Inside the Ring

Question of the Day

What has been the biggest debacle on Obama's watch?

View results

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.

Those outside the debate include the president, who has little experience with foreign policy, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who while a staunch liberal, has not weighed in directly on the debate.

Likewise, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is focused mainly on Afghanistan, has not made clear where he stands on the China debate. However, he upset some pro-China hands in the administration when he said that he even though he strongly favors resuming military talks and exchanges with the Chinese military, he does not want talks that are not substantive.

For Mr. Gates, crunch time on any new China policy is coming next spring. The secretary, if he stays in office, must make a series of decisions that will affect policies, arms acquisitions and war planning related to China, including a major revision of U.S. war plans for a conflict with China.

The decisions will involve several major weapons programs the military wants to deal with a future hostile China, including a new long-range bomber, the high-technology “prompt global strike” program that will permit attacks on any place on Earth in 30 minutes or so; and U.S. counterspace programs to deal with China’s anti-satellite weapons.

Officials said Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command and normally a key player on China policy, has been sidelined in the debate, after initially making speeches and statements that put him squarely in the camp of China skeptics.

White House NSC spokesman Mike Hammer told The Ring that the administration has one China policy — the president’s.

“The president and his advisers all have a keen sense of both the challenges and opportunities in pursuing a constructive and cooperative relationship with China that advances U.S. interests,” he said. “There are no camps into which his advisers fall — we are all on the same team.”

Saudi arms deal

U.S. officials say the $60 billion arms package approved for Saudi Arabia and announced on Tuesday has triggered new fears among states in the Middle East that plans for a future U.S. and Israeli military strike on Iran are moving ahead.

According to the officials, the arms package is viewed by Iran and others in the region as part preparations for attacking Iranian nuclear facilities, located in nearly two dozen underground and above-ground facilities.

The arms package to Saudi Arabia, along with other pending arms deals with Kuwait, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates, is viewed as part of a U.S. plan to win regional support and bolster defenses for the future strike on Iran.

The Saudi deal, outlined in a notification to Congress of intent to sell, includes 84 F-15 jets; 70 upgrades for existing Saudi F-15s; 70 AH-64D Apache attack helicopters; 72 UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters; and 36 AH-6 light attack helicopters.

But aside from the aircraft, the package includes thousands of missiles and bombs for the F-15s and helicopters that clearly send a signal that the kingdom is preparing for war: 300 AIM-9 Sidewinders; 500 AIM-120 AMRAAMs; 1,000 laser-guided 2,000-pound bombs; 1,000 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMS); 1,300 sensor fused weapons; and 1,000 general purpose 500-pound bombs.

Other missiles in the F-15 package are 400 Harpoon missiles and 600 Harm missiles.

For helicopters, the Saudis are set to buy 4,700 Hellfire missiles and 6,000 laser-guided rockets.

The arms sale “will send a strong message to countries in the region that we are committed to support the security of our key partners and allies in the Arabian Gulf and broader Middle East,” Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, told reporters in announcing the sale.

“It’s a dangerous neighborhood … and we want to ensure that they have the tools that they need to be able to defend themselves against all manner of threats in the — in the region,” Mr. Shapiro said, noting that the threat is not “solely about Iran.”

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

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.

Mr. ...

Latest Stories

Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus
TWT Video Picks