Richard Weitz

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Richard Weitz

The Diplomat contributor and security analyst Richard Weitz shares his thoughts on partisanship in US foreign policy making, Robert Gates’ J-20 ‘surprise’ and Hu Jintao’s current visit to Washington.

You’re a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in Washington, but have also worked on the Project on National Security Reform. What kind of work have you done with the project?

The Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) seeks to improve the performance of the US national security community at the level where the heads of departments and agencies work with the White House. It tries to improve both the development and the implementation of policies that involve more than one agency.

My main activity with the project initially was to supervise the production of the case studies generated for the project. The objective was to identify what recurring problems arose in US national security policy by asking a set of common questions to a broad range of cases—ones that covered many issues and many administrations. That research, combined with the contributions of the other PNSR working groups, helped identify several enduring problems in the conduct of US foreign policy. I also wrote two cases myself on Asian topics—one on China-US crises relations, the other on the crisis in East Timor following its independence from Indonesia.

After that I helped edit several PNSR reports, including the 2009 report on ‘Turning Ideas into Action,’ which provided recommendations and implementation tools for the new Obama administration on national security reform issues. Most recently, I helped write a PNSR study on ‘Building an Integrated National Security Professional System for the 21st Century,’ which talked about what kind of training and other policies would be neededto develop national security professionals. That report will be rolled out Tuesday morning in DC for any readers interested in this.

PNSR states that it’s a non-partisan organization. Domestically, on many key issues, the United States appears extremely divided. How much would you say that applies to foreign policy, and how healthy would you say the debate over foreign and security policy is in the US?

The partisan divide varies a lot by area and even issue. For example, although the ratification of the New START agreement was very contentious, Republicans have backed the Obama administration’s policies regarding securing loose nuclear materials. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has retained and expanded some Bush-era innovations in this area, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative.

Policy toward Asia has been less partisan than that toward many other regions, such as the Middle East and Russia. Both parties are eager to deepen security ties with traditional US allies such as Japan and Australia, while cultivating new relations with India and Vietnam. The Republicans have backed the Obama administration’s military exercises in Korea and sanctions on Iran. Both parties have expressed unease at some recent hardening of China’s position regarding disputed maritime claims, but nobody’s eager to see Sino-American relations deteriorate much further.

Any debate presumably is made healthier by good media coverage. Broadly speaking, what do you make of US media coverage of foreign policy, especially on Asia?

The Diplomat is really helping fill a void here. US media coverage of some hot issues (Korea, Iran, China) is good, but many other topics are ignored until a scandal, crisis, or other development occurs to make them newly prominent. And longer analytical pieces appear in some US journals, but only every few months. So The Diplomat helps feed people with frequent and analytical coverage of the entire range of Asian issues.

Of course, Hudson and other US think tanks try to contribute in this area as well through our own publications and events, but we’re based here in Washington and lack the regional perspective of correspondents and analysts based in Asia.

One of your areas of interest is US security relations with East Asia. As the rising power in that region, and with Hu Jintao in Washington this week, what did you make of China’s decision to conduct a test flight of its assumed new stealth fighter while he was there?

President Hu told Defence Secretary Robert Gates that it was just a coincidence, and Gates said—as he had to—that he believed what the president told him. And that may be true. China has become a sufficiently complex society that one bureaucracy often does something that another does not know about. For example, one gets the impression that the Chinese Foreign Ministry was caught completely by surprise in January 2007 when the Chinese military caused an international outcry by testing an anti-satellite weapon, breaking a decades-old international moratorium.

Chinese behavior during some of the crises I covered in my PNSR case study—the May 1999 bombing of the Belgrade embassy, for instance, or the April 2001 EP-3 collision, between an American EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter aircraft off China’s coast—also suggests that the military sometimes acts without informing civilian officials beforehand. For example, they appeared to have not informed Beijing initially that the Chinese pilot was flying provocatively and dangerously near the US surveillance plane when the collision occurred.

That said, the testing of a stealth plane was such an important issue for China that the senior government officials must’ve been aware of the overlapping timing of the two events even if they miscalculated how many people in Washington might react—by seeing the test flight as an implicit warning to the US military about China’s growing defence capabilities.

Military-to-military ties seem to have resumed to some extent. Do you expect relations to improve this year after what was a relatively tense 2010?

Yes, there’ll probably be some ‘regression toward the mean’ in the Sino-American relationship, perhaps from terrible to tolerable.

That said, despite decades of sustained engagement, the bilateral military dialogue remains highly constrained and vulnerable to disruption from external shocks. The most important impediment to better Sino-American defence ties has been the underlying contentious nature of the Chinese-US relationship. This is manifested most acutely in the recurring Sino-American tensions over Taiwan, but reflects deeper differences over power and values, which haven’t created a favourable environment for flourishing military relations.

As the leaders of the weaker power, Chinese policymakers fear that excessive transparency could provide the Pentagon with insights into their continuing military vulnerabilities. Also, Chinese policymakers don’t want to highlight their military build-up by putting the armed forces on regular display. And domestic politics also play a role, as Chinese leaders hesitate to appear weak in defending their country’s national interests.

Still, the repeated confrontations over Taiwan arms sales will probably continue to disrupt the limited range of confidence-building and security mechanisms that China and the United States have established. Further defence exchanges or confidence-building measures can’t by themselves overcome what both sides view as fundamentally issues of principle—preserving regional security for the Americans, and defending their national sovereignty and rights as an emerging great power for the Chinese.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to achieving a ‘sustained and reliable’ Sino-American military relationship has been the underlying climate of security tension between the two countries. The basic problem is that China’s increasing military power is enabling Chinese policymakers to challenge more directly American military policies that Beijing has long opposed. This resistance has become evident in the repeated confrontations between the two navies in the seas off China.

Fortunately, their persistent defence differences don’t prevent China and the United States from collaborating on other important issues, especially in the economic realm, but also regarding regional security issues such as the Six-Party Talks on the Korean Peninsula and Iran—both topics that’ll likely come up at this week’s summit.