Monday, April 3, 2017

Review of Task Force Report on US Policy towards China, Part II

In Part I of my review of the Task Force report on “US Policy Toward China,” I noted that the tone was surprisingly hostile sounding toward China. This was the report published under the joint leadership of Orville Schell of Asia Society and Susan Shirk of UCSD.

Upon further reflection, I decided that the authors probably thought an unfriendly posture toward China was necessary in order to gain the acceptance of the incoming administration. During the campaign both candidates had been attacking China as if that was the way to winning the votes of the electorate.

Thus, the authors probably felt, or at least subconsciously felt, obliged to be critical of China so that their report wouldn’t appear discordant to pre-existing notions and get trashed without being read.

Part I of my review was to examine the six priority issues on my premise that the Trump Administration has no choice but to collaborate with China. This Part II is my review of the ten longer-term issues identified by the Task Force, again from the perspective that the US needs to work with China and not treat China as an adversary.

Cyber Issues

The discussion of this section by the Task Force was relatively free of the kind of rancor that would singled out China as the only party guilty of cyber infractions and intrusion.  Quite sensibly, the Task Force sought different venues where the US and China could discuss and seek solutions in issues that represent common interest.

Cyber security and cyber attacks are beyond the comprehension of the ordinary citizens. To deal with these issues require technologists with special expertise and knowledge. Instead of international cooperation, if governments allow cyber security to become an issue for finger pointing, the winners would be the cyber criminals.

Energy and Climate Change

By the end of Obama’s term, China had already emerged as the world’s leading user of wind and solar energy. Xi Jinping pledged to work alongside the U.S. to reduce emission of green house gases. Because of China’s rapid economic rise based on “pollute now and remediate later,” China has been suffering from foul air, toxic water and unbridled solid waste. Now that Chinese leaders recognize time has come to pay the price needed for remediation, they are making the commitment without external pressure from any outside party.

However unlike Obama, President Trump seems to continue to insist that climate change is some kind of ruse to steal jobs from America. As the same time, the Republican Congress has rescinded Obama’s order to limit the burning of coal and forbid use of fresh water to wash coal. So long as Trump and Congress are unwilling to accept the science surrounding climate change, China will have to go it alone.

Global Governance

In this section, the Task Force begins with the recognition that “today many global problems are nearly impossible to solve without Chinese involvement and support.” The report, however, failed to point out and perhaps did not understand that China goes about international governance very differently from the US.

As the only hegemon in the world, the US is accustomed to setting the rules and then expects all others to abide by them. Not so with China. Since joining the UN, China has become an increasingly active participant of various international bodies, always within the confines and rules set forth by the bodies. More recently, China has also taken the initiative to lead in the formation of international bodies such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. In the case of AIIB, China did not set the rules unilaterally but through the participation of all the founding nations.

The Task Force also mentioned that even though China is a signatory of UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China failed to accept the ruling of UNCLOS on the South China Sea dispute with Philippines. That was an accusation levied at China so often in the American media that it became accepted as true. Unfortunately, it was untrue.

China rejected the arbitration by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), which was not affiliated with UNCLOS in any way whatsoever, because China never agreed to participate in the arbitration hearings. Just like clapping with one hand, the arbitration can have no validity if only one party participated at the hearing. Furthermore, the US never got around to ratifying UNCLOS and thus had no dog in the fight and must rely on Philippines to act as the Labrador pointer.

Asia-Pacific Regional Security

The Task Force position was typical of the mainstream American view, namely the US has an obligation to guarantee the security of Asia Pacific, specifically pertaining to the waters off the coast of China. To carry out their role as a guarantor of security, it has been necessary for the US Navy fleet to patrol the South China Sea and the East China Sea in the name of freedom of navigation. It has also been necessary to fly surveillance planes around the coast of China.

Whether the constant intrusion of American planes and ships is supposed to make Asian countries feel more secure is a matter of debate. One thing is certain; China does not feel more secure, just more angry and resentful. China has always derived their sense of security not by exercising freedom of navigation elsewhere but by owning a credibly menacing second strike.

North Korean Nuclear Threat

As I pointed out in Part I of my piece, while both countries are in agreement that the Korean peninsula must be nuclear free, the national interest of China and that of the US are not aligned. To expect them to cooperate effectively is not realistic.

Bill Perry’s memoir clearly described the origin of the problem as one between North Korea and the US. North Korea felt threatened by American troops in the south and developing the bomb was their way of swapping a deterrent for some sense of security. To resolve the stalemate now, it will continue to depend on Washington to swallow some pride, take the initiative and offer to resume two party talks, i.e. just representatives from the US and the North Koreans in the room.

Maritime Disputes

The US has been dealt a weak hand and should simply face reality.  Washington has not ratified UNCLOS and does not claim any real estate in the waters of dispute. The American naval fleet has to sail a long ways to flex their muscles—a tiring and expensive proposition. America’s role is that of a busybody kibitzer lacking a legitimate stake in the game.

The Report did admit, “Since China has pledged publicly and repeatedly to resolve the disputes in the South China Sea—especially those over the Spratly Islands and associated maritime claims—through peaceful negotiations,” the claimants should be allowed to do just that. The cruising American navy is merely muddying the waters and interfering with negotiations.

Taiwan and Hong Kong

The Task Force noted that the US has “maintained a principled hands-off position” on Taiwan and Hong Kong.  If true—there are always rumors of CIA hanky panky to stir up local unrest—minding one’s own business is a laudable approach.

The Umbrella Movement, contrary to media reports, represented a minor fraction of the Hong Kong population. There were indications that the movement had outside support such as the Mormon Church and who knows what else. The fortunes of the younger generation are tied to the mainland. Those that recognize this fact will have productive careers. Those that don’t will likely become homeless, career protesters.

Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan has already found out that she can’t have her cake, i.e., enjoyed close economic ties with the mainland, and not give what Beijing wants, i.e., recognition that Taiwan is part of one China. Her economic policies without the mainland are not working, tourists from across the straits are plummeting, and the economy is in negative growth.

The people of Taiwan will decide their own future. Not everyone has the luxury to move to the mainland or to the US. Those that remain in Taiwan will decide soon enough on whether Tsai is on the right course. For the US to interfere would be a big mistake and counter to maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

Human Rights

Despite significant setbacks such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, the Chinese people since the end of the Mao era have experienced expanding gains in a variety of individual freedoms in everyday life. These freedoms include the ability to choose their own jobs, become prosperous, travel abroad, marry whom they choose, have more than one child, worship as they wish, and live where they choose.

In addition to the opening statement by the Task Force above, China has taken 700 million of its people out of poverty. With China’s one belt and one road initiative, Beijing is looking to pull others out of poverty along the Silk Road. China does not go around proselyte on how each country should govern, but recognizes that economic improvement is good for the direct beneficiary and in turn good for the neighboring countries. Economic improvements improve the human condition and automatically allow for more human rights.

Defense and Military Relations

The Task Force recommends adopting “an active denial strategy,” which boils down to deploying more military forces and spread them over more locations and thus capable of threatening China from more directions. More recently, China has been deploying its version of active denial strategy to counter American presence in their backyard. Each move is likely to be met by a countermove. In such a scenario, the cost advantage of maintaining comparable relative strength goes to China.

Last, the Trump administration should bear in mind that over the long term, US military power is dependent upon the vibrancy of the nation’s economy, the effectiveness of its system of democratic governance, the caliber of its human capital, and the scope of its research and development and technological innovation. The global apportionment of US military forces matters in the short term; decisive over the long term is the strength of the country’s political and economic foundation.

I couldn’t summarize this section any better than the above. The question for all Americans to ponder is this: Are we Americans so confident of our political and economic foundation that we can go anywhere around the world and pick fights?

Trade and Investment Relations

Because trade and investments are of vital national interests to both parties of the bilateral relations, the Task Force made detailed and specific recommendations for the Trump Administration. One of these was to ratify the Trans Pacific Partnership as quickly as possible. Given that cancelling TPP was     virtually the first act as soon as Trump was sworn into office, it is unlikely that he will pay any attention to the other recommendations presented in the report.

One exception worth mentioning is Chinese investments coming into America. Because of favorable economics, Chinese companies are now looking to set up manufacturing plants in the US. Hopefully the Trump administration will not cut off one’s own nose and discourage such job creating investments.


The recent Pew survey indicates that Americans’ impression of China has become increasingly negative with time. I attribute this to, probably unintentional, the conspiracy between media, academics and politicians. Negative stories about China from the mainstream media invariably outnumber any warm and fuzzy stories about how well China is doing. It’s almost an industry rule that negative stories about China sell while positive stories do not.

The 2 to 1 split between academicians with unfavorable views of China to those more favorable as represented in the Task Force is probably an accurate measure of the academic circles in the US. I am not sure why this is so. Possibly professors tend to mentor students of like mind and help their academic advancement. Young aspiring professors may find espousing accepted views to help them advance their careers. Thus, bad impressions of China become self-reinforcing.

The politicians of America find bashing China risk free and profitable at the polls. They behave irresponsibly and reinforces the negative feelings of the American people toward China.

I would like to propose a new way of looking at the bilateral relations. Namely, why getting along with China is in America’s national interest. I can think of two major reasons. First, about 1/7 of the earth from Ukraine down through Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and rest of Middle East to Sub-Sahara, are in turmoil. All kinds of crimes against humanity are taking place daily. Uncle Sam as the world’s guarantor of security has his hands full dealing with this region, about 1/8 of the earth surface. Given the runaway federal budget deficit and military personnel getting weary, why should the US go look for China or anyone else to turn them into adversaries?

Secondly, China has taken a long-term view by going around helping other countries build their infrastructure. Improved infrastructure will stimulate the economy and raise the living standards. These improvements will have a rippling effect for countries along the upgraded highway and rail—and give less reason for acts of terrorism. What China is doing is not what America can do or would like to do, but the two together can be perfect partners for world peace.

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