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Breaking Down Obama’s Big China Win at APEC: It's Not What You Think

The Buzz

Let’s be clear, the United States won big this week, but not for the reasons most people think. The media and China analysts have focused overwhelmingly on the climate deal, touting the new commitments from both the United States and China as exceptional, even “historic.” But this is missing the forest for the trees. The real win for U.S. President Barack Obama is keeping China in the tent or, in political science speak, reinforcing Beijing’s commitment to the liberal international order.

To be sure, the climate “deal” is no small deal. The joint announcement—and for the sake of clarity, let’s note that there is no real deal here, just two separate pledges presented together—represents an important step forward for both countries. President Obama has committed the United States to deeper cuts in CO2 emissions than previously put forth, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised that China’s emissions will peak around 2030. But it doesn’t get the world where it needs to be with regard to climate change, and many climate experts in both countries appear to agree that much more can and needs to be done by both countries.

The real takeaway from the Obama-Xi meetings at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is that China has put itself back in the U.S. game. The entirety of the package—extending visas, establishing rules of the road for maritime and air encounters in the western Pacific, reducing or eliminating tariffs on as many as two hundred information technology goods, and pledging to do more on climate change—is a win for the United States. That doesn’t mean it is not a win for China too; it is. It is just a win that binds China more deeply to U.S.-backed international security, trade, and environmental regimes.

Keeping China in the tent is no small achievement. Over the past two years, since he assumed power, President Xi has pursued a China vision of world order, evincing much more interest in flouting established rules of the road than in buttressing them. He has moved to enforce China’s maritime claims—recognized by no other party—in the East and South China Seas; proposed an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that could compete with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank; offered up a new regional security architecture in Asia that would exclude the United States; and initiated an Asia-Pacific–wide free trade agreement that threatens to upend President Obama’s drive to complete the U.S.-backed trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The APEC summit does not represent a strategic change for China but a tactical one. Xi is not stepping back from any of his own efforts to establish competing institutions; indeed, he underscored his plans during his joint press conference with President Obama. The U.S.-China relationship will thus continue to be a challenging one underpinned by two competing visions of global order. Nonetheless, the White House can rightly claim a significant win for its China and broader Asia strategy. The pivot has proved its worth; it is here to stay.

This piece appears courtesy of CFR's Asia Unbound blog. 

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

12 People to Follow on Twitter for the Iran Talks

The Buzz

It’s fish-or-cut-bait time in the Iran nuclear talks, with the deadline for an agreement now less than two weeks away. Events are moving quickly. How can you prepare for the flurry of coverage as the deadline draws closer? And who should you listen to, knowing that every pundit with a pulse will soon be playing Iran expert? Here are some of the key voices to watch on Twitter—journalists, wonks, wags, and others—who actually know what they're talking about.

Laura Rozen

A veteran of Iran talks coverage who’s written for many outlets (presently, Al Monitor), Rozen’s feed is a clearinghouse for the most recent information on the talks.

Arash Karami

Another Al Monitor journalist, Karami keeps a close watch on the Persian-language press and has a great eye for the oddities that sometimes turn up in it.

Ariane Tabatabai

An associate at Harvard’s prestigious Belfer Center, Tabatabai has an excellent grasp of both the technical side of the talks and their day-to-day development. Her October analysis of just how many centrifuges Iran and the West will accept is a good example of how useful this combined perspective can be.

The Institute for Science and International Security

Headed by physicist David Albright, ISIS is a tiny outfit with a big voice in Washington. Its assessments of International Atomic Energy Agency reports cut through the bureaucratese, highlighting what’s new and charting Iran’s progress. Their consistent calls for stricter monitoring make it hard to say whether Tehran should be more worried about Albright’s ISIS, or Al Baghdadi’s.

Sam Cutler

Any deal will see major adjustments to the Western sanctions on Iran. And there are few who know the sanctions in more detail than Cutler, who works at a law firm that specializes in sanctions litigation.

Mark Dubowitz

What ISIS is to the technical side of the talks, Dubowitz is to the sanctions side, appearing regularly on Capitol Hill and in the press. Dubowitz has been a tough critic of the Obama administration’s conduct of the talks, arguing that the sanctions relief granted under the initial framework agreement sharply reduced Western leverage, allowing Iran to stabilize its economy and take its time in talks.

Reza Marashi

Marashi serves as the research director of the National Iranian American Council, one of the main organizations opposing the current sanctions regime. He’s already practicing a “celebration dance” for the possible deal.

Mohammad Ali Shabani

The London-based former editor of the Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs and an alum of the Center for Strategic Research (headed until last year by a Dr. Hassan Rouhani), Shabani is one of the most active Iranian voices in the English-language Twitter conversation on Iran.

Abas Aslani

Aslani directs international coverage at the hardline Tasnim News Agency and has served in a similar role at the more (in)famous Fars News Agency. Expect him to be at the final rounds of talks, and expect him to get good access to the Iranian negotiating team.

Iran Nuclear Energy

The social media account of a website defending the Iranian nuclear program. A steady stream of quotes from Iranian officials and details of the logistics of the talks.

Matt Lee

The tenacious Associated Press diplomatic reporter is often the first one to get a quote from the State Department when news is breaking. He’ll also fill you in on the latest Buffalo Sabres developments.

Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi

A scholar of Iran’s Reformist movement whose feed is a good mix of pressing developments and deeper analysis.

So there you have it: a dozen accounts that’ll keep you up to speed on the Iran talks. (If twelve isn’t enough, you can follow me, too.) November 24, the deadline under the current framework, can’t come soon enough!

TopicsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIran

U.S.-Taiwanese Relations After the Midterms: A Unique Opportunity

The Buzz

On the 35th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, I argued in The National Interest and at an event at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that our relationship with Taiwan has suffered from benign neglect for far too long. Sustaining a productive partnership with Taiwan is critical to the success of U.S. strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific region. Unfortunately, the Obama administration still needs to do more to reinvigorate the bilateral relationship. It should work directly with Taiwan to actively promote peace and stability in Asia; strengthen the bilateral economic and trade relationship; preserve democracy, human rights, and media freedom; reopen blocked channels of communication; and facilitate meaningful participation in international organizations.

Will Republican majorities in the House and Senate benefit Taiwan in concrete ways? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, Congress is able to successfully speak out on sensitive bilateral issues that are more difficult for the administration to address directly and forcefully in public. In recent years, Congress has also held a number of public hearings focusing on various aspects of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. The previous generation of Congressional Taiwan hands pushed for the island to respect human rights and democratic norms during the White Terror. Yet, China’s increasingly aggressive behavior is demonstrating to a new generation of Congressmen and women that the United States must support Taiwan’s continued democratic consolidation and international diplomatic breathing space as well as promote enhanced bilateral economic and security relations. These are nevertheless all largely bipartisan efforts.

Perhaps the strongest potential benefit of a Republican Congress is enhanced support for the Asian rebalance and regional trade agreements. If the GOP leadership can facilitate the renewal of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), then it might ultimately hasten Taiwan’s ability to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership or signal the possibility of a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) in the future. According to the Congressional Research Service, while “TPA is not necessary to begin or even conclude trade negotiations… it is widely understood to be a key element of defining congressional authority, and of passing trade agreement implementing legislation. Therefore, its renewal can be construed as signaling serious congressional support for moving ahead with trade negotiations.” Although both the United States and Taiwan would need to commit to serious negotiations before either of these potential trade agreements could come to fruition, having a trade-friendly Congress is a positive first step.

On the other hand, although Congress has the capacity to pass laws that address specific bilateral problems—for example, mandating that the Senate must confirm the position of the American Institute in Taiwan director, our de facto ambassador in Taipei—it is the arguably the White House National Security Council and U.S. Department of State that have the greatest role in shaping, implementing, and managing Taiwan policy. It is thus unlikely that shifts in the political makeup of Congress will have a substantial effect on the overall contours of our bilateral relationship.

Although many members of Congress would undoubtedly like to pay greater attention to the Asia-Pacific region, developing a strategy to combat and destroy ISIL will remain a high priority for both the executive and legislative branches of government. Opportunities for pragmatic engagement with Asia—including Taiwan—will nevertheless emerge. Scholars, policy experts, and the American public at large must remain ready to grasp these opportunities as we work with our partners around the globe to secure long-term peace and stability.

When the 114th Congress convenes in January 2015, it would behoove them to think critically about the ways in which U.S. policymakers can leverage Taiwan’s strengths to enhance the proper functioning and effectiveness of the Asian rebalance. Washington cannot rely on traditional military allies alone. Our leaders must engage in robust, transparent, and honest dialogue with counterparts in Taipei to discuss how the island can help counter military threats from Beijing. Congressional leaders should also focus on bolstering our bilateral trade relationship while helping Taiwan lay the groundwork to enter into TPP negotiations. Diversification represents the key to Taiwan’s future growth, and is necessary to hedge against systematic risk from China.

The relationship between Taipei and Washington rests on a firm and durable foundation. Yet, a new generation of lawmakers has a unique opportunity to re-envision and reinvigorate the U.S.-Taiwan strategic and economic relationship during a pivotal and transformative period in our two nations’ development. The time is now to reaffirm our shared values and mutual stake in promoting a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region.

Julia Famularo is an International Security Studies Fellow at Yale University.

Editor’s Note: Excerpts of this article first appeared in Ketagalan Media Debrief here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsTaiwan

The Secret Sauce: If China Wants to Lead Asia, Here Is How

The Buzz

Recently the growing rivalry between the United States and China seems to be spilling over into the economic and institutional arenas. The US is leading the push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new regional free-trade agreement which excludes China. And Beijing appears to be implementing a new strategy for transforming its own economic strength into regional leadership.

Whereas China previously used bilateral channels to build relationships and acquire influence, it’s now leading multilateral initiatives, headlined by the US$50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and US$40 billion Silk Road Fund—the latter planning to build a network of trade-and-transport infrastructure linking China to Central and South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Those initiatives have the potential to eclipse the World Bank and Asian Development Bank as the dominant multilateral lending institutions in Asia, shaking the foundations of the regional order set up by the United States following World War II.

Beijing is also pushing back on the multilateral trade front, securing an agreement from APEC leaders for a two-year study of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. The FTAAP could become a direct competitor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the central economic component of the Obama Administration’s rebalance to Asia.

There’s a clear strategic logic to China’s multilateral approach. The existing system is a product of US leadership and undeniably favours American interests, but it’s also open, rule-based, and structured around institutions. As John Ikenberry has argued, countries accepted American leadership in part because they were given a say in how the regional order was built and maintained.

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China has recognized that it can’t join (or replace) the United States as a regional leader without offering a degree of continuity with current arrangements. States around the region have flourished under the stability, certainty and reciprocity of the existing order, and are unwilling to give up its cooperative and collaborative aspects, even if they’d receive billions in development assistance in return.

Leadership can’t simply be bought with economic largesse. Economic incentives are certainly a good way to begin a political realignment, but they’re rarely enough to conclude one. An essential ingredient is lacking—security. The American order ultimately endured because it made the majority of governments and peoples in the region feel secure (admittedly with some notable exceptions). Washington’s great achievement was to lead without seeming to threaten countries’ core interests in sovereignty, security and autonomy. The alliance network was a critical ingredient in that accomplishment, not just because it offered security against external threats, but because alliances helped America manage its bilateral relationships, providing reassurance and making American power more “predictable and user-friendly.”

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Countries will oppose the leadership of a great power under whom, for whatever reason, they feel insecure. And despite its lucrative economic offerings, China is making many in the region nervous. Escalation of China’s maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, Xi Jinping’s declaration that “security in Asia should be maintained by Asians themselves,” and outbursts by senior officials at regional fora, all raise doubts over whether China’s displacing of the United States would necessarily be in the region’s best interests.

Reassurance is the key to leadership. If it wants to lead, China needs to convince its neighbors that it doesn’t pose a threat to their fundamental security interests. The mantle of leadership will burden the rising power with a series of costly choices. Will China exercise power forcefully and arbitrarily, or with restraint and rule-based commitments? Will China act to maximize its short-term interests, or make beneficent sacrifices in the name of long-term stability? Is China a security threat, or can it be a security provider?

No one said leading was easy.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's Strategist here

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

China and America: Raising the Bar on Climate Change

The Buzz

It’s official: the United States and China have reached a mutual agreement on global warming. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping together pledged to take significant steps to reduce their respective countries’ contribution to climate change.  The U.S. agreed to deepen emissions reductions from 17% to 26-28% over 2005 levels by 2025, while China pledged to peak its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.  Although the agreement was expected, the announcement represents a landmark achievement that promises to transcend the divide between developed and developing countries that has long hamstrung global climate negotiations.  Moreover, the announcement contains a number of creative initiatives that can help deepen U.S.-China cooperation to address climate change.  But neither side can be complacent. To realize the promise of this week’s accord, Washington must strengthen engagement with other major economies, and ensure that measures are in place to make Beijing’s commitments credible.

What makes this week’s agreement so important is that it represents the first time that a major developed country and a large developing country have mutually committed to limiting or reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the principal cause of climate change.  It also effectively buries the hatchet between the United States and China over the climate issue – in 1997, Washington withdrew from negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s only binding international agreement to limit carbon emissions, citing China’s refusal to limit its own emissions.  Subsequently, American inaction gave China and other large developing countries a convenient excuse to avoid making commitments on climate change.  With Obama and Xi’s agreement, this Sino-American deadlock has been broken.  But now comes the hard part – Washington must translate this bilateral achievement into a new multilateral agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, currently scheduled to expire in 2020.

In order to build on this momentum, both the United States and China must engage other large economies in order to ensure a new agreement covers all major sources of climate change.  Among these, India is a crucial player.  Its emissions are increasing rapidly, and are expected to surpass those of the European Union by 2019.  Despite this, India has long resisted even discussion of limiting its emissions, claiming, and not without reason, that poverty reduction and expanding access to energy must come first.  But China’s agreement to limit its own emissions denies New Delhi its most convenient source of political cover, and puts its own climate policy in the spotlight.  The United States and China should leverage their recent announcement to press India to act aggressively on climate change, and help to conclude a new global climate treaty over the next year.

At the same time that Washington should leverage its agreement with Beijing, it must also ensure that China builds the capacity to make its commitments credible.  Keeping track of emissions, referred to as measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) is challenging for all large economies, but China has a patchy track record in this area.  Several years ago, a massive, long-running scam was uncovered in which Chinese factories deliberately increased emissions of greenhouse gases, and then charged foreign firms to reduce them under an emissions-offset program.  Other countries will be hesitant to new emissions commitments unless they can be assured such incidents won’t be repeated by others.  Accordingly, the United States must continue to work with China to increase its capacity to accurately track and certify its greenhouse gas emissions.             

Indeed, although news headlines focused on emissions targets, the fine print of the U.S. – China joint announcement offers the greatest promise for this kind of strengthened cooperation on climate change. Other areas covered by the agreement include new partnerships linking water scarcity and sustainable energy, a demonstration project for carbon capture and storage (CCS), and a sustainable cities initiative. Integrating energy and water issues promises to expand U.S. – China climate cooperation from an almost exclusive focus on emissions mitigation to one that also helps both countries adapt to climate change. Greater cooperation on CCS, meanwhile, will help develop a technology that is needed to help wean the world off fossil fuels by storing carbon dioxide deep underground instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.  The sustainable cities initiative, finally, builds on dynamic sub-national action on climate change in both the United States and China, with the leaders of places as diverse as New York and Jiangsu Province pledging to work together to reduce emissions.  Washington must devote serious resources to ensure that these initiatives fulfill their promise.             

This week’s agreement is the most hopeful sign in years for global efforts to address climate change.  But standing before the cameras was the easy part.  Having set the bar a bit higher, Washington and Beijing must now lead the rest of the world over it.    

Scott Moore is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, and studies Chinese environmental policy.  

Image: The White House. 

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

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