Vice President Joe Biden's very high profile Asia-Pacific trip this week, highlighted by his nearly six-hour meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss China's new "air defense zone" over the East China Sea and other matters, points up a very key question with regard to the Obama Administration's pivot from the Middle East and Central Asia to the Asia-Pacific. Who's in charge, anyway?
With the sudden almost war with Syria's Assad regime fast becoming a dot in the rear view mirror and with the Iranian nuclear crisis suddenly defused by the interim Obama-led agreement between the Islamic republic and the five permanent UN Security Council members (US, UK, France, Russia, China) plus Germany, not to mention the Iraq War over and the Afghan War drawing down, the US is much closer to being clear of endless distraction from its historically core national interests in the Asia-Pacific.
Indeed, the US could be due for something of a global resurgence. Consider.
Despite all its problems, a technology-driven energy boom may soon make the US not only the world's biggest oil and natural gas producer but also the world leader in renewable energy systems. And with what is still clearly the world's best armed forces and an expansive venue in the Pacific with potentially many supportive allies that plays to many of America's strengths far more than does asymmetric desert warfare against religious zealots, the challenges may be much more manageable and rational.
In fact, the US and China could conceivably work well together. If the People's Republic's
Yes, China is bound on a trajectory toward superpower status, hence its hegemonic moves. But it is also a nation that need not be an enemy, assuming that its own authoritarianism does not lead to internal revolt.
Indeed, President Xi has amiable relations with Biden, Obama, Governor Jerry Brown, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- Brown and Schwarzenegger both made big trade and investment trips to China and urged the PRC to collaborate on renewable energy and climate change; Brown conducted a parallel summit with Xi and other top Chinese leaders during the Obama-Xi summit earlier this year in California -- and other American leaders, not to mention mutual interests in trade and investment. One senses he knows America well enough to have decided to accelerate matters in the South China Sea and the East China Sea while America was still caught up in its post-9/11 brambles.
All the better to create a set of faits accompli, or facts on the, er, ground (which in this case is more the water and air) that would be far harder to reverse than to block in the first place
But the Syrian and Iranian crises may have wound down -- to the extent they have -- faster than Xi anticipated. Meaning that some smart thinking and maneuvering over the next several months could serve the Asia-Pacific Pivot very well.
Which also means that the nagging question of who is in charge on the Pivot looms rather large. Especially in the aftermath of the government shutdown debacle, which served China's purposes greatly as Exhibit A of America the Incompetent and Unreliable Ally with Obama forced to scrap summit appearances he'd been working years toward.
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon had been the Pivot's big champion in the Obama Administration. But his successor, former UN Ambassador Susan Rice, hasn't been publicly identified with the strategy until she gave a speech last month in Washington which I covered here.
But she's more of a humanitarian intervention champion, heavily focused on the Middle East and Africa.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the most likely next president, was also closely identified with the Pivot. But her successor John Kerry is more of a classic Atlanticist, a man of Europe, one who has already given tremendous amounts of time to not only the current Middle East crises but also an effort, fruitless thusfar, to no one's surprise, to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian process.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has seemed to be playing the most prominent leading role, spending the most time of any senior official in the Asia-Pacific. In fact, he is on a regular scheduldene of major visits.
But now speculation turns to Biden potentially taking over a lead if not the leading role. He knows President Xi the best of anyone, having spent much time with him during Xi's vice presidency in which he was waiting to take over the top jobs. Hence Biden's lengthy meeting for a vice president with a president of China.
But there's a lot more to the Pivot than just working with China. And there will need to be a blend of messages and personalities in dealing with China, from the stern and more military-minded to the friendly and more commercial-minded.
In any event, Biden has a lot to do, though he is probably a good bet when it's time for a big gun in dealing with Xi.
Could it be that it's really the Navy that is in charge? After all, many of the ideas and techniques are naval in nature, as the Pacific is by far the world's largest ocean. In fact, many of the core ideas date back to the presidencies and pre-presidencies of the Presidents Roosevelt, navalists both and each the assistant secretary of the Navy in critically formative moments in American history. It's probably fitting to drop another naval name from history, Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Naval War College professor whose Theodore Roosevelt-influenced tome, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, is today being read by leading lights in the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese military establishments.
But the Navy is an institution, not a personality, and in any event it wouldn't be appropriate for a military figure to be the Pivot's point person. And of course, the one who is really in charge on the Asia-Pacific Pivot strategy may be hiding in plain sight. That would be President Obama himself.
He is, after all, America's first truly Pacific president. Richard Nixon and Ronald came from California, America's big commonwealth on the Pacific. But Reagan was naturally a Midwesterner, and Nixon might as well have been at times.
Certainly neither could match Obama's Pacific heritage. Born and raised in Hawaii, except for a lengthy boyhood stint in Indonesia, one of the region's most important countries.
The problem with the president as the point person is that he has more to do than the vice president. Especially with all the hassles over the disastrous rollout of Obamacare.
In the end, the Asia-Pacific Pivot may not need a point person or champion, as its logical role as central US strategy becomes apparent to all.
We'll have a clearer idea next week how Biden's trip, which winds up on the weekend in South Korea, which with the US fought China in the Korean War, ended up going. China's new air defense zone not only includes a long-established Japanese air defense zone but also much of a previously announced South Korean air defense zone. And assuming that China doesn't just do what Biden suggested on the air defense zone, one of the safest assumptions around, I'll have thoughts on options.
South Korea has been spatting of late with Japan over its leadership's lack of interest in again apologizing for its imperialist excesses in the war of conquest which led up to World War II.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a former grad student in public policy at the University of Southern California, started off Biden's big week in meetings with him and other top officials. Abe has led the long-reigning Liberal Democrat Party back to power in both houses of the parliament. And Abe is moving to make Japan's Self Defense Force a much more expeditionary force to counter China's rise, in spite of Japan's rather pacifist constitution largely imposed by American General Douglas MacArthur when he led the rebuilding of Japan after World War II.
I'll have a lot more to say about that in assessing Biden's trip once it's done.
One thing has to be said now. While Biden, who began the week being lauded in the Chinese media for his "old friend" status and ended in controversy after pushed back on the air defense zone, urged Chinese students to exercise their human rights to self-expression, and ripped China for on its remarkably little reported upon crackdown on foreign journalists -- especially the New York Times, much of whose bureau is on the verge of being expelled after stories reporting high-level Chinese corruption and repression -- ended up getting criticized in the largely government-controlled Chinese media, he was treated more respectfully than British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The Tory PM was in China at the same time as Biden, on a hopeful trade and investment mission. (Is there any other kind?) In this case the hope was not accompanied by the trademark English glory.
For Cameron was urged, for all his troubles, by a Chinese Communist Party newspaper to recognize "that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country apt for travel and study."
Not that that Chinese assessment of Britain isn't just a tad, well, arrogant, mind you.