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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

Russia's Naval "Demonstration of Power" in the South Pacific: A Cause for Concern?

The Buzz

One word that keeps cropping up in the recent hysteria about the movement of some Russian ships in the South Pacific is "power." But it is hard to see how that word applies.

Few terms generate more heat and less light in international relations than 'power', but the basic premise is that it involves Actor A behaving in such a way as to get Actor B to do something.

But if that is power, then there is nothing to see here. There is no evidence Russia is seeking to change Australia's behaviour over MH17 or at the G20, nor is there any likelihood that this sea cruise will have any effect on Australia's positions and attitudes.

A more subtle take is that this is not about using power so much as a "demonstration of power." But again, that claim is hard to justify. We already knew Russia spends more than double what Australia does on its defence budget and that it has a moderately large navy. So Russia does not need to demonstrate the existence of these assets. Nor is this a demonstration of willingness or capacity to use those assets. Russia will not use force against Australia because of some harsh words about MH17 or over any other issue on the table today.

This is not like the US sailing an aircraft carrier down the Taiwan Strait in 1996. In that case, the US was going through the motions of what it could do in a war-type situation, on an issue over which it is committed to use force. Some Russian ships hanging around PNG meets none of those criteria.

The takeaway point here is the over-emphasis our society still places on material assets and "hard power." It's visible and easy to count, hence the proliferation of news stories. Everyone knows military power is vital in actual wartime scenarios. But outside of those times, I think we pay it too much attention in understanding how the world works.

As US President Barack Obama stated, Moscow is neither a super or great power, but a regional one. Nothing about this story challenges that claim. Russia has a stagnant economy which has been hit hard by the stock market and international sanctions. No matter how many ships Russia has, the illegitimacy of its actions in Crimea have led the world to punish Moscow in ways that are hurting.

As I've argued in other places, hard power is hard to use and often achieves far less in the international arena than autocratic leaders like to imagine. Twenty-five years ago the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR's military was powerless to stop it. Let's not indulge those who still can't get over this by rewarding the word "power" for what is a mere sea cruise.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

TopicsSecurity RegionsRussia

The Current AUMF Debate Is Weird

The Buzz

At some point soon, either in the lame-duck session or early next year, Congress is likely to vote on an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the Islamic State. Recently, there have been a number of proposals, both from legislators and outside experts, about what such an AUMF might look like. The main questions that are up for debate are: Will the law have any geographical or temporal restrictions? How much detail will it go into about what exactly the mission is and what means the executive branch can or cannot use to achieve it? What reporting requirements will it impose on the White House? And will the authorization only deal with the Islamic State, or will Congress revise and update the 2001 AUMF (the basis for the larger “war on terror”) at the same time?

These are all important questions. However, in this post I want to zoom out and make one very general point about just how weird this whole process is. Namely, this entire debate is about a hypothetical AUMF that the White House does not think it needs for a war that started over three months ago.

The United States began conducting limited air strikes against the Islamic State in early August. On September 10, President Obama gave a speech in which he laid out a broader strategy that Washington would pursue in order “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the group. Since then, the White House has maintained that the campaign against the Islamic State is legally supported by both the 2001 AUMF and the 2002 AUMF that authorized the Iraq War. The Obama administration has said on multiple occasions that it would “welcome” congressional support for the ongoing operations, but it has been equally adamant that it doesn’t view such a vote as necessary.

This was made explicit in a press briefing with White House press secretary Josh Earnest last week. Earnest said that Obama believes “that it is beneficial to the broader effort if we send a very clear signal to the international community, both to our allies and to our enemies, that the executive branch and the legislative branch are on the same page when it comes to the strategy.” But, when asked by a reporter if Obama would “press forward with this mission” even in the absence of congressional action, Earnest replied, “That's correct, because Congress has already given him this authority in 2001.” And so the war against the Islamic State will continue whether or not Congress votes for it.

This doesn’t mean that pursuing a new AUMF is a waste of time. The details of what the authorization will actually say matter a great deal. And it would doubtless be an improvement to place the ongoing mission in Iraq and Syria on sound legal footing, rather than basing it on a questionable interpretation of a thirteen-year-old law. But, at the same time, we should all understand just how limited the frame of this debate is. When it comes to what the Pentagon is calling Operation Inherent Resolve, the only real choice members of Congress have is between a war they’ve voted for and a war they haven’t.

TopicsCongressLawDefense RegionsIraqSyria

A Home Run?: The Achievement in China on Climate Change

Paul Pillar

Yesterday's announcement of a U.S.-Chinese agreement on curbing greenhouse gases is very important, including in some ways that Michael Levi's expert analysis effectively captures. As Levi notes, this agreement was a marked departure for China not only in terms of the numerical goals set but also in the manner of setting them, in the form of an agreement negotiated with the United States. This goes against the prior Chinese habit of treating climate change, like Beijing treats many things, as a subject on which China must firmly assert its independence.

The agreement surprised many from the standpoint not only of Chinese policy-making habits but also of American politics. The dominant story line as President Obama left on his current trip was that, with his party having just gotten whupped in the mid-term election, he would struggle to assert U.S. power and influence. But instead his visit to China has been productive. Getting Beijing's signature on the environmental accord has been the biggest achievement, but other deliverables have included a substantial trade agreement and progress toward averting U.S.-Chinese incidents at sea. As Sarah Palin might remark if her political allegiances were different, “How's that weak-president-shuffling-off-to-Beijing thing workin' out for ya?”

Much more important than political story lines are the substance, symbolism, and momentum contained in the emissions accord itself. The sheer fact of the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases jointly arriving at such an objective is itself significant. Any direct benefit involved will have a multiplier effect to the degree that it imparts momentum to efforts to negotiate broader multilateral commitments and action.

The effects also will be beneficial insofar as they affect debates in the United States, where pre-Enlightenment opposition to doing something about climate change is still all too deeply entrenched. The accord with China will at least help to refute the argument that it wouldn't make sense for the United States to get out in front on this issue when other emitters—and China is the biggest emitter of all—are not doing their part. Failed Hewlett-Packard executive and unsuccessful senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina made exactly this argument the other day in a pro-pollution op ed in which she blithely observed that “no form of energy is perfect” and that “action by a single state or nation will make little difference.”

The domestic political task of getting the United States to live up to negotiated goals and to doing its necessary share will still be formidable. The election result earlier this month made it even more formidable. Probably the person who personifies this unfortunate fact the most is Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has declared that “manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” In a fox-overseeing-the-henhouse situation, Inhofe will take over as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Maybe, just maybe, the accord announced in Beijing will nudge the deniers and other opponents of action at least slightly away from their Dark Ages attitude toward science, from their narrow focus on denying not just scientifically derived knowledge but also anything that smells like an accomplishment for Barack Obama, and from a short-sighted focus on quarterly results of the coal industry on Kentucky or the oil industry in Oklahoma, and lead them to give some thought to doing the responsible thing to preserve a habitable environment.

Another of the standard knocks on President Obama is that he plays only small ball and hits only singles, and that he doesn't think strategically enough and go for home runs. There is nothing more strategic and big-picture than saving the planet. The agreement announced in Beijing cannot count for a home run because it is only the setting, and not yet the achieving, of a goal. But it is an important step toward getting around the bases.

Image: US State Department Flickr.                  

TopicsChina climate change RegionsUnited States

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