The positive reset in United States-China relations that resulted in a united
front on Iran sanctions will apparently be of short duration.
United States support for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's Cheonan
policy is increasingly perceived by Beijing as an effort to isolate China
strategically as well as diplomatically within Asia.
Allegations of the nuclear ambitions of the Myanmar government will doubtless
be raised by Washington as further evidence of
China's irresponsibility and used as justification for the filling of the
imputed security void in Asia by the United States.
Sharp divisions also emerged at the "Shangri-La Dialogue" of Asian defense
ministers held in Singapore over the weekend.
However, the US position had already been telegraphed by US Senator Jim Webb,
the most vocal advocate of anti-China engagement in Asia, during the run-up
towards his planned trip to South Korea, Thailand and Myanmar last week.
Webb is the point man in the US Congress for engagement with Myanmar (Burma -
the preferred nomenclature of human-rights activists and the US government) and
has made the case for moving beyond the current unproductive sanctions policy
of several years.
Professor David Steinberg of Georgetown University, an authority on American
policy toward Myanmar, told Asia Times Online that the Barack Obama
administration had moved beyond both the Bill Clinton and George W Bush
administrations' preoccupation with regime change in Myanmar, and that US
policy vis-a-vis the Myanmar regime should not be regarded as "zero sum" as it
relates to acknowledging China's extensive economic, energy and security
interests in the country as well as improving the well-being of its people.
Webb is "publicly out in front", not out of step with US policy in Asia,
according to Steinberg.
Beginning in the autumn of 2009, Webb has explicitly linked the need for
enhanced US ties with Myanmar to preventing China's exploitation of the country
as an economic and strategic asset, among other reasons.
Based on Webb's recent statements, the prospects for a "win-win" cohabitation
of the US and China on Myanmar appears to be receding, as the perceived need
and opportunity to tangle with China on regional security increases.
Chairing hearings of his Asia and Pacific Affairs sub-committee of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, Webb introduced his critique of China and US
policy toward China with the statement, "There is no country in the world to
which we are more vulnerable, strategically and economically, than China." 
The Burmese news website Mizzima described his views toward Myanmar:
nowhere is this more obvious than in Burma [Myanmar], where Chinese influence
has grown steadily at a time when the United States has cut off virtually all
economic and diplomatic relations. Since then, Chinese arms sales and other
military aid has exceeded $3 billion,” added the Virginian Senator.
Webb, who in August 2009 travelled to Burma and met with high-ranking junta
officials, including Senior General Than Shwe, as well as detained opposition
leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is a strong advocate of engagement with the Burmese
junta, in power since 1988.
Webb said in the absence of United States engagement with the junta, China has
taken over and greatly influenced the Burmese regime to the extent of creating
“an intrinsic suspicion of US motives in the region.”
"And as only one example of China’s enormous investment reach," he added, in
reference to a future pipeline to run through Burma, "within the next decade or
sooner, Beijing is on track to exclusively transfer to its waiting refineries
both incoming oil and locally tapped natural gas via a 2,380-kilometer
pipeline, a $30 billion deal." 
Webb's critique of China
goes far beyond the issue of Myanmar, targeting China's policy on North Korea,
Vietnam, disputed island chains, and alleged manipulation of water levels on
the Mekong River basin from its upstream vantage point.
Appearing on MSNBC's Hardball public affairs program on May 26, Webb
resurrected the "responsible stakeholder" theme, most notably articulated by
Robert Zoellick during the George W Bush administration, to provide a more
principled justification for China rollback than naked American self-interest.
Recent events have underscored the need for the United
States to step up its commitment to the region.
As our interaction has declined, China’s influence has grown rapidly and
broadly throughout Asia. Regrettably, China's behavior has not reflected the
kind of responsible leadership expected from a regional or global leader. It is
time for the United States, together with our allies and partners, to call on
China to act in a responsible way that improves the stability and prosperity of
the region. 
In a decade that has seen the world's most
responsible hyperpower inflict the Iraq War and the great recession on the
planet - at the same time that China's judicious economic management is
credited with forestalling a second great depression - Webb's China-bashing
probably elicited a cynical shrug in Beijing.
However, as the South Korean and US diplomatic campaign evolved in the
aftermath of the Cheonan sinking on March 26 with the loss of 46 lives,
China has realized that the alleged irresponsibility of China is not only a
staple of anti-China rhetoric in the US Congress; it is driving the "return to
Asia" strategy of the Obama administration.
In the public realm, US strategy has crystallized in the aftermath of the
sinking of the corvette Cheonan that has been blamed on North Korea.
As Japan has staggered away from the United States under the rule of the
Democratic Party of Japan, the US has been supporting pro-American South Korean
President Lee Myung-bak's claim to leadership in North Asia as an important
democratic economic and military power and counterweight to China.
In an effort to boost South Korea's stature, US diplomacy has led to
arrangements for South Korea to host two high-profile global events: the Group
of 20 summit in November 2010 and the next US-orchestrated nuclear security
summit in 2012.
The Cheonan tragedy appears to been viewed both by South Korea and the
United States as a valuable opportunity to elevate the security leadership
profile of Seoul and Washington in North Asia at China's expense.
Lee made the opportunistic decision to exclude China - arguably the most
knowledgeable regional asset concerning North Korean capabilities and
intentions - from the team convened to investigate the sinking of the Cheonan.
Then, when the investigation's results were announced, again the opportunistic
but diplomatically questionable decision was made to publicly pressure China to
endorse a report that it had no hand in preparing and was somewhat less than
the evidentiary slam dunk that it was made out to be in the South Korean and
Webb then added fuel to the fire by playing the "irresponsible China" card
during his Asian trip, as this June 1 report from the Korea Times (posted on
Webb's website) illustrates:
Webb said the United States must encourage
China, the North's last benefactor, to be "more open and overt" in approaching
challenges on the Korean Peninsula.
"The Chinese government needs to actively assist in resolving these issues
rather than sitting back and making bland statements, and maybe doing something
behind the scenes," he said.
Webb, who has travelled extensively in Asia as a government official and
journalist, believes China's rapid economic emergence has not been balanced
with a 'proper sense of national responsibility' when it comes to its relations
with other countries in the region.
Webb said China's position on the Cheonan incident when it reaches the UNSC
[United Nations Security Council] will be a barometer of its willingness to
cooperate with the international community.
"It is a good opportunity for the rest of the world to observe and comment on
whether China is proceeding in a mature fashion as a member of the
international community," he said. "It's a test of whether it can participate
among the leadership of the world community." 
cynicism concerning the South Korean and Western exploitation of the Cheonan
sinking as a "US return to Asia" rallying cry was no doubt exacerbated by the
outcome of the South Korean local elections on June 2.
Widely understood to be a referendum on Lee's handling of the Cheonan affair
- and expected to yield an electoral triumph for his party as the populace
rallied, 9/11 style, around the government - Lee's Grand National Party
suffered a stunning setback as the North-Korea-conciliatory Democratic Party
(DP) won a majority of the races.
Lee, with the encouragement of hardliners inside South Korea and loathe to
countenance a return to the detested "Sunshine" policy of accommodation with
North Korea championed by the DP, brushed aside this inconvenient expression of
popular doubt for his policies.
Instead, he proceeded with the next episode of what was apparently a
pre-planned, choreographed campaign to exploit the sinking: his keynote address
at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a yearly confab of Asian defense ministers held in
In his address, Lee characterized the Cheonan sinking as "not matters
pertaining to the Republic of Korea alone. These are serious threats to peace,
stability, and prosperity of Northeast Asia and global security. It seriously
undermines global peace. It is a direct threat to our values ... Today the
Republic of Korea government referred the matter of North Korea's attack on the Cheonan
to the United Nations Security Council ..." 
What China would be expected to extract from this statement was the clear
inference that South Korea and the United States intend that the UN Security
Council - the preferred venue of the Western powers - replace the
China-dominated six-party talks as the primary vehicle for engagement with
The unedited text of Lee's speech preserved on the official website included
some interesting and inadvertent insight into his attitude toward the six-party
talks. The original text read:
Let us not concern ourselves when the
six-party talks resume. Instead we must hammer out a grand bargain to work to
fundamentally resolve the North Korea issue through the application of the
Grand Bargain proposal within the six-party talks framework.
judging from the strikethroughs in the official text preserved in the PDF on
the Shangri-La Dialogue website, the final version as delivered soft-pedaled
the shift from six-party talks to pursuit of South Korea's upper-case "Grand
Bargain" - the Lee Myung-bak government's unilateral recipe for
denuclearization and reunification - and retreated to a less assertive lower
case "grand bargain".
The final version read:
Let us not concern ourselves when the six-party
talks resume. Instead we must hammer out a grand bargain to fundamentally
resolve the North Korea issue through six-party talks.
not appear that the Chinese were mollified by Lee's last-minute editing, as its
response to Lee's speech and the remarks of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
Gates is, in many aspects, the eminence grise of the Obama
administration. A holdover from the George W Bush administration, Gates
protects the vulnerable right flank of the Obama administration on global
security matters, providing the "strong on defense" credibility that helps the
United States to pursue relatively sane and moderate policies on nuclear
disarmament, Russia, and Iran.
His statements matter, more than the State Department's, as an indication of
the true intentions of the current US administration.
So it was doubtless a matter of great interest to China that the "irresponsible
China/remember the Cheonan" theme introduced by Webb was revealed as
something more than a piece of China-bashing by a loose cannon in the US
Congress; it found its way into Gates' remarks at the Shangri-La dialogue as
As the Associated Press reported, Gates adopted the same criticism of China
that Webb employed, but stepping back a bit and avoiding mentioning China by
name (except, presumably, in the inevitable backgrounders):
In a clear
challenge to China, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Asian nations cannot
stand by in the face of North Korea's alleged sinking of a South Korean
warship. "The question people have to contemplate is, what are the consequences
for a North Korea of an unprovoked attack on a neighbor? For nothing to happen
would be a very bad precedent here in Asia," Gates said, addressing an
international security summit.
He did not mention China's financial and diplomatic support for North Korea but
said "the nations of this region share the task of addressing these dangerous
AP's coverage made it clear that China
knows where this is going, and is not particularly pleased.
During the question and answer session, as reported by AP, a Chinese general
made a blunt distinction between the US unwillingness to condemn Israel for its
assault on the Gaza relief flotilla in international waters, while expecting
that China join in the condemnation of North Korea for the Cheonan sinking:
"There is a wide gap in the US attitude and policy to the two
instances," said Major General Zhu Chenghu of China's National Defense
University. He did not endorse the US-backed international finding that the
North sunk the warship Cheonan with a torpedo.
Gates said the attack on the warship was a surprise operation conducted
"without any warning". Israel had issued several warnings to the flotilla not
to enter its territorial waters, he said. "I won't make judgment on
responsibility or fault" in the Mediterranean incident, Gates said, adding that
he favors an international investigation to determine responsibility.
"But I think there is no comparison whatsoever between what happened in the
eastern Mediterranean and what happened to the Cheonan," he said.
Another reason why China is probably less than impressed with the Cheonan
campaign at the UNSC relates to the divergence in evidentiary handling.
International outrage over the Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara has,
thanks to no doubt vigorous advocacy by the United States on Israel's behalf,
resulted in the creation of a UNSC-endorsed investigatory commission chaired by
the ex-prime minister of New Zealand as a prelude to any formal UN condemnation
South Korea, on the other hand, apparently expects the UNSC to condemn North
Korea on the basis of its "international" investigation of the Cheonan,
which it printed up in a glossy brochure and circulated during the Shangri-La
During his remarks, China's official speaker at the conference General Ma
Xiaotuan indirectly expressed China's dissatisfaction with the whole Cheonan
jihad strategy orchestrated by the United States and South Korea.
Ma made the cogent point that it was counterproductive to "try to put out a
fire with a hammer", i.e. use traditional us-versus-them security alliances (as
the United States appears to be trying to formulate with South Korea against
North Korea and possibly China) to answer the complex security challenges of an
interconnected and interdependent region.
According to the official text of his remarks, he also said:
issues should neither be politicized nor used as excuses to put pressure on
other countries in pursuit of one's own interests. 
reported in the Chinese press, his remarks were more pointed:
issues should not be politicized and, even more so, should not turn into a tool
for certain countries to put pressure on other countries in order to extract
private benefit. 
Presumably, "politicization" refers to
Lee's attempt to orchestrate his Cheonan gambit to achieve the maximum
in pro-government fervor and international diplomatic momentum (while perhaps
obliquely drawing attention to his apparent failure in the local elections).
"Certain countries" pressuring other countries looks like a slap at the United
States to use the Cheonan issue in an attempt to ostracize and isolate China
Given the impression that the Cheonan incident is being stirred up
despite Chinese objections and the resistance of the South Korean electorate in
order to advance a deeply held US China-rollback strategy, it is safe to say
that the Iran sanctions honeymoon between the United States and China is just
The next flashpoint for US friction with China will probably be Myanmar.
As previously noted, Webb was the most visible representative of the effort by
the Obama administration to move beyond the sanctions-centric strategy of the
Bush administration to engage with the Myanmar junta and wean it away from its
strategic relationship with China.
Webb was in Asia and prepared to visit Myanmar and, perhaps, provide a dose of
US anti-diplomacy to offset the effects of a high profile visit by Chinese
premier Wen Jiabao, when his trip was blown out of the water, as it were, by a
damning documentary prepared by the activist group Democratic Voice of Burma
and aired on al-Jazeera concerning Myanmar's nuclear and ballistic
Webb dropped Myanmar from his itinerary. On his website, he referred hopefully
to the postponement of his trip, rather than its cancelation, and stated:
strongly believe that a continuation of dialogue between our two countries is
important for the evolution of a more open governmental system and for the
future strategic balance in Southeast Asia. However, a productive dialogue will
be achievable only when these two matters are further clarified. 
However, attempts to engage with the junta have always been dogged by the
vociferous, politically telling opposition of the Burmese democracy movement
championing the cause of Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, the National
League for Democracy.
Now that Myanmar appears guilty of the twin sins of nuclear proliferation and
colluding with North Korea in addition to its high profile offenses to
democracy and human rights, it would appear to be beyond the pale as far as the
United States is concerned.
If past history is a guide, Myanmar will become permanently enmeshed in the
gears of the American nuclear non-proliferation machine and can be expected to
cleave even more closely to Beijing.
The most obvious way for the Obama administration to extract any geopolitical
advantage from the mess will be to will be to seek to hang the Myanmar
millstone around China's neck as another demonstration of Beijing's
irresponsible foreign policy.
The United States has apparently made some moves to mollify Beijing, most
notably by postponing US-South Korean naval exercises that China considered an
unnecessary and provocative escalation of tensions.
However, China's dissatisfaction with the US Asia strategy as pursued in
cooperation with Lee Myung-bak implies that US-China ties will become fraught
and filled with obstacles.
Beijing's refusal to receive Secretary Gates for a trip to Beijing is being
attributed to China's continued anger over US approval of arms sales to Taiwan.
However, since the Taiwan issue was extensively aired during the negotiations
over Iran sanctions - and resulted in a US reaffirmation of the one-China
policy - it is likely that Beijing was sending a pointed message of disapproval
concerning America's anti-China diplomatic activity in Beijing's near-beyond of
Reportedly, Gates returned the snub by refusing to meet with General Ma in
For his part, Ma identified three obstacles to closer US-China military ties:
the Taiwan arms sales, the "intensive" monitoring and intelligence gathering
directed by US air craft and naval vessels at Chinese ships in China's southern
and eastern waters; and the DeLay Amendment to the 2000 Defense Authorization
Act, which restricts exchanges between the US and Chinese military in 12 areas.
The DeLay amendment dates to the dismal, dishonest days of the Cox Report, and
was intended to humiliate the Clinton administration with the implication that
it could not be trusted to protect American secrets from the PLA without
Congressional oversight. Perhaps General Ma was suggesting that it would be a
matter of personal honor as well as good public policy for Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton to agitate for the abolition of these restrictions.
It is unlikely that a formal breach will occur between China and the United
States or South Korea.
All three countries have a stake in the underlying logic of their relationship:
their economic ties.
Seoul, in particular, has been peering anxiously over its shoulder toward
Beijing during the entire Cheonan process, trying to reassure China of
its sincere desire to partner on regional stability, while playing the role of
America's eager security partner in North Asia.
However, it seems that China is in a better position to recognize and exploit
the economic implications of its regional role than the United States, which
needs an unwelcome environment of tension and confrontation to justify and
project its military power into North Asia.