The Cable

Is the Obama administration getting tough on China?

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 forward.

"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

The Cable

Border skirmish raises questions about arming Lebanese troops (UPDATED)

The recent outbreak of violence on the Israel-Lebanon border is renewing concerns in Washington about the wisdom of supplying arms to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

U.S. military assistance to Lebanon is based on the rationale that supporting the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri strengthens Lebanese sovereignty and the government's authority relative to the influence wielded by Syria and the militant group Hezbollah.

Thus far, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Internal Security Forces have proven good stewards of the items the Pentagon has given them, including more than 1,000 small-arms items like sniper rifles and even some Harley Davidson motorcycles, reducing fears that the weapons will fall into Hezbollah's hands.

But this week's deadly shooting exchange between LAF and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers over the removal of a tree near the security fence dividing the two countries is raising old questions about the dependability of the LAF, and whether U.S. arms are being used to attack Israel, America's closest ally in the region.

Neither the U.S. nor Israeli governments know for sure whether the sniper rifle that an LAF soldier fired to start the incident was from the batches of M16 sniper rifles that came from the United States. But some in Congress are determined to find out.

"I am calling for an inquiry into the incident on the Lebanese border, focusing on whether equipment that the United States provided to the Lebanese Armed Forces was used against our ally, Israel," Rep. Ron Klein, D-FL, told The Cable. "If it's factually shown that this was a Lebanese government authorized action, I would be very concerned about continuing to provide military support to Lebanon, and I think other members of Congress would agree."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is also said to be skeptical of continued U.S. military support to the LAF, though he has never said so publicly.

Regardless of the origin of the rifle, Klein and others want to know whether the incident was planned by the LAF or the Lebanese government. "We owe it to the American taxpayer to learn whether this attack on Israel was coordinated and premeditated," he said.

An Israeli official, speaking on background, told The Cable that several persuasive pieces of evidence have led Israel to conclude that the attack was planned in advance.

For example, UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force tasked with ensuring calm along the border, requested a three-hour delay before Israel removed the disputed tree so that the Lebanese could be alerted. The IDF acceded to this request, but by the time the tree removal began, there were two Lebanese reporters on the scene. One of them was killed and the other was injured in the resulting melee.

"We believe that in those three hours, they decided this would be a good chance to set up some sort of incident," the official said.

The State Department backed up the U.N.'s account of the incident, which is that the LAF fired first and without direct provocation. "The firing by Lebanese Armed Forces was wholly unjustified and unwarranted," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

The Israeli official said the first shot was from a sniper rifle and was not aimed at the soldier cutting down the tree (which was apparently on the Lebanese side of the fence but the Israeli side of the border), but rather the unit commander, who was in his truck some 200 feet away.

That commander, Lt. Col. Dov Harari, was killed, and the officer next to him was seriously injured. The targeting of the commander, a 45-year-old reserve officer overseeing a maintenance unit, could not have been an accident or self-defense, the official said. "All of this proves to us that this was a pre-planned ambush and not some sort of mishap."

The official also said that the IDF has concluded that the LAF fired directly at UNIFIL personnel, although no one from UNIFIL was injured. U.S. administration sources said that they had seen no evidence that UNIFIL personnel were targeted and that UNIFIL hasn't raised the issue with the U.S. government.

An LAF spokesman has said that the Lebanese fired into the air and then were attacked by Israel with artillery shells.

UNIFIL did not respond to a request for comment.

UPDATE: A Lebanese official, speaking on background, strongly disputed Israeli accounts of the clashes.  "It was a not a pre-planned ambush," said the official. "The last thing that the Lebanese wanted is a confrontation and an armed conflict now. So why would they plan to have one with the Israelis and shoot at them?"

The Lebanese contend that, after Israel informed UNIFIL of its plans to cut down the disputed tree, the Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers on the ground asked for a 24-hour delay, which was refused. The soldiers had requested time to raise the issue within their chain of command.  If the Israelis had acceded to the request, the Lebanese believe, the situation could have been resolved peacefully.

The Lebanese official also said that the soldiers did not initially shoot directly at the Israeli officers, as Israeli officials have claimed, but first yelled at them to stop their work. When the Israelis did not respond, the soldiers contacted their military superiors in Beirut and received approval to fire warning shots. "They got the orders for shooting warning shots from their superiors, but not for shooting at the Israelis," said the official. "The aim was to avoid a confrontation."

The Lebanese government contends that the problems along the Israeli-Lebanese border originate from ambiguity regarding the location of the border dividing the two countries. While the IDF soldiers were behind the Blue Line, the U.N.-demarcated line that was published in 2000, it is not the international border, which is the 1949 armistice line. "The Blue Line is the withdrawal line; it's not the international line," said the official. "And the Lebanese have reservations over some spots, including the place where this incident happened."

To prevent these incidents from occurring in the future, the Lebanese government is calling for closer coordination between UNIFIL, Israel, and Lebanon in the area. It will also request that the international community work to develop an internationally recognized border separating the two countries that would resolve Israel and Lebanon's remaining territorial disputes.