A Missed Opportunity in U.S. East Asia Policy

It is an imaginative exercise to read speculative accounts of Sino-Japanese relations from earlier in the Koizumi years. No one knew just how bad it would get in the public sphere, and I find that most writers at the time imagined the Koizumi administration and China’s new leadership under Hu Jintao beginning in 2002 would work it out better than they did.

Leave it to an empirical analysis to get a pretty good idea of what was going on. Ming Wan, writing in July 2003 in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Asia Program Special Report [pdf], laid out a prescient assessment of the U.S. effect on Sino-Japanese relations and suggested the United States would be wise to work toward reduced China–Japan tensions.

We know what happened instead: Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations are at the height of dysfunction, and only now with Koizumi’s departure is there a feeling of hope, however muddled by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s support of Koizumi and the continued presence of the Koizumi’s inflammatory foreign minister Aso Taro.

Aside from his unheeded advice, Ming Wan presents some interesting statistical findings based on numerical measures of political, security, and economic ties. Among the findings in my notes after the jump:

He found statistically that: U.S–China cooperation has a strong positive correlation with U.S.–Japan ties but has no effect on the China–Japan relationship; “U.S.–Japan cooperation has a moderate negative correlation with China–Japan relations” and little impact on U.S.–China relations; and China–Japan cooperation does not have a significant effect on the two other bilaterals.

The essay is delightfully well-organized, so allow me to outline his points quickly

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On the NYT Editorial Page, a Swing and a Miss

The New York Times today took a whack at what Abe Shinzo should do as the new prime minister of Japan. The editorial is both reasonable and unambitious in urging Abe to work toward better relations with China and other nearby states. It ends:

Japan has a great deal to be proud of, including an increasingly vital democracy, a revived economy and the difficult but necessary economic reforms that Mr. Koizumi began to push through and that Mr. Abe will now need to take further. It does not need to glorify the darkest period of its recent history and the war criminals most responsible for that terrible aberration.

But on the way to a reasonable conclusion, the Times loses its way. Regarding Chinese anti-Japan sentiment, the editorial says “an ugly, but increasingly distant, history of Japanese aggression and war crimes stands in the way.” While all history is technically increasingly distant as time passes, history is only distant when it ceases to maintain a prominent position in popular consciousness. Japanese aggression is not distant in China; it is reinforced in the public sphere by the CCP, as Peter Hays Gries writes in China’s New Nationalism. This editorial would have us believe history is declining in importance.

Or would it? The writer still finds space to criticise Japanese textbooks for inaccurately reflecting the nation’s war aggression, despite the fact that most of the headlines coming out of the Japanese textbook controversy surround a book almost no one uses.

I wish the Times were more careful with its words when taking this essentially reasonable stand.

James McGregor on How the U.S. Misunderstands China

“After two decades of on-the-ground experience investing billions of dollars and employing millions of people in China, the U.S. business community is far ahead of politicians in understanding the Chinese government and people,” writes James McGregor in a column someone posted on Danwei. It’s a bit of a polemic, and it claims knowledge of what a monolithic “they” (Chinese) think, but two anecdotes of U.S. media and political misunderstanding of China are worth repeating.

From the political side, Henry Kissinger, who is said to be generally respected in China because he has respected China since the Nixon years, seems to believe in the unilinear ascent of all countries toward democracy. McGregor writes:

At a lunch I hosted to bring Henry Kissinger together with young Chinese entrepreneurs, he looked around the table and asked: “Now that we have such impressive economic progress in China when and how do you envision democracy developing?” They looked at him, aghast. Finally, one answered for the group: “Do we want to destroy all the progress China has made?”

To the extent that Kissinger is still an influential figure in Washington, this doesn’t bode well for U.S. understanding of China. It puts China in a category with all non-democratic states and seems to gloss over the subtleties that Kissinger most likely understands—this in favor of a democracy-without-understanding principle that shares roots with the Bush administration’s neo-conservatism.

The other anecdote is perhaps unsurprising for people who know how media organizations work, but it’s consistently aggravating for people who chase truth outside of three-minute segments. He writes:

During a book tour that took me to many American broadcast outlets in the past year the producers invariably asked: “Are you our anti-China or our pro-China guest?” They were baffled when I answered that I was the “let’s-try-to-understand-China guest.” Our TV screens may be in color, but discussions of China are exclusively in black and white.

U.S.–China Interparliamentary Exchange: Valuable, and Possibly Easier Under Democrats

The main organizer of the U.S.-China Interparliamentary Exchange said Sept. 6 he won’t be completely disappointed if his party loses control of the U.S. Congress in November. Even though House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) created and funded the exchange, “it would be even easier with the Democrats in charge, though I pray against that,” said Matthew Szymanski, chief of staff for the House Committee on Small Business and the U.S.–China exchange.

Szymanski, who was the main speaker at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s China Program, has been a key organizer for the exchange since it was created in 1999. He enthusiastically described the benefits of interparliamentary exchanges, noting that they educate legislators and help them better understand China. “You can’t teach American members of Congress about China from Washington,” he declared. “It’s not going to happen.”

In response to a question from Robert Sutter of Georgetown University, Szymanski said that because “Republicans are not internationally-minded … What happens if the House flips? There’s even greater potential.”

It’s a bit unclear to me why this is the case. According to Szymanski, funding is not a problem at all. He gave rough numbers, saying about $500,000 has built up from Hastert’s appropriations, and most incoming delegations only cost about $50,000 each. Outgoing exchange, he says, is already funded by other parts of the U.S. government.

Dealing with China out in the open, however, can be politically awkward for some members, he said. Szymanski, who works for Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.), said Chinese delegations usually want to visit Manzullo’s home district, but they have to explain that it would be politically difficult to do so. The Northern Illinois district is home to an industrial economy that is currently in competition with the low prices in China, and voters there might see working with China as a betrayal.

Indeed, Szymanski is not all positive on China. “I’ve got lots of worries about what the rise of China means for the United States,” he said, echoing what I would call the conventional wisdom frame of China policy in Washington. He sounded like an ’80s Japan alarmist, though, when he said: “I’m telling you that the people we see rising up in Asia are going to kick our—” he stopped, and pointed to his rear. So he’s forcing his kids to learn Mandarin.

Some other points:

  • Interestingly, Szymanski said that U.S. members of Congress don’t seem to mind that they are dealing with leaders who aren’t elected. Instead the key is “tremendous face to face contact and education,” he said.
  • He recalled the first Chinese delegation of staff (not legislators) to the U.S. last May, saying that the Chinese seemed genuinely interested in finding out how the U.S. Congress works: “I don’t think they were manipulating us. … They asked extremely complex questions about how a legislature like ours works.”
  • He was sometimes dismissive of U.S. and European watchdog groups and the U.S. State Department, saying, “There is nothing that can happen that’s enough to satisfy Western watchdogs.” He emphasized, however, that progress is being made on human rights issues in China, even if slowly.
  • On trips to China, Szymanski said he has had unfettered access to wherever he asked to go. On trips to Tibet, he was allowed to stop at random and talk to the people there. He seemed to like Tibet.
  • He framed U.S. foreign policy as sometimes myopic, saying that because of “our obsession with the Middle East … we’re neglecting much of the rest of the world.” I hear ya.