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    Greater China
     Dec 23, '13

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Erase that war with China 'in 2014'
By Peter Lee

At the end of 2011, in an article on this site titled "Maybe that war with China isn't so far off after all", I drew that gloomy conclusion because the United States, thanks to the justifications, excuses, and pretexts surrounding its desire to "pivot to Asia", had created the doctrinal and public relations

justification and institutional incentives for military hostilities with the PRC. [1]

The slowly developing pivot has certainly created problems for the People's Republic in 2013, energizing its antagonists, marginalizing its supporters, and turning China's search for advantage in its East Asian environment into a grinding, costly slog, marked by incessant friction between Japan and China, the escalating defiance of the Philippines, and the alarming emergence of India as Japan's explicit security partner.

Despite talk of a "new model" of US-China relations, the new regime of Xi Jinping has not hit many of the conciliatory marks that the United States pointedly set for it (and, in the case of Syria, its resistance to the Obama administration's policies have been rather clearly vindicated).

In East Asia, China continues to claim objectionable security prerogatives, particularly in its maritime zone. Western elite opinion is set against the country as an assertive, uncooperative, and disturbing force - witness the media uproar against the PRC for failing to supply the level of typhoon aid to the Philippines that might validate China's legitimacy as a benign regional power, at least in the eyes of the West - and the outlook for 2014 is more complaints and more coercion.

Increasingly, this attitude manifests itself as the assertion in the Western public sphere that US relations with the PRC are veering from the model of peaceful competition to an existential good versus evil cage match. This is demonstrably not the opinion in PRC pundit-land, nor does it seem to be the case when considering the actual application of US pivot policy. In fact, a closer reading of the events of 2013 imply that there are more pressing and productive priorities for the US in Asia than teeing up World War III.

The general trend in 2013 was to nibble away at the PRC's weak points in relatively peaceful, economic-centric ways, and shy away from the genuine fire-eating confrontations that might cause an armed clash and upset the shaky global economic applecart.

The new trend was typified by US engagement with Myanmar. The Myanmar junta, aware that its wholesale reliance on the unpopular PRC presence was pushing it into a political and economic cul de sac, reached out to the United States in 2011 by postponing the Myitsone dam, a high-profile PRC-funded hydro project, and by negotiating an accommodation on political reform with Aung San Suu Kyi. (If executed uncle and pro-Beijing asset in Pyongyang Jang Song-thaek turns out to be North Korea's Myitsone Dam, we may be in for an interesting year of awkward US-DPRK outreach on the Korean peninsula as well).

The United States also exploited fears of the Chinese boogeyman to push its "Trans Pacific Partnership", a trade pact that is perhaps more significant for the sovereignty-eroding giveaway it represents for global corporate interests than as an engine of economic growth or weapon for China-bashing. The TPP got a big boost, at least politically, through the Shinzo Abe government's determination to push Japan into the pact. Pragmatic Asian powers also jumped on the bandwagon, while declaring conditional and partial allegiance to the PRC-sponsored alternative: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP.

In response, the PRC even expressed an interest to join the TPP itself (certainly to block Japan's efforts to use the TPP to secure its anti-China economic alliance and possibly in order to treat the pact seriously as cover for domestic economic reforms) which would certainly dilute the pact's China-bashing panache.

The biggest setback for the United States was l'affaire Edward Snowden, which scuppered the US effort to lead the discussions of the world's economic agenda with China - and deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by the retirement of that old warhorse, yuan undervaluation, paired with the concurrent US attempt to weaken its currency through quantitative easing - by depicting the PRC as a cyber-gangster who had stolen its way to prosperity by filching American secrets, so completely that some observers declared that Snowden was actually a Chinese agent.

Nevertheless, the successful US effort to deny the PRC a legitimate regional and global voice chugged on, in the form of the "assertive China threat" narrative supported by the PRC's highhandedness in the South China Sea, particularly with the incensed Philippine government, further fueled by the media vaporings over the PRC's declaration in November of an air defense intelligence zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, and advanced more systematically by the increasingly independent Shinzo Abe and the cycle of provocations that Japan and the PRC cautiously execute around the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Abe took advantage of US forbearance to stick his finger in the Senkaku sore and use the resulting Chinese squeals as cover for his agenda of remilitarizing Japan's global presence through security cooperation with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, and - somewhat further afield - Turkey. (I patiently await the discovery by an alarmed and aroused Western media that Japan, thanks to its enormous stock of plutonium metal and its otherwise useless space program, is a threshold nuclear weapons power. As to the canard that metal recovered from spent reactor fuel cannot be used in nuclear weapons, I direct the interested reader here.)

At the same time, the PRC encouraged the Senkaku friction with its own calculated affronts, including announcement of the ADIZ to cover the islands. In addition to "slicing the salami" with incremental assertions of its maritime position, the PRC appears to be implementing a strategy quite similar to the North Korean program of calculated aggravation, trying to lure the United States into taking a constructive position between Japan and China to resolve the issue.

The United States has not risen to the bait and has explicitly reaffirmed the coverage of the Senkakus in the US-Japan Defense Treaty (a position that, I never tire of pointing out, [2] the Obama administration was poised to abandon in 2010 just before the miraculous event of the detention by Japan of Chinese fishing-boat captain Zhan Qixiong triggered Chinese reprisals and forced the US to side with Japan), thereby enabling the "China threat" narrative that forms the cornerstone of Shinzo Abe's efforts to redefine Japan's place in Asia, reinvigorate the Japanese economy, and build a network of regional alliances keystoned by India, Vietnam, and the Philippines as a complement to US backing.

More subtly, Prime Minister Abe took advantage of the defiance of the Chinese ADIZ by US military aircraft (an oft-asserted and exclusive right of the world's military hegemon certainly not reciprocally extended to any foreign power approaching the US) to claim the same privilege for Japanese aircraft, thereby virtually guaranteeing that if and when the South China Sea's ADIZ number comes up, everybody will be asserting the same right to fly their military aircraft wherever they want.

If the goal is to render any South China Sea ADIZ moot and thwart the PRC's regional pretensions, success is at hand. If, on the other hand, one would prefer that the purpose and utility of an ADIZ was respected and countries would not fly their military aircraft through other people's sensitive airspace without filing flight plans and talking on the radio, creating a regional ADIZ-defying regime is perhaps not the happy high road to aviation safety and avoidance of the dread "accidents and misunderstandings" that otherwise obsess anxious observers of the frictions in China's maritime near-beyond.

The purpose of the pivot, as it was originally presented, was not to stick it to the PRC for the sake of pure pleasure (albeit a pleasure that some pundits and politicians yearn to taste again and again and find almost fatally addictive); the threat and exercise of the pivot were intended to redirect Chinese behavior into avenues more advantageous to the United States.

Middle East again, but further east
By this metric, US success has been more equivocal. The pivot has modified the PRC's behavior, but indirectly, in response to regional forces unleashed by the pivot, and in ways that do not redound automatically to the benefit of the United States. The pivot to Asia threatens to replicate the US adventure in the Middle East, where US policy was very much in thrall to local allies - Israel, Saudi Arabia - that influenced and sometimes drove US regional policy into places the United States really didn't want to go.

This situation threatens to replicate itself in US relations with Japan. Prime Minister Abe enjoys remarkably good press in the United States, which is perhaps a tribute both to the energy his government puts into public relations and the considerable slack that Japan gets cut as an Asian democracy and US ally. However, it should be recalled that Abe is:

a) an old-school imperial nationalist;
b) a historical revisionist deeply resentful of the framing of the Pacific War as the virtuous US versus evil Japan (and, for that matter, innocent, victimized China); and
c) has first-hand bitter experience of the unreliability of US government support when the George W Bush administration threw him under the bus on the abductees issue in its rush to make a deal with North Korea during Abe's first term as prime minister in 2007.

Abe's desire to have Japan master of its own fate - in defense, security, and foreign policy - is not just a matter of his nationalistic preoccupation with the Chinese threat. It reflects his desire to transform Japan's relations with the United States from subservient ally to independent peer - and potential tail wagging the dog.

The PRC government has continually pounded on the issue of the divergence between the Asian visions of the Abe administration and the United States. Outgoing PRC premier Wen Jiabao made an unlikely visit to Germany to praise the Postdam Declaration (which called for unconditional surrender of Japan to the United States and its allies - including Chiang Kai-shek's China - in World War II) as the enduring foundation of the Asian security order.

PRC affirmations of the crucial US security role in East Asia have not mollified Western public critics, perhaps since the PRC has combined endorsement of the general principle with its irritating bullying of the Philippines and Vietnam, and most recently, the arousing the US Navy's indignation with its interference with US surveillance of the Chinese navy's aircraft carrier Liaoning in international waters.

But it appears that understanding of the PRC position - and the additional leverage it offers US diplomacy - has quietly found its way into US China policy.

One could say that in 2013 the US tiptoed to the edge of the abyss, looked in, realized it contained some bad things - such as Shinzo Abe calling the Asia shots instead of President Obama - in addition to the seductive mirage of liberal democratic triumph, and is learning to live with a new status quo of managed hostility and cautious opportunism.

Unexpectedly, the US China brief found its way into the reassuring hands of John Kerry, while new National Security Advisor Susan Rice was given ample leisure to reflect upon the miserable outcomes in Libya and Syria that her campaigns of confrontation (and anti-Chinese and anti-Russian vituperation) at the UN had yielded.

The United States government held Japan in check by reiterating its neutrality on the Senkakus sovereignty issue (a position that China hawks are pressing it to abandon) and refusing to replicate Japan's orders to its airlines to defy the East China Sea ADIZ (in one of those little-noted developments, South Korea decided to honor the Chinese ADIZ once its own ADIZ extension had been successfully announced, leaving Japan as the only country in the world whose civil airliners refuse to respect the Chinese air defense identification zone).

Secretary of State Kerry's pre-emptive harrumphing on the inadvisability of a PRC ADIZ declaration in the South China Sea, delivered in Vietnam with the concurrent announcement of increased maritime security assistance to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, appears to represent the US attempt to be ahead of the curve (and ahead of the determinedly confrontational Philippines) in the South China Sea, instead of reacting to the PRC and Japan as it did in the East China Sea ADIZ fracas.

The fact of moderation beneath the veneer of extreme rhetoric on both sides seems lost on the Western media, perhaps thanks to the PRC's decision under new supremo Xi Jinping to abandon the futile soft-power stylings of his predecessor Hu Jintao and crack down on the media.

PRC President Xi apparently decided that his plans for securing power and advancing his agenda, reform and otherwise, involved tight controls over dissent and the media, foreign as well as domestic. Fruitlessly currying favor with the Western corporate media is not on Xi's to-do list. Reducing the space for news outlets to discover and propagate information embarrassing to the regime and deleterious to its prestige and authority, on the other hand, clearly is.

Western journalists in Beijing and their employers have been subjected to a barrage of harassment, exemplified by the government declining to renew visas for Bloomberg and New York Times in a timely manner in retaliation for their temerity in reporting on the corrupt wellsprings of the immense wealth enjoyed by the PRC's leading families and individuals.

It seems that this aggravating state of affairs has caused some journalists to conflate the travails of Western media organizations in China with an overall Chinese agenda of confrontation with the West.

There are certain rumblings in the China-watching side of the Internet that we are entering an era of containment, with invocations of George Kennan's doctrine of containment against the Soviet Union presented in his seminal 1947 essay, "The Sources of Soviet Power".

Continued 1 2

China vs US 'sea-to-shining-sea'
(Dec 18, '13)

Has Abe overreached on China's ADIZ?
(Dec 3, '13)



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