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Ship incident raises questions about Obama’s China strategy

The Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy, first published on The Cable, contained an explanation of how the United States is trying to manage China’s rise by persuading Beijing to take more of a leadership role in the world community. But is that a fool’s errand? "We will encourage China to make choices that contribute ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration's new National Security Strategy, first published on The Cable, contained an explanation of how the United States is trying to manage China's rise by persuading Beijing to take more of a leadership role in the world community. But is that a fool's errand?

"We will encourage China to make choices that contribute to peace, security, and prosperity as its influence rises," the strategy says, while also making sure to note that the U.S. administration seeks a "candid" and "pragmatic" relationship with China that also takes into account its military modernization.

The idea that China can be convinced to take a leadership role in the world commensurate with its rapidly rising diplomatic, economic, and military power is not new. That's exactly the point Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was making when he called for China to act like a "stakeholder" in the international system. Elements of this thinking also factored into current Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg's concept that U.S.-China relations should be managed according to the principle of "strategic reassurance."

The Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy, first published on The Cable, contained an explanation of how the United States is trying to manage China’s rise by persuading Beijing to take more of a leadership role in the world community. But is that a fool’s errand?

"We will encourage China to make choices that contribute to peace, security, and prosperity as its influence rises," the strategy says, while also making sure to note that the U.S. administration seeks a "candid" and "pragmatic" relationship with China that also takes into account its military modernization.

The idea that China can be convinced to take a leadership role in the world commensurate with its rapidly rising diplomatic, economic, and military power is not new. That’s exactly the point Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was making when he called for China to act like a "stakeholder" in the international system. Elements of this thinking also factored into current Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg‘s concept that U.S.-China relations should be managed according to the principle of "strategic reassurance."

But the Chinese response to evidence that North Korea sank a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, is giving China watchers in Washington pause. The consensus here is that China is either unwilling, or at least unable at this stage, to prioritize the international community’s needs anywhere near its own interests. Whether it’s on security, nuclear nonproliferation, or climate change, China is not acting like a global leader and maybe the U.S. needs to recognize that.

"We could be mistaken in thinking they could play that role, maybe because they are not capable of doing it, or maybe they are just a big, selfish power," said Victor Cha, a former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council during the Bush administration.

China’s stance on the Cheonan crisis — that North Korea has not been proven responsible and therefore more consultation is needed — lacks basic credulity, said Cha. He’s posted slides from a presentation South Korean Ambassador Han Duk-soo gave at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) earlier this week.

The slides, the result of an investigation that included international experts, show three things: that it was an external explosion that broke the ship in half, that the cause of the explosion was a torpedo, and that the torpedo was made in North Korea. Cha believes it’s implausible that there’s any other explanation for the ship breaking apart other than that North Korea was responsible.

So why are the Chinese resisting that?

"The Chinese are still living in the Cold War. They feel an allegiance to this communist country [North Korea]. They don’t want anything to happen that could possible lead to the regime falling apart. That’s their basic calculus," Cha said.

That flies in the face of China’s famous pragmatism, which should lead Chinese leaders to the realization that their future economic interests lie much more strongly with South Korea, he added.

Charles W. Freeman III, who holds the Freeman Chair (no relation) at CSIS, agreed that China has not accepted that being a world power carries with it hefty responsibilities.

"China is not at the point where they are ready to be a global leader," Freeman said. "They really desperately tend to avoid any indices of leadership. To tell them you’ve got to be a net contributor to global welfare is very difficult."

He speculated that China is stalling on responding to the North Korea crisis because there is no consensus within the Chinese Communist Party on how to proceed. Hard-liners in Beijing are feeling their oats and pushing the government to resist U.S. overtures, while more internationally focused officials are losing ground, he said.

Overall, both Cha and Freeman said the Obama administration is right to continue to press China to acknowledge and then live up to its responsibilities. But each cautioned that expectations in the West have to be realistic.

"The stakes are high, so making sure we manage China’s rise and China manages its rise with us, in order to avoid conflict, is pretty important stuff," said Freeman.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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