Wednesday, August 11, 2010


The literal translation is "hide brightness, nourish obscurity," but it is more commonly known as Deng Xiaoping's policy of "tao guang yang hui" toward international relations - which describes a policy of patiently keeping a low profile when forced into an unfavorable position and nourish your position until opportunity to act presents itself. Many scholars believe this has been the core philosophy driving policy in China for almost the past 3 decades, but I am starting to wonder if this policy is shifting right before our eyes in 2010.

I believe the attack by North Korea that sank the Cheonan may have become the catalyst for a policy shift by China away from Deng's "tao guang yang hui", and the United States is party to the events driving the policy shift. As the US and South Korea accumulated indisputable evidence regarding responsibility, China was repeatedly encouraged by the United States to join the international community in condemning the actions of North Korea. Ultimately, every diplomatic effort to achieve Chinese cooperation regarding the incident with small steps like condemnation over the incident ultimately failed - and the UN eventually lacked the political strength to name North Korea as the attacker in the UN statement on the incident.

At roughly the same time as the UN vote, the Chinese government issued a statement that they consider the South China Sea part of its "core interests" that concern China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Previously, China had only regarded Taiwan and the Tibetan and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions as core interests vital to its territorial integrity. The significance of this new policy by China cannot be understated nor underestimated.

By the end of the first week of July, China had essentially blocked the United States in addressing the North Korean attack, claimed territorial rights over the South China Sea, and rejected all cooperation with constant condemnation of US activities in the region - specifically naval drills in the Yellow Sea and negotiations for military sales with Taiwan.

By mid July the Obama administration made a few adjustments to US policy with China. Note the developments:

First, at the ASEAN regional forum in Vietnam, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States intends to play a prominent role in a new regional effort to create a framework for resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea. One side note about that speech that I don't think has been mentioned enough - Secretary of Defense Gates was in the room.

Second, the US will be sending an aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea to exercise with South Korea, an action that has Chinese hawks very upset.

Third, the naval activities with Vietnam is just the latest sign that the US intends to remain present in the region, and specifically the South China Sea in support of the new US policy. It needs to be noted not every South China Sea nation is pleased with the new US position regarding South China Sea territorial rights.

Fourth, the US is about to sell more military equipment, including warships, to Taiwan knowing full well China will see this as another slap in the face.
This represents a full court press against China sending a clear signal that the United States is very frustrated with China given how the Cheonan incident played out. All four actions are diplomatic in nature, although much of the diplomacy at work here includes military-to-military cooperation and foreign military sales. Said another way, the US is speaking diplomatically with a naval power projection approach to the regions related to the issues. Our President is currently engaged in Roosevelt diplomacy with China - and just like Roosevelt - naval power is the leverage by which escalation is being managed.

As US naval forces populate the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea with an intended signal directed at China over the next few months, the question becomes whether China counters with a policy of patiently keeping a low profile when forced into an unfavorable position, and whether China will simply nourish their position patiently during these activities until the next opportunity to act presents itself? Or... does China do something different? I ask the question because right now our escalation controls of the friction between the US and China are based primarily on assumptions and expectations of our understanding regarding the Deng policy - an understanding built upon historic behavior.

But what happens if the Deng driven "tao guang yang hui" policy cycle is ending? How prepared are we for the impact of a different policy on our escalation control expectations? Is the Obama administration walking right into a potential incident with China? Worse, is the US walking into a proxy incident done by North Korea with Chinese top cover?

I'm not suggesting the US can concede at any level the sovereignty and territorial claims by China over the South China Sea, rather what I am saying is that other than blunting Chinese territorial claims to disputed territories in the South China Sea, it remains unclear to me what our other objectives are in this managed escalation of tensions between the United States and China. Are the actions we are undertaking consistent with an approach that encourages China into a familiar "tao guang yang hui" political mindset for dealing with US encroachment to areas near the Chinese coast, or are we pushing sufficiently to force China to change policies?

The Cheonan incident came and went, and the outcome was conceded by South Korea and the United States to consensus when the both nations decided a multilateral approach was more appropriate than a unilateral approach. Good folks can disagree on the merits of multilateral vs unilateral approaches to international problems or incidents (and I don't necessarily believe the multinational approach was wrong), but I tend to think that attacks by one nation on another nation represents a national sovereignty issue.

National sovereignty issues cannot be managed or controlled by a single party when an international consensus becomes the process. China has had a great deal of success influencing US policy towards North Korea and Iran by leveraging the quagmires that often result from seeking multinational consensus solutions to US policy initiatives towards those nations. That is why the new position by China regarding the South China Sea has been very effectively countered by the policy the US Secretary of State announced in Vietnam. Now that our opinion is a regional option for these territorial and sovereignty disputes, we have positioned ourselves to diplomatically disrupt Chinese policy interests with a consensus quagmire of our own.

But other than enabling this diplomatic option for South China Sea territorial disputes, what other objectives of national interest are we seeking with further escalation of tensions between the US and China? Given that our regional diplomacy efforts regarding China are being leveraged in large part with military power projection, I think PACOM needs to have a clear understanding of the objective desired before the US sends an aircraft carrier to exercise in the Yellow Sea.

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