Archive for the ‘Security’ category


March 8, 2010

We’ve got increasing US-China friction on a number of issues.  Observers have offered some pretty simple explanations for this situation, e.g. “the Obama Administration has been too soft on China so they feel they can push us around” or “China holds so much US debt that they have leverage to push us around”, etc.

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”.  Chinese government behavior (like our own) is driven by a complex set of factors (with domestic considerations by far the most influential).  The following is a partial list of the factors as I see them:

  • Continued sensitivity about being bullied or dominated by foreigners, growing out of China’s experience in the period 1840 – 1949 (sentiments kept fresh by the Chinese educational system and media).
  • (Overconfidence) (Justifiable pride) from success in managing the domestic economy in face of global economic crisis, which has (incorrectly in my view) discredited the US model of growth in the eyes of some Chinese.
  • Leadership insecurity at home driven by Tibet, Xinjiang, and increasing protests over economic and social issues, leading to a stronger voice by security and propaganda officials, who tend to be more suspicious of foreign companies/governments than the average Chinese official.
  • Jockeying before unusually large leadership change in 2012 (Party Chairman, Premier, and most of the Politburo Standing Committee turning over); at a time like this hopefuls for senior positions want to look tough on domestic and foreign issues.
  • Success of foreign companies in the China market since China’s WTO accession in 2001 that has created a backlash (think:  US in the 1980s (yikes, Japan is buying Rockefeller Center!))
  • Impact of internet opinion, which by all accounts Chinese leaders regularly view and take seriously and which in turn tend to be dominated by a nationalistic tone (younger people use the internet more and they tend to be more nationalistic).

Ok, so what to do about this?  Complex issues do not have simple solutions.  There is no magic bullet, but there are important steps we can take.  The subject of a future post.


A Better Read

November 15, 2009

By way of contrast with the NYT article I discussed in my last post, see the much more informative Christian Science Monitor article titled:  “US eyes China as global partner” (link here: CSM article)

I don’t agree with every detail in the piece, but the general outline (the administration sees China as a partner to tackle global problems; this is new territory for China and it is moving very cautiously in this direction) gets the basics right.

I still can’t get over how widely NYT missed the mark.

Obama Visit to China: Analysis too Awful to Ignore

November 15, 2009

I’ve been away from this blog for a long time, but every now and then something outrageous enough surfaces to drive me back:

One of the great pleasures of my younger days was sitting on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, sipping from a container of Tropicana orange juice while nibbling on a fresh pastry and taking a leisurely read through the Sunday New York Times.  I note this to emphasize that I am a huge fan of the NYT.  It is in fact the first thing I read each morning (though online now).  But that is why a particularly shallow and sensationalized article from that source is so upsetting.

Headline of the article (on the first page of the paper’s online edition) reads:  “China’s Role as Lender Alters Dynamics for Obama’s Visit” and here’s the link: article.

The gist of the piece can be summarized as:  The US owes China a lot of money so, unlike his predecessors, Obama is afraid to criticize China too much on his visit there.  Some samples from the article:

“… unlike his immediate predecessors, who publicly pushed and prodded China to follow the Western model and become more open politically and economically, Mr. Obama will be spending less time exhorting Beijing and more time reassuring it.

…It is a long way from the days when President George W. Bush hectored China about currency manipulation, or when President Bill Clinton exhorted the Chinese to improve human rights.

Mr. Obama has struck a mollifying note with China. He pointedly singled out the emerging dynamic at play between the United States and China during a wide-ranging speech in Tokyo on Saturday that was meant to outline a new American relationship with Asia.

“The United States does not seek to contain China,” Mr. Obama said. “On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.”

He alluded to human rights but did not get specific. ‘We will not agree on every issue,’ he said, ‘and the United States will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear — and that includes respect for the religion and cultures of all people.’”

What a crock.  It is really disturbing to see such a total lack of understanding of US-China dynamics from such a distinguished source.

Here’s the way to think about the way the Administration is approaching US-China relations, including the President’s visit:

1)   Important countries get treated differently from less important countries, always.  Since Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the US has treated China more carefully than Liberia.  For that matter, Liberia treats the US more carefully than Peru.  And Russia treats Japan more carefully than Chile.  All administrations from Nixon on, have maintained a delicate balancing act of seeking to promote a wide range of evolving US interests with China, including security, trade, and human rights.  Some administrations have pushed on a particular area more publicly at one time and others have pushed on other areas at other times.  This administration is no different in this regard.

2)   The money the US owes China is just not a factor in the overall mix of policy considerations shaping this (or the previous) administration’s approach.  Yes (as noted in the NYT piece), the Chinese now ask more questions about the health of the US economy.  But this reflects their increasing sense of vulnerability about their exposure to the US economy.  One could just as well write an article saying that the Chinese leaders will be especially nice to Obama because they want to encourage him to take policies to keep the US economy strong and protect the value of China’s large US debt holdings.  It is pure nonsense to suggest Obama will pull his punches on human rights or other issues because China holds lots of US treasury bonds.  The US wants to get the US economy back on track and wants China to maintain strong economic growth while shifting to more reliance on domestic consumption.  The Chinese government, and the rest of the world, want, and need, the same thing.  There may be differences at the margins on particular policy steps, but there is no “leverage” here that either side has on the other.

3)   Though the fundamental US approach to China has not changed in 37 years (i.e., an effort to pursue a complex and changing set of US interests, each has brought its own style and areas of emphasis, in part depending on external developments (think: mutual fear over the Soviet intentions, Tiananmen, the collapse of the Soviet Union, etc.).  This administration clearly believes it is now critical to deepen cooperation with China in preventing global catastrophes, especially those dealing with:  the global economy; climate change; the spread of weapons of mass destruction; North Korea and Iran; and pandemics.  The process of deepened cooperation on global issues began in the Bush Administration with regard to the economic crisis, but the current administration is clearly seeking to broaden and deepen this kind of engagement.  In doing so, it is the case that more activities and public pronouncements on China will center around these global issues rather than others in the relationship.  I suppose one could say that in this sense the Administration is giving less public attention to human rights in China, but this is not the same thing as suggesting that the administration is treading lightly in this area because the US owes China a lot of money, as the NYT suggests.

4)   And last but not least:  Those who slam the administration for allegedly being afraid to press China on human rights have some serious explaining to do.  If the policy of publicly hectoring China on human rights was so successful in the past, why are we all still so concerned about the human rights situation there?  Where are the big achievements from that approach?  If the tough approach is the key, why did Bill Clinton (cited as a role model in the NYT piece) back down, with egg on his face, from his linkage of human rights to trade in the early part of his administration?  The point is that this administration’s enhanced cooperation with China on key global issues coupled with a less public approach on human rights stands at least as good a chance of achieving results as the in-your-face approach to this issue that some urge.  I believe progress on human rights in China will take decades and that those improvements will come as the result of changing priorities by the people of China.  Respectful exchanges of ideas with government and non-government actors in the US will play a role in this process.  Public hectoring adds little to the mix.  In any event, that fact that the current administration has shifted from a more public, critical approach on human rights to one emphasizing broad cooperation between our countries and quiet discussion of human rights, does not mean they are abandoning the search for progress in this area.

So, with much sadness, I can only report that this NYT article reaches a new (recent) low in China analysis from the news publication I admire most.  Let’s hope things improve soon.

Insecure, II

April 22, 2009

I spent most of my professional life working on the US-China economic relationship and therefore did not plan to spend a lot of time on this blog on issues like foreign intrusions into US computer systems.  Nonetheless, it is much in the news.  As a follow up to my previous posting on this subject, and in partial response to a question from reader LZ, I recommend the following article from, via the tech news site CNET:

Seems to me a particularly balanced article that notes the involvement of lots of countries in these types of activities and underscores the difficulty in identifying with great certainty the source of such attacks.


April 18, 2009

The press is filled with stories these days of computer intrusions and illegal electronic snooping.  Over the past couple of months we’ve had stories of a major network of computers accessing other computers around the world, including those of the Dalai Lama, stealing files and even remotely turning on webcams and microphones to see and hear what is going on.  We’ve had reports of probes of computer systems in the offices of members of the US Congress.  Within the last week or so we’ve had stories of successful efforts to access computer networks that control the US power distribution grid, with the intruders leaving behind software that could be activated in the future for nefarious purposes.  And virtually every friend of mine in the US government has tales of their agencies, including in some cases their own e-mail accounts, being probed or attacked by outside computers.  Recently I heard that a China expert at a think tank in DC has concluded that his e-mail account too is being targeted.

All of these reports have one thing in common:  China is always cited as possibly the major source for the probes/attacks.

Responsible reporting always emphasizes that it is hard to tell where these attacks originate.  Even if you trace an attack to a server in a particular country it is still possible that someone in another country is routing their attacks through this third country site.  Also, if you confirm an attack really has come from a particular country it is difficult to determine if it is the work of the government, criminal gangs, or individual hackers.

I have no special insight into the extent to which the Chinese government or individuals in China are responsible for the activity we’ve been reading about (though I’d be surprised if at least a sizable part of it does not originate in China), but I do have strong views on how to think about these issues:

­­­­­­­­­­I was US Consul General in Shanghai at the time of the EP-3 incident.  I made it a point to visit area universities in the days and weeks after that collision to meet with students to ensure that this important, intelligent, and emotional segment of Chinese society had access to the US side of the story.  At each session I was treated to a series of comments and ques­tions the main theme of which was that the students were indignant that the US flew spy planes off the coast of China.  This was viewed as an inherently hostile action.  And they often asked, “How would Americans feel if China flew spy planes off the coast of the US?”

I responded by asking rhetorically if they felt that all such activities were bad, or only those directed against China?  I quickly added that I was asking because China itself had spy planes and ships that prowled the coasts of nearby countries collecting intelligence.  It was true that, due to lack of range, these activities did not extend across the Pacific to the coast of the US, but I figured that someday it would.  Further, to my knowledge, most countries in the world conducted ­­­­­­­­similar activities.  The Soviet Union previously and Russia now conduct flights off the coast of the US.  Americans don’t like it, but accept it as normal international behavior.

Returning to the current issue of computer intrusions, I think that if we somehow magically could total up the level of activity by each government in the world in accessing foreign telecommunications and computer systems to gather information, the US would be the clear leader by an order of magnitude (or two or three).  I don’t speak from any inside knowledge of the full scope of US government activities, but just do some Google searching for stories from reputable news sources on this subject, or peruse the books by James Bamford re NSA efforts over the  years.

I am not criticizing the US government for these efforts.  I view it as a regrettable reality that governments need to undertake such activities in the dangerous world in which we live.  Since it is necessary, I am glad the US is a leader in this area (as long as the civil rights of Americans are protected).  But I do want to pose the same questions to Americans indignant about alleged Chinese efforts to enter US computer systems as I did to the Chinese students who were indignant about US spy planes flying off China’s coasts:  Are you opposed to every country in the world undertaking efforts to access foreign telecommunications and computer networks, or just ­­­­those by others against the US?  If the former, I applaud you for your consistent, though unrealistic position.  If the latter, you are a hypocrite.

I also have a few thoughts for the other actors potentially involved in this saga:

To the Chinese government:  if many of these intrusions are the work of Chinese government security agencies I suggest you fire the people involved.  The whole point of such efforts is to do these things without detection.  Otherwise, all you are doing is allowing the other guys to understand your techniques, encouraging them develop countermeasures, and generally making yourself look awful in the eyes of world opinion.

To the Russian, Indian, etc. governments:  If these attacks are coming from you but being routed through China to increase US-China frictions, give the people overseeing this program a raise.  Very creative.

To individual Chinese hackers:  if you are the ones behind these efforts you are accomplishing nothing other than damaging your country’s reputation.  You are unpatriotic slime ­­­­­­­balls and I hope power surges fry all your computers.

Final note:  I see in the press that the ­­­­­­­Administration is nearing completion of a major study on how to better protect critical computer networks in the US.  This is of course the proper focus.  Intrusions on these networks will continue, from friendly and hostile governments, from criminal gangs, and individual hackers.  In this circumstance indignation is inappropriate.  But stepped up protection is not.­­­­­­

Mil to Mil

April 2, 2009

Per mention in a previous post, my piece on “Enhancing a Security Dialogue with China” is now online at the newly revamped site of the National Strategy Forum Review” (Main link for current issue:

Here’s the direct link to my article:

In the article I try to emphasize the disconnect between the Chinese military (still relatively closed to contacts from the outside) and the rest of the Chinese government (increasingly actively engaged in international activities) and the policy implications that flow from that.


The New Dialogue

April 1, 2009

It’s official. US and China announced establishment of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (no idea what the official acronym is yet, but I’ll use S&ED), successor to the Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) of the Bush Administration. Full text of White House announcement is here:

Some quick reactions:

1) Most important thing is that Administration and Chinese have moved quickly to get this effort off the ground (note: this is one of the points made by US-China Business Council President John Frisbie in his announcement welcoming the new dialogue. Text here: ). As I noted in a previous post (Counterparts), I think some observers fuss over the details of the structure, rank of the counterparts, etc. To me, once you get up to the Vice Premier/State Councilor level (as the new forum does (continuing past practice)) you are fine. Implementation is really the most important thing (see below).

2) I appreciated that the official announcement singled out the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) for special mention. As I noted in a previous post (An Ode to the JCCT), I don’t think contentious trade issues (nor human rights) should form the centerpiece of the bilateral relationship (the huge global issues are just too important now), but the JCCT remains very important for its substantive and political role. I hope the JCCT remains focused on addressing specific trade and investment issues. Discussion of cooperative projects is important, but resolution of real world issues should remain the core of the JCCT. It is virtually unique in that regard among the many bilateral fora.

3) Also pleased the announcement emphasized the importance of strengthened military to military relations. This too has a unique importance among the bilateral interactions. That topic is the subject of a short piece of mine (written a week ago) which will shortly be posted on the redone National Strategy Forum Review website (I’ll provide link when it is up).

4) I’m a bit unclear about how the energy and environment piece fits in here. It is referenced in the statement and I am assuming it is a part of the “strategic track” of the dialogue, chaired by Secretary Clinton. I understand the Chinese side had previously indicated that (former Chinese EPA Administration) National Development and Reform Commission Vice Chairman Xie Zhenhua would lead China’s side of discussions on these issues. Seems to me that is fine for the detailed, substantive discussions, but there needs to be (and I assume there is) an understanding that these key topics fall under the overall umbrella structure (so they are linked directly into the senior most discussions).

5) No specific mention of food and product safety, but I assume these fall under the reference to continued cooperation in (a long list of areas, including:) health. Anyway, both sides are highly motivated to address food and product safety so not sure that a huge amount of the senior most attention is needed for that.

But the real key in such a process is implementation. It is implementation, rather than the words on the page, that will determine how much value comes out of the new structure. And there are three key elements of implementation:

Thoughtfulness/preparation: It is easy for these dialogues to degenerate into rote recitation of talking points. The formal plenary sessions will never depart too far from that, but the margin of difference can matter. Also, in smaller groups and on the margins it is possible to engage in more give and take. However, all of this requires lots of staff work in preparation. Clear agendas with topics that have been thoroughly discussed at lower levels, with outcomes (if any) pretty near final are important. Goal is not a free wheeling negotiation at the table between senior US and Chinese officials, but rather a deeper discussion (at the table and on the margins) of the key issues which lower level officials have teed up.

Intensity/focus: This was one of the great strengths that Hank Paulson brought to the table. His personal intense work style and focus on China permeated the SED process and ensured continuous engagement on the issues. I’m not convinced that the folks working the new S&ED will need to continue with Sunday morning planning meetings and phone calls from the Secretary at all hours of the day or night, but it is important that the principals devote a significant amount of time and attention to driving the process, including frequent conversations with their counterparts between formal sessions (see my post on Communications).

Staffing: I think the architecture for US-China relations in the Administration has been driven mainly by Jeff Bader (Senior Asia Director at the NSC) and Jim Steinberg (Deputy Secretary of State). From my perspective there are no better people to be taking this on. They have the vision and practical smarts needed now to further advance US-China relations. However, as the new dialogue process gets up and going it will be important to have a (small) group of core staff who focus full time on the S&ED (or, actually two groups, I guess, one at State and one at Treasury). Each of these groups should be wired in high enough at each department so they are above the various bureaus, each of which may have a different set of views and priorities. (Note: I know State a lot better than I know Treasury. At State there is the danger that the many bureaus who will want to have a piece of the action, will get into endless squabbles and turf battles. For this reason I think it is especially important for there to be a core group (maybe attached to Steinberg’s office or the Secretary’s)). And these groups will need to continue to have close coordination with the NSC. And of course a similar counterpart arrangement on the Chinese side.

So, bottom line: It is great that the new process has been launched. As the cliché goes, now the hard work begins.