America’s China Gambit: Why Showing our Limits in Iraq Has Hurt Us


A few weeks ago, I happened to be included at a dinner at the home of the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Singapore Embassy, Susan Sim, who invited a small handful of people together to toast a mutual friend. One of the other guests was a senior Pentagon official who covers East Asia & Pacific Affairs.
I told him that it seemed to me that the distraction of Iraq was harming American interests in several ways. First, America had shown the world its limits — financially and militarily — with the Iraq invasion and occupation. The consequences of this are enormous as it erodes the confidence that allies have in our ability to stand with them in times of crisis and incentivizes the world’s bad actors to maximize their objectives during a time when the American response will be more bluster than bite.
Secondly, the Iraq conflict has distracted America from many other important foreign policy questions. American leadership seems invisible in global trade policy today. The White House also seems to have informally kicked USTR out of the Cabinet — with the White House statement that all cabinet level appointments had now been concluded, implying cryptically that USTR and the Environmental Protection Agency were now demoted departments.
As I have written previously, China has been on a major charm offensive in the Asia Pacific region — while Japanese ministers have been pleading for the last 18 months for the U.S. not to let its level of visibility and engagement in Asia slip any further. Our absence at Asia-Pacific forums of various kinds had created a void which Chinese diplomacy was quickly filling.
Furthermore, I told him the old joke that “America fought the Cold War, but Japan won” — and said that the next one-liner would be that “America fought the war on terror, but China won.”
China looks like the oasis of stability amidst global turmoil, receiving more than $50 billion a year now in foreign direct investment. Just last month, China surpassed the United States as Japan’s largest trading partner — and China too has surpassed Japan as America’s largest overseas trading partner (second to Canada).
China’s leadership realizes that the war in Iraq has been good for its interests. We have needed China’s cooperation on global terror, on nuclear proliferation questions, on putting some pressure on Kim Jong Il and North Korea. China finances America’s gluttonous consumption habits and helps keep American inflation down by exporting cheap products and competing with us with its far cheaper labor.
John Negroponte and Porter Goss should be worrying that no matter whether one favors engagement with China (which I do) or containment (more of a Richard Perle line), China may work covertly to keep America as distracted as possible with its Middle East agenda and obligations.
The neocons have never been comfortable with our recent closeness and cooperation with China — and if one studies the roster of PNAC letters and commentary closely, before 9/11 — there were actually more written and produced items on the threat China represented than all of those focused on Israel and broader Middle East concerns.
This senior Pentagon official told me to wait a few weeks; he said that a new comprehensive China initiative was on its way.
And it has arrived — and is fascinating. Japan has for the first time ever publicly declared stability within the Taiwan Straits and on Taiwan itself as within its security interests and declared its intention to support U.S. forces if any conflict were to take place with China over Taiwan.
This is not completely new news. Previous National Security Advisors to the President for East Asia Douglas Paal (who advised President George H.W. Bush) and Sandra Kristoff (who advised President Clinton) made off-the-record comments years ago that our understanding was that Japan “would be with us” in any conflict involving Taiwan.
But going public is a big deal. I have a variety of suspicions on why Japan did make their support of America’s Taiwan defense policy overt. Such a declaration makes inter-operability more of a reality, and helps tie U.S. forces to Japanese defense capabitility as much as the other way around.
But America probably compelled Japan’s declaration for several other reasons. First, America wanted Japan to loudly declare its allegiance to America — and its general opposition to China’s Taiwan pretensions and broader regional security ambitions. With China looming ever larger — and now larger than the U.S. — in the Japan’s economy, there are worries that Japan’s politics will tilt away from the U.S. and toward China. John Foster Dulles worried about that exact problem after World War II and went to great lengths to not only rebuild Japan’s powerhouse economic base after the war but embedded it deeply into the U.S. economy to keep Japan from slipping back into a Chinese orbit and courtship.
Second and perhaps most obvious, America wanted this Japan declaration to warn China not to escalate its growing buildup of forces adjacent to Taiwan.
Third, I think America is trying to punish China for failing to keep North Korea reigned in.
In Europe, President Bush has brought one negative item of contention in what otherwise has been a cosmetic love-fest, and that was his opposition to Europe lifting its arms export ban to China.
Rumsfeld as well has said that America needs to revisit and review the terms of its engagement with China.
On the trade front, organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers and the AFL/CIO are lining up to get U.S. government support for another assault on China’s cheap yuan strategy.
On one hand, I’m glad that Washington seems to be paying attention to other potential problems in the world while it is trying to manage its Iraq quagmire.
But a lot of what is unfolding from the Bush administration on its seemingly new China policy is puffery and seems to be a lot like the gopher game, in which we jump from one issue we hit on the head until we are distracted by another.
China may be just the distraction of the moment — something to keep the mind fuzzy and out of focus while Members of Congress give the President his full $82 billion request for America’s Afghan and Iraq operations.
But China is not the kind of challenge that should be so trivially managed. Its clear that America has initiated a new comprehensive strategy of pressuring China — and is using our agent in Asia, Japan, to help in that effort.
But the bottom line is that China knows beneath the surface commotion, America has few options to pose a serious challenge to its interests right now. This is something we need to fix.
Those who are blindly calling for America to stay the course in Iraq — through thick and thin — and expenditures of some $80-$90 billion a year really need to investigate the costs to America because of our inability to credibly deter bad behavior in any other part of the world.
And what is so frustrating is that those policymakers who ultimately agree with me on the costs as I’ve described them just blindly jump into line to provide more troops and mountains of additional money to a globally stretched Pentagon that doesn’t provide the security deliverables it should be providing now.
— Steve Clemons
(ed. note: I am traveling and unable to hyperlink items to this post — will do so at a later time)