Tag Archives: pivot

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.

Is the China-Japan confrontation Xi's inside political play, or part of a broader move?

Is China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, flexing military muscle with Japan to solidify rule within the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, or is the heightened dispute with Japan best viewed in a broader context?

At Foreign PolicyJohn Garnaut examines the relationship between Xi and the PLA. The article is worth a read, but the thrust of it can be captured in this passage, speculating that the Chinese agitation on islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan is the result of an effort by Xi to shore up internal power.

The dizzying display of hard power is sending fear and awe throughout the Asia-Pacific region. But Xi, it seems, is unconvinced that all this shiny hardware can be effectively deployed by an organization that was designed for civil war and adapted in recent decades as a political force to ensure the party’s grip on power.

That’s where China’s rapidly escalating territorial showdown with Japan, its largest trading partner and still the world’s third-largest economy, comes in. In September, the Japanese government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands as they are known in China, from private owners to prevent them from falling into the hands of Tokyo’s governor at the time, a hawkish nationalist provocateur. But China responded with fury. It launched a propaganda blitz against Japan, facilitated protests and riots across China, and escalated its maritime and air patrols of the disputed area. For Xi, according to his close family friend, the otherwise baffling diplomatic crisis that resulted has offered a priceless opportunity to “sort the horses from the mules” and mobilize willing generals around him. Claims that Xi has exploited or even orchestrated the brinkmanship with Japan might seem preposterous to outside observers, given that a miscalculation could lead to war. But the logic is compelling for those who have grown up near the center of China’s endless and unforgiving internal struggles.

This claim should be taken with a grain of salt. It is, after all, an anonymous source coming out of the highly opaque world of Chinese elite politics. On the other hand, Garnaut’s sources in recent months have seemed quite good. Either way, the idea is worth discussion.

What if the current surge of Sino-Japanese confrontation over the islands really are in large part the result of internal political plays?

Though all-out war is unlikely, the risk of accident or miscalculation is significant whenever military or civilian law enforcement vessels or planes are put in proximity with those they believe to be adversaries. If Xi Jinping has calculated that this risk is worth taking, we might assume he is deeply insecure in his new position. Perhaps he sees the danger of a PLA outside his close command as greater than that of accidental violence or escalation with Japan—an outcome that could cause untold damage to commerce and the largest decline in China’s international status since at least 1989. Of course, a military out of control could cause its own violence, but this is no small gambit.

As Garnaut notes, there is also a real possibility that in a full-scale conflict Japan’s highly modern, well-trained forces would defeat China’s modernizing, untested military. If Xi is worried about the strength of his rule, this potential outcome would be devastating. For a new leader to lose a battle (a war?) to a great historical adversary at the center of China’s so-called “century of humiliation” could very well be crippling.

An alternative: What if the Japan initiative is no mere internal play, but also aligns with a broader strategy of pushing China’s maritime claims now that it has stronger forces?

China’s increased military and Maritime Surveillance (armed civilian law enforcement) activity in the East China Sea, where the dispute with Japan is centered, should not be viewed in isolation. Though it’s possible the logic of the Japan dispute is independent, Chinese forces and diplomatic staff have recently taken a harder line with maritime neighbors in the South China Sea. Especially with the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s official statements and deployments reflect a renewed assertion of ill-defined territorial claims. The Philippines has brought a seemingly well-crafted case under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both states are party, and the Chinese government has not sent anyone to participate in the arbitration process so far. Meanwhile, regular Chinese patrols are reported by state media, and active development is under way on one island under the banner of a new city called Sansha, which supposedly administers a wide swath of South China Sea territory under Chinese law.

There are significant parallels between the South China Sea and East China Sea situations. The Philippines and Japan are both treaty allies of the United States. (Vietnam is not, though Vietnamese-U.S. dialogue and coordination appear to have increased along with this dispute.) In each case, Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels have been the most visible, though some PLA presence is involved. Why not view these initiatives as parallel?

One reason to differentiate the South China Sea mobilization from the China-Japan dispute is that the former predates Xi’s rise to power, while the latter seems to be developing largely under his watch. But it’s equally possible to view the rise in island disputes as part of a broader flexing of Chinese military muscle, perhaps also including a recent increase in action on the China-India border dispute.

As always, it could likely be a combination of both. But while it’s worth taking seriously the internal political intrigue that may drive international events, broader trends must be kept in view. Missing from this account is potential competition for resources and action between different military commands in China. Though it’s often disputed which came first—the U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific or China’s increased assertiveness on maritime disputes—the two moves have emerged at similar times. And perhaps in each case the strategic logic has been the same all along, but people making decisions in China have decided that now is the time to start pushing, either because military strength has risen sufficiently or because they believe long-term claims need periodic renewal. While it would be a neat narrative, and a pleasingly dramatic one, to root these events in one man’s struggle to establish control, the reality is far less pleasingly simple. Garnaut’s coverage of elite politics is invaluable, but it should be taken as one part of a broader picture.

Is the 'pivot' to Asia a bluff to distract from wars?

Amitai Etzioni argues that the pivot is something like a “bluff,” and is motivated by election-year efforts to divert attention from other foreign policy questions—the actual conflicts in the Middle East.

He points to the challenge of getting the Chinese government to understand the domestic drivers of U.S. foreign policy, and also notes that the Romney-GOP side is pointing to Asia for similar distraction regions. [I would add that it would be nice for the U.S. government to understand the domestic drivers of Chinese foreign policy.]

Comment: It seems to me that Etzioni is suffering from traditional international relations bias—the idea that international issues should basically be explainable on their fundamentals without domestic politics. The election year element makes some sense, but how important is foreign policy this year? As my colleague David Firestein has argued, perhaps China is itself a domestic policy issue in this campaign.