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Foreign Policy

Kerry’s SAIS Speech Augurs Deadlock in U.S.-China Relations

Nov 19 , 2014

“…The conviction that American principles are universal has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate.

“This tenet–so ingrained in American thinking that it is occasionally put forward as official policy–suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed; in the meantime, their relations with the world’s strongest power must have some adversarial element to them.”

So writes former U.S. Secretary of State, and preeminent American geostrategic thinker, Dr. Henry Kissinger (under whom I served in the State Department) in his new book, World Order

We heard the conceits identified by Kissinger expressed in a speech by the current U.S. Secretary of State, John F. Kerry, at the Johns Hopkins University School of International Studies (SAIS) on November 4.

Delivered on the eve of his departure for Beijing to attend APEC, and to accompany President Obama in meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the SAIS speech was advertised as a major statement of U.S.-China relations. 

Many observers, myself included, were hopeful that it would adumbrate a “reset” in relations. Such a reset is needed. By much objective analysis, U.S.- China relations have deteriorated during most of the six years of Obama administration and are now the worst they have been in decades.

The “reset” did not happen.  On the contrary, what Kerry expounded was an at once panglossian, disingenuously selective, subtly belligerent, sometimes patronizing, and ultimately dismissive “dig in the heels,” “stand pat,” justification for “business as usual” maintenance of U.S. regional military hegemony. Most distressing and unfortunate was the rejected engagement with China on constructing “a new model of great power relations” in Asia.

“The U.S.-China relationship is the most consequential in the world today, period, and it will do much to determine the shape of the 21st century,” intoned Kerry. “That means that we have to get it right.  Since President Obama first took office, that’s exactly what he has focused on doing.”

With breath-taking but apparently unselfconscious lack of perspective, by “getting it right,” Kerry explained Obama’s “rebalance” (“pivot”) policy.  Kerry identified four policy “goals”: first, finalizing the TPP (which, of course does not include China); second, new energy policy to deal with climate change; third, “reducing tensions and promoting regional cooperation by strengthening the institutions and reinforcing the norms that contribute to a rules-based, stable region; and, fourth, “empowering people throughout the Asia Pacific to live with dignity, security, and opportunity.”

“The Obama administration is absolutely committed to seeing through all of these goals,” he said. “But there should be no doubt that a key component of our rebalance strategy is also about strengthening U.S.-China relations.”

Noting “differences” with China, Kerry got specific, and switched to a sterner tone:

“…when we talk about managing our differences, that is not code for agreeing to disagree.”  Rather, he said, the United States has and will continuing to forthrightly and firmly exercise its prerogatives, defend its interests, and if required, challenge China in areas such as “maritime security, especially in the South and East China Seas”; “…cyber-enabled theft of trade secrets”; and “the situation in Hong Kong and human rights elsewhere in China, because respect for fundamental freedoms is now and always has been a centerpiece of American foreign policy….”

“Let me be clear:  The United States will never shy away from articulating our deeply held values or defending our interests, our allies, and our partners throughout the region.”

Following this, Kerry turned to waxing effusively, though not convincingly or, I think, sincerely, on the vistas over which he sees U.S.-China “partnership” and joint “leadership” opportunities.

The “perfect example,” Kerry said, is “shared efforts to respond to the global threat of climate change” where the two countries have a “shared responsibility.”  In what was easy to view as patronizing, Kerry’s gushed “that’s global leadership” praise of China’s commitment of $130 million and plans to dispatch a PLA unit to Africa against the Ebola epidemic. 

Similarly patronizing was Kerry’s vision of “coordinating … assistance and development work” in Africa, Central America, and other parts of Asia: “If we ensure that our approaches are complimentary and coordinated…[to] help millions of families lift themselves out of poverty….”

And, from this, without ever getting to the most important topics of U.S.-China relations, or any U.S. initiatives to substantially improve relations, Kerry’s speech, like a slowing airplane unable to maintain altitude, descended into homilies on the value of “people-to-people” exchanges. 

What are the most important, pressing, and potential dangerous topics in U.S.-China relations?  Here is, in my view, the biggest one:

“…we should all be amply disturbed by the obviously unstable military competition now coming into full view in U.S.-Chinese relations,” writes Lyle J. Goldstein, associate professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College, on October 29, 2014 in The National Interest . “[Not] putting U.S.-Chinese relations on a strong footing [has been] a conspicuous failure of the [Obama] administration’s foreign policy….”

Notwithstanding Kerry’s words above, it has been U.S. policy, especially the overwhelmingly military-power focused, Pentagon-driven, China-directed “rebalance”–with its operational emphasis on “strengthening alliances” against a hypothetical China threat, thereby stoking a wasteful and dangerous arms race, that has been and remains the greatest destabilizing factor and problem in U.S.-China relations. 

But most disappointing, indeed distressing, about Kerry’s speech was its certainly intentional omission of any reference to seeking to construct “a new model of great power relations” with China.

By this omission Kerry very clearly signaled that the United States will not engage China in such a project. Rather, the policy of the United States is to maintain a geostrategic regional status quo of American allied military hegemony, even while recognizing that this status quo is potentially threatening and therefore unacceptable long term to China.

This bodes ill for anything but continued strategic deadlock and instability in U.S.-China relations, at least for the remainder of the Obama presidency.

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