Tag Archives: Jeffrey Bader

Former Obama Asia advisor: Media's US-China rivalry articles 'represent lazy journalism'

Jeffrey Bader, a former senior director for East Asia at the U.S. National Security Council during the Obama administration and a key Obama advisor, spoke at Beijing’s Tsinghua University Tuesday, almost a year after he appeared the last time. While a lot of what he said was not especially new if you follow Bader, he closed his speech with a fairly sharp line on the U.S. news media’s handling of Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a trip to to Southeast Asia because of the domestic political crisis in the United States.

Specifically, Bader took issue with the tired frame that assumes a U.S. absence is a victory for China:

We all read a steady drumbeat of articles and media of both sides focusing on U.S.–China rivalry. They are not wrong, but they are seriously unbalanced and, I believe, frankly represent lazy journalism. Nevertheless, perceptions affect reality. If, for example, western analysts interpret Obama’s failure to attend APEC and the East Asia Summit as a victory for China—and I read many articles describing these events as “Xi wins, Obama loses,” as if it were a football game—then I can understand why Chinese analysts respond by imposing a similar zero-sum framework of analysis on U.S. and Chinese behavior.

I hope sophisticated Chinese and Americans will transcend this kind of interpretation. In fact, not everything, indeed not most things that the U.S. and China do are aimed at the other. We each have substantial interests and relations including with other countries in Asia without regard to any rivalry for influence.

This analyst agrees with the former White House advisor.

A few other notes:

  • Bader noted there has been a significant increase in U.S.–China military-to-military exchange, cooperation, and  participation in international exchanges. My far less informed observations confirm this impression.
  • He divided U.S.–China issues into four realms: global issues, Asia-Pacific issues, global hotspots, and purely bilateral issues. Of these, he said, Asia-Pacific issues such as the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas are likely to pose the greatest challenge in the coming years.
  • Increased nationalism throughout the region, he said, is worrisome and creates conditions where concessions are impossible in territorial disputes. Accordingly, Bader said he likes China’s proposal of joint development of undersea resources in the South China Sea, since it sets the sovereignty issue aside and sidesteps arguments over exclusive economic zones that may radiate from some land features under UNCLOS.
  • “Diaoyu islands doesn’t matter,” Bader said in a refreshingly frank and lighthearted discussion of the sticky Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. He continued: “If there were global warming—and there’d have to be a lot of global warming, because they’re pretty high—but if there were somehow miraculously global warming and these islands disappeared, no one would care. But China and Japan would still have issues.” The root of Bader’s argument on Japan and China is that the island dispute was nearly absent for decades before coming up, and that Sino-Japanese relations have hit an unusual rough spot that allows the island dispute to flare up.

Shameless plug:

  • I wrote here about Bader’s dislike for the term “pivot,” which he brought up again today.

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.

On Chinese exceptionalism, politics in history, and an interview with Harvard's Mark C. Elliott

The China Story website from Australian National University has a wonderful interview with Mark C. Elliott,* a professor at Harvard University and an authority on the role of Manchu and other ethnic ideas in Chinese history. The full interview is very much worth the read. In dialogue with Elisa Nesossi, Elliott offers perspectives on the continuities of “China” across several thousand years, on competing definitions and understandings of the “Han,” and on the situation of China history scholars in the United States, the People’s Republic, and elsewhere.

Professor Mark C. Elliott

Professor Mark C. Elliott [via]

In the interview, Elliott takes up China’s place in the world and challenges any vision of Chinese exceptionalism (or any exceptionalism). This passage follows a good discussion of the various views of 中华民族 zhonghua minzu, variously translated as the “Chinese nation,” “Chinese ethnicity,” etc. (This is also the term used in Xi Jinping’s new language on the “great renewal of the Chinese nation.”)

What caught my eye for whatever reason is Elliott’s challenge to visions of recent Chinese history founded on isolation or apartness from the rest of the world. I follow the quotation below with some comments on what this means for understanding China and U.S.–China relations.

The idea of China being isolated is also still quite strong, a discourse that is still there as part of the story that people tell themselves – and that the textbooks tell – about history during the Qing, in particular. It is a little bit more complicated, and I think its complexity is recognized by Chinese historians more generally, because of a competing story, a competing discourse, of openness to the world during the Tang. You have the widespread, popular idea of the Silk Road, and of the fact that Chinese culture and cultures of Western Asia mixed in all kinds of ways in Tang Chang’an 長安 and in other places along the Silk Road.

So that China’s isolation is not seen as being eternal, but there is a disconnect, then, between that openness in the Tang and that ‘closing’ of the empire, say, after the Tang – which wasn’t opened again, according to this way of seeing things, until the arrival of the West in the nineteenth century. The fact that half of the silver in the New World ends up in China, coming through Manila from mines in South America and Mexico, is one of a number of powerful arguments to show how connected China really was with the rest of the world. That such a significant proportion of the wealth of the English crown came from the tax on tea, which could only come from China in the eighteenth century, is another – and there are more.

The so-called ‘California School’ of Chinese history, which, like the New Qing History, has received a fair amount of attention in China – people like Bin Wong, Kenneth Pomeranz, Hamashita Takeshi and Jack Goldstone – have argued for China as being very much a part of the world system of trade, from at least the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I think that this is beginning to win over some people, and maybe with time the notion of China’s ‘isolation’ from the rest of the world will begin to fade, too. I see both of these as troublesome because they contribute to a belief in Chinese exceptionalism, that China is somehow different from everywhere else and that its history can’t be understood using models derived by the experience of other people in other places, ever, and that for that reason, whatever criticism anybody might have about China, or whatever argument that they might want to make about China’s past, doesn’t apply, because China is ‘different’.

I come from the United States, and there are a lot of people who like to argue the very same thing for the US! And of course, German historians have long made this kind of an argument, since the nineteenth century, that Germany follows a Sonderweg, its own ‘special path’. I don’t buy exceptionalism in any form, I certainly don’t believe it helps us very much when it comes to understanding the Chinese past. Any sort of habit of thinking that tends towards exceptionalism is one that I would have to take issue with. Both of these things fall into that category, I’m afraid.

This sense of exceptionalism is strong both among some Chinese political commentators and officials, and often among foreign observers of China. I have often found the notion of historical difference or independence useful in discussing the trouble in applying wholesale theories and models of politics and society originally built to understand Europe. But Elliott makes an important point: while there have been periods of less intense interaction with elsewhere in the world, China does not stand apart from world history.

In the passage I highlighted above, Elliott describes how historical ideas slip into political arguments, for instance that some rules may not fit China or that the Chinese government has a right to refuse compromise on a variety of points. (Here is one strong recent expression of frustration with the approach of some Chinese to the world—a valuable piece, but several steps too strong for a comment on one conference.) What Elliott drifts through there reveals the complexity of working to study and explain contemporary China whether abroad or within the region. One must work to collapse unhelpful assumptions (for instance, the idea of the self-same sovereign state) while nonetheless building bridges of comparability (trade, or power, or change in tandem with the world). In contemporary politics, one must fight the idea that the People’s Republic of China is just another country (at very least, it is unusually populous) while assessing the extent of similarities with other political systems (start perhaps by disaggregating the government, regions, or economic sectors).

In the end, I disagree with Elliott on exceptionalism, if only rhetorically. The People’s Republic and historical China are indeed exceptional, as is the United States, but so is any other country or civilization.

Recently in Beijing, Jeffrey Bader, a former top Obama official on East Asia, introduced his talk on U.S.–China relations in the Xi Jinping era and the second Obama administration: “Arguably we are the two most self absorbed—some would say selfish—countries on the planet.”[1] Perhaps the challenge for people on both sides of the Pacific is to recognize that their enormous roles in the world do not equate to a moral centrality.

*Disclosure: I took a class from Elliott during my master’s studies.
[1] From my notes at “U.S.-China Relations under Barack Obama and Xi Jinping,” Brookings-Tsinghua Center, November 29, 2012

'Global Times' calls South China Sea a 'core interest'

The nationalist-leaning state-controlled newspaper Global Times on its English-language website Sunday made what might be a significant statement in the ongoing Chinese dispute with Vietnam and the Philippines, among others, in the South China Sea. In an unsigned opinion piece, the paper states:

As to China, it is not interested in being involved in frequent wrangles with Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea, which is merely one of its core interests. As a great power, China has strategic concerns all over the Asia-Pacific region and even the world. But if Vietnam and the Philippines continue to provoke and go too far, they must be prepared to face strong countermeasures from China. (emphasis added)

The question of whether the South China Sea has been identified as one of China’s “core interests” is important to diplomats, because it puts the waters on the same level as Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Quoting the International Crisis Group‘s excellent recent report on the issue:

In early 2010, speculation arose that China had defined the South China Sea disputes as one of its “core interests”, a term traditionally reserved for matters of national sov- ereignty such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, where China is unwilling to compromise its position and would resort to force, if necessary. Reports first suggested that Chinese officials used this expression during a private meeting with U.S. officials in March 2010, and then cited U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as claiming that the sen- ior Chinese leader responsible for foreign policy repeated this declaration in May 2010. However, another senior U.S. official* has since asserted that the term “national priority” rather than “core interest” was used. Chinese researchers almost unanimously agree that the government has not made any conscious policy decision to rank the South China Sea as a core interest at the same level as an issue such as Taiwan.

What does something like this mean from the Global Times? First, it’s critical to note that this paper is not regarded as authoritative in the same way that observers take the People’s Daily as the vetted mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. It is not even as strong a source as the official Xinhua News Service, which is the source of dependably “correct” political news for the broader Chinese media sphere.

What does this mean? One way to discount this statement would be to speculate that there has been a mistranslation, but the Chinese version of the editorial also uses “core interest” (核心利益). It seems unlikely to me that the paper, in an unsigned piece, would use this term lightly. What it indicates is that the consensus view of more hawkish voices in China is that the government and national defense establishment should be more protective of the country’s claims than compromising.

The headline of the piece claims that China is “patient, not reckless, over [the] islands,” and this suggests that the threat of “strong countermeasures” is meant as an “or else.”

On the face of it, the argument that joint development should be pursued as a way out of this dispute might seem relatively fair, but various accounts from the region suggest that Vietnamese and Philippine analysts view Chinese proposals of “joint development” as giving them little autonomy. Moreover, recall that some of the islands in question unquestionably lie within a 200-nautical mile distance of Vietnam—an area generally regarded as one country’s exclusive economic zone.

This issue is not likely to be resolved any time soon, but watch carefully for other uses of the term “core interest” from the Chinese side. If they start emerging from more authoritative sources, this may signal a significantly harder line than the current mixture of patrols, protests, and accommodations.

See today’s China Update for more South China Sea links for the last few days, or see previous updates.

*This refers to Jeffrey Bader, in his new tick-tock book on U.S. Asia policy during his time in the National Security Council during the early Obama administration: Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy