December 04, 2011

Donilon's Missing Word

(Updated Below)

Perhaps it is because I am writing this from Beijing, but I found it odd that this Tom Donilon (President Obama’s National Security Advisor) op-ed in a recent FT entitled “America is back in the Pacific and will uphold the rules” has not a single explicit mention of the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) and/or the word “China” (save embedded within the obligatory reference to the South China Sea). Odd because really the entire piece reads rather like a thinly veiled warning shot to the PRC that the U.S. still ‘means business’ in the Asia Pacific region, will not ratchet down its security presence/umbrella there and will uphold “the rules” (Donilon is referring here to ‘free and fair’ trade, IP protections, “level playing fields” for businesses and, of course, “market-driven currencies”, but one wonders, whom precisely sets all these variegated rules, by what specific authority and for whom?).

The Obama Administration should be genuinely lauded for beginning to more convincingly re-calibrate its foreign policy to focus on critical going forward strategic theaters like the Asia-Pacific region, if it is still painfully bogged down in diminishing return side-shows like Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the quite striking omission of any concrete mention of the PRC struck me as arguably awkward and disingenuous in an op-ed which could well be construed by some--notably some PRC governmental constituencies--as risking enunciating something of a neo-containment strategy, if U.S. policy-makers would doubtless protest it is anything but.

Regardless, and beyond the broad merits of the policy sketched out in Donilon’s op-ed, what real strategic muscle is being brought to bear then? While laden with a decent amount of symbolism, the “rotational deployment” of U.S. Marines to Australia does strike one as a tad gimmicky (we are advised the basing is meant to “contribute to the security of sea lines)”. Still, Donilon speaks of the Australian deployment as only the “first manifestation” of a “future defense posture” in the region. Per Donilon, this will reportedly lead towards a “presence that is more broadly distributed, more flexible and more sustainable.” But nothing much more is said on this score in his piece, whether purposefully or otherwise I am not sure.

There was also a related pronunciamento by the President speaking in Canberra recently announcing the “strategic decision” that any looming defense cuts will cause “no diminution” of U.S. “military presence or capabilities” in Asia. Sounds good, but a skeptic could be forgiven pondering this in rather a more dubious context, say recalling Erskine Bowle’s recent pithy quip about U.S. defense commitments to Taiwan in the context of needing to borrow money from Beijing to deliver on such rather ambitious security pledges. (Incidentally, one also wonders ever more about the continued true relevancy of NATO, particularly in the context of this strategic re-balancing, note Donilon elsewhere in the op-ed has the obligatory reference to “renewed” ties respecting NATO, perhaps so that no European chancelleries become alarmed the alliance might get unduly short shrift amidst this Asia ‘pivot’).

Mr. Donilon closes his piece by stating that “each of our nations” (of which more below) will be more “secure and prosperous”, if only his prescriptions (or perhaps he means those of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which China is quite conspicuously not a member) are dutifully followed. While the “nations” remain unspecified I suspect quite a few in Beijing would beg to differ. Indeed, Donilon’s op-ed has caused something of a mini-kerfuffle here, if more rhetorically than substantively, but nonetheless with talk of renewed Cold War sentiments being unduly fanned, the Australians denying they are looking at a trilateral defense pact with the U.S. and India, and such type hand-wringing fare. Perhaps it is better instead to more forthrightly and candidly explore and deflect mutual areas of possible conciliation and contention, rather than engage in such an obvious omission in an otherwise well-written op-ed which appears to bury the real ‘lede’ disingenuously enough that it risks unduly stoking suspicion? (If the thinking was the Chinese would prefer they not be mentioned more directly as the 800-pound gorilla and bogey-man in Donilon’s equation, I would counter they are far too smart for this).

It is true China of late has flexed her muscles a bit too exuberantly given in part its very strong economy (albeit slowing some of late, see recent PMI data etc.), for instance over-playing her hand at times with various swash-buckling respecting territorial disputes directed at neighbors like Vietnam, the Philippines or Japan. These miscalculations probably were further spurred on by heightened confidence--in some quarters perhaps even incipient triumphalism--given the 2008 financial crisis and the body-blows it delivered “the mystique of Western economic prowess” with China “no longer [feeling] constrained by the sense of apprenticeship to Western technology and institutions” (as Henry Kissinger put it in his recent book On China). Indeed, some youthful student segments and/or PRC nationalist elements might even have begun to intuit deeper shifts in the distribution of power in the international system, creating an atmosphere rife with desire for regional aggrandizement, one more easily realizable absent the presence of a pesky U.S. security architecture.

Such variables certainly argue for an ‘Asia-pivot’ posture for U.S. policy, and the Administration has handled same with some aplomb. Still, the U.S. should be careful not to commit similar-type ‘overreach’ errors in return, even while we laud the Administration’s renewed strategic focus on Asia (Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Myanmar neatly dove-tailing here too, further burnishing the theme that the gross Bush 43 era neglect is being at least partially redressed). After all, while it is fashionable of late to raise the specter of an indomitably rising China, Ezra Vogel in his recently published, excellent biography of Deng Xiaoping reminds us of the mammoth challenges that will continue to confront the PRC leadership moving forward, including (as quoted from Vogel’s pp. 711-713): 1) providing universal social security and health care; 2) redefining and managing the boundaries of freedom; 3) containing corruption; 4) preserving the environment; and 5) maintaining the government’s legitimacy to rule.
Adding to this heavy burden the possible suspicion of containment by the U.S. may, amidst the staggering challenges China will face in the coming decades—as well, make no mistake, equally staggering potential for great progress--result in mutual miscalculations to neither the PRC nor the United States’ benefit. (Henry Kissinger has broached a possible notion of ‘co-evolution’ as between the United States and China, something roughly akin to a Pacific Community on the model of the Atlantic one, where there is more of an integrated, structural collaborative approach, as opposed to a possibly messy descent into competing American and Chinese spheres).

Perhaps really this is what Donilon was trying to intimate, as his op-ed concludes: “By strengthening the international rules that must be the foundation of our shared future—and by ensuring governments abide by these rules—each of our nations will be more secure and more prosperous [emphasis added]. It is hard not to conclude that—even if Donilon leaves it unstated—the “each” Washington must be most concerned about is ultimately the U.S. and PRC, reinvigorated defense arrangements with an Australia apart, or diplomatic entrees in Yangon, and so on (though I of course in no way mean to downplay the critical import of countries like Japan and South Korea to regional stability as well). Perhaps better to be more open about the critical import of same, lest through miscommunication and burgeoning mistrust competing 'spheres of influence' trump attempts at fostering more promising avenues aimed at better institutionalizing joint consultation, which might also have the benefit of lessening the often louder, more hawkish voices in both Washington and Beijing. This is particularly true as the surreal political silly season gathers apace with the Presidential election in the United States heating up (aside from the relative sanity of Obama and Jon Hunstman), while keeping in mind too looming PRC leadership transitions. Particularly during such periods of flux (not to mention the grave sovereign debt crisis in Europe) it is even more important to ensure mitigating as best as possible breakdowns in communication respecting each parties basic intentions.

UPDATE: A couple items related to the above. First, it seems like I am not alone in some of my above concerns. From a Bloomberg piece:

"President Barack Obama’s administration has sought to enhance the U.S.’s stature in Asia this year, an initiative Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described as a “pivot” toward the region after a decade of American focus on war in the Middle East. As part of the approach, the administration is seeking a free-trade agreement with Pacific nations including Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, and last month enhanced its security ties with Australia.

Global investors are skeptical of the U.S. effort, highlighted when Obama hosted the annual 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu last month and attended an East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia. Fifty-six percent said the campaign “will not enhance U.S. influence and end up antagonizing China,” compared with 30 percent who expect it to serve as an “effective counterweight” to Chinese power." [emphasis added]

There is nothing magical about an investor poll, of course, but it is nonetheless indicative of a reasonably informed group's prognostications on the matter.

Second, another Bloomberg story, w/ coverage of a trip to Beijing by a US Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy. Note she needed to publicly assure her Chinese hosts: "We assured General Ma and his delegation that the U.S. does not seek to contain China, we do not view China as an adversary." She also characterized the discussions as "very candid," which is likely diplomatic-code for quite spirited indeed, doubtless. As for General Ma, he stated: "the fact that the consultations took place as scheduled shows that both countries are sincere about maintaining military exchanges", suggesting there may have been quite a bit of discussion regarding calling off the meeting in advance of the U.S. visit, at least within certain PRC circles.

Posted by Gregory at 08:09 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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