By Peter Lee
It looks like China, faced with shrinking geopolitical options as the United States orchestrates a ”return to Asia”, is modifying its “peaceful development” doctrine and imitating the American security-based foreign policy that has brought the world so much grief over the last decade.
It would seem to be the worst possible choice.
The toxic legacy of the economic and foreign policies of the George W Bush years was on full display this week, as President Barack Obama, trying to turn his attention to China and Asia, got mugged by George Papandreou and Benjamin Netanyahu instead.
The United States envisioned the Group of 20 (G-20) meeting in Cannes as a declaration that the Greek crisis had been successfully finessed through the foresight and steadfast courage of the European Union, and it could harangue China on the issue of its bloated foreign exchange reserves …
…when the uproar over Greek Prime Minister’s Papandreou’s pledge to submit the EU’s bailout/austerity/kick the can further down the road package to a national referendum forced the leaders of the West on the same page as China’s ultra-nationalist Global Times in condemning the excesses of democracy for further complicating the sophisticated financial machinations of the global economy’s pin-striped saviors.
The Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had also clearly stated that the United States was out of Iraq (thanks in large part to Iraq’s refusal to conclude a Status of Forces Agreement that would eliminate local legal liability for any perceived excesses committed by US troops in-country) and ready to make a “strategic pivot” into the Pacific theater…
… when Israel’s Prime Minister let it be known that he was rallying support for a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear program, thereby wrenching US attention back to the Middle East and demonstrating that America can disengage from the region only and whenever Israel – not the US – thinks it is appropriate.
China can breathe easier only for a few moments.
Prime Minister Papandreou has made the statesmanlike decision to backpedal on the referendum, thereby holding out hope that Greece can stay in the EU until every Greek citizen with marketable skills has taken advantage of the open labor market and emigrated to a European nation with a functioning economy: ie Germany.
As for Netanyahu, in a sign of changing times, his howl for attention was communicated through the neo-liberal Guardian instead of the Daily Telegraph, Israel’s erstwhile conduit of choice to the Anglophone world back when neo-conservatives ruled the roost in Washington.
The Obama administration, including its Department of Defense, reportedly has absolutely no interest in war with Iran.
Indeed the enthusiasm with which Washington bullyrags Tehran on absurd issues (like the used-car salesman/assassin case) and squanders genuine opportunities for rapprochement (like Iran’s attempts to bargain over the nuclear dossier) can be taken as indications that it will do anything and everything to demonstrate its anti-Iran bona fides except fight a war … or join a war Israel started.
Netanyahu knows this and is presumably pushing the Iran attack fantasy simply to shift the terms of debate away from the awkward issue of the Palestinian Authority’s popular bid for UN membership to the ongoing and broadly unpopular Persian menace … and to yank Obama’s chain to remind him of the political cost of neglecting Israel.
Therefore, we are unlikely to find out whether Israel’s multi-role fighters, when equipped with conforming fuel tanks (CFTs), really have enough range to do its business over Iran and fight its way back home unilaterally and without the assistance of the United States in refueling, AWACS support, and actively degrading Iran’s air defenses. 
China can take these absurd antics as further confirmation of the political and economic dysfunction at the heart of the West’s 21st-century mix of democracy, capitalism, and militarism.
The bad news is, the dysfunction is headed China’s way.
The Libyan adventure – the replacement of a centralized autocracy with local thug rule and establishment of a weak national government desperately reliant on Western and Gulf sheikdom military and economic assistance, at the cost of only a few billion dollars and no Western casualties – is being called “one of the most successful in NATO history”.
When the relevant comparisons are Serbia and Kosovo, the bar is, perhaps, rather low.
In any case, it appears that the US, whether under a Democratic or Republican presidency, cannot resist another hit on the regime-change crack pipe. The US has not lost its taste for intervention; it simply has discovered a preference for the indirect, low-cost variety.
This was demonstrated when Harvard uber-realist Stephen Walt found himself in a risky and deeply suspect piece of intellectual terrain: occupying the same mental page as New York Times columnist and neo-liberal war enthusiast Thomas Friedman.
They now both approve of meddling in Central Asia in a low-key and inexpensive manner rather than engaging in costly invasions and unpopular occupations. Instead, they advocate withdrawing from the center of affairs, and then stepping back in when local actors have made a hash of things.
As Friedman put it:
America today needs much more cost-efficient ways to influence geopolitics in Asia than keeping troops there indefinitely. We need to better leverage the natural competitions in this region to our ends. There is more than one way to play The Great Game, and we need to learn it. 
Walt describes this state of affairs with the graceless term “offshore balancing”, and stated:
It would acknowledge that Americans are not very good at running other countries – particularly when their histories and culture are vastly different from our own – and that trying to do so is neither necessary nor wise. Offshore balancing would take advantage of America’s favorable geopolitical position, most notably its distance from most of the world’s trouble spots and centers of power.
It is an interesting state of affairs when US foreign policy is openly predicated taking advantage of instability, instead of preventing it.
Is the US on the slippery slope toward fomenting instability – or institutionalizing it – in order to “take advantage of America’s favorable geopolitical position” or “play the Great Game”?
The evidence in Central Asia would seem to indicate Yes.
The United States is keen not to see the region revert to its traditional state of affairs – landlocked and impoverished Afghanistan under the collective thumbs of Iran, Russia, and Pakistan.
As M K Bhadrakumar has documented, the United States has been working to dragoon a sometimes anxious, sometimes interested India into a “regional security architecture” that would support Afghanistan’s continued survival as a pro-Western outpost in Central Asia – one of those vulnerable outposts that requires the continual solicitude of America and its allies to survive. 
With America stepping back, it needs local allies to step up.
In Central Asia, the United States appears to have given up on Pakistan to advance its agenda and has placed its hopes in the ambitious leaders of Turkey, which pictures itself in the role of Lord of All Stan-Lands; ie the natural leader of the nations of the Turkic homelands of Central Asia.
In anticipation of the unveiling of the new proposed Central Asian architecture at a Afghanistan conference in Istanbul – scuppered by Hillary Clinton’s non-appearance owing to the passing of her mother and, according to Bhadrakumar, a distinct lack of enthusiasm by India and Pakistan – Turkey announced it was joining an Afghan/Pakistani commission investigating the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani.
As Turkey’s Daily Hurriyet put it:
The commission, whose establishment date remained unclear, will be established separate from investigations into the assassination that will be carried by Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the tripartite body will serve for Islamabad and Kabul to share findings with each other. 
The main purpose of this bizarre and apparently less-than-necessary commission appears to be to make a permanent role for distant and otherwise irrelevant Turkey in Afghanistan, and perhaps make it possible for the West to threaten potentially uncooperative governments in Kabul and Islamabad with the same kind of sovereignty-confounding international hijinks that have characterized the Hariri investigation in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the root problem of the region – the social and political destruction of Pakistan, a nation of 170 million, whose government is no threat to anyone and apparently has no ambitions beyond serving as somebody’s venal client – is viewed simply as collateral damage in the struggle to keep the Taliban away from the gates of Kabul.
China is quite familiar with the determined US pursuit of geopolitical advantage through destabilization.
In the Pacific, the United States chose to declare its commitment to maintaining free navigation through the South China Sea, thereby giving aid and comfort to the smaller states, notably Vietnam, suffering from China’s high-handed bullying on the issue of disputed atolls, sandbars, and rocks.
From Beijing’s perspective, the US declaration was a calculated slap in the face. In closed door discussions with US diplomats, China had previously stated that it considered the South China Sea “a core interest”.
It appears that China’s intent was not to define the South China Sea – in which it was already engaged in bilateral wrangling with half-a-dozen countries and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – as its exclusive territory. Instead, it is more likely that Beijing wanted the US to acknowledge the South China Sea as an area in which Beijing could lean on its local antagonists without a lot of squawking from Washington. In this context, “core interest” was probably meant to be construed as “sphere of influence”, but without the acrid hegemonist/imperialist taste.
The exact opposite happened, of course, and Washington made a point of leaking Beijing’s “core interest” declaration – which, instead of sounding less cynical than “sphere of influence”, sounded like a declaration of war against the region and the US.
Beijing was predictably infuriated, and the always unlikely dream of the “Group of 2” – a cooperative relationship between the US and China – evaporated for good.
A solution to the intractable South China Sea is probably more remote than ever.
“Mission Accomplished” for the US team, perhaps, since the festering situation gives America an open-ended opportunity to meddle.
The breakdown in relations with the US has created an awkward situation for China, whose foreign policy and economic strategy are built around the rhetoric of “win-win” world growth – or as cynics would put it, “selling the West the rope to hang itself with”.
Chinese ideologues have been straining to find a doctrine that allows for peaceful coexistence with the United States.
Treaty of Westphalia-type respect for sovereignty hasn’t worked. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton killed that with the Information Freedom/human-rights agenda. Libya buried it.
Appeals to enlightened self-interest haven’t worked. Especially in an economic downturn, there is too much political and geopolitical hay to be made by attacking China’s ill-gotten wealth.
The “core interest”, aka “sphere of interest”, formula hasn’t worked either. As the South China Sea fiasco indicates, any attempt by China to define a “core interest” beyond Tibet and Taiwan will be used against it.
Beyond the South China Sea, the United States is also systematically messing in China’s near-beyond of North Korea and Myanmar.
The US State Department has apparently come to the realization that the authoritarian regimes in Naypyidaw and Pyongyang aren’t going anywhere soon, given China’s diplomatic and economic support. Therefore, instead of trying to overthrow them, it is trying to wean them away from China.
The Obama administration’s North Korea diplomacy is now conducted virtually without congressional oversight – and the howls of appeasement that its approach would provoke from the
administration’s conservative critics in the legislative branch, as Foreign Policy’s The Cable blog reported:
One Asia hand in Washington told The Cable that the administration doesn’t want a public debate over its North Korea engagement, which is not likely to produce dramatic results and could be a political liability in an election season.
“They’re definitely avoiding going to the Hill with these guys because they’re afraid of criticism and they’re afraid the senators are going to use it to criticize where the policy is now,” the Asia hand said. “It’s all part of their management approach, where you keep everything low key and don’t want everybody to know what you’re doing.” 
In Myanmar, the US State Department succeeded in facing down the Free Burma lobby and gaining a positive response from the new civilian government in Naypyidaw.
Myanmar deliberately poked a stick in China’s eye by stopping a big and apparently extremely misguided dam China was going to build there, in order to signal the sincerity of its desire for rapprochement with the West.
Burma campaigners Naing Ko Ko and Simon Scott put the best neo-liberal spin on the new state of affairs – and made a pitch for Japan as “Myanmar’s New Protector” – in an article for Japan Times:
U Thein Sein’s new administration recently released approximately 208 out of the country’s 2,000 political prisoners; unblocked the information super highway and has begun to ease media censorship in a land famous for black listing foreign reporters and imprisoning domestic ones.
He even invited charismatic democracy and traditional arch enemy of the regime Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to the presidential palace for a friendly chat…
The recent visit by Myanmar Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin to Tokyo just a week or so after the regime’s highly publicized prisoner release, clearly shows the new administration is trying to court not just Washington and other Western capitals, but also Tokyo… …
It is certainly no coincidence that Maung Lwin’s visit to Tokyo quickly followed a frosting in Myanmar-China relations due to president U Thein Sein calling a halt to the construction of the controversial $3.6 billion Myitsone mega dam project by China Power Investment Corp. …
Japanese policy-makers well understand the implications of a widening rift between Myanmar and China, and are paving the way for Japanese interests to step into the growing power vacuum.
Japan’s grubbing for advantage is better than China’s grubbing for advantage.
Yet Japan’s re-entry into Myanmar has so far been balanced and considered as Kikuta’s trip there earlier this year showed. On the whole Japan seems to formulating a Myanmar policy that is better thought out, more sustainable and more ethical than China’s.
Requisite collateral damage/irony coda:
Both governments also seem to be going out of their way to avoid diplomatic embarrassments in their pursuit of a better relationship and the recent death of 31-year-old Japanese tourist Chiharu Shiramatsu is a case in point.
Shiramatsu was raped and killed on September 28 near the ancient temple city of Bagan, in Myanmar, allegedly by a motorcycle-taxi driver she had hired, yet there has been no noticeable public response to the case by Japanese officials and almost no coverage of the story in the Japanese media. 
Faced with these threats and setbacks, it appears that China has finally decided to lay down the one card that every 21st century power has the right to play: national security.
A bizarre and brutal incident on the Mekong River resulted in the death of 13 Chinese sailors on two vessels. Thai soldiers acting at the behest of local drug kingpins were alleged to be responsible.
A regrettable incident to be sure. But the Chinese leadership and the official Chinese media have been all over it in a markedly high-profile way.
A selection of headlines and text indicates where this is headed:
Senior Chinese leader urges thorough investigation into Mekong River attack
Zhou [Yongkang of the standing committee of the CCP Politburo] said Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, are highly concerned about the case and have assigned a joint working group and senior officials from the Ministry of Public Security to Thailand to work closely with their Thai counterparts.
Hailing the fruitful exchanges that have taken place among the four countries in recent years, Zhou said that upon receiving China’s invitation, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand promptly sent their delegations to China for the meeting, demonstrating their commitment to regional security cooperation.
“We hope to make joint efforts with concerned parties to set up a joint law enforcement and security mechanism, enhance information exchanges, carry out joint patrols and create conditions for resuming shipping along the Mekong River as soon as possible,” he said. …
They affirmed the necessity and timeliness of the meeting amid the grim security situation on the river. They pledged to enhance coordination with China for the early establishment of a joint law enforcement and security mechanism and to jointly maintain security along the river. 
China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand agree to secure Mekong River shipping after deadly boat raid
The four states agreed to formally establish the “Law Enforcement Cooperation along the Mekong River Mechanism” to cope with the new security situation on the river.
Under the new framework, the four countries will build sub-mechanisms for intelligence exchanges, patrolling and law enforcement, as well as for tackling major problems jeopardizing public order, combating transnational crimes and dealing with emergency events.
All participants will “carry out coordinated special campaigns to eradicate criminal organizations which have long threatened the region’s security,” said the statement. 
Mekong security agreement reached
Song Qingrun, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, called the joint law enforcement mechanism a breakthrough.
“It will help ensure the safety of sailors from the four countries,” Song said.
“Strengthening security cooperation on the Mekong is important as it provides a broad scope for economic development between China and other concerned countries,” he added. 
Beijing also sent patrol boats down the Mekong to escort 164 stranded Chinese sailors and 28 cargo ships back home. 
In the Chinese response, one sees a mimicking of the US-led national security narrative, at least in ovo and in miniature.
For the South China Sea, substitute the Mekong River.
For the Rabbani murder, substitute the October 5 outrage.
For the mess in Afghanistan, substitute the public safety problems on the Mekong.
For the American-led regional security architecture, substitute the “Law Enforcement Cooperation along the Mekong River Mechanism”.
And for the pervasive American military footprint throughout Asia and the Pacific, substitute the dispatch of Chinese patrol boats down the Mekong.
China’s leadership may recognize that the “security” narrative provides an unassailable pretext for projecting power and protecting national interests unilaterally.
However, it will be regrettable – and dangerous – if China shifts away from the “win-win” rhetoric of economic development and economic development that has served it reasonably well in the past.
As the seemingly endless disaster in Central Asia indicates, continually playing the “security” card is inherently destabilizing.
East Asia has benefited from thirty years of stability, and China should think twice before putting those gains at risk – regardless of what it thinks about US shenanigans in the region.
Zhu Feng of Beijing University made a similar point in an op-ed, laying the blame for the problems in Myanmar and on the Mekong – and by extension elsewhere – to Beijing’s slovenly management of its regional political, diplomatic, and commercial portfolios, not a security vacuum.
Indeed, China’s neighbours will not be reliably good to Chinese interests unless and until China begins to provide essential public goods – not just commerce, but also full-fledged regional governance based on the rule of law, respect for human rights, and regional economic growth. Otherwise, ruptures such as those at Myitsone and along the Mekong will recur, deepening China’s sense of isolation and panic.
Indeed, the closer one looks at the US military and economic scorecard both under the Bush and Obama administrations, one might conclude that America’s indefatigable efforts to leverage its influence despite the consequences are perhaps worthy of guarded admiration – but not emulation.
Notes: 1. The Mystery of the Dropped Fuel Tanks, China Matters, Oct 5, 2007. 2. A Long List of Suckers, New York Times, Nov 2, 2011. 3. Offshore balancing: An idea whose time has come, Foreign Policy, Nov 2, 2011. 4. India, Pakistan getting into SCO tent, Rediff, Nov 1, 2011. 5. Turkey to join investigation on Rabbani assassination, Hurriyet Daily News, Nov 1, 2011. 6. Obama administration ignoring Congress on new North Korea policy, Foreign Policy, Oct 28, 2011. 7. Myanmar’s new guardian?, Japan Times, Nov 2, 2011. 8. Senior Chinese leader urges thorough investigation into Mekong River attack, Xinhua, Oct 31, 2011. 9. China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand agree to secure Mekong River shipping after deadly boat raid, Xinhua, Oct 31, 2011. 10. Mekong security agreement reached, Xinhua, Nov 1, 2011. 11. Thai soldiers held over deaths of Chinese sailors, Google, Oct 31, 2011.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.