Next month President Obama will be going to Beijing and he has the opportunity to make history and finally make good on the Nobel Peace Prize given to him rather prematurely at the beginning of his first term.
He will be in China to attend the summit of the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. In addition, he will also have a private meeting with China’s President Xi. This trip could be Obama’s best chance and possibly the last chance to radically alter the bumpy bilateral relations and leave a lasting legacy of genuine peace.
During his administration so far, instead of a tapering of violent conflicts that the peace committee had anticipated, the world’s arc of manmade mayhem has exploded.
From north to south, we now have:
- Ukraine confronting its eastern secessionists with Russia squarely opposing Ukraine’s western allies;
- Afghanistan and Iraq becoming tar babies where American troops/advisors/mercenaries can’t extricate;
- ISIS threatening the very existence of Syria and the entire Middle East;
- Israel and Palestine making no progress towards even a faint glimmer for peace;
- Egypt and Libya enjoying none of the fruits of democracy, while their worsening instability has been largely overlooked because of the more bloody violence to their north.
On top of all that, a worldwide Ebola outbreak threatens.
Given the litany of woes, Obama should be asking why he would want to maintain the tension and pretense of “strategic ambiguity” with China. Despite both sides claiming a warming of bilateral relations, it has been more of one step forward and one step backward, sometimes even two steps back.
The latest example was for the Pentagon to give a senior PLA official the red carpet treatment while the Justice Department was very publicly indicting 5 PLA soldiers alleging illegal cyber attack.
The current U.S. annual defense budget plus the cost of veteran services is around $900 billion. Annual debt service of the mounting national debt is more than $400 billion. Together, the total represents about 30% of the GDP. While facing the daunting task of taming the federal budget deficit, can Obama justify adding to the nation’s financial burden with a “pivot” to Asia designed to confront if not to contain China?
Obama should understand that petty politicians take pot shots at China for perceived profit at the polls. Of all people, as president, he should see that it is in America’s national interest to have a friend and not an adversary across the Pacific and he can do something proactive about it. He should stop pandering to those that do not see the big picture.
All it takes is political courage and a start from scratch with a new approach to China. The new approach should include the following:
- Stop expecting China to do what we want them to do. Respect that they have a different point of view and a different way of getting things done.
- Stop articulating differences publicly but by all means discuss them frankly but in private. Already in place are regularly occurring bilateral meetings between leaders and working level officials. Use them constructively.
- Recognize that China wishes to establish its sphere of influence around its borders, and as an act of good faith, stop surveillance flights near China. Let China work out their bilateral relations with Japan and other Asian states without the U.S. being the elephant in the room.
- Stop writing rules of conduct unilaterally, such as proclaiming that cyber activity by the NSA is legitimate but any from China is not. Instead both sides need to sit down together, share best practices and agree on lines on the sand that neither side would cross. Then invite other nations to join in the discussion.
- Agree that terrorists are terrorists. So long as the U.S. sees terrorists in China as possible freedom fighters, there is a big problem. Agreement on the other hand would allow the two major powers to work together in stemming the jihadist madness.
- Remember that the Cold War is over. China is not a stand-in for the former Soviet Union.
The above six basic planks for developing a new bilateral relations with China represent an affirmation that China is a economic partner, sometimes a competitor but not an adversary. Critics might consider the proposed approach naïve. But the naiveté if it succeeds will save America from grief. In contrast when Americans charged into Iraq expecting a liberating hero’s welcome, that naiveté cost the U.S. dearly, last count exceeding $1 trillion and close to 40,000 casualties.
At least starting from a position of goodwill, Obama can credibly propose resolving the North Korea debacle as a common problem to tackle between friends.
Both Bush and Obama had expended a lot of energy on getting North Korea to undo their nuclear program to no avail. When the lack of progress frustrated the U.S., they would throw up their hands and proclaimed that only China can influence the North Koreans to behave.
In reality China has been just as frustrated by North Korea. China’s only leverage is to sever the economic lifeline that has been keeping North Korea alive. China can’t afford to let North Korea collapse because the existing treaty between the U.S. and South Korea would allow American troops to move right up to the China/North Korea border.
If Obama were to build real mutual trust between China and the U.S. and, in the context of building trust, pledge to withdraw all U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula upon the reunification of Korea, there would be a whole new ball game.
China would look at the U.S. as a real working partner in the global arena. North Korea, knowing that the prospect of American soldiers leering across the Yalu River no longer works as a threat to China, would have to be more amenable to joining the 6 party talks and negotiate for security assurances in exchange for giving up the bomb.
South Korea should welcome a less belligerent north and be open to reconciliation in exchange for the cancelling the military alliance with the U.S. The treaty was established in 1953 and the South Koreans have been questioning the relevancy of the treaty since at least 2006.
The U.S. would be the biggest winner of all. Obama can claim to finally achieve a nuclear free Korean peninsula, have created go-forward progressive relations with China, and deduct the cost of stationing 30,000 troops in South Korea from the annual budget.
The world will thank him for the legacy of at least making one part of the world safer then he found it. He can then rightfully be a Nobel laureate.