Sunday, July 31, 2011

Debt, Democracy and Decline: How China Perceives a Troubled America

America's in the red. What do the Reds think about it?

Amid the many articles discussing the potential negative impacts of the US debt ceiling impasse that I have come across in the past few weeks, one story in particular has caught my eye. Joshua Hersh, writing for the Huffington Post, claims that the debt ceiling standoff may be giving America’s democratic form of governance a bad name in China. Hersh uses one weighty quote in particular, offered by Charles Freeman at CSIS, to set the stage for this debate:
This is a big issue - what is it about the democratic process that is preventing [America] from getting something done? What I think Chinese officials prize more than anything is stability and predictability. To do that they want to know the way forward, and this kind of activity is completely flabbergasting.
I take no issue with Freeman’s quote, which, in itself, is not controversial. Chinese officials do indeed prize stability, while the continuing failure of Republicans and Democrats in Congress to reach a deal doesn’t make the democratic process look good within the US, let alone in China. The impasse clearly does not show America's better side.

What I find strange is Hersh’s suggestion that the American debt ceiling impasse may be causing a change in perceptions of American democracy among Chinese officials. This suggestion implies that American democracy, or any multiparty democratic system, has until recently enjoyed a degree of respect among China’s elites. On the contrary, as Professor Zhang Xuezhong of East China University of Political Science and Law noted in a recent Chinese-language commentary, the attribution of instability to multiparty democratic systems has been common among Chinese academics, with political turmoil in places such as Thailand and Taiwan contributing to a perception that multiparty systems are unstable.

Chinese officials clearly listen to these academics. Otherwise, Wu Bangguo, Chairman and Party Secretary of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, probably would not have said that the adoption of a system of rotating parties would cause the state to “sink into the abyss of internal disorder.”

If anything, the current US debt ceiling impasse would only reinforce preexisting wide-spread negative impressions of multiparty democracy among Chinese elites, not cause America’s system of governance to suddenly undergo a major change in perception.

Yet even the reinforcement of these preexisting impressions may be minimal at the moment, as one of the sources cited by Hersh himself claims. The scholar in question is Gao Wenqian, Senior Policy Advisor for the New York branch of Human Rights in China. Gao states that he hasn’t seen much emphasis on the failings of democracy in the Chinese press but imagines that more media attention might be given to this issue if the debt ceiling impasse is not resolved.

If multiparty democracy was already held in ill-repute among many Chinese decision makers, and if one of Hersh’s own sources sees little evidence that this particular issue is currently being widely spun as evidence of the failings of multiparty systems, then it seems to me that Hersh's article adds little of significance to the controversy surrounding the debt ceiling debate. Regardless of the result of the Congressional negotiations, Chinese leaders were not about to lead the country down the path of multiparty democracy.

This is not to say that the debt ceiling impasse will not affect Sino-American relations. To Hersh's credit, he has explored the question of whether the Congressional gridlock will have effects beyond the issue of perceptions of democracy. In fact, the article would have been on much firmer footing if it had explored more extensively the potential that the debt ceiling debate was impacting Chinese perceptions of America’s decline.

Hersh raises the matter by quoting Kerry Brown, Director of the Asia Program of London’s Chatham House, toward the end of the article. Brown says that Chinese popular opinion already holds that the US is a declining power. Hersh never explains why this should trouble us.

In fact, Brown is absolutely correct that belief in America’s decline is widespread within China. Moreover, like negative impressions of multiparty systems among leaders, the belief in America’s imminent retreat is not new, but stretches back decades. Page 4 of this 2001 piece from PoliticalScience Quarterly explains the prevailing mood among Chinese elites following the end of the Cold War:
Chinese analysts now argued that having won the cold war, the United States had [like the Soviet Union] also been badly weakened by years of overextension and exhaustion. Rampant global turbulence and America's growing rifts with allies and Russia, persistent U.S. economic woes, debilitating social problems, and rising isolationist domestic public opinion all imposed important constraints on U.S. power. Chinese analysts began again to emphasize the irreversible decline of the U.S. relative influence and the inevitable trends of multipolarization.
History did not quite unfold according to Chinese elites’ expectations. On the contrary, the US entered one of its longest economic boomsin 1992 – one that would last throughout the Clinton presidency and into that of George W. Bush. As a result, by the end of the century, the US had maintained its economic lead over the rest of the world. This boom supported the continuation of a vigorous foreign policy characterized by bandwagoning on the US-led order instead of balancing.  

As the Political Science Quarterly article notes, Chinese elites were forced to accept the fact that the US would be active in their neighborhood for some time to come, as the resultant popularity of Deng Xiaoping’s Taoguang Yanghui (Hiding One’s Capabilities and Biding One’s Time) Policy demonstrates.

Since this policy suggests that a time will come when China's capabilities will not be hidden and when there will be no more biding of time, Taoguang Yanghui is, fundamentally, a menacing foreign policy posture. China will express its power openly when it is sure that it will not suffer repercussions. And China will not suffer repercussions when US power is no longer a restraining factor.

Therefore, the debt ceiling impasse might have a large effect on Sino-American relations to the extent that it convinces Chinese elites that the US is indeed declining, or entering the waning days of its East Asian influence.

We have seen the effects of Chinese estimations of US decline before. Three years ago, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 suddenly threw US financial weakness into the spotlight. The subprime mortgage crisis that accompanied the market crash in that year symbolized the tendency of US consumers to spend spend spend, even when they did not have money to spend spend spend. The outsized US trade deficit with China only contributed the impression of US weakness. The concept of “US decline” was linked to that of a rising China, and Chinese elites were quick to take notice. This idea is still prominent, as this Chinese-language article from the Hong Kong-based China Review News shows. On page three, the article states:
最後,由於以上的變化導致了全球地緣政治權勢和地緣經濟實力從發達國家向發展中國家的轉移,導致了美國的衰退和中國的崛起。從表面上看,美國的衰退與中國 的崛起有著因果關係,因為中國崛起,所以美國衰退;因為製造業轉移到中國,所以美國大量就業機會被流失,失業率居高不下;因為跨國公司將產品從中國返銷到 美國,所以導致美國貿易赤字,債務上升,因此美國和中國的關係是二大巨人間的對決,如同歷史上大國之爭.
Finally, the above changes have caused geopolitical and economic power to shift from developed countries to developing countries – caused America’s decline and China’s rise. On the surface, America’s decline and China’s rise have a cause and effect relationship. Because China rises, the US declines. Because manufacturing industries move to China, therefore a large number of US job opportunities disappear. The unemployment rate is high and does not fall. Because multinationals sell products from China to America, therefore there is a US [trade] deficit and the US debt rises. In this way, the relationship between America and China is like that of two contesting giants.
In short, China has been causing the US decline. Meanwhile the 2008 crisis has been perceived as evidence to this effect.

It was no coincidence that China’s more assertive military posture began soon after. The Impeccable incident, the redefinition of the South China Sea as a “Core Interest”, the threat of sanctions against US companies involved in arms sales to Taiwan and China's opposition to US-South Korea naval exercises in the Yellow Sea all date from this period.

We can perceive this posture as a premature abandoning of Taoguang Yanghui. The reaction was "premature" because Chinese elites forgot, just as the above China Review News piece fails to emphasize, that the “decline” of the US is relative and not absolute, and that this decline may take a very long time. In fact, to the extent that the US can develop new technologies and retain a high degree of productivity, the process might even stall or reverse itself at times. The point is that, following 2008, it was fair to count the US as down, but premature to count the US out.

Sure enough, as of 2010, the Obama administration was busy tending to security partnerships in Beijing’s backyard. Meanwhile, just weeks ago, Hillary Clinton was in India proclaiming that it was time for the Hindu Tiger to lead (as a partner and friend of the US, of course). In the end, China’s temporary abandonment of Taoguang Yanghui led to unexpected balancing from a still-prominent US and its partners.

Yet, in the face of this US resurgence in the Asia-Pacific region, troubling news has emerged. Reports that the American economic recovery seems to be faltering have emerged in the days leading up to the August 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling. Meanwhile, the impasse in Congress is giving markets the jitters.

Suddenly, the US is looking weak again. If this situation persists, calls for the abandonment of Taoguang Yanghui might grow within China, thereby negatively impacting the East Asian security environment. Due to their potential to lead to conflict, the negative repercussions of Chinese perceptions of US weakness would therefore be much greater than any perceptions of inferiority of the American democratic system.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Derailed Ambitions: The Implications of an Epic Train Wreck


If we take the reporting of the official Chinese media at face value, lightning and a mysterious lack of communication were the culprits behind the horrific crash of one of China’s first-generation bullet trains near Wenzhou on July 23. As the story goes, a bolt from the sky struck either a train or the rails, causing a power outage. Soon after, another bullet train, traveling in the same direction and operated by a conductor who was unaware of the presence of the first train on the tracks in front of him, struck the stalled train from behind. The crash claimed the lives of dozens of victims and injured hundreds.

Since the crash, doubts have been raised about this official account for various reasons, but one thing is certain - this crash should never have happened. As the SCMP’s Tom Holland notes (behind paywall):
High-speed rail systems elsewhere in the world employ fail-safe cut-outs that make it impossible for two trains to occupy the same section of track at the same time; an essential feature when the trains may be travelling at speeds of up to 300km/h.
The fact that China’s high-speed trains lack such a simple safety device is shocking, while the potential miscommunication or lack of communication that kept the conductors in the dark regarding each-others' positions raises troublesome questions. Other media can probably raise those questions with greater effectiveness than I can. The goal of this post is merely to discuss the implications of the crash.

Before I begin that discussion, I should offer some words of caution regarding the trains that crashed on July 23. They were not part of the same high-speed network as the line that was opened between Beijing and Shanghai with great fanfare in June. Rather, they were slower first-generation high-speed trains, launched in 2007. The newer and faster trains - designed for speeds of over 300 kilometers per hour - might be perfectly safe. Yet the uncertainty that Saturday’s crash raises about train safety in China in general will be no less troubling to the country’s leadership, which has previously portrayed the high-speed rail as the crown jewel of China’s wider rail-construction strategy and a poster child of the nation’s current economic growth model.

Actually, doubts about China’s high-speed rail construction are not new, although most of the criticism to date has been over construction costs. The government was originally quick to dispel such doubts, as this December 2009 article expresses. Yet the revelation that the Railway Ministry’s debts might surpass 2 trillion yuan ($303 billion) following the dismissal of the Railway Minister for corruption in February 2011 has made cost criticisms difficult to ignore. Meanwhile, a ride on the train still costs more than most Chinese consumers can afford, making it highly unlikely that China's Ministry of Railways can attract to the more expensive trains the mass ridership necessary to achieve profitability in the short or medium term. Saturday’s crash of two of China’s first-generation high-speed train models will certainly not convince those who oppose rail construction on financial grounds that the expense has been worthwhile.

Of course, from the government’s perspective, profitability has never been treated as the sole reason for building the high-speed rail network or for expanding the existing rail network. Railway construction has also been billed as a means to tie the nation together. New railways would both promote ethnic harmony, result in more equitable economic growth, and enhance national security by drawing the far ends of this fractious country closer together. This was certainly a key goal behind the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (not a high-speed rail project).

The theme of tying the nation together was also apparent in the run-up to the approval of the construction of Hong Kong’s HK$67 billion section of the Hong Kong-Guangzhou high-speed rail. This branch line was originally billed as offering significant time savings to Hong Kong businesspeople (with a price tag much lower than the final cost estimate) looking for rapid access to Guangzhou. News that the Guangzhou terminus would be located in Panyu, 22 kilometers south of Guangzhou soon made that position untenable since travelers from Hong Kong would have to add travel time from Panyu to Guangzhou on to the 48 minute travel time of the high-speed rail journey, making the new route less convenient and barely more time efficient than the existing route.

As the people of Hong Kong soon learned, the rail route was designed less for their convenience than for its connection to what would be the nexus of the national high-speed rail network. The rail was designed to bring Hong Kong closer to the rest of China, not to bring the Hong Kong people closer to a regional capital. The SAR would be footing part of the bill for Chinese unity.

Trains would not just tie China together. Chinese construction of rail projects across Asia would serve to tie the whole continent into one happy community. Southeast Asia would integrate much more smoothly with its northern neighbor that way. The Economist cynically viewed this pan-Asian Chinese rail support as a measure to increase China’s influence in the region. “Nonsense!” responded an editorial in the Global Times. Chinese rail expertise would greatly enhance trade relationships and lead to peace. The July 13 editorial proclaimed:
Chinese economists predicted the emergence of a vigorous high-speed railway urban agglomeration after the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway began operation recently. Similarly, if the trains could bring China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore closer and form a transportation web, it will definitely stimulate the stability, development and prosperity of the region.
Saturday’s crash has upended the apple cart by calling into question China’s ability to safely manage such an ambitious and widespread rail construction program. It will be some time before we can observe the full effect of this shock. However, we can make some initial predictions about where the apples will land.

First of all, Chinese rail projects will be a much harder sell in places where the Chinese government does not have full control over the approval process. Based on cost and safety issues, the Tom Holland piece calls for a reevaluation of Hong Kong’s plan to foot the bill for the branch line to Panyu. The local government will have to acknowledge such criticism, although pressure from Beijing will probably keep any major changes to the SAR's rail development plan from moving forward.

On the other hand, Chinese rail projects abroad will suffer. According to the New York Times, China South Locomotive and China CNR signed overseas contracts worth $2.3 billion in 2009. Business of this scale will be harder to drum up in the future, while the days where Chinese enterprises could bid for foreign rail construction projects are probably at an end, for now

Sales of other high-tech Chinese products could also suffer due to the effect that this crash will have on perceptions of the country’s manufacturing capabilities. In what we can, in hindsight, perceive as a supremely ironic statement, the Ministry of Railways proclaimed just two weeks ago that its high-speed trains were more advanced than Japan’s Shinkansen and that China had mastered the necessary intellectual property all by itself. Buyers of other high-tech products, such as China’s new commercial airplane, must be wondering whether the quality of those products is as advanced as that of China’s high-speed trains.

Third, and perhaps more important, the Wenzhou crash could affect the fortunes of China’s political leadership if the resultant popular outrage is not dealt with carefully. This is one impact that the media has been surprisingly slow to grasp. 
Saturday's crash occurred a year and several months before the Eighteenth Party Congress. While Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will almost certainly rise to the country’s number one and number two spots during that event, many seats within the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the wider Politburo, and the Central Committee of the CCP have not yet been firmly assigned.

Chinese leaders, whether at the top of the pile or on the local level, often count on showcase projects to demonstrate their competent management skills. The high-speed rail was supposed to be one such project - a demonstration that the Hu-Wen duo were really making progress in achieving Scientific Development and a Harmonious Society. Confidence in their leadership skills will be necessary if Hu and his allies (China Youth League) wish to install loyal followers in the upper echelons of the Party and the government. This task was never going to be easy. The failure of Hu to prevent the anointing of Xi – a Princeling – as his successor at the last party congress is just one indicator of the headwinds Hu has already had to confront.

To make matters worse, the current leadership is already under assault by China’s New Leftists, who demand a reappraisal of the country’s growth model, preferring instead a “less capitalistic” growth model that focuses more on equality. Many New Leftists have rallied behind the “Red” slogans of Chongqing Party Secretary (and Princeling) Bo Xilai, whose efforts to fight local crime and instill a form of neo-Maoist patriotism have been praised by Xi Jinping himself.

The Wenzhou train crash will only strengthen the influence of Hu’s political opponents by giving them additional ammunition to question China’s addiction to rapid development and its straying from the ideals of the revolution. Therefore, the crash might just have increased the chance that, following the Eighteenth Party Congress, we may see major and unpredictable changes in Chinese development policies.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Tree for the Forest: India, Taiwan and America's Flawed Asian Security Architecture



Clinton to India: Time to peek out the gate
"It's time to lead," proclaimed Hillary Clinton during a speech in Chennai on July 20, and America’s relationship with India took a symbolic step forward. 

The message to India was loud and clear: India must look outward, and, as it does, it will have a partner in the United States. According to Clinton, the rationale for this partnership is simple: “We think that America and India share a fundamentally similar vision for the future of this region," she said.

This unequivocally positive declaration is striking in its contrast with an entirely different declaration made exactly one year ago. At the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, Clinton called for amultilateral solution to the South China Sea dispute. As the Secretary of State declared:

The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion," she said at the end of the event. "We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.

Of course, everyone knew exactly which claimant was forefront in Clinton’s mind. And just in case anyone had doubts, her assertion that the US had a “national interestin ensuring freedom of navigation in Asia made the target of her remarks crystal clear. Such terminology was a direct rebuke to China’s decision to reclassify the South China Sea as a “Core Interest” in the spring of the same year. Clinton’s remarks presented a vision of East Asian security that was fundamentally dissimilar to that of China, which prefers to resolve its territorial disputes bilaterally, without the involvement of the US.

Clinton’s warm embrace of India must have troubled Chinese strategists, and the Secretary of State wouldn’t have been blind to this possibility. As Fareed Zakaria remarked to John King on CNN after Clinton’s comments in Chennai, the Secretary was careful to avoid portraying India as a counterweight to China in her speech. She did not want to give Chinese listeners the impression that India would be part of a US strategy of containment. Only a pure optimist could believe she succeeded.

For many Chinese strategists, the American quest for security partners around China’s periphery is a tactic designed to keep the Middle Kingdom down. PLA Air Force Colonel Dai Xu is among them. Dai describes this strategy in the first chapter of his recent book, C-Shaped Encirclement (Note: The link leads to Amazon’s China glance inside the book. I am not advocating you buy it.):

大国小国或公开耀武扬威,或暗中排兵布阵,或公然抢劫,或大肆挑衅……这都不是偶然的,而是互相联系、互相配合的。这些小事件,都是大包围圈上一个又一个的火力点

Large countries and small countries either openly make a show of their power, or deploy their forces in shadows, or wantonly provoke… none of this is by chance. It is by mutual association, mutual cooperation. These little affairs are collectively the firing points of a great encirclement.

According to Dai, the US is the marionettist behind this encirclement. America has arrayed forces or made allies in a great C-shaped arc around China, starting from Korea in the east and stretching around the maritime south and out to the west. Surmised American designs on Tibet and Xinjiang also make their way into Dai’s theory, although China’s iron grip on these “Autonomous Regions” makes it hard to take the colonel seriously in this regard.  

Dai’s concerns about America’s interactions with Korea, Japan, Vietnam, India and other maritime Asian states are a bit more understandable. After all, the US does have alliances with Korea and Japan and has varying degrees of security cooperation with other Asian states. Nevertheless, Dai’s “they’re out to get us” encirclement mentality doesn’t account for the very real possibility that America’s “C-Shaped Encirclement” of China is an accident of geography rather than a real encirclement strategy. After all, the foundation of US power in Asia is the US Navy's freedom of navigation. Faced with an increasingly capable and assertive PLA Navy, it makes sense that the US would seek partnerships with states that could provide support on the high seas. Unfortunately for China, those seas just happen to be arrayed in an arc around China’s southern and eastern peripheries - and far to the southwest of China too if you add India, with the ocean that bears its name, into the supposed containment strategy. So nobody should have been surprised that, in Chennai, Clinton also mentioned that India could play an important role in maritime security beyond its territory. This was fully in line with America’s pan-Asia maritime security strategy.

Yet with each partner the US adds to its coterie across maritime Asia, it becomes more and more apparent that a flaw exists in this American strategy.  The Obama Administration still seems hesitant to bring a key regional security stakeholder into the fold. This stakeholder is Taiwan. 

We can't entirely blame Obama for the island's continued isolation. Since the days of Nixon, presidents have looked on Taiwan as an irritant - the fly in the ointment of China policy. For a brief moment at the beginning of the Bush II presidency, it seemed as if that might change. But events would temper W's initial pro-Taiwan activism.

In a July 21 article in The Diplomat, Minxin Pei discusses the changes in Chinese foreign policy that have followed the country’s few leadership transitions. Pei notes that, unlike Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao outsourced much of his Taiwan policy to the United States, which was roped in to keeping Taiwan in line. George W. Bush more than happy to comply.

For a Bush Administration bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, ensuring that the ship of cross-strait relations remained on an even keel was a top priority. The last thing Bush needed was conflict with China at a time when the US was lacking the resources to become involved in East Asia. And what better way to keep that cross-strait ship sailing than by quietly supporting the Kuomintang, a party that China had already anointed as negotiation-worthy during the 2005 visit of KMT elder Lien Chan? The KMT offered a reassuring message to Washington: We won’t be troublemakers, unlike President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party. So began Washington’s quiet but noticeable support for Ma Ying-jeou. This piece (note the bit about Ma's advocacy for increasing Taiwan's defense spending), while slanted in its coverage, recounts the pro-Ma mythology perfectly.

Over three years after Ma's election, the US still values stability in the Taiwan Strait. But would the US choose short-term stability at the expense of jeopardizing its wider maritime security framework? For the moment, it seems as though this is precisely what is happening. 

Under Ma Ying-jeou, the Taiwan’s security situation is deteriorating by the day. This problem runs much deeper than the Obama Administration’s continued hesitancy to provide modern replacement planes for Taiwan’s aging air force. First of all, there is the issue of defense spending. Despite its challenged security situation, Taiwan still spends less than 3 percent of its GDP on defense, a problem that the Ma Administration hasn't rectified (remember that note above?) despite the fact that current funding is not even sufficient to cover the administration's own pet project of creating an all-volunteer military. Meanwhile, under Ma, military exercises have continued to bescaled back or canceled entirely. As a result of these issues, the day where a strong China can coerce Taiwan into a political solution that favors Beijing is drawing near.

This is a problem because Taiwan is of great strategic importance, especially to a naval power such as the US that values freedom of navigation highly. This importance is manifold. 

First of all, the “loss” of Taiwan would have ramifications for broader Asian security as current security partners of the US, doubting America's ability to defend its friends, would accelerate the build-up of their military arsenals. A naval arms race is already underway in Asia. This arms race would only gain steam in the wake of a failure of the US to honor its nebulous (not legally binding) commitment to a long-time friend.The US, on the other hand, would lose credibility as a protector in the region as a whole.

Second, unlike the nearby main landmass, Taiwan is situated on the edge of the continental shelf. This would ensure that a China in possession of the island would be capable of launching submarines rapidly and quietly into the depths of the Western Pacific Ocean. Note that US Satellites can see Chinese subs that steam away from Hainan Island, while subs wishing to avoid detection in the East China Sea (average depth: 188 meters) or Taiwan Strait (deepest point: 70 meters) have their work cut out for them. This leaves the deeper Luzon Strait, a bottleneck that could be observed using sonar buoys and undersea sensors. With control of Taiwan, these problems would disappear, while China would benefit from a greater reach into the Pacific and more clandestine operations in the waters of Northeast Asia.

Third, Taiwan bestrides some of the world’s busiest sea lanes, situated at a major point of access to the South China Sea. A China in control of Taiwan would be in a position to close the Taiwan Strait and the Strait of Luzon to vessels from nations that offend the Middle Kingdom. This would increase the time and expense of shipping as vessels would be forced to sail 1,000 miles further south to the Celebes Sea in order to find an international waterway into the South China Sea. 

Finally, while energy supply lines to Northeast Asia could always be rerouted in the event that China decided to refuse Japan-bound tankers to take the shorter route, the increased freedom of movement in the Pacific that Taiwan would provide to China's navy would make even longer steaming routes from the Middle East more risky. Since oil tankers are, for the most part, privately owned and operated, there is no guarantee that operators will take the risk of such voyages without much greater compensation. Without a stable energy supply, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would find it even more difficult to prevent the Chinese from settling old scores - such as that over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, without a massive US engagement.

And why would a China endowed with this enhanced strategic position stop at the Senkakus? The Middle Kingdom seems to have a predilection for suddenly rediscovering or reevaluating territorial claims based on history. China's modern claims to the Senkakus, for example, date to 1971, while its adamant insistence that the Spratleys and Paracels (which were never even mapped until the British made the effort in the nineteenth century) are Chinese territory date from the days of the PRC.

What’s to prevent, for example, a resurrection of Chinese claims to OkinawaColonel Dai certainly seems to feel China’s loss of influence over the Ryuku Islands keenly. As he mentions in the first Chapter of his book:
216日,美国国务卿希拉里访日,日美双方签订驻冲绳(琉球群岛)美军迁往关岛 的协议。这个协议的签署,是美国对日本战略的重大转折,喻示着美国正在放出关了六十多年的日本老虎。到现在为止,还没有人认识到这个协议的严重性。冲绳是什么地方?是原来的琉球。闻一多有个《七子之歌》,在哭台湾的这一首中,这样说我们是东海捧出的珍珠一串,琉球是我的群弟,我就是台湾……”不仅中国人把琉球看成是中国的孩子,美国人也是这么看的。二战胜利后,美国两次向蒋介石提出把琉球群岛归还中国,条件是派孙立人的远征军进驻日本,作为占领军。蒋介石一是考虑打内战,二是害怕日后引起和日本的麻烦,没答应。之后,美国就把自己的军队驻那里了。它在观察,看日本和中国未来谁可能成为美国的盟友,它就把琉球给谁。现在,它决定给日本了。

 On February 16 [2009], the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Japan. Japan and the US signed an agreement covering the movement of American forces on Okinawa (Ryuku Islands) to Guam. The signing of this agreement is a big turnaround in the US strategy toward Japan. It makes clear that the US is releasing the Japanese tiger that has been locked up for 60 years. People still don’t recognize the importance of this agreement. What is Okinawa? It was originally Ryuku. The Song of the Seven Sons [poem by Wen Yiduo, an early 20th century poet ], which deplores [the loss of] Taiwan, says, “We are a string of pearls beaten out by the East Sea. Ryuku is my younger brother. I am Taiwan…”Chinese people not only see the Ryukus as China’s children, but Americans also think of them this way. Following WWII, the US offered to return the Ryukus to Chiang Kai-shek’s China twice. The condition was that China had to send the expeditionary force of Sun Liren to occupy Japan. On the one hand, Chiang was thinking about the [Chinese] civil war, and, on the other, he was worried that this would give him trouble with Japan later. Therefore, he did not respond. Afterword, the US put its own army there. Based on American observations of which country – Japan or China – would become an ally of the US, the US would make its decision on who to give Okinawa to. The US has decided to give them to Japan.

Would it matter to Dai that, on the eve of their absorption into Japan, the Ryukus were an independent kingdom that China had just as little right to as Japan had? Certainly not! Once Okinawa was taken, perhaps he would move on to Annam (which, incidentally, means the Pacified South). North Vietnam was a Chinese possession for over 800 years. With the South China Sea converted into a Chinese lake, the Vietnamese, who have fought several defensive wars against China since the establishment of the first Vietnamese empire, could be forgiven for worrying about their fate. And next would be….Certainly this is wild speculation. It is meant to suggest not what definitely would happen if China controlled Taiwan but what could happen. 

So what does this long digression have to do with India? India is a continental power with a growing navy in the midst of a complicated security environment. While the country is indeed preoccupied with its longstanding Maoist insurgency and its rivalry with Pakistan (therefore inclined to think locally or, at the most, regionally), India is no stranger to the security challenge posed by China – a benefactor of Pakistan, a claimant to Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin, and a rival naval state with eyes on the Indian Ocean. Clinton’s public call for India to lead may have earned her brownie points in New Delhi, but New Delhi hardly needed Clinton’s urging to start asserting its leadership. In fact, an Indo-Chinese rivalry for Asian leadership is already underway.

Herein lies the irony of Clinton’s appeal to the Hindu Tiger. The Obama Administration is going to great lengths to court a power that already shares much of America’s strategic vision. Yet it is willing to neglect a partner on China’s very doorstep – one that, if overcome, would seriously handicap the US' stated aim of maintaining freedom of navigation throughout Asia. In the tapestry of America’s preferred Asian security framework, loose threads continue to protrude around Taiwan. If this situation continues, the day will come when China will need only to tug hard enough to cause the whole rug to unravel. 

Instead of failing to see the forest for the trees, it seems the US is failing to see an important tree for the forest.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Guangzhou Officials: Lettuce show you how "clean" our river is!

You can't eat it, but can you swim through it?
Just how clean is the Pearl River? Clean enough that you can swim in it, of course! Correction: Clean enough so that Guangzhou’s officials can swim through it under the gaze of their subjects and superiors.

For city and provincial leaders, the annual “Swim Across the Pearl River” has become a symbol of a successful river clean-up effort attributable, of course, to their efforts. The event was relaunched in 2006 following a 30-year hiatus attributed to excessive water pollution – a side-effect of rapid industrialization. At the relaunching, no less than Guangdong Governor Huang Huahua was in the leading group of a larger crowd of 3,500 swimmers. The next year, Guangzhou Mayor Zhang Guangning fired a starting gun before leading another big crowd for a purportedly healthy dip.

If symbolism alone could sustain citizens, they would certainly consume their fill of the message that Guangzhou - and Guangdong more broadly - is leaving behind the teething pains of its headlong burst into modernization. Higher-ups meanwhile might eye a promising local cadre that just might go far someday with their help.

Fast forward to 2011. You’re a Guangzhou official. This year’s big swim is set to start in one day. Suddenly, your underlings rush to tell you that you’ve got lettuce problems – water lettuce to be precise.

Yes, masses of this pesky, floating, fast-growing plant, known for clogging up waterways worldwide with its thick, leafy, lettuce-shaped tops and extensive submersed roots, are gushing downstream on a deluge of fresh runoff caused by recent heavy rains upriver. It’s a big political 麻煩 (trouble) with your name written all over it. What will the higher-ups and lower-downs think if swimmers have to navigate huge masses of unsightly lettuce blooms? What will this do for your reputation for successful water management? Such was the dilemma that city leaders had to confront on July 15.

Of course, water lettuce is not pollution in itself. Actually, used in moderation, it serves as a popular ornamental lake plant in many parts of the world, just as the water hyacinth does. However, like the water hyacinth, water lettuce can be a major pain in the 屁股 (butt) if it is allowed to grow unrestricted (see this water hyacinth example). It has a tendency to take over watercourses and clog boat propellers. Additionally, like algal blooms, water lettuce can absorb oxygen from the water, thereby killing off river creatures. It is majorly bad news for water ecosystems.

Yet, while water lettuce does not need pollution to grow, it may indeed be a sign of nutrient imbalances. Like algae, the plant thrives in waters that are nitrate and phosphate rich - just the sort of waters you might expect to find running off of excessively fertilized farms in upper Guangdong following torrential rains. Indeed, a Caijing commentary on the incident does mention pollution and garbage. The commentary also cites an assertion by the Guangzhou Urban Management Bureau that this crop of water lettuce was the worst that the area had seen in years. What dreadful news for local officials looking to bask in a moment of glory!

The Urban Management Bureau's Water Affairs Department rushed to clean up the lettuce before it reached the swim site, but the difficulty in cleaning up a lettuce outbreak of that size eventually forced the city to close off that section of the river and hold the flow of lettuce upstream until the swim (and the photo-ops) had concluded. The restriction of the lettuce flow was then relaxed while the wider cleanup continued.

The question is this: Were city officials justified in keeping up the appearance of water cleanliness in order to avoid jeopardizing the symbolism of the event (and potentially their careers)?

According to Hu Tao (quoted in the Caijing piece), Researcher at the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental and Economic Policy Research Center, such action on the part of the city is disturbing. He notes:

为了横渡珠江 而采取非常手段清理水污染,显示出政府环境治理缺乏长效机制。这种用临时措施耗费公共资源的做法,凸显的是特权思维,很难避免公众的质疑。



The choice of extraordinary methods to clean the water pollution for the Swim Across the Pearl River shows that the government’s environmental management lacks a mechanism for long-term effectiveness. What stands out from this type of temporary procedure that consumed public resources is the [officials’] special privilege mentality. It’s really difficult to avoid public suspicion.

In other words, when faced with a problem, the officials were more concerned with their photo-ops than with the situation at hand and were willing to spend the public’s money to ensure that nothing rained on their parade.

Of course, the Guangzhou officials were not the first Chinese leaders to do this. Need we forget the closure of factories around Beijing to ensure clear skies for the 2008 Olympics? 

Beijing officials were adamant that "Blue Sky" days would remain after the games had concluded. Three years later, the success is debatable. On the one hand, local officials continue to claim that air quality is steadily improving. On the other, air monitoring equipment at the US embassy frequently continues to show troubling pollution, as well as the presence of dangerous fine particles (smaller than 2.5 micrometers) - overlooked by Beijing's Blue Sky index.

Regardless, Hu Tao’s statement does seem to apply to both situations, and he says as much in the Caijing piece. For local officials, the delivery of a healthy environment should be an end in itself rather than a means to an end, as it is when it serves as the backdrop to a special event.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The US Debt Ceiling: An Excuse for China's Irascibility?

Irascible, by Mel Bochner
Sensitivity – we all know the feeling. You just want to enjoy your iced tea on a hot and sunny day when a frosty wave of the cold sweetness rushes over an exposed root at the gum line. It’s a shocking, painful experience to be avoided at all cost.

As for emotional sensitivities, most socially adept humans try to avoid raising the ire of others, while those who are less socially adept often fall afoul of those sensitivities. For example, when a farmer complained to President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan on July 9 that the price of bananas was too low, thus making it difficult for farmers to make ends meet, Ma’s response of “你怎麼不早說” (Why didn’t you say something sooner?) was probably not the best way to handle the matter. The outburst that this response prompted clearly shows the danger of falling afoul of the sensitivities of others. One brief moment of insensitivity prompted the farmers to join with a group of other farmers decrying the issue of land seizures in a July 16 protest against the Ma government on Ketagalan Boulevard.

Of course, sensitivity can be excessive, and those who do develop a reputation for being overly sensitive are often ridiculed more than respected. Those who excessively express sensitivity as anger are referred to as “irascible”, a word with clear negative connotations (as in "an irascible old man"). Excessive sensitivity expressed using softer emotions is hardly better. Think of the result of the second wish that the devil fulfills for Brendan Fraser in the movie Bedazzled. Unable to do anything but sigh and cry, the overly sensitive, and therefore effeminate, Elliott (Fraser) turns off the love of his life, who gleefully joins the sand-kicking beach bully and his friends for a romp at his pad.

Clearly excessive sensitivity, whatever its manifestation, is not a desirable trait. So the willingness of politicians and the media to tiptoe around the Chinese government's sensitive tendencies is interesting indeed. My friend Michael Turton often blogs on this phenomenon (for example). Simply put, whether it’s over weapons sales to Taiwan, over support for a multilateral solution to the South China Sea dispute, over a visit by Xinjiang activist Rebiya Kadeer to Japan, over the seemingly constant worldwide circumambulation of the Dalai Lama, who met – against the backdrop of Chinese anger – with President Obama yesterday, or over one of a multitude of other issues, various China watchers often are quick to take note of Chinese anger and sensitivity. In fact, such emotions are usually expected and forgiven rather than challenged. It suffices to say that not one of the above articles goes so far as labeling the angry responses as irrational. (Actually, while each episode of anger is irrational, the angry approach as a whole is entirely rational for China if it gets other countries to do what China wants them to do. Needless to say, none of the above articles enters this territory either.)

In fact, the US presidents often play along by timing announcements of actions that might displease China for moments when China could be angered the least. This is always a challenge. After all, there are so many sensitive anniversaries in China, a legacy of the country’s National Humiliation Discourse as well as a variety of important events that have taken place during the rule of the CCP.

An incomplete list (including both positive and negative sensitive events from the perspective of the Chinese government) would include the beginnings of the Opium Wars in 1839 and 1856, the October 18, 1860 destruction of Yuanming Palace, the April 17, 1895 signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the August 1900 invasion of China by eight nations to quell the Boxer Rebellion, the founding of the CCP on July 1, 1921, the September 18, 1931 Japanese invasion, the Nanjing Massacre following the fall of the city in December of 1937, the founding of the PRC on October 1, 1949, the entry of Chinese troops into Lhasa in October 1951, the March 1959 Tibet uprising, the incident that never happened in that square in central Beijing despite the existence of plenty of eyewitness accounts and footage in June 1989, the April 2008 Tibet uprising and the July 2009 unrest in Kashgar. Heaven forbid anyone do anything to anger the Chinese during the anniversary of one of those sensitive moments. 

And, of course, we cannot forget the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the run-ups to any of the party congresses. Then there are the visits. Barack Obama goes to China. Hu Jintao goes to the US. Biden goes to China. Xi Jinping goes to the US, etc. We couldn't have the Chinese cancel one of those visits in anger, now could we?

Clearly, almost every month of the year and almost every year of every decade contains sensitive anniversaries. And if there are no anniversaries scheduled, new sensitive events are always in the works. If the US is to avoid every sensitive date, there will be no way to avoid "angering" China at a bad time. It’s a bad time all the time.

One would think that, faced with such a full calendar of sensitive dates, anyone would want to shy away from creating more. Anyone, that is, except for careless journalists. Apparently not content with the multitude of prickly moments that US policymakers must navigate when dealing with China, Jeff Mason and Ben Blanchard, writing for Reuters, have felt it necessary to create one more. Commenting on China's angry reaction to the latest meeting of President Obama with the Dalai Lama, the authors state:

Obama's meeting came at an extra sensitive moment for China, the United States' biggest creditor, with leaders in Washington at odds over how to raise the $14.3 trillion U.S. debt ceiling in time to avoid default.

Although I know very well that the Chinese do not want the value of their US treasuries to fall and that a US default might cause this result to come to pass, I wonder at what point the US debt ceiling negotiations became an issue that could prevent us from dealing plainly with the Chinese government? China is not required to purchase US treasuries. If the US does default on its debt, China will simply be the unfortunate victim of its own poor investment decision. Yet Mason and Blanchard would have us believe that Chinese anger is more justified now because of Chinese anxiety over the value of Chinese assets? 

Can any one tell me at what point we can stop making excuses for the irascible man?