During his last year in office, President Obama has been working assiduously to burnish his historical legacy.
In Asia, that means cementing whatever progress he has achieved through the so-called pivot or rebalance (which actually began in the last part of the Bush administration but without the quasi-doctrinal title). Some success stories should continue into subsequent administrations—the enhanced cooperation with Vietnam, the democratic opening in Burma (both were also started under Bush but carried forward to fruition under Obama).
But, unless the president is willing to take decisive action in three critical policy areas, his outgoing administration will at best earn the same grade on Asia policy that China gratuitously bestowed on Tsai Ing-wen’s incoming administration in Taiwan: ominously incomplete.
A Clinton or Trump presidency will immediately have to grapple with three unresolved strategic flashpoints: North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, Beijing’s aggressive actions in the South and East China Seas, and the ongoing Chinese threat to Taiwan.
China is the key regional player in all three challenges. Administration policy has failed to induce Beijing to help resolve the issues; neither did its predecessors’ approach, but the dangers have grown dramatically over the past eight years.
Hesitant and halting American measures have undercut Washington’s rhetorical efforts to convey U.S. resolve.
Over the past two decades, successive administrations have sought to moderate Pyongyang’s erratic behavior and halt its nuclear and missile programs through negotiations — carrots in the form of engagement and economic rewards, sticks wielded by sanctions and warnings.
All have failed to alter Pyongyang’s headlong push to become a nuclear power armed with missile delivery systems.
Throughout those 20 years, the common operating premise of Washington’s policy, mirrored in Seoul and Tokyo, was that China was a good-faith negotiating partner and a de facto ally in the international effort to curb North Korea’s dangerous quest.
It was assumed that China shared the other capitals’ long-term objective of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula–after all, Beijing kept saying it did. And China has the required leverage to cajole or pressure Pyongyang in a more constructive direction. The Kim family regimes were entirely dependent on Beijing for both material support and diplomatic protection. So the West kept looking to China to deal with the problem.
In recent years, however, a different reality gradually began to dawn on Western capitals and their experts in and out of government. Even if Beijing agreed with the theoretical goal of eventual denuclearization, in the real world of here and now, its irreducible priority was the survival and security of the North Korean regime. All else was subordinate to that bottom-line objective. Despite all the mutual assurances and pledges, Beijing and Washington were never on the same page at all.
Still, American administrations of both parties were willing to accept China’s rationale for not exerting its ample leverage over Pyongyang. It was argued by no less a China hand than Henry Kissinger that Beijing could not be expected to precipitate the collapse of the North Korean government and trigger a massive flood of refugees across its border.
The analysis was adopted across the foreign policy establishment. Most recently, Richard Haass, the eminent and consistently insightful president of the Council on Foreign Relations, stated:
[S]anctions will not be potent enough to force North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs. This is partly because China, fearing large refugee inflows and a unified Korea in America’s strategic orbit should North Korea collapse, will most likely continue to ensure that it gets the fuel and food it needs.
But that now-conventional explanation implies that China cares more about the survival of the North Korean regime than the regime itself does. It postulates, in effect, that, in the face of a credible Beijing ultimatum to give up its nukes or lose Chinese support, Pyongyang would choose to commit regime suicide.
The reason China has not presented North Korea with that stark choice is because the United States has not imposed an unacceptable price on Beijing for failing to do so. Two decades of pleading and remonstrating with China, then empathizing with its “predicament” as an unhappy senior partner, have generated little cooperation.
Beijing has gone along with Security Council resolutions only after watering them down; what sanctions it has allowed to pass it has failed to enforce or blatantly circumvented. Beijing has been content to reap the benefits accrued to an “indispensable partner” without actually having to deliver.
Worse, China was instrumental in the early dissemination of nuclear and missile technology through Pakistan to North Korea, Iran, and other places — making it a proliferator of proliferators.
Last week, the administration finally imposed selective secondary sanctions on at least one Chinese entity. It also filed criminal charges against a Chinese company and four individuals for conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions on North Korea, violating U.S. regulations by supporting “weapons of mass destruction proliferators,” and engaging in money laundering.
The question is whether Washington’s moves prove to be more than symbolic and minimalist. If they are followed by deeper sanctions against broader targets in China, including entities and individuals close to the Chinese Communist regime, Beijing may finally start turning the screws on its reckless ally.
China’s maritime aggression
Sporadically since 1974, China has seized islands from Vietnam or the Philippines and made other aggressive maritime moves against its neighbors in the South China Sea. Then, in 2012, it provided a “rationale” for such assertiveness by reviving an old nine-dash-line claim to virtually the entire maritime expanse of the South China Sea.
China soon began building artificial islands on various reefs and rocks and asserting territorial waters claims based on those manmade land features while also constructing airfields and military installations on them.
Last year, the Philippines brought a case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration challenging China’s claims, resulting in a sweeping ruling in favor of the Philippines this summer. Beijing has said it will ignore the decision and will continue to assert its “historical rights.”
The United States and other nations have repeatedly protested China’s actions. U.S. officials from the president on down have pledged that the U.S. “will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” The operative word is “operate” and that is not exactly what the United States Navy has been doing in the China Sea.
While Washington has sent warships within 12 nautical miles of some of China’s artificial islands, on all three occasions, the ships conducted innocent passages, not full, unconstrained freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS).
On the high seas, which is what Washington contends these waters are and always were before China’s island-building, ships routinely run tests, drills, and maneuvers; utilize their radar; conduct live-fire exercises; and so on. The U.S. Navy did none of those things during the three transits that were intended to demonstrate U.S. commitment to unrestricted freedom of the seas.
Instead, Beijing’s island-building and bellicose warnings have succeeded thus far in constricting U.S. Navy operations in international waters. The new American administration will need to take early action to reverse that trend before China’s expanding maritime domain becomes the new normal.
If Washington’s responses to the North Korean and South China Sea challenges seem half-hearted, Taiwan is the prime demonstration of explicit strategic ambiguity.
The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 was enacted “to make clear” that the U.S. decision to switch diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China “rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”
It further asserts that the U.S. would consider “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
The TRA pledges to provide Taiwan with “arms of a defensive character… to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” While it does not commit Washington to come directly to Taiwan’s aid in the event of Chinese aggression, the overall thrust of the TRA makes that strong implication.
But the balance in reading U.S. intent shifted more strongly to ambiguity — i.e., doubt — during the 1995-1996 missile crisis across the Taiwan Strait. After flying missiles and deployed carriers conveyed reciprocal warnings, Chinese officials directly confronted their American counterparts with the question: what would the U.S. do if China actually attacked Taiwan?
The assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific said Washington “didn’t know” what it would do — “it would depend on the circumstances.” For the next decade, Beijing has been busy creating “the circumstances” that would forestall a U.S. response to a Taiwan under Chinese attack.
Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles and attack submarines have burgeoned as essential components in China’s anti-access, area denial counter-deterrent strategy.
Then, in 2005, over strong U.S. objections, China passed an Anti-Secession Law declaring its intent to use force if Taiwan did not submit “peacefully” to Chinese rule. Beijing now had a “law” to counteract the legal force of the TRA, in addition to the expanding arsenal of missiles and submarines.
Over the past eight years, cross-Strait tensions had seemed to subside as Ma Ying-jeou’s Kuomintang government on Taiwan sought closer economic ties with China, leading Beijing to believe political integration was sure to follow. Xi Jinping warned that the Taiwan question could not be passed from one generation to the next.
But the people of Taiwan were moving in a different direction. The growing sense of Taiwanese identity gave rise to the Sunflower movement and other expressions of public opposition to closer relations with China.
The overwhelming victory of Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party in the 2016 elections alarmed Beijing which immediately demanded that she accept the one China formulation set forth in the so-called 1992 Consensus. Her refusal to do so, even as she offered an olive branch to Beijing, may well elicit stronger pressure from China, with more-or-less muted threats of force
That’s where the U.S. comes in. Washington must first fulfill the Congressional intent in the TRA by providing Taiwan with sufficient self-defense arms — such as modern fighter aircraft and the long-promised technology and other support needed to foster Taiwan’s indigenous development of diesel submarines.
But even more importantly, the current administration or the next one should discard the outmoded concept of strategic ambiguity and make clear to Beijing that the U.S. will defend Taiwan against any Chinese coercion or aggression.
Such clarity would actually be a service to Chinese leaders, strengthening the hand of moderates urging restraint, and staying the hand of more hawkish officials who may think Taiwan is theirs for the taking. That would be a strategic miscalculation akin to what brought the Korean War. To quote (again) Henry Kissinger’s assessment of that calamity: “We didn’t expect the invasion, China didn’t expect our response.”
Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.