After Osama: China?
If the killing of Osama bin Laden were a Hollywood murder mystery, the shootout scene in Abbottabad would be followed by the unveiling of the sponsor who arranged for the al-Qaeda safe house. Is it the Pakistani intelligence officer who appears early in the movie to assure his U.S. counterparts that he is fully committed to bringing bin Laden to justice? Is it the Saudi construction magnate who owes several major favors to the bin Laden family? Or perhaps it's the U.S. embassy official who, it might turn out, believes that Osama is more useful alive than dead — until finally, he is useful no longer.
Who could possibly benefit from the care and feeding of the al-Qaeda legend? Audiences know to look for the suspect who benefits the most. The more intricate the conspiracy the better.
As the Navy SEALs dispose of bin Laden's body at sea, we follow the simultaneous action in Islamabad where bin Laden's secret sponsor is sitting in an office, back turned to the camera, passing over a final payment to the safe house owner. The music builds. It's hard to pinpoint the sponsor's accent. And then the camera pulls back and we realize that the action is taking place in an embassy. The flag on the wall, the sentries posted out front, and finally the placard with the embassy's name: The People's Republic of China.
Of course, bin Laden's death was not a Hollywood movie, however much the Obama administration presented it as such (the brave soldiers, the cowardly villain, the suspenseful hunt). And China has no love for al-Qaeda, particularly given its own battles against alleged terrorists in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
But perhaps the only country in the world that has benefited from the last decade of war against al-Qaeda is China, and it has benefitted big time. Beijing has watched the United States spend more than $3 trillion on the war on terrorism, devote its military resources to the Middle East, and neglect pretty much every other part of the globe (except where al-Qaeda and its friends hang out). The United States is now mired in debt, stuck in a recession, and paralyzed by partisan politics.
Over that same period, meanwhile, China has quickly become the second largest economy in the world. In 2001, Goldman Sachs predicted that the Chinese economy would rival that of Germany by 2011. Boy, was that a lowball estimate. Last month, the International Monetary Fund looked again into the crystal ball and announced that the Chinese economy would become the world's largest in 2016.
China's overtaking of the United States "will effectively end the 'Age of America' a decade before most analysts had expected," writes David Gardner in the British Daily Mail. "It means that whoever wins the 2012 presidential election will have the dubious honor of presiding over the fall of the United States."
Memo from Beijing: Mission Accomplished!
Naturally, since this is no movie, it's not so cut and dried. As demonstrated by its huge investments into this country – including $45 billion worth of deals back in January – China doesn't want a bankrupt United States. Indeed, U.S. budget deficits and low interest rates have fueled global inflation, driving up food prices and creating precisely the kind of instability that makes China uncomfortable. Beijing needs American consumers, the relative security of American bonds, and the occasional stability provided by American troops. But remember: all of that can be provided by the world's second leading economy and number one military spender.
The Obama administration is well aware of these trends. Indeed, as National Security Advisor Tom Donilon recently told Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, the United States should be refocusing on Asia. "One of Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region. America was 'overweighted' in the former and 'underweighted' in the latter." Asia hands like Kurt Campbell, before he became the current assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, routinely castigated the George W. Bush administration for ignoring East Asia. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the hunt for bin Laden, the continuing drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, and now the Arab Spring have all kept the focus away from China’s rapid rise.
Those in the Obama administration looking for a global reset of U.S. foreign policy are forced to adopt a posture of "strategic patience." This, of course, is also the official U.S. policy toward North Korea. Basically, Washington is waiting for North Korea to bend to economic and military pressure, though there is not much precedent for such a North Korean response. "Strategic patience" is really just a fancy way of describing a policy of neglect. The United States is largely ignoring North Korea and, relatively speaking, the rest of Asia as well while we engage in some more battles, kill a few more terrorists (and civilian bystanders), enforce a no-fly zone, and otherwise behave like a moth attracted to the Middle East flame.
The Obama administration's desire to shift focus to East Asia — and its current inability to do so — explains a lot. The administration soured relations with Japan and caused the downfall of one Japanese prime minister (so far) because of a refusal to cancel a military base relocation plan on Okinawa opposed by the vast majority of the island's residents. The administration has made little headway on North Korea's nuclear program, allowing a conservative South Korean administration to bring the region close to the brink of war (with North Korea cooperating with brinksmanship of its own).
It's not as if the United States is an indispensible power in Asia. Indonesia has taken the lead in trying to mediate the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) continues to slog away at untangling the dispute over islands in the South China Sea. Japan and Russia are perfectly capable of clearing up their own conflict over the Kurile Islands.
And the notion that the United States has to balance China in the region in some old-fashioned Cold War sense is certainly not necessary. China is not about to gobble up the region, beginning with Taiwan as an expensive appetizer. Beijing has watched Washington suffer considerable indigestion when it bit off more than it could chew (and the rest of the world could stomach). Competitive eating is not unknown in the world of geopolitics — see Age of Colonialism — but China has so far shown a measure of restraint.
If the United States intends to refocus on East Asia only to screw it up royally in the same way we've made a mess of the Middle East, it would be in everyone's interest if we fail to reorient our policy. But the United States still could play a constructive role as a Pacific power. At the current bilateral summit here in Washington, the two countries are trading charges over human rights and the value of each other's currency. These are critical issues. But Washington and Beijing, as the two leading military spenders in the world, should also discuss how to restrain the global arms race. Agreeing to a mutual code of conduct on arms trade and development issues would be valuable as well. And the Obama administration could help kick-start the Six-Party Talks, with China's help, so that we don't have to deal with the anomaly of North Korea, the world's only starving nuclear power.
© 2011 Foreign Policy in Focus