Commentary Magazine


Topic: South China sea

Power Vacuums and Green Lights in the South China Sea

Want to know what a world in which American power is in eclipse will look like? Just look around, from Ukraine to the South China Sea–both places where powerful states are seeking to dominate their neighbors with military force. 

The Ukrainian story is by now well known, with Russia having annexed Crimea and is in the process of setting up independent statelets in eastern Ukraine. But also of great significance is the recent decision by a Chinese state-owned National Offshore Oil Company to plant a $1 billion oil-drilling rig just 130 miles off the Vietnamese coast in waters that are claimed by Vietnam as an exclusive economic zone. Accompanying the oil rig were as many as 80 vessels belonging to the Chinese navy and coast guard; they used a water cannon to ward off a Vietnamese ship that got in the way of their power grab.

This Chinese move, into territory over which its jurisdiction under international law is virtually nonexistent, is all the more egregious because just three years ago Beijing and Hanoi reached agreement on shared borders and maritime rights. Now China is unilaterally abrogating that agreement and daring Vietnam and the rest of the world to do something about it.

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Want to know what a world in which American power is in eclipse will look like? Just look around, from Ukraine to the South China Sea–both places where powerful states are seeking to dominate their neighbors with military force. 

The Ukrainian story is by now well known, with Russia having annexed Crimea and is in the process of setting up independent statelets in eastern Ukraine. But also of great significance is the recent decision by a Chinese state-owned National Offshore Oil Company to plant a $1 billion oil-drilling rig just 130 miles off the Vietnamese coast in waters that are claimed by Vietnam as an exclusive economic zone. Accompanying the oil rig were as many as 80 vessels belonging to the Chinese navy and coast guard; they used a water cannon to ward off a Vietnamese ship that got in the way of their power grab.

This Chinese move, into territory over which its jurisdiction under international law is virtually nonexistent, is all the more egregious because just three years ago Beijing and Hanoi reached agreement on shared borders and maritime rights. Now China is unilaterally abrogating that agreement and daring Vietnam and the rest of the world to do something about it.

So far, just as in Ukraine, so in the South China Sea, the rest of the world–led by the U.S.–is hardly a profile in courage. Vietnam tried but failed to get its neighbors, meeting last weekend at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to condemn the Chinese move; those states are too scared of China to speak up publicly. The State Department, for its part, issued a pro forma denunciation of the Chinese move and left it at that.

Beijing is unlikely to be impressed. This was widely seen as a test of American and regional resolve to stand up to Chinese attempts to dominate waters that are also claimed by its neighbors. The lesson that Beijing must take away is that, just like Moscow, it has a green light for further aggression. 

The great danger here is that, just as in Europe, the local bully may miscalculate; one of its neighbors–whether Vietnam or Japan or the Philippines or some other state–may actually stand up to China and the result could be a shooting war. 

Although this is a regional dispute, just like the ongoing events in Ukraine, it has global ramifications, because it highlights the power vacuum being left by the present administration’s ill-advised retreat from America’s global leadership.

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Clinton’s Task in China Just Got Tougher

Good luck to Hillary Clinton on her visit to Beijing to try to cajole the Chinese leadership into settling through negotiations their disputes with the Philippines, Japan, and other nations over potentially mineral-rich islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea. She will need it, because the Chinese leadership has no interest in amicably resolving these disputes, because then it would lose a grievance it can exploit to fan nationalist sentiment. And why is the Chinese leadership so interested in building up nationalist resentment? The answer is not hard to find—see for example the latest article on the hijinks of a Communist princeling.

This one concerns a car crash that occurred earlier this year in Beijing—the driver of a Ferrari was killed and two women who were traveling with him were badly injured. All three were apparently in various states of undress. Turns out the fabulously rich driver was the son of Ling Jihua, former head of the General Office of the Communist Party Central Committee and a close ally of outgoing president Hu Jintao. The news of the crash only leaked out, it appears, because he had fallen from official favor, being demoted to a less powerful position.

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Good luck to Hillary Clinton on her visit to Beijing to try to cajole the Chinese leadership into settling through negotiations their disputes with the Philippines, Japan, and other nations over potentially mineral-rich islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea. She will need it, because the Chinese leadership has no interest in amicably resolving these disputes, because then it would lose a grievance it can exploit to fan nationalist sentiment. And why is the Chinese leadership so interested in building up nationalist resentment? The answer is not hard to find—see for example the latest article on the hijinks of a Communist princeling.

This one concerns a car crash that occurred earlier this year in Beijing—the driver of a Ferrari was killed and two women who were traveling with him were badly injured. All three were apparently in various states of undress. Turns out the fabulously rich driver was the son of Ling Jihua, former head of the General Office of the Communist Party Central Committee and a close ally of outgoing president Hu Jintao. The news of the crash only leaked out, it appears, because he had fallen from official favor, being demoted to a less powerful position.

The leadership realizes that such scandals, which seem to emerge daily, undermine their legitimacy and their lucrative hold on power. So they are positioning themselves as champions of a China supposedly embattled by numerous surrounding enemies who are said to be plotting to take over what is historic Chinese territory. Thus it is no surprise to see that Clinton’s arrival has gotten a harsh reception in the Chinese media, with, for example, the state-run Xinhua news agency writing: “The United States should stop its role as a sneaky troublemaker sitting behind some nations in the region and pulling strings.”

This is the voice of the new Chinese nationalism, built up over the past century by reformers of both the left and the right including the Kuomintang that the Communists deposed. Now the Communists have abandoned claims of international revolution to justify their hold on power in favor of Chinese nationalism. This is hardly a reassuring development (there are echoes here of Wilhemine Germany), and nor is it one that any amount of diplomacy by Clinton or anyone else is likely to fundamentally change. We will just have to learn to live with—and try to deter and contain—a resurgent China which is increasingly using the proceeds of its booming economy to fund a strong and growing military.

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China Tests Law of the Sea Treaty

I confess I don’t understand the fervor of proponents and opponents of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which is still awaiting Senate ratification and has been since 1982. The former seem to imagine that it will be a vast advance for American interests; the latter that it will be a vast infringement on American sovereignty. Both views seem overblown to me. I have no problem with ratifying the treaty, but at the same time I have no great expectations for what ratification will achieve.

Case in point: the South China Sea, the subject of a long New York Times article today. China has actually signed the Law of the Sea Treaty, but that is not preventing it from asserting a cockamamie “right” to do what it wants within 200 miles of its coast–and within 200 miles of each group of tiny rocks and islands in the South China Sea that Beijing implausibly claims as its national territory. If taken seriously, China’s claims would give it access to the entire sea, even though those waters are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei. The Law of the Sea Treaty, by contrast, recognizes freedom of navigation for any nation only 12 miles beyond a country’s shoreline.

This is more than an academic dispute–armed with its off-the-wall legal theories, China is sending its naval ships and paramilitary “fishing trawlers” to assert ownership of disputed territories such as Scarborough Shoal, where a group of Chinese ships have recently been in a standoff with the Philippine Navy. The stakes are high. As the Times notes: “Two-thirds of the world’s natural gas trade passes through the waters of the South China Sea” and “the sea itself is believed to hold a substantial reservoir of energy, with some experts predicting that under the seabed lies as much as 130 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of gas.”

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I confess I don’t understand the fervor of proponents and opponents of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which is still awaiting Senate ratification and has been since 1982. The former seem to imagine that it will be a vast advance for American interests; the latter that it will be a vast infringement on American sovereignty. Both views seem overblown to me. I have no problem with ratifying the treaty, but at the same time I have no great expectations for what ratification will achieve.

Case in point: the South China Sea, the subject of a long New York Times article today. China has actually signed the Law of the Sea Treaty, but that is not preventing it from asserting a cockamamie “right” to do what it wants within 200 miles of its coast–and within 200 miles of each group of tiny rocks and islands in the South China Sea that Beijing implausibly claims as its national territory. If taken seriously, China’s claims would give it access to the entire sea, even though those waters are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei. The Law of the Sea Treaty, by contrast, recognizes freedom of navigation for any nation only 12 miles beyond a country’s shoreline.

This is more than an academic dispute–armed with its off-the-wall legal theories, China is sending its naval ships and paramilitary “fishing trawlers” to assert ownership of disputed territories such as Scarborough Shoal, where a group of Chinese ships have recently been in a standoff with the Philippine Navy. The stakes are high. As the Times notes: “Two-thirds of the world’s natural gas trade passes through the waters of the South China Sea” and “the sea itself is believed to hold a substantial reservoir of energy, with some experts predicting that under the seabed lies as much as 130 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of gas.”

China seems bent on laying claim to those resources, no matter what the Law of the Sea Treaty says, which highlights the chief problem with international law: the difficulty of actually enforcing it. That will require the U.S. to take an increasingly assertive stance to back up, with naval and air power if need be, the rights of our allies against China’s resources-grab. Sending a U.S. Navy cruiser or destroyer to Scarborough Shoal to support our Philippine friends would have sent a far more powerful message of compliance with international law than Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Road to China’s Rise to Global Power….

A funny thing happened recently on the road to China’s supposedly inexorable rise to global power. Actually, a couple of funny things.

First and most prominent has been the scandal swirling around Bo Xilai, onetime Politburo member and party boss in Chonqqing, who has now been removed from power–and from sight–because of a variety of corruption and abuse-of-power allegations. The latest twist is the news that his wife, Gu Kailai, is a suspect in  the murder of the mysterious upper-class British expatriate and fixer Neil Heywood, a character who seems to have wandered straight out of a Graham Greene novel. The whole affair is causing major embarrassment to the ruling class in China for the way it brings into the open the shady machinations and rich deals that are a regular part of life for Communist mandarins. While Bo Xilai’s fall is being used to spread the message that no one is above the law, in fact no one knows exactly what led to his downfall; there is widespread suspicion it was not the result of his crimes per se, whatever they may have been, but rather of a murky behind-the-scenes power struggle whose features can be glimpsed only dimly by outsiders.

The second news item of note is this standoff in disputed waters of the South China Sea between a Philippine Navy gunboat and two Chinese “surveillance” ships. It seems that the Philippine warship had arrived to discover Chinese fishing vessels operating in waters claimed by Manila. Filipino sailors found plenty of illegally harvested clams, corals and other sea treasures aboard the ships before being blocked from further access by the arrival of  two Chinese “surveillance” ships–presumably unmarked vessels belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Why are these two news items so important? Because both cast doubts about whether China’s rise is as inevitable as the pundits have it.

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A funny thing happened recently on the road to China’s supposedly inexorable rise to global power. Actually, a couple of funny things.

First and most prominent has been the scandal swirling around Bo Xilai, onetime Politburo member and party boss in Chonqqing, who has now been removed from power–and from sight–because of a variety of corruption and abuse-of-power allegations. The latest twist is the news that his wife, Gu Kailai, is a suspect in  the murder of the mysterious upper-class British expatriate and fixer Neil Heywood, a character who seems to have wandered straight out of a Graham Greene novel. The whole affair is causing major embarrassment to the ruling class in China for the way it brings into the open the shady machinations and rich deals that are a regular part of life for Communist mandarins. While Bo Xilai’s fall is being used to spread the message that no one is above the law, in fact no one knows exactly what led to his downfall; there is widespread suspicion it was not the result of his crimes per se, whatever they may have been, but rather of a murky behind-the-scenes power struggle whose features can be glimpsed only dimly by outsiders.

The second news item of note is this standoff in disputed waters of the South China Sea between a Philippine Navy gunboat and two Chinese “surveillance” ships. It seems that the Philippine warship had arrived to discover Chinese fishing vessels operating in waters claimed by Manila. Filipino sailors found plenty of illegally harvested clams, corals and other sea treasures aboard the ships before being blocked from further access by the arrival of  two Chinese “surveillance” ships–presumably unmarked vessels belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Why are these two news items so important? Because both cast doubts about whether China’s rise is as inevitable as the pundits have it.

The Bo Xilai affair exposes the fragility of a regime that does not rest on the consent of the governed. The exposure of corrupt politicians is always traumatic even in a democratic system such as ours; they are far more serious in a one-party dictatorship such as China where civil unrest is never too far beneath the surface. The Communist Party justifies its monopoly on power by claiming that democracy is far too messy for a giant developing country like China and that wise, if unelected, mandarins can deliver economic growth and good government better than politicians beholden to grubby political parties. But scandals like the one swirling around Bo Xilai cast serious doubt on that propaganda line and in fact undermine the very legitimacy of the entire government–something that could not be said of even the most serious scandals (e.g., Watergate) in the United States.

Meanwhile, the South China Sea standoff is yet another indication of how China’s increasing assertiveness is alarming its neighbors and drawing them closer into an alliance with the United States. U.S.-Filipino relations are closer than they have been since the closing of the U.S. military bases in that country in the early 1990s–and we have China to thank for that. The same is true of U.S. relations with Singapore, Australia, India, and other neighbors of China–including even Vietnam and Burma. Thus China, like other dictatorial powers that aspired to great power (e.g., Wilhelmine Germany or Imperial Japan), seems to be creating with its own actions a coalition to keep it in check–even as its ruling infrastructure is showing fresh signs of fragility.

Does this really look like a country that is about to overtake the U.S. for global dominance? If it does,we will have only ourselves to blame, because, given China’s inherent weaknesses, our fall can only be the result of our own errors, such as failing to gain control of runaway entitlement spending or letting our best-in-the-world military atrophy due to excessive budget cuts.

 

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New Report on China Leaves Out the Good Stuff

There’s something missing from the Defense Department’s new report to Congress on “Military and Security Developments” relating to China — and it’s something big. The 83-page report, which focuses on the Chinese military and Beijing’s concerns about Taiwan, makes no reference to the global outreach that extends across Asia and Africa and across the Pacific to Latin America. This outreach combines general trade and investment with arms sales and political patronage, threads that can sometimes be difficult to separate. But arms and politics very often are intertwined with “peaceful” commerce; detecting the junctures at which they become “security developments” is what analysis is for. An entire facet of China’s grand strategy has simply been left out of this report.

Search the document, and you will find no reference to China’s “String of Pearls” strategy of cultivating relationships — along with the potential for surveillance outposts and naval bases –across the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Not a word is uttered about China’s much-remarked courtship with Latin America, which encompasses extensive military-to-military exchanges and arms sales along with the commercial operations of companies linked to the Chinese military. The ties in question include an ongoing effort to bolster military cooperation with Cuba, with which China has agreements to use signals-monitoring facilities against the United States. They also include a very unusual visit by Chinese warships to Chile, Peru, and Ecuador in late 2009.

The Mediterranean saw such visits for the first time this summer, conducted by Chinese warships departing their anti-piracy station near Somalia. China appears to be contemplating a naval base in Djibouti, but that’s the least of its inroads in Africa. Besides arming the homicidal rulers of Sudan and Zimbabwe (here and here), China is pursuing the same policy it has executed in Latin America of promoting arms sales and military-to-military exchanges. As this summary indicates, moreover, Africa’s unique characteristics make it a special proving ground for China’s dual-purpose (commercial and military) industries.

Ignoring this Chinese pattern when considering “security developments” is quite peculiar. In fact, the report’s principal thematic shortcoming is that it evaluates only one security issue — the status of Taiwan — in terms of its geostrategic features and implications. China’s other security issues are grouped abstractly as “flashpoints” and generic interests, creating the impression that North Korea is basically the same kind of problem for China as Pakistan, Iran, or the Spratly Islands.

But China, a nation facing long armed borders and disputed archipelagos in every direction, lacks the latitude Americans have to cast its problems in terms of political abstractions. China’s approach is based firmly on geography and power relationships. North Korea, Pakistan, and Taiwan are all different types of security concerns for China, as are India, the waterways of the Middle East, and the U.S. Navy.

Meanwhile, the Chinese regularly accuse the U.S., which they see as China’s chief rival in virtually every dimension, of “hegemonism and power politics.” This is not an abstraction for them; when they say this, they have in mind the pillars of U.S. security in the Eastern hemisphere: alliances, military presence, and declared interests, from one spot on the map to the next. China’s frame of reference for all its security calculations is U.S. military power, a fact that has more explanatory value for Beijing’s military build-up than any other.

If these factors go unacknowledged, we are in danger of supposing that China is arming itself to the teeth because of the Taiwan issue. Accept at face value China’s own statements about “threats” to its trade, throw in a public-spirited aspiration to support UN peacekeeping operations, and you get a DoD report in which the analysis comes off as strikingly fatuous. Having almost no reference to geography, the perceived rivalry with the U.S., or the political and security dimensions of China’s global outreach, it ends up being misleading as well.

There’s something missing from the Defense Department’s new report to Congress on “Military and Security Developments” relating to China — and it’s something big. The 83-page report, which focuses on the Chinese military and Beijing’s concerns about Taiwan, makes no reference to the global outreach that extends across Asia and Africa and across the Pacific to Latin America. This outreach combines general trade and investment with arms sales and political patronage, threads that can sometimes be difficult to separate. But arms and politics very often are intertwined with “peaceful” commerce; detecting the junctures at which they become “security developments” is what analysis is for. An entire facet of China’s grand strategy has simply been left out of this report.

Search the document, and you will find no reference to China’s “String of Pearls” strategy of cultivating relationships — along with the potential for surveillance outposts and naval bases –across the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Not a word is uttered about China’s much-remarked courtship with Latin America, which encompasses extensive military-to-military exchanges and arms sales along with the commercial operations of companies linked to the Chinese military. The ties in question include an ongoing effort to bolster military cooperation with Cuba, with which China has agreements to use signals-monitoring facilities against the United States. They also include a very unusual visit by Chinese warships to Chile, Peru, and Ecuador in late 2009.

The Mediterranean saw such visits for the first time this summer, conducted by Chinese warships departing their anti-piracy station near Somalia. China appears to be contemplating a naval base in Djibouti, but that’s the least of its inroads in Africa. Besides arming the homicidal rulers of Sudan and Zimbabwe (here and here), China is pursuing the same policy it has executed in Latin America of promoting arms sales and military-to-military exchanges. As this summary indicates, moreover, Africa’s unique characteristics make it a special proving ground for China’s dual-purpose (commercial and military) industries.

Ignoring this Chinese pattern when considering “security developments” is quite peculiar. In fact, the report’s principal thematic shortcoming is that it evaluates only one security issue — the status of Taiwan — in terms of its geostrategic features and implications. China’s other security issues are grouped abstractly as “flashpoints” and generic interests, creating the impression that North Korea is basically the same kind of problem for China as Pakistan, Iran, or the Spratly Islands.

But China, a nation facing long armed borders and disputed archipelagos in every direction, lacks the latitude Americans have to cast its problems in terms of political abstractions. China’s approach is based firmly on geography and power relationships. North Korea, Pakistan, and Taiwan are all different types of security concerns for China, as are India, the waterways of the Middle East, and the U.S. Navy.

Meanwhile, the Chinese regularly accuse the U.S., which they see as China’s chief rival in virtually every dimension, of “hegemonism and power politics.” This is not an abstraction for them; when they say this, they have in mind the pillars of U.S. security in the Eastern hemisphere: alliances, military presence, and declared interests, from one spot on the map to the next. China’s frame of reference for all its security calculations is U.S. military power, a fact that has more explanatory value for Beijing’s military build-up than any other.

If these factors go unacknowledged, we are in danger of supposing that China is arming itself to the teeth because of the Taiwan issue. Accept at face value China’s own statements about “threats” to its trade, throw in a public-spirited aspiration to support UN peacekeeping operations, and you get a DoD report in which the analysis comes off as strikingly fatuous. Having almost no reference to geography, the perceived rivalry with the U.S., or the political and security dimensions of China’s global outreach, it ends up being misleading as well.

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Hillary vs. China

Throwing your weight around is a time-honored tool in the diplomatic toolbox. Some circumstances call for it, but in others, it is cringe-inducingly inappropriate. With an oddly overt poke in China’s eye at the Asean conference this week, the Obama administration has unfortunately chosen to engage in weight-throwing under the latter conditions.

Almost every relevant headline in the mainstream media is some variation on that of the New York Times: “U.S. Challenges China on Island Chain.” Hillary Clinton, speaking at an Asean meeting in Hanoi, reportedly “said [the U.S. was] ready to step into a tangled dispute between China and its smaller Asian neighbors over a string of strategically sensitive islands in the South China Sea.” The islands in question make up the Spratly archipelago, claims to which confer tremendous undersea mineral resources on those who can enforce them. Clinton properly identified the U.S. interest as relating to freedom of navigation for world shipping, but her method of offering U.S. intervention in the regional dispute – one that China calls a “core interest” of its own national security – could hardly have been less diplomatic.

Nor could the timing have been worse. As Jillian wrote yesterday, the U.S. and South Korea are launching a naval exercise series that is planned to involve major operations in the Yellow Sea, obviously a sensitive area for Beijing. (The Chinese were unamused by USS George Washington’s foray into the Yellow Sea in October 2009, as discussed here.) Moreover, Bloomberg reports that the American delegation to the Asean conference got some very pointed additional business done on the side, inaugurating discussions on military cooperation with conference host Vietnam and restoring ties between the special forces of the U.S. and Indonesian militaries. Both nations border the South China Sea and have island claims in competition with China’s.

The point here is not that the U.S. doesn’t have a security interest in the South China Sea, nor is it that we can’t play a constructive role in fostering a peaceful and equitable settlement of the Spratly Islands dispute. But an offer of mediation is a departure from our decades-old policy of tacitly enforcing regional stability and promoting our own primary interest – freedom of maritime navigation – while respecting the sovereign concerns of the Spratly claimants as a matter for them to work out among themselves. This week’s policy departure has the appearance of being blurted out without prior diplomatic spade work.

Such an Obama initiative, introduced less pointedly and with less of the appearance of challenging China, might well have achieved a productive effect. We do want all the nations of the region to know that the U.S. will act to prevent the imbalance of power that China tends to seek. But conveying that quietly, through dedicated military presence and assiduous bilateral diplomacy – and without dramatic announcements and provocative headlines – is worth every minute of the tongue-biting patience necessary to operating with greater foresight. There is no strategic payoff from issuing gratuitous and public challenges to China, which is what the Obama administration has effectively done.

Throwing your weight around is a time-honored tool in the diplomatic toolbox. Some circumstances call for it, but in others, it is cringe-inducingly inappropriate. With an oddly overt poke in China’s eye at the Asean conference this week, the Obama administration has unfortunately chosen to engage in weight-throwing under the latter conditions.

Almost every relevant headline in the mainstream media is some variation on that of the New York Times: “U.S. Challenges China on Island Chain.” Hillary Clinton, speaking at an Asean meeting in Hanoi, reportedly “said [the U.S. was] ready to step into a tangled dispute between China and its smaller Asian neighbors over a string of strategically sensitive islands in the South China Sea.” The islands in question make up the Spratly archipelago, claims to which confer tremendous undersea mineral resources on those who can enforce them. Clinton properly identified the U.S. interest as relating to freedom of navigation for world shipping, but her method of offering U.S. intervention in the regional dispute – one that China calls a “core interest” of its own national security – could hardly have been less diplomatic.

Nor could the timing have been worse. As Jillian wrote yesterday, the U.S. and South Korea are launching a naval exercise series that is planned to involve major operations in the Yellow Sea, obviously a sensitive area for Beijing. (The Chinese were unamused by USS George Washington’s foray into the Yellow Sea in October 2009, as discussed here.) Moreover, Bloomberg reports that the American delegation to the Asean conference got some very pointed additional business done on the side, inaugurating discussions on military cooperation with conference host Vietnam and restoring ties between the special forces of the U.S. and Indonesian militaries. Both nations border the South China Sea and have island claims in competition with China’s.

The point here is not that the U.S. doesn’t have a security interest in the South China Sea, nor is it that we can’t play a constructive role in fostering a peaceful and equitable settlement of the Spratly Islands dispute. But an offer of mediation is a departure from our decades-old policy of tacitly enforcing regional stability and promoting our own primary interest – freedom of maritime navigation – while respecting the sovereign concerns of the Spratly claimants as a matter for them to work out among themselves. This week’s policy departure has the appearance of being blurted out without prior diplomatic spade work.

Such an Obama initiative, introduced less pointedly and with less of the appearance of challenging China, might well have achieved a productive effect. We do want all the nations of the region to know that the U.S. will act to prevent the imbalance of power that China tends to seek. But conveying that quietly, through dedicated military presence and assiduous bilateral diplomacy – and without dramatic announcements and provocative headlines – is worth every minute of the tongue-biting patience necessary to operating with greater foresight. There is no strategic payoff from issuing gratuitous and public challenges to China, which is what the Obama administration has effectively done.

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Millions for Defense, Not One Cent for Tribute

Seth Cropsey of the Hudson Institute has written twice in the last few weeks (here and here) on a topic integral to U.S. national security: our declining naval dominance. His point at Pajamas Media on Tuesday — that Defense Secretary Gates’s May 3 call for a smaller navy got little attention or criticism in the press — resonates with me. Americans have trouble remembering that we are, most fundamentally, a maritime trading nation. Naval power is a core element of our own national security as well as of the global stability we seek to promote. We can maintain naval dominance or we can fight to get it back, but our position and character as a nation are impossible without it.

The proximate reason for the current debate is the ongoing shrinkage of the U.S. Navy, which has declined nearly 20 percent in the last decade while other navies are expanding and modernizing. China has had a very successful naval expansion program during this period. Russia and Iran have accelerated their efforts at modernization and new construction. Nations from Vietnam to India to Saudi Arabia and Algeria are making major investments in naval weapon systems.

Moreover, the navies of Russia, China, and India are operating in distant waters and cultivating their images as “power projection” forces. Russia has resumed visiting its Cold War-era haunts in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, Pacific, and Western hemisphere. China’s navy conducted its largest and farthest-flung fleet exercise ever in March and April 2010, twice operating provocatively in a Japanese strait. India dispatched a naval task force in 2009 to conduct unprecedented joint drills with European navies in the Atlantic. All three of these navies are now operating in the international antipiracy effort off of Somalia, as are navies like Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s, which formerly kept to their own coastal waters.

Nations don’t expand their navies or the scope of their operations because they are satisfied with the status quo. Although the Somali piracy problem has been a key catalyst for unprecedented naval deployments, there is no question that the fastest-growing navies — those of China, Russia, India, and Iran — are being enlarged because their political leaders envision an alternative to U.S. maritime dominance.

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Seth Cropsey of the Hudson Institute has written twice in the last few weeks (here and here) on a topic integral to U.S. national security: our declining naval dominance. His point at Pajamas Media on Tuesday — that Defense Secretary Gates’s May 3 call for a smaller navy got little attention or criticism in the press — resonates with me. Americans have trouble remembering that we are, most fundamentally, a maritime trading nation. Naval power is a core element of our own national security as well as of the global stability we seek to promote. We can maintain naval dominance or we can fight to get it back, but our position and character as a nation are impossible without it.

The proximate reason for the current debate is the ongoing shrinkage of the U.S. Navy, which has declined nearly 20 percent in the last decade while other navies are expanding and modernizing. China has had a very successful naval expansion program during this period. Russia and Iran have accelerated their efforts at modernization and new construction. Nations from Vietnam to India to Saudi Arabia and Algeria are making major investments in naval weapon systems.

Moreover, the navies of Russia, China, and India are operating in distant waters and cultivating their images as “power projection” forces. Russia has resumed visiting its Cold War-era haunts in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, Pacific, and Western hemisphere. China’s navy conducted its largest and farthest-flung fleet exercise ever in March and April 2010, twice operating provocatively in a Japanese strait. India dispatched a naval task force in 2009 to conduct unprecedented joint drills with European navies in the Atlantic. All three of these navies are now operating in the international antipiracy effort off of Somalia, as are navies like Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s, which formerly kept to their own coastal waters.

Nations don’t expand their navies or the scope of their operations because they are satisfied with the status quo. Although the Somali piracy problem has been a key catalyst for unprecedented naval deployments, there is no question that the fastest-growing navies — those of China, Russia, India, and Iran — are being enlarged because their political leaders envision an alternative to U.S. maritime dominance.

As we go forward in this shifting security environment, we need to keep two conceptual touchstones in mind. One is that our dominance can wane meaningfully even if no other navy is a symmetrical rival to ours on a global scale. To confound us effectively, navies like China’s or Russia’s need only be able to enforce unilateral ukases locally, particularly in the easily threatened chokepoints through which trillions of dollars in global trade pass every year.

China, for example, would prefer to gradually establish maritime preeminence in the South China Sea until the point is reached at which the U.S. must either provoke a confrontation or accept China as the dictator of policy there. And China’s policy would not entail keeping the seaways of Southeast Asia free for all nations’ commerce, as ours has. Favoritism and political extortion would be the new norm under Chinese hegemony.

Our Pacific alliances could not survive China’s assumption of de facto maritime hegemony in Southeast Asia. And that leads to the other conceptual touchstone: the efficient use America has long made of maritime dominance and alliances in preserving our own security between the great oceans. Alliances and naval deterrence are difficult and expensive to maintain, but they are far less costly in every way than fighting repeated land wars in the Eastern hemisphere. They are particularly suited, moreover, to our national preference for consensual relations abroad rather than Roman- or colonial-style imperialism.

As Cropsey’s articles suggest, we are at present reworking our national-security strategy and force doctrine. Our choices about defense capabilities today will dictate our political responses in the future. There is no question that waste, pork, service infighting, and bureaucratic inertia make our navy cost more than it needs to, but merely shrinking it to save money is not the answer. Nor is it wise to dismantle the essential tool of maritime deterrence — a navy capable of dominating any other in the regional confrontations that several nations are currently preparing for — in favor of “down-tooling” our force to deal symmetrically with pirates. Somali piracy is the least of the maritime problems we will face in the next two to three decades. Other navies have proven effective at attacking Somali piracy head-on. But there is only one navy that can shoulder aside the challenges from nation-state rivals and keep the world’s vulnerable tradeways open to all. If we do not do it, it will not be done.

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What Are They Getting for It?

Gordon Chang notes that observers and analysts across the political spectrum are dismayed by Obama’s human-rights approach regarding China — a crouch more than an approach, actually. He writes:

What Obama and Clinton fail to comprehend is that America derives its security because of its values.  Peoples around the world support our policies precisely because they share our beliefs.  And with the Chinese there is another dimension:  Beijing’s ruthlessly pragmatic leaders see our failure to press human rights as a sign that we think we are weak.  And if they think we are weak, they see little reason to cooperate.  So promoting human rights is protecting American security.

And like so many other ill-conceived Obama foreign-policy gambits (e.g., the Middle East, Honduras, Iran), the end result is to set back American interests and embolden our adversaries. As Chang writes, the Chinese were delighted when Clinton declared earlier in the year that we can’t let human rights “interfere” with other matters. The predictable result is that China’s human-rights behavior gets worse and we weaken our own bargaining position on other matters:

Since [Clinton's remarks in February], they have been noticeably less cooperative on the great issues of the day. And in March, just one month after her statement, they felt bold enough to order their vessels to harass two of our unarmed ships in international waters in the South China and Yellow Seas. The Chinese even attempted to sever a towed sonar array from one of the Navy vessels. That hostile act constituted an attack on the United States.

It is unclear why, in the face of such uniform criticism and such dismal results, the Obama team shows no sign of reversing course. They believe what they believe, it seems, and no amount of real-world evidence is going to get in the way of their desire to throw human rights under the bus for the sake of ingratiating themselves with the world’s despots.

Gordon Chang notes that observers and analysts across the political spectrum are dismayed by Obama’s human-rights approach regarding China — a crouch more than an approach, actually. He writes:

What Obama and Clinton fail to comprehend is that America derives its security because of its values.  Peoples around the world support our policies precisely because they share our beliefs.  And with the Chinese there is another dimension:  Beijing’s ruthlessly pragmatic leaders see our failure to press human rights as a sign that we think we are weak.  And if they think we are weak, they see little reason to cooperate.  So promoting human rights is protecting American security.

And like so many other ill-conceived Obama foreign-policy gambits (e.g., the Middle East, Honduras, Iran), the end result is to set back American interests and embolden our adversaries. As Chang writes, the Chinese were delighted when Clinton declared earlier in the year that we can’t let human rights “interfere” with other matters. The predictable result is that China’s human-rights behavior gets worse and we weaken our own bargaining position on other matters:

Since [Clinton's remarks in February], they have been noticeably less cooperative on the great issues of the day. And in March, just one month after her statement, they felt bold enough to order their vessels to harass two of our unarmed ships in international waters in the South China and Yellow Seas. The Chinese even attempted to sever a towed sonar array from one of the Navy vessels. That hostile act constituted an attack on the United States.

It is unclear why, in the face of such uniform criticism and such dismal results, the Obama team shows no sign of reversing course. They believe what they believe, it seems, and no amount of real-world evidence is going to get in the way of their desire to throw human rights under the bus for the sake of ingratiating themselves with the world’s despots.

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Singapore Plays with Fire

Scarcely had I sent off my posting about the risks Singapore runs with its Islamic and Malay neighbors by hosting guest workers from the People’s Republic of China than I spotted an even more worrying report.

A headline in my Chinese language morning paper, the World Journal, announced “Singapore and China Conclude Military Cooperation Agreement,” adding “Neighboring States View with Concern.” Singapore’s neighbors, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, all have maritime territorial disputes with China, mostly concerning islands in the South China Sea. Last November China took another step toward claiming that entire body of water when she created a government administration for three island groups–the Sansha–none of which she legally controls. China’s latest plan to build three aircraft carriers and more nuclear attack submarines would fit well with the ambition to annex this territory. Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Hanoi, among others will be asking: Does Singapore now plan to host those ships?

Singapore’s leaders have a track record of botched attempts to cultivate economic and political relations with China while ignoring neighbors. On the economic side, an ambitious Singapore Industrial Park was inaugurated in Suzhou in 1994. The huge investment lost almost a hundred million dollars and the Singaporeans sold out at a loss. State-owned Raffle’s Holding bought Brown’s Hotel in London in 1997, truly a gilt-edged stock, only to sell in 2003, reportedly in order to acquire shopping centers in China. On January 8 of this year China’s government humiliatingly slapped down a bid by Singapore Airlines to take a stake in China Eastern Airlines.

Worse, politically, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien-loong, regularly echoes China’s assertions that her massive military buildup threatens no one, while failing to address the genuine danger. Last June, for example, speaking to a regional conference, Lee observed “that Washington and Tokyo are worried about China’s military build-up . . .But most Asian countries see China’s actions not as a threat to regional security, but as a specific response to the cross-straits situation”–a doubtful assessment to say the least.

Singapore’s tilt toward China is not going unnoticed, either in the island itself, or in the region (though it gets next to no coverage in the American press). It has already cost the island state financially. If it continues, it will undermine security and regional trust as well.

Scarcely had I sent off my posting about the risks Singapore runs with its Islamic and Malay neighbors by hosting guest workers from the People’s Republic of China than I spotted an even more worrying report.

A headline in my Chinese language morning paper, the World Journal, announced “Singapore and China Conclude Military Cooperation Agreement,” adding “Neighboring States View with Concern.” Singapore’s neighbors, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, all have maritime territorial disputes with China, mostly concerning islands in the South China Sea. Last November China took another step toward claiming that entire body of water when she created a government administration for three island groups–the Sansha–none of which she legally controls. China’s latest plan to build three aircraft carriers and more nuclear attack submarines would fit well with the ambition to annex this territory. Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Hanoi, among others will be asking: Does Singapore now plan to host those ships?

Singapore’s leaders have a track record of botched attempts to cultivate economic and political relations with China while ignoring neighbors. On the economic side, an ambitious Singapore Industrial Park was inaugurated in Suzhou in 1994. The huge investment lost almost a hundred million dollars and the Singaporeans sold out at a loss. State-owned Raffle’s Holding bought Brown’s Hotel in London in 1997, truly a gilt-edged stock, only to sell in 2003, reportedly in order to acquire shopping centers in China. On January 8 of this year China’s government humiliatingly slapped down a bid by Singapore Airlines to take a stake in China Eastern Airlines.

Worse, politically, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien-loong, regularly echoes China’s assertions that her massive military buildup threatens no one, while failing to address the genuine danger. Last June, for example, speaking to a regional conference, Lee observed “that Washington and Tokyo are worried about China’s military build-up . . .But most Asian countries see China’s actions not as a threat to regional security, but as a specific response to the cross-straits situation”–a doubtful assessment to say the least.

Singapore’s tilt toward China is not going unnoticed, either in the island itself, or in the region (though it gets next to no coverage in the American press). It has already cost the island state financially. If it continues, it will undermine security and regional trust as well.

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A Summit with Singh

Yesterday, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing announced that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will begin a three-day visit to China on January 13. There are long-running border disputes and fundamental disagreements between the Chinese and the Indians. Not one will be settled during the brief moments when Singh actually sits down for talks with his counterparts.

Although the itinerary has yet to be announced, it’s clear that the visit will be filled with a series of high-profile events and made-for-television handshakes. In short, Singh’s sojourn in the Chinese capital will resemble the smiles summit that the Chinese staged for Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda late last month. For example, Singh, if early reports are correct, will also address Chinese students at one of Beijing premier universities.

There is no such thing as coincidence when it comes to Chinese diplomacy, at least when relations with China’s big-power rivals are involved. So we need to ask ourselves why Beijing is engaging in content-less diplomacy at this moment. Optimists, of course, will say that the country’s foreign policy is maturing and Beijing wants harmonious relations while it hosts the Olympics. Pessimists—I prefer to call them “realists”—might think that the Chinese are covering their flanks in preparation for misadventure elsewhere in the region. For example, Beijing may be thinking of intensifying pressure on Vietnam—the two countries are already involved in an especially nasty phase of their long-running territorial dispute over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. Or perhaps the Chinese are thinking of taking a bite out of Taiwan, such as a quick grab of its outlying islands.

In any event, China is undoubtedly trying to woo Tokyo away from Washington and prevent New Delhi from getting even closer to America. To the extent that China has any grand strategy at this moment, it is to push the United States out of Asia and make itself the unquestioned hegemon there. That means, at a minimum, Washington, in addition to problems elsewhere, needs to think about the next steps toward consolidating its relationship with India. The problems in the Middle East are important, of course, but superpowers never have the luxury of concentrating all their attentions on just one problem or region.

Yesterday, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing announced that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will begin a three-day visit to China on January 13. There are long-running border disputes and fundamental disagreements between the Chinese and the Indians. Not one will be settled during the brief moments when Singh actually sits down for talks with his counterparts.

Although the itinerary has yet to be announced, it’s clear that the visit will be filled with a series of high-profile events and made-for-television handshakes. In short, Singh’s sojourn in the Chinese capital will resemble the smiles summit that the Chinese staged for Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda late last month. For example, Singh, if early reports are correct, will also address Chinese students at one of Beijing premier universities.

There is no such thing as coincidence when it comes to Chinese diplomacy, at least when relations with China’s big-power rivals are involved. So we need to ask ourselves why Beijing is engaging in content-less diplomacy at this moment. Optimists, of course, will say that the country’s foreign policy is maturing and Beijing wants harmonious relations while it hosts the Olympics. Pessimists—I prefer to call them “realists”—might think that the Chinese are covering their flanks in preparation for misadventure elsewhere in the region. For example, Beijing may be thinking of intensifying pressure on Vietnam—the two countries are already involved in an especially nasty phase of their long-running territorial dispute over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. Or perhaps the Chinese are thinking of taking a bite out of Taiwan, such as a quick grab of its outlying islands.

In any event, China is undoubtedly trying to woo Tokyo away from Washington and prevent New Delhi from getting even closer to America. To the extent that China has any grand strategy at this moment, it is to push the United States out of Asia and make itself the unquestioned hegemon there. That means, at a minimum, Washington, in addition to problems elsewhere, needs to think about the next steps toward consolidating its relationship with India. The problems in the Middle East are important, of course, but superpowers never have the luxury of concentrating all their attentions on just one problem or region.

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A Thanksgiving Insult

Yesterday, China’s Foreign Ministry, reversing a previous decision, announced that it had given the U.S. Navy’s Kitty Hawk carrier group permission to dock in Hong Kong for a four-day Thanksgiving visit. On Wednesday, the State Department announced that China had, at the last moment, refused permission for the port call. The Navy had already flown hundreds of dependents to that city in anticipation of the long-planned visit, and the six ships of the carrier group had been idling in circles in the South China Sea pending Beijing’s expected approval. The Foreign Ministry gave no explanation for its earlier refusal. It said that its later approval was based on “humanitarian considerations.”

The 8,000 crewmembers of the Kitty Hawk and its fleet spent Thanksgiving steaming back to the carrier’s home port of Yokosuka in Japan. “The ships will not be coming back,” said a spokesman from the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong. “They are 300 miles out to sea and there is a storm in the area.”

Storm or no storm, the Consulate should have announced that, after Beijing’s petty behavior, the Kitty Hawk would not be returning to Hong Kong—and that the Navy will no longer ask for permission to dock in Hong Kong or other Chinese ports. Why should we try to go where we are treated so poorly?

In 2006, American military personnel spent about $32 million in Hong Kong. Let’s support our friends in the region by calling at their ports, instead of those of petulant autocrats. How about, for instance, docking in Taiwan?

The Chinese were obviously trying to make some point with their insult. There has been speculation as to what they were upset about, but it really does not matter. It’s about time we stopped acting so magnanimously and started to make some points of our own.

Yesterday, China’s Foreign Ministry, reversing a previous decision, announced that it had given the U.S. Navy’s Kitty Hawk carrier group permission to dock in Hong Kong for a four-day Thanksgiving visit. On Wednesday, the State Department announced that China had, at the last moment, refused permission for the port call. The Navy had already flown hundreds of dependents to that city in anticipation of the long-planned visit, and the six ships of the carrier group had been idling in circles in the South China Sea pending Beijing’s expected approval. The Foreign Ministry gave no explanation for its earlier refusal. It said that its later approval was based on “humanitarian considerations.”

The 8,000 crewmembers of the Kitty Hawk and its fleet spent Thanksgiving steaming back to the carrier’s home port of Yokosuka in Japan. “The ships will not be coming back,” said a spokesman from the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong. “They are 300 miles out to sea and there is a storm in the area.”

Storm or no storm, the Consulate should have announced that, after Beijing’s petty behavior, the Kitty Hawk would not be returning to Hong Kong—and that the Navy will no longer ask for permission to dock in Hong Kong or other Chinese ports. Why should we try to go where we are treated so poorly?

In 2006, American military personnel spent about $32 million in Hong Kong. Let’s support our friends in the region by calling at their ports, instead of those of petulant autocrats. How about, for instance, docking in Taiwan?

The Chinese were obviously trying to make some point with their insult. There has been speculation as to what they were upset about, but it really does not matter. It’s about time we stopped acting so magnanimously and started to make some points of our own.

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Cold(er) War

Yesterday, a submersible lowered a titanium Russian flag onto the Arctic seabed, near the North Pole, at a depth of almost 14,000 feet. Canada immediately mocked Moscow’s stunt. “This isn’t the 15th century,” said Ottawa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter MacKay. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ ”

International law permits Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, and Norway, the nations with coastlines inside the Arctic Circle, to enforce 200-mile exclusive economic zones north of their shores. The Kremlin, however, claims a bigger zone that includes the seabed under the North Pole. It maintains that the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs under the Pole, forms part of Siberia’s continental shelf. Canada and Denmark maintain competing claims to the same ridge. (Why do so many nations want the Ridge? Because a receding polar cap may someday make drilling for hydrocarbons there feasible.)

Russia is not the only nation to make outsized claims on continental shelves. China, for instance, believes it has rights to a good portion of Japan’s coastline. China also maintains claims on the continental shelves of the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam (as well as the entire South China Sea).

The United States is party to few economic-zone disputes. Nonetheless, it is the final guarantor of the international system. As such, it should be taking a greater interest in making sure that claims are settled peacefully—and that the rights of free passage are protected—whether or not the Senate sees fit to ratify the controversial Law of the Sea Convention, as the Bush administration wants it to do. And the first item on our agenda should be to talk openly and pointedly to Beijing and Moscow about their grand claims and methods of bolstering them.

Yesterday, a submersible lowered a titanium Russian flag onto the Arctic seabed, near the North Pole, at a depth of almost 14,000 feet. Canada immediately mocked Moscow’s stunt. “This isn’t the 15th century,” said Ottawa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter MacKay. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ ”

International law permits Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, and Norway, the nations with coastlines inside the Arctic Circle, to enforce 200-mile exclusive economic zones north of their shores. The Kremlin, however, claims a bigger zone that includes the seabed under the North Pole. It maintains that the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs under the Pole, forms part of Siberia’s continental shelf. Canada and Denmark maintain competing claims to the same ridge. (Why do so many nations want the Ridge? Because a receding polar cap may someday make drilling for hydrocarbons there feasible.)

Russia is not the only nation to make outsized claims on continental shelves. China, for instance, believes it has rights to a good portion of Japan’s coastline. China also maintains claims on the continental shelves of the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam (as well as the entire South China Sea).

The United States is party to few economic-zone disputes. Nonetheless, it is the final guarantor of the international system. As such, it should be taking a greater interest in making sure that claims are settled peacefully—and that the rights of free passage are protected—whether or not the Senate sees fit to ratify the controversial Law of the Sea Convention, as the Bush administration wants it to do. And the first item on our agenda should be to talk openly and pointedly to Beijing and Moscow about their grand claims and methods of bolstering them.

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Charm Offensive, by Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick
Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World
Yale. 320 pp. $26.00.

Across the globe, China’s diplomatic presence is growing with astounding speed. In Maputo, Mozambique, the ministry of foreign affairs—built with Chinese money—sports an elaborate pagoda roof. In Songhkla, Thailand, the building formerly housing the American consulate now houses political and economic emissaries from Beijing—a disturbing image of China’s influence waxing as America’s recedes. And in dozens of other nations, China’s power is expanding equally quickly. In Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World, Joshua Kurlantzick explains how the Chinese are increasing their reach and, in the process, helping rogue leaders, causing environmental degradation, and undermining the United States.

Readers of COMMENTARY will be familiar with this narrative. Kurlantzick, a special correspondent for The New Republic, outlined elements of this thesis in COMMENTARY’s October 2006 issue. It is, however, an important story and well worth telling in book form.

Read More

Joshua Kurlantzick
Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World
Yale. 320 pp. $26.00.

Across the globe, China’s diplomatic presence is growing with astounding speed. In Maputo, Mozambique, the ministry of foreign affairs—built with Chinese money—sports an elaborate pagoda roof. In Songhkla, Thailand, the building formerly housing the American consulate now houses political and economic emissaries from Beijing—a disturbing image of China’s influence waxing as America’s recedes. And in dozens of other nations, China’s power is expanding equally quickly. In Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World, Joshua Kurlantzick explains how the Chinese are increasing their reach and, in the process, helping rogue leaders, causing environmental degradation, and undermining the United States.

Readers of COMMENTARY will be familiar with this narrative. Kurlantzick, a special correspondent for The New Republic, outlined elements of this thesis in COMMENTARY’s October 2006 issue. It is, however, an important story and well worth telling in book form.

Kurlantzick begins his analysis, appropriately enough, with Mao Zedong. The first leader of the People’s Republic wanted to export the Chinese revolution around the world. His attempted insurgencies, however, generally failed, poisoning relations with many nations for a generation. Even when Mao backed a winner—such as the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—the result was disastrous for Beijing’s reputation.

Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, ended many of these counterproductive foreign policies. But he still relied overmuch on the use of force, launching a failed war with Vietnam in 1979, and retained Mao’s deep suspicion of multilateral institutions and treaties. Even after Deng passed from the political scene in 1994, Beijing had trouble making friends due to its constant threats against Taiwan, its seizure of reefs to enforce its ludicrous territorial claims to the entire South China Sea, and other hostile acts.

Then, in 1997, the year of Deng’s death, Beijing began a strategic volte-face. By choosing not to devalue their currency, the Chinese prevented a round of potentially catastrophic competitive devaluations during the Asian financial crisis of the late 90’s. “For the first time in decades,” Kurlantzick writes, “China had taken a stance on a major international issue and had banked credit as a benign force in global affairs.” Shortly thereafter, Beijing officials began to re-conceive of their country as a da guo—a great power. By the beginning of this decade, China, under the stewardship of Jiang Zemin, had turned on the charm and begun to employ “soft power” as its main diplomatic tool.

The Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” defined it narrowly as the passive attractive force of a nation’s culture, values, and norms. But Kurlantzick notes that Beijing has expanded the concept to include almost any non-military effort at accumulating power. Charm Offensive, accordingly, looks at soft power through China’s enlarged understanding of the phrase.

Today, Chinese diplomats and officials have dropped their old, aggressive posture. They now talk about “win-win” relations, “Peaceful Rise,” and the “Early Harvest Package.” Beijing maintains publicly that it never interferes in other nations’ internal affairs and seeks prosperity for all. It provides aid for less developed nations and joins any regional and multilateral organization it can find (and, if none exists, creates them). International agreements? Beijing signs treaties, compacts, and covenants by the dozen. China, in short, wants to be everyone’s friend. (How do you say “Kumbaya” in Mandarin?)

Yet, as Kurlantzick notes, “Beijing offers the charm of a lion, not of a mouse.” It still acts high-handedly when it thinks it can get away with it (as when it dams the upstream waters of the Mekong River) and aggressively opposes those against whom it bears a grudge (constantly blocking, for instance, Japan’s attempts to build stronger ties in Asia). Neighbors are not its only targets: all over Asia, China uses its newfound strength to exclude the United States from regional economic and political affiliations (successfully convincing the Uzbeks to end American basing rights in their country, among other policy victories).

Is this behavior, however regrettable, merely the normal rough and tumble of great-power diplomacy? Perhaps. But Kurlantzick raises a far more pertinent question: can an authoritarian state work within the existing framework of a liberal international system? Charm Offensive is loaded with evidence that suggests a potentially disturbing answer.

Kurlantzick observes correctly that China courts and champions authoritarian leaders in the arena of global politics. It sustains hostile and unstable states—like Iran and North Korea—that threaten world order. It directly intervened to keep the contemptible Robert Mugabe in power in Zimbabwe, and it is stands behind the regime in Sudan that sponsors the genocidal janjaweed militia. Name any anti-democratic government in the world today, and you will find a connection to Beijing. China’s support of the world’s autocrats is so pervasive as to be creating, in Kurlantzick’s words, an “alternative pole” to the Western democracies.

Worse, China challenges one of the principles that define the West—free markets—with visible success. By producing spectacular economic growth for almost three decades, China shows that nations do not have to follow the free-market Washington Consensus in order to advance economically. Today, dictators and strongmen of all stripes take comfort in how the Beijing Consensus permits the maintenance of anti-democratic governance in a modernizing world.

Kurlantzick ends his fine book by making suggestions as to how Washington can compete with charmingly offensive China. His prescriptions range from the tactical—stationing at least one China watcher in every American embassy—to the strategic—reconsidering our opposition to multilateral institutions. But this second, broader piece of advice presents a problem. China is now a major player in nearly every regional and international organization, and it has garnered enough power in the international community to be able to block Western initiatives and everything but lowest-common-denominator solutions. Does this not suggest that multilateralism, for the U.S., is by now a dead end, at least where China is concerned?

Kurlantzick, at several points in Charm Offensive, scolds the United States for abandoning strategic interest in the world after the end of the cold war. His book reminds us that this is no time for America to forgo its leadership position or to accept consensus management, especially when that means empowering authoritarian states—like newly, charmingly offensive China.

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