Saturday, November 1, 2014

Will Obama Seize the Moment and Make History?

A shorter version appeared earlier in China-U.S. Focus. The short version also appeared on the Chinese website, on November 14, 2014

When President Obama goes to Beijing and meet President Xi, will he make history and finally make good on the Nobel Peace Prize awarded 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.

Up to now, his administration has far from winding down violent conflicts around the world—naively anticipated by the peace committee—but has instead presided over violence and mayhem more intense than even during the reign of the predecessor war mongering administration.

Today we see Ukraine confronting its eastern secessionists supported by Russia in direct opposition of the U.S. and Ukraine’s western allies.

The competence and reliability of new leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq are at best dubious; the internal stability and security is shaky to say the least; and the prospect of American military and mercenaries being able to extricate is never bright and becoming dimmer by the day.

ISIS didn’t even exist during the disastrous Bush years and arguably might not come to being if the American military incursion under Bush hadn’t broken the hornet’s nest of radical jihadists. Nonetheless, history will credit the emergence of ISIS and its threat to the existence of Syria and subsequent tearing asunder of the entire Middle East to Obama’s watch.

During his watch, Israel and Palestine have been as nasty to each other as ever and inevitably with the hapless and out-fire powered Palestinian getting the worse of lives lost. The prospects of peace are no more realistic than before.

Egypt and Libya should have been bright spots where Obama could claim ownership for replacing authoritarian regimes with democracy. Only problem is that the new governments are not letting their people enjoy any fruits of democracy. We don’t hear much about their being worse off only because the media’s short attention span is now focused elsewhere.

On top of all that, a worldwide Ebola outbreak threatens.

Despite both sides claiming a warming of bilateral relations, the bilateral relation between China and the U.S. 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. The Obama budget for 2015 will have to borrow $561 billion to meet revenue shortfall and the interest on debt is expected to be $252 billion representing 6% of the annual spending. 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?

Rather than increasing military expenditures in the Pacific to correct any perceived imbalance with China, Obama needs to throw away the moldy script of “strategic ambiguity” left in the White House desk by his predecessor.

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.

He needs a China less willing to work with Iran and Russia and more openly willing to cooperate with the U.S. and he can be 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:

(1)         Stop expecting or telling 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. Treat them as a prospective partner and they will become a friend. Treat them as an adversary and they will become one.

(2)         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.

(3)         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. Accept that China too has its own national interest. It’s not in our interest to go out of our way to deprive China of theirs.

(4)         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. The dispute should not be between states but between legitimate governments and the cyber criminals.

(5)         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.

(6)         Remember that the Cold War is over. China is not a stand-in for the former Soviet Union. Rather than any expressions of intent to compete with the U.S. for world domination, China has gone out of its way to stay out the U.S. way.

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. Given time for the two countries to work together, a genuine and durable partnership could develop and the U.S. find a China more willing to pick up its share of the tab for maintaining world peace.

Critics might consider the proposed approach naïve. But the naiveté if it succeeds will save America from grief and finally reap a peace dividend that Bush squandered away. 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 to Xi on 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 from economic implosion. 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 consider the U.S. as a genuine working partner in the global arena. North Korea, realizing that the prospect of American soldiers standing across the Yalu River no longer serves as a threat to China, would have to be more amenable to negotiate for security assurances in exchange for giving up the bomb. Over the longer term, the north may find the reunification with the south inevitable.

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.

China and South Korea are already quite comfortable with each other. They are major economic partners. Xi and President Park of South Korea like each other, and Xi would find a united Korean peninsula one less source of worry—so long as the Americans are no longer there.

The U.S. would be the biggest winner of all. Obama can claim to finally achieve a nuclear free Korean peninsula, to have created go-forward progressive relations with China, and to 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. 

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