China is allegedly building structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea that could potentially hold long-range surface-to-air missiles.  If this turns out to be true, this move is another step forward by China to lay claim to the South China Sea while simultaneously serving as another poke at the U.S. to see what they’re really committed to doing to ensure the South China Sea remains open and free.  However, China’s most recent alleged provocation is symptomatic of a bigger problem when it comes to the U.S.’ engagement with Asia.  During the Obama years, while he and others in his administration made much about a “pivot” to Asia or a re-balancing toward the region, the words were often much more substantive than the actions undertaken by his government.  Now we have a president who can barely articulate a single policy, let alone an entire grand strategy.

Trump’s idea of policies are not-so-pithy one-liners like branding China a currency manipulator or claiming that Japan does not pay enough for U.S. security.  His actions are meant more to rile up other parties and hew much more closely to the reality show theatrics with which he’s more comfortable , whether it was fielding a call from Taiwan’s president in the aftermath of the election and holding out as long as possible before re-affirming the “One China” policy that undergirded U.S.-China relations since early 1970s. North Korea tests a long-range missile and Trump decides that during dinner at his private club is the best time and place to plot the U.S.’ reaction to such a provocation.  Even the theatrics are of a low-budget variety.

The only action Trump seems to have followed through on was his executive order pulling the U.S. out of the TPP and effectively ceding to China the power to write the rules of commerce for Asia and most likely the rest of the world.  Abdicating a voice in such a crucial policy sphere that is vital to continued American prosperity is going to have the opposite effect of making America great.  Rather than keeping its seat at the head of the table and crafting the evolving rules of global trade, America is going to have to play by the rules set by others that may not be as advantageous to our long-term prosperity as those rules we were able to lay out in the TPP.  Putting aside the merits of the TPP for a second, what was most important about that agreement was continued American leadership in coming up with Version 2.0 of the rules and frameworks that have taken the world to this point from the aftermath of WWII.  If Trump has his way, it won’t only be the TPP, but NATO, our vital alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and even the EU which has more often than not been a trusted and intellectually equal partner spurring us to do better on many matters of global importance.

We are at an inflection point in Asia and the rest of the world where a grand strategies with  far-reaching and enlightened thinking is needed.  Unfortunately, very little coming out of Washington these days seems all that grand except perhaps that atrium in Trump’s DC hotel.

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Forward, Not Backward

October 11, 2012

It’s been over three months since my last jaunt to China and part of me yearns to be back on the ground in the thick of things given how much has happened since I’ve returned – the government has finally set a date for the once-in-a-decade leadership transition (November 8th), Japan and China are rattling their sabers more loudly than ever over a bunch of rocks in the East China Sea supposedly sitting on abundant natural resources, the Chinese people are protesting in a more sustained and forceful manner over issues raging from the aforementioned Sino-Japanese dispute to environmental and labor issues, and Gu Kailai and Wang Lijun have been victims of the theatrical spectacle that has been Bo Xilai’s downfall.  Definitely exciting times in China.  Throw in a slowing domestic economy, a restless population in Hong Kong, and an American presidential election where China has once again turned into a scapegoat for candidates trying to falsely prove to voters they have the balls big enough to contain China and you have enough material for a ten-act play that would only barely scratch the surface of the complex forces at work in that part of the world.  Yet here I am in my bubble known as New York wishing I could just wander the streets of Guangzhou or be in a classroom in Linyi and just feel what is transpiring over there.  Instead I have to read all I possibly can and apply my own experiences and knowledge to try and make sense of what is going on over there.

I am an American and no matter how much time I spend in China, I will never be an insider.  Thus it’s probably more productive for me in the long run to figure out how to use what I have learned over the years to effect positive change in the U.S. – Sino relationship going forward.  Though I struggle with how to exactly do such a thing.  I have been lucky over the years to have been asked to teach in Chinese universities, attend conferences, provide testimony in front of a Congressional commission, and study both modern China and Mandarin.  What do I do now?  I watch an American foreign policy engaged in a tug-of-war between trying to cling to a past where America called the shots and everyone else stood at attention (case in point, see Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East published on October 1st) and recognizing that America is one player among many that can no longer dictate how other nations conduct both their domestic and international affairs.  I think Aaron David Miller’s piece on FP.com responding to Mitt’s op-ed is spot-on when he writes:

The past twenty years of failed American policy on peacemaking and war making in this region [the Middle East] reveal the costs of failure and what it’s done for our image abroad.  This has nothing to do with being a ‘”declinist” or not believing in American ‘”exceptionalism.'” We are exceptional, but part of that uniqueness lies in understanding that the wisest policies are those that find the balance between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. Great powers get themselves into heaps of trouble when they commit transgressions of omniscience and omnipotence by thinking they know everything and can do everything, too.

Extrapolate Miller’s thoughts on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to any other hot spot in the world and this principle of recognizing a balance between how things are and how we would like them to be can be applied.  Our approach to China should also hew to this principle of finding a balance, but instead we get a policy that appears to be reactionary and ill-informed.  Threats of labeling China a “currency manipulator”, slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, and standing in the way of Chinese investment in the name of political expediency ignore the reality that China has arrived as a power and America must learn how to live with that reality rather than try to set the clock back 20 years and invoke policies that apply to a world that no longer exists.  I have traveled and lived around the world and I will be the first to admit that as a privileged liberal arts college student, patriotism was the last thing on my mind.  Today I find myself more proud to be an American and an ambassador for the ideals and values our country is supposed to represent, but I also recognize that our power unfortunately has limits and we must think long and hard about how we maximize our impact upon the rest of the world.

Admitting that America has limits does not make me any less of an American than Mitt Romney who implores us that “[I]f the 21st century is to be another American Century, we need leaders who understand that keeping the peace requires American strength in all of its dimensions.”  I find such a call to arms more alarming than rousing, one dimensional as opposed to multi-dimensional.  It’s an over-simplistic approach to a world that is not a simple place to begin with.  Romney seems to mistakenly and rather naively believe that if we restore America’s economic strength and expand our military’s budget, we can start “shaping” events in the Middle East and beyond.  If only it were that simple – create robust economic growth and maintain a spendthrift military to restore order and sanity in the world on America’s terms.  Mind you that Romney has not put forth any policies to make those two pillars of his foreign policy a reality except for promising to expand the military’s budget, but that’s not my main point.

Putting aside Romney’s lack of specifics for a second, it’s this hubristic and one-note approach to American foreign policy that is most problematic.  We don’t live in a unipolar world where America merely needs to reclaim her mantle and we certainly don’t live in a world where a one-note approach predicated on solely restoring America’s greatness is going to do anything to move the needle in that direction for us.  The world is a nuanced and complicated place, which almost makes it sound manageable when reduced to two seemingly simple adjectives.  However, the only way to tackle this type of world is with a proactive foreign policy.  Proactive does not mean throwing our military might around the world and shoving our values and ideas down other people’s throats.  It means listening and understanding what we’re up against and maximizing the tools at our disposal to create a framework where America’s tangible and intangible support is valued and sought out.  Being a bully is not the way to get people to ultimately listen to you because once the bully hangs up his boxing gloves. it’s as if he never existed and the playground will revert to the chaos that preceded the bully.  The same goes for the world stage.  America cannot merely bully with its military and dollars without understanding where other regimes and their people are coming from and ascertaining what we’re up against before blindly throwing our might around.  Once we begin to understand, we need to begin crafting a framework that builds relationships co-opting our existing allies and cultivating new ones based on mutual respect and understanding.  It’s not an overnight process and it’s certainly not easy, but it requires us being proactive and getting out in front of events rather than merely reacting to them.

Where does China fit in a proactive foreign policy?  Take the vaunted trans-Atlantic alliance that was the bedrock of Cold War-era foreign policy.  America had a grand strategy predicated upon principles that were transparent and engendered support from multiple parties.  Granted it was a seemingly simpler time with a bipolar world engaged in a Cold War divided between the Soviet Union and the U.S., but the important thing during that time was that American foreign policy was guided by a framework that actually required some forethought and was used to guide our actions around the globe.  One can argue that the framework was merely containing Communism, but that initial goal required carefully balancing relationships around the world and trying to use our resources in the most effective way possible.  We live in a seemingly more complex world, but that same forethought and commitment to clearly articulated principles is required, hence what I like to call a proactive approach. If we believe all of the pundits, we are increasingly moving into a new bipolar world with China and America each heading up a pole.  Even if we are not moving to a purely bipolar world, China is going to be an increasingly important power on the world stage and we are still left reacting to her every move.  This approach is the opposite of proactive.  We need to re-evaluate our relationship with China and try to better understand where she is coming from as a rising power, warts and all. and construct a grand strategy for working with her during her rise instead of just playing tit-for-tat on the global stage and coming across as a bunch of awkward adolescents trying to figure out the contours of their relationship.

Romney reiterated his foreign policy “ideas” in a speech this past Monday and it was a lot of the same.  He wants to restore America’s greatness and blamed Obama for making America weak.  Putting aside the election politics of the moment, one flaw on both sides of the aisle is a lack of thought and wherewithal for dealing with the world as it is today.  We respond to things, whether they be in the Middle East, Asia, South America, or even Europe.  Rather than trying to make America great by restoring her past glory, we should be thinking prospectively how to keep America great by playing to her strengths that reflect the reality of today’s world.  Perhaps my role in all of this craziness is to figure out how to bring my China experience to the forefront to continue helping  in some small way to bridge the gaps in understanding.

Some Changsha fun on 堕落街 (Degenerate Street)

Some Changsha fun on 堕落街 (Degenerate Street)

I’m sitting in the Fifth Tone here in Changsha, which is a cool coffee shop that is uncharacteristic for China and reminiscent of something you’d find in the States, good coffee and good baked goods.  The Fifth Tone’s wireless connection has made this post possible.

The wonders of the International Date Line mean that while most Americans were watching the election results on their televisions late into Tuesday night, I was eating tofu and steamed fish, among many other Hunanese delights while watching the election results on CCTV, China’s state-run television network during lunch on Wednesday afternoon. This coverage was of course supported by Blackberry updates from the New York Times and CNN, but it was surreal to be in the middle of China at this historic moment. All 22 of the fellows from the Yale-China Teaching Fellowship have gathered in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province for a week-long conference to talk about our teaching thus far and to see each other for the first time since Hong Kong this August. It was great to be with so many other Americans who were as eager as I was for the results, but it was frustrating to not be able to sit at my computer and hit F5 for the latest electoral count. But after lunch, we were able to then head back to our hotel rooms and watch both McCain and Obama’s speeches on YouTube. A small crowd had gathered around my computer as we watched McCain’s gracious concession speech (unfortunately the boos and hisses from the crowd were not as gracious) and Obama’s rousing and powerful victory speech, definitely one this will be remembered for a long time. Here I was in Changsha, downloading YouTube clips to be a part of this historic moment in American history. Even CCTV was uncharacteristically joyful at the prospect of a President Obama, which is a signal that almost instantaneously, America’s place in the world as a land of endless opportunity and hope was partially restored by this momentous occurrence. Even in the days leading up to the election, I either overheard Chinese people talking or was told directly how significant an Obama win would be for America and how it would create a long-lost respect for the country that has given the world so many other positive examples to learn from in its long history (and some not-so-positive ones). Congratulations to President-elect Obama and here’s the possibility of a renewed hope in America. It also means that I can return home proud of the choice my fellow citizens and I have made.

However, there is one thing that makes it difficult to be as overjoyed today as I wanted to be. Proposition 8, a move to add a constitutional amendment to the California constitution that would ban gay marriage, looks like it will be supported by a majority of the voters in that state. It is hard to feel good about a move that enshrines discrimination and animus in a state constitution. Some voters who supported Obama’s message of hope and change apparently felt that allowing gay people the right to get married is too much change, which just leaves me upset and disappointed when I want to be so happy that we have someone like Obama as our next president. It makes me wonder why other groups of people who may have been discriminated against and who understand the importance of fighting for civil rights and equality and who understand the shame and pain of being discriminated against, could vote overwhelmingly for this proposition. The struggle for equality is one that we all fight in the face of discrimination, regardless of whether the histories are shared or not. If we are being treated differently and negatively for something that is an intrinsic part of who we are, then we should all be fighting the same battle. What we should not be is territorial about our struggles and the civil rights movement, trying to claim it for our own. Fighting hatred and discrimination are not to be regarded as the fight of just one group, but of all groups who are the targets of such nasty and hateful beliefs. Proposition 8 and its possible passage by the people of California leave me a little less proud to be an American and mar this epic moment in our country’s history where we have been able to surmount our racial prejudices to elect the country’s first African-American president, but at the same time we can still vote to write prejudice into our laws.

CCTV calls the election for Obama

CCTV calls the election for Obama

National Day, which has turned into National Week for me, has been a much needed and appreciated chance to take stock of the nearly two months I have been in Asia and to get around the region to see some friends.  National Day or 国庆节 is like our July 4th and commemorates the founding of the PRC on October 1, 1949.  The week-long holiday is referred to as Golden Week.  As part of my own Golden Week festivities, I am now down in Hong Kong visiting my friend LiLi, who I knew back in New York, and my friend Tracy, who used to work with me at Salomon in Hong Kong and is now living in Taibei.  Coming back to Hong Kong is always so trippy for me because of the two years that I lived here, so many things about the city do not even phase me.  For example, LiLi lives in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island in a typical Chinese building with an elevator and the pairs of shoes in the hallway, the smell of burning incense in the hallway, and the completely dysfunctional kitchen do not even phase me because I am used to them in a way that I was not the first time I ever came here.  It’s also been an odd week because I have sandwiched Guangzhou with two cities that could not be less Guangzhou-like.  HongKong and Shanghai, in their respective ways, are both far more developed and polished in ways that GZ is not.  I went on and on about this in my blog posts from Shanghai, so I will not repeat myself, but it’s so hard not to notice the minute you cross the border from Shenzhen and enter Hong Kong at Lo Wu.  Yup, this time I took the less expensive option and hopped an hour train from GZ East train station to Shenzhen, then walked a bit to the border crossing and hopped on the MTR in Hong Kong.  It’s pretty easy, just a bit of a pain to switch trains and walk across the border.  But suffice it to say that being here in HongKong makes me realize that it really is not like the rest of China and it’s hard to imagine the rest of the country catching up in the near future, even Shanghai with all its ambition and desire to get ahead.  I mean, there is still an element of tackiness in Shanghai that does not quite exist here.  In Shanghai, they still light up all of the elevated highways (高架路) with blue neon, something you would not find in Hong Kong (though to be fair, during Christmas, they decorate all of the buildings on the harbor with funny cartoon characters, snowflakes, and other decorations that someone felt would be appropriate for Christmas).  Hong Kong is just a step above the mainland in terms of feeling cosmopolitan and attempting to fuse foreigners and locals together into some sort of melting pot that has the potential to be reminiscent of a place like New York.  I was having dinner with my friend Michael the other night and we were talking about Shanghai and Hong Kong, in addition to other cities that we would rank as world-class and in addition to my two criteria I blogged about, he mentioned the ability of different nationalities to work side by side with one another as a sign that a city is truly cosmopolitan.  On that metric, Hong Kong is definitely further along than Shanghai and it is something that London and New York really excel at. 

I just finished reading about the VP debate between Biden and Palin and it seems that she did better than people expected, which means that the bar was set so low after her series of Couric interviews that there was nowhere else to go but up.  I don’t care how well she may have performed, her general lack of knowledge still frightens me and I do not know how Americans can bring themselves to vote for a McCain-Palin ticket after eight years of misguided Republican governing from the White House.  For just the sheer change in party, Americans should really consider giving Democrats a chance to sit in the White House because the GOP has done nothing but lead us deeper down a dark hole.  It’s nice to see Obama finally open up some sort of lead in the polls, but he should really be leading by double-digits because McCain and his cohorts have done so little to inspire any sort of confidence in their ability to govern effectively.  The Maverick that was so pesent in 2000 is no longer.  Look closely at the man and forget about the fact that he was a POW in Vietnam or that at one point in time he actually had the balls to defy his own party.  Those things happened in the past and what we have today is a McCain who is shamelessly pandering to a religious conservative party base that has no actual concern for foreign policy or the economy, but really only cares about who gets abortions, who gets married, and whether creationism is given its fair due in our schools.  America is kind of like Wile E. Coyote heading off that cliff and I don’t think McCain and the GOP that exists today is capable of keeping us from falling down.  Unfortunately, the polls do not tell the whole story about why Obama cannot open a wider lead because in our PC culture, no pollster is going to ask whether you would vote for an black presidential candidate and no voter is actually going to respond with candor that race matters a lot to them, to the point that they would incompetence over the color of a candidate’s skin.  It’s unfortunate that people cannot see past their own prejudices to actually make a good decision for our country.  And I love some people’s logic, those people who still think Obama is Muslim because his middle name is Hussein, but in the same breath will talk about his pastor and how he associated himself with such a man.  Now how is it that he can be Muslim, but also have a pastor?  Last time I checked, there were no pastors preaching at my local mosque. 

This blog has not veered into political territory, but with the election so close and my mother telling me this morning that Monmouth County, New Jersey screwed up my absentee ballot to the point that I may not get it in time to vote even though I filled out an application in early August, I feel that it is imperative that I weigh in with my limited knowledge and strong opinions.  Apparently the county board of elections told my mom that they did receive my application, but that they could not find my ballot to actually send to me.  Don’t ask me how that works, all I know is that it is incredibly frustrating that I did my part, but the government cannot ensure that I actually get to exercise my vote.  What’s also weird about this election and the general economic crisis is that living in China means that I read the news on the Internet and I cannot get any sense of the feeling on the ground at home, so I live in this vacuum where these things mean nothing to everyone else around me, save for a few Americans and other interested foreigners that I get to speak to.  Though the general disbelief that McCain could pick someone like Palin seems to be a global feeling from what I have been hearing, so that is somewhat of a relief.  I just hope enough Americans come around to feeling that way and put Obama in the White House.

And if you have some time and want a good laugh, check out Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin during her Couric interview, http://www.nbc.com/Saturday_Night_Live/video/clips/couric-palin-open/704042/.  Had me cracking up and is so spot on.