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The real action in Sino-US relations this week was not the predictable China-bashing in the third election debate between US President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney in Florida on October 22: it was the little-noticed concurrent visit to Asia of a high-powered team of retired US diplomats.
The team, a bipartisan affair consisting of Richard Armitage, Stephen Hadley, James Steinberg and Joseph Nye, had a tough task.
With sanction from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a quasi-official delegation, these Asian-affairs worthies were called on to demonstrate that the Obama administration’s strategy for Asia – the famous “pivot” of military forces, diplomatic and economic initiatives, and strategic attention – can deliver effective diplomatic engagement with the People’s Republic of China, and not just produce a threatened and angry Chinese panda.
The team’s task is probably impossible – which is probably why it is being undertaken by a group of retirees and not snub-sensitive government officials. The PRC is in no mood to support US pretensions to being the only, indispensable honest broker in the region. Beijing wants to punish the United States for the pivot, which it sees as nothing more or less than a tilt away from China.
These are tense times for “the pivot”. The PRC is testing the US strategy in what appears to be an unexpected way: leaving the US alone and selectively beating up on US ally Japan on the issue of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. This is an eventuality the United States does not seem to have planned for.
At the end of September, in a lengthy interview with senior fellow Mike Chinoy at the University of Southern California East Asia Center, Kurt Campbell made the case for the pivot as a savvy piece of US statecraft.
Campbell is a Japan hand. His elevation to the post of assistant US secretary for East Asia – and the later departure from the State Department of China hand James Steinberg – was seen as the manifestation of an important shift in the Obama administration’s strategic thinking vis-a-vis the PRC.
China was no longer viewed optimistically as a rising power whose liberal democratic evolution would track its runaway economic growth, albeit with a lag of a few years. Multiple disappointments from climate change to North Korea to currency valuation persuaded the Obama administration that, for practical purposes, the PRC had to be handled as an authoritarian state whose elite is constitutionally unsympathetic to the United States and its aims.
Dealing with China, in other words, was not a matter of appealing to common values and interests; instead, it demanded carrots and sticks. Exit James Steinberg and, from the National Security Council, Jeffrey Bader. And enter Kurt Campbell, and the pivot.
In his September interview, Campbell makes the pitch for the pivot as a win-win for China and the planet, in a reassuring, measured baritone I associate with a funeral director selling a fine casket to a rich and flustered widow. Campbell makes the obvious point that China’s nervous neighbors would welcome a US “return to Asia”.
He also makes the somewhat more debatable assertions that the pivot was designed with China’s well-being in mind, that multilateralizing China’s bilateral territorial spats in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was an initiative to help out Beijing, that the US rapprochement with Myanmar wasn’t about China, and Air-Sea Battle, the plan for conventional-warfare Armageddon against the PRC, was simply an expression of the US Navy’s “centuries-old” natural rambunctiousness.
In turning to the awkward issue of “sovereignty disputes” – the PRC’s clashes with neighbors emboldened by the pivot – Campbell opined hopefully that China’s leaders recognized the overriding importance of maintaining good relations with the United States and would therefore look beyond the current unpleasantnesses.
As he put it:
Our sense is that [president-in-waiting Xi Jinping] is a person that’s committed to continuing a strong relationship between China and the United States … [prospective premier] Li Keqiang … was very clear on his determination to keep US-China relations on a steady course … So I think we have some confidence that the leadership will follow through accordingly … Still, we think it is profoundly and deeply in China’s interest to maintain a good relationship with the United States … and we think cooler heads will likely prevail in that assessment during the next leadership cycle [to get underway in November] … 
Beyond Campbell’s confidence that the Chinese leadership would consider it absurd to try to go toe to toe with the United States, there was probably reliance on a (to the United States) virtuous cycle that would kick in if China did push back.
It would seem that the PRC’s freedom of action would be constrained by the fact that overt Chinese pushiness would be counterproductive, driving allies closer to the United States, further isolating the PRC and strengthening the case for the pivot.
A perfect plan … not.
I do not believe that Campbell and company reckoned with the PRC’s evolutionary adaptation to the serial island provocations committed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, or its determination to make a stand against what it sees as an unambiguous US exercise in containment.
Having learned its lesson about Western command of the diplomatic and international trade battlefield in the first humiliating dust-up over Captain Zhan Qixiong and the disputed Senkaku / Diaoyu islands in 2010, the PRC switched to a strategy of using domestic popular demonstrations and boycott to deliver an economic and political mugging to Japan.
As an indication of China’s resolve in this matter, it should be remembered that the central Japanese government’s purchase of the Senkakus was conceived in large part as a conciliatory act, to deny the China-bashing xenophobe Shintara Ishihara the chance to buy the islands and use them to engage in serial provocation against China.
At this juncture, perhaps considering that the Obama administration had little appetite for a hot China conflict in the middle of the presidential race, the PRC decided to seize upon the act of the purchase and whip up popular anger to mete out harsh if calibrated punishment to Japan’s interests inside China, while eschewing official actions that could be construed as military or economic aggression against Japan or the world free-trade regime.
At the Chinese Foreign Ministry, it’s all Diaoyus all the time. The regime is making it clear that it will not back down on the issue regardless of what foreigners might say about the damage to China’s regional standing, its economy, or its future as the world’s beloved cuddly soft-power panda.
These economic hostilities, while damaging to Chinese interests, are certainly not welcome to Japan. In a generally bleak economy, it is impossible to untangle the Senkaku factor from other international trade and investment issues.
However, Japanese exports to China dropped 14.3% year on year in September, contributing (together with a disastrous drop in exports to the euro zone) to only the second monthly trade deficit for Japan in the past 30 years. Japanese manufacturers are reportedly holding back on China investments, for understandable reasons; time will tell if this harms China, or simply opens up more opportunities for non-Japanese competitors. In any case, the impassioned argument over the uninhabited Senkakus isn’t doing Japan’s corporations a world of financial good. 
In 2012, by its carefully delineated domestic move against Japan, the PRC has cast the United States in the unwelcome role of helpless giant, unable to bring its military might, its prestige or its domination of crucial multilateral diplomatic of financial institutions to bear on Japan’s behalf.
So the superhero league of retired and rusticated diplomats was summoned from think-tanks and stately manors to jet to Tokyo and Beijing.
The team included two Republicans: Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under George W Bush and a close associate of former secretary of state and chairman of the joint chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, and Stephen Hadley, another Bush administration official but with more of a neoconservative bent and touted as a close adviser to Mitt Romney on foreign affairs.
The two Democrats were James Steinberg, the ex-Obama administration China hand, and Joseph Nye, liberal think-tanker and creator of the “soft power” concept.
In Tokyo, their mission was to advise the Japanese government that there would be no dramatic US lurching on China matters even if Romney is elected president.
Since Romney has promised to go harder on China than President Obama, one can assume the purpose of the bipartisan delegation was to communicate to the Japanese government that it should not expect any upgrade in US military or diplomatic backing for Japan’s Senkaku position if Mr Romney becomes President Romney.
Perhaps the team was also able to pass the message to Liberal Democratic Party president Shinzo Abe. With the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda showing a mere 18% approval rating, Abe – who threw his own gasoline on the Senkaku fire recently with a public visit to the Yasukuni Shrine – has a good chance of becoming prime minister again next summer, if not earlier.
Armitage had already provided an interesting – and, to Japan, not very positive – take on the Senkaku issue in an interview with The Japan Times in early October, indicating that the US government, when given the opportunity, did not treat Japanese claims very seriously:
According to Armitage, the US decided not to take sides on the issue after the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control in 1972, as Washington was asked by both [mainland] China and Taiwan at that time not to recognize Japanese sovereignty over the islets. 
The delegation also had the pleasure of addressing resurgent Okinawan fury at the US military presence – a fulcrum upon which the US pivot depends – as uproar over the gang rape of an Okinawan girl by US servicemen, opposition to the deployment of Osprey vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, and festering anger at the foot-dragging over the promised relocation of US forces highlighted the real-world political price of an ivory-tower strategic gambit, one that posited that only China would bear the real costs in a zero-sum stare-down with the United States.
In Beijing, the delegation probably hoped to convince the PRC regime that beating up on Japan would entail serious consequences … consequences like the majestic cruise of the aircraft carrier George Washington into the South China Sea and the invitation extended to Vietnamese officials to come aboard and experience the vessel’s awe-inspiring might first-hand.
Of course, Vietnamese – and Chinese – officials might remember when this awe-inspiring might was flung unsuccessfully against Vietnam, somewhat blunting its effect … especially when it is recalled that the PRC has ample venues for interaction, harassment and retaliation with its southern neighbor that don’t involve making a vulnerable stand in the South China Sea under the shadow of the George Washington.
The PRC has made it clear that it is in no mood to welcome the United States to the Diaoyu / Senkaku party, certainly not in the form of a quasi-official delegation.
On October 22, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared:
[The delegation] is invited by the Foreign Affairs Association. Mr Stephen Hadley, National Security Council adviser under the previous presidential administration, and other ex-governmental worthies will visit China from October 22 through October 24 to exchange views on China-US relations and matters of mutual concern. This delegation does not possess the function to engage in so-called “mediation” or “good offices”.
In case anybody missed the point, Global Times ran an article titled “China avoids Diaoyu mediation attempts by US delegation”:
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Monday that the delegation would focus on Sino-US relations.
“Hong’s remarks indicated that China will not accept the mediation of the US, which has not shown any sincerity in defusing the Diaoyu Islands dispute so far,” Wang Pin, a researcher on Japanese studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times Tuesday. 
To tarnish the sheen of America’s honest-broker status further, Global Times sneered:
While the US is scurrying to prevent military clashes between the two Asian giants so that its own interest would not be harmed, it is also trying its best to encourage Japan to boost its defense to contain China, Wang said.
State Councilor Dai Bingguo and premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang met with the group and, in a piece of sly jiu-jitsu, turned the meeting into a discussion of US restrictions on Chinese investment, making the case that the Sino-US relationship was too important for the United States to take lightly for the sake of its precious pivot, not the other way around.
As to the Diaoyu Islands, they were mentioned in passing:
Li also stated China’s solemn stance on the Diaoyu Islands issue, stressing the international community should jointly protect the outcomes of the victory of the Second World War and the postwar international order. 
This framing puts the United States pretty much where China wants it: ineffectual troublemaker unable to protect its allies or constrain its opponents.
Chinese media gleefully painted a picture of Japan twisting in the wind on the islands issue, unable to elicit European support and even making the unlikely move of turning to Russia – even though Tokyo is locked in its own island dispute with Moscow over the Kuriles:
Despite its call for a peaceful resolution to the [Diaoyu] islands row, Japan spared no efforts during Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba’s visits to France, Britain and Germany last week to argue in favor of its claim to the islands. But those on the trips only received a cold response when they brought up the dispute, reported Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, saying that none of the three countries visited has taken a position in the matter. When asked whether support was obtained during the trip, Gemba did not respond directly, only saying that each of the three parties is in a different situation and no details about the matter can be disclosed, Kyodo reported.
Kyodo said Gemba had high expectations for the tour but found it hard to obtain support in the countries he visited.
Meanwhile, Tokyo has started to turn to Moscow. During a meeting between Japan and Russia in Tokyo on Friday, the Japanese asked that Russia show understanding toward Japan’s stance on the Diaoyu Islands.
Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun said China’s presence in the ocean is expanding and Japan and Russia have a “shared a belief about containing China”. 
Global anxiety over China’s rise and hardening anti-PRC sentiment within Japan will probably deny China any clear and satisfying victory over Japan. However, the previous assumption that the PRC was merely a paper tiger both unwilling and unable to retaliate in any meaningful way will have to be re-examined.
This development will probably not provoke a re-evaluation of the underlying policy by the pivot’s architects, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Assistant Secretary for East Asia Kurt Campbell.
Instead, it will be seen as a test of America’s determination to carry out the policy – the “gut check” – although the real-world “guts” in question reside in the flabby midsection of Japan’s economy – and, almost inevitably, the Obama administration will probably “double down”, not “back down”.
Originally, the polarization provoked by the pivot was probably regarded as a feature, rather than a bug. Japan, increasingly alienated from China, would ally more enthusiastically and effectively with the United States.
But as Japan and China systematically escalate the Senkaku / Diaoyu dispute, the US ability to deter, restrain, exploit, or channel this hostility decreases commensurately.
In Japan, China-bashing is now a political lifeline, not just a diplomatic stratagem. In China, Japan-bashing is becoming a matter of national identity.
Uichiro Niwa, the businessman who was removed from his post as ambassador to China because of his moderate, don’t-rock-the-boat views on the Senkakus (he is still serving temporarily, since his designated successor died of a heart attack before he could take the post), said sadly:
“Now, Chinese TV programs constantly show the Japanese flag and a photo of my face,” the ambassador said. “And the TV says in simple language that Japan is a thief who stole Chinese territory. Even elementary-school children can connect the flag, theft and my photo. In China, I am feeling like I’m the ringleader.”
Niwa said many Japanese volunteers teaching Japanese or working as caregivers, on a program by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, were also feeling a sense of great tension.
“This is the first time they report such a situation since I came to China,” said Niwa, who became ambassador to China in 2010. 
The fundamental flaw of the pivot strategy was acknowledged by Campbell himself when he referred to the rising hostility between Japan and China, engendered of course by past and present factors but exacerbated by the pivot.
We are worried that persistent high-level tensions are eating away at Sino-Japanese goodwill, at enormous linkages that have developed people to people, on culture, on business … it is stirring negative feelings on both sides … We recognize that damage has been done, and we’re worried about it.
These people are learning to hate each other for contemporary as well as historical reasons, and there isn’t a lot the United States can do about it.
That might turn out to be the most lasting consequence of the pivot.
Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.
1. Conversation with Kurt Campbell: The US and Asia – A Status Report, University of Southern California, Sep 29, 2012.
2. Japanese exports tumble on eurozone crisis and China dispute, The Guardian, Oct 22, 2012.
3. Boost deterrence to China, Armitage advises, The Japan Times, Oct 3, 2012.
4. China avoids Diaoyu mediation attempts by US delegation, Global Times, Oct 24, 2012.
5. US Urged to Ease Restrictions on Chinese Investment, China Radio International, Oct 23, 2012.
6. Ex-security officials to try easing tensions, China Daily, Oct 22, 2012.
7. Niwa: Japan-China ties faces worst crisis in 40 years, Asahi Shimbun, Oct 21, 2012.