from a position of weakness.

This apparently inspired a sea change in Israeli attitudes toward the NPT regime.

For whatever reason, the U.S. outreach to Iran failed to bear fruit and Israel seems to have made the intricate adjustments necessary to replace Iran as a key supporting element in President Obama’s global disarmament strategy.

By a remarkable coincidence, the crucial event may have been revealed just as the West presented its doomed nuclear fuel swap proposal in Geneva on October 1, 2009:

On October 2, 2009, Eli Lake reported in the Washington Times that President Obama had, at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request, agreed to reaffirm the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy toward the Israeli nuclear arsenal that has prevailed since the Nixon administration: that the United States would passively accept Israel’s nuclear weapons status as long as Israel did not declare or test a device.”

In the context of President Obama’s overarching commitment to the NPT, there was immediate speculation as to the possible quid pro quo he demanded for continuing the charade of ignoring Israel’s nuclear weapons status.

Lake quoted David Albright of ISIS as remarking:

"One hopes that the price for such concessions is Israeli agreement to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty and an acceptance of the long-term goal of a Middle East weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone," he said.

The “long term goal” is described in Israel as the “long corridor”:

Israel has declared it will officially eschew nuclear weapons if the nations of the Middle East sign peace treaties acknowledging Israel’s right to exist, and the region is devoid of all weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological as well as nuclear weapons, and missile stockpiles have been decreased.

That, of course, brings us to Iran and its enrichment program.

It is difficult to understand Israel’s high-profile involvement in the Iran sanctions negotiations unless Israel has come to an understanding with the United States concerning entry into the non-proliferation regime and has been charged with communicating assurances to the various skeptical nations that it is poised to become an NPT good citizen if the Iran problem is dealt with in a satisfactory way.

If President Obama hopes to bring Israel to the NPT Review party in New York City in May 2010, it looks like he’s going to need Iran’s scalp on his belt—Iran convincingly isolated and ostracized by the family of nations because of its insistence on its enrichment rights.

But he also might just be bringing an Iran mess.

There are signs that the NPT Review Conference in New York in May 2010 is eerily recapitulating the debacle at the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009.

It appears the Obama administration will enter the conference with only a fraction of the national commitments needed to put it in the moral and diplomatic driver’s seat and impose the deal it made with a small circle of great powers on the hundred-plus developing nations.

Cooperation with Russia on START and establishment of the internationalized LEU fuel facility are well advanced.

However, Laura Rozen reports that the Russian leadership is unwilling to pull the trigger and announce the conclusion of an agreement.

I think the Russians understand that, without the START treaty, President Obama risks going into the NPT conference virtually empty-handed.

America’s own ratification of the crucial Model Additional Protocol for IAEA safeguards is gutted by an enormous national security exemption; thanks to DoD resistance, the Nuclear Posture Review posture calls for continued improvement of the US nuclear arsenal instead of its elimination; and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and negotiation of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty are distant dreams, given the implacable and united hostility of the emboldened Republicans in Congress.

In the absence of significant progress in the United States, a new START treaty and a startling, new public statement by Israel concerning its willingness to enter into the non-proliferation regime are the best hopes for the Obama administration to go into the NPT review conference with some momentum.

I think the Russians realize they have this leverage and are making life miserable for the U.S. negotiators. That includes dancing around on the issue of Iran sanctions which, if my theory holds, has been sold to Moscow by the U.S. and Israel as the linchpin of a new non-proliferation regime with Russia near its center.

China is really the odd man out in this scenario, especially if a non-proliferation united front including Israel, Russia, and the Arab States orchestrated by the United States trumps China’s preferred tactic--economic and diplomatic engagement--as the preferred method for dealing with Tehran.

China may decide to take a leaf from its Copenhagen playbook and act as the spoiler at the NPT conference in alliance with elements in the developing world that will be shut out of the nuclear fuel cycle by the strict new NPT regime envisioned by the United States.

Or, as the U.S. apparently hopes, Beijing will decide to stick to its knitting in Greater China, while leaving the rest of the world as spheres of influence for the United States, Russia, India, and Brazil.

Grand bargain, indeed.