U.S. China Policy: Incoherent and Dangerous

U.S. China Policy: Incoherent and Dangerous

REUTERS/Jim Watson/Pool

The cement is hardly dry on America’s new policy to forge new Asia-Pacific alliances, and already the post–Iraq endeavor is coming across as a collection of incoherent contradictions. Consider:

*We say we want to build closer ties with China, but our two leading presidential candidates are making political hay out of its trade and industrial policies at just the moment Beijing is struggling to maintain economic growth. President Obama has filed two cases against China at the World Trade Organization in the last two months, one of them just last week. They are both intended as vote-getters in the auto-industry states; neither is expected to make much practical difference.

*We assure the Chinese that America’s new “pivot” to Asia and the Pacific is not aimed at a rising China, but we are forging new defense ties that are clearly intended to make a ring around the mainland. The latest efforts involve docking reciprocity with New Zealand naval vessels and training and military exchange programs with Myanmar (formerly Burma). Look at a map. Myanmar provides China’s southwestern provinces with strategically vital sea access. Would the U.S. like the People’s Liberation Army soldiers training in Mexico?

*Most immediately and explosively, we are standing at the edge of a territorial dispute between China and Japan that could involve American military action if it gets much further out of hand. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tried to play the honest broker when he visited Tokyo and Beijing last week. The fact is the U.S. is legally bound by the U.S.–Japan Security Treaty to defend Japan in any attack on territory it holds.

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Dragging China into U.S. politics has been time-honored political fodder at election time for many campaign cycles. (Before China it was Japan. Remember?) Rarely, if ever, does such fire-breathing amount to much. But it might this time. Obama went further than blustery rhetoric when he filed a suit at the WTO last week charging China with illegally subsidizing its auto and auto-parts industries.

It is the third WTO suit this administration has pending in Geneva, the other two involving U.S. car sales in China and China’s rare earth minerals. There seems little question that China, even as it tries to reduce its dependence on exports, makes use of hard-to-identify industrial subsidies. But do we want a trade war in this global economic environment? We are getting close to one.

China has already filed a retaliatory WTO suit against the U.S., challenging its anti-dumping rules. I agree with TFT's Josh Boak: What we want right now from China is not a string of trade rows and the ill will that goes with them, but a strong economy. The stakes this time are simply too high to allow for the penny ante politics of past campaigns.

None of this was helpful background for Defense Secretary Panetta’s tour of the region last week. While Panetta was at pains to reassure Beijing officials that Washington had no designs to “contain” China, he had a tough time of it. His arrival in Beijing from Tokyo coincided with an announcement that the U.S. and Japan had agreed to build an advanced missile defense system on Japanese territory – the second such installation the Pentagon will operate next door to the mainland.

“The purpose of this is to enhance our ability to defend Japan,” Panetta explained amid sharp criticism from Chinese officials. “Defending Japan” is an old chestnut in American military circles, used to explain just about anything Washington chooses to do at the far end of the Pacific. But Panetta, like all of his predecessors, never identified a potential aggressor. Ostensibly, the enemy is North Korea. But it does not take too much to imagine how the deployment of this level of technology looked from the Chinese side.

Further complicating Panetta’s visit – you have to feel for the guy –  were the protests and violence in China over territorial rights of a small string of islands that lie between Japan and China –  and which are thought to sit atop large deposits of oil and gas. Panetta made a stab at urging both sides to settle the dispute peaceably. It is the kind of “balancing role” the U.S. says it wants to play in its “pivot” strategy.

But Panetta came off sounding weak and irrelevant. “By virtue of both countries understanding how important that relationship is with the United States,” Panetta reasoned, “if we can encourage both of them to move forward and not have this dispute get out of hand, we can play a positive role.” Anyone care to shave the fuzz off that remark and tell us what it might mean?

The Sino–Japanese dispute over the Senkaku Islands (the Diaoyus in Chinese) is centuries old, and the issue has periodically become a flashpoint for nationalists on either side. It is complex and tends to give rise to searing emotions rooted deeply in history, notably in China. No Westerner is going to referee a dispute of this kind, unless it goes to the U.N. Indeed, it was revealing to see how ill-equipped a top U.S. official was to weigh in on the matter. The defense secretary came off as the uninvited stranger at the party.

There are lessons in last week’s display. China’s accumulating influence has everyone’s attention now, but this does not mean it can be stopped. It is a fact of history, and it falls to us – and the Japanese, among others – to learn how best to accommodate it. Certainly we Americans have a role to play in Asia. But as Panetta discovered the hard way, we cannot expect to maintain the pre-eminence we enjoyed for the second half of the last century.

On this side of the pond, what we saw last week was a truly remarkable absence of coordination. The Pentagon has long played an oversized part in U.S. foreign policy. So the State Department talks about a pivot and “balancing,” while the Defense Department aims new defense systems at the mainland and consolidates ties with as many of China’s neighbors as are willing to get into the act. As to trade policy, it is out there on its own, paying no apparent attention to anybody.