Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Obama’s missed Asia trip is no disaster—if he follows up strong (new at China-US Focus)

In my latest piece for China-US Focus, I look at the impact of Obama’s decision to cancel planned travel to Asia and suggest that he can make up for missed opportunities.

Obama’s Missed Asia Trip Is No Disaster—If He Follows Up Strong

As the financial crisis gripped the United States in September 2008, Senator John McCain “suspended” his campaign for president to return to Washington and attend to Senate business. His opponent, Senator Barack Obama, refused to follow suit, saying “I think that it is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.”

President Obama’s cancellation of his trip to Asia this week indicates that the government shutdown and the possibility of a default on U.S. government debt in the coming days have, in a sense, “suspended” U.S. foreign policy. Canceling this trip does matter, but it does not nullify broader U.S. policy on Asia, including the rebalance to the Asia Pacific. Instead, the cancellation is an unwelcome reinforcement of the perception that the Obama administration is neglecting its Asia policy.

Most journalists and commentators have argued that Obama’s cancellation is either disastrous for U.S. Asia policy or not a big deal. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between. In the following four points, I argue that: the cancellation was unfortunate but not a disaster; the shutdown might be a disaster; and there are still good options for the Obama administration and U.S. relations with Asia and China.

[Continue reading at China-US Focus]

Cybersecurity as 'pivot' version two? A policy narrative for media-friendly U.S.–China relations

Pivot. “I personally don’t like the term,” said Jeffrey Bader, former senior director for East Asia of the U.S. National Security Council. It was an “unfortunate word” selected by staff seeking a positive press response to President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia in 2011, he said at Beijing’s Tsinghua University on Nov. 29, 2012. Each time the president goes to Asia, he said, the story is always about China, and there are two options: Either the United States came as a supplicant and is in decline, or it put China on its heels. Both stories are wrong, Bader argues, but the word “pivot” was selected to push for the second story in the U.S. press.

The word “pivot” swiftly became “rebalance” in U.S. government statements. To some, it had implied a turn away from other regions, not a reassuring message for those seeking continued support in the Middle East. Some also thought it implied that the United States would shift its interventionist tactics from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region. “Rebalance” was rolled out with more nuance, emphasizing at times that it implied only minor increases in the Pacific, instead emphasizing drawdowns elsewhere. Then, the question of whether the “pivot” or “rebalance” had failed as a strategy soared to the top of the discussion after Obama was reelected. In Secretary of State John Kerry’s confirmation hearings, he implied limited support for a shift of resources: “I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet. I’m not convinced of that. That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully when and if you folks confirm me and I can get in there and sort of dig into this a little deeper.”

With the pivot/rebalance downgraded as a strong-on-China rhetoric, and the deep need for greater engagement with China, what was left to keep the press on the “China on its heels” narrative? Consider cybersecurity. President Obama began a rollout with the State of the Union this year. Without naming China, he made “enemies [who] are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air trafic control systems” the China policy point. The day before, someone had leaked to the Washington Post a classified National Intelligence Estimate naming China as the most aggressive cybersecurity threat.

President Barack Obama meets then-Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, 2012.

President Barack Obama meets then-Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, 2012.

In the coming days, the private online security firm Mandiant released a report that allegedly detailed Chinese military involvement in spying on U.S. businesses. A “senior defense official” told The New York Times, “In the cold war, we were focused every day on the nuclear command centers around Moscow. … Today it’s fair to say that we worry as much about the computer servers in Shanghai.” Then the White House released its “Strategy to Mitigate the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets,” which does not name China in the body text but features it in six of the seven theft examples in sidebars.

This drumbeat has continued through February and March and up to today. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon said in a speech in March that “intellectual property and trade secrets” had “moved to the forefront of our agenda.” Since then, cybersecurity, often with some degree of conflation between national security threats and threats to private intellectual property, has moved to the top of the U.S. media agenda on China, along with North Korea. In the White House background briefing on the upcoming summit between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the briefers didn’t have to bring up cybersecurity. The first question and half of all questions mentioned the topic (including the meta-question “how do you keep this summit from being a cyber summit?”). Admittedly impressionistic data from Google Trends shows U.S. searches for “China” and “cyber” peaking in February.

U.S. search interest in "China cyber" over time, according to Google Trends.

U.S. search interest in “China cyber” over time, according to Google Trends. (Embedding isn’t working, so here’s a screenshot. The y-axis is calibrated to set the peak in February at 100.)

Now, the White House is in the midst of a significant surge in China diplomacy with considerable attention to the future. The Obama-Xi “shirt-sleeves summit” near Palm Springs, Calif., to take place Friday and Saturday was preceded by, among other efforts:

  • Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to China in August 2011.
  • Xi’s trip to the United States as vice president and heir-apparent, with Biden as his host and an Oval Office meeting with Obama in February 2012.
  • Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew’s trip to China in March 2013.
  • Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to China in April 2013.
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey’s trip to China in April 2013.
  • The April announcement of the 2013 round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue to be held in Washington July 8–12, 2013.
  • National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon’s trip to China in May 2013.

It’s possible to view the dogged focus on cybersecurity in the media and in government statements as misplaced. After all, it is unclear what if any effect on actual operations the “naming and shaming” process is having, and we will have to wait and see what further measures the U.S. government might take. Meanwhile, other issues such as energy and climate cooperation, maintaining stability around North Korea, and military-to-military relations are also pressing. Perhaps most of all, say (almost) all the comments out there, Obama and Xi have the opportunity to open a new chapter of U.S.–China relations through high-level dialogue and building a “new kind of great power relations” (Chinese wording) or a “new model of relations between an existing power and an emerging one” (U.S. version).

These cooperative notes, however, could trigger the media narrative Bader said the administration dreads: the United States as declining supplicant. Instead, the administration gets to claim they will raise cybersecurity in this and other interactions. They have high-level working groups in progress or planned for cybersecurity (a challenge) and climate change (an opportunity and a challenge). And needless to say, there is the benefit of getting a very serious issue for U.S. businesses and the U.S. national security community on the table in a way the Chinese government cannot entirely ignore.

Why one might think the US government sees China as threat no. 1

In recent weeks, a series of U.S. government statements, leaks, and policy changes could leave you with the impression that policymakers see China as the biggest threat to U.S. security.

My guess is that even if top officials in the Obama administration believe this, they would rather temper that impression. On the other hand, take a look, and consider what impression you would get from the last month:

2013-02-11

Someone leaked at least part of a classified U.S. intelligence document to the Washington Post, which wrote: “The National Intelligence Estimate identifies China as the country most aggressively seeking to penetrate the computer systems of American businesses and institutions to gain access to data that could be used for economic gain.”

2013-02-12

President Obama, in his State of the Union speech, made a thinly veiled reference to Chinese hacking—the only substantial China-related statement:

America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber-attacks. We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.

2013-02-18

The New York Times reported on a study released by the private computer security company Mandiant, asserting that the People’s Liberation Army is behind attacks on U.S. businesses, national security institutions, and critical infrastructure.

On the record, a National Security Council spokesman said: “We have repeatedly raised our concerns at the highest levels about cybertheft with senior Chinese officials, including in the military, and we will continue to do so.” That sounds reasonable, even though a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman called the Mandiant allegations “irresponsible and unprofessional.”

But here’s what unnamed U.S. sources told the Times:

  • “There are huge diplomatic sensitivities here,” said one intelligence official, with frustration in his voice.
  • “In the cold war, we were focused every day on the nuclear command centers around Moscow,” one senior defense official said recently. “Today, it’s fair to say that we worry as much about the computer servers in Shanghai.”

OK, now we have a direct Cold War comparison, framing Chinese actions as taking the place of the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union.

2013-02-20

The White House released its “Strategy to Mitigate the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets.” The document does not name China in the body text, but six of the seven concrete examples of theft in sidebars mention China explicitly. An attached Department of Justice list of “economic espionage and trade secret criminal cases” since 2009 includes 20 examples, 17 of which involve China.

2013-02-25

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein said the Mandiant report accusing the PLA of specific actions is “essentially correct.” And House Intelligence Committe Chairman Mike Rogers said the Chinese government and military are behind attacks on U.S. companies “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

2013-02-27

A report from the Department of Homeland Security outlined a six-month effort to target U.S. natural gas pipeline operators, and press reports such as this one from the Christian Science Monitor said the attack signatures indicate ties to Chinese attacks. The link to China comes from information newly released by the DHS. Whether the motive of an attacker would be to compromise gas pipelines, to steal technology to run them, or both, is left an open question.

2013-03-11

After a slight lull in action, filled nonetheless with plenty of commentary, U.S. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon gave one of the administrations most thorough recent speeches on Asia and the Pacific region. The speech has some new material and plenty of small adjustments, but the press angle was clear: “U.S. Demands China Block Cyberattacks and Agree to Rules.”

Importantly, the China section comes in contrast to kind words about “emerging powers” in India and Indonesia. Although a “constructive” relationship with China is framed as its own pillar in the administration’s Asia Pacific strategy, little is new here other than a drastically higher billing for cybersecurity concerns:

Both countries face risks when it comes to protecting personal data and communications, financial transactions, critical infrastructure, or the intellectual property and trade secrets that are so vital to innovation and economic growth.

It is in this last category that our concerns have moved to the forefront of our agenda. I am not talking about ordinary cybercrime or hacking. And, this is not solely a national security concern or a concern of the U.S. government. Increasingly, U.S. businesses are speaking out about their serious concerns about sophisticated, targeted theft of confidential business information and proprietary technologies through cyber intrusions emanating from China on an unprecedented scale. The international community cannot afford to tolerate such activity from any country. As the President said in the State of the Union, we will take action to protect our economy against cyber-threats.

From the President on down, this has become a key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments. And it will continue to be. The United States will do all it must to protect our national networks, critical infrastructure, and our valuable public and private sector property. But, specifically with respect to the issue of cyber-enabled theft, we seek three things from the Chinese side. First, we need a recognition of the urgency and scope of this problem and the risk it poses—to international trade, to the reputation of Chinese industry and to our overall relations. Second, Beijing should take serious steps to investigate and put a stop to these activities. Finally, we need China to engage with us in a constructive direct dialogue to establish acceptable norms of behavior in cyberspace.

2013-03-12 – The reporting goes overboard?

The top U.S. intelligence official “suggested that [cyber] attacks now pose the most dangerous immediate threat to the United States, even more pressing than an attack by global terrorist networks,” according to The New York Times. That official, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, also said there was only a “‘remote chance’ in the next two years of a major computer attack on the United States, which he defined as an operation that ‘would result in long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as a regional power outage.'”

The Times assertion that Clapper suggested cyber attacks could be more of a risk than terrorism seems to be based on the fact that Clapper discussed them first, so it is to be taken with a grain of salt. The full text of his statement for the record is available online. His remarks as delivered are online too. I haven’t found a transcript of the Q&A yet, but I just watched most of it, and the direct comparison of cyber attacks to terrorist attacks does not seem to be there.

So the reporting here may be a bit much, but the 2012 statement listed terrorism and proliferation above “cyber threats,” whereas the 20032013 document puts “cyber” ahead of those two.

So, how does this all sound?

Especially if you read Clapper’s list order as indicative, these developments and statements as a whole sure could look like a concerted effort to escalate U.S. attention to one kind of threat posed by Chinese military operations. Meanwhile, the difference between stealing secrets and threatening military systems or life-supporting infrastructure is often glossed over, allowing fear of economic espionage to bleed into fear of military battle. Meanwhile, for obvious reasons, the government sources are not disclosing the U.S. military and NSA’s own cybersecurity capabilities and activities, except to announce greater efforts. Though other countries are sometimes mentioned, China is always held up as a marquee threat.

To at least some in the Chinese government, this is going to look like a move toward an aggressive and adversarial stance.

Is this the impression the Obama administration wants?

It is quite clear that the Obama administration has moved to bring greater pressure on the Chinese government over the issue of computer-enabled espionage and even sabotage. It is also clear that the issue is real, even if some elements of the story are being fudged in the press or by private contrators looking for a piece of the pie.

But it is less clear that this level of escalation is in the best interest of U.S.–China ties. As Donilon said in his speech (before emphasizing the cybersecurity demands), “Taken together, China’s leadership transition and the President’s re-election mark a new phase in U.S.-China relations—with new opportunities.” An agressive stance, however, might undermine the opportunities for renewed contact.

At worst, it could trigger a retrenchment in Chinese officials’ willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue with the U.S. leadership. At best, pressure on this issue could produce results and bring a major irritant into the open in bilateral dialogue. One potential good sign came from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, where a spokeswoman said Tuesday “Cyberspace needs rules and cooperation, not wars. China is willing to have constructive dialogue and cooperation with the global community, including the United States.”

Meanwhile, I hope the U.S. government will take into account the media amplification effects that come from their increased frankness in public in this particular direction. If more people in the U.S. start seeing China as a Cold War-like enemy, they may find themselves fulfilling their own prophesy, an outcome far worse than the loss of corporate secrets.

Coda

Nothing in this post should be taken to suggest I view cybersecurity as unimportant or as an argument that all sides in the Chinese government are innocent. Indeed, military and critical infrastructure security are absolutely critical to national security, and not just in the United States. Minimizing the theft of corporate secrets is a reasonable economic interest of the United States, and even more so an interest of the corporations. I support scrutiny of this issue and increased efforts by government and private sector organizations. But piggy-backing fear of the unknown in cyber threats and fear of the unknown in the field of a potential “China threat” presents a risk of simplification and harmful cascades. China is not the only element of the cybersecurity issue, and cybersecurity is not the only element of the U.S. relationship with China.

Asia in the State of the Union: Bringing jobs home and—psst!—cybersecurity

UPDATED at bottom with further comments

The State of the Union speech this year was not suited for heavy lifting in foreign policy, and it had almost nothing to say about policy in the Asia-Pacific. According to the prepared speech, President Obama mentioned a push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, responded to North Korea’s recent nuclear test, and raised cybersecurity concerns that are closely tied to China.

But ultimately, compared with 2011 and 2012, this year has very little of substance on Asia. For the last two years, I have tracked mentions of Northeast Asian countries (and thrown in Iran and Mexico for fun). 2013sotu

Indicating a domestic economic focus, one of two China mentions, and the only mentions of each Japan and Mexico, come in a passage about “bringing jobs back”

Caterpillar is bringing jobs back from Japan. Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico. After locating plants in other countries like China, Intel is opening its most advanced plant right here at home. And this year, Apple will start making Macs in America again.

The other mention of China sets the country as a competitor the United States must keep up with on clean energy:

Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.

So China is raised only as a signal of “countries like China.” Nonetheless, India is never mentioned; Russia only once (in a section on nuclear disarmament).

Perhaps the only meaty foreign policy passage on Asia doesn’t mention it. Here’s President Obama on cybersecurity—an issue focused significantly on perceived threats from China, as well as Russia and others.

America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber-attacks. We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.

That’s why, earlier today, I signed a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy. Now, Congress must act as well, by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks. [a drop in in the real speech: “This is something we should be able to get done on a bipartisan basis.” -gw]

By avoiding a direct mention of China, Obama might have avoided an angry pronouncement from the Foreign Ministry here. If he had brought up China on cybersecurity, he would have had to bring up other aspects of the U.S.–China relationship. This would have been great, but there is only so much space in the speech.

Instead, in addition to the announcement that troops are coming out of Afghanistan this year, Obama’s foreign policy message is an enunciation of the U.S. role in the world as a “beacon” (see Burma) and as a force for peace (see Syria and the Mideast region).

Above all, America must remain a beacon to all who seek freedom during this period of historic change. I saw the power of hope last year in Rangoon – when Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed an American President into the home where she had been imprisoned for years; when thousands of Burmese lined the streets, waving American flags, including a man who said, “There is justice and law in the United States. I want our country to be like that.”

That’s all for now. All quotes based on the prepared speech.

UPDATE:

I’ve read the speech again. Here are a few things I didn’t see in the first pass.

Comparison with the past

President Obama’s State of the Union speeches have repeatedly mentioned Asian countries in the context of competition in economic and educational terms. In 2011, South Korea came up repeatedly for its educational strengths. China was cited for building “faster trains and newer airports” and for becoming “home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s largest computer.”

In 2012, it was “places like China” where labor is getting more expensive, the administration’s move to bring more “trade cases against China” (suggesting China as a cheat), and “unfair trading practices in countries like China” to be investigated by a new Trade Enforcement Unit.

This year, China and Asia keep their place amidst the domestic and economic issues in the speech, but the cries of “unfair” have been left behind except as implied in the cybersecurity section. Some have argued that China is to a great extent now a domestic issue in U.S. politics. This rings true with in this year’s speech, where “countries like China” are the competitors, the unseen other, against which the United States must compare itself. China is used as looming symbol of prosperity and development, and that the United States might get left behind. It is not a message about U.S.–China relations, nor about reality in China.

Alliances in Asia always get a hat tip

2011: “We have reset our relationship with Russia, strengthened Asian alliances, and built new partnerships with nations like India.”

2012: “Our oldest alliances in Europe and Asia are stronger than ever.”

2013: “In defense of freedom, we will remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia.”

and

“The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations.  Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”

Missile defense against North Korea: A potential irritant for China

In the North Korea passage directly above, Obama throws in an intention to “strengthen our own missile defense.” As it happens, strengthening defenses against North Korea also puts more resources in China’s neighborhood. Some commentators in China cry foul and claim North Korea is only an excuse, and the United States is trying to upset the nuclear balance. Some U.S. analysts guess that missile defense will trouble bilateral ties with China.

In my discussions with Chinese experts, however, it seems clear that the resources directed at North Korea are seen as insufficient to nullify China’s nuclear deterrent. So while some might flag this issue as a China policy point, I view it as directed at North Korea alone.

Missed opportunity: China–U.S. cooperation on North Korea

Obama had the chance to call out U.S.–China cooperation on North Korea. It’s a sensitive area, and some in China are nervous that a collapse of the DPRK would lead to U.S. troops on the Yalu River, but in reality, the United States and China have been well aligned on this incident. Both countries deeply desire a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Both have overriding interests in stability and predictability. And it’s possible to talk about the two reaching common cause in confronting the DPRK.

At a time when so many regional issues pit the United States or its allies against the Chinese government, why not drop in “China” when talking about confronting an issue of common concern? And while we’re at it, no love for the United Nations?

China News Update, July 5, 2012 – U.S.–China ties, South China Sea

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai speaks at the Asia Society in Hong Kong July 5, 2012.

  • Today’s news opens with a speech July 5 in Hong Kong by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, a key figure in Chinese relations with the United States. The speech calls for “building a new type of relationship between major countries here in the Asia-Pacific,” a key Hu Jintao phrase from the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) between the United States and China in May [speech in Chinese / in English]. The Xinhua storyabout the speech also emphasized this new relationship, suggesting that the idea of something like a U.S.–China “special relationship” is gaining traction in Chinese policy circles.

    The remainder of the speech emphasizes the need for expanded mutual trust between the two countries, and the importance of the Asia-Pacific region as a locus for this relationship. None of this is groundbreaking, but I think it’s worth noting that this is one of the highest-level speeches on the United States since the May meetings that coincided with a diplomatic tangle over the fate of Chen Guangcheng, the self-taught lawyer who escaped home detention and entered the U.S. embassy in Beijing, eventually ending up as a special student at New York University Law School. Cui specifically mentions S&ED as a successful development, and calls out U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who, along with Cui, was reportedly at the center of tense negotiations over Chen.

  • The other big news come from U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration has filed a WTO complaint against China over auto tariffs. The timing had clear political content, as Obama is beginning a campaign trip in the Midwest, where much of the U.S. auto industry makes its home.
  • Meanwhile, the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans, released its 2012 survey of U.S.–China public opinion [pdf] about bilateral ties. The executive summary is worth a skim, as it contains a laundry list of findings.
  • Zhou Yongkang, for one, is not a fan of U.S. opinions on China. According to an AFP story:

    “We will never change in our endeavour to defend the party’s leading role and socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he wrote in the latest edition of a Communist Party publication, “Qiushi”.”We will resolutely resist the attacks of hostile forces on our nation’s political and judicial systems, and we will resolutely resist the influence of mistaken Western political and legal views.”

    Zhou was writing in his position as head of the party’s Politics and Law Commission, which oversees China’s courts, prosecution and police.

  • And the U.S. State Department expressed displeasure with Chinese online censorship after Bloomberg News’ website after its blockbuster story on the family finances of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping.

As always, there has been movement in the South China Sea

  • The Philippines may ask for U.S. spy plane assistance in areas disputed with China, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said, reportedly referring to P3C Orion aircraft. (July 2)
  • The People’s Daily that day also accused the Philippines of attempting to stir up trouble in the region ahead of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting July 9. (English of full article.)
  • The Philippine military has “no problem” with Chinese patrols near disputed islands, according to a media report, as long as they stay in the “freedom of navigation area”—i.e. international waters where any ship has a right to be. (July 3)
  • The Philippines issued a new “note verbale,” a type of diplomatic communication, objecting to China’s plans with its newly upgraded administrative distinction for the administration of some of the islands it claims in the South China Sea, a Philippine news site reports. “Sansha city” officially includes both an island disputed with Vietnam and the Scarborough Shoal, which China and the Philippines disagree over. (July 4)
  • Chinese Maritime Surveillance ships are patrolling within 1 nautical mile of the Nansha islands, Xinhua reported.
  • The Chinese government announced it would open a research station in the “Zhongsha” islands, part of the controversial Sansha City. A quick check suggests these “islands” are not even above water all of the time, and they have not been part of the recent dust-ups with Vietnam or Philippines. (July 5)
  • An Economist story comes with a nice map that includes oil claims.