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Foreign Policy

How the Obama Administration is Losing Trust in Asia

Jun 07 , 2014

We don’t want to talk to China about “core interests,” we want to talk about “common interests,” is how Evan Medeiros, senior advisor on Asian policy in Obama’s National Security Council (NSC), in a May 22 interview on Phoenix TV, described the Obama administration’s approach to a “new type of great power relations.”  

What the Obama administration is seeking in a “new type of relationship” are areas of common interests where the two can cooperate, like climate change, the rule of law, and cyber security.  

Stephen Harner

Listening to the articulate Medeiros, what he says seems at first reasonable and constructive. We can believe that this approach is fully endorsed and considered optimal by the State Department and the all-powerful Department of Defense (DoD). 

After a moment’s reflection, however, we begin having doubts. 

What if the “common interests” defined by the U.S. are not really “common” to or are defined differently by China? What, particularly, American ideas of “common interests” would – according to the U.S. “cooperative” agenda – conflict with China’s clearly defined “core interests”? 

For evidence that both these situations exist – which means the NSC’s policy approach is, at best, conceptually flawed – we cite two recent situations:  The United States’ May 19 accusations and Department of Justice indictments against alleged Chinese PLA cyber-espionage; and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s May 12 charge that China’s movement of an oil rig into the South China Sea was a provocation and “aggressive act.” 

Because the U.S.-China cyber-security issue has been so prejudicially and one-sidedly presented by most U.S. media, some background information is required for a fair discussion of it.  Two data points are particularly relevant. 

The first is the revelation, from secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden and reported in The Washington Post on August 31, 2013, that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), had, since at least 2011, been conducting “offensive cyber-operations” – codenamed “GENIE” – against China (along with North Korea, Russia, and Iran).  The Post reported that “the $652 million project has placed ‘covert implants,’ sophisticated malware transmitted from far away, in computers, routers and firewalls on tens of thousands of [targeted country--i.e. Chinese] machines every year, with plans to expand those numbers into the millions.” 

The second point would be the Obama White House’s insistence during the June 2013 Obama-Xi Jinping “Sunnyland’s Summit” that on issues of “cyber-security,” only commercial espionage – the U.S. charge of China’s “theft” of American intellectual property – would be discussed, and that “military/defense related cyber-security” – i.e., the type of “GENIE” program actually conducted against China – was taken “off the table.” 

In the White House’s view of “common interests,” then, we find the U.S. taking a strong stand against “theft” of intellectual property, and presuming to enlist China on a “common” resolution of the issue.  But we also see an obstinate U.S. refusal to acknowledge, much less to address, the surely greater damage and loss caused to China’s “core national interests” by covert U.S. sabotage of China’s real national security system infrastructure from the GENIE program.  

In short, the Obama White House’s high-sounding rhetoric about “common interests” – rather than a practical and constructive approach to relations with China – seems like more of a camouflage and diversion from aggressive and, objectively, hostile U.S. policies and actions that threaten China’s core interests. 

Since at least 2010, the Obama administration has chosen to insert itself into territorial issues in the South China Sea, when Hillary Clinton, claiming to support the “rule of law,” made statements clearly biased in favor of Vietnam and the Philippines and against China.  Unsurprisingly, Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements have followed the same line. 

It was fortunate that on May 15, three days after Kerry called Chinese drilling operations “provocative” and an “aggressive act,” People’s Liberation Army Chief of the General Staff General Fang Fenghui was in Washington, D.C. on a reciprocal visit, and able to reply directly to U.S. press questions about the matter.  Quoting the Department of Defense’s transcript of the press conference, General Fang said: 

“China is conducting the exploitation activity in – within 12 nautical miles of the Zhongjian Islands which is part of the Paracel Islands.  And this is an activity conducted within our territorial water.  

And secondly, the related countries in the South – in the South China Sea region have drilled actually many oil wells in the South China Sea, but China has never drilled even one.  From this single fact, we can see how much restraint China has exercised.  And the purpose of this restraint is to keep – to maintain the stability of the South China Sea region. 

“We have an enduring position of putting aside disputes and achieve [sic] common exploitation.  But while China is holding this position, other nations are drilling oil wells in this region.  So that’s – that is the status quo.  And I have to underscore it is only under this background that we are conducting that exploitation activity within the Zhongjian island.” 

In short, China is conducing a vital economic activity within its own territory – a “core national interest.”  For the U.S. Secretary of State to call this “provocative” or an “aggressive act” is actually a provocative and hostile anti-Chinese policy stance on the part of the United States.  

Again, we see U.S. rhetoric about pursuing “common interests” disguising utterly contradictory policies and actions that are obstacles to and can only harm prospects for a constructive U.S.-China “new type of great power relationship.” 

The U.S. Justice Department’s inexplicable indictments of PLA officers caused China to suspend the U.S.-China “cyber-security” working group and cancel planned military-to-military exchanges with the Pentagon. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has responded resolutely to John Kerry’s outlandish statements that have again put the U.S. squarely in the middle of issues that do not and should not matter to U.S. interests, and in no way present “common interests” with China. 

The question is inevitable and must be answered: While the U.S. refuses to discuss “core national interests,” can China at least trust the United States to pursue its own national interests?  If not, there can be no trust, and no constructive and sustainable bi-lateral relationship. Without a fundamental change in the Obama administration’s approach, the near term U.S.-China relationship is in trouble.

Stephen M. Harner was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in Beijing, Washington, D.C., Hong Kong and Tokyo.  He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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