Opinion

The Great Debate

A missed opportunity to ease tensions with China

Chinese Premier Li speaks to U.S. Treasury Secretary Lew next to U.S. Secretary of State Kerry during a meeting at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing

Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew traveled to Beijing this week for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, at a time when U.S.-China tensions are running higher than at any point in the past decade. Though each country’s bureaucrats were able to put on a good face and paper over significant disagreements, they were unable to make progress on any major security or economic issue.

Unfortunately, the U.S. administration passed up a chance to advance and elevate the U.S.-China Bilateral Investment Treaty, an agreement that sets the rules of the road for cross-border investment. Doing so could have yielded major economic benefits and had positive spillover effects on the strategic issues vexing both countries. But now, with little for the two sides to hang their hats on, the relationship is ripe for more tension.

A year ago, when President Barack Obama met with new Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands Ranch in California, the two laid out an ambitious agenda, agreeing to discuss contentious cyber issues, the need to increase pressure on North Korea, and more broadly chart a positive course for the world’s most important bilateral relationship.

Since the earlier summit, however, a number of issues have set back relations. Increased Japan-China acrimony in the East China Sea, an aggressive Chinese move to set up oil rigs in disputed waters off Vietnam, and the Edward Snowden espionage revelations have set teeth on edge in Washington and Beijing.

On the economic side, U.S. indictments of Chinese military hackers, a series of ongoing trade disputes, the recent weakening of China’s currency and continued restrictions on foreign investors have each threatened to undermine the countries’ $500-billion-a-year commercial relationship. While the United States continues to describe relations with China as a delicate balance between cooperation and competition, China looks at the United States through a darker lens, convinced that America is determined to “contain” its rise.

In Africa: U.S. promotes security, China does business

kerry-li4Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang both made high-profile visits to Africa within a week of each other this month. Kerry sought to resolve the continuing violence in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, Li came bearing aid and investment deals.

The United States could learn something from Beijing’s economic playbook.

The two leaders’ agendas could not offer a more vivid picture of the different priorities that each power pursues in Africa. Washington plays regional peacemaker, while Beijing focuses intently on its long-term economic interests.

China’s two-way trade with Africa, for example, has grown by 30 percent a year over the last decade. It is now Africa’s largest trading partner, importing largely natural resources.  More than 85 percent of China’s imports from Africa consist of petroleum, copper, iron, and other raw materials needed to build China’s growing domestic infrastructure and fuel its continued economic growth.

Reaching for a deal on Crimea

There is a disturbing air of inevitability in Western capitals surrounding Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A growing consensus views this scenario as a rough analogy to  Moscow’s recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 war — perhaps more severe, but still manageable.

Such complacency is misplaced, however. The consequences of the annexation of Crimea are not manageable. The moral high ground we currently occupy isn’t worth it.

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s triumphalist speech on Tuesday, the United States and the European Union should not assume that Crimea is lost. Instead they should be working overtime to prevent annexation.

Assad’s terror farce at the Geneva talks

Just days before the most recent Syrian peace talks in Geneva began, a report detailing “industrial-scale” killing in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons revealed the nature of his government. Despite this setback, the regime continues to claim that it is only fighting terrorists.

While their rhetoric is convenient, the reality is that only one side of the Syrian negotiations is actively fighting al Qaeda – the opposition. Though Assad has the capacity to attack extremists, from the spring of 2011 until today he has chosen to target civilians instead.

During two weeks I just spent interviewing Syrians in the southern border towns of Turkey, I found nearly universal opposition to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the army of foreign jihadists backed by al Qaeda that has now taken over many liberated areas across Northern Syria.

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

Broaden the peace process with Iran

 

High-level Geneva talks with Iran adjourned November 11 without reaching an agreement. Lower-level talks are to scheduled to reconvene Wednesday. The Western objective is a pause in Iran’s nuclear program — stopping the clock and allowing more time to reach a permanent agreement.

Is stopping the clock a good idea? It was done once before. In 2004-5, Iran stopped enrichment temporarily. President Hassan Rouhani was then secretary of the Iranian National Security Council and negotiated the pause. A permanent agreement proved impossible at that time. So Iran started enrichment again and has now expanded its capacity.

That could happen again. But a pause that provides time for negotiation of a more permanent agreement is necessary. If Tehran goes much farther in enlarging its enrichment capacity and beginning production of plutonium, it will be a very short step from obtaining all the material it needs for nuclear weapons.

Too many cooks in the Iran nuclear kitchen

Last weekend, after years of failed negotiations, the “P5+1” nations — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China) plus Germany — finally appeared to be on the verge of a deal with Iran regarding curbs on its nuclear program.

All except France were ready to sign a stopgap agreement that would offer Iran limited sanctions relief in return for a freeze in its nuclear program. But Paris torpedoed the arrangement at the last moment — denigrating it as “a sucker’s deal.”

France’s torpedoing of the agreement appears less related to genuine nuclear proliferation concerns than with trying to curry favor with anti-Iranian countries — like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – who commission and buy expensive French military, satellite and nuclear hardware.  The lesson in this latest failure is there ought to be a single point of contact with Iran endowed with executive authority over resolving the nuclear issue.

The politics of Syria

Congressional Democrats are in a bind. If they vote to authorize a military strike on Syria, they could be putting the country on a slippery slope to war. But if they vote no, they will deliver a crushing defeat to their president.

What President Barack Obama did was call their bluff. Last week, more than 50 House Democrats signed a letter urging the president to “seek an affirmative decision of Congress” before committing to any military engagement. That was the Democrats’ way of going on record to express reservations about what Obama sounded like he was going to do anyway. Then, lo and behold, the president decided to do exactly what they asked. Now it’s their decision.

Anti-war sentiment is a powerful force on the left. It was nurtured by bitter experiences in Vietnam and Iraq. Obama himself comes out of that tradition. He is trying to keep faith with it by arguing, as he did at a meeting with congressional leaders, that his attack plan is “proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground.” He added, “This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan.” Secretary of State John Kerry tried to change the metaphor when he called it “a Munich moment.” Meaning, a “no” vote would be a vote to appease a dictator.

from David Rohde:

Tech, prosperity and peace on West Bank

Secretary of State John Kerry (C) shakes hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting at the Dead Sea, May 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Young 

RAMALLAH, West Bank – At first glance, it is a tech utopian’s dream. For the last two years, several dozen Palestinian entrepreneurs have been getting training from Israeli high tech experts courtesy of the American firm Cisco Systems.

The sessions feature no talk of politics. Instead, Israelis coach Palestinians on the latest trends in software development processes, best practices and branding.

For Russia, Syria is not in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with (clockwise, starting in top left.) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. REUTERS/FILES

A string of leaders and senior emissaries, seeking to prevent further escalation of the Syria crisis, has headed to Moscow recently to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. First, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now, most recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon These leaders see Russia as the key to resolving the Syria quandary.

But to get Russia to cooperate on any stabilization plan, the United States and its allies will have to take into account Russia’s significant interests in the Mediterranean region.

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