Building Global Order: A Good Day for Global Summitry


The headline says it all.  Just a quick look at the New York Times: “As Xi and Obama Stress Common Ground Stubborn Differences Persist“.  Or an earlier headline from the same paper: “U.S. and China Agree to Cut Tariffs, but Vie for Trade Blocs“.

Let’s be clear, however.  It’s been a good couple of days for global summitry.  As Dan Drezner headlined in his Washington Post blog post this morning: “Best APEC Summit Ever“.  As Dan suggested:

This year’s APEC summit that just wrapped up in Beijing is therefore highly unusual… because stuff got done. Seriously, a LOT of stuff got done.

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Putting the Issue to the Side for the Moment – China-Japan


It is energizing when strong diplomatic effort, results in a step away from confrontation and conflict. And so it seems to be with China and Japan over the confrontation between the two with respect to the islets in the East China Sea – known either as the Senkakus or the Diaoyu depending which side of the East China Sea you happen to be on.

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Looking at the ‘World’ With Two Lens

Final reflections on the Harvard-Beida conference on US-China relations (see previous blog posts for further information).  If I was a meteorologist, I would suggest that the weather forecast for US-China relations has gone from, partly sunny to partly cloudy.

A number of international relations experts examining the Asian architecture recently have described a growing polarity in the structure of pan Asian relations.  So, for instance Evan Feigenbaum now at the Paulson Institute (a former US official) and Robert Manning (also a former official) but now at the Atlantic Council described in “A Tale of Two Asias” in October in that Asia today consisted first of a “Security Asia” described by the two as “a dysfunctional region of mistrustful powers, prone to nationalism and irredentism, escalating their territorial disputes over tiny rocks and shoals, and arming for conflict.”  And there was a second Asia, what the two authors called “Economic Asia”, a dynamic, integrated Asia with 53 percent of its trade now being conducted within the region itself, …”

The first pole, according to Feigenbaum and Manning  is dominated by the United States while the second has become increasingly dependent on China. For the two experts the dilemma posed by this structure is that Economic Asia is increasingly seen to be at risk by the rise of nationalism and the growing security competition in the region. As Feigenbaum and Manning have written recently in the East Asia Forum in a piece entitled, “The Problem with the Two Asias,” a response to a critical piece written by American University’s Amitav Acharya’s “Why Two Asias May be Better Than None” also posted at the East Asia Forum:

Our principal point is that Asia’s incredible economic dynamism and growing integration are at risk because of debilitating security competition and sharpening political disputes within the region, not just between the United States and China, but among Asia’s major economies as well. … Put simply, competing nationalisms and the scars of national memory remain potent forces in Asia.  And they risk undermining the economic gains that have done so much too promote integration, boost growth and foster opportunity.

At our own conference at Beida, our colleague John Ikenberry from Princeton sketched a similar two pole pan-Asian architecture.  Acknowledging a division in the structural construction between security and economics in Asia,  Ikenberry proposed that the longstanding partial US hegemonic order, as he called it, is giving way to:

In effect, as noted earlier, there increasingly are two quasi-hierarchies in East Asia.  There is an economic hierarchy led by China and a security hierarchy led by the United States. This circumstance creates constraints and dilemmas for the United States.

Now most suggest that the reassertion of classic balance of power dynamics in Asia would be detrimental to all and lead to growing friction and rivalry between the US and China and put pressure on the powers in Asia to choose one or the other.  Ikenberry puts well the unease that appears to pervade Washington circles today:

At the same time, the United States does see China today in the way it has seen potential regional hegemonic rivals in the past.  It is worried that China could amass sufficient wealth and military power to fundamentally alter East Asia. The ultimate danger is the growth of a Chinese rival that would endeavor to drive the United States out of the region and project illiberal ideas and policies outward into the world.

I think the “two poles” construction today still distorts the current Asian architecture.   Feigenbaum and Manning point to the fact that 53 percent of Asia’s trade is now conducted in an intra-regional basis identifying this datum, and others, as indicating that “Asian economies have become increasingly reliant on pan-Asian regional trade.”  But a quick comparison with other regions shows the strength of intra-Asia’s broad intra-regional trade but suggests that it is hardly excessive.  EU intra-regional trade as a percent of global export merchandise trade is 26 percent as opposed to Asia where the intra-regional trade is 16 percent.  Furthermore, any examination of global value chains would suggest that in fact long valuable chains stretch to Europe and North America.  And EU-Asia trade as a percentage of world trade comes in at 3.6 percent.  This rather too static look at intra-Asia trade  and the growing China trade presence in Asia, I believe does lead falsely to a conclusion that there is a security pole, headed by the US, matched by an economic pole dominated by China.

That being said there certainly does appear to be rising nationalist sentiment in Asia among the key players.  And there is no question that interdependence is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for stability in the global environment – though I would suggest that “complex interdependence” – globalization, generates a quality different than say the interdependence in the period before World War I.

So what conclusions can one derive from our conversations at Beida and in the surrounding informed blogosphere debate? Here is a part of what I take away from the conversations and readings:

  1. China is ‘driving the bus’ in the region in many issues – especially on the island/islets dispute – and it is driving it in the wrong direction.  China repeatedly appeals to acting only in response – a reactive stance – in the South and the East China Seas island disputes.  But for many, “one man’s reactive is too frequently aggressive behavior to the other”.  The apparent manipulation of the Cambodia host at the most recent ASEAN gathering and the continuing unwillingness to contemplate seriously a binding Code of Conduct or to put the sovereignty disputes away for cooperation on resource development, are all unhelpful and raise the temperature over these disputes.  As Joe Nye so aptly described, “only China can contain China” so as China has become more assertive China, in fact, has begun to contain China in the region (see a more developed view by Nye following the conference posted at the NYT).  So China responding
    with more measured cooperation here would be a fabulous starting point for the new China leadership if it was determined to lower the temperature;
  2. China experts need to consider abandoning a view that every action by the US has only China in mind and that all US actions are designed to contain China.  The US, in fact, has been a primary supporter of Chinese leadership building its economic strength and achieving greater prosperity for all Chinese;
  3. Much attention was paid to the overreaching of the “Pivot” both in US actions but most especially in its rhetoric.  A number of US experts were critical of what they saw as the unnecessarily aggressive statements of US officials.  One expert urged that US and China focus on solutions that preserve face for both suggesting a start with much broader exchange and cultural programs.  Another arguing the reduction in assurances by the US to China urged that the US undertake efforts to build trust.  He has urged in the past that the US could give way on the close-in surveillance of the Mainland, made unnecessary by other surveillance means.
  4. The US, according to many at the Conference needs to work very hard to  avoid “balance of power” actions.  Instead, a look at Stephen Walt’s proposals seem designed in particular avoid balance of power actions.  Walt urges (see his blog post at positive and negative security cooperation including the involvement of the US and China.  On the positive side he points to possible cooperation on Iran, Korea or anti-terrorism.  It does strike me that Korea is a most apt choice, especially given the DPRK’s recent threats against the US.  On the negative forms of cooperation surely greater efforts to conclude a multilateral Code of Conduct led by the US and China and useful for both sets of island disputes could be extremely valuable.

There is likely more.  Let let me conclude here nevertheless.  The cloudy forecast is a result of the insidious impact of rising nationalism in China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere.  It is time for the new China leadership and the renewed US leadership to build trust and lower the nationalist temperature throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Image Credit:

“Pivots” and Great Powers – From One Side


The ASEAN meetings last week – and especially the debate – or non-debate as it turned out over territorial challenges in the South China Sea, raised again the question of the US-China relations.  Secretary Clinton expressed publicly again the US position that the territorial disputes among ASEAN members and China needed to be addressed in a “multilateral setting” while China was equally firm that the matter should not even be on the agenda for the ASEAN Ministerial. Though discussed openly by various ASEAN members, the ASEAN ministers were not able to issue a joint communique at the conclusion of the meeting  – the first time in 45 years that such a failure had occurred.

The US-China relationship is the key to stability or instability in the region – and indeed beyond.  As I was thinking about this key bilateral relationship I eyed – and was impressed with – an analysis of China’s strategic concerns in the NYT by Minghao Zhao on July 12 (“The Predicaments of Chinese Power”).  Aside from the evident quality of the article, I was struck by the fact that Minghao Zhao is a research fellow at the China Center for Contemporary World Studies apparently a think-tank of the International Department of the Central Committee of the CPC.  So the NYT is not a usual place for a researcher of his sort to place an op-ed piece.  I will get to this article and the implications for China’s strategic policy but I thought I’d start with the US position.

Now the Obama Administration has signaled – since at least the Honolulu APEC Leaders Summit last year – that with the winding down of US efforts first in Iraq and now Afghanistan – that the United States was back in Asia.  The United States was rebalancing (various terms have been used – the most notable “pivot”)  its strategic efforts from the Middle East  to Asia.  As an example of this rhetorical shift, assess these words from President Obama before the  Australian Parliament on November 17, 2011:

For the United States, this reflects a broader shift.  After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.  In just a few weeks, after nearly nine years, the last American troops will leave Iraq and our war there will be over.  In Afghanistan, we’ve begun a transition — a responsible transition — so Afghans can take responsibility for their future and so coalition forces can begin to draw down.  And with partners like Australia, we’ve struck major blows against al Qaeda and put that terrorist organization on the path to defeat, including delivering justice to Osama bin Laden.

This rebalancing has become know as America’s Asian or Pacific “pivot” – though it is interesting that in the various speeches and press conferences that Obama gave at the time around November 2011 he never referenced the term “pivot”.  But the media has picked it up from others including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who used it in her “America’s Pacific Century” article in November 2011.  At the conclusion she wrote:

This kind of pivot is not easy, but we have paved the way for it over the past two-and–a-half years, and we are committed to seeing it through as among the most important diplomatic efforts of our time.

More recently Robert Merry, the editor of the well-known National Interest, writing a book review for the New York Times’s David Sanger’s newest book Confront and Conceal (in last week’s, July 15, 2012) New York Times “Book Review” Section provided a cogent assessment of Sanger’s – and I suspect his own –  “temperature-taking” of the US-China relationship:

With regard to China, Sanger sees a possible “Thucydides trap” (Sanger earlier made clear that he is taking the term from Graham Allison the former Dean of the Kennedy School) – a reference to the the Greek historian’s narrative of the clash born of Sparta’s fear of Athens’s growing military might.  “We are seeing similar themes today,” he writes, adding that what some perceive as mounting nationalistic fervor in China could lead Beijing to underestimate the American response to Chinese adventures in the South China Sea.

So let’s focus briefly on the “Thucydides trap” and the “pivot” in US strategic policy.  As to the Thucydides Trap, Sanger has the best assessment.  In his NYT January 22, 2011 piece “Superpower and Upstart: Sometimes It Ends Well”  this what Sanger wrote:

Or ask Thucydides the Athenian historian whose tome on the Peloponnesian War has ruined many a college freshman’s weekend.  The line they had to remember for the test was his conclusion: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” … Both Mr Hu and President Obama seemed desperate to avoid what Graham Allison of Harvard University has labeled “the Thucydides Trap” – that deadly combination of calculation and emotion that, over the years, can turn healthy rivalry into antagonism or worse.

The so-called pivot has raised concerns that in fact the US actions may feed the Thucydides trap.  Part of the issue is of course that in the face of a growing fiscal crisis with budgetary cuts likely to be enacted after the election – no matter who wins – that this presentation of a US pivot to Asia is overreach.  While Chinese behavior might be constrained and even constructive in the near future, this would only be likely if Chinese leaders were persuaded that the US had a coherent Asia strategy that is viewed as credible and widely accepted.  That is hardly yet the case.  Indeed many in China have commented on what appears the growing crisis in the US and the decline in the US.  This rather pessimistic view of US leadership and the pivot in policy leads the perception that the Obama administration is long on rhetoric but no strategic policy is likely to be forthcoming.  In fact the rhetoric has fed the view by many in China that US policy remains committed to dominance and a continuing effort to pospone the day of China’s successful rise.  As Ken Lieberthal in his insightful piece in Foreign Policy argued, the pivot impacted in the following way:

In sum, the president’s Asia-wide strategy and some of the rhetoric accompanying it played directly into the perception of many Chinese that all American actions are a conspiracy to hold down or actually disrupt China’s rise.

If, and it is a big if still,  were China’s leaders to conclude that US policy in Asia was a direct challenge to China’s rise and designed only to contain China, then it does seem to set up that poisonous brew that can indeed turn “healthy rivalry” into growing antagonism and even confrontation in Asia.  This would be very bad.

So where is Chinese leadership on its relationship with the United States?  I’ll be back with that shortly.



Image Credit: – President Hu and President Obama 2011





The Current Heart of China “Assertiveness” and the United States “Pivot”



This past week ASEAN ministerial meetings popped up repeatedly in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.  These meetings served as diplomatic and political backdrop to the growing clash of interests in the seas east, west and south of China.

ASEAN has been a central player in Asian diplomatic and economic affairs since its formation in the late 1960s.  But on its face this is not necessarily more than a important regional organization.  Now, however, at least since 2008, one of the key ASEAN players, Indonesia, has also become a member of the G20 Leaders Summit.  The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) a security dialogue forum has reached out to include key players in Asia – most notably China and the United States.  And the growing territorial claims especially, but not only, in the South China Sea have drawn in these key players to the security dialogue.  Given that there is no larger security organizational setting where not just regional powers but also the great powers engage here, the ASEAN meetings do appear to fit into the global summitry galaxy of institutions.

Much attention has been paid to the continuing tension that has hung over this region now for several years with contending territorial claims to the South China Sea by China, and various ASEAN and members including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei and for good measure Taiwan.  There have also been clashes between Japan and China over the East China Sea.  The maritime area is a key for the global transport of goods and vital energy resources.  Over half the world’s total trade transit through the area.  And  there have been increasing signs of resource riches – especially oil and gas – in the area as well.

The clash of interests was very much in evidence at, or surrounding the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh early in the week followed by the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting.  The ARF is one of the few diplomatic settings for security dialogue in Asia.  This year’s ARF meeting – the 19th –  includes not only ASEAN Foreign Ministers but dialogue countries including – Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, the People’s Republic of China, the European Union , India, Japan, North Korea, Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Russia, East Timor, United States and Sri Lanka – 26 countries plus the EU in all.

Both meetings have highlighted the tensions between ASEAN and its allies and China. The United States has used these meetings to display rhetorical support for ASEAN countries without necessarily supporting any of the specific claims of these ASEAN countries.  The US efforts would appear to be an effort since at least 2010 to insinuate itself in East and Southeast Asia – and draw closer to various ASEAN states especially Vietnam and the Philippines.

In the South China Sea the ASEAN FM have been pushing to engage China in a long standing effort to resolve conflicts between the various states.  On Monday the FM sought to complete wording for a document to set out a Code of Conduct.  The Philippines have pressed for wording that would include measures to resolve territorial disputes and to raise the conflict in the Scarborough Shoal between the Philippines and China.

Manila appears to be leading the ASEAN push to persuade China to accept a Code of Conduct (COC) that would go some way to resolve the territorial disputes themselves. There has been a ten-year effort to complete a code of conduct which most ASEAN leaders have see as a legally binding document that would govern the behavior in the various seas and “establish protocols for resolving future disputes peacefully”. (see the WSJ “Beijing Defends Sea Claims as Clinton Visits Region” by Patrick Barta July 11, 2012)

China has been unwilling to discuss such a document signalling instead that it would be prepared only to discuss a more limited code aimed at “building trust and deepening cooperation” but not one that settles the territorial disputes, which it insist would be better negotiated with each country separately.  In the current diplomatic settings China has urged that officials leave discussions off the agenda.

For China, the collective ASEAN effort to promote a binding  COC has posed unwelcome interference in what Beijing has described not as territorial disputes between China and ASEAN but only disputes with some ASEAN states.  China has insisted that resolution of these conflicts be undertaken bilaterally.

Since the 2010 ARF meeting the United States Secretary of State has made it clear that the United States supports a multilateral solution and insists on the freedom of the seas:

Issues such as freedom of navigation and lawful exploitation of maritime resources often involve a wide region, and approaching them strictly bilaterally could be a recipe for confusion and even confrontation.

The Chinese position has remained adamant in the run-up to the ARF that US and various ASEAN positions were “deliberate hype” and intended to interfere with relations between China and ASEAN.   The Foreign Ministry continued to insist that the issue be left off the ARF agenda.

Meanwhile in the East China Sea tension rose significantly after two Chinese patrol vessels entered waters claimed by Japan. This incident followed an announcement that the Japanese government was considering buying the Senkaku Islands (referred to by the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands).  Though the announcement was part of a complicated negotiation by the current Noda government caused by strong domestic political interests, the announcement and tensions quickly engaged both Japan and China.

A full blown diplomatic row at the ARF was only avoided when the ASEAN countries failed to reach agreement on the language of the COC.  But the tensions and potential conflict remain.

China has certainly not backed away from the its diplomatic positions.  And as the most recent East China Sea incident with Japan suggest is prepared to exert measured “military” action to underpin its assertion of interests.  Meanwhile has expressed a view that inserts itself into the regional conflict – and likely garners ASEAN country support – but at a low immediate cost while not directly challenging China – yet.

For the moment US-China engagement retains the “upper hand”.  But the position could well sour were military action – even though likely of a rather limited sort and unlikely to be between the US and China – were to occur.

Miscalculations and mistakes happen.

Image Credit: Stratfor 2009

More ‘Bismarck’ and less ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’, Please







[Ed. Note:  This is the third piece in a continuing effort to understand the US-China relationship and suggest means to avoid conflict in the power transition currently underway.  In each blog post I have referenced Harvard colleagues or the Harvard conference setting of our recent conference: “Chinese Strategy and the US Response – How Far is Adjustment Possible” – so I suppose these posts can reflect –  ‘Tales from Harvard’.]

I must be still recovering my sojourn down to Harvard.  Images of ‘grand strategy’ are still dancing in my head.  I found my self trying to untangle the recent actions of the US administration in Asia.  What do these statements and actions from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton  – and even more recently Michèle Flournoy the Undersecretary of Defense visiting China  for the 12th round of Defense Consultative Talks – about US foreign policy and what does it suggest about the tenor of the near future of the US-China relationship?

The Obama Administration apparently is  determined to pivot its foreign policy thinking, and presumably actions, in the Asia-Pacific region.  Now whether these statements are the prelude to tangible actions and reconfiguring of US foreign policy is not yet clear but the intent is clearly there – to make Asia the heart of US foreign policy again.

It was almost impossible for a foreign policy expert to ignore the coordinated “full court press” of the US Administration- and President Obama in particular, and the push back in Asia on display at: APEC, the Australian state visit and then finally at the Bali East Asian Summit (EAS).

As an expert among experts Fareed Zakaria examined the recent US moves in the Asia Pacific in his Times column saying:

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on Nov. 12-13, many leaders echoed Singapore’s Prime Minister when he said the U.S. was welcome in the region and that its ­presence would “do good.” The U.S. announced on Nov. 16th that it would for the first time establish a formal military presence in ­Australia—a base in all but name.

The Obama Administration is now ­quietly re-engaging in Asia, reversing the troop cutbacks of the Bush Administration, which was more focused on Iraq and the Middle East. Asian diplomats had often complained that U.S. participation at regional summits was too low-level. Obama’s attendance at the APEC summit marks a shift in that approach.

So how are we to interpret this re engagement?  What does it suggest about Obama foreign policy?  Minxin Pei a long term observer – and yes critic – of China suggested the following in a post at The Diplomat:

However, equating recent moves by Washington, consequential as they are, as decisive steps toward “containing” China would be exaggerating their importance, reading too much animosity into US intentions, and ignoring the Obama administration’s careful balancing act. (Chinese leaders should note that Barack Obama reiterated, at the East Asia Summit, the US policy of engagement  with China.) … So, as China’s ascendance and America’s relative decline continue, these two great powers, though economically interdependent, will continue to compete for geopolitical influence.  Managing this competition, rather than denying it, is the most challenging task for both Washington and Beijing in the coming decade.

While many Realists and the ‘China Threat’ crew in Washington and in Asia applauded Obama actions and the push back they implied concluding in many instances that such behavior was required to construct an active containment of China – I believe – or at least hope – seconded it appears by Minxin Pei – that this policy is in reality more ‘Bismarck and less Kaiser Wilhelm’.

Now what do I mean by this all too esoteric reference to 19th century international diplomacy?  First our Harvard colleagues have analogized the contemporary US-China relationship to the competitive sharp relationship between Great Britain and Imperial Germany in the 1907 to 1914 period.  In particular a number of historians suggested parallels between the bilateral relations of the two sets of great powers. Several experts raised the views of Eyre Crowe, a British official of the time.   As our rapporteurs report described this description:

In light of his concerns about German threat to Europe’s balance of power and Britain’s imperial dominance, Crowe made several recommendations, which might with some context, apply aptly to American considerations in the face of rising China.  Crowe rejected appeasement as a strategy for Britain in its dealings with Germany.  He instead recommended that Britain build two ships for every Germany ship, and respond sternly to any transgression of British national interests, which he suggested might forestall German ambitions before they grew out of hand.

Thus the British strategy should be, according to Crowe, to meet Germany at every aggressive point offered by the Kaiser and his officials.  Though the Kaiser’s control slowly slipped to his military officials it remained forward and aggressive.  In turn it was to be met, and in many respects was met with British opposition.  Neither I nor my colleagues wanted to carry the analogy too far, but still there was great attention to appropriate air and naval strategy – and much discussion of the newly unveiled Air Sea Battle doctrine.

So then what about this ‘Bismarck-Wilhelm’  reference.  Well there is no question that Bismarck in his early years was more than willing to apply force waging battles with many of his neighbors as he restructured Europe and creating Imperial Germany.  But thereafter Bismarck was more than cautious. Diplomacy gained a place of prominence and the military waging of war in Europe’s heart faded.  He accomplished what seemed impossible – allying of Germany with Russia and its great power rival Austro-Hungary – and even toyed with France.  As I suggested in an April Blog post ” Not Required to Choose” – A Strategy for US-China Relations,”

The genius of Bismarck was to hold opposites together.  I am not thinking here of his revolutionary early career, forging a Germany – beating both Austria and France in quick but decisive conflicts – but in his diplomatic legerdemain in generating alliances with Germany at the center and antagonists especially Austria-Hungary and Russia circling around this new and newly created European “heavy weight”.  As Kissinger characterized Bismarck’s diplomatic efforts:

He sought to counter it [hostile coalitions] by involving Germany in a dizzying series of partly overlapping, partly conflicting alliances with the aim of giving the other great powers – except the irreconcilable France – a greater interest to work with Germany than to coalesce against it.

This was diplomacy at its best – and holding little similarity with the Germany of the early 20th century.  Does it reflect an Obama-Clinton strategy?  Well the Chinese certainly don’t think so – or at rhetorically suggest.  The Chinese Defense Ministry suggested that the actions by the President and Secretary of State Clinton were denounced as a a product of “Cold War thinking.”  And there is a strong streak in Chinese foreign policy thinking that argues that US policy is designed to contain and hem in China.

If the Administration isn’t intent on containment, the what is this Asian pivot all about.  On that I shall look to my colleagues who applaud an Administration now that it has adopted apparently a policy of “offshore balancing”.