There's a battle going on among the standard-bearers of the Tea Party over their foreign policy message. But at the rank-and-file level, Tea Partiers have no unified view on major foreign policy issues. They are all over the map.
Sarah Palin, who spoke at Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on the Mall Saturday, would like the Tea Party to endorse her quasi-neoconservative approach to national security policy. She advocates aggressive unilateralism, ever-rising defense budgets, unfailing support of Israel, and a skeptical eye toward China, Russia, and any other possible competitor to the United States.
Ron Paul, a founding leader of the Tea Party who has seen the movement slip away from him somewhat, wants the movement's focus on thrift to extend to foreign policy, resulting in an almost isolationist approach that sets limits on the use of American power and its presence abroad.
In over a dozen interviews with self-identified Tea Party members at Saturday's rally, your humble Cable guy discovered that, when it comes to foreign policy, attendees rarely subscribed wholeheartedly to either Palin or Paul's world view. Despite claiming to share the same principles that informed their views, Tea Partiers often reached very different conclusions about pressing issues in U.S. foreign policy today.
Understandably, most Tea Party members at the rally viewed foreign policy through the prism of domestic problems such as the poor economy and the movement of jobs overseas. Almost all interviewees expressed support for U.S. troops abroad and a connection to Christianity they said informed their world view.
But that's where the similarities ended. Some attendees sounded like reliable neocons arguing for more troops abroad. Others sounded like antiwar liberals, lamenting the loss of life in any war for any reason. Still others sounded like inside the beltway realists, carefully considering the costs and benefits of a given policy option based on American national security interests.
For example, The Cable interviewed Danny Koss, a former Marine from Grove City, PA, who was measured when it came to talking about the war in Afghanistan.
"If we are going to stay, I suggest we really win," he said. "I'm not convinced that some of our leadership is ready for that. I know our generals are."
Koss, sounding like a realist, said that he saw China as a near-term economic threat but not a near-term military threat. A strike against Iran was not a good option, he argued, although he said it was wise of President Barack Obama to publicly state that all options are on the table.
When it came to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, however, Koss seamlessly switched to a religious frame.
"You've got to go back and read the Bible, see who had it first. If you believe the Bible and who God gave it to, the rest is history," he said.
Later, we ran into Cecilia Goodow from Hartford, NY, who said that her foreign policy views were determined exclusively by her faith. This led her to regret the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.
"It sounded so reasonable at the time. But Holy Father John Paul II was against the war; he said it would just be an awful thing and many people would be killed," she said. "I always supported the troops, but we know history and we know that wars are sometimes perpetrated by evil people for evil reasons that the average person doesn't even know about or understand, so I can't wait for it all to stop."
Goodow said she wants Obama to stand up for America more and fight the forces of evil, which include Iran, but she doesn't support military intervention, even in Afghanistan.
"Sometimes that's cloudy -- why are we there? Barack Obama ran on the promise that he was going to bring everybody home. That's what we all sat around the table talking about. Maybe if there's a new presidential policy maybe we can have peace again, maybe we can bring our kids home," she said. "War begets more war."
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we found Larry Maxwell of Patterson, NY. Dressed in full Revolutionary War regalia and holding a huge American flag, he was as much historian as activist, engaging passersby in debates about America's past.
While he supported the decision to go war in Iraq and largely believes claims that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Maxwell lamented the cost of the Iraq war and the danger of bolstering Iranian influence in the region.
But while Maxwell was concerned about the tensions surrounding Iran and its nuclear program, he didn't believe that a military strike is the best option.
"Are we the world's police? We're having a lot of trouble here and a lot of problems here. I'm not sure where our role comes over there," he said. "The United Nations would be the place for that ... but nobody listens to them."
Maxwell, like Koss, also referenced the Bible to support Israel's right to the land it now occupies. "The Bible says in the last days, that the Middle East, that's going to be the center of activity," he said. "If you go back to the Bible, it says there's going to be an army of 200 million men coming out of the East to the Middle East, as part of that whole Armageddon and ‘end of days' thing."
But not all Tea Partiers reflexively took Israel's side. Brandon Malator from Washington, DC, who dressed in U.S. Army fatigues and donned a cowboy hat with a Lipton tea bag dangling from the brim, was a stalwart supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not of Israel.
"[We should] stay longer. We've never left any other country and we shouldn't leave Iraq," he said, adding that the U.S. is engaged in a 100-year-war that would include a coming war with Iran and eventually a war with China, which he called "World War III." He praised Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan. "I think we're doing what we need to do as Americans. I think if the rest of the world doesn't like it, then that's tough luck."
But when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Malatore's was downright dovish. "I hope that Israel and Palestine can come to an agreement, share the land, and do whatever they need to do to stop fighting all the time. I hope that war ends; that's been going on too long."
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter landed in North Korea Wednesday, culminating months of closely held discussions about whether and how to send a high-level political figure on a mission to free an American who has been imprisoned in the cloistered East Asian country since January.
The Carter trip, which the Obama administration maintains is a "private, humanitarian mission" with no official U.S. government involvement, was organized with extensive participation by top officials at both the State Department and the National Security Council, according to regional experts and former officials who were also involved in the discussions.
Two other potential envoys, Bill Richardson and John Kerry, lobbied fiercely to get the assignment, several Asia hands and former officials said, but Carter was ultimately chosen because the administration believed he was best positioned to succeed.
"Nobody else could say for sure that they could get this guy out," one Asia hand who was briefed on the trip said. The imprisoned American, an English teacher named Aijalon Mahli Gomes, was sentenced to 8 years' hard labor in April.
Carter also offers the administration a degree of plausible deniability, allowing the United States to claim the trip is not related to U.S. policy toward North Korea.
"Sending a current US official might be misinterpreted as hinting at a change in policy, it is explained...and if Kerry, or some other serving official, including Special Envoy Steve Bosworth, was sent over, anything they might say could be interpreted (or mis-interpreted) as a commitment of some sort," Asia expert Chris Nelson wrote Tuesday in his Nelson Report newsletter.Carter would also be better received by the North Koreans, the Asia hand said, because as a former president, they hold him in higher regard than a governor or senator. Therefore, he could meet directly with Kim Jong Il, whereas Richardson or Kerry might be relegated to meeting with a lower-level official.
"It's amazing how little the North Koreans understand Washington," the Asia hand said, pointing out that, compared with Kerry or even Richardson, Carter probably has the least influence on the Obama administration.
Another former official close to the discussions had a slightly different take, arguing that the North Koreans understand Washington better than most give them credit for and that Carter's meeting with Kim represents the best hope for diplomatic progress given the extremely centralized nature of the North Korean system.
Most direct contact between North Korea and the United States flows through what is known as the "New York channel," which refers to North Korea's delegation at the United Nations. This small band of diplomats performs a number of vital functions between the two countries, which have no formal diplomatic relations: They plan most visits to Pyongyang by U.S. officials, pass messages back and forth, and even share secrets about other countries, such as China.
Carter, Richardson, and Kerry each have their own independent and well-established links to the New York channel and were working them hard in advance of the trip, keeping in touch with the White House during the entire process.
Richardson in particular had been talking with the North Koreans for at least two months about making the trip but was ultimately told not to go by National Security Advisor Jim Jones, according to one former official's account. Richardson's discussions were so advanced that the North Korean government had even given him some demands they argued were necessary to secure Gomes's release, such as an official apology for Gomes' "crime."
A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment. Richardson's office did not respond to requests.
Meanwhile, Kerry had been angling to go to North Korea for some time. Multiple sources report that Kerry has been working on getting a visa to visit Pyongyang for more than a year and was disappointed when Bill Clinton was chosen to rescue Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were detained by North Korean soldiers in March 2009 and ultimately released.
The Gomes case was personal for Kerry. Not only is Gomes, who is originally from Boston, his constituent, Kerry has been working hard on the case for months and first approached the State Department on behalf of Gomes's mother. "Senator Kerry has offered to do whatever he can to assist in securing the release of Mr. Gomes," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokesman Frederick Jones, who added that any trips to Pyongyang would be closely coordinated with the State Department and the White House.
There are also signs that the State Department is still involved in the trip, despite its official position that it is a private undertaking. For example, department spokesman P.J. Crowley declined to deny that a State Department translator is present on the trip. He has said that no U.S. "officials" would be involved, but a translator, usually a contract employee, could potentially fall outside of that description.
Meanwhile, more details are emerging about last week's high-level meeting on the Obama administration's North Korea policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in attendance and the meeting was led jointly by Policy Planning chief Anne Marie Slaughter and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.
Crowley described the meeting as one of the regular sessions periodically held at State to examine alternate policy approaches. However, according to two attendees who spoke with The Cable afterwards, there was definitely a sense that Clinton was looking for suggestions of possible changes to the policy. The current U.S. stance avoids direct engagement with Pyongyang until the regime alters its position and commits once again to denuclearization and the six-party talks over its nuclear program.
"[The Clinton people] are uncomfortable having no contact with North Korea; they are worried about potential escalation and that North Korea will get ornery and want to escalate further if we're not talking to them," said one attendee.
Another attendee had a slightly different readout, saying that Clinton is not opposed to the current policy but just wants to prepare options going forward."I think everyone there clearly felt that what has been done so far [by the Obama administration] was the right thing to do, but people were trying to look ahead," this attendee said. "They didn't think doing more of the same is necessarily the right course of action."
The attendees spanned the ideological spectrum of North Korea hands. Experts in the room included the American Enterprise Institute's Nicholas Eberstadt, former NSC senior director Mike Green, former NSC senior director Victor Cha, the Stimson Center's Alan Romberg, former North Korea intelligence official Robert Carlin, Stanford's Siegfried Hecker, humanitarian Stephen Linton, and former nuclear negotiator Joel Wit.
Sources familiar with the thinking of officials like Campbell and NSC senior director Jeffrey Bader say they are not opposed in principle to talking to the North Koreans, but are determined not to reward Pyongyang for its recent bad behavior, which includes the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan and suspected widespread weapons proliferation to Burma. Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg is said to favor this approach as well.
Other actors such as Bosworth and Amb. Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy to the six-party talks, are said to favor a more forward approach, not seeing dialogue as a reward and placing more of an emphasis on getting back to the table.
Whatever happens with Carter's trip, experts say, the administration should take care to make sure no gaps emerge between its diplomacy and the position of its ally, South Korea. Seeming to make overtures to the North could cause problems for the South Korean government, which has been in lockstep with the Obama administration's tougher approach. The South Koreans, unlike most in Washington, were briefed ahead of the Carter trip, a signal that the Obama team has internalized the importance of keeping them in the loop.
But the administration took a risk in sending Carter, a man who has developed a reputation for freelancing on such assignments.
"By putting it in Carter's hands they are running a risk that he could get out ahead of the South Koreans' position," one Asia hand warned.
Yao Ximeng/Xinhua/Associated Press
Jimmy Carter is set to travel to North Korea very soon, according to two sources familiar with the former president's plans, in what they characterized as a private mission to free a U.S. citizen imprisoned there.
Carter has decided to make the trip and is slated to leave for the Hermit Kingdom within days, possibly bringing his wife and daughter along for the journey. His goal is to bring back Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old man from Boston who was sentenced to 8 years in prison in April, about three months after he was arrested crossing into North Korea via China. In July, North Korea's official media organ reported that Gomes had tried to commit suicide. Earlier this month, the State Department secretly sent a four-man team to Pyongyang to visit Gomes, but was unable to secure his release.
There will be no U.S. government officials on the trip and Carter is traveling in his capacity as a private citizen, our sources report -- much like when former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang last August to bring home Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had wandered across the North Korean border with China and were promptly arrested and threatened with years of hard labor.
A senior administration official would not confirm that Carter has decided to go but told The Cable, "If anyone goes it would be a private humanitarian effort." Carter's office did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
The Obama administration wants desperately to avoid conflating the Carter trip with its current stance toward North Korea, which is to engage Kim Jong Il's regime only if and when North Korea agrees to abide by its previous commitments and agrees to return to the six-party talks over its nuclear program, which Pyongyang abandoned in 2008.
Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, had offered to go to pick up Gomes and has been working on the case for months, but our sources report Carter was selected because he is not a serving U.S. official. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson had also been considered, but it's not clear why he was not chosen.
Carter has personal experience dealing with North Korea. In a dramatic and controversial June 1994 trip, after North Korea threatened to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel and the Clinton administration called for U.N. sanctions, the former president flew to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, and successfully persuaded him to negotiate.
This time, leading Korea experts say, Carter's trip should not be seen as a change in U.S. policy toward Pyongyang and will likely not yield any breakthrough in what most see as a diplomatic stalemate between the two sides.
"Obviously, State and the White House had to be involved in the planning of this. But if you're going to try to pitch this as a foreshadowing of a new diplomatic engagement or a breakthrough, it's certainly not going to be that," said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a think tank Focused on Northeast Asia.
When Clinton flew to Pyongyang to free the two Current TV reporters, who received a "special pardon" from the Dear Leader, he was extremely careful not to wade into policy matters.
"I don't anticipate that in any way President Carter will be carrying water for Obama or for any change in policy toward North Korea, because what is required for North Korea to move forward in negotiations with the United States is clear," said Flake.
But although Carter doesn't have official sanctioning to wade into North Korea policymaking, he might just do it anyway. Carter is known for having an independent streak, boldly taking on foreign-policy issues whether invited to do so or not.
Many former officials reference Carter's last trip to North Korea as evidence of this phenomenon. According to several officials who were involved in the policy at that time, Carter's deal with Kim Il Sung went beyond what the Clinton administration had authorized.
After the elder Kim's death the following month, the United States and North Korea entered talks in earnest, resulting in the 1994 Agreed Framework, which represents the most comprehensive cooperation between North Korea and the West to this day.
"As a result of his going slightly off the reservation, we got back to productive negotiations and before long negotiated the most effective agreement we've ever had with the North Koreans," said former ambassador Thomas Hubbard, who was then deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and deputy to the lead negotiator for the Agreed Framework, Robert Gallucci.
"You can't expect President Carter to take orders and do things the way the president wants it done, but to my mind it's a risk worth taking," Hubbard said. (Clinton himself later told former Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell, "I took a chance on him in North Korea, and that didn't turn out too badly," according to an account by the late David Halberstam.)
Not everyone remembers Carter's trip so fondly. Some Clinton administration officials were furious with Carter at the time for coloring outside the lines, and saw him as being deliberately roguish, considering that he brought a CNN camera crew with him and announced his deal before the Clintonites could object. The Clinton White House decided to take his ball and run with it after the fact.
"There are a lot of memories of Jimmy Carter's last trip to North Korea and a lot of people kind of thought he hijacked our diplomacy," said Joel Wit, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator who is now a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies and the founder of its website about North Korea, 38 North. "The bottom line is he did a good thing and the work he did there helped to pave the way to get the Agreed Framework."
Some experts argue that sending Carter is a bad idea that will only encourage further bad behavior on the part of Pyongyang.
"Sending another ex-president establishes a very bad precedent," said Amb. Charles "Jack" Pritchard, who served as special envoy to North Korea during the George W. Bush administration. "Mr. Carter has a history, an understanding, and a point-of-view where I can't imagine he would not, on his own, engage the North Koreans on substantive issues more than just the return of Mr. Gomes."
"If that's what they want," he said, referring to the Obama administration, "then he's a very appropriate choice."
Obama's tough posture toward Pyongyang, which includes as yet unspecified new financial sanctions and repeated military exercises with U.S. ally South Korea -- all of which are meant to show solidarity and strength after North Korea sunk the South Korea ship the Cheonan -- could be compromised, said Pritchard.
"It sends a signal, whether intended or not, that the United States is trying to get past the Cheonan incident, with the potential that we would be slightly out of step with the South Koreans," Pritchard said.
That's not a universally held view among former Bush administration officials, however.
"In the end, if the priority is to get the American out and that is what's required, then it's worth it, you've got to do it," said Victor Cha, Asia director for the National Security Council during the late Bush era. "If Carter can be helpful in getting some diplomatic dialogue going, that's fine. I hope he doesn't have some package to pull out of his pocket; that wouldn't be helpful."
Yet there are already signs that the Obama team's decision to essentially forgo direct engagement for the time being while concentrating on pressure and coordination with allies is fraying at the top levels.
We're told that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is said to be frustrated with the policy, had her Policy Planning chief Anne Marie Slaughter convene a high-level meeting at the State Department earlier this month to examine fresh options.
No matter what Carter does or how the North Koreans respond, the debate in Washington is likely to ramp up due to this trip, said Wit.
"The minute you send Jimmy Carter to North Korea, you've got to believe the pot is going to be stirred."
The State Department is considering sending a high-level public figure to North Korea to facilitate the release of a Boston man who is being held there and may be in severely poor health, according to multiple sources close to the discussions.
Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old man from Boston, was sentenced to 8 years in prison in April, about three months after he was arrested crossing into North Korea via China. In July, North Korea's official media organ reported that Gomes had tried to commit suicide. Earlier this month, the State Department secretly sent a four-man team to Pyongyang to visit Gomes, but was unable to secure his release.
It is not clear why Gomes, who had been working in South Korea as an English teacher, chose to cross into North Korea, but he was known to be a supporter of Robert Park, a Christian missionary who deliberately entered the isolated, repressive country in January to "proclaim Christ's love and forgiveness" to Kim Jong Il and was later released.
The North Koreans have been trying to use Gomes as a bargaining chip and conflate his detention with other policy issues, such as their frustration over being accused of sinking the South Korean ship the Cheonan. In June, they threatened to apply "wartime law" to the Gomes case if America's "hostile" approach to North Korea continued, which could mean a life sentence for the young man.
The North Korean regime has communicated that it wants a prominent American official to visit Pyongyang to secure Gomes's release, similar to the August 2009 trip by former President Bill Clinton, who made a dramatic visit to Pyongyang to bring home Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who received a "special pardon" from the Dear Leader.
The State Department is resisting sending a U.S. government representative, one source outside the department said, because the administration doesn't want to allow North Korea to conflate the Gomes case with the outstanding policy issues between Washington and Pyonyang, which include the administration's refusal to resume multilateral or bilateral talks until the regime reaffirms its commitment to denuclearization, a promise made toward the end of the Bush administration.
The most obvious choice for the trip is Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, who is not only a prominent diplomatic figure but has also been intimately involved in the Gomes case since it began. In fact, it was Kerry who first contacted the State Department on behalf of Gomes's mother and facilitated the identification of Gomes after North Korea announced it had captured an American.
"No decision has been made on whether Senator Kerry would go to the DPRK [North Korea], but any such move would be done in close consultation with the State Department and the White House," said Frederick Jones, communications director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who added that Kerry has offered to do whatever he can to assist in securing the release of Gomes.
The State Department also at one point considered New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to go on the trip, one source close to the discussions said. Richardson has had success rescuing American imprisoned abroad and has also traveled to North Korea in the past. We're hearing that Jimmy Carter is also on the list.
Due to the sensitivity of the issue and the fluid nature of the discussions, administration officials have been extremely tightlipped. A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment, and Richardson's staff did not respond to requests.
But behind the scenes, the State Department, with support from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, has been making strenuous efforts to secure Gomes's release since the moment he was arrested. (The Swedes represent American interests in North Korea due a lack of formal diplomatic relations.)
The discussions about Gomes are some of the only direct interactions the administration has had with the North Koreans since talks broke down. North Korea declared the talks dead in April, 2009 following two years of stagnation and then expelled nuclear inspectors and detonated their second nuclear device. Track 2 discussions last October failed to precipitate a breakthrough.
"We are in direct contact with North Korea regarding Mr. Gomes. We are worried about his health and welfare," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable. "We just had a team visit with him and we want to see him returned to the United States as soon as possible. We will continue to urge North Korea to release Mr. Gomes on humanitarian grounds."
Meanwhile, Gomes is said to be in poor health and poor spirits. For Kerry, this issue is both international and local as he tries to aid his constituent and also facilitate a positive interaction with one of the world's most insulated and brutal regimes.
"This is a mother's worst nightmare and a horrific situation," Kerry said the day Gomes was sentenced. "This young man belongs in Massachusetts with his family, and I join with them in expressing my hope that North Korea will do the right thing and send him home. I will do all I can, in concert with our government and Aijalon's family, to see him released safely."
AFP / Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Southeast Asia last month cemented what officials and experts are recognizing as a more assertive U.S. approach to the region in the face of increased Chinese aggressiveness.
At the ASEAN regional forum in Vietnam, Clinton shocked the Chinese by announcing 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 waters near East and Southeast Asia. The announcement followed months of diplomatic legwork behind the scenes and provoked an angry reaction from the Chinese government and state media.
"The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion," Clinton said in Hanoi July 23, not naming China specifically. "We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant."
In a response posted to the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi expressed surprise and described Clinton's comments as "in effect an attack on China," arguing that any territorial disputes in the region should be handled bilaterally, without U.S. involvement.
The Chinese government has been conducting its own backroom diplomatic effort with ASEAN countries, primarily related to disputes over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, a complex archipelago of hundreds of minor islands and coral reefs that are claimed by various regional powers.
"What will be the consequences if this issue is turned into an international or multilateral one?," Yang said. "It will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult."
The Chinese state media was apparently more blunt.
"People's Daily, the ‘voice' of the Party, today charged the US has ‘not thought through in a calm manner' the issue of ‘how to co-exist with a rapidly developing China,'" Chris Nelson wrote in the Washington insider newsletter The Nelson Report on July 27. "Saying that if the US can't ‘control its impulses', People's Daily manages to sound like China's favorite client, North Korea, warning China ‘will not flinch' if the US keeps acting up."
If the Chinese were surprised, they were among the only ones. In the weeks leading up to the conference, U.S. officials worked hard to lay the groundwork for Clinton's announcement. Under Secretary Bill Burns was dispatched to four ASEAN countries while Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell and NSC Senior Director Jeffrey Bader worked the phones to call the others.
While the Obama team was conducting its quiet diplomacy, the Chinese were working the ASEAN countries as well. In fact, China had secured an agreement from the ASEAN countries that the South China Sea issue would not be on the conference agenda. But during the meetings, the issue was on everybody's minds and when Clinton rose to address it, several other countries joined her in another clear rebuke to the Chinese. "This was organized and coordinated and when the Chinese realized that the American announcement was coordinated with the ASEAN partners, that caught them off guard," said Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The showdown could usher in a new era in Asian regional dynamics. China, which has been building its naval capabilities and working to expand its diplomatic influence, especially in Southeast Asia, has been increasingly assertive due to its rising sense of self-importance and perception that the U.S. is distracted with other international priorities. But Southeast Asian countries are wary of Chinese power and are looking to the U.S. to step in and play a larger role.
"The Chinese set themselves back years by the way they overreacted" following the conference, said Bower. "They fulfilled every bit of Southeast Asia's fears that these guys are showing us a nice face but behind it they have other objectives."
The conference appears to represent a turning point in the Obama administration's approach to China. After a year and a half of largely avoiding confrontation but getting little increased cooperation from Beijing in return, the administration is setting firm boundaries with China on key issues.
"The Obama administration started out thinking they could have this partnership with China so they treaded lightly. But their new approach is, ‘We're going to have to show them some determination and show them that we are going to follow through,'" Bower said.
An administration official close to the issue said
that Clinton's remarks in ASEAN were not meant to signal any change in the U.S.
approach toward China, which is comprehensive and complex. But increased public
discussion of international issues that involve China goes hand in hand with
the renewed U.S. commitment to being present and involved in Asia going
"Part of this is a reminder to China that we will be a player in the region for a long time," the official said.
The administration has noticed increased Chinese assertiveness on a range of issues. "China, in the recent period, has definitely sensed that that they have a perceived strategic opening," the official added.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, in a recent talk at the Nixon Center, tied Clinton's South China Sea initiative to recent uncooperative actions by the Chinese, including their cutoff of military-to-military relations with the U.S.
"We continue to stress that [military to military cooperation] is not a favor to one country or the other, but it is absolutely critical to manage this very complex process of China's own economic growth and military modernization, that a number of the issues that we have can only be satisfactorily addressed if we have direct dialogue, and that it's, frankly, counterproductive for China to see this as a benefit to be offered or withheld in relationship to other issues," he said.
Steinberg said that the recent dispute over a U.S. aircraft carrier conducing naval exercises in the Yellow Sea off China's northeast coast could have been resolved if mil-to-mil contacts were still ongoing. The U.S. tacitly acceded to China's demand to move the exercises, but the Pentagon said it will feel free to operate in the Yellow Sea in the future.
The Obama administration's overall strategy is to expand and strengthen regional mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit, which Clinton has been invited to join. The effort is meant to counter China's penchant for dealing with smaller countries on a bilateral basis, where Beijing can exert more pressure.
"Ultimately, the Chinese leadership is going to have to look at that and say: ‘Are we better off showing more flexibility and a willingness to engage on a more multilateral basis, or just insist on our position at risk of raising questions in the minds of other countries in the region as to why it's not willing to engage multilaterally?'" said Steinberg.
The administration's increased assertiveness in Southeast Asia includes its own bilateral outreach to ASEAN member countries as well, including new military cooperation with Indonesia and discussions of civilian nuclear cooperation with Vietnam.
"They are trying to strengthen ties with various Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia and that's a very worthwhile thing to do," said Paul Wolfowitz, former ambassador to Indonesia and former deputy secretary of defense.
Wolfowitz called on Obama to follow through on his promise of an Indonesia visit, which has been postponed twice.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
When the results of the international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan were released in May, the U.S. State Department was adamant that it believed North Korea was responsible -- and that the country would have to face some actual punishment for killing 46 innocent South Korea sailors.
"I think it is important to send a clear message to North Korea that provocative actions have consequences," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said May 21 while visiting her Japanese counterpart in Tokyo.
Fast forward to today, when the United Nations released a presidential statement which not only does not specify any consequences for the Kim Jong Il regime, but doesn't even conclude that North Korea was responsible for the attack in the first place.
The statement acknowledges that the South Korean investigation, which included broad international participation, blamed North Korea, and then "takes note of the responses from other relevant parties, including from the DPRK, which has stated that it had nothing to do with the incident."
"Therefore, the Security Council condemns the attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan," the statement reads.
The White House's spokesman on such matters, Mike Hammer, issued a statement clearly stating that the Obama administration believes North Korea was responsible and arguing that the U.N. statement "constitutes an endorsement of the findings" of the Joint Investigative Group that issued the report blaming North Korea.
So the U.S. and the South Koreans believe North Korea was guilty but the U.N. isn't willing to go that far. But what about the next step? Will there be any follow up, any "consequences" for North Korea, as Clinton seemed to promise in May?
"I think right now we're just allowing North Korea to absorb the international community's response to its actions," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday.
North Korea's representative to the U.N., Sin Son Ho, called the statement a "great diplomatic victory."
"That doesn't sound like a lot of absorption," one member of the State Department press corps shot back at Toner.
When asked what comes next, Toner said there were no plans to pursue additional measures, other than enforcing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, and there were no outstanding requests from South Korea for additional measures. "We'll wait and let the statement stand," he said.
So what happened between May and now? According to both South Korean and U.S. officials, the countries pushing for actual penalties were serious about it at first, as is shown in the June 4 letter from South Korea, endorsed by the U.S., which urged the Security Council to "respond in a manner appropriate to the gravity of North Korea's military provocation in order to deter recurrence of any further provocation by North Korea."
But as China, ever the defender of the Hermit Kingdom, stalled on making any definitive statements about the incident, officials in Seoul and Washington began to worry that they might not be able to get any U.N. action whatsoever.
Then, toward the end of June, Beijing became nervous about the mounting international pressure and decided to try to wrap up the U.N. discussions as quickly as possible. They calculated that it was a losing game, so moved to get a statement out quickly with a small concession as a means of getting the whole issue behind them.
"This is less than we expected from the beginning," a South Korean official told The Cable, "But it clearly says the Cheonan was sunk by an attack, cites the five-country international joint-investigation result, and condemns it as a deplorable behavior. Even though it did not clarify it was North Korea's torpedo attack, it theoretically points the finger at North Korea as being responsible."
The South Korean official pointed at Russia and China as being responsible for the weakness of the statement.
"Definitely there has been a tough negotiation, especially to persuade the PRC and Russia, and this is result," the official said, "All the other countries except [China and Russia] strongly supported putting pressure on them."
Korea experts and former officials in Washington are sympathetic to the Obama administration's compromise in terms of the statement, but strongly lament that this administration seems not to be in any rush to do anything to engage North Korea or get back to tackling the problem of its growing nuclear arsenal.
"This is a glass one third full, with an explanation to convince you that it's not two thirds empty," said former North Korea negotiator Jack Pritchard, now president of the Korea Economic Institute. The statement was meant not to identify winners, but to allow everyone to avoid being named losers, he said.
"It's not clear cut and it's unsatisfactory, but it may have been the best that we could do," Pritchard acknowledged. The problem as he sees is it that now the Obama administration is back to the status quo, which means no discernable progress on North Korea nuclear discussions, something referred to as "strategic patience."
Joel Wit, another former negotiator who is now a visiting fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said the time is way past overdue to find some way to get back to talking with North Korea.
"The key issue here is, are we ready to turn this corner and try to return to some sort of negotiation, some sort of dialogue that tries to deal with the problems between us, or do we just continue with strategic patience?" Wit said.
Pritchard warned that because Pyongyang has backed off its promise to move towards denuclearization and the Obama administration can't accept a nuclear North Korea, the only way to move forward would be to get North Korea to change its calculus... and that can only be done with Chinese help.
"It requires at least a perception that the Chinese will abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 and that's not currently the case," said Pritchard. "Strategic patience is an attitude, not a policy."
LEE JAE-WON/AFP/Getty Images
During President Obama's trip to Canada this weekend for the G-8 and G-20 meetings on global economic reform, the real action will be taking place in his meetings with several top Asian leaders on the sidelines of the events.
"We also want to use these meetings as an opportunity to underscore America's commitment to leadership and increased engagement in Asia," said a senior administration official about the trip. "We see this is an opportunity to continue our efforts to renew our leadership in Asia."
Five out of the six precious bilateral meetings Obama will grant over the weekend will go to leaders from East Asian countries. After the first meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in Toronto, his one-on-ones will be with President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea, Chinese President Hu Jintao, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, and the new Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan.
"That is, I think, an eloquent demonstration of the importance that the president attaches to Asia, the importance of Asia to our political security and economic interest," another senior administration official said.
For the Korea bilat, the sinking of the Cheonan will be at the top of the agenda. The U.N. debate over how to reprimand North Korea for sinking the ship is going on now and strategies for finishing that effort need to be discussed.
With the Chinese president, Obama will likely follow up on the slight change China made to its currency policy this week. Congress isn't quite yet satisfied with the move and is still pressing legislation, so Obama needs to find out whether Hu intends to go further.
In a blistering New York Times column Friday, Princeton University economist Paul Krugman argued that China's currency adjustment was "basically a joke" and called on Beijing to "stop giving us the runaround and deliver real change" or face trade sanctions.
Obama may also want to raise Beijing's refusal to resume military-to-military dialogue, as shown most dramatically when China refused to let U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visit last month when he was traveling in the region.
"It's our view and it's the president's view that military-to-military relations between the U.S. and China are in China's interest and in the U.S.'s interest," the senior administration official said. "This is not a favor that either side does to the other."
"We believe they should be continuous and should not be subject to ups and downs based on events in the relationship," he said, a reference to the administration's decision to go ahead with arms sales to Taiwan over Beijing's vociferous objections, as well as Chinese anger over Obama's welcoming of the Dalai Lama in February.
With Japan's Kan, Obama's mission is to make nice and get off to a better start than he did with ousted Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. The Kan administration definitely seems to be on board with that idea and the White House is sending the message that, as far as the United States is concerned, the dispute over the Futenma air station on Okinawa is settled.
"Prime Minister Kan has made clear that he endorses the agreement that we reached on basing in Okinawa. He does not question it, and he's looking to strengthen the alliance," the senior administration official said.
Obama is scheduled to visit India, Japan, and Korea on a trip in November, so the meetings are also meant to prepare for that as well. No word yet on whether Indonesia will be added as a stop.
The new acting secretary general of Japan's ruling party took time out of a heated campaign to visit Washington briefly Friday night, to deliver the message that the Obama administration no longer has to worry about the Japanese government's commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance.
In what several observers called his "reassurance tour," rising star Goshi Hosono spoke to a group of experts and officials at a dinner hosted by the Center for a New American Security, the culminating event of the think tank's two-day conference on U.S.-Japan relations. Hosono took over the position when former Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa stepped down along with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama last month.
Hosono was forceful, even aggressive, in describing the importance of the security relationship between the world's top two economies and the need for Japan to take a larger and more active role in regional security operations.
He spoke about working toward a "close and equal" U.S.-Japan alliance and pledged to work to "deepen" the alliance through a "functional expansion of its powers."
"The alliance must serve not only as a public good in bringing stability to the region, but it must also play an active, problem solving role in regard to a number of pressing issues," he said.
The decline of U.S. naval power presents an opportunity for Japan to be more involved in maritime security, Hosono said, including participating in operations to protect sea lanes.
Hosono addressed directly the poor relationship Hatoyama had with President Obama. That relationship soured when Hatoyama asked Obama to "trust" him on the issue of the Futenma Marine corps base on Okinana. Obama felt that Hatoyama betrayed that trust, leading to a cooling of the relationship at the highest levels.
"There are many people in the room who are not sure whether [Prime Minister Naoto] Kan is trustworthy. We feel in Japan that through his leadership, we can trust him," Hosono said.
The Obama administration saw chaos in the Japanese decision making in the Hatoyama administration, but Hosono promised this would also be addressed by the new government. He said there will be a "firm control tower" inside the cabinet, made up of by Prime Minister Kan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, and the General Secretary of the party Yukio Edano.
He promised to stick to the deal that Hatoyama finally struck with Washington over Futenma and pledged to focus on "reducing the burden" on Okinawa residents while sticking to the agreement.
As for whether the Obama administration's tough stance on the Futenma base contributed to Hatoyama's downfall, Hosono said that actually, it did.
"This a large issue for those of us who are politicians," he said. "The reason that the Hatoyama administration could not continue was not because this issue was of such strong interest in the domestic sphere, but that it grew to be a large foreign policy issue that made the administration vulnerable."
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
Now that Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has fallen on his sword, and the United States Japan have an opportunity to "reset" their relationship, which suffered due to the personal discord between Hatoyama and President Obama and the lingering dispute over a base in Okinawa. But will they take it?
For now, the battle over the Futenma air station seems to be tabled, with the new prime minister, Naoto Kan, pledging to largely stick to the deal struck in 2006. But there are lingering doubts as to whether either Washington or Tokyo is ready to revamp the rest of the alliance, which needs an update as it crosses the 50-year threshold.
So far, Kan seems to be sounding the right notes.
"The new prime minister has done everything possible to underscore the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance," an administration official close to the issue told The Cable. "This is a very complex set of interactions but we're reassured by what we've heard so far from Prime Minister Kan."
Japan hands in Washington note that Kan, in his swearing-in remarks, affirmed the U.S.-Japan alliance as "the cornerstone" of his country's diplomacy and pledged to honor the 2006 agreement. But Kan also said he would place equal emphasis on improving ties with China.
That struck many in Washington as a sign that the Democratic Party of Japan, which took power last year for the first time, is still hedging against what party leaders see as an Obama administration that just isn't giving Japan the respect and attention it feels it deserves.
As for the recent cooling in relations, "I don't think it's over, but a change in leadership is a chance to reset," said Randall Schriver, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia. The U.S. problem with Hatoyama was personal, based on his style and inability to meet his own deadlines, resulting in a lack of trust, Schriver said.
"Japan's a democracy and Hatoyama brought himself down," said Devin Stewart, senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
So is everything OK now that Kan is in charge?
Not exactly. The new prime minister's comments on China suggest that Washington and Tokyo aren't yet on the same page regarding larger issues of security, economics, and diplomacy.
"The relationship is bigger than Futenma, but that's all we talked about," Schriver said. "So somebody has to raise this to the next level and start to talk about the broader regional issues and that's got to be us."
Kan's not likely to take the lead on trying to revamp the alliance, mainly because he has to focus on Japan's economy and keeping his party's control of the parliament.
"Prime Minister Kan is treading on the eggshells left behind by Hatoyama," said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia security program at the Center for a New American Security, the think tank founded by Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. "He has to carry his party into uncertain July elections whose outcome may determine the next ruling coalition, the next cabinet, and possibly even the next steps on military basing."
And Kan has every reason not to want to reopen the Futenma issue, which Hatoyama seemed to resolve just before he resigned.
"The tough decision had been made," said Tobias Harris, former DPJ staffer and author of the blog Observing Japan. "Now all Kan has to do is say that he stands by the status quo and hope that Okinawan resistance gradually loses steam as the two governments hammer out the details."
Some Japan experts in Washington lament that the DPJ is still not getting a lot of respect in Washington. At a conference this week being hosted by CNAS, the theme of alliance renewal is front and center.
But will new ideas get a fair hearing?
Not only are there no Okinawans invited, the one DPJ lawmaker speaking is Akihisa Nagashima, a powerful lawmaker for sure, but also a well-known hawk with long ties to the Washington "alliance managers" who still hold the reins of the relationship.
"It's clear that the voices of a ‘status quo' U.S.-Japan security relationship will get the most air time at this meeting," argues the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
Beijing's refusal to accept Defense Secretary Robert Gates's offer to visit China this week has exposed divisions inside the Chinese Communist Party structure and is also causing Washington to take a hard look at what's now seen as an overly optimistic view of the current state of the relationship.
U.S. officials admit privately that the the Gates snub is a bad sign, one that contradicts the impression they had coming off the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue that saw more than 200 U.S. officials travel to China just two weeks ago. Officials said that they still hold out hope that Gates will be granted a visit soon, but their confidence about China's willingness to improve military-to-military relations is quickly eroding, and the road ahead is far from clear.
"Nearly all of the aspects of the relationship between the United States and China are moving forward in a positive direction, with the sole exception of the military-to-military relationship ... the PLA [People's Liberation Army] is significantly less interested in this relationship than the political leadership of China." Gates said Thursday in a rare open rebuke of the Chinese military. Gates made the remark en route to Singapore, where defense officials from all the Pacific countries except for China are convening for the annual Shangri-la Dialogue.
The conventional wisdom in Washington is that China is still protesting U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. But an administration official told The Cable that it's just not that simple. There is a struggle inside the Chinese Communist Party between those who want to more forcefully confront the U.S. on a range of issues, mostly within the PLA, and those who genuinely seek better ties, and the faction favoring confrontation is gaining ground.
At the May dialogue in Beijing, that dichotomy was exposed during bilateral meetings in an unusually open way. In what were otherwise constructive, albeit predictable exchanges, "The Chinese representative from the PLA ... could not have been more out of step with the meeting," a senior U.S. official told reporters during the plane ride back to Washington.
"Many on the Chinese side you could tell were going, ‘Oh my God, this is not the message we should be giving the United States and our visitors at this time," the official said. "And actually, several of us went up after, and said, ‘That was unhelpful. That's not the direction that we want to take the mil-to-mil relationship.'"
Still, as of that point, top U.S. officials were nonetheless convinced that Gates would be granted a visit soon. Another senior U.S. official remarked at the time how remarkable it was that the Chinese seemed to have gotten over their anger about the Taiwan arms sales so quickly.
Not so fast. Here's the statement Chinese embassy spokesman Wang Baodong gave The Cable in response to queries about Beijing's refusal to receive Gates.
"Military to military ties are an important part of China-US relations. China has been attaching importance to fostering mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries in the military field, and is willing to engage with the US side for exchanges and cooperation in the principle of respect, equality, mutual trust, and reciprocity. China hopes the US side conscientiously respects China's core interests and major concerns, to create conditions for resumption and healthy advancement of their bilateral military relations."
Wang also noted that there were mil-to-mil exchanges in Beijing. The PLA's deputy chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, met with Admiral Robert Willard, head of Pacific Command, and Wallace "Chip" Gregson, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.
But what Wang didn't mention is that Willard and Gregson had meetings with members of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other parts of the Chinese government as well. That surely irked PLA representatives. The credit for those meetings goes to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who fought hard, over Chinese objections, to make sure the U.S. military was well represented in the dialogue, because she saw the PLA trying to cut off ties.
"The military in China would like to control those avenues of discussion," one senior U.S. official said. "But because Secretary Clinton is prominent, and is saying, ‘I'd like to do that,' the Chinese would very much like to say, ‘Actually, it's not convenient for us.' And they tried, but she insisted."
China watchers in Washington lament that the Obama administration apparently had concluded that Beijing was just blustering about the arms sales and are calling on the administration to revise its expectations about the relationship.
"We need to be firm yet restrained: firm in our commitment to befriend a Taiwan serious about improving cross-strait relations; restrained in our belief that Chinese rhetoric is often inflated and their core interests include growing cooperation with the United States," said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia Security program at the Center for a New American Security.
Some critics wonder aloud why the U.S. is always in the position of the ardent suitor when it comes to deepening military relations with China. After all, the U.S. is still the world's pre-eminint military power and the Chinese refusal to engage is a net loss for China, they say.
"The Chinese are seeking leverage wherever they think they may find it to persuade us to curtail or stop completely U.S. arms sales to Taiwan -- and our actions surely give them the impression they have leverage by holding out on mil-mil contacts," said Randall Schriver, former deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asia.
It is almost unthinkable, however, that Beijing would succeed in persuading Washington its decades-long policy of arming Taipei. The Obama administration has made it more than clear that the U.S. will continue to support Taiwan's defense as spelled out in the Taiwan Relations Act -- especially given that the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait is tipping heavily toward the Chinese side.
"There was nothing new, surprising or noteworthy in the Obama arms sale," said Dan Blumenthal, former China desk director at the Pentagon. "The real problem is China's unrelenting build-up even during a time of nonexistent cross-strait tension."
"As the United States, Japan,
and South Korea take measures to increase their combined deterrent capabilities
against North Korea, a country that borders China, now would seem an
opportune time for China to seek military dialogue with the United States,"
he said. "China needs this dialogue more than we do."
"There are good reasons for us to exercise strategic patience and engender the feeling in China that things won't start again in a serious way until China asks for it," said Schriver.
North Korea announced today that it was breaking off diplomatic relations with the South, one day after South Korea imposed severe trade restrictions on Pyongyang in response to the March sinking of a South Korea ship, the Cheonan.
The news broke as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was getting ready to depart Beijing for Seoul, South Korea, where she is expected to back President Lee Myung-bak's demand that Pyongyang "pay a price" for its actions. Clinton's five-day visit to China for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue has been largely overshadowed by the crisis on the Korean peninsula, with Beijing calling for calm in the face of growing pressure from Washington and Seoul.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, calls are heating up for the Obama administration to take punitive measures like putting North Korea back on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But the Obama administration is clearly signaling it does not intend to do that any time soon. The calculation is that the listing, which administration officals see as having been overly politicized by George W. Bush's administration, is more trouble than it's worth.
"With respect to ... the state-sponsor of terrorism list, the United States will apply the law as the facts warrant," Clinton said in Beijing Monday. "The legislation, as you know, sets out specific criteria for the Secretary of State to base a determination... If the evidence warrants, the Department of State will take action."
What Clinton is saying here is that the original reasons that North Korea was put on the list, when they blew up half the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon in 1983 and then bombed Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, are not enough to justify putting Pyongyang back on the list today. Nor are the other reasons that the State Department has included in reports as recently as 2007 good enough for relisting now, namely that North Korea still hasn't answered for 12 Japanese abductees and still harbors members of the Japanese Red Army.
In fact, that 2007 report evens says that "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987."
Whether you believe that or not, the sinking of the Cheonan falls outside that definition.
"I don't see how you can call this a terrorist act," said Michael Auslin, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "I think it's an act of war but it's not a terrorist act. Putting them back on there would just show that we really don't have any other options. I think it was a mistake to take them off, but I don't think this is how you put them back on."
Leading Asia experts lament that the process was reduced to a political negotiation at the very end of the Bush administration, when then North Korea negotiator Chris Hill agreed to delist Pyongyang in exchange for North Korean promises to keep alive the Six Party Talks on their nuclear program. Those promises have gone largely unfulfilled.
When the delisting actually happened in October 2008, the State Department stated that North Korea "had not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period and the provision by the government of assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future."
Many Asia experts support putting North Korea back on the list, but they don't see the Cheonan sinking as a justification for doing it.
"I actually think it makes perfect sense to relist North Korea; it just has nothing to do with the Cheonan incident," said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a northeast Asia focused think tank. "The incident just provides an opportunity to reevaluate the politically driven decision to delist them in the first place."
That decision was meant to cement progress made by the Bush administration as represented by a September 2005 declaration whereby North Korea promised to abandon all nuclear weapons programs and a February 2007 agreement on implementation. Japan was so upset, based on their domestic imperative to keep the abductee issue alive, that then Prime Minister Taro Aso reportedly called Bush that morning to beg him not to do it.
But after being delisted, Pyongyang just waited out the Bush administration and then started a series of provocative actions that eventually led to the Obama administration basically abandoning attempts to engage North Korea altogether.
That's not to say there aren't arguments to be made that North Korea is indeed still currently a state sponsor of terror. For example, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Pyongyang this month of funneling weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas through Burma, an allegation that has not been confirmed by the U.S. side.
But the Obama administration isn't making those arguments. That job is left to congressmen such as Gary Ackerman, D-NY, and Sam Brownback, R-KS. "Through the sales of ballistic missiles, artillery rockets and conventional arms to Hamas and Hezbollah, State Department-designated foreign terrorist organizations, Pyongyang is fueling two additional potentially disastrous confrontations," Ackerman said.
Overall, the making of the listing into a political football is exactly the reason that the Obama administration doesn't want to wade into those waters again.
"They saw the way this was handled in the Bush administration and they don't want to go there," said Flake. "It's a lot easier to do then to undo. This is a tool that should not be overly politicized, if we want to put more sanctions on North Korea, we can."
More than 200 U.S. officials are in Beijing today attending the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. But one major Asia hand didn't make the trip: Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.
Steinberg is among the top Asia scholars in Washington and is intimately involved in almost every major policy issue at the State Department. He visited Beijing with National Security Council senior Asia director Jeffrey Bader in March, when Iran sanctions and arms sales to Taiwan were on the agenda.
The State Department has been making a concerted effort to raise Steinberg's profile, and as part of that effort, Steinberg has been giving major speeches on U.S.-China relations. He gave a speech on U.S.-China cooperation on May 11 at the Brookings Institution, and previewed the dialogue on May 19 at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In those remarks, he reiterated his concept for how to manage U.S.-China relations, called "strategic reassurance" -- the idea that the United States and its allies won't oppose China's rise so long as Beijing can "reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of security and well-being of others," as he put it in a speech last September -- and explained that the U.S. government needs to see "greater transparency, greater clarity from China about what its intentions are, that help provide that reassurance."
The Obama White House has not picked up on the idea of "strategic reassurance," a term that was always Steinberg's alone and was never adopted by others in the administration, at least not publicly. But it is puzzling why Steinberg, the administration's most public spokesman on U.S.-China relations, would not be part of the most extensive talks with Beijing in the history of the Sino-American relationship.
The State Department says it's just for logistical reasons. "He is here running the department while the secretary is on travel," said department spokesman P.J. Crowley. The other deputy secretary, Jack Lew, is traveling in Nigeria, Mali, and France this week. Under Secretary Bill Burns is in Afghanistan and India. The State Department effort in China is being led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, who is also on the trip.
So what will Steinberg be up to today? He's scheduled to meet with Czech Senator Sasa Vondra, brief members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, and then join President Obama's bilateral meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the White House. More on that later today...
UPDATE: A State Department official writes into give us the background story on why Steinberg was held back. According to the official, there is a super important NSC meeting Tuesday on the North Korea ship sinking crisis and in Clinton's absence, Steinberg is attending. Moreover, Steinberg is State's man at NSC Deputies Committee meetings, which Tom Donilon runs long and often. So rather than have one more China expert in Beijing, State decided it was in its best interest to keep Steinberg in Washington. Moreover, the Deputies and Clinton don't travel together, it's just not an efficient use of senior leaders' time, the official said.
Hillary Clinton is on her way to Asia for the fifth time since becoming secretary of state (compared to one trip for President Obama), and although the trip is heavily weighted toward China, the discussions are sure to be dominated by how Pacific nations should respond to the evidently well-documented allegation that North Korea torpedoed a South Korea ship in March.
"This was a serious provocation. There will be definitely be consequences because of what North Korea has done," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday. "This is abominable ... It is not the way that civilized nations act toward one another."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the U.S. "strongly condemns" the action and added, "this clear violation of the armistice agreement further sets them back and further isolates" North Korea, but declined to say whether there would be any firm consequences going forward.
Why so vague? Clinton and her team have some tough work ahead of them if they want to get everybody on the same page regarding the incident. Meanwhile, the trip was already packed with other business on a range of bilateral and regional issues. Here's what to watch:
JAPAN: The Japanese media is reporting that the U.S. and Japan are getting ready to announce on May 28 a deal to move the Futenma air station to another part of Okinawa, largely in line with the 2006 agreement that the Japanese government had campaigned on changing. The Nelson Report, a Washington insider newsletter, claimed Wednesday that the Japanese reports are "not the entire story."
It's no secret that the relations between Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and the Obama administration have been frosty. Hatoyama's decision initially not to honor the basing deal was a risky one. Expect him to lay the groundwork during the Clinton trip to walk back that position.
The sinking of the South Korea ship actually reinforces the need for a strong U.S.-Japan security alliance in Japan's eyes, so expect Clinton and Hatoyama to project unity. But at the same time, Japan is still more hawkish on North Korea than the Obama administration wants to be; Japan has already joined South Korea's call for strong U.N. Security Council action. Clinton is unlikely to lay out a firm U.S. position until she has had a chance to consult with the South Koreans and the Chinese.
"The DPJ is realizing that there was a reason for the U.S.-Japan alliance after all and the South Korean report of the sinking of the Cheonan certainly makes that case," said Devin Stewart, senior fellow at the Carnegie Council. "While China has sought to take advantage of the current bumpy spot in U.S.-Japan relations to move closer to Japan -- perhaps at the expense of the U.S. -- the Japanese government and the Japanese people see the value in a close relationship with the U.S."
CHINA: Clinton will spend five days in China, compared with one each in Japan and Korea. The official reason for the journey is for the second round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which includes a 200-plus contingent of U.S. officials. But the substance of the dialogue is not so revolutionary. The economic track will focus on U.S. calls for Chinese currency revaluation and China's "indigenous innovation" policy, but nobody expects movement on the Chinese side on either issue during the trip. The strategic side will likely be hijacked by the North Korea issue, as opposed to less flashy topics such as military-to-military cooperation.
"It's a dialogue of convenience right now," said Derek Scissors, research fellow in Asia economic policy at the Heritage Foundation, "Nothing valuable is going to come out of the dialogue on the economic side because the U.S. isn't going in trying to do anything valuable."
The Chinese have been less than enthusiastic about getting involved in the torpedo incident. They didn't issue a statement of condolence for weeks after the boat sank, and declined this week to send their ambassador in Seoul to a briefing on the South Korean investigation, sending the embassy's No 2 instead. The recent visit to China by Kim Jong Il did not go well. It was reported that he left early, in a huff because Chinese President Hu Jintao expressed Chinese interest in getting more involved in North Korean domestic affairs. Clinton will need China to at least not forswear U.N. action; a Chinese abstention on any Security Council resolution would be good enough. But it will be tough for Clinton to pressure China into any specific course of action, mainly because the U.S. hasn't decided what action it is advocating in the first place.
As for the dialogue itself, the deliverables will be thin. The plenary session will focus on energy security, the low-hanging fruit that both sides can agree to support. The Obama administration is interested in the overall issue of world economic rebalancing, but the administration isn't making that a priority in the talks right now, probably due to its own vulnerability on the issue.
Clinton will have to press hard for some statement on China's commitment to the draft Iran sanctions resolution. In the wake of the Copenhagen mess, neither side wants to talk about climate change. Taiwan is not on the agenda; that's probably a good sign because it means that Taiwan is not a flash point in the relationship right now.
KOREA: By the time the Clinton team gets to Korea, the last leg on the trip, the state of play on the ship sinking may have changed. South Korea may have already announced a series of unilateral actions against the North, including trade restrictions and maybe even a shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The U.S. will have to decide by then whether it wants to join South Korea in calling for a Security Council resolution with some teeth, a general U.N. statement, or something else.
It's important for Clinton to stand side-by-side with the South Koreans and announce initiatives can be seen as addressing the issue directly, such as improved intelligence coordination and more transfers of submarine-detection capability. As for the Six-Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, they were on life support before, and North Korea is trying to pull the plug. But the Obama administration can't pronounce the talks dead because that may be exactly what the North Koreans want.
No matter what U.N. action the allies can muster, there is likely to be little effect on Pyongyang. The North Koreans feel safe that the U.S. cannot retaliate militarily, because there's a risk of massive escalation that puts Seoul in immediate danger. And a country that care little about the suffering of its own people is impervious to most sanctions.
"They look at the U.S. and think ‘What are they going to do?" said retired ambassador Jack Pritchard, president of the Korean Economic Institute, noting that North Korea has a long history of launching violent attacks near its borders. "They've gotten away with it before; they'll probably continue to get away with it. There are few actual consequences."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Tuesday's special briefing by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and Senior Coordinator for China Affairs at the Department of Treasury David Loevinger:
When Barack Obama met briefly with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on the sidelines of last month's nuclear summit, he asked the Japanese leader to follow through on his promise to resolve the U.S.-Japan dispute over relocating the Marine Corps base on Okinawa.
But as Hatoyama's self-imposed May deadline approaches, it doesn't look like the prime minister is going to be able to deliver, and some Japanese lawmakers are now going public with their criticism of the way the Obama administration has handled the issue.
One of them is Kuniko Tanioka, a member of Japan's upper house of parliament and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, and a close advisor to Hatoyama. During a visit to Washington Tuesday, Tanioka leveled some of the harshest criticism from a Japanese official to date of the Obama team's handling of the Futenma issue, which is still unresolved despite months of discussions.
"We are worried because the government of the United States doesn't seem to be treating Prime Minister Hatoyama as an ally," she told an audience at the East-West Center. "The very stubborn attitude of no compromise of the U.S. government on Futenma is clearly pushing Japan away toward China and that is something I'm very worried about."
Some Japan hands in Washington see Tanioka as marginal, a left-wing backbencher who just recently entered Japanese politics in 2007. But she is close to Hatoyama and serves as the "vice manager" for North America inside the DPJ's internal policy structure.
At issue is a 2006 agreement between the Bush administration and the former Japanese government run by the Liberal Democratic Party. That agreement would have moved the Futenma Air Station, which sits in the middle of a populated area of Okinawa, to a less obtrusive part of the island.
Hatoyama and the DPJ campaigned on the promise to alter the plan but ran into a wall when U.S. officials initially insisted the old agreement be honored, even though the old government had been thrown out.
Since then, Pentagon and State Department officials have been conducting quiet negotiations, but the administration is still waiting for the Japanese side to propose a detailed alternative to the current plan.
Meanwhile, huge protests in Okinawa have constrained Hatoyama's room for maneuver -- and Tanioka said the United States was partly to blame.
"It seems to us Japanese that Obama is saying ‘You do it, you solve, it's your problem,'" she said, noting that public opinion polls in Japan show increasing dissatisfaction with the presence of U.S. military forces there.
Obama should have granted Hatoyama a bilateral meeting during the recent nuclear summit if he is really concerned about Futenma, she said, not just a passing conversation at dinner.
"If it is such a serious problem, then he should have sat down. If it's not so serious of a problem, he should say so."
Administration officials have also said repeatedly that they are willing to consider adjustments to the current Futenma relocation plan, but it has to be "operationally feasible," meaning it meets Marine Corps needs, and "politically feasible," meaning that the Japanese host communities can go along.
Therein lies the problem, according to Tanioka, because, she says, "There is no politically feasible plan."
"Washington works under the assumption the original plan was feasible. It was not," she said.
While Tanioka acknowledges that Hatoyama and the DPJ have made some mistakes, especially in dealing with the media, she suggested that now the security relationship itself could be in danger.
"It's getting much worse than I expected," she said. "They are going to start saying ‘all bases out,' not only the Marines."
After President Obama has rolled out his nuclear policy review Tuesday morning, he used his down time to turn his attention to another major nuclear initiative: the Nuclear Security Summit being held in Washington next week.
With 47 world leaders coming to town, Obama simply can't very well schedule one-on-one meetings with all of them -- lest international diplomacy turn into the equivalent of speed dating. Still, the least the president can do is give a phone call to the leaders he's rejecting, and that's what he was doing Tuesday afternoon.
So far, the world leaders Obama has granted an audience to are (in alphabetical order by country): President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia, President Hu Jintao of China, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan, and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev doesn't need a bilateral, because he will have lots of time to hang out with Obama Thursday in Prague when they meet there to sign the new START agreement. Obama just met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week. And British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is skipping the summit to gear up his campaign ahead of the May elections he announced this morning.
So who's not getting face time with Obama? One confirmed rejection is Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who got the consolation phone call from Obama just a few hours ago.
"President Saakashvili thanked President Obama for his invitation to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington," according to a readout of the call from the Georgian side. "President Obama thanked President Saakashvili for Georgia's exceptional commitment of troops to the international effort in Afghanistan."
What Obama didn't mention in the call Georgia's aspirations to join NATO or Georgia's concern about the French sale of a new assault ship to Russia.
Hey, maybe they'll run into each other at the buffet.
So, who are the other countries may be soon getting the rejection call? Looks like the leaders of Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, the Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and Vietnam.
When Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the G-8 meeting in Canada, he told her that Japan probably couldn't stick to a 2006 agreement to move a controversial Marine Corps base on the island of Okinawa.
"I said [to Clinton] we fully recognized the U.S. position that the existing plan was the best," Okada told reporters after meeting her. "But given the current situation, I explained ... there are too many difficulties."
But while some observers see the dispute over the relocation of the Futenma air station as a crisis in the U.S.-Japan alliance, for Japan hands inside the Obama administration, the dispute is a manageable one and doesn't threaten the overall cooperation between the two allies. Administration officials do admit, however, that the Japanese seem to be flailing, struggling to outline a clear position and sending mixed messages from Tokyo to Washington.
"No one is foolish enough to think about crashing this relationship about a military base," one administration official close to the issue told The Cable. "We're going to try to see if the Japanese can move this forward over the next couple of months."
Two administration officials confirmed that Japan has now submitted a package of alternate ideas for relocating the base, which has riled local residents for decades. None of those ideas match what the U.S. and Japan agreed to in 2006, to move the air station across the island to reclaimed land near Okinawa's Camp Schwab. But that's OK, the officials said, privately acknowledging that some compromise away from the original deal will be necessary.
What is not OK is that the Japanese provided the U.S. only broad outlines of plans without specifics. Those specifics are what the U.S. side needs to come back with any counterproposals.
"They have not given us proposals; they've given us ideas or concepts, so that means it's preliminary," one official said. "The ball continues to be in their court. They've got to provide us real proposals that take into account political and operational criteria in Okinawa."
The ideas the Japanese put forth mostly include some mix of the Marines at Futenma relocating within Okinawa and some to a different place. Of course, the current plan includes Marines moving to Guam, but the question is how many. The U.S. has some flexibility on this question, but at the same time the Pentagon has clear operational requirements, and those need to be satisfied no matter what happens.
Both administration officials lamented that the ruling Democratic Party of Japan can't seem to speak with one voice on the issue. Okada, the foreign minister, is supposed to speak for the DPJ on the dispute, but other officials keep going off message.
For example, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said on the floor of his own legislature, "I have my own plan in mind, and the ministers who need to know are aware of it," adding, "I will stake my life on addressing this issue, and I will come up with successful results."
"To me, that's like saying the check is in the mail," said Michael Auslin, a Japan expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "I haven't met anyone who believes he has a plan and I haven't met anyone who knows what his plan is."
Auslin states openly what administration officials say privately: that the confusion within the top ranks of the Japanese ruling party is troubling and poses a larger problem that goes beyond Futenma. They also complain the DPJ unleashed such a tsunami of political activity about the issue in Japan that they now can't contain.
"Hatoyama has completely lost control of the process and the party," said Auslin. "He's not able to deliver anything on Okinawa anymore so that's why we are getting mixed messages."
The Japanese had set a May deadline for themselves to come up with a solution, but that seems unlikely to be met. Here again, Obama's Japan team is willing to be flexible, to a point.
"We're not going to let an artificial deadline crash us," one official said.
But if and when a compromise is reached, that's only the beginning. The relevant environmental studies and operational evaluations would have to be completed, all over again. Then the DPJ has to sell it to their localities, no easy task. Then both sides have to come up with new funding details. Then there's implementation.
The looming deadline on the Washington side is the congressional appropriations cycle. Congressmen may not want to fully fund the massive expansion of the Marine Corps presence in Guam because that is dependent on the Futenma deal going through.
And what happens if it doesn't go through? What then?
As one official put it, "There are several imponderables on the political side."
The State Department has been relatively quiet in public about Cambodia's decision last December to send 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China to face who-knows-what, but behind the scenes, senior State Department leaders are taking the issue very seriously.
A State Department official tells The Cable that just before the Cambodian government sent the ethnic Uighurs back to China, where they face imprisonment or worse, there were a flurry of diplomatic efforts to try to convince the Cambodians to hold off. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even phoned Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to urge him to rethink the decision, the official said, but to no avail.
Scott Marciel, the deputy assistant secretary of state and ambassador for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) spoke about the seriousness of Cambodia's deportation of the Uighurs at a conference Thursday put on by the East-West Center.
"The Cambodian government's decision to deport them before they had been evaluated was very troubling," he said, confirming that U.S. officials "weighed in very heavily at very senior levels."
The failure of the Cambodians to even try to evaluate the refugee status of the Uighurs sets a dangerous precedent, said Marciel, who added that U.S. efforts to work with Cambodia on a host of other issues continue.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley announced Thursday that the United States did suspend the sale of some 200 trucks and trailers to Cambodia as a protest against the move, but that's about all the punishment the U.S. plans to dole out.
"Half of the people are mad that you did too much and half are mad that you didn't do enough," said Marciel. "That comes with the territory."
Reuters reported that the Uighurs were smuggled into Cambodia sometime in weeks prior to their deportation and applied for asylum at the United Nations refugee agency office in Phnom Penh. The Cambodian government deported them for breaking immigration laws.
The U.N. Refugee Agency immediately condemned the decision, saying that "The forced return of asylum-seekers without a full examination of their asylum claims is a serious breach of international refugee law."
Marciel also acknowledged that the State Department's new policy on mixing pressure with engagement in Burma has yet to show concrete results in persuading the brutal Burmese junta to govern more responsibly.
"Burma's new election laws are a step backwards," he said. "They are effectively preventing the main opposition party from participating. This is the opposite of the path towards national reconciliation."
Regarding the new U.S. engagement of the junta, he said, "We predicted it would be a long and difficult process, and unfortunately we were right."
Overall, ASEAN has seen a flurry of U.S. attention since President Obama took office, reversing a pattern from the Bush administration years in which the countries there viewed U.S. interest in Southeast Asia as focused on terrorism, terrorism, and terrorism.
Clinton has traveled to the region three times; President Obama met with all 10 ASEAN heads of state in Singapore for the first time ever; and he will travel to Indonesia, hopefully in June.
"2009 was a banner year for U.S. relations with Southeast Asia and ASEAN," Marciel said. "The fact is we hadn't been engaged in this region for a very long time."
Good news for all you Obama foreign-policy campaign mavens who haven't gotten called up to join the administration yet: there's still hope. President Obama nominated a top Asia foreign policy advisor for an ambassador-level job Monday evening.
Robert "Skipp" Orr, the former president of Boeing Japan and a former Hill and USAID staffer, was a major Obama fundraiser and foreign-policy advisor based in Asia during the campaign. Obama announced his intention to name him an executive director of the Asian Development Bank, headquartered in Manila.
Among Japan hands, Orr represents a Democratic-leaning group of experts and academics that saw the Obama presidency as an opportunity to shake loose the traditional hold over Asia policy held by a few prominent and well respected experts and former officials.
Back in 2008, other major Asia scholars were associated with other campaigns. Former NSC Senior Director Mike Green and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Randy Schriver were top McCain advisors. Kurt Campbell, who is now assistant secretary of state for East Asia, was a Hillary Clinton supporter and current NSC Senior Director for Asia Jeffrey Bader was a Bill Clinton-era Asia official.
After the election, Obama appointed the Clinton-era guys rather than his campaign confidants. Orr, as well as some other top campaign foreign-policy advisors, were left out as administration slots got filled one after the other. Other top Asia slots were assigned for other reasons. The prestigious position of ambassador to Japan went to California fundraiser John Roos, who is not an Asia expert. Obama gave the China ambassador position to former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, a Republican whom many saw as a potential 2012 rival.
Now 14 months into the Obama administration, the top diplomatic posts have been largely doled out. But some still remain and loyal campaign supporters can still get their due. In another example, Tony Lake was just appointed head of UNICEF, a position that doesn't require any Senate confirmation.
So don't lose hope, former Obama foreign-policy campaign advisors. And to President Obama, how about taking care of former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and Senate Foreign Relations staffer Frank Jannuzi?
President Obama's trip to Indonesia and Australia has been postponed again, this time until June, due to the continued uncertainty over a pending health-care vote in Congress.
"During this midterm election year, the president simply could not afford to be up in the air when health care reform legislation was winding its way to a final vote in Congress," said Patrick Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia program at the Center for a New American Security. "It is a reminder how important domestic politics remain relative to the conduct of foreign affairs."
The trip had already been postponed by three days in anticipation of a health-care vote in the House this weekend. But now with the GOP promising to use stall tactics both in the House and the Senate, Obama was forced to consider whether or not his bully pulpit would be needed next week and whether he could use it from the road.
Despite the political imperative of the health-care issue, Obama has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Asia trip, even in discussions with congressional leadership.
The Indonesians, in particular, consider the Obama visit a matter of the highest importance and honor, a homecoming of sorts because of the time Obama spent there as a child. The delay could have ripple effects for U.S. policy in Asia.
"The postponement is a setback to the administration's desire to demonstrate a relentless pace of engagement in the Asia-Pacific region," said Cronin. "Having criticized the Bush administration for the strategic distraction of Iraq, which severely undercut engagement in East Asia, President Obama and his cabinet have thus far been able to travel at breakneck speed to be present and accounted for."
"In many ways, America has been somewhat absent from the region over the last several years and we are committed to restoring that leadership," said National Security Council communications director Ben Rhodes on Monday, calling the trip an "important opportunity to advance American interests in this vitally important part of the world."
The situation might not be all bad. The June trip might allow more time for the administration to work out key cooperation issues with both Indonesia and Australia and a new schedule might be more relaxed than the hurried agenda put together for the trip the first time it was delayed, Cronin said.
Paul Wolfowitz, former World Bank president and U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, noted that when Ronald Regan delayed a trip to Indonesia in 1983, it took three years to get it back on the schedule. As long as it's rescheduled in a timely manner, the Indonesians should forgive him, he said.
"I think it's difficult to exaggerate how excited Indonesians must be about the prospects of a presidential visit," Wolfowitz told The Cable. "Once Obama gets there, they're going to forget all about the postponement."
UPDATE: White House spokesman Robert Gibbs confirmed the delay in his Thursday presser, saying that Obama was "disappointed" and he told the foreign leaders "health care is a crucial priority."
The White House staff tried to postpone for another few days, but the scheduling difficulties made that impossible. "The president believes right now the place for him to be is in Washington seeing this through," Gibbs said.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell's last-minute cancelation of a stopover in Japan prompted many in the Japanese press to speculate that he was trying to exert pressure on Tokyo over fate of a controversial U.S. air base on Okinawa.
Not so, a State Department official close to the issue tells The Cable. Campbell, who was rounding up a regional tour that included nine countries in eight days, simply ran out of time when his duties in the other stops took longer than expected, the official said.
The real reason the trip was adjusted was because extra time was needed to prepare for President Obama's trip to Indonesia next week. Campbell will be traveling with Obama on the trip.
"The visit is complicating on several levels," the official said. "We have a series of relatively modest deliverables, but every point has been difficult."
Campbell has been leading the negotiations over the details of a new comprehensive partnership agreement between the United States and Indonesia. Part of that agreement will include language on climate-change cooperation and the promise of U.S. resources to help Indonesia to make reforms.
Campbell, who has traveled to Tokyo more than half a dozen times since taking up his post last year, canceled another stop in Thailand as well. That trip had been scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, but protesters outraged over recent conviction of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra were busy pouring blood on the gates of the prime minister's home and office.
Campbell's visit to Japan would have been cut down to only a couple of hours, so the State Department thought it better to wait for the next opportunity.
Besides, the official pointed out, the U.S. side is simply waiting for the Japanese government to decide how it wants to deal with the movement of the Futenma air base, so there wasn't much substance to discuss at this stage.
"He's in Tokyo every month and he'll be back there in a few weeks," the official said.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, a slew of multinational development banks are asking for large amounts of new capital to both replenish and in some cases expand their resource pools, and much of the burden will fall on the United States.
This creates a unique opportunity for the Obama administration to press these organizations to implement long-awaited reforms, according to the Senate's top Republican on foreign relations, who has a big say in whether and how the Congress doles out the funds.
"As the world struggles to emerge from the worst economic crisis since World War II, it is an appropriate time to ask whether the [International Financial Institutions] are performing optimally and doing the jobs they should be doing," reads a newly released report by the staff of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-IN, "The crisis should not be used as an excuse to win increases that could not otherwise be justified. As the requests for capital are negotiated with the international donor community, there is a window of opportunity for significant reform."
The report, which is the culmination of six years of research, including half a dozen hearings when Lugar was committee chairman, outlines several dozen recommendations for what the Obama administration, Congress, and the banks can do to update their relevance.
"Does the world really need the IMF, World Bank, African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Inter-American Development Bank today? Can they be changed to better address our needs? How should we re-design them?" the report asks.
"Such questions are particularly timely because nearly all the IFIs have sought, or will soon seek, major new infusions of money from their donors, including the taxpayers of the United States."
The Asian Development Bank has already asked the Obama administration for new funds, and the administration has requested in its new budget $533 million in direct money and $12.8 billion in borrowing authority for the ADB.
A committee staffer told The Cable that Lugar wants to see progress on reform before he would support authorizing the money.
"We want to make sure that before the American taxpayer puts more money in there that things are fixed," the staffer said. "It's not possible for them to do everything, but they could certainly make progress."
The reforms the administration could press for in the short term include pressing the banks to focus more on development goals rather than the structure and size of loans and "work with the other donor countries to step back and slow down the process," the staffer said.
Congress is also concerned that the Obama administration might not be interested in pressing for these reforms, considering that Obama issued a signing statement in June indicating he did not feel bound to follow congressional direction on such international negotiations.
Negotiations between several banks and the Treasury Department are ongoing. The U.S. side is led by Scott Morris, deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury's Office of International Development Finance and Debt.
The issue will next surface at the end of March when the Inter-American Development Bank convenes its annual meeting in Cancun.
The Hong Kong regional government's annual New Year's party is a marquee Washington social event, but some guests were surprised at the choice of this year's party favor - a USB computer connection device!
Rows of tables of delicacies like shrimp dumplings and made-to-order Peking Duck rolls lined the grand hall at the National Building Museum Wednesday evening as scores of Asia hands, diplomats, officials, and hungry journalists noshed, kibitzed, and took in the atmosphere. There was a full program including a huge papier-mâché dragon, an authentic sounding drumming troupe, and dancing Chinese toddlers to boot.
A good time was had by all, but as guests departed, they were handed an innocuous plastic box that turned out to contain a gadget for linking several USB-compatible devices to one USB computer port. Seemed like an ironic choice, considering all of the recent news of China's suspected cyber mischief aimed at the U.S. policy community and the Pentagon's warnings about USB devices.
"There's no way I'm putting that thing into my computer!" said one bemused attendee who happens to work for a prominent DC think tank.
So was the Hong Kong government trying to spread malware to DC Asia wonks through party favors? Were they just being ironic? Was it a pure coincidence?
"It was entirely a coincidence," said Daniel McAtee, senior information officer at the Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office, "Our tech-focused San Francisco office came up with the idea back in September given that flash drives increasingly seem to be the 'it' gift at functions."
The Cable conducted an amateur forensic investigation (we had an IT specialist take a quick look). The result was that the device contains no storage, has nothing inside of it that seemed suspicious, and didn't raise any alarm bells in basic diagnostic testing.
"I don't think it is malicious but you know, I am not NSA," our tester reported.
The Virginia senator just got back from Japan, where he expanded his ever-increasing involvement in Asia policy making by taking a "listening tour" and weighing in on the basing dispute that has become the main issue of tension in the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee, Webb's trip to Tokyo, Okinawa, and Guam comes at a time when the U.S. and Japan are negotiating how to implement the 2006 agreement to move the U.S. Marine Corps base at Futenma to another Okinawa location. The new Japanese ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan, campaigned with a promise to alter the agreement, but the U.S. side is resisting large-scale changes.
The negotiations are in somewhat of a holding pattern, administration officials tell The Cable, while the Obama team waits for the DPJ to come up with its new position on the issue. The DPJ is facing a slew of domestic crises of its own, and the U.S. side doesn't want to force party leaders to take an unpopular stance that could undermine them politically.
But in a press conference in Tokyo Feb. 17, Webb said that a solution needed to be found quickly "on the Futenma issue for the well-being of the citizens in that area." He added, "I am open to listening to all suggestions from the Japanese government and also the people of Okinawa."
So is the administration upset at Webb? Not this time. "He's the only person on Capitol Hill that cares about Asia," said one official speaking on background basis. "He is trying to be helpful and wants to make sure the alliance does not flounder on the details of a military base."
Some observers said that Webb's involvement in a sensitive diplomatic dispute could create problems.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Honolulu branch, said that "Webb is no doubt well-intended and knows the issues, but certainly appears to be off-message ... It's been my long-held view that nothing makes things worse than attempts by Congress (individually or collectively) to make them better."
Webb doesn't seem to be negotiating directly, but his interactions with the people of Okinawa (who overwhelmingly oppose the base relocation plan) might be more of the Japanese government's responsibility, a Washington-based Japan hand said.
A former Bush official who worked on Asia said that Webb was pretty much in line with the administration. "He hasn't said anything outrageous; he is pretty close to the administration's message on this," the former official said, noting that Webb's activity does create, "potential for miscalculation and confusion."
Webb did emphasize the separation of powers within the U.S. government, tempering his statement that "there could be a number of practical options" by adding, "I don't want to outline those options today because I don't want to cut short the discussions that we're going to have."
Webb's first year as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee has been a torrent of activity. Multiple Obama administration Asia officials told The Cable that they view Webb's travel and interest in East Asia as a refreshing reassertion of congressional interest in the region, which had been somewhat ignored on Capitol Hill for years.
They also acknowledge there's a risk that by adding one more strong voice to the carefully calibrated relationship, there could be added confusion and complication in working out thorny issues such as the basing dispute centered on Okinawa. But the Obama administration is adjusting to what they now see as his sustained and influential involvement.
"It is a good thing when the chairman of the subcommittee takes an active interest in the U.S.-Japan alliance, that's not usually the case," the former official said. "He's doing his job."
The former official contrasted Webb's Japan trip with his August trip to Burma, where he seemed to get out ahead of the State Department's policy review by meeting with junta leaders and pressing for reengagement.
Webb, who sits on the Armed Services committee as well as Foreign Relations, could be an important vote if and when issues related to the Japan dispute come before Congress. For example, the relocation of Marines to Guam is somewhat dependent on resolving the Futenma issue and Congress deals with that in their defense authorization bills.
The senator was unavailable for comment before this article was published.
With all about the chatter about China’s hacking of Google and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s drive to deliver “consequences” to bad actors in cyberspace, it’s worth noting that the problem of cyber attacks either promulgated or supported by the Chinese government is far from new.
In a previous life, your Cable guy broke a story that revealed senior military officials believe the Chinese government is supporting hackers that attack “anything and everything” in the U.S. national security infrastructure on a constant basis. And while it’s difficult to prove guilt, the scale, organization, and intent of the attacks leads experts and officials alike to one sponsor: the Chinese government.
The Defense Department has said that the Chinese government, in addition to employing thousands of its own hackers, manages massive teams of experts from academia and industry in “cyber militias” that act in Chinese national interests with unclear amounts of support and direction from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
According to SANS Institute research director Alan Paller, “The problem is 1,000 times worse than what we see.” But the tip of the iceberg is still large. Here are some of the most damaging attacks on the U.S. government that have been attributed to Chinese government sponsorship or endorsement over the past few years:
1) Titan Rain
In 2004, an analyst named Shawn Carpenter at Sandia National Laboratories traced the origins of a massive cyber espionage ring back to a team of government sponsored researchers in Guangdong Province in China. The hackers, code named by the FBI “Titan Rain,” stole massive amounts of information from military labs, NASA, the World Bank, and others. Rather than being rewarded, Carpenter was fired and investigated after revealing his findings to the FBI, because hacking foreign computers is illegal under U.S. law. He later sued and was awarded more than $3 million. The FBI renamed Titan Rain and classified the new name. The group is still assumed to be operating.
2) State Department’s East Asia Bureau
In July 2006, the State Department admitted it had become a victim of cyber hacking after an official in “East Asia” accidentally opened an email he shouldn’t have. The attackers worked their way around the system, breaking into computers at U.S. embassies all over the region and then eventually penetrating systems in Washington as well.
3) Offices of Rep. Frank Wolf
Wolf has been one of the most outspoken lawmakers on Chinese human rights issues, so it was of little surprise when he announced that in August 2006 that his office computers had been compromised and that he suspected the Chinese government. Wolf also reported that similar attacks had compromised the systems of several other congressmen and the office of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
4) Commerce Department
The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security had to throw away all of its computers in October 2006, paralyzing the bureau for more than a month due to targeted attacks originating from China. BIS is where export licenses for technology items to countries like China are issued.
5) Naval War College
In December 2006, the Naval War College in Rhode Island had to take all of its computer systems offline for weeks following a major cyber attack. One professor at the school told his students that the Chinese had brought down the system. The Naval War College is where much military strategy against China is developed.
6) Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and the 2003 blackout?
A National Journal article revealed that spying software meant to clandestinely steal personal data was found on the devices of then Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and several other officials following a trade mission to China in December 2007. That same article reported that intelligence officials traced the causes of the massive 2003 northeast blackout back to the PLA, but some analysts question the connection.
7) McCain and Obama presidential campaigns
That’s right, both the campaigns of then Senators Barack Obama and John McCain were completely invaded by cyber spies in August 2008. The Secret Service forced all campaign senior staff to replace their Blackberries and laptops. The hackers were looking for policy data as a way to predict the positions of the future winner. Senior campaign staffers have acknowledged that the Chinese government contacted one campaign and referred to information that could only have been gained from the theft.
8) Office of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL
At a March 2009 hearing, Nelson revealed that his office computers had been hacked three separate times and his aide confirmed that the attacks had been traced back to China. The targets of the attacks were Nelson’s foreign-policy aide, his legislative director, and a former NASA advisor.
In March, 2009, researchers inToronto concluded a 10-month investigation that revealed a massive cyber espionage ring they called Ghostnet that had penetrated more than 1,200 systems in 103 countries. The victims were foreign embassies, NGOs, news media institutions, foreign affairs ministries, and international organizations. Almost all Tibet-related organizations had been compromised, including the offices of the Dalai Lama. The attacks used Chinese malware and came from Beijing.
10) Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program
In April, 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that China was suspected of being behind a major theft of data from Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter program, the most advanced airplane ever designed. Multiple infiltrations of the F-35 program apparently went on for years.
There are reports around Washington that the White House is taking the news of China's intrusion into Google seriously, convening high-level meetings to take the hardest look yet into the vulnerability of American government and corporate assets to Chinese government cyber espionage.
And what is the State Department doing to confront the Chinese government on a diplomatic level? Apparently, discussing it over some dim sum.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley proudly announced at Wednesday's press conference:
"We have had a discussion today here in Washington with officials from the [Chinese] embassy. We raised the issue. And as the secretary said, it is a serious issue. You know, the incident raises questions about both Internet freedom and the security of the Internet in China. And we've asked them for an explanation."
The sharp State Department press corps pressed Crowley for details about the meeting. That's where his story unraveled a bit.
How many State officials met with how many Chinese officials? Apparently one of each; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Shear met with the Chinese DCM. And did the meeting happen at the embassy or at the State Department? Neither.
"It might have been at lunch," Crowley said, inspiring a round of laughter by the reporters. It's not clear even whether the lunch was about the Google attacks, or if it just came up.
Still, there are signs that the State Department is planning to take the Chinese to task over the incident. Today there are reports that State will send a formal protest to Beijing about it (State didn't respond to requests to confirm).
And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will give what is being billed as a major speech on "Internet freedom" on Jan. 21. A State Department official previously told The Cable that the speech was going to be about innovation on the Internet. Clinton dined with Google CEO Eric Schmidt just last week, but State isn't saying whether they are coordinating their response.
With all the news about technology theft in China related to Beijing's battle with Google, many forget that the legal mechanisms for deciding what technologies to export there haven't been fundamentally updated since 1979.
That's not to say people aren't working on the problem. The White House has started a review to determine how to update technology export rules and Howard Berman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, is working a bill that would do just that.
Berman and staff are in Silicon Valley today, coincidentally holding a hearing on the issue in the very location where so many of the 34 companies compromised as part of recent Chinese cyber espionage issues are located. The failure of the government to determine what "dual use" technologies are ok to give to countries like China is not only an economic, but a national security issue as well, he said.
"There is a growing consensus among security experts that due to legal and technological developments in recent years, our current export-control regime, founded during the Cold War and last revised by statute in 1979, is out of date," Berman wrote in this morning's Silicon Valley Mercury News, "It needs to be modernized in order to continue protecting sensitive technologies while also maintaining U.S. technological leadership."
Testifying at the hearing will be John Hennessy, president of Stanford University, William Potter, director for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and Karen Murphy, senior director for trade at Applied Materials, Inc., a leading manufacturer in the semiconductor industry.
You can be sure the Chinese are closely watching the administration review and the formation of Berman's bill, which could come in weeks. After all, the Chinese did electronically infiltrate the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security, which implements duel use technology export rules, in 2006, forcing that whole office to throw all their computers in the garbage and start over.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is calling on the Chinese government to explain itself following attacks on on the Internet accounts of human rights activists that apparently originated from there.
"We look to the Chinese government for an explanation," she said in a statement. "The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy."
Google is threatening to pull out of China if the company can't renegotiate what has been its controversial policy of cooperating with Chinese government Internet censorship activities. Google, along with other Internet giants, has come under fire before for aiding Chinese Internet censorship and persecution of free speech by Chinese Internet monitors.
In 2006, Yahoo admitted giving the Chinese government information on activists that led to their arrests and imprisonment. The State Department has been meeting with top Internet leaders lately ahead of their planned push for more Internet-based diplomacy, which will be outlined in a major policy address by Clinton on Jan. 21.
For a detailed explanation of China's use of the Internet, read this.
It's somewhat conventional wisdom in Washington to assume that if Taiwan moves closer to China, that might not be in the interests of the United States. Not so, argues a new report coming out Tuesday from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
What's more, the U.S. should encourage such movement, argues the report, a result of a cross-strait project led by CSIS's Bonnie Glaser that she and others will discuss at an event at the think tank Tuesday. Now is the right time for confidence building measures between China and Taiwan, despite the several internal and international obstacles that remain, the report explains.
"U.S. support for cross-strait military CBMs is consistent with the long-standing U.S. position that differences between the two sides of the strait should be settled peacefully through negotiations," the report states. The authors also talk about the belief in Taiwan "that talks with Beijing on military CBMs cannot begin without visible support from the United States, which many in Taiwan see as necessary to reduce Taiwan's sense of vulnerability and counter the impression domestically that [Taiwanese President] Ma [Ying Jeou] is tilting toward mainland China."
In an interview, Glaser said that privately, the Taiwanese are calling for more public support from the Obama administration across the board, in order strengthen their hand vis-à-vis Beijing. President Ma has made some significant movements toward rapprochement, but now faces pressure to reassert Taiwanese autonomy, according to Glaser.
"Taiwan is saying to the Obama administration, we need more visible signs of support," she said, "Although the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is strong in the military arena, it's not visible."
Similarly, President Obama had focused on the Chinese side of the equation, delaying a pending sales package to Taiwan until after his administration's relationship with Beijing could be set on a secure footing. Now, following his trip there, the White House is expected to go ahead with the sale as well as other actions that are likely to rile the Chinese Communist Party, such as meeting with the Dalai Lama.
"The Obama administration has got the message that Taiwan wants more. The administration's plan is to do more."
How do you rescue a political prisoner who doesn't want to be rescued? That's the question facing the State Department regarding American Christian missionary Robert Park, who intentionally got himself detained in North Korea by crossing the border on Christmas day.
On Monday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly called on the North Koreans to give information on Park and allow some consular access -- and he phrased the issue as Foggy Bottom's top priority in dealing with Kim Jong Il's regime.
"There's a number of actions that we of course are looking for from the North Koreans. First and foremost in the very immediate term is information on Mr. Park, who they've said they have detained for crossing their border," Kelly said, adding that he was not trying to link the issue to the ongoing but stalled nuclear negotiations.
The problem is that Park doesn't want the U.S. government to intervene in his case. In an interview with Reuters that was conducted before Park made the trip but only released last weekend, Park explained that his plan was meant to highlight human rights atrocities in North Korea. Moreover, he wants to stay imprisoned there until the human rights problem is solved or he dies, whichever comes first.
"My demand is that I do not want to be released," he said. "I don't want President Obama to come and pay to get me out. But I want the North Korean people to be free. Until the concentration camps are liberated, I do not want to come out. If I have to die with them, I will."
Park also criticized recently captured and released journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the Current TV reporters who were arrested for crossing that same border last summer before being eventually rescued by President Clinton.
"They were ransomed for a lot of money and they went home and wrote a book," said Park. "The difference with these journalists is that they were kidnapped against their will. I am going in saying either kill me or take me. I am saying to the governments of the world, do not try to ransom me out but address the human rights crisis."
U.S. policy regarding human rights in North Korea has been spotty at best. Anxious not to throw yet one more wrench into the nuclear negotiations, both the Obama and Bush administrations have downplayed the issue.
The current U.S. point man for North Korean human rights is special envoy Robert King. King is not associating himself with the Six-Party Talks nor does he have any announced plans to meet with North Korean officials or travel to the region.
King follows Jay Leftkowitz, the part-time envoy from the Bush administration who had at best a marginal role in setting North Korea policy. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, tried valiantly to force the State Department to use Leftkowitz more, but his demands were largely ignored by then Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill.
Brownback was the original sponsor of the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004, which established the envoy. But the reauthorization of the act in 2008 halved the amount of money dedicated to the effort from $4 million to $2 million.
KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.