Presidential 'Contest' Pales Beside China Challenge

It was guaranteed to get full media attention, President Barack Obama's unprecedented trip to the Pentagon to personally announce the U.S. military's mid-term future.

Defense Department correspondents and commentators did not have to read between the lines much to pass on the twin message that our armed forces will be managed in a leaner fashion and with a decided tilt strategically toward countering threats in Asia.

A modicum of interpretation was required from the specialists, though. Not once in the president's remarks, or in secondary contributions from the two men who are not normally a mere supporting double-act (Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey) did the charged word "China" get uttered.

The closest we got, it seemed, was General Dempsey saying: "Our strategic challenges will largely emanate out of the Pacific region."

Unsurprisingly, the fullest emphasis on how the Obama administration is now focusing ever more strongly on China was loudly trumpeted from out of China itself, notably from the state-owned newspaper China Daily. Seeking out specifics beyond Obama's broad strategy announcement, the paper had recruited one of its favorite military analysts, Liu Lin from the China People's Army Academy of Military Science, to alert -- you could with justification say warn -- readers about a significant new American personnel choice.

Liu zeroed in on the choice of Admiral Samuel Locklear to be head of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), a force that now comprises about a fifth of American military strength. The CPA commentator theorized, probably not incorrectly, that Locklear owes his promotion in large part to having handled the U.S./NATO intervention in Libya, which Obama is known to be especially pleased by, and which China's leaders are known to be deeply distressed by.

China Daily cited Liu as an authority for believing quite simply that, with Locklear in place, and with the president's Asia-ward tilt (oh, and with that small matter of a new military base in northern Australia) the U.S. will now "focus on China's growing economic and military strength and the uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula."

This observation from the media of the other side, so to speak, reminds us of the real word and of realpolitik -- as opposed to the "phony-war" atmosphere of the current U.S. presidential 'contest,' if that's what it is.

Inevitably enough (though with some irony, too) fall-out from the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary includes the reality that Jon Huntsman, whatever short 'surge' he might have experienced in the Granite State, is now clearly out of the running as presidential material. We can now remember perhaps, that Huntsman's true, and a lot more specific, value as a public servant derives from his working knowledge of China.

It was at a China-related media event that Huntsman announced his candidacy, or at least his making his mind up to run. Back in June last year at the Thomson Reuters news agency's New York headquarters, Huntsman shared a platform with Dr Henry Kissinger that had been mounted to launch the ex-Secretary of State's book On China.

Reuter's recently appointed Editor at Large, the veteran journalist and publisher Sir Harold Evans, led a "How to Handle China" discussion between the diplomat probably most responsible for opening up relations with Beijing (under President Richard Nixon) and the man who until a bit earlier last year was President Obama's (then non-partisan) choice as ambassador to the once Forbidden City.

The debate's somewhat worldly audience (myself included) largely ignored Huntsman's presidential ambitions, and as the discussion moved on, the two men turned out to differ little in substance over dealing with the ever-rising giant of the East.

Both agreed on the need for China and America to negotiate a treaty restricting cyber-attacks -- and designating some digital spheres as completely off-limits to hacking, with Huntsman stressing the need for "red lines around areas that we don't want them into and they might not want us into." Kissinger said that only the agreed observance of such overall détente would prevent the kind of dangerous squabbling that could result once either nation tried make a cause célèbre out of the other's efforts at digital spying. "If you take it case by case," he said, it could unproductively "lead to accusations and counter-accusations."

I raised more general and basic points with the still-controversial 88-year old -- to some a war criminal, to others a hard-headed realist of statecraft. We talked of a historical antecedent, Britain's famous Crowe Memorandum authored in 1907 for the pre-World War I Foreign Office by Sir Eyre Crowe, a man long-held to be a prime example of the "realism" school of diplomacy, and thus a forebear of Dr. K's for some students of these dark arts.

Kissinger's book quotes this document at one point, highlighting especially Crowe's commonsensical conviction that the fast-rising Germany would "surely seek to diminish the power of any rivals, to enhance her own by extending her domination ..."

That passage is often invoked when foreign policy wonks consider today's relationship between the U.S. and China.

I suggested that in a "realist" view, given the expansiveness we see today from China, a zero-sum rivalry for power (which after all is how "realists" tend to see the world) can here mean only one thing. As the giant awakens further and more fully stretches, it's inevitable that the United States will lose its primacy as the solo post-Cold War power.

Kissinger argued in response that early 20th century Europeans did not have the advantage of hindsight knowledge about the consequences of confrontation... in this case, of course, the horrors of the First World War -- and the greater potential it generated for still more conflict later on. Had they known what we know, he asked rhetorically, "would they not have taken another look at the inevitability of confrontation?"

Kissinger was, like Huntsman, recommending our full and active diplomatic engagement with China, while taking complete (but non-interventionist) account of the pressures for change building up inside the country -- even the possibility, with rapid urbanization, of public opinion achieving considerably greater expression. This could alter what Kissinger called China's "crucial" balance of "the element of legitimacy against the element of power." Direct conflict between Beijing and Washington would be headed off in such an atmosphere, he believed. The "whole array of issues," he said, "can only be dealt with on a global basis and cannot be dealt with on a competitive basis."

[The full event was covered by Reuters: Our exchanges specifically about U.S.-China rivalry come at 44:00 and 50:45]

Kissinger ended up sounding a lot more optimistic than I've ever heard him in public:

I believe the seeming inevitability of a rising power and a status-quo power presents problems -- but they can, perhaps for the first time in history, be overcome.

Let's hope, as President Obama in his newly announced approach must also hope, that Dr K is right.

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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, "The Media Beat," with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD.