Commentary Magazine


Topic: China

The Future of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Washington and getting ready to address a joint meeting of Congress, the long-awaited “revised guidelines” for the U.S.-Japan Alliance were released yesterday. A copy of the document can be found here. It’s an impressive start, but a lot of the heavy lifting remains.

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With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Washington and getting ready to address a joint meeting of Congress, the long-awaited “revised guidelines” for the U.S.-Japan Alliance were released yesterday. A copy of the document can be found here. It’s an impressive start, but a lot of the heavy lifting remains.

Both governments have been telegraphing for months what the revisions would likely include, so there were no real surprises for Asia watchers. Perhaps the most interesting revision, and one that may make a real difference, is the establishment of an “Alliance Coordination Mechanism, [to] enhance operational coordination, and strengthen bilateral planning,” according to the document.

After 50-plus years of the alliance, it may be a bit surprising that no such mechanism hitherto existed, but rectifying that gap is a good idea. If it operates the way it should, Tokyo and Washington should be able to discuss on an early and continuous basis specific issues or threats that may fall under alliance auspices. That takes the pressure off of calling for formal alliance discussions when a threat arises, and also means that appropriate alliance managers are communicating regularly on issues that may eventually require a joint response.

The two sides will also upgrade the Bilateral Planning Mechanism, which may allow for a steady evolution of plans for coordinated operations, as well as requirements needed to undertake enhanced operations.

As expected, there is also an increased emphasis on planning with potential partners for situations where Japan is not under attack, but the security environment is deleterious to Japan, including “emerging threats.” This may open the door to far wider-ranging U.S.-Japan regional cooperation, not only on things like intelligence sharing, but also maritime security, refugee situations, and the like. Threats to cyber networks and space assets also have been a hot topic during the months of negotiations, and the revised guidelines have an entire section on notional cooperation on both those issues.

Overall, the document lives up to its billing, but implementation is now the order of the day. Prime Minister Abe will have to push through a raft of legislation in the Diet (parliament) in order to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to undertake the broadened array of operations envisioned in the guidelines. That will be no mean feat, given opposition from other political parties, including his own coalition partners, as well as public wariness of an expanded Japanese role abroad.

As for Washington, the sentiments and promises in the revised guidelines are only part of a broader strategy to deal with increased risk in Asia. In that sense, the document is too reactive. China’s creation of island territory in the South China Sea is giving it de facto sovereignty over those waters, according to worried Philippine officials, while North Korea continues to improve its nuclear and missile capabilities.

If Washington chooses simply to react to threats when they cross unknown redlines, then the U.S.-Japan alliance will forever be playing catch-up. Some bolder thinking on how to utilize Abe’s interest in playing a larger regional role may serve to blunt Chinese moves, and certainly aiming at weakening North Korea’s hermit regime is the best policy for trying to shape the region’s security environment. Even if not spelled out in the new alliance guidelines, those goals should be animating policymakers in Tokyo and Washington going forward.

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North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal Is Bigger Than We Thought

A few weeks ago, I wrote about North Korea’s nuclear breakout, and that the U.S. government was finally beginning to acknowledge the degree to which North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could no longer be ignored. Yet even as the Obama administration continues to talk about the North Korean nuclear “program,” along come the Chinese, of all people, to tell us that North Korea is in reality a nuclear power, with a growing arsenal beyond what American experts suspected.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about North Korea’s nuclear breakout, and that the U.S. government was finally beginning to acknowledge the degree to which North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could no longer be ignored. Yet even as the Obama administration continues to talk about the North Korean nuclear “program,” along come the Chinese, of all people, to tell us that North Korea is in reality a nuclear power, with a growing arsenal beyond what American experts suspected.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reports on what many of us in Washington have been hearing for a while, namely that North Korea may possess as many as 20 nuclear weapons already, and that it could build 20 more by 2016, possibly having 75 nuclear bombs by 2020. The source of this latest intelligence (which, it must be acknowledged, is guesswork)? Chinese nuclear experts, who meet regularly with their American counterparts.

The American experts quoted in the piece take a lower-end estimate of Pyongyang’s nuclear inventory, but still believe that Kim Jong-un currently controls around a dozen bombs, with as many as 20 by next year. Combine either the Chinese or the American total with the North’s ability to launch a long-range ballistic missile that can travel up to 5,600 miles, covering most of America’s West coast, and the picture of strategic stability in Asia begins to look a little different.

By now, it must be clear to all but the most naive of observers that North Korea will never denuclearize. Any idea of returning to the moribund Six Party Talks to achieve that goal is a dangerous notion, as more negotiation over an unachievable outcome will only give Pyongyang more time to further build up its inventory and perfect its ICBM capability. Instead, it is time to put some intellectual firepower behind meaningful sanctions that harm the pocketbooks of North Korea’s leaders, and enhance anti-proliferation activities, to prevent the transfer of sensitive technology.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration may be guilty of hiding information of precisely such proliferation activities, so as to keep nuclear negotiations with Iran alive. Given the failed Bush-Obama attempts to keep North Korea from developing nuclear weapons during years of intense negotiations, the folly of pursuing a similar script with Iran becomes ever clearer. Now, North Korea is stockpiling an arsenal of nuclear weapons controlled by a paranoid, erratic, aggressive regime. Counting on Kim Jong-un’s rationality is a risky bet, but America’s diplomatic failures up to now give few other options for dealing with his threat. Thinking about the unthinkable may become fashionable again.

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Are Asia’s Nations Losing Their Fear of China?

One of the great enablers of China’s rise in Asia has been the fear of smaller nations to oppose its increasingly coercive behavior. Facing the sheer size of China, the worry that trade relations could be affected, and growing power of its military, most Asian nations have tried to avoid antagonizing Beijing over disputed territory in the region. This has been most noticeable in the South China Sea, where China’s largely successful attempts to wrestle territory away from the Philippines and Vietnam has now been complemented by a land reclamation policy that literally creates islands out of coral reefs.

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One of the great enablers of China’s rise in Asia has been the fear of smaller nations to oppose its increasingly coercive behavior. Facing the sheer size of China, the worry that trade relations could be affected, and growing power of its military, most Asian nations have tried to avoid antagonizing Beijing over disputed territory in the region. This has been most noticeable in the South China Sea, where China’s largely successful attempts to wrestle territory away from the Philippines and Vietnam has now been complemented by a land reclamation policy that literally creates islands out of coral reefs.

Yet there are signs that Asia’s nations have had enough, or at least are no longer willing to mute their opposition and anger at Beijing’s high-handed actions. This story, about a recent confrontation between Chinese maritime patrol vessels and Philippine fishing boats in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, contains all the elements of Asia’s geopolitical tussle. China’s coercive actions, including using water cannons and cutting the smaller boats’ mooring ropes, mimics previous incidents with Vietnam and other nations.

Yet now official condemnation of China is becoming more common. The Philippines’ presidential palace criticized China for the recent acts, one of just a number of Asian states that seem less willing to back down, at least diplomatically. While few of these nations have the military capability to effectively protect their claims, and none will be able to replicate Beijing’s feat of creating new islands on which to place airstrips and bases, they seem to have turned a corner in their willingness to denounce China’s actions.

Some of this is due to the realization that silence bought them little respite from China’s creeping control over the waters of Southeast Asia. Yet some more may be due to the fact that Japan has increased its diplomatic and security cooperation with Southeast Asian nations, providing patrol vessels and talking about enhanced relations. As Tokyo has deepened ties with both India and Australia, it is beginning to form a least a loose community of nations working more closely together in building up their defensive capabilities. Perhaps this, too, is changing the calculus of Asian states that have felt isolated until now.

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will visit Washington next week, for what may turn out to be an important summit with Barack Obama. Abe is eager to deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance, and it looks like a new set of guidelines for defense cooperation will be released. But where it counts today is on the waters of the South China Sea. The U.S. just concluded its largest military exercises with the Philippines in over a decade, a sign that Washington understands the sensitivities at play.

Yet whether President Obama will embrace Japan’s bid to link together those nations that feel threatened by China is yet unknown. Throwing his weight behind Abe’s initiatives would be a sure sign to Beijing that its rise is not without cost, and that it must temper its actions in order to ensure continued peace in Asia. With less than two years left in his administration, this is President Obama’s last, best chance to help reduce risk in Asia and potentially reshape its regional relations.

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Containing China

At the risk of home-team boosterism (I’m a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) I must commend for wider attention a new Council on Foreign Relations Special Report on U.S. policy toward China. Its authors are my Council colleague Robert Blackwill, a former deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration and a former ambassador to India, and Ashley Tellis, a well-respected Asia expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has done stints inside the government.

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At the risk of home-team boosterism (I’m a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) I must commend for wider attention a new Council on Foreign Relations Special Report on U.S. policy toward China. Its authors are my Council colleague Robert Blackwill, a former deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration and a former ambassador to India, and Ashley Tellis, a well-respected Asia expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has done stints inside the government.

One might expect, based on their impeccable Establishment credentials, that they would be in favor of the post-1970s consensus in Washington regarding China: namely, that a stronger China is in America’s interest. But that is not what Blackwill and Tellis argue. Rather, they describe China as the “most significant competitor to the United States for decades to come,” a competitor that must be contained rather than turbo-charged. “Because the American effort to ‘integrate’ China into the liberal international order has now generated new threats to U.S. primacy in Asia—and could result in a consequential challenge to American power globally—Washington needs a new grand strategy toward China that centers on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy.”

What would this strategy consist of? Among other steps, they argue “Congress should remove sequestration caps and substantially increase the U.S. defense budget… Washington should intensify a consistent U.S. naval and air presence in the South and East China Seas,” and “accelerate the U.S. ballistic-missile defense posture” in the Pacific; the United States should encourage its allies “to develop a coordinated approach to constrict China’s access to all technologies, including dual use”; Washington should “impose costs on China that are in excess of the benefits it receives from its violations in cyberspace … increase U.S. offensive cyber capabilities … continue improving U.S. cyber defenses,” and “pass relevant legislation in Congress, such as the Cyber Information Security Protection Act.”

To be sure, they couple these tough calls for containment policies with a desire for enhanced “U.S.-China discourse,” which “should be more candid, high-level, and private than is current practice.” There is no one who will object to talking to Beijing. But Blackwill and Tellis’s call for actively containing Chinese power—including by an increase in U.S. military spending—is sure to be controversial. There remain many “panda-huggers” in Washington who remain convinced, notwithstanding China’s crude power-flexing in the South China Sea and East China Sea, that it will be content with a “peaceful rise” within an American-dominated geopolitical system. The evidence suggests otherwise, and Blackwill and Tellis have done the valuable service of issuing recommendations that are more in line with how China is actually behaving than how we would like it to behave.

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Why China Won’t Support “Snapback” Iran Sanctions

No one can accuse the Iranian government of being stupid. They entered into negotiations with their economy tanking and very little leverage, and came out of talks with an outright victory. It was the equivalent of a pair of twos beating a full house in poker.

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No one can accuse the Iranian government of being stupid. They entered into negotiations with their economy tanking and very little leverage, and came out of talks with an outright victory. It was the equivalent of a pair of twos beating a full house in poker.

President Barack Obama has famously promised “snapback” sanctions: If Iran doesn’t meet its obligations, then the sanctions that brought Tehran to the table will simply be restored. What Obama ignores, however, is that the United Nations is not an institution in which members leave national interests at the door in order to embrace lofty values, but rather a tool by which the world’s dictatorships launder their cravenness through the illusion of principle.

Hence, for snapback sanctions to be successful, Obama will needs Russian President Vladimir Putin or his representatives not only to agree that the Islamic Republic is in violation but also that snapping sanctions back in place is in Moscow’s interests. That will be a tough hurdle, given Russia’s military and nuclear investment in Iran. Regardless, the Kremlin believes it has found a win-win formula: Support Iran’s nuclear program and make billions of dollars selling goods to the Islamic Republic. If, however, the situation collapses and Israel or some other power launches military strikes on Iran, sending the price of oil and gas through the roof, then Moscow laughs its way to the bank.

China has traditionally approached both the Middle East and Middle Eastern issues at the United Nations with exceeding caution. When most countries vote up or down on issues, China abstains. The Iranian government, however, recognizes that to make China into a reliable ally, it needs to rope China into the Iranian economy in a way that re-sanctioning hurts. And that is exactly the effect of the deal that Iranian authorities have just announced.

Today, according to this Fars News Agency article (alas, still only in Persian), Behruz Kamalvandi, deputy director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced that China will help Iran build a new nuclear power plant, a multibillion dollar exercise. But with Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry releasing nearly $12 billion in previously frozen assets, cash is no longer a problem.

Two years ago, I published an analysis for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office examining Iran’s diplomatic outreach toward Africa. What immediately became clear was that Tehran targeted those countries who sat as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council or were on the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In effect, Iran sought shamelessly to buy their votes.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Obama and Kerry may have overseen the normalization of Iran’s once-covert nuclear program, but the Islamic Republic knows that the United States is a democracy and that the diplomatic duo will soon be lounging in Hawaii or yachting off Nantucket. They do not know who will be in the White House next and so they want insurance; i.e., the Chinese vote in Tehran’s pocket. More importantly, Iran’s efforts to buy votes to ensure that sanctions never snap back is as good an indication as ever that Tehran plans to comply neither with the letter nor spirit of its nuclear agreements.

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North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout: Canary in the Coalmine

Even a few months ago, nuclear war still seemed passé, an artifact of the Cold War, or derided as a fading dream for neoconservatives who want any excuse to increase defense budgets and meddle abroad. Sometimes, however, reality takes a bite out of comfortable establishment nostrums. Such was the case yesterday, when the commander of NORAD, Adm. William Gortney, admitted what many in D.C. have been whispering for months, that North Korea now has an “operational” road-mobile long-range ballistic missile, the KN-08, and that Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.”

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Even a few months ago, nuclear war still seemed passé, an artifact of the Cold War, or derided as a fading dream for neoconservatives who want any excuse to increase defense budgets and meddle abroad. Sometimes, however, reality takes a bite out of comfortable establishment nostrums. Such was the case yesterday, when the commander of NORAD, Adm. William Gortney, admitted what many in D.C. have been whispering for months, that North Korea now has an “operational” road-mobile long-range ballistic missile, the KN-08, and that Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.”

Thus, the fundamental goal of three U.S. administrations, to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power that can threaten the United States and its treaty allies, has utterly failed. Two decades of intensive, repeated negotiation have resulted in the polar opposite of what Washington wanted. The nuclear non-proliferation model has been cracked, if not broken, and America’s ultimate security guarantee, “extended deterrence,” will now be called into question even more by nervous allies in Asia, and elsewhere.

Adm. Gortney’s announcement, which senior officials have been inching toward over the past year, now raises two distinct problems for U.S. policymakers, completely separate from the question of whether or not Pyongyang would ever use one of its nuclear weapons.

First, it is time to accept that we are moving into a future of nuclear proliferation, and therefore the increased likelihood of a nuclear event, be it an accident or a conscious act of aggression. In short, America’s holiday from nukes since the end of the Cold War is now over. In addition to smaller nuclear states, great power nuclear competition may well heat up. With Russia and China, two adversarial regimes, modernizing and increasing their nuclear forces, Americans and their allies will have to become used to nuclear saber rattling once again, as shown by recent comments from Vladimir Putin.

Will nuclear blackmail become a standard tool of statecraft in the 21st century? If so, will we simply ignore it, or decide to be more cautious in pursuing our interests? How do we begin thinking again about the unthinkable, yet also learn new lessons that may well have little connection to those from the Cold War, when there were primarily two stable nuclear blocs? We face, instead, a far more fragmented and complex nuclear future, in which aggressive, destabilizing rogue regimes will have control over the world’s most powerful weapons. What strategy will ensure the safety of the American homeland, and does the administration’s plans to slightly modernize, yet draw down our nuclear capability still make sense in this new world?

The second problem is how to deter would-be nuclear regimes, most obviously Iran, when the playbook for gaining nuclear weapons has now been written and published by the North Koreans. Pyongyang is the canary in the coalmine for nuclear proliferators. The failure of negotiation, the unwillingness of the United States to take serious steps to prevent proliferation, the wishful thinking on the part of diplomats and leaders from both parties, has led us to the threshold of a world far more terrifying than anything we’ve faced in a long time. The repeated assurances of U.S. officials that we would never permit nor accept a nuclear North Korea now ring hollow around the world. It can only be a balm to Tehran to look at our record, and to judge that both time and more sophisticated negotiating strategies are on their side.

Pundits are fond of saying that “elections have consequences.” So do policy failures. The consequences of two lost decades that have allowed one of the world’s most evil regimes to gain the ultimate weapon could be unthinkable. It is a black mark against the comfortable belief that “a bad deal is better than no deal.” Such statements only reveal the poverty of thinking among those who do not show the imagination to see how quickly the world can change for the worse, and how the spillover effects of our misguided approaches can themselves cause far greater disruption than the particular policy failure itself.

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Japan Makes Slow, Steady Moves in Asia’s Geopolitical Chess Game

Just a decade ago, only fantasists would have dreamed up headlines such as “Japan, Indonesia Strengthen Defense Ties,” or “Australia-Japan Military Ties Are a ‘Quasi-Alliance.'” The common perception that Tokyo was utterly dependent on its alliance with Washington, and failed to take any initiative to reshape its security relations in Asia, was not inaccurate. No longer, however, can the changes on Asia’s geopolitical chessboard be ignored.

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Just a decade ago, only fantasists would have dreamed up headlines such as “Japan, Indonesia Strengthen Defense Ties,” or “Australia-Japan Military Ties Are a ‘Quasi-Alliance.'” The common perception that Tokyo was utterly dependent on its alliance with Washington, and failed to take any initiative to reshape its security relations in Asia, was not inaccurate. No longer, however, can the changes on Asia’s geopolitical chessboard be ignored.

The driver of all this change, of course, is China. Its rapid military development, combined with a coercive approach to regional disputes, has alarmed its neighbors, particularly in Southeast Asia. Those smaller nations find themselves with limited options to protect their interests, and by default, have waited and hoped for the United States to play a larger role. Yet many of them, while welcoming the so-called U.S. “pivot” to Asia, have been disappointed with the lack of substance behind it.

Into this gap Japan has gingerly stepped. Tokyo cannot play the same security role in Asia that Washington does, nor does it want to. What it is seeking, however, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is to slowly reshape regional security relations. The goal, in effect, is to create a de facto coalition against China, so as to make Beijing temper its behavior.

The latest example of this approach is this week’s announcement between Prime Minister Abe and new Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Jokowi, as the Indonesia leader is known, visited Tokyo for his first state trip as president. That alone is a sign of Japan’s influence in Southeast Asia and the concern over China. While in Tokyo, Jokowi and Abe announced an enhanced security relationship, particularly on maritime issues, where the two both face challenges from China. In this, Abe is following up on a pact with Australia to co-produce advanced submarine technology (which has had a rocky start), the selling of maritime patrol vessels to Malaysia and the Philippines, and a deepening of defense ties with India.

None of this is to suggest a formal alliance, nor a NATO-type coalition of forces. What Abe is doing, however, is making it clear that Japan is a potential security partner to nations throughout the region, offering an alternative to simply acceding to Beijing’s policies. Over time, the weight of this community of democratic nations may well lead to a permanent change in the perception of the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, if not the actuality of it. Washington would be well advised to start taking advantage of the initiative of its key Asian ally, and the willingness of other nations to begin thinking of how to take the initiative in Asia’s great game.

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Obama’s Asia Policy Flounders

Thanks to some bold rhetoric and high-profile visits over the past years, Barack Obama’s Asia policy has by and large been seen as a bright spot in his foreign policy. Compared to the disastrous failure to anticipate or contain the Islamic State, the flatfooted response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his Hamlet-like indecision over whether or not to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and his Pollyanna-ish belief that negotiations will really prevent Iran’s mullahs from building nuclear weapons, Obama’s Asia policy has appeared both relatively constant, if not proactive. Obama initially got kudos from the Washington policy community for announcing his so-called “pivot” to Asia, and his Department of Defense has pushed ahead on plans to increase the number of ships and planes in the region. The president visited Asia on high-profile trips to major regional gatherings, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement finally looks like it may actually be completed. By contrast with the rest of his foreign policy, Asia didn’t look too bad.

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Thanks to some bold rhetoric and high-profile visits over the past years, Barack Obama’s Asia policy has by and large been seen as a bright spot in his foreign policy. Compared to the disastrous failure to anticipate or contain the Islamic State, the flatfooted response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his Hamlet-like indecision over whether or not to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and his Pollyanna-ish belief that negotiations will really prevent Iran’s mullahs from building nuclear weapons, Obama’s Asia policy has appeared both relatively constant, if not proactive. Obama initially got kudos from the Washington policy community for announcing his so-called “pivot” to Asia, and his Department of Defense has pushed ahead on plans to increase the number of ships and planes in the region. The president visited Asia on high-profile trips to major regional gatherings, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement finally looks like it may actually be completed. By contrast with the rest of his foreign policy, Asia didn’t look too bad.

There always was doubt among the more skeptical, even if many of us welcomed a deeper focus on Asia. But if some recent articles are anything to go by, the bloom is off the rose for Obama’s Asia policy, and its underlying weaknesses are now becoming painfully apparent. I’ll leave aside the question of whether the “pivot” (or “rebalance,” as the administration likes to call it) was ever much more than a large dollop of rhetoric, with little substance behind it. I’ll also pass on discussing whether Obama’s overall weak foreign policy has possibly contributed to the resurgence of Chinese assertiveness, if not coerciveness. Instead, there are two specific issues that point out the stumbling of Obama’s Asia policy.

Among the greater accomplishments claimed by Obama’s administration is the “Burmese Spring” that resulted in the loosening of authoritarian military rule by Burma’s junta and the 2010 release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The U.S. lifted long-standing sanctions against the Burmese regime in 2012, and eagerly trumpeted the country’s slow move towards democracy. On Sunday, The Washington Post put paid to the idea of Obama’s Burmese success. Criticizing the White House policy as “failed engagement,” the Post headlined what many Asia-watchers already knew: that the administration was ignoring continued and blatant human rights violations, the strengthening religious discrimination, the imprisonment of journalists, and the preventing of Suu Kyi from being able legally to run for president in this year’s elections. All this has been ignored while the administration has given the Burmese junta hundreds of million of dollars in aid. The point is that, like the Russian “reset” or negotiations with Iran, Obama appears satisfied with the public relations spin that ignores reality until stubborn facts intervene. In this case, it means that the message is sent that a fake liberalization can reap enormous benefits from the credulous Americans.

The second piece of evidence on the missteps of Obama’s Asia policy is the little-known issue of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). This is arguably a far more serious failure to understand and react to a major foreign initiative than the Burmese example. In 2014, the Chinese government proposed a $50 billion lending institution for the region. The AIIB is inescapably an alternative to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, both of which are guided by Western financial principles and ensure the influence of Washington or allied nations, like Japan. As the biggest shareholder, founder, and guiding spirit, China most likely will dominate the AIIB, and thereby increase its economic and political influence even more in Asia.

The founding of the AIIB might not have been such a big deal, but for the Obama administration’s ham-fisted response. In trying to pressure nations not to sign on as shareholders, Obama has revealed just how little global influence he has. Not only have most Asian nations signed on, but America’s main allies, including Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy have joined, as well, ignoring U.S. pleas to stay out. The Financial Times charitably called Washington’s abandonment by its allies a “blow” to US foreign policy. But with the news that stalwart U.S. ally Australia has also joined, veteran and respected Australian commentator Greg Sheridan scathingly destroys the fiction of American standing in Asia, writing that Canberra’s decision represents a “colossal defeat” for Obama (the article is behind a pay wall, but excerpts are here).

Why has Washington fallen on hard times in Asia? In Sheridan’s view, Obama is reaping the results of years of “incompetent, distracted” diplomacy that has left his administration with “neither the continuous presence, nor the tactical wherewithal, nor the store of goodwill or personal relationships” to carry anyone along with it. As if to underscore Sheridan’s analysis of Obama’s diplomatic crudeness, which includes a reminder that Obama personally insulted Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott with a “rogue” climate change speech at the G-20 in Brisbane last year, Washington accused London, its closest global ally, of “constant accommodation” of China, after its decision to join the AIIB. Such is the petulant, panicked response of an administration that has failed to understand, anticipate, analyze, and respond to changes that will reshape Asia’s financial landscape.

Now with South Korea considering joining the AIIB, Washington will be left isolated only with its ally Japan as new regional financial relationships are created. Ultimately, either Obama or his successor will likely bow to reality, and find a face-saving way to join the AIIB. Yet it will be clear to everyone in Asia, as well as Europe, that the United States was outplayed by China and forced into an impotent, reactive role.

The changes roiling through Asia may seem less dramatic than those occurring in Europe or the Middle East. Yet they are just as transformative, and their effects will unfold for years. Whether Washington wakes up to its diminishing role in Asia, and acts materially to reverse the decline, will be but one test of its ability to maintain its global role in the coming decades.

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Why Is the U.S. Sacrificing Thailand to China?

I spent much of the past week in Bangkok, Thailand, for a small roundtable exploring issues of radical Islamism in the Middle East and strategies to combat the problem in Southeast Asia. While the meetings did not focus on U.S. policy, criticism of the Obama administration’s strategic foresight and willingness to stand by allies was a constant refrain amongst policymakers and officials from across the region during coffee break chatter and in separate meetings.

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I spent much of the past week in Bangkok, Thailand, for a small roundtable exploring issues of radical Islamism in the Middle East and strategies to combat the problem in Southeast Asia. While the meetings did not focus on U.S. policy, criticism of the Obama administration’s strategic foresight and willingness to stand by allies was a constant refrain amongst policymakers and officials from across the region during coffee break chatter and in separate meetings.

Simply put, Thailand—like Morocco, Taiwan, Colombia, Israel, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, among others—has consistently oriented its policies in support of ties, friendship, and alliance with the United States only to feel that the United States looks at traditional allies with disinterest if not disdain.

Simply put, under President Obama, Thailand finds itself cast aside. And while China has courted Thailand assiduously in recent years, Thailand has so far stood firm despite its rude and often poor treatment at Obama administration hands.

Part of the problem grows out of Thailand’s increasing fractious politics. In September 2006, increasingly raucous street demonstrations led the Thai military to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His supporters took to wearing red shirts and calling themselves the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. Those behind the demonstrations which led to Thaksin’s ouster wear yellow shirts and call themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy. Many leftists, students, rural farmers, and some businessmen support the red shirts, while the urban middle class, royalists, and nationalists support the yellow shirts. (The BBC has a useful overview of the red shirt-yellow shirt fight.)

In recent years, the red shirts supported Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who won a landslide election victory in 2011. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that she had abused her power and, on May 7, 2014, ordered her to step down. She was ousted by a military coup the next day. The polarization between the red shirts and yellow shirts is quite incredible. Supporters of the two factions often do not speak to each other, and most Thais believe that further violence is inevitable. Picture the societal divisions that marked Turkey or South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, and Bangladesh or Egypt more recently.

Many Thais breathed a sigh of relief when the military stepped in to separate the two sides. They saw the intervention not as a power grab by ambitious generals, but absolutely necessary to separate those whose political spat threatened to unleash violence which might spiral out of control and destroy any foundation for democratic development in Thailand.

Enter the United States: Many Thais complain that the U.S. Embassy is isolated and disinterested. When the coup occurred, it and the State Department more broadly wagged its finger without any understanding or suggestions of other solutions for the precipice on which Thailand found itself. All coups are bad, the State Department seemed to argue, and so it would be better for Thailand to suffer thousands of casualties in mob violence than undertake a corrective, cooling off period in which the two sides might step back. And, as in Honduras, the Obama administration’s position seemed to support left-of-center leaders willing to defy their supreme courts, rather than accept that limited military intervention might actually be necessary to enforce the constitution when a crisis occurred.

The Thai military has promised to hold new elections in October 2015, and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. After all, while not ideal, there is ample precedent in Thai history of the military briefly assuming power, but only briefly, and then returning power to the people in actively contested and very legitimate elections.

The Obama administration and State Department, however, seemingly ignorant of Thai history or the consequences of mob violence in Thailand’s incredibly diverse social fabric, continues to turn its back to Thailand, its requests for support, and a nearly 200-year-old Treaty of Friendship. Enter China: China is already Thailand’s largest trading partner, and Beijing is happy to seize advantage from Obama’s diplomatic temper-tantrum to increase both its activity and influence in Thailand, much of which will come at the expense of the United States.

Thailand might not be the stuff of headlines in Washington, but the United States is in no position to willfully rebuff another alliance, sacrificed upon the noxious mix of Obama’s arrogance and ignorance. China is playing chess; Obama might as well be playing with Play-doh.

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ISIS Stokes Sino-Japanese Antagonism

Beijing apparently believes in Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum that you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Instead of condemning ISIS’s brutal murder of two Japanese nationals, China’s propaganda arms are instead using the atrocity to caution the world against Japanese militarization. Nothing could better underscore the poisonous distrust between Asia’s two great powers, or more starkly illustrate the yawning gulf between them.

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Beijing apparently believes in Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum that you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Instead of condemning ISIS’s brutal murder of two Japanese nationals, China’s propaganda arms are instead using the atrocity to caution the world against Japanese militarization. Nothing could better underscore the poisonous distrust between Asia’s two great powers, or more starkly illustrate the yawning gulf between them.

When the government-controlled Global Times opined that Japanese Prime Minister Abe would likely use the horrific murder as an excuse to send Japanese armed forces abroad, it was both revealing a deep-seated Chinese fear and seeking to further isolate Japan in Asia. Abe had indeed made very un-Japanese statements about making the terrorists pay, but that simply put him in league with Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Jordan’s King Abdullah. To the Chinese, however, Abe’s statements were in reality a dog whistle to right-wing nationalists that the Japanese military would finally be unleashed beyond Japan’s borders.

Such fantasizing is of course hogwash, not least because Japan has almost no offensive or power projection capability. Moreover, the still-powerful strain of pacifism in Japanese society has actually led many to criticize Abe’s plans for a greater Japanese role abroad as being too dangerous. China’s criticism instead says much more about Beijing’s worries than Japan’s intentions.

When Chinese officials look around Asia, they see only one country that could plausibly frustrate their desire to become the undisputed hegemon of the region. Despite having ten times the population, and having surpassed Japan in gross GDP, Chinese officials understand Japan’s continued strengths, its strong alliance with the United States, and its newfound willingness to reach out to other Asian nations to form partnerships. Given that China inspires growing worry over its military power and aggressive designs on disputed territory and common sea lanes alike, officials in Beijing know that the region is slowly adopting a balancing position against them. And Japan, especially under Abe, is the leader of that movement.

Thus, the vilification campaign. Instead of acknowledging Japan’s right to avenge its murdered citizens, and perhaps even offering support, China’s propaganda handmaidens seek instead to fan the flames of anti-Japanese feeling. Outside of China, this may well play the best in South Korea, where bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo are at their lowest level in decades, thanks in part to Abe’s ill-advised statements questioning sensitive World War II issues such as the comfort women or larger questions of Japan’s war guilt. For some of the antagonism between himself and his neighbors, Abe indeed deserves blame, but not for asserting that he will protect Japan’s interests.

What China is really telegraphing is far simpler: there will be no rapprochement between the two great powers anytime soon. And that means an Asia that continues to simmer with tensions both real and imagined.

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Muddled “Strategic Clarity” on North Korea

Among those offering a way forward in the current North Korea crisis is Ambassador Christopher Hill, the Bush administration’s chief negotiator in the now-defunct Six Party Talks, and now at the University of Denver. Hill has penned an essay entitled “Strategic Clarity on North Korea.” While it offers no new ideas on how to reduce the danger North Korea poses, it does offer a great deal of advice on how to get China to play a bigger role in helping to deal with Pyongyang. Unfortunately, almost every suggestion is either based on wishful thinking, unsound analysis, or a lack of realism. It profoundly misreads China’s interests, bilateral Sino-U.S. relations, and power politics in the Asia-Pacific, and offers suggestions that if followed will weaken America’s position in the region.

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Among those offering a way forward in the current North Korea crisis is Ambassador Christopher Hill, the Bush administration’s chief negotiator in the now-defunct Six Party Talks, and now at the University of Denver. Hill has penned an essay entitled “Strategic Clarity on North Korea.” While it offers no new ideas on how to reduce the danger North Korea poses, it does offer a great deal of advice on how to get China to play a bigger role in helping to deal with Pyongyang. Unfortunately, almost every suggestion is either based on wishful thinking, unsound analysis, or a lack of realism. It profoundly misreads China’s interests, bilateral Sino-U.S. relations, and power politics in the Asia-Pacific, and offers suggestions that if followed will weaken America’s position in the region.

For his argument to have any salience, Hill must dredge up the hoary claim that Beijing is “fed up with [its] client state’s behavior.” As I showed recently, this is a false hope renewed over and over again, in almost exactly the same words by observers all over the political spectrum. Each time Pyongyang commits an outrage, we are assured by government and media alike that China is now really very angry, and thus will be more willing to help us. The only evidence adduced for such an assertion is wispier than the smoke rising from the huts of starving North Korean peasants.

Yet, even in making his claim, Hill engages in at least two logical fallacies. The first is to claim that North Korea is a client state of China, when he admits just a few paragraphs later that, thanks to his execution of China’s top man in the North (who also happened to be his uncle), “China’s leaders know that they cannot rely on the ‘Young General’” Kim Jong-Un. Thus, it is unclear that the North is still a client in any way that would allow Beijing to put meaningful pressure on it.

The second logical fallacy Hill makes regarding Beijing’s “anger” toward North Korea is that, even if the Chinese leadership are indeed upset by Pyongyang’s behavior, their reasons for being so are entirely unconnected with Kim’s attack on Sony or his antagonism to America. There is therefore no reason whatsoever to believe that Beijing will suddenly be willing to help Washington with its problem. To conflate China’s possible, and unproved, annoyance with Kim with Washington’s cold war with the North is to misread the basic strategic environment in Asia. This raises false hopes that there is a potential ground of agreement between Beijing and Washington.

This assertion, however, is just the beginning. Almost as an aside, Hill makes a claim contradicted by all available evidence that Beijing is interested in “mending relations” with its Southeast Asian neighbors thanks to Beijing’s coercive behavior over South China Sea territorial disputes. Hill judges that “China now appears willing to address the disputes multilaterally, through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN].” This is a statement that would come as a major surprise to nations like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and others who have faced greater Chinese paramilitary pressure in recent months, and who have unsuccessfully tried to get Beijing to agree to multilateral resolution of the problems, and not just “address” them through endless and meaningless discussion at ASEAN meetings. Such a benign view of China may hold sway in Denver, but it is most certainly not shared throughout much of Southeast Asia.

Back to the main argument, though, and here the wishful thinking that pervades so much of America’s foreign policy is on full display. The presumption is that, given the right set of conditions, China can be enticed into a more cooperative and trusting relationship with the United States in regard to North Korea. In order to do so, Hill calls on Washington to engage China on confidence building discussions over the future of a post-North Korea peninsula. “Giving one another access to deep thinking on the issue could be the best means to encourage cooperation,” he writes, again making two unwarranted logical leaps in one sentence: first, that China would engage in an honest conversation with the U.S. on this issue, and second (again), that it is interested in cooperation. The Chinese would undoubtedly welcome a window into Washington’s deepest thinking while keeping their own opinions safely hidden.

Even worse, Hill writes that “the Chinese today frequently discuss a policy of ‘great country relations’…The US must work with them on that concept.” He either dismisses or is unaware of the Chinese interpretation of that phrase, which is based on a mutual acceptance of spheres of influence. In other words, the new model of great power relations promoted by Beijing is a fig leaf for reducing and eventually eliminating U.S. influence and power in East Asia. Yet, Hill credulously believes we should encourage such Chinese thinking, so as to reap nonexistent cooperation over North Korea.

A final, and astounding, suggestion is that Washington “should encourage better relations between China and South Korea.” There is nothing to fear in such an approach, he writes, since “there is plenty of room for everyone.” If only we could be so sure that Beijing sees it that way, and we can be pretty sure that it does not. After all, Hill has just told us that China is worried about a future Korean peninsula united and tilted toward America. If encouraged in their relationship with the South, why should we assume Beijing will play by liberal, Marquis of Queensbury rules of international behavior, instead of pushing as much advantage as it can through a combination of blandishment and intimidation? Beijing’s great goal is to rupture America’s alliances throughout the region, and this suggestion is a way of doing it for them. In fact, if South Korea sees its main ally pushing it closer to Beijing, why wouldn’t it take the hint, or Japan or Australia, for that matter? If one thinks America has no future role to play in Asia, then this is the 21st century equivalent of Lenin’s statement that “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.”

And what is the grand policy that will make all this hodge-podge of wishful thinking and misguided analysis come to fruition? A “strategic reengagement,” an alchemist’s dream of making the gold of perpetual peace from the dross of great power competition. To wish such a reformulated relationship does not make it so, especially when there is no evidence that one half of the projected union is in any way willing to play such a role. This is a classic, and naïve, example of the projection of one’s own hopes on another.

But the reader must assume that Hill, as experienced a diplomat as he is, knows all this. After all, he gives the game away, having prefaced all of his solutions with the statement, “Assuming that China’s leaders are aware that their relationship with one of the world’s worst-behaved regimes will not further their goal of global engagement….” He surely is winking at us, as it is, in fact, an entirely unwarranted assumption that Beijing believes its goal of global engagement (whatever that may mean) is harmed by its relations with North Korea. After all, nearly two decades of support for the Kim family has resulted in no negative effect on China’s trade with the rest of the world, membership in international organizations, or high-level meetings. In fact, Beijing would be entirely justified in concluding that its aid to North Korea is utterly overlooked by the rest of the world, and most especially by the United States.

What Hill never attempts to address is the most basic question of what China would gain from cooperation with the United States over North Korea. There is every reason to believe, instead, that it has concluded its interest lies precisely in enabling a disruptive regime in North Korea that frustrates Washington and has tied up intellectual and material resources for decades. Why would China want to surrender that advantage? Its relations with the U.S. are already going as well as could be hoped.

There is a great deal in this essay, and it surely will be read avidly in Beijing, and probably Pyongyang. Unfortunately, it provides little help and lots of dangers for the United States. Let’s hope the Obama administration ignores it in its tired entirety.

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Obama Surrenders Africa to China

For decades, American presidents traveled to Africa, proposed new partnerships with the continent and its peoples, and then promptly forgot about the partnership once they returned to Washington. On October 20, 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared, “I believe that our administration has spent more time, attention, and money on Africa than any other administration.” Years ago, I visited Mali and Burkina Faso on vacation, and found the progress announced after Albright and her predecessor Warren Christopher’s visit to that country fleeting. While 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terrorism overshadowed George W. Bush’s legacy, perhaps no president had as lasting an impact on Africa as did he. The commitment was not only diplomatic but military as well. The Pentagon stood up Africom, its sixth geographic combatant command, and promising even greater commitment to African security.

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For decades, American presidents traveled to Africa, proposed new partnerships with the continent and its peoples, and then promptly forgot about the partnership once they returned to Washington. On October 20, 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared, “I believe that our administration has spent more time, attention, and money on Africa than any other administration.” Years ago, I visited Mali and Burkina Faso on vacation, and found the progress announced after Albright and her predecessor Warren Christopher’s visit to that country fleeting. While 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terrorism overshadowed George W. Bush’s legacy, perhaps no president had as lasting an impact on Africa as did he. The commitment was not only diplomatic but military as well. The Pentagon stood up Africom, its sixth geographic combatant command, and promising even greater commitment to African security.

At first, after President Obama’s inauguration, Africans’ hope that American attention might be sustained was realized. Hillary Clinton cannot point to many accomplishments as secretary of state, but she did pay disproportionate attention to Africa even as the rest of the world started to burn. While perhaps not directly related to her own influence, it was during Clinton’s tenure that Obama deployed U.S. forces to seek to capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a nominally Christian insurgent group (sponsored by Islamist Sudan) that has sought to destabilize first Uganda and now Southern Sudan with terrorism and atrocity.

Alas, with Clinton gone, and American power in retreat, Obama appears to have once again turned his back on Africa. Sure, he deployed some forces to help contain Ebola but that was reactive rather than proactive. When it comes to building a real partnership with Africa, it seems that China is years ahead of the United States. This is tragic, because there is no area showing such promise of sustained growth than Africa.

According to the World Bank:

The world attained the first Millennium Development Goal target—to cut the 1990 poverty rate in half by 2015—five years ahead of schedule, in 2010. Despite this progress, the number of people living in extreme poverty remains unacceptably high.

  • According to the most recent estimates, in 2011, 17 percent of people in the developing world lived at or below $1.25 a day. That’s down from 43 percent in 1990 and 52 percent in 1981.
  • This means that, in 2011, just over one billion people lived on less than $1.25 a day, compared with 1.91 billion in 1990, and 1.93 billion in 1981.

Africa accounts for much of the decline in poverty; the fact that this occurred against the backdrop of African countries eschewing socialism and embracing the free market principles is no coincidence. Piracy has declined precipitously off the Horn of Africa (albeit while picking up in the Gulf of Guinea) and countries once mired in civil war have now put that era behind them. True, there are states like South Sudan and the Central African Republic teetering on the verge of failure, if not already over the precipice, but these are now more the exception than the rule. And states that are perennially basket cases like Zimbabwe and Eritrea are likewise increasingly in a club of their own.

In short, relationships with Africa are less those of donor to recipient, and more true partnerships. And it is to these that the United States is turning its back. China is sending hundreds of peacekeepers to southern Sudan, reopening its embassy in Somalia, and building a railroad in Nigeria. Chinese are flooding into the continent, drawn by economic opportunity.

Speaking to 50 African heads of state at the first U.S.-Africa Summit this past summer, Obama took a subtle shot at China’s motivations, declaring, “We don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources; we recognize Africa for its greatest resource, which is its people and its talents and their potential.” Still, money is money, and business is business. U.S.-Africa trade has dwindled under Obama. Trade has always formed the backbone of relations, and countries seeking to get rich aren’t going to turn their back on a formula that worked the world over, however exploitative China might be.

There is a new Great Game brewing, but alas, Obama is forfeiting. Some American analysts argue that America is already too far behind, but defeat is only certain if the United States refuses to fight for its interests and continues to take allies for granted.

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Castros Ensure That Rubio Isn’t Gambling

Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

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Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

The conceit of the piece is pretty much a repetition of President Obama’s talking points about his reasons for granting the Communist regime diplomatic recognition and other economic benefits. The old policies that revolve around isolating Cuba and forcing it to change have failed. The only hope for improving life there is to embrace the regime and to stop treating it as a pariah. The assumption is not only that Cuba will change enough to justify the move. It’s also based on the idea that most Americans want no part of what is seen as a vestige of cold war rivalries.

That’s certainly true of the core readership of the Times but, as has also been repeated endlessly in the last few days, younger Cuban-Americans are no longer as wedded to hostility to the Castro regime as their parents and grandparents. The point the president and his media cheering section is trying to make is that Rubio’s hawkish position is not only outdated but that it also doesn’t have much of a constituency even in the Republican Party, as evidence by the silence of some leading Republicans on the issue such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the applause for Obama’s move on the part of libertarians like Senator Rand Paul.

Liberals think that although Rubio is getting a lot of attention by staking out a “hard-line” position on Cuba, the Florida senator is actually making it clear that his views are outdated and about to be eclipsed by events that will soon lead to normal relations with Havana. In this manner, they think he will alienate his core Cuban constituency that will enjoy and exploit the new reality as well as a business community that is always willing to exploit any new markets in search of profits.

But the problem with all these assumptions is that there is very little sign that Cuba will evolve in the direction President Obama thinks it will or that Cuban-Americans or Republican voters will reject Rubio’s message.

First of all, the objective of the Cuban regime is not to prepare the way for a transition to democracy or even to open up its economy to foreign investors. Raul Castro does want some infusion of Western cash to keep his failed state afloat now that the Soviet Union is dead and Venezuela is bankrupt. But he isn’t any more interested in the post-Cold War model of China than he is that of Russia.

As Walter Russell Mead, a supporter of the deal with Cuba, noted earlier this week in the American Interest, the regime is well aware that a Republican Congress will never lift the embargo on their country. That’s fine with the Castros, who want to keep strict limits on the influx of foreign business and investment. Unlike Russia, which scrapped both its political and economic systems and China, which embraced capitalism for its economy while maintaining a Communist dictatorship, the Cuban leaders want to keep both their tyranny and their bankrupt socialist system. All they want from the United States is just enough investment to keep them going without actually generating any sort of reform.

Rubio’s position is no gamble because the Castro brothers have no intention of letting Cuba become Russia or China. They want, and with the help of President Obama, may well get, a third option that enables them to preserve their regime and do nothing to advance the standard of living in Cuba.

What Rubio has done is to draw attention to the fact that in exchange for giving something of great value to a brutal and dictatorial regime, President Obama has gotten nothing in return. The president’s blind ideological faith in engagement with foes of the United States has been demonstrated time and again with nations like Russia and Iran. But considering how little he has gained for these appeasement campaigns, the notion that history will judge Obama kindly for these moves is more of a leap of liberal faith than a sober assessment of reality.

Far from a gamble, Rubio’s bold stand presents no risk at all for him. The chances that the regime in Havana will allow anything that could be mistaken for liberal reform are virtually non-existent. Nor is it likely that the base of the Republican Party, which feels such disgust at the president’s weakness and willingness to sell out American values in order to gain a meaningless diplomatic triumph, will punish Rubio for pointing this out.

It remains to be seen whether this issue will be enough to propel Rubio into a viable 2016 presidential bid. But it does solidify his reputation as one of the leading spokesmen, if not the most important spokesman for his party on foreign-policy issues. With Americans rightly re-focused on the threat of Islamist terrorism and worries about a nuclear Iran being exacerbated by Obama’s determination to secure a nuclear deal at any cost, the president’s Cuban gambit not only helps keep foreign policy a major issue for 2016 but also highlights Rubio’s greatest strength and one on which he is far closer to the views of most Republicans than someone like Paul.

But whether or not he runs for president, the facts on the ground in Cuba are bound to make Rubio look smart. Just as President Obama’s mockery of Mitt Romney for embracing the politics of the 1980s on Russia now looks pretty embarrassing, it’s likely that the same will be said of those who think Rubio is on the wrong side of history on Cuba.

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Cuba and the Price of Normalization

Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

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Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

We are told that Gross’s freedom, along with that of 53 human-rights prisoners, is for humanitarian reasons and not part of a prisoner exchange in which Havana released another person (dubbed a U.S. “intelligence asset”) for three Cuban spies. But the real focus of American policy here was on President Obama’s goal of engagement with America’s foes. As with his outreach to Iran, the president’s belief that diplomacy can smooth out if not entirely erase our differences with dangerous regimes has become the engine of American foreign policy during his administration. Whether it is the failed attempts at resets of relations with the Putin regime in Russia or the long-running effort to appease the Islamist regime in Tehran, the point of American efforts is not so much the achievement of tangible goals or the enhancement of U.S. security as it is on the promotion of good will with nations that have little or no regard for U.S. values or interests.

In pursuit of this amorphous goal, the administration has made bargains, like the interim nuclear accord signed with Iran last year, that do little to promote U.S. goals but allow the president to keep talking with hostile nations. It is in this context that we must view any effort to normalize relations with a tyrannical Cuban government.

It should be conceded that the American embargo on Cuba, which can only be lifted by Congress and not by presidential fiat, has not been effective in isolating that country or in promoting change there. But even if we recognize that this is true, neither should the U.S. be blamed for the endemic poverty in Cuba. After all, many American businesses have obtained exemptions for conducting commerce there and virtually every other nation on the planet does have trade with Cuba. Poverty in Cuba is caused by Communism and the repression that is inherent in the system that the aging Castro brothers have imposed on this tortured island prison.

The arguments for opening U.S. trade with Cuba revolve around the idea that engagement will undermine the Communist system and the regime. It should also be noted that when you consider that America has intense economic relations with China, the world’s largest tyranny, the insistence on isolating a far smaller one in Cuba doesn’t seem to make sense. Seen from that perspective, President Obama’s decision to end 51 years of diplomatic estrangement and to open up trade with it will probably do little harm and perhaps lead to some good.

But there are two underlying dynamics to the decision that are deeply troubling.

The first is that this rapprochement has been achieved by blackmail by a vicious totalitarian state rather than an honest and open diplomatic process. Though we are supposed to believe that Gross’s freedom was incidental to the agreement, it’s clear that his unjust imprisonment raised the price of the payoff Obama was preparing to hand the Castros in order to achieve what he is claiming as a foreign-policy triumph. This is a clear signal to other tyrannies that Washington can be fleeced if a U.S. hostage can be held for ransom.

Second, while America’s efforts had not led to freedom for Cuba, it’s far from clear that what will follow the president’s decision will actually end the Cuban people’s long Communist ordeal. Here, the China precedent is both instructive and chilling. By cooperating in this manner the U.S. is going from a position of futile hostility against Communism to one in which it will be directly complicit in the efforts of this brutal regime to survive. Just as American economic ties helped the communists in Beijing to succeed where those in Moscow failed at the end of the Cold War, so, too, is it likely that all that will be accomplished here is an infusion of American cash and legitimacy that will give a failed, bankrupt yet vicious government a new lease on life.

Though he paid lip service to the cause of promoting freedom when he spoke today, as with so many of his foreign-policy initiatives, the president’s focus is more on repudiating longstanding American policies than on actually helping anyone in Cuba. Nor has he extracted a fair price for granting the Castros what they have been demanding for decades. At a time when Cuba’s main allies, especially Venezuela, are in extremis due to the fall in oil prices, this was the moment for the U.S. to get more than just the freedom of Gross. But, as he has done with the even more dangerous regime in Iran, Obama paid a lot and got nothing for the Cuban people.

We can hope that Cubans will benefit to some extent from this decision but it is doubtful that they will be freer or that their prospects for liberty have been improved. Though the end of the break with Cuba is not nearly as significant as it might have been during the Cold War, it does send a message to every other American foe that the U.S. can be bought off cheaply. That’s an ominous precedent for the nuclear talks with Iran and every other dangerous situation faced by the U.S. while Obama is in the White House.

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Human Rights Hypocrisy Charge Doesn’t Fly

Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

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Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

China, North Korea and Iran assert that America’s brutal interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects means that everything the U.S. has said about human rights should be ignored, vindicating them as well as lending credence to calls for prosecutions of those involved. American liberals seem to implicitly agree with them even if they disagree that U.S. behavior lets anyone else off the hook for human rights violations. But charges of U.S. hypocrisy are nothing more than tyranny talking points.

Whatever one may think of the rough treatment meted out to al-Qaeda prisoners, they were terrorists waging a brutal and bloody war against the West and the United States. As terrorists they were not covered by the protections of the Geneva Convention, nor do they have the same rights as citizens accused of crimes in a court of law. The torture may or may not have effective in getting them to give up vital intelligence but to compare even the nastiest things done to them to the actions of countries like China, North Korea and Iran is more than absurd.

Those tortured in those countries are not accused terrorists but ordinary citizens or dissidents striving for freedom or merely caught up in the grips of a state terrorism. When China, North Korea or Iran, or the many other countries that routinely violate human rights torture, the purpose of the activity is to preserve the ability of the state to go on oppressing people. When the CIA did it, it was part of an effort to defend the lives and the freedom of the American people and those elsewhere struggling to fend off al-Qaeda’s efforts to transform the world into an Islamist caliphate.

Do the motives of the torturers not count? Some would argue that torture is itself a crime and cannot be used under any circumstances. Even more, they say that tolerating torture gives the lie to America’s claim to be the defender of freedom. There is a certain moral logic to such a stand and, in the context of ordinary police work it can be argued that torture can never be contemplated by a just society. Yet the situation the U.S. found itself in after 9/11 was not ordinary. It was a war in which the stakes were as high as they have been in any conflict fought by Americans.

Both in the context of that perilous moment after 9/11 and the long war against Islamist terror that is still going on, the claim that keeping America’s hands clean is more important than the goal of crushing al-Qaeda and its successor groups and thereby defending the future of freedom, may be consistent but it is morally unserious. The first obligation of any democracy at war with tyranny is to defeat the enemy, not to avoid embarrassing revelations about interrogations. It is comforting to assert that victory does not require democracies to sully themselves with brutal behavior but such statements are pious hopes or retroactive pronouncements, not realistic analyses of options in the heat of battle.

By contrast, the efforts of tyrannies to oppress their peoples via torture and other human rights violations have no such justification or motive. To claim that there is no moral distinction between freedom defending itself with brutality and tyranny defending itself with similar methods is to construct a philosophical model that has not connection to real life or the necessarily ambiguous dilemmas of war. Nor should anything that was revealed this week about the CIA deter the United State or its allies from criticizing the widespread human rights violations going on around the world. No nation is perfect. But America’s willingness to do whatever it takes to defend the homeland against Islamist murderers does not make it a nation of hypocrites. That is a label best placed on those who cry out for security when under attack but then second-guess and smear as criminals those who successfully defended them.

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Anticorruption or Power Grab in China?

After Stalin died, his longtime secret police chief, the sadistic Lavrentiy Beria, was arrested and shot in 1953 on the orders of the Politburo. A similar fate–minus, for the time being, the execution–seems to have befallen Zhou Yongkang, a former head of the Politburo Standing Committee in China with responsibility for domestic security. On the orders of President Xi Jingping, and with the compliance of the Politburo, he has been arrested and charged with a raft of offenses including bribery, disclosing state secrets, and adultery.

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After Stalin died, his longtime secret police chief, the sadistic Lavrentiy Beria, was arrested and shot in 1953 on the orders of the Politburo. A similar fate–minus, for the time being, the execution–seems to have befallen Zhou Yongkang, a former head of the Politburo Standing Committee in China with responsibility for domestic security. On the orders of President Xi Jingping, and with the compliance of the Politburo, he has been arrested and charged with a raft of offenses including bribery, disclosing state secrets, and adultery.

His arrest is shocking because in the past current and retired Communist kingpins were considered invulnerable. No longer. The Bo Xilai arrest was only a start to a wider purge of corrupt officials that Xi Jinping is carrying out. But is good government really his motive–or is he simply interested in accumulating more power for himself and is he using the anti-corruption crusade as a cover to depose various rivals?

There is division on this question among Sinologists but the bulk of the evidence points to the latter conclusion–that Xi Jinping is accumulating personal power unprecedented for any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong under the guise of fighting corruption. Indeed it is striking that, even amid this anti-corruption campaign, China is viewed in the Transparency International survey as being more corrupt than ever.

China actually dropped 20 places to rank 100th in corruption among the 175 nations surveyed. The New York Times quotes a Transparency International spokesman saying that the anticorruption drive is missing “stronger laws on bribery, access to information, whistle-blower protection, more open budgets and asset declarations.” In short, what is missing is the rule of law.

Unfortunately, it appears that China is not seeing the impartial application of rules against bribery. What it is seeing is a highly selective personal vendetta carried out by one Communist boss against other Communist bosses. That is not going to reduce the longterm questions about China’s future, which is undermined by corruption and lack of accountability and freedom

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A Superficial “Success” in Beijing

Desperate to counter the near-universal impression that the Obama presidency has been a dismal failure in foreign policy, the president’s aides have been eagerly flacking the storyline that his meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing was a big success. To buttress this contention, administration spinmeisters are touting principally an agreement signed by the two men designed to limit carbon emissions.

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Desperate to counter the near-universal impression that the Obama presidency has been a dismal failure in foreign policy, the president’s aides have been eagerly flacking the storyline that his meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing was a big success. To buttress this contention, administration spinmeisters are touting principally an agreement signed by the two men designed to limit carbon emissions.

The reality, as Reuters points out, is that the plan is “largely symbolic” and “did not break significant new ground.” The same might be said of other agreements to marginally increase military-to-military cooperation etc.–the kind of summit bait that is laboriously negotiated beforehand for unveiling at such events but that doesn’t amount to much.

In many ways, more significant than anything that was said at the meeting was what happened while the two leaders were meeting: the People’s Liberation Army took the opportunity to test China’s new J-31 stealth fighter. This is a classic in-your-face move by the Chinese leadership, one that duplicates a notorious J-20 stealth fighter flight that occurred when then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates visited in 2011. Both stealth aircraft are symbols of China’s rising military might and its growing ambition to push the U.S. Armed Forces out of their long-standing supremacy in the Western Pacific. Moreover, since both planes are based on purloined F-35 plans, their display is also a sign of how little Beijing cares about Washington’s complaints about stolen intellectual property.

And what did Obama do in the face of this latest Chinese muscle-flexing–which follows far more dangerous moves to claim disputed islands from Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other neighboring states? Perhaps President Obama had some hard words for China’s president behind closed doors but one rather doubts it. In fact the New York Times account strongly suggests otherwise:

For his part, Mr. Obama tried to keep the emphasis on working with China. …

Mr. Obama said he had assured Mr. Xi that the United States had nothing to do with the protests in Hong Kong. “These are issues ultimately for the people of Hong Kong and China to decide,” he said of the protests demanding fully democratic elections, though he voiced support for the right of free expression.

In general, Mr. Obama’s references to human rights were carefully calibrated. He noted America’s refusal to recognize a separate Taiwan or Tibet. He also praised China for its role in nuclear negotiations with Iran, its response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and its dealings with a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Mr. Obama played down a recent wave of virulently negative coverage of him and the United States in China’s state-run media. Tough press coverage, he said, came with being a public official, whether in China or the United States. “I’m a big believer in actions, not words,” he added.

Again, it’s possible that there was more to the Xi-Obama meeting than reported here, but if this is a complete and accurate account it suggests a shameful kowtowing by the American president. It sounds as if Obama said little or nothing about China’s terrible human-rights record and that his support for the Hong Kong freedom demonstrators was at best perfunctory and marginal–much like his failure to back the Green Revolution in Iran early in his presidency. He did not even take strong umbrage at the violently anti-American tone that much of the Chinese media has adopted at the direction of Beijing–he chose instead to pretend that Chinese media outlets are as free of government control as those in the United States. And he thanked China for doing little or nothing with regard to Iran, Ebola, and North Korea–in fact when it comes to both Iran and North Korea, China has been far more of a hindrance than a help.

By refusing to raise difficult issues in a forceful way, any president can assure a superficially “successful” summit meeting with a foreign leader–i.e. one that ends with smiles and handshakes. But the cost of doing so is to create the potential for much worse trouble down the road. Unfortunately that has been the story of Obama foreign policy, whether it comes to the failed “reset” with Russia or his dealings with China.

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Historical Truth and the Future of Asia

Decades after the last major outpouring of support for an end to Communist oppression was crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are attempting to keep the faltering cause of democracy alive in China. But lost amid the commentary about the world’s largest tyranny and the impotent empathy for the protesters on the part of the West is the context by which China’s democratic neighbor helps discredit the cause of liberty as well as giving the Communists ammunition to fuel nationalist sentiments that help enable them to cling to power.

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Decades after the last major outpouring of support for an end to Communist oppression was crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are attempting to keep the faltering cause of democracy alive in China. But lost amid the commentary about the world’s largest tyranny and the impotent empathy for the protesters on the part of the West is the context by which China’s democratic neighbor helps discredit the cause of liberty as well as giving the Communists ammunition to fuel nationalist sentiments that help enable them to cling to power.

I refer to the way Japan’s current government led by Shinzo Abe has sought to revive nationalist fever by, among other things, continuing to own up to the country’s World War Two atrocities in China and throughout Asia. In recent years, this deplorable revisionism has complicated relations between Japan and Korea, which suffered under Tokyo’s brutal rule throughout the first half of the 20th century. But it has also enflamed relations between Japan and China, a regional superpower and a rising military force in the Pacific. While the barbarism practiced by the Japanese military in China curing the 1930s and 40s may seem like ancient history to Americans, it is still very much part of China’s national consciousness. And though we think of Japan as a peaceful economic partner of the United States which left its savage past behind after Hiroshima, the contrast between Germany’s honest if sometimes problematic dedication to tell the truth about the Nazis to its own people and Japan’s continuing denials still has the potential to play havoc with the politics of contemporary Asia.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Herbert P. Bix writes in today’s New York Times, the publication of an official biography of Emperor Hirohito shows that Japan is still refusing to tell the unvarnished truth about its past. The book, reportedly the work of an army of Japanese civil servants and historians who have been compiling it since Hirohito’s death in 1989, appears to stick to the old story that the emperor was a mere puppet in the hands of the country’s military. Moreover, Bix was told by a Japanese newspaper that asked him to write about an embargoed excerpt from the book that he could not comment about the emperor’s “role and responsibility” in the war.

Ironically, as Bix notes, the U.S. was complicit in this cover up for its own reasons. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, it served the cause of the American occupation to connive in the myth that the emperor was innocent of any part in his country’s aggression and the atrocities it committed in the name of its imperial ambition. The agreement to let the emperor remain in place helped smooth the transformation of Japan from a militarized authoritarian state to a pacifist democracy.

But though the myth of the helpless emperor was useful, it was always a lie. As Bix and other historians have demonstrated, far from the puppet depicted in most postwar analyses of Japan’s actions, Hirohito was a dynamic and powerful leader. Indeed, the transformation of the country’s government from one in which the emperor truly was a figurehead into a system in which he exercised direct power was the engine that drove Japan’s 19th century modernization. What historians call the Meiji Restoration—after Hirohito’s grandfather who took back power from the shoguns that had ruled Japan for centuries—was also directly linked to an expansionist spirit that led to war with first China, then Tsarist Russia, and ultimately to the Nazi-like aggression that led it to occupy most of China and to embark on a disastrous and bloody war with the United States.

The decision by General Douglas MacArthur and the Truman administration to give Hirohito a pass was also rooted in a lack of information about how Japan’s imperial system worked. Even during the war when anti-Japanese sentiment was its height, Americans focused their animus on General Hideki Tojo, the country’s prime minister from 1941 to 1944 rather than the emperor who had authorized the aggression carried out in his name. Tojo and other Japanese leaders were rightly held accountable in the Pacific version of the Nuremberg tribunals but they went to their deserved deaths knowing that doing so helped save the emperor from having to account for his own role in their crimes. But it also facilitated the creation of a mindset by which the Japanese seemed to think their part in World War Two was confined to having the first atomic bombs dropped on their cities and having to put up with an American occupation.

Why does this matter? As Bix points out, Japan’s determination to avoid telling the truth makes its neighbors suspicious of any effort to revise the postwar “peace constitution” imposed on the country by the United States. Bix wrongly denounces America’s justified concerns about China’s troubling drive to become a global military power and the need for Japan to assume some responsibility for protecting itself. But he’s right that the rest of Asia, including U.S. allies like Korea and the Philippines will never trust Japan until it owns up to its past.

If Japan wants to return to the world stage it will have to stop lying about Hirohito and the atrocities committed in his name in the last century. Just as important, Tokyo’s obsession with ignoring or covering up its history helps China’s contemporary tyrants whip up nationalism that can be used to suppress any hope of democracy.

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Hong Kong and the Dream of Chinese Democracy

Call me naïve, but I’m a sucker for pro-democracy demonstrations against dictators. Admittedly, whether in Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square, they don’t always work out well. But there is something thrilling about tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the basic rights that most of us in the West have come to take for granted–knowing, all the while, that there is a real possibility of bloodshed on the part of a brutal regime bent on protecting itself at any cost.

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Call me naïve, but I’m a sucker for pro-democracy demonstrations against dictators. Admittedly, whether in Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square, they don’t always work out well. But there is something thrilling about tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the basic rights that most of us in the West have come to take for granted–knowing, all the while, that there is a real possibility of bloodshed on the part of a brutal regime bent on protecting itself at any cost.

These thoughts are prompted, of course, by images of all the people who have been occupying the streets of central Hong Kong for three days now to demand direct election of their chief executive without limiting candidates to a list vetted and approved by the Communist Party leadership in Beijing. Police fired tear gas at the demonstrators on Sunday, but that did not disperse them. Now the security forces have backed off to ponder their next move.

From Beijing’s perspective this is a no-win situation. If they send the troops out to clear the streets by force, they will risk international opprobrium–and, perhaps more significant, delay for another generation any hope that Taiwan will agree to voluntarily become part of the People’s Republic of China. After all Beijing’s key selling point to Taipei is that it could enjoy the “one country, two systems” model implemented in Hong Kong after the British left in 1997. If Chinese forces carry out a slaughter in the streets of Hong Kong that message will be exposed as hollow. If, on the other hand, the government caves in to the demonstrators’ demands it could expose Beijing to more demands for democracy from dissatisfied people on the mainland.

There is not much the U.S. can do to affect the situation one way or the other beyond showing clearly where our sympathies lie. There is no doubt a debate going on in the administration as I write this between the usual, predictable parties–the realists who say we have to accommodate ourselves to Beijing at any cost and the human-rights advocates who believe we have to stand up forcibly for the rights of people in Hong Kong and elsewhere around the world.

The Realpolitikers have a better case when they argue for overlooking human-rights violations among our allies–countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia whose strategic support we need and where the alternative to an illiberal but pro-American monarchy could well be an Islamist dictatorship that is anti-American. But such considerations should not restrain us from pushing for democracy in countries such as Iran and China and Russia that are most decidedly not our allies–that are, in fact, either rivals or outright enemies.

China is in the midst of a massive defense buildup designed to dominate East Asia while pushing U.S. power out of the region. It is undertaking aggressive maneuvers with its navy against U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines. It is mounting nonstop cyber attacks on U.S. computer networks. It supports rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran. And it works hand in glove with Russia to block international action in such countries as Syria. True, China also trades with the U.S. and holds a lot of our debt, but it is hardly our friend: At best it is a rival with whom we can do business but only warily.

In short, we should not be constrained by fears of alienating China from speaking out forcefully about its human-rights violations. The U.S. should champion the cause of Chinese democracy by every means available, much as we once worked by peaceful means to undermine the Soviet bloc. The Hong Kong demonstrations are a sign that Chinese people also want freedom–that even in the most prosperous city in China the people are not willing to trade away their “inalienable rights” for big cars and fancy apartments and the latest in high-tech electronics.

The people of Hong Kong are risking their lives for freedom. We should do what we can–and admittedly it’s not much–to stand with them.

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What Israel Really Wants from Ties with China and India

Writing in Foreign Affairs last week, Rory Miller made the classic mistake of using accurate facts to jump to an erroneous conclusion. He gleefully pronounced the failure of Israel’s effort to convert burgeoning economic ties with India and China into diplomatic capital, asserting that while Israel had expected these ties to “help secure greater international support” for its positions, in reality, China and India have both maintained staunchly pro-Palestinian policies. But though Miller is right about the Asian powers’ policies, he’s utterly wrong about the diplomatic gains Israel hoped to reap from these relationships.

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Writing in Foreign Affairs last week, Rory Miller made the classic mistake of using accurate facts to jump to an erroneous conclusion. He gleefully pronounced the failure of Israel’s effort to convert burgeoning economic ties with India and China into diplomatic capital, asserting that while Israel had expected these ties to “help secure greater international support” for its positions, in reality, China and India have both maintained staunchly pro-Palestinian policies. But though Miller is right about the Asian powers’ policies, he’s utterly wrong about the diplomatic gains Israel hoped to reap from these relationships.

For instance, Miller makes much of the fact that China still votes against Israel on every conceivable issue at the UN. But you’d have to be an idiot–which most senior Israeli politicians aren’t–to expect it to do otherwise.

Flipping China into the pro-Israel camp might be possible if and when it democratizes, since it’s one of the few countries where public opinion actually leans pro-Israel. Indeed, as the Australian paper Business Spectator noted this month, China was among the few places worldwide where Israel was actually winning the social media war during the summer’s fighting in Gaza. And it certainly makes sense for Israel to cultivate this public support in preparation for the day when democratization occurs. But right now, China remains a Communist dictatorship that sees America as its chief foreign-policy rival. Thus as long as Washington (thankfully) remains Israel’s main patron at the UN, Beijing will naturally take the anti-Israel side–not because it cares so passionately about the Palestinian cause (which, unlike Miller, I don’t believe it does), but because it cares about the anti-American cause.

India, despite growing ties with Washington, also has a long tradition of anti-Americanism, as well as a large Muslim minority. Thus New Delhi was never a likely candidate for UN support, either.

And in fact, Miller doesn’t cite any Israeli politician who actually espoused such unrealistic expectations. He simply assumes, on the basis of vague bromides like Naftali Bennett’s “diplomacy can follow economy,” that they musthave held such expectations.

But in reality, Israel is seeking a very different foreign-policy benefit from its trade ties with India and China–one it has never spelled out explicitly, for very good reason: What it wants is an economic insurance policy against European countries that it still officially labels as allies.

The EU currently accounts for about one-third of Israel’s exports. This constitutes a dangerous vulnerability, because Europe is the one place worldwide where Israel faces a real danger of economic boycotts and sanctions. Granted, few European leaders actually want this; they consider the economic relationship with Israel mutually beneficial. But European leaders are generally far more pro-Israel than their publics, and since European countries are democracies, public opinion matters.

To date, the public’s anti-Israel sentiment has produced only marginal sanctions, like those on Israeli exports from the West Bank (a minuscule percentage of Israel’s total exports). But Israel can’t rule out the possibility that public pressure will eventually produce more stringent sanctions if Jerusalem continues refusing to capitulate to EU demands on the Palestinian issue that are antithetical to its security. In short, Israel could someday face a devastating choice between its economic needs and its security needs–unless it can diversify its trade enough to be able to weather EU sanctions if and when they occur.

And that’s precisely what Israel seeks from China and India, two countries with a history of not allowing policy disagreements to interfere with business: If it can build up its Asian trade enough to reduce its economic dependence on Europe, it will be better placed to withstand European pressure to adopt policies inimical to its survival.

Whether Israel will succeed in this goal remains to be seen. But if it does, that will be a diplomatic gain of unparalleled importance–even if it never wins Chinese or Indian support in a single UN vote.

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