Commentary Magazine


Topic: China

A Good Time for that “Pacific Pivot”

I was struck by Michael Auslin’s item regarding the possibility of war breaking out between China and Japan–something that has been much discussed in recent weeks and that is no longer so unthinkable with nationalist politicians in power in both Beijing and Tokyo. Japan’s prime minister has compared the current situation to 1914 with Japan in the role of Britain and China that of Wilhelmine Germany. The president of the Philippines has cited a historical comparison of his own–to the 1930s with China in the role of Nazi Germany and his own country cast as Czechoslovakia, ripe for dismemberment.

Whatever one thinks of these historical analogies, there is no doubt that China is going on the offensive, using aggressive nationalism as a ruling ideology to replace defunct Communist dogma, and Japan is less and less inclined to be pushed around by its bigger neighbor: a potentially explosive combination.

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I was struck by Michael Auslin’s item regarding the possibility of war breaking out between China and Japan–something that has been much discussed in recent weeks and that is no longer so unthinkable with nationalist politicians in power in both Beijing and Tokyo. Japan’s prime minister has compared the current situation to 1914 with Japan in the role of Britain and China that of Wilhelmine Germany. The president of the Philippines has cited a historical comparison of his own–to the 1930s with China in the role of Nazi Germany and his own country cast as Czechoslovakia, ripe for dismemberment.

Whatever one thinks of these historical analogies, there is no doubt that China is going on the offensive, using aggressive nationalism as a ruling ideology to replace defunct Communist dogma, and Japan is less and less inclined to be pushed around by its bigger neighbor: a potentially explosive combination.

And yet where does Secretary of State John Kerry choose to devote his time? He has made clear that his primary objective is to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, which seems to be as unlikely as ever. His secondary objectives seem to be focused on Iran and Syria, both important areas to be sure. But the Syria conflict, for one, does not appear to be amenable to diplomatic solution, as the failure of Geneva II should have made clear. The prospects are, admittedly, more promising in the case of Iran but only if the U.S. is willing to accept a lopsided deal that lifts a significant amount of the sanctions in return for a commitment to slow but not stop, much less dismantle, its nuclear program.

This leads one to wonder why Kerry isn’t devoting more time to Asian diplomacy? The explosive situation between China and Japan is hardly the only area of tension that cries out for amelioration. As the comments from Benigno Aquino of the Philippines quoted above make clear, China has dangerous relations with many of its neighbors who are offended by its expansive territorial claims.

Two U.S. allies–South Korea and Japan–also have poisonous relations that hinder efforts to contain both China and North Korea and could also be the subject of productive bridge-building work by an American secretary of state.

Finally, India remains a wild card in all of this–a major country on the other side of China that could be of crucial importance in containing the rise of Chinese power, playing the same role that Russia played in containing Germany in the two world wars. President George W. Bush made real progress in improving U.S.-India ties but more needs to be done, not only to bring the U.S. and India closer together but also to improve ties between India and other U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific region, from Australia to Japan.

There is, in short, ample work to be done here by a leading American diplomat and more potential for progress than in the Middle East. Yet Kerry is largely MIA in this crucial region. Whatever happened to the “Pacific pivot”?

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Year of the (War) Horse?

Given that this is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, comparisons to pre-conflict Europe in 1914 are abounding. Most have little historical value and less predictive worth. However, when even foreign leaders start to repeat them, then we might start to worry about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The most notable comes from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who used his speech at the World Economic Forum meeting to claim that today, China and Japan resemble Britain and Germany in 1914. Despite their close economic ties, Abe noted, Berlin’s military buildup caused instability leading to war. Other reports out of Davos indicate the Chinese noted the same thing, with a confidence that they could achieve their immediate goal of taking over a group of contested islands located near Taiwan, the Senkakus, that Japan has controlled since 1894 (except for a period of American control from 1945 to 1972). Even Henry Kissinger has got into the act, warning that the two are close to war.

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Given that this is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, comparisons to pre-conflict Europe in 1914 are abounding. Most have little historical value and less predictive worth. However, when even foreign leaders start to repeat them, then we might start to worry about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The most notable comes from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who used his speech at the World Economic Forum meeting to claim that today, China and Japan resemble Britain and Germany in 1914. Despite their close economic ties, Abe noted, Berlin’s military buildup caused instability leading to war. Other reports out of Davos indicate the Chinese noted the same thing, with a confidence that they could achieve their immediate goal of taking over a group of contested islands located near Taiwan, the Senkakus, that Japan has controlled since 1894 (except for a period of American control from 1945 to 1972). Even Henry Kissinger has got into the act, warning that the two are close to war.

Following close on these Davos disturbances were Chinese newspapers noting that this year, the Year of the Horse, is the same zodiacal year in which China and Japan fought their first war. The 1894 Sino-Japanese War broke out over Imperial Japan’s desire to control the Korean peninsula and end Chinese influence there. Of course, Japan defeated China by the following year and upended centuries of East Asian geopolitics.

There are major historical problems with both these analogies. With respect to 1914, Japan is no Britain, which was the de facto defender of the balance of power and open trading system. Instead, Japan has but slowly developed its military potential, while keeping both its capacity limited and being hamstrung by constitutional restrictions on the use of force. The 1914-style clash between reigning hegemon and rising challenger could only be between the United States and China, and there is as yet little reason to believe either is contemplating such a fight.

Further, no matter how much economic interplay there was between Britain and Germany back then, it is nothing like the interdependence of China and Japan, which are each other’s second-largest trading partners, where 10 million Chinese are employed by Japanese firms on the mainland, and where Chinese firms assemble billions of dollars worth of products using Japanese components or designed in Japan. There is no reason to expect that economic ties always trump political/military ones, but the bar has undoubtedly been raised particularly high in the Asian case.

As for 1894, again to use the Lloyd Bentsen analogy, the Senkaku Islands are no Korea. While the Senkakus are strategically useful to China, they are uninhabitable and largely derive their importance from nationalistic feelings that any territory once claimed by a state must be recovered. Korea, by comparison, was the crossroads of Northeast Asia, a fertile land to be controlled and used for further expansion. From that perspective, Korea may indeed have been worth fighting a war over, but no such claim could be made for the Senkakus.

The real danger is not a “guns of August” scenario whereby highly regulated mobilization timetables drag unprepared participants into conflict that spreads to halfhearted alliances. The danger rather falls into two distinct scenarios. The first is that years of war talk by both sides hardens diplomatic positions and inhibits any type of peaceful solution to the problem of a handful of uninhabited islands. Yes, Japan is deeply concerned about China’s seemingly inexorable rise once again to great-power status in Asia. It fears the future and feels its national honor is at stake in the Senkakus issue. As for Beijing, it appears to have adopted a position of pushing as far as it can and waiting to see what the response is; little opposition encourages more probing, while a firm response usually causes it to back down.

The second danger scenario is much more likely: accident or miscalculation leading to conflict. One would think that an accident, say two naval ships colliding, could be contained and prevented from escalating into full war. But here is where years of nationalism, distrust, and ambition could combine into a deadly brew. Neither side may want a real conflict, but each may feel they have drawn their lines too strongly to back down. The Year of the (War) Horse may come to haunt Asia.

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How China Undercuts International Order in East Asia

Since Beijing established its controversial air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large part of the East China Sea last November, the Obama administration has done everything possible to avoid a political confrontation. While U.S. military jets are reported to have ignored the ADIZ and continued regular flights, Vice President Biden very conspicuously refused during his December visit to Beijing to demand that China roll back the zone. Moreover, the State Department advised U.S. civilian airliners to comply with Beijing’s demands. Washington’s actions are part of a larger trend of failing to uphold international order in East Asia.

This week, America’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told reporters that the Chinese military has been “acting professionally” in the skies near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Unfortunately, news reports provided little clarity as to just what the Chinese are doing, professionally or otherwise, and where and how often U.S. jets are flying. This is a problem because the Obama administration has consistently refused to explain just why China’s particular ADIZ both conflicts with international law and is highly destabilizing.

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Since Beijing established its controversial air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large part of the East China Sea last November, the Obama administration has done everything possible to avoid a political confrontation. While U.S. military jets are reported to have ignored the ADIZ and continued regular flights, Vice President Biden very conspicuously refused during his December visit to Beijing to demand that China roll back the zone. Moreover, the State Department advised U.S. civilian airliners to comply with Beijing’s demands. Washington’s actions are part of a larger trend of failing to uphold international order in East Asia.

This week, America’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told reporters that the Chinese military has been “acting professionally” in the skies near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Unfortunately, news reports provided little clarity as to just what the Chinese are doing, professionally or otherwise, and where and how often U.S. jets are flying. This is a problem because the Obama administration has consistently refused to explain just why China’s particular ADIZ both conflicts with international law and is highly destabilizing.

First, China’s ADIZ is ostensibly applied to both civilian and military flights for purposes of identification, filing of flight plans, and the like. All other ADIZ’s, such as those of the United States, apply only to civilian flights, and only in the case that there is a valid concern that they are acting in a threatening manner towards U.S. territorial airspace. As pointed out by James Kraska, formerly of the U.S. Naval War College, among others, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory, allows “freedom of overflight” on the high seas, including through exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

Beijing is thus trying to change the status quo by warping the commonly accepted definition of an ADIZ. The U.S. has never fully explained that only China is attempting to control the activities of both civilian and foreign military aircraft by expanding the scope of an air defense zone. This is a prime example of what analysts mean when they talk about international “norms” and the danger to them of revisionist states like China.

Second, China’s ADIZ conflicts with the 1947 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which states that interception of civilian aircraft over sovereign territory is permissible only if “reasonable grounds” exist to assume that such flight was not innocent, and that states “must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.”

Yet in announcing its ADIZ, Beijing said that “emergency defensive measures” would be taken against any aircraft that did not comply with its demands for identification in the international airspace that happened to fall within the ADIZ, regardless of the innocence of the flight. Beijing is thus both conflating sovereign and international airspace and violating the spirit of international law by pre-justifying the use of force. A State Department full of lawyers might have enjoyed pounding this point home, but little if anything has been said about it.

In addition, Beijing is ignoring the fact that all airspace is already divided into “Flight Identification Regions” for the management of civilian flights and is agreed to through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Beijing’s demand that innocent civilian airliners provide information when traveling through its ADIZ violates air traffic practice established more than 50 years ago. Again, Washington has been silent on this point.

Third, Washington should have repeatedly pointed out that only China has established an ADIZ that overlaps with those of other countries. Indeed, a primary reason for China’s zone is to extend its ownership claims over the contested Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan. Thus, Beijing set up its ADIZ over Japan’s own zone, which was established decades ago. In addition, China overlapped territory claimed by South Korea. In response, Seoul also extended its ADIZ, so that the East China Sea now has three overlapping air defense zones.

The Obama administration has refused to provide the specifics about how destabilizing this is. Instead, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel merely lamented that what the U.S. was most concerned about was that China established its ADIZ in a precipitous manner without preconsultation. While U.S. military leaders have talked about the potential for accidental confrontation, the real dangers are much broader. In refusing to defend customary practice, international law, and common sense, the administration is playing its part in undermining all of them. It is a steep price to pay for not wanting to antagonize an already antagonistic competitor.

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Global Defense Spending Sharply Rises (Except in the West)

The defense budget debates in Washington over the past several years always took place in a vacuum: rarely, if ever, were discussions on how much to cut put into a global context. Few partisans of reduced military spending ever stopped to consider that the United States was not reducing its commitments around the world, only its ability to carry them out. Nor did they seem much exercised by the thought that other countries were not motionless, but would be pursuing their own interests regardless of what Washington did.

Two news stories today bring some more clarity to a situation that has been developing for some time. While the U.S. defense budget continues on a long-term downward trend (though spared from the worst of the congressionally-mandated sequestration cuts for now), China, Russia, and the Middle East are driving a new surge in military spending. Meanwhile, America and its liberal allies continue to pare their defensive capabilities, leading to an increasing imbalance around the globe.

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The defense budget debates in Washington over the past several years always took place in a vacuum: rarely, if ever, were discussions on how much to cut put into a global context. Few partisans of reduced military spending ever stopped to consider that the United States was not reducing its commitments around the world, only its ability to carry them out. Nor did they seem much exercised by the thought that other countries were not motionless, but would be pursuing their own interests regardless of what Washington did.

Two news stories today bring some more clarity to a situation that has been developing for some time. While the U.S. defense budget continues on a long-term downward trend (though spared from the worst of the congressionally-mandated sequestration cuts for now), China, Russia, and the Middle East are driving a new surge in military spending. Meanwhile, America and its liberal allies continue to pare their defensive capabilities, leading to an increasing imbalance around the globe.

According to the New York Times, China will spend more than Britain, France, and Germany combined, a total of $148 billion, though many experts believe it may be as much as double that. Just as worryingly, Bloomberg reports that in 2015 China and Russia alone will spend more on their militaries than the entire European Union. Those who dismiss Vladimir Putin’s regime as a paper tiger should update their assessment: Moscow now has the world’s third-largest military budget, and is increasing it by 44 percent. Meanwhile, China has just tested a hypersonic missile and has recently fielded new Predator-style drones, while investing in precision-guided cruise missiles, new bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a fifth-generation stealth fighter.

The political implications of the world’s largest authoritarian powers dramatically increasing their military budgets while the Western democracies reduce theirs seem unappreciated in Washington. It would be bad enough were a more confident China and Russia acting more coercively at their current levels of strength; a more powerful Beijing and Moscow, increasingly dismissive of their neighbors and acutely aware of regional military spending, will certainly be emboldened to push their interests in a more assertive fashion.

The response from the Obama administration is disheartening. It turns Syrian disarmament over to Russia and the U.N.; it refuses to confront China on its coercive behavior in the East and South China Seas; it embraces long-term personnel and modernization cuts in the U.S. military while ignoring other wasteful spending. The Obama White House may have the pulse of a war-weary American public, but it has completely misdiagnosed the global condition.

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Obama’s Disappearing Pacific Pivot

Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

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Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

The relative unimportance of the “Pacific pivot” in his speech is matched by a lack of action to bulk up U.S. forces in the region, even as the U.S. downsizes in the Middle East–something that military officers and observers have been noticing. But then it’s hard to see how the U.S. can do more in the Pacific, or anywhere else, at a time when the defense budget is falling as fast as it is.

An increased U.S. commitment in the region is appropriate, especially coming at a time when delegates at Davos are buzzing about the possibility of conflict between China and Japan—a situation that Japan’s premier has compared to the relationship between Germany and Britain before 1914. But a U.S. commitment to the Pacific shouldn’t come at the expense of the U.S. commitment to the Middle East, which is in greater turmoil than ever.

In reality, the U.S. commitment to both regions is decreasing; it is just that the decline of U.S. power in the Middle East is happening faster than in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. will not be able to exert more power in either area until the president and Congress rethink their plans to shrink the defense budget and with it our military capability.

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Iran Gloats over Ashes of American Influence

Amidst Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic afterglow from his supposed breakthrough nuclear deal (never mind that it has yet to be implemented and Iran continues to enrich uranium well past levels and quantities needed to fuel its nuclear power plant at Bushehr), it is often useful to remember how the Islamic Republic views the region and how it sees the United States.

As such, on January 1, Fars News Agency published an essay gloating over America’s supposed downfall relative to Russia and China (both of whom it has previously praised for defending Iran at the nuclear negotiating table):

Pax Americana, the so-called American Peace, is dead. It was never much of a peace anyway. In context of the Middle East, the term itself signifies a period of US dominance that arose after the Second World War and reached its zenith in 1978. Then in 1979 came along the Iranian Revolution…

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Amidst Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic afterglow from his supposed breakthrough nuclear deal (never mind that it has yet to be implemented and Iran continues to enrich uranium well past levels and quantities needed to fuel its nuclear power plant at Bushehr), it is often useful to remember how the Islamic Republic views the region and how it sees the United States.

As such, on January 1, Fars News Agency published an essay gloating over America’s supposed downfall relative to Russia and China (both of whom it has previously praised for defending Iran at the nuclear negotiating table):

Pax Americana, the so-called American Peace, is dead. It was never much of a peace anyway. In context of the Middle East, the term itself signifies a period of US dominance that arose after the Second World War and reached its zenith in 1978. Then in 1979 came along the Iranian Revolution…

The essay continues to highlight American mistakes:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was so sure in 2006 that American domination in the broader Middle East would expand. She triumphantly declared amidst Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon that the map of the Middle East would forever change to the profit of the United States. It did not, and Israel lost the war too. US influence began eroding, while the influence of its rivals began increasing… In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s influence would increase dramatically. The March 14 Alliance, the Hariri-led Lebanese entity sponsored by the US and its allies against Hezbollah, has proven to be impotent in its task of neutralizing Hezbollah and its political allies in Lebanon’s March 8 Alliance.

And gloats over how U.S. influence has hemorrhaged as a result of President Obama’s policy of inaction in Syria, and Secretary of State Kerry’s desire for a deal—any deal not matter what its content—with Iran:

The US has not neutralized its two main adversaries in the Middle East. The objective of regime change in Damascus has failed and Washington did not unleash the might of the Pentagon on Syria. An interim nuclear deal was reached in the Swiss city of Geneva between America and Iran. The decisions by the United States not to go to war with Syria or to finally strike a deal with the Iranians are not the reasons for the unraveling of American power. American power was already on the decline. Washington struck deals involving Syria and Iran as a means of trying to maintain its influence in the broader Middle East and to actually slow the speed of its decline. Instead, America’s allies and clients are fuming and feeling scared. As a result of the declining power of the United States, Washington’s allies and clients are slowly diversifying their relationships. From Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the regional allies of the US realize that America’s imperial umbrella over them has begun to erode. They are looking for alternatives to the US patronage.

Alas, when it comes to U.S. influence and unraveling security and stability in the Middle East, there is something to the Iranian essay. But what the essay does not acknowledge is that behind every case of declining U.S. influence was a decision in Washington to compromise, force allies into concession, or to cut ill-advised deals.

Hezbollah started the 2006 war with Israel, but watching Israel do battle for a couple weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice exerted great pressure on Israel to curtail its operations short of its operational goal to eradicate Hezbollah’s military capacity. She helped broker a deal for enhanced international presence on the border, but UNIFIL is impotent and, as Hezbollah re-armed, neither they nor Iran faced consequences. She made matters worse in 2008 when, against the backdrop of Hezbollah threatening greater violence against Lebanon’s elected government, she blessed the 2008 Doha Accords which gave Hezbollah veto power over the Lebanese government. Much of the weakness of the March 14 movement was its own internal bickering, but rather than help push it into shape, Rice effectively pushed it over the precipice.

U.S. military aid to the Syrian opposition would be counterproductive given the triumph of the radicals within the opposition, although the secular, pro-Western Kurdish entity in western Syria, the very region whose government Kerry bizarrely excludes from the diplomatic process, deserves real support. That said, the apparent Syrian government use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs should have resulted in an immediate and punishing military strike. That it did not only lost whatever credibility Obama had left, but is now a source of Iranian gloating. And, of course, so is the nuclear deal which the Iranians describe not as an indication of bringing peace, but rather in terms of it being a death blow to U.S. allies in the region. It seems everyone—Chinese, Russians, Iranians, and Saudis—see themselves in a Great Game for influence in the region. The United States refuses to recognize reality and so, as far as both the Iranians and U.S. regional allies are concerned, is forfeiting everything that is at stake.

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Shinzo Abe’s Provocation

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is making predictable waves with his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead–including a number of war criminals from World War II. He is trying, half-heartedly, to pass this off as a normal visit akin to a U.S. president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, but anyone who has ever been to Yasukuni knows that’s not the case. Right next to the shrine is a museum commemorating Japan’s 20th-century wars, which are presented from an imperialistic and militaristic slant in which the Rape of Nanking is not mentioned, the U.S. is blamed for provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the kamikaze pilots are glorified for their devotion to the nation.

Abe knows all of this, and he knows how Japan’s neighbors perceive high-level visits to the Shrine–about the same way as a bull perceives a waving red cape. So what is he up to? The obvious explanation is that he is enhancing his domestic popularity, already high, by catering to his right-wing supporters. He may also feel that China and South Korea have shown little interest in rapprochement with Japan so he has nothing to lose by doing what he has wanted to do all along.

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is making predictable waves with his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead–including a number of war criminals from World War II. He is trying, half-heartedly, to pass this off as a normal visit akin to a U.S. president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, but anyone who has ever been to Yasukuni knows that’s not the case. Right next to the shrine is a museum commemorating Japan’s 20th-century wars, which are presented from an imperialistic and militaristic slant in which the Rape of Nanking is not mentioned, the U.S. is blamed for provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the kamikaze pilots are glorified for their devotion to the nation.

Abe knows all of this, and he knows how Japan’s neighbors perceive high-level visits to the Shrine–about the same way as a bull perceives a waving red cape. So what is he up to? The obvious explanation is that he is enhancing his domestic popularity, already high, by catering to his right-wing supporters. He may also feel that China and South Korea have shown little interest in rapprochement with Japan so he has nothing to lose by doing what he has wanted to do all along.

Some Japan watchers posit a more conspiratorial explanation for his provocation: By visiting Yasukuni, Abe will enrage China, North Korea, and South Korea, among others, possibly prompting symbolic Chinese retaliation, thereby making the Japanese people feel threatened and making them more receptive to his agenda of rearming Japan and adopting a more aggressive posture in foreign and defense policy.

This sounds plausible to me, but it is also short-sighted on Abe’s part, because he is simply feeding Chinese nationalism and xenophobia–the greatest threats to East Asian security today. He is also making it harder, indeed nearly impossible, for Japan to work together more closely with South Korea on issues of mutual concern, such as the threat from North Korea. Japan and South Korea–both democracies closely aligned with the U.S.–ought to be natural allies, but for that to occur South Korea would have to overcome decades of bitterness over Japan’s imperialistic exploitation of their country. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni makes that nearly impossible.

Abe has the potential to be one of Japan’s greatest prime ministers. He has already achieved a great deal by turning around the Japanese economy, which is emerging from years of stagnation. He will also do much good if he succeeds in expanding Japan’s capacity and scope for military action. Japan is America’s closest ally in Northeast Asia and one that can do a good deal of good by checking the rise of Chinese power. The just-concluded agreement to keep a U.S. marine base on Okinawa by relocating it to a remote part of the island is an example of Abe at his best. The visit to Yasukuni, unfortunately, undermines this achievement and creates needless antagonism toward Japanese rearmament.

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Globalization and Democracy Can Coexist

Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

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Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

Despite the fact that militaries could hardly be called agents of reform, middle classes in many developing nations, both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, often continued to support the armed forces as potential antidotes to popular democracy–democracy that might empower the poor, the religious, and the less educated. In this way, Egyptian liberals’ concerns about the fruits of democracy were not unique. Overall, in fact, an analysis of military coups in developing nations over the past twenty years, conducted by my research associate Daniel Silverman and myself, found that in nearly 50 percent of the cases, drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for the coup or, in polls or prominent media coverage after the coup, expressed their support for the army takeover.

Kurlantzick’s expression “the fruits of democracy” captures well the fear of being, not to put too fine a point on it, looted. Diehl, who uses the term “elite revolt” to characterize the latest round of uprisings, puts it similarly:

So why are they rebelling? Because globalization is not merely an economic story. It is accompanied by the spread of freer and more inclusive elections to dozens of countries where they were previously banned or rigged. That has enabled the rise of populists who cater to globalization’s losers and who promise to crush the old establishment and even out the rewards. In country after country, they’ve succeeded in monopolizing the political system. Hence, the elite revolt.

Diehl offers up Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as a cautionary tale. And while the original framing of the issue puts more onus on the well-to-do (with great power comes great responsibility, and all that), this seems to even things out a bit. It’s understandable that a new middle class would be opposed to empowering the next Hugo Chavez.

So all this seems to suggest that maybe states like China have it all figured out: maybe the combination of democratization and globalization is too powerful for the two events to take place simultaneously. But this argument is missing an ingredient, and it’s one Kurlantzick glances at but doesn’t dwell on: stability. That’s clearest when looking at Russia’s Putin-era backsliding on democracy. Nobody’s wealth is safe without political stability.

But this, to me, is ultimately an argument in favor of globalization and democratization–as long as the term “democratization” means more than just elections, and globalization means more than just money. In April 2012, I quoted the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer discussing the report that perhaps a majority of Chinese millionaires prefer to live in the United States to their home country, and it’s worth re-quoting here:

And yeah, it’s about quality of life. Yeah, it’s about the environment. Yeah, it’s about opportunities for their kids. It’s also about no rule of law in China and worrying about corruption and the sanctity of their assets over the long term. Your assets are okay tomorrow. The United States, we’re over-litigious. China doesn’t have that problem. You don’t have to worry about lawyers in China. You have to worry about someone ripping off your stuff or being forced out of the country or not being heard from again.

In some very real ways, it doesn’t matter how rich China gets if those with all the money will only park it in New York City. The same goes for Russia, though proximity to Europe seems to predispose that money toward London’s banks. But both New York and London are in the West, and both are in democracies (at least until the European Union gets its way). Because even the messiness of democracy–true democracy, with free institutions and the rule of law–provides more long-term stability than the arbitrary governance of autocracy.

Bremmer predicated his quote by saying we have to watch what people do with their money, not rely on what they say. And his point was that the elites in authoritarian countries are trying to protect their assets from their own country’s government–the very government that has enriched them and which speaks in their name. The “elite” can revolt all they want to protect themselves, but even when they successfully grab the reins of power, without the rule of law they still end up looking for a way out.

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China, the Philippines, and U.S. Influence

It’s good to hear Secretary of State John Kerry announce, on a visit to Manila, closer military cooperation with our longtime ally, the Philippines, including more U.S. military visits. It was good, too, to hear Kerry, at a press conference with the Philippine foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, denounce China’s new, self-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which encroaches on Japanese and South Korean airspace. Kerry said that “the United States does not recognize that zone and does not accept it.”

The problem is that the administration has not been sending a consistent message to China in this regard. To its credit, the U.S. did fly a couple of unarmed B-52s through China’s ADIZ without notifying Chinese authorities. But then the U.S. seemed to send troubling signals that it was willing to accept the ADIZ after all. Foreign Policy noted on December 4 that the administration seems to be looking for “wiggle room” on the issue and “may be willing to accept the zone for now.”

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It’s good to hear Secretary of State John Kerry announce, on a visit to Manila, closer military cooperation with our longtime ally, the Philippines, including more U.S. military visits. It was good, too, to hear Kerry, at a press conference with the Philippine foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, denounce China’s new, self-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which encroaches on Japanese and South Korean airspace. Kerry said that “the United States does not recognize that zone and does not accept it.”

The problem is that the administration has not been sending a consistent message to China in this regard. To its credit, the U.S. did fly a couple of unarmed B-52s through China’s ADIZ without notifying Chinese authorities. But then the U.S. seemed to send troubling signals that it was willing to accept the ADIZ after all. Foreign Policy noted on December 4 that the administration seems to be looking for “wiggle room” on the issue and “may be willing to accept the zone for now.”

For example, when Vice President Biden met in Beijing recently with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he didn’t mention the issue at all. Moreover, the Obama administration has infuriated our close allies in Tokyo by telling U.S. airliners to abide by the Chinese ADIZ, even as Japan is telling its own airlines to ignore it.

The lack of a strong, consistent message from the administration is deeply injurious to our relationships with allies and to overall efforts to limit Chinese expansion. The leadership in Beijing is smart and they are willing to play a long game. They are not going to achieve overnight their ultimate ambition of reasserting historic Chinese domination of its neighboring states and pushing the U.S. military beyond the “first island chain” off the Chinese shore–a designation which takes in everything from Taiwan to the Philippines. Instead, the Chinese are taking one small nibble after another, testing the American reaction, and then, if there is no reaction, proceeding onto the next bite.

So far, unfortunately, the U.S. has given China no reason to doubt that its assertion of an ADIZ was a success–which means that further aggressive moves are in store before long.

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It’s Time to Close the Camps

The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

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The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

The United States might have little leverage over China and North Korea, but low-hanging fruit which could be resolved with American diplomatic pressure does exist. The Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO) is correct to castigate those who believe that the Iranian government or its militia proxies should enjoy an open season on group members. Opposing massacres is not synonymous with support for the group, however; it may no longer be a U.S.-designated terror group, but remains just as much an authoritarian cult. And while MKO spokesmen may castigate the Iraqi government and the Iranian regime, the real victims of the MKO lay within the group itself. Camp Liberty—the successor to Camp Ashraf—exists as much if not more to keep MKO members insulated from the real world and under the control of MKO leader Maryam Rajavi’s commissars than as a means of protection for group members.

Other camps exist in the Tindouf province of southwestern Algeria. Here, perhaps 40,000 residents of southern Morocco, Algeria, western Mali, and northern Mauritania languish in camps controlled by the once-Marxist Polisario Front, largely kept from returning home by the group’s political commissars and the Algerian government. During a recent visit to Dakhla, in Western Sahara, I had the opportunity to speak to former members who described not only their own escape from the camps, but the attempts by others who were forcibly returned to the camps, where Polisario authorities punished them for the audacity of seeking to return home rather than languish in camps 22 years after the war between Morocco and Algeria ended. Simply put, Polisario realizes that if the camps close, the gravy train of international assistance would end and the Polisario would lose its raison d’être.

The Polisario is not the only Cold War remnant stubbornly holding hostages. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia also engages in the practice, holding some prisoners for more than a decade. While some journalists parachute in and whitewash just what happens in FARC camps, it is hard to see “cultural programming” as anything other than an attempt at ideological re-education.

The Obama administration came into office seemingly committed to prioritizing human rights, never mind the debates about how best to guarantee rights, freedom, and liberty. The State Department became a revolving door not only for journalists, but for human-rights advocates, most notably Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski and writer Samantha Power. Increasingly, however, it seems such figures are either window dressing for an administration so disinterested in human rights that it is willing to sanction political concentration and re-education camps or, worse yet, that these figures are so permeated by moral equivalency and skewed in their understanding of what universal human rights are that they are willing to normalize with the regimes, sponsors, and groups which engage in such practices.

Concentration camps and slavery (discussed in a previous post) are two phenomena that simply should not exist in the 21st century. That they do is a sad testament to the reality of regimes like North Korea’s, China’s, Algeria’s, Venezuela’s, and Cuba’s, and the choices which successive U.S. administrations–both Democrat and Republican–have made to not let such issues be stumbling blocks to engaging with the United States on other issues.

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Press Freedom and the New Whataboutism

One of the more entertaining adornments to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to return Russia to some form of imperial influence has been his routine indulging in “whataboutism,” the practice of attempting to highlight the West’s hypocrisy when criticizing Moscow. In the Soviet era, it had a distinct purpose: because the Soviets wanted to spread worldwide ideological revolution, they felt obligated to challenge any assertion or evidence that freedom was better than totalitarianism.

Nowadays, because Putin believes in nothing but wealth and power, Russian whataboutism has lost some of its edge. China, too, has dabbled in its own whataboutism in recent years, encouraging the mention of Western freedom of the press to be qualified with a snide “so-called” preceding it. The two occasionally converge, however, with a helping hand from the West. Such is the case with this ominous-sounding media column from the New York Times’s David Carr. Headlined “Where Freedom of the Press Is Muffled,” Carr wants to talk about the plight of journalists in China–and the Anglosphere:

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One of the more entertaining adornments to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to return Russia to some form of imperial influence has been his routine indulging in “whataboutism,” the practice of attempting to highlight the West’s hypocrisy when criticizing Moscow. In the Soviet era, it had a distinct purpose: because the Soviets wanted to spread worldwide ideological revolution, they felt obligated to challenge any assertion or evidence that freedom was better than totalitarianism.

Nowadays, because Putin believes in nothing but wealth and power, Russian whataboutism has lost some of its edge. China, too, has dabbled in its own whataboutism in recent years, encouraging the mention of Western freedom of the press to be qualified with a snide “so-called” preceding it. The two occasionally converge, however, with a helping hand from the West. Such is the case with this ominous-sounding media column from the New York Times’s David Carr. Headlined “Where Freedom of the Press Is Muffled,” Carr wants to talk about the plight of journalists in China–and the Anglosphere:

In China on Thursday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke plainly about the role of a free press in a democratic society. …

He was speaking against the backdrop of China’s restrictive policies on reporting by foreign news organizations; the Chinese government has so far declined to renew the visas of nearly two dozen reporters from The New York Times and Bloomberg News as a consequence of their coverage, raising the possibility that they could be forced to leave China at the end of the year.

It was the first time a high-ranking United States official had spoken publicly about the professional plight of journalists seeking to fully report on China.

While it was heartening to see the White House at the forefront of the effort to ensure an unfettered press, government officials in Britain, a supposedly advanced democracy and the United States’ closest ally, might do well to consider Mr. Biden’s words. (Some of his colleagues in the Justice Department, which has ferociously prosecuted leakers, might take heed as well, but that’s a matter for a different day.)

In one fell swoop, Carr seemed to be engaged in an ever-escalating bout of whataboutism against himself. The Chinese are restricting freedom of the press, Carr says. Well what about Britain, responds Carr. Don’t forget the United States, retorts Carr. (The game ends there; in whataboutism, American hypocrisy is always the winning hand.)

But it’s not as though Carr wasn’t onto something. Britain and the Obama administration have both recently behaved in ways inimical to true press freedom, and it is indeed more offensive for this to happen in America, which has the First Amendment, notwithstanding Carr’s disdainful swipe at Britain being a “supposedly advanced democracy.”

Nonetheless, the treatment of journalists, even Western journalists, in China is of course far worse than in the West. And it may be heading to a crisis point. Isaac Stone Fish has a comprehensive write-up of the ongoing saga at Foreign Policy, detailing the increased attempts at censoring the more active foreign bureaus of the Times and Bloomberg. The latter is even embroiled in its own scandal amid accusations of self-censorship to keep the Chinese government happy. The whole article is worth reading, but the upshot is that it’s not out of the question that China would expel the bureaus:

If Beijing actually does plan to expel both bureaus it would constitute the government’s biggest move against foreign reporters at least since the upheaval following the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Evan Osnos, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a long-time China correspondent, called this recent move “the Chinese government’s most dramatic attempt to insulate itself from scrutiny in the thirty-five years since China began opening to the world.” Paul Mooney, a longtime China-based chronicler of that country’s human rights abuses, had his visa rejected in early November, in another sign of tightening for foreign correspondents in China. Reuters, Bloomberg, and the New York Times “don’t have the ability to influence the Chinese government,” said Mooney. “I think we really need to have some kind of action. Maybe against media executives in China, or officials — to give the message that this is not acceptable.”

What authoritarian regimes are finding out is that in the age of a democratized Web, which creates far more competition for stories among the press, and social media, which enables the citizens in many cases to turn the surveillance state against itself, the traditional avenues of influencing public opinion are subject to diminishing returns. All this means that state-run media are increasingly ineffective.

How to better control the conversation, in that environment? The Chinese response has been to elbow out the foreign press, if they don’t bow to bullying. The Russian response was somewhat novel. Putin dissolved the state news agency in favor of the creation of what is essentially a public-relations firm, dropping the pretense entirely. Putin has always been obsessed with image, but even this is a bit much–though more honest, I suppose, in its own twisted way.

Yet neither should be brushed off lightly. Authoritarian regimes that act like they have even more to hide probably do–or will in the near future.

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China Spikes the Ball in Iran

Perhaps the worst thing about Secretary of State John Kerry is that he is both completely aloof to how both adversaries and allies perceive the United States, and he genuinely does not understand how America’s competitors seek neither peace nor conflict resolution but rather to further their position vis-à-vis America in a zero-sum game of power rivalry.

For Kerry, the Iran nuclear talks may have been about curtailing Iran’s nuclear program, but for China, they were about curtailing the United States. Speaking yesterday to reporters in Tehran after meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Chinese State Councilor (and former foreign minister) Yang Jiechi, declared:

Iran defended its rights in the [Vienna nuclear] negotiations and defeated the Western side. This result was achieved by Iran’s new government and through wisdom and prudence used in the talks. We respect Iran’s right to nuclear energy and uranium enrichment… Iran has started moving on the path of progress and development with your [Ruhani's] appointment [victory in presidential elections]. And China considers Iran as a close friend and a good and strategic partner.

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Perhaps the worst thing about Secretary of State John Kerry is that he is both completely aloof to how both adversaries and allies perceive the United States, and he genuinely does not understand how America’s competitors seek neither peace nor conflict resolution but rather to further their position vis-à-vis America in a zero-sum game of power rivalry.

For Kerry, the Iran nuclear talks may have been about curtailing Iran’s nuclear program, but for China, they were about curtailing the United States. Speaking yesterday to reporters in Tehran after meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Chinese State Councilor (and former foreign minister) Yang Jiechi, declared:

Iran defended its rights in the [Vienna nuclear] negotiations and defeated the Western side. This result was achieved by Iran’s new government and through wisdom and prudence used in the talks. We respect Iran’s right to nuclear energy and uranium enrichment… Iran has started moving on the path of progress and development with your [Ruhani's] appointment [victory in presidential elections]. And China considers Iran as a close friend and a good and strategic partner.

In the same press conference—apparently reported in Persian but not in English—Rouhani himself, rather than any aide whose comments could be later denied, doubled down on the fact that the agreement would not stop Iranian nuclear ambitions: “Iran will not withdraw from its nuclear rights, including the right to enrichment.” He then thanked China for its assistance in Geneva.

Seldom has there been such a willful forfeiture of leverage and negotiating position with the American team overseeing the talks so seemingly unaware.

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China’s Strategic Patience

Because China was not under any serious foreign military threat, its decision to declare an “air defense identification zone” over an area that includes islands claimed by both Japan and China was unnecessary. Because it was unnecessary, there are two obvious ways of looking at it. Either the gratuitous display of power was meant as a prelude to real aggression, or it was a bluff.

If the former, then the second act may have been averted when the U.S. flew B-52 bombers through the airspace, causing China to back down. If the latter, the bluff was called for all the world to see. In either of these scenarios, China looks like a paper tiger–a phrase used often in reference to China, but again repeated when it looked like China would do nothing too troublesome to defend the flag it planted. But both these analyses stem from judging events news cycle by news cycle–a typically Western habit exacerbated in the age of Twitter.

There is a third way of looking at it, though, and there is reason enough to think it aligns with how the Chinese government viewed the episode, which is still unfurling with Joe Biden’s visit to China today. This perspective is hinted at on the map of the air defense zone, of which the New York Times has an excellent version here. The Chinese air defense zone is predominantly in conflict with Japan’s airspace claims, but about a third of the zone looks to be encroaching on Taiwanese airspace, which, of course, is much closer to the Chinese mainland. It also overlaps with some airspace claimed by South Korea.

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Because China was not under any serious foreign military threat, its decision to declare an “air defense identification zone” over an area that includes islands claimed by both Japan and China was unnecessary. Because it was unnecessary, there are two obvious ways of looking at it. Either the gratuitous display of power was meant as a prelude to real aggression, or it was a bluff.

If the former, then the second act may have been averted when the U.S. flew B-52 bombers through the airspace, causing China to back down. If the latter, the bluff was called for all the world to see. In either of these scenarios, China looks like a paper tiger–a phrase used often in reference to China, but again repeated when it looked like China would do nothing too troublesome to defend the flag it planted. But both these analyses stem from judging events news cycle by news cycle–a typically Western habit exacerbated in the age of Twitter.

There is a third way of looking at it, though, and there is reason enough to think it aligns with how the Chinese government viewed the episode, which is still unfurling with Joe Biden’s visit to China today. This perspective is hinted at on the map of the air defense zone, of which the New York Times has an excellent version here. The Chinese air defense zone is predominantly in conflict with Japan’s airspace claims, but about a third of the zone looks to be encroaching on Taiwanese airspace, which, of course, is much closer to the Chinese mainland. It also overlaps with some airspace claimed by South Korea.

China did not win anything in the near term from the United States, it would appear. But that doesn’t mean China didn’t win anything at all in the near term, or that China didn’t win anything in the long run from the U.S. The opposite seems to be the case. First, from the Times, what the Chinese have won in the near term:

The vice president’s goal appears to be to neutralize the destabilizing impact of the air defense zone in the region by persuading the Chinese authorities to stop scrambling fighter jets or otherwise disrupt the busy air corridors between Japan and China.

China will likely interpret this as to some extent legitimizing China’s right to contest control of the airspace, just not to have that claim recognized as a fact in itself. It’s unclear what, if anything, the U.S. can do beyond this. It’s therefore likely that, far from miscalculating, the Chinese leadership assessed the situation accurately. It may not be a monumental victory, but it’s more than they started with.

And the Washington Post’s writeup of Biden’s visit hints at what China may have won in the long run:

Aides said the vice president’s goals would include getting the Chinese to agree not to establish other such zones without first discussing their intentions with potentially affected countries.

China has reason to view this as a win on two levels: first, that the U.S. will essentially stay out of such regional line-drawing; and second, that “discussing their intentions with potentially affected countries” before rearranging borders is a loophole big enough to fly a B-52 bomber through.

It also suggests the Obama administration knows China is playing the long game. As Harry Kazianis notes at the Diplomat, an air defense zone over the disputed islands with Japan is presumably the opening act:

Beijing could use such wording to openly declare such a new ADIZ in the South China Sea — an area with sovereignty disputes involving multiple claimants. In fact, Beijing has already gone so far to claim 80 percent of the area, effectively taking control of Scarborough Shoal last summer, which is well within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines and is pressing its claims now on Second Thomas Shoal. China has also deployed its new aircraft carrier to the region in what could be seen as a show of force (although, let’s be frank, the carrier won’t be operational for sometime, however, the point is still made).

Second, when America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave guidance that U.S. domestic carriers should inform Beijing of their flight plans, Washington not only gave de facto approval of the East China Sea ADIZ, but also suggested that future moves would not be met with strong resistance. Truth be told, the Obama Administration was in a tight bind on the decision — not giving the information to Beijing could have put such flights and American lives in danger, and no one wants to see an accident turn into a crisis that won’t be easy to untangle considering the stakes. Yet, any move that gives this ADIZ declaration on China’s part any legitimacy will certainly be used by Beijing as a sign of acceptance. If we got away with it once, why not try the same move again and again?

President Obama’s openness to granting countries such as Russia and Iran their own spheres of influence will surely invite such challenges, but the Chinese air defense zone declaration is not really about Obama. It’s more about what he represents to some leaders: a weary, inward looking, declining power that at some point will be unwilling to challenge a major act of Chinese aggression either in the South China Sea or Taiwan. That day is not today, but the Chinese leadership is almost certainly curious as to when that will change.

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A Welcome Show of Strength from Obama

Perhaps this is what the Pacific pivot means. The Obama administration is telegraphing weakness, indecision, and retreat in the Middle East but is showing some welcome spine in the Far East.

This past weekend China had the temerity to proclaim an Air Defense Identification Zone over much of the East China Sea, including islands disputed by Japan and South Korea. If recognized, this would serve to extend China’s effective sovereignty and could lead to a dangerous confrontation with its neighbors, since China’s new air-defense zone overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But the Obama administration rightly said it would not recognize the Chinese power grab, and to underline the point a pair of B-52s flew into the disputed air space without notifying Beijing.

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Perhaps this is what the Pacific pivot means. The Obama administration is telegraphing weakness, indecision, and retreat in the Middle East but is showing some welcome spine in the Far East.

This past weekend China had the temerity to proclaim an Air Defense Identification Zone over much of the East China Sea, including islands disputed by Japan and South Korea. If recognized, this would serve to extend China’s effective sovereignty and could lead to a dangerous confrontation with its neighbors, since China’s new air-defense zone overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But the Obama administration rightly said it would not recognize the Chinese power grab, and to underline the point a pair of B-52s flew into the disputed air space without notifying Beijing.

This is precisely the sort of action that a liberal superpower needs to take to maintain freedom of the skies and the seas. It, indeed, recalls the Reagan administration using force in the 1980s to challenge Libya’s power grab off its coast and Iran’s power grab in the Persian Gulf. Of course challenging China–a superpower in the making–is a lot more perilous an undertaking than challenging regional powers such as Libya or Iran. So it is all the more to Obama’s credit that he did not flinch from what could be a potential confrontation.

In reality China has made plain that, while it is happy to bully lesser states such as the Philippines, it has little appetite yet for an open confrontation with the United States which can still–but for how much longer?–bring overwhelming naval and air assets to bear in the western Pacific. By stepping forward, the U.S. is actually reducing the chances of a much more dangerous confrontation between Japan and China which might have ensued–and still may–were Japan’s nationalist new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to send his own aircraft to challenge China’s air defense claims.

This is yet another sign of why the world needs a strong and vigorous American military that can keep the peace, as it has done for the most part since 1945. That capability, sadly, is now imperiled by imprudent defense cuts. Ten years from now, China may be able to not only assert wide-ranging territorial claims but make them stick, because by that point the U.S. may be too weak to resist.

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The Proliferating Spheres of Influence

American political commentary was consumed on Thursday with the deployment by Senate Democrats of the so-called “nuclear option” to end the filibuster for their immediate agenda items. Two days later, that was easily outdone by the attention drawn to a more literal nuclear issue: the temporary deal over Iran’s nuclear program. So it was understandable that another piece of news that could prove to be of considerable historical import was overshadowed on Thursday, and its codicil overshadowed on Saturday.

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that Ukraine “abruptly” walked away from its efforts to sign a trade pact with the European Union. “Abruptly” is a good word for it: the two sides were widely expected to sign the deal at a summit in Vilnius on Friday. Throughout trade discussions, Russia has put pressure on Ukraine to convince it that it belongs not with Europe, but with its old friends in Moscow. This would be a symbolic twofer: losing Ukraine back into Russia’s “orbit,” and Moscow’s implicit declaration that Russia is not only not part of Europe but that the two belong to mutually exclusive geographic families.

But the story is far from over. The Ukrainian government is now trying to tamp down days of protests over the decision. Perhaps unavoidably, the conflict is discussed in Cold War terminology, though as Reuters reports, the post-Cold War language of some of the protesters can’t be reassuring to the Ukrainian government either:

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American political commentary was consumed on Thursday with the deployment by Senate Democrats of the so-called “nuclear option” to end the filibuster for their immediate agenda items. Two days later, that was easily outdone by the attention drawn to a more literal nuclear issue: the temporary deal over Iran’s nuclear program. So it was understandable that another piece of news that could prove to be of considerable historical import was overshadowed on Thursday, and its codicil overshadowed on Saturday.

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that Ukraine “abruptly” walked away from its efforts to sign a trade pact with the European Union. “Abruptly” is a good word for it: the two sides were widely expected to sign the deal at a summit in Vilnius on Friday. Throughout trade discussions, Russia has put pressure on Ukraine to convince it that it belongs not with Europe, but with its old friends in Moscow. This would be a symbolic twofer: losing Ukraine back into Russia’s “orbit,” and Moscow’s implicit declaration that Russia is not only not part of Europe but that the two belong to mutually exclusive geographic families.

But the story is far from over. The Ukrainian government is now trying to tamp down days of protests over the decision. Perhaps unavoidably, the conflict is discussed in Cold War terminology, though as Reuters reports, the post-Cold War language of some of the protesters can’t be reassuring to the Ukrainian government either:

“I have turned out for revolution because I have understood that the promises of Yanukovich to go into Europe were just pure comedy,” said Anatoly Gurkalyuk, 33, a builder.

That the Putin regime thinks the West has more or less left the playing field on these geopolitical tussles is no secret. In fact, the Russian government likes to emphasize the competition they’ve just “won” to maximize the propaganda value. And so after the major powers signed the accord with Iran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that as the U.S. recedes from the Middle East, it should take its European missile defense system with it: “If the Iran deal is put into practice, the stated reason for the construction of the defense shield will no longer apply,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov was clearly enjoying the moment, but he actually raises a point of which the Obama administration, as it contemplates America’s new role in the world, would do well to be reminded: the illogic and foolhardy nature of the Obama administration’s compartmentalization of world affairs. It’s this mindset that has convinced the administration they can leave the Middle East behind and “pivot” to Asia. But on the day the deal with Iran was struck, China sent its own message on that score:

China established the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone on Saturday, and its Defense Ministry said it would take “defensive emergency measures” against unidentified aircraft that enter the zone.

A map and coordinates published Saturday showed the zone covers most of the East China Sea and includes a group of uninhabited islets whose ownership is disputed by China and Japan.

Secretary of State Kerry raised immediate objections to China following Russia’s lead in marking off its own sphere of influence. The Chinese response to Kerry involved a long walk and a short pier:

But Chinese officials dismissed the U.S. comments as unjustified interference.

American criticism of the air zone announcement is “completely unreasonable,” Col. Yang Yujun, a Ministry of National Defense spokesman, said Sunday.

The United States should stop taking sides on the issue, cease making “inappropriate remarks” and not send any more “wrong signals” that could lead to a “risky move by Japan,” he said.

The “pivot” to Asia always rested on a shaky foundation. As the Economist explained in 2011 when the pivot was gearing up, Obama saw the Pacific as a refuge from “inherited” troubles (mainly in the Middle East) and a way to chart his own path. He could never fully own the twin fates of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he couldn’t bank on striking an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

So the turn to Asia was perfect. He wouldn’t have to accomplish anything outstanding, just be able to take credit for a new strategic posture. His successors would undoubtedly visit the region often enough, but few would have been pompous enough to pretend that this was some sort of innovation. Obama and his foreign-policy team learned early on that all they had to do was come up with a bumper-sticker phrase or slogan and the media would credulously repeat it as if he had just discovered electricity. (This didn’t always work to the administration’s advantage, as it found out with the “leading from behind” debacle.)

The problem is that Obama looked at the pivot as an escape from conflicts that, in the age of the Internet and transnational political and terrorist networks, don’t stay in their box. More importantly, retreat from the major issues of the day sends the wrong message for any power looking to be respected in the far corners of the globe. So as the U.S. starts backing away from the Middle East, Lavrov reminds them to take their presence in Europe with them, and China practically laughs at the idea that they aren’t entitled to their own sphere of influence, as Russia and Iran seem to be. And then where will the president pivot?

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China’s Problem: Freedom Is Infectious

Pity the leaders of China’s sclerotic Communist government. They thought they had learned the lessons of the breakup of the Soviet Union and managed to allow a degree of economic freedom without giving up a smidge of political power. Many, though not all, Chinese are allowed now to make money in a booming economy that has helped finance a debt-ridden West. But as much as China has made extraordinary economic progress in the last generation, its society still labors under the burden of tyranny that limits its advancement. As is the case with all forms of tyranny, the all-powerful government acts with impunity, encouraging corruption and rendering the rule of law an empty promise. Personal incomes have gone up but the absence of freedom still lingers, as does the Chinese gulag where those who dissent are still sent.

The Communists know all this and by scaling back some of the most onerous restrictions on freedom they hope to not only keep the Chinese people quiescent but to retain their absolute hold on power for yet another generation. That’s why they are considering lifting the infamous “one child” policy in some instances. But, as the New York Times reports today, as popular as the abolition of this despicable law would be, doing so even if only for parents who are both only children is not going to be easy. The problem is that once you start allowing some freedom, the people are bound to want more.

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Pity the leaders of China’s sclerotic Communist government. They thought they had learned the lessons of the breakup of the Soviet Union and managed to allow a degree of economic freedom without giving up a smidge of political power. Many, though not all, Chinese are allowed now to make money in a booming economy that has helped finance a debt-ridden West. But as much as China has made extraordinary economic progress in the last generation, its society still labors under the burden of tyranny that limits its advancement. As is the case with all forms of tyranny, the all-powerful government acts with impunity, encouraging corruption and rendering the rule of law an empty promise. Personal incomes have gone up but the absence of freedom still lingers, as does the Chinese gulag where those who dissent are still sent.

The Communists know all this and by scaling back some of the most onerous restrictions on freedom they hope to not only keep the Chinese people quiescent but to retain their absolute hold on power for yet another generation. That’s why they are considering lifting the infamous “one child” policy in some instances. But, as the New York Times reports today, as popular as the abolition of this despicable law would be, doing so even if only for parents who are both only children is not going to be easy. The problem is that once you start allowing some freedom, the people are bound to want more.

Any discussion of the one child policy must begin with the fact that it has never been some antiseptic commonsense attempt to cope with over-population. The notion that this law is all that stood between China and some “Soylent Green” style Malthusian nightmare is a myth that Beijing apologists have often successfully foisted onto the American imagination. All too many Americans, especially those liberals who have always been willing to give China’s tyrants the benefit of the doubt, have been prepared to accept the notion that one child made sense in China. Even Vice President Joe Biden publicly endorsed it when, in the course of trying to draw a bogus comparison between liberal U.S. economic policies and Chinese dictates, he said:

You have no safety net.  Your policy has been one which I fully understand — I’m not second-guessing — of one child per family.  The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people.  Not sustainable.

Aside from Biden’s characteristically fractured grammar, what he left out of that equation was the reality of mass forced abortions, forced sterilizations and a skewed sex balance that devalues women in a culture which prizes male offspring. One child is at the heart of the terror state that persists in China since it limits a basic human right that not even Stalinist Russia ever directly challenged. While a case could be made that China had to do something to deal with the imbalance between its resources and a growing population, the correct answer to this problem was not less freedom but more. Centralized planning is no match for the benefits of human creativity aimed at expanding wealth and resources. Even in an era in which it has allowed some limited freedoms in its economy, Beijing still seeks to impose the heavy hand of tyranny on the most personal of decisions.

The Communists’ problem is the same as that of every tyrant who seeks to loosen their strangleholds on the lives of their subjects: freedom is infectious. Let it loose in one area and there’s no telling where it will lead. They had thought allowing people to own property would compensate for their lack of say over anything else but sooner or later, human beings will not be satisfied with the crumbs of liberty their masters allow them. While Chinese President Xi Jinping would like to let some families have a second child, once the floodgates are open, it’s not clear that they could be closed.

Ever since President Nixon normalized relations with China, apologists for détente with Beijing have told us that the Chinese people don’t value or don’t want freedom and that discussion of human rights in the planet’s largest tyranny is pointless or unnecessary. But they have always been wrong. China’s freedom fighters have gone to nameless deaths in the laogai but the notion that Communism can suppress a people’s nature longing for freedom even in a culture that values community is a myth. Sooner or later, one child is doomed and the country’s leaders know it. But they also may understand that once the threat of forced abortions and sterilizations is removed, something beyond the population figure will increase in China. Once you give a person back that sort of personal autonomy, there’s no telling what they will ask for, and more will be swept away in the tide that will eventually follow than restrictions on family size.

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Israel Has No Alternative to U.S. Alliance

China and Israel may not have much in common, but that hasn’t stopped the Jewish state from working hard to better ties with the world’s most populous nation. The growing connections between the two countries are largely economic, but the fact that two highly placed figures from Israel’s political and military realms spoke recently at China’s military academy was enough to gain the notice of the New York Times’s Sinosphere blog. The piece, which spoke of the visit to Beijing by Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the United Nations and a confidant of Prime Minister Netanyahu and retired general Uzi Dayan, spoke of how the Jewish state is working assiduously to deepen its relationship with China. Given Israel’s relative diplomatic isolation, there’s nothing terribly surprising about it reaching out in this direction. But put into the context of the last two weeks, any discussion of Israel’s efforts to make friends with a potential rival of the United States must be seen as part of an effort to lessen its dependence on its sole superpower ally.

Indeed, the Times didn’t shy away from such a discussion in the piece as it weighed, not unfairly, the advantages of better relations with China for Israel as well as the complications of trying to work closely with a nation that is also doing business with Iran. At a time when the United States seems to have distanced itself again from Israel on both the talks with the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear threat, the frustration level in Jerusalem with the Obama administration is very high. This has led not only to ruminations about whether the U.S.-Israel alliance is doomed, as was the conceit of a recent feature in Tablet magazine, but to suggestions from some Israeli pundits, like the Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick, that maybe “it is time to reassess Israel’s strategic assumptions and for the country to begin the process of exploring “new opportunities” that will enable it to survive without U.S. help if not to completely replace the old alliance.

But while the notion of playing China or Russia off of the United States may seem tempting to Israelis who are sick of being played for chumps by the Obama administration, any thoughts about “alternatives” to the U.S. alliance are fantasies, not serious policy options. It’s not just that neither of those countries should be considered reliable friends of Israel. It’s that any effort to pretend that there is another option outside of the U.S. alliance is as much of a danger to the future of this relationship as the ill-considered actions of President Obama or Secretary of State Kerry.

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China and Israel may not have much in common, but that hasn’t stopped the Jewish state from working hard to better ties with the world’s most populous nation. The growing connections between the two countries are largely economic, but the fact that two highly placed figures from Israel’s political and military realms spoke recently at China’s military academy was enough to gain the notice of the New York Times’s Sinosphere blog. The piece, which spoke of the visit to Beijing by Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the United Nations and a confidant of Prime Minister Netanyahu and retired general Uzi Dayan, spoke of how the Jewish state is working assiduously to deepen its relationship with China. Given Israel’s relative diplomatic isolation, there’s nothing terribly surprising about it reaching out in this direction. But put into the context of the last two weeks, any discussion of Israel’s efforts to make friends with a potential rival of the United States must be seen as part of an effort to lessen its dependence on its sole superpower ally.

Indeed, the Times didn’t shy away from such a discussion in the piece as it weighed, not unfairly, the advantages of better relations with China for Israel as well as the complications of trying to work closely with a nation that is also doing business with Iran. At a time when the United States seems to have distanced itself again from Israel on both the talks with the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear threat, the frustration level in Jerusalem with the Obama administration is very high. This has led not only to ruminations about whether the U.S.-Israel alliance is doomed, as was the conceit of a recent feature in Tablet magazine, but to suggestions from some Israeli pundits, like the Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick, that maybe “it is time to reassess Israel’s strategic assumptions and for the country to begin the process of exploring “new opportunities” that will enable it to survive without U.S. help if not to completely replace the old alliance.

But while the notion of playing China or Russia off of the United States may seem tempting to Israelis who are sick of being played for chumps by the Obama administration, any thoughts about “alternatives” to the U.S. alliance are fantasies, not serious policy options. It’s not just that neither of those countries should be considered reliable friends of Israel. It’s that any effort to pretend that there is another option outside of the U.S. alliance is as much of a danger to the future of this relationship as the ill-considered actions of President Obama or Secretary of State Kerry.

As for the fissures in the existing alliance, they are serious but should not be mistaken for a fundamental split. Israelis are right to be infuriated about Kerry’s tantrum last week because of his anger about the failure of the peace negotiations he foolishly initiated as well as the U.S. attempt to rush to complete an unsatisfactory nuclear agreement with Iran. Like the spats with Israel that President Obama fomented during the course of his first term, these disputes illustrate the distorted mindset of this administration as well as its willingness to create daylight between the positions of the two allies. But, as both Obama and Kerry understand, there are clear limits as to how far they can go in taking shots at Israel.

Even a reelected Obama who seemingly has little to fear from disgruntled supporters of Israel realizes that picking fights with the Jewish state is a no-win proposition for him. As he showed during the last two years with his election-year charm offensive and the rhetorical lengths to which he went during his trip to Israel last spring, the president is aware of the fact that the roots of the alliance are deep and it can’t be uprooted easily.

The long-term problems that the Tablet piece noted are not to be dismissed. There’s no question that the trends explored by the Pew Report about the decline of the Jewish community and the impact of an increasingly assimilated American Jewry will mean a smaller base of pro-Israel Jews. But that and the growth of anti-Israel opinion, while troubling, should not be mistaken for a fundamental threat to the future of ties between the two countries. Support for Zionism is baked into the political DNA of America and won’t be erased by either Jewish demographics or left-wing activism. The point about the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” myth is that the wall-to-wall bipartisan coalition in support of Israel in Congress and throughout the American political system is wide and so deep as to encompass the vast majority of Americans. As Israeli leaders should have realized a long time ago, the core of that support is not Jewish activism or money but the deeply-held sentiments of American Christians.

Leaders like Obama, who are not in love with Israel, can shake it up. But even he is incapable of altering its foundations, as the growth of U.S.-Israel security cooperation on his watch has proved. It’s hard right now to see past the seeming betrayal on Iran, but pessimists should remember that the intransigent Islamist regime—like the Palestinians—may ultimately push the administration back into Israel’s arms.

But even if one were inclined to despair about the future of U.S. support, neither China nor Russia provides anything like an alternative. Both can be useful at times to Israel and Jerusalem is right to explore how far it might go in those directions, especially when it comes to economic ties at a time when Europe seems to be abandoning the Jewish state. Yet it must be understood not only are these countries not likely to be good or reliable friends of Israel, but flirting too much with them also carries with it the possibility of worsening the far more essential ties with the United States.

There is still only one superpower in the world and neither China nor Russia looks to be catching up with the U.S. in the near future. But if the history of the rest of this century will be read through the prism of China’s drive to attain the status of a global power and Russia’s efforts to reconstitute the old Tsarist and Soviet empires, then there is no question that a small democracy like Israel must place itself firmly on the side of the U.S. in these rivalries. The ties between the U.S. and Israel are based on shared values, not realpolitik. Forgetting that would be an unforgivable error on the part of any Israeli leader and that is a mistake that a savvy operator like Prime Minister Netanyahu is not likely to make.

That’s not just because both are tyrannies that cannot be trusted to deal fairly with Israel, let alone try to protect it against its foes. But also because Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.

Those advocating alternatives to the U.S. for Israel are engaging in magical thinking that will do more harm than good. The fix for the gaps that have been created by the administration’s ill-advised moves on the peace process and Iran is to be found in efforts to restrain the president’s folly in the U.S., not searches for new allies to take America’s place.

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China’s Missed Opportunity

The devastation in the Philippines has prompted various nations to provide aid. Reuters has a rundown on what a number of countries are doing.

The U.S. contribution is the most substantial and, in the case of the naval aircraft and ships, the most irreplaceable: “The UNITED STATES is providing $20 million in immediate humanitarian assistance and has sent a team of about 90 Marines and sailors, part of a first wave of promised U.S. military assistance. An aircraft carrier and four other Navy ships set sail for the Philippines from Hong Kong on Tuesday.”

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The devastation in the Philippines has prompted various nations to provide aid. Reuters has a rundown on what a number of countries are doing.

The U.S. contribution is the most substantial and, in the case of the naval aircraft and ships, the most irreplaceable: “The UNITED STATES is providing $20 million in immediate humanitarian assistance and has sent a team of about 90 Marines and sailors, part of a first wave of promised U.S. military assistance. An aircraft carrier and four other Navy ships set sail for the Philippines from Hong Kong on Tuesday.”

But others are stepping forward as well. Australia is contributing a $9.3 million package of aid, Britain $16 million, Japan $10 million, UAE $10 million. Even the Vatican is pledging $4 million worth of help.

And what is the second-largest economy in the world doing? “The CHINESE government is providing $100,000 and the Chinese Red Cross a further $100,000.”

That is a stunningly small sum from such a large and increasingly powerful country. It is also a missed opportunity for China to get back into the good graces of Filipinos after tensions flared during a confrontation between the Chinese and Filipino navy over Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

China may be getting richer and more powerful but this is an indication that its exercise of “soft power” lags far behind not only the U.S. but also lesser powers such as Britain and Australia.

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Iraq Surpasses Iran in Oil Exports to China

My American Enterprise Institute colleague Derek Scissors points out to me that, according to China’s General Administration of Customs, Iraq has surpassed Iran as a source of crude oil exports to China in the first three quarters of 2013. That is both good and bad news. Good news because, despite all those who said sanctions would not work on Iran and that China would fill the gap left behind by Western companies, it seems both that China has decided to look elsewhere and that Iranian capacity to fulfill demand has declined. Earlier this year, the Iranian Statistics Agency announced that the Iranian economy had retracted 5.4 percent; the Islamic Republic is certainly feeling the bite of sanctions and decades of its own mismanagement. No wonder Tehran wants quick relief in response to a diplomatic charm offensive.

The United States no longer gets much oil from the Middle East—the markets are fungible, but Middle Eastern oil largely supplies China, India, and Europe. China and India, and to some extent Europe, are essentially free-riders benefiting from decades of American security investment. That Iraqi oil exports are increasing is good news for Iraq, and would be better news if Iraq would invest more of that income in its economy and not simply use it to pay the salaries of a bloated bureaucracy that is an order of magnitude too large.

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My American Enterprise Institute colleague Derek Scissors points out to me that, according to China’s General Administration of Customs, Iraq has surpassed Iran as a source of crude oil exports to China in the first three quarters of 2013. That is both good and bad news. Good news because, despite all those who said sanctions would not work on Iran and that China would fill the gap left behind by Western companies, it seems both that China has decided to look elsewhere and that Iranian capacity to fulfill demand has declined. Earlier this year, the Iranian Statistics Agency announced that the Iranian economy had retracted 5.4 percent; the Islamic Republic is certainly feeling the bite of sanctions and decades of its own mismanagement. No wonder Tehran wants quick relief in response to a diplomatic charm offensive.

The United States no longer gets much oil from the Middle East—the markets are fungible, but Middle Eastern oil largely supplies China, India, and Europe. China and India, and to some extent Europe, are essentially free-riders benefiting from decades of American security investment. That Iraqi oil exports are increasing is good news for Iraq, and would be better news if Iraq would invest more of that income in its economy and not simply use it to pay the salaries of a bloated bureaucracy that is an order of magnitude too large.

Still, while Chinese investors are ubiquitous in southern Iraq and increasingly in Iraqi Kurdistan, it is a shame that after so much investment in blood and treasure, too many American investors continue to give Iraq a wide berth. President Obama has long looked at Iraq as original sin and rushed to wash his hands of it. Sure, there were diplomatic pronouncements and agreements about continuing relationships, but Obama has done little if anything to fulfill those agreements. In effect, because of disagreements about Saddam’s ouster more than a decade ago, Obama decided to forgo a lasting relationship with Iraq, even though the Iraqis want one to balance out Iran, Russia, and China. That China has become a primary beneficiary of the Iraq War wasn’t inevitable, but simply the result of White House disinterest if not disdain.

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Can a Deadbeat America Stay on Top?

In the 19th century, individual deadbeats could go to prison and countries that defaulted on their debt could be invaded. To choose only two examples of many, Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 and the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 because those countries were not meeting their obligations to international debt-holders.

Today we take a far more relaxed view about owing money. The law makes bankruptcy relatively easy and painless for individuals and corporations–at least less painful than the prospect of debtors’ prison. There is no ethic of living within your means; instead we are now encouraged to run up debt, whether via a home mortgage or a credit card bill, and spend, spend, spend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—we don’t need to return to the Puritanical, anti-debt attitude of the 19th century. There is nothing wrong with a responsible amount of debt, whether for a family or a country.

But we are carrying our easy-going modern-day ethos a little too far when we run the risk of defaulting on the debt of the United States. Odds are we will see an 11th-hour reprieve from this calamity; at least the markets seem to think so, judging by the run-up of stocks in recent days. But, even if we avert the worst today, it is grossly irresponsible and harmful for lawmakers—meaning principally Tea Party hardliners in the House—to have allowed the deadline to come so close.

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In the 19th century, individual deadbeats could go to prison and countries that defaulted on their debt could be invaded. To choose only two examples of many, Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 and the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 because those countries were not meeting their obligations to international debt-holders.

Today we take a far more relaxed view about owing money. The law makes bankruptcy relatively easy and painless for individuals and corporations–at least less painful than the prospect of debtors’ prison. There is no ethic of living within your means; instead we are now encouraged to run up debt, whether via a home mortgage or a credit card bill, and spend, spend, spend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—we don’t need to return to the Puritanical, anti-debt attitude of the 19th century. There is nothing wrong with a responsible amount of debt, whether for a family or a country.

But we are carrying our easy-going modern-day ethos a little too far when we run the risk of defaulting on the debt of the United States. Odds are we will see an 11th-hour reprieve from this calamity; at least the markets seem to think so, judging by the run-up of stocks in recent days. But, even if we avert the worst today, it is grossly irresponsible and harmful for lawmakers—meaning principally Tea Party hardliners in the House—to have allowed the deadline to come so close.

Thankfully the U.S. armed forces are still strong enough—for the time being anyway—to prevent the Chinese military from showing up on our shores to collect the trillions we owe them. (But for how much longer? Given the increases in Chinese military spending and our own across-the-board cuts as a result of the mindless sequestration process, the trends are not favorable when it comes to the shifting balance of power in the Pacific.) But the U.S. cannot rely on military strength alone. Much of our economic strength is underpinned by the fact that the dollar is the favorite reserve currency in the world and by the fact that the U.S. is the favorite destination for foreign investment.

That strong financial position will not be sacrificed overnight. But it will gradually erode if we have too many more perils-of-Pauline flirtations with a sovereign debt default. Already China’s Xinhua news agency is using this occasion to call for the world to “de-Americanize.” Such calls are likely to fall on deaf ears—for now. But we cannot afford to make the world think there is any doubt about America’s ability and willingness to repay its debts. That is a fundamental obligation of government, which, if called into question, will erode our national standing and hence our national security. There is no excuse for the willingness of some lawmakers to drive us so close to the cliff’s edge.

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