Tag Archives: Burma

Asia in Obama's 2014 State of the Union: We're Still Number One

President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union does not emphasize Asia, except as a competitor. Last year’s post is here.

Opening comments

Asia got scant attention in this State of the Union. Japan was not mentioned at all, which has been a kind of norm for Obama. China came up twice as a competitor (once along with Europe). Myanmar/Burma was dropped in with Tunisia as places where the United States is helping those who work toward democracy. Neither North Korea nor South Korea came up at all.

From a U.S.–China relations standpoint, the speech was almost neutral. If it had any message, it was that the United States intends to compete with China on the international economic stage. Since Japan and South Korea got no mentions explicitly, it was essentially impossible to avoid reaffirming U.S. commitment to its East Asian allies. The mention of U.S. humanitarian assistance in the Philippines was welcome, but I would have campaigned to slip China in somewhere, whether in substance or a friendly (as opposed to competitive) note.

The humanitarian assistance note was one possible venue for this. Obama could have mentioned that the United States, alongside China and Japan, performed disaster relief operations. Now only the South Korea would be left out of the lovefest, but China would get a nice note and there could be no accusation of “Japan passing.”

The speech avoided using the term “rebalance” and gave no mention of Australia, for instance. Instead, Obama cited a “focus on the Asia-Pacific.”

Asia was not the only region that one might claim was overlooked, as Mexico’s former ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, notes on Twitter: “Mali, Burma, Tunisia & Ukraine merit mentions in SOTU (not to mention Israel, Iran, Afghanistan) but not a single country in Latin America.”

Egypt also did not come up, rankling some. As has been the pattern, this was not a major foreign policy speech except to rally support for the interim deal with Iran. Still, it seems to me there are too few, not too many, signals to China and East Asia, and I hope to see more soon.

Country mentions in 2009-14 SOTUs

Asia Mentions: 

Here are the results of your efforts: The lowest unemployment rate in over five years. A rebounding housing market. A manufacturing sector that’s adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world – the first time that’s happened in nearly twenty years. Our deficits – cut by more than half. And for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is.

Let’s do more to help the entrepreneurs and small business owners who create most new jobs in America.  Over the past five years, my administration has made more loans to small business owners than any other.  And when ninety-eight percent of our exporters are small businesses, new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create more jobs.  We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment, and open new markets to new goods stamped “Made in the USA.”  China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines.  Neither should we.

Our alliance with Europe remains the strongest the world has ever known.  From Tunisia to Burma, we’re supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy.  In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future.  Across Africa, we’re bringing together businesses and governments to double access to electricity and help end extreme poverty.  In the Americas, we are building new ties of commerce, but we’re also expanding cultural and educational exchanges among young people.  And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity, and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster – as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America!”

Here, on the White House annotated feed, a picture of Obama with Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared on screen while the president mentioned the “focus on the Asia-Pacific.” In lieu of a spoken signal, this is something positive.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 12.19.40 PM

Foreign policy sections, first one on trade

Let’s do more to help the entrepreneurs and small business owners who create most new jobs in America.  Over the past five years, my administration has made more loans to small business owners than any other.  And when ninety-eight percent of our exporters are small businesses, new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create more jobs.  We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment, and open new markets to new goods stamped “Made in the USA.”  China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines.  Neither should we.

It’s not just oil and natural gas production that’s booming; we’re becoming a global leader in solar, too.  Every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar; every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced.  Let’s continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.

“Foreign policy and national security section”

Citizenship demands a sense of common cause; participation in the hard work of self-government; an obligation to serve to our communities.  And I know this chamber agrees that few Americans give more to their country than our diplomats and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces.

[AFGHANISTAN AND AL QAEDA]

Tonight, because of the extraordinary troops and civilians who risk and lay down their lives to keep us free, the United States is more secure.  When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Today, all our troops are out of Iraq.  More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan.  With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over.

After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future.  If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda.  For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.

[NEW THREATS]

The fact is, that danger remains.  While we have put al Qaeda’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved, as al Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks. In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects  the agenda of terrorist networks. Here at home, we’ll keep strengthening our defenses, and combat new threats like cyberattacks.  And as we reform our defense budget, we have to keep faith with our men and women in uniform, and invest in the capabilities they need to succeed in future missions.

We have to remain vigilant.  But I strongly believe our leadership and our security cannot depend on our military alone. As Commander-in-Chief, I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office.  But I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it’s truly necessary; nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts.  We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us – large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.

[APPROACH ON DEFENSE, CLOSE GUANTANAMO]

So, even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks – through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners – America must move off a permanent war footing.  That’s why I’ve imposed prudent limits on the use of drones – for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.  That’s why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs – because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.  And with the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay – because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our Constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world.

You see, in a world of complex threats, our security and leadership depends on all elements of our power – including strong and principled diplomacy.  American diplomacy has rallied more than fifty countries to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands, and allowed us to reduce our own reliance on Cold War stockpiles.  American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated, and we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve – a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear. As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel – a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side.

[IRAN]

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program – and rolled parts of that program back – for the very first time in a decade.  As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.  It is not installing advanced centrifuges.  Unprecedented inspections help the world verify, every day, that Iran is not building a bomb.  And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon

These negotiations will be difficult.  They may not succeed.  We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and the mistrust between our nations cannot be wished away.  But these negotiations do not rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb.  If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible.  But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.  For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.  If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon.  But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.

[THAT TRANSITION GRAF]

Finally, let’s remember that our leadership is defined not just by our defense against threats, but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe – to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want.  And no one is better positioned to take advantage of those opportunities than America.

[LIST OF REGIONS NOT MENTIONED AT LENGTH]

Our alliance with Europe remains the strongest the world has ever known.  From Tunisia to Burma, we’re supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy.  In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future.  Across Africa, we’re bringing together businesses and governments to double access to electricity and help end extreme poverty.  In the Americas, we are building new ties of commerce, but we’re also expanding cultural and educational exchanges among young people.  And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity, and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster – as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America!”

We do these things because they help promote our long-term security.  And we do them because we believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation.  And next week, the world will see one expression of that commitment – when Team USA marches the red, white, and blue into the Olympic Stadium – and brings home the gold.

My fellow Americans, no other country in the world does what we do.  On every issue, the world turns to us, not simply because of the size of our economy or our military might – but because of the ideals we stand for, and the burdens we bear to advance them.

Among China expats today, echoes of Orwell's time in Burma?

At the recommendation of a friend in Beijing, I’ve been reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Coincidentally, Jane Perlez of The New York Times recently traveled to the real town Orwell was stationed in that inspires the novel’s setting. She calls the book “a scathing portrait of the imperious attitudes of the British, from this former colonial outpost on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River.” Some of those imperious attitudes sound strikingly similar to, if far more strident than, the complaints and judgments of some expatriates in Beijing.

NYT picture of the house Orwell lived in. Click for story and full size.

NYT picture of the house Orwell lived in. Click for story and full size.


One of the central tensions of the novel, which I haven’t finished (and so neither did I read the end of Perlez’s story, where she got back to the plot), is that one Englishman, named Flory, is unusually sympathetic to the Burmese, while the rest of the European population is savagely racist and dismissive. This passage pretty much sums it up.

There was an uneasiness between them, ill-defined and yet often verging upon quarrels. When two people, one of whom has lived long in the country while the other is a newcomer, are thrown together, it is inevitable that the first should act as cicerone to the second. Elizabeth, during these days, was making her first acquaintance with Burma; it was Flory, naturally, who acted as her interpreter, explaining this, commenting upon that. And the things he said, or the way he said them, provoked in her a vague yet deep disagreement. For she perceived that Flory, when he spoke of the ‘natives’, spoke nearly always in favour of them. He was forever praising Burmese customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to contrast them favourably with the English. It disquieted her. After all, natives were natives—interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people with black faces. His attitude was a little too tolerant. Nor had he grasped, yet, in what way he was antagonising her. He so wanted her to love Burma as he loved it, not to look at it with the dull, incurious eyes of a memsahib! He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.

The life of an American or European expatriate in Beijing is categorically different. We are not colonial authorities, nor is urban China so terribly exotic compared to other global cities. But the tension is real between people who seek only to complain and disparage, and those who seek to understand and engage. That tension can frequently be recognized even within individuals. What today’s reality in Beijing shares with Orwell’s account is a language of separation.

In this second passage, Orwell laments the assault on a European’s own dignity that occurs when he or she is bound by colonial social norms. In the plot, Flory had decided to betray a non-European friend, because to stand with him would have led to great problems for him among the Europeans.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs‘ [a term for Europeans as a ruling class in the British empire] code.

Again, things are very different. But is there a degree of groupthink among China watchers? Are there times when taking the side of the Chinese people or government in a political argument is a kind of taboo? I think so.

Back to the novel.

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?

Olympic Threats Won't Work and They're Getting Old

The Olympics are a major international political event, and they’ve been part of activists’ rhetoric on Darfur and now Burma. But making threats about the Olympics is no way to make China cooperate.

The phrase “Genocide Olympics” has been a recurring theme in rhetoric from U.S. and European activists who seek to pressure the Chinese government into making stronger efforts to stop the genocide and refugee crisis in Darfur, Sudan. China’s leverage is considerable, since the country is a major remaining customer for Sudan’s oil, a revenue stream that funds the government, which is active in the conflict.

Activists correctly perceive that the Chinese government, and the people of Beijing, the Olympics are an important occurrence. The one-year countdown event was attended by tens of thousands. Using the Games as a rhetorical refrain, activists who seek to connect Beijing to the Darfur crisis may be using a reasonable publicity lever: If Chinese authorities can do something to prevent negative publicity connected to the country’s Olympics, they very may well try. But I’m beginning to tire of this rhetoric.

I have not spent much time researching the facts of China’s involvement, so I will steer clear of diagnosing how much leverage they have. But I can say that the rhetoric of, for instance, a recent Salon article would have been stronger if it left out the Olympics. For one thing, the writer, Jill Savitt, notices the changes that happened in China’s Sudan position last spring. She connects these changes to a round of publicity sparked my Mia Farrow and some other activists. This assertion suffers from a common narrow-sightedness: the “Genocide Olympics” rhetoric had been around since at least the December before that, and talks of a boycott were already underway in Europe before that. (I’ll get to boycotts in a moment.)

Savitt’s article does have a well-argued passage, once you sift through the tired Olympic rhetoric. Among her good points: “China could put a moratorium on oil ventures with Khartoum. Beijing contends that its purchase of oil from the regime in Khartoum—more than $1 billion each year—and its massive investment in infrastructure should be viewed as entirely separate from the violence and murder in Darfur. But it is oil revenues from China that continue to fuel the Sudanese regime’s buying of planes and bombs, and its backing of hired killers, the Janjaweed.” The idea that Chinese oil purchases and infrastructure assistance in Sudan don’t help free up resources for the Sudanese government to engage in violence is hard to believe.

Let me put it this way: Invoking the Olympics doesn’t help the argument anymore. If these activists believe that China’s changes in its U.N. stance toward Sudan have been pure public relations, why would invoking the same rhetoric that only got a superficial response before make real change now?

Another crisis, the one in Burma, recently drew the same sort of useless rhetoric from the editor of the Washington Post editorial page. Without using the b-word, Fred Hiatt calls for the United States to threaten a boycott of the Beijing Olympics if China doesn’t intervene in Burma. Here I turn to James Fallows, who wrote a counter-argument for the Post and introduced it on his blog. Here’s an excerpt:

If a country makes a threat, it must be ready to carry it out. The plain fact is, virtually no country in the world, certainly not the United States, is ready to carry out the threat to boycott the Olympics. Therefore other countries should pressure China. And talk with China. And leave in the background the suggestion that China’s grand and gala opening-to-the-world event, toward which so much of its money and attention is now being devoted, will be forever tainted if the Chinese government continues to look like the evil Burmese junta’s only foreign friend. But it would be foolish to waste time with ultimatums to the effect: Olympics or Burma, take your pick. The Chinese would know that the foreigners didn’t mean it.Why would they know that? Because the foreign governments understand a point that some foreign editorialists miss: that China as a whole—not just its government but also the great majority of its people—would take such a boycott as a deeply hostile act.

I hope people advocating international pressure and intervention in the face of genocide and mass atrocities can get over the cheap shots and start working with China in a way that is not, as Fallows says, deeply hostile to China’s national pride. As Fallows writes, “You show me someone who has studied Chinese politics and thinks the leadership responds well to outright ‘or else!’ threats, and I’ll show you, umm, an unusual scholar or diplomat.”