A Partisan Perscription – Updated

Managing Insecurities Across the Pacific
Nina Hachigian

Center for American Progress

Nina Hachigian, who is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a stranger neither to China nor to the business end of national security. A veteran of both the RAND Corporation and the Clinton National Security Council, Hachigian knows her stuff.

It is disappointing, then, to see this obviously intelligent analyst labor mightily and come up with a series of recommendations that amount to “keep doing what we’ve been doing,” and “try to do more of it.” At best, this is a document designed to assure the American public that the Administration is already doing everything right. At worst, it is downright unrealistic, and represents a lost opportunity.

Her first mistake is in endorsing our current effort to mollify China by reassuring Beijing of the importance of our relationship:

Assurances about the desire for collaboration with a rising China are important even if many or most Chinese do not entirely believe them. At minimum, they provide a counternarrative that could help keep suspicions in check.

This is the “spin” approach to international relations, and it doesn’t work well. The Chinese will ignore what we are saying diplomatically and look at our actions. If we want to deliver these messages, we must frame our actions in a manner that takes into account the preconceptions of the Chinese people and their leaders. That’s a very different approach from “ignore what we’re doing. We really like you.”

What the U.S. should do is communicate our clear principles on international behavior – our rule set – and act in accordance with our beliefs. Done.

But she goes on:

That said, U.S. officials must continue to raise issues of human rights and political reform in China both in private and in public. While for some Chinese these entreaties may feed the narrative of the United States wanting to undermine China, they are so important to the United States and such a constant in the relationship that any damage they do are outweighed by their benefits.

What exactly are the benefits of appearing to “undermine China” when in return we get little real gain in human rights and political reform? This is where we need to leave the idealism at home. No diplomatic action from outside is going to bring about these changes: that impetus will (and should) come from within (that’s my read of Jefferson, anyway.)

By making public statements criticizing Chinese human rights and politics, we not only appear to the Chinese like we are meddling in their business, we are also employing the tactics proven least effective in supporting improvements in human rights and domestic politics. There are other channels of action for us to take that will yield more fruit than self-righteous posturing, especially when the CCP has very effective counter-messaging to make us look like hypocrites.

But the recommendation I like the best is this one:

It is also imperative that the United States and China grow their military-to- military contacts. This is where suspicions on both sides run deepest and where worst-case scenarios are daily bread and butter.

A fifteen minute conversation with any current or former U.S. military attache to China will make clear to anyone bothering to inquire that the U.S. military has been busting its hump trying to put mil-to-mil discussions in place. If nothing else, such discussions guard against incidents like the EP-3 collision in 2001.

Unfortunately, the Chinese reject mil-to-mil ties because the leaders of the PLA do not see an upside. Our military is already transparent, theirs isn’t, and they’d prefer to keep us guessing. Hence mil-to-mil contacts aren’t happening.

Would it not be better to put in place education programs for the U.S. military that ensure that the widest possible range of our uniformed personnel speak, read, and write Chinese, understand Chinese culture, and study China, so that whether we fight or we work together we have a cadre of officers prepared to do so?

The paper is not without its virtues. She calls upon the US to retool our economy to “thrive in a future world with a greater number of large economies, including China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and others.” Spot on. Unfortunately, Ms. Hachigian then undermines her argument with a partisan shot, suggesting that the problem here is that “many conservatives have advocated for cuts in these very areas.” Without recognizing the wastefulness of an industrial policy that subsidized photogenic enterprises rather than university R&D, Hachigian surrenders credibility on economic competitiveness.

Unless you are an Obama campaign operative, the best approach to this paper is to skim the last five pages, and do so critically. In an effort to provide a dubious third-party endorsement to a sitting president in an election year, the CAP has given up the opportunity to offer new ideas and thoughtful solutions to the challenge of US-China relations, and in so doing has failed to live up to its charter and its name.

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