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Foreign Policy

How We Should Measure Success from the Obama-Xi Summit

Jun 06 , 2013

Over the past two years—from the Obama administration’s announcement of its provocatively militaristic

Stephen Harner

Looking at this situation, can it be denied that East Asia as a whole is in geopolitical and geostrategic crisis, although (so far) still at a low level, and that risks of serious escalation to hot war, already at unacceptable levels, are rising? 

It warrants repeating:  The geopolitical and geostrategic status quo in East Asia is dangerously unstable and, indeed, in crisis.  Change—not return to some idealized status quo ante–is imperative.

Crisis and the imperative for change are the context—and the urgent justification—for the Obama-Xi summit in California.   Success or failure at the summit—and the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama—will depend on how directly and substantively Obama and Xi address the underlying causes of the crisis, outline at a high strategic level needed changes in the status quo (we are talking here about a new regional geostrategic order), and confront vested status quo bureaucratic and economic interests to formulate a new order project plan and implementation schedule. 

If this summit ends in failure, it will be worse than a missed opportunity.  Failure will ensure that both the U.S. and China (as well as the region’s other countries, and particularly Japan) continue to pursue ruinously wasteful and dangerous geopolitical and defense policies and strategies. 

Success, on the other hand, will establish a framework for a constructive, stable, and mutually beneficial order for all regional countries, not least Japan, and promote resolution of the region’s current hot conflicts, not least those between Japan and China.

How great are the obstacles to achieving success?  They are formidable and monumental.  In a few words, they are the current post-WWII and Cold War system of alliances (with Japan, Korea, the Philippines) and forward U.S. military bases, particularly in Japan (under the U.S-Japan Mutual Security Treaty), but also in South Korea, together with an implicit alliance with Vietnam, that constitute and present an immediate potential threat to China’s security and core national interests (which, here, we can say include, but are not limited to, its territorial integrity—including Taiwan—and unimpeded navigation of vital sea lanes).   

That vested U.S. bureaucratic (particularly Department of Defense) interests are relentlessly resisting any change in this status quo, and in fact are advocating layering on greater U.S. expenditures and commitments in the region has been seen in the recently published Carnegie Endowment for International Peace “China’s Military and the U.S.-Japan Alliance in 2030:  A Strategic Net Assessment,” and the CSIS Armitage-Nye Report, misleadingly entitled  “Anchoring Stability in Asia” released in August 2012.

Dogged defense of the status quo and the deployment of 60% of U.S. strategic naval and air force assets to Asia by 2020, was the essence of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s presentation at the May 31-June 2 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. 

If the Obama-Xi summit is not be judged a failure, it must begin to fundamentally change this status quo and the current direction (“pivot”) of U.S. policy. 

What would a new, stable geostrategic order for East Asia look like, particularly in respect of the main powers, the U.S., China, and Japan?   For an answer we may refer to the published work of Yokohama City University Emeritus Professor Yabuki Susumu, particularly his 2012 book, Chimerica:  U.S.-China Collusion and the Way Forward for Japan; Australian National University Professor Hugh White (The China Choice:  Why America Should Share Power); and the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter.   From these scholars’ views we find the following:

  1.  The U.S. must acknowledge that its post WWII and Cold War alliance system and forward force deployments in the region are destabilizing and should be dismantled and effectively withdrawn.
  2. The U.S.-Japan alliance should be abrogated.  U.S. army, air force, and naval bases in Japan should be closed.  Japan should be allowed and encouraged to assume a position of (non-nuclear) armed independence or neutrality, under Article 9 of its constitution. 
  3. U.S. forces should be withdrawn from the Korean peninsula.  China should assume primary responsibility for guaranteeing denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula. 
  4. Territorial disputes should be resolved between the disputants without the interference of third parties, particularly the United States.  
  5. The U.S. and China should solemnly commit to avoiding a wasteful and dangerous arms race.  China’s legitimate requirements for near sea and sea lane security should be the baseline for balanced regional parity in deployments and arsenals.  No country should seek unchallengeable offensive superiority.

Among all the flashpoints and dangers in the Asia region today, the most regrettable (and avoidable) has certainly been the Japan-China rift over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.  In this dispute, U.S. policy and the U.S.-Japan alliance have been major contributing factors, probably the deciding factors, in encouraging Japan’s counterproductive actions.  

Positive resolution of the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, and indeed fundamental reconciliation and restoration of amicable relations between Japan and China, will be difficult if not impossible while the U.S.-Japan alliance continues to distort Japan’s internal politics and sense of its own interests.

The Obama-Xi summit has the potential to change Asian and world history for the better.  We should all hope for its success.       

Stephen M. Harner is a former U.S. State Department official, banker and consultant whose has lived in East Asia for over 30 years. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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