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Inside the Ring
Question of the Day
China policy fight
With President Obama set for a major trip to Asia next month and the Obama administration nearing the halfway point of its first term, U.S. officials tell Inside the Ring that a heated policy debate is under way over how to deal with China.
Two camps in the policy dispute involve one powerful faction that favors past policies of conciliation and concessions in relations with China — described by one official as the “kowtow” group. A second, more centrist, group is characterized as “sad and disappointed” by China’s across-the-board refusal to work cooperatively with the United States for the past two years.
The policy debate is almost totally hidden from public view and only occasionally surfaces in public through statements or public speeches by faction members.
China’s diplomats and intelligence officers are said to be aware of the debate and the U.S. officials said the Chinese are actively trying to influence it behind the scenes through their supporters in and out of government.
The two sides were divided over Mr. Obama’s Asia visit, which begins Nov. 4. The president excluded a stop in China but plans visits to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and India. Pro-China administration officials said the sweep of stops and the exclusion of China has fueled Beijing’s fears of enemy encirclement.
Since early in the administration, the president’s advisers were stymied in dealing with China on every major national security, diplomatic, political, economic and trade issue. The failed policy is at the center of the current debate, as senior officials plan what to do next.
Those failures include the inability to gain substantive cooperation from Beijing in stemming Iran’s nuclear program, getting North Korea to negotiate, and working to come to terms on currency valuation, trade and other economic issues. Beijing’s rude rejection of cooperation on climate change was the first splash of cold water for the administration’s China hands. By the end of 2009, after Mr. Obama’s visit to China, senior officials understood clearly that reaching out to China was not working.
The kowtow group is headed by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and includes White House National Security Council Asia Staff Director Jeff Bader, and his deputy, Evan Medeiros, a China military expert. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing also support continuing the current U.S. policies aimed to avoid upsetting Beijing’s communist leaders.
According to the officials close to the debate, this group and its supporters in departments and agencies, including the intelligence community analysis groups, believe they must protect China from critics who they claim want to turn it into an enemy by following U.S. policies that will not upset Beijing.
The first failure was Mr. Steinberg’s effort to have Chinese leaders calm critics in Asia and the United States who see China as a major threat by offering “strategic reassurance” that China’s rise is peaceful. China rejected the initiative, telling Mr. Steinberg and others that China is peaceful and does not need to reassure anyone about its intentions. U.S. efforts to prompt a reassurance will merely rekindle the Cold War against communism, the Chinese said.
U.S. policies spiraled downward from there and reached a low point with China siding with North Korea this past summer in rejecting the results of an international investigation that showed the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan was a torpedo attack by a North Korean submarine.
The centrist faction is being called the “sad and disappointed” group whose most senior members are Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and, although not technically a policy official, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta. Included among the sad and disappointed group are Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, and Wallace “Chip” Gregson, a retired Marine three-star general and assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs.
Mrs. Clinton set the tone for this group in a speech given in August in Hanoi when she told a regional forum that “the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”
China denounced the statement as U.S. meddling in its territorial disputes, which include Beijing’s seeking control or influence over nearly the entire resource-rich sea. The secretary’s speech was privately criticized by the pro-China camp for what it regarded as needless inflammatory remarks.
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About the Author
Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.
He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.
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