China Matters, Open Letter to the President

Dear Mr. President:

I find myself compelled to write this letter as there seems to be a significant disconnect in the White House interagency coordination process. I come to this conclusion in the aftermath of the 8 March incident involving a U.S. Navy survey ship and Chinese fishing boats in the South China Sea. While I realize it is imperative the Department of Defense maintain the ability to monitor and counter the actions of a possible adversary, completion of this mission should not come with a potentially devastating cost to every American...particularly in peacetime.

Over the last 10 years, Beijing has repeatedly stated her objections to U.S. Navy survey operations in China's exclusive economic zone. On more than one occasion, Chinese patrol craft have been dispatched to make perfectly clear the level of Beijing's unhappiness with these activities. Despite verbal and physical reminders of China's stance, the U.S. Department of Defense has continued to pursue the activities--claiming, rightly, that such operations are legal under the international Law of the Sea, and should be recognized as an exercise of every nation's freedom of navigation on the open seas.

That said, one can understand Beijing's press to cease the survey operations. China contends such U.S. Navy seabed mapping is really intended to facilitate submarine operations in the event of a conflict. Beijing believes such operations also serve to enhance our monitoring of Chinese submarine deployments and training. To explain the Chinese sensitivities, allow me to place the shoe on the other foot. Imagine how the U.S. Department of Defense would react if the Chinese were conducting similar survey operations 75 miles off San Diego or Norfolk. I believe the term apoplectic would be appropriate should such an event come to pass.

I think it is appropriate to characterize the official, specific Chinese response to the 8 March incident as unsurprising and responsible. On 12 March, the Chinese Defense Ministry decreed it had been "carrying out routine enforcement and safeguarding measures within its exclusive economic zone." The Defense Ministry went on to "demand the United States respect our legal interests and security concerns, and take effective measures to prevent a recurrence of such incidents." We have heard all this before.

What was new--and likely related to this incident--were Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's remarks on 13 March. In a public statement, Wen declared China is "worried" about its U.S. Treasury holdings and wants assurances Beijing's investments are safe. As Wen put it, "We have lent a huge amount of money to the United States. I request the U.S. to maintain its good credit, to honor its promises and to guarantee the safety of China's assets." Now, we could interpret Wen's statements as a critique of the administration's ongoing economic recovery program, but I strongly suspect that would be a misreading of the situation.

I believe Wen Jiabao is politely, but firmly reminding us that China holds over $1 trillion of our nation debt, and that Beijing's interest in continuing to expand this investment could be dramatically curtailed if we cannot synchronize efforts at the U.S State and Treasury departments with activities approved within the Department of Defense. To be quite blunt, a marked decline in Chinese investment in U.S. Treasury notes could drive up interest rates in this country by 200-300 basis points--resulting in an even further decline in consumer spending.

Given this situation, I recommend you convene a National Security Council interagency working group that is at least composed of representatives from the White House, State, Treasury, and Defense. Furthermore, State should take the opportunity to remind Defense who is responsible for overseeing and executing America's foreign policy. We can go a long way toward realizing Secretary of State Clinton's promise to revive her department by reestablishing this relationship in the manner in which it was intended. That is, State is responsible for international relations, and Defense should staff and coordinate all future similar sensitive peacetime operations through State before proceeding.

Sir, I believe the Defense Department is overdue for such a reminder. Your predecessor attempted to accomplish this by ordering military leaders to stop referring to themselves as "Commanders in Chief." I believe bolder action is required before actions potentially unilaterally approved within the Defense Department inflict significant damage on our broader national interests.

Very Respectfully
Eric C. Anderson