Talking to Main Street, China

In ignoring -- or botching the message to -- the Chinese public, the Obama administration is only making its policy choices more difficult.

Looking at the seemingly inscrutable actions of the men who rule Beijing, Washington often assumes many in the Chinese government to be anti-American, whereas the Chinese public is pro-American. The reality is almost exactly the opposite. Among the Chinese general public, there has always been a strong suspicion that the United States has a well-crafted, carefully thought-out, and coherent strategy to contain China. In the most extreme version of this conspiracy theory, everything is a part of the plot. Criticism of China's record on human rights? A bid to undermine the government in Beijing. Pressure on the central bank to revalue the yuan? Obviously part of an attempt to inflict a "Japan malaise" on China. Even private actors such as Goldman Sachs and Google are sometimes portrayed in popular books and publications as America's foot soldiers and loyal pawns in this grand strategy.

U.S. President Barack Obama's current trip to Asia -- to India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan, conspicuously skipping and encircling "one big red dot," as one reporter recently put it -- is likely to fan this conspiracy theory even further. One can blame China's official propaganda organs and tight information controls for fostering these outlandish views of the United States. No doubt there is some truth to that, but the United States has consistently failed to communicate its intentions and its actions to the broader Chinese public, which, despite the infamous Great Firewall, is enjoying newfound media freedom thanks to the Internet.

The health of the relationship between China and the United States no longer depends simply on handshakes and backroom deals between officials in the White House and in Zhongnanhai. Just look at the recent midterm elections in the United States: 29 candidates, either directly or indirectly used political ads that bashed political opponents over their positions on China, according to the New York Times. When it comes to China policy, increasingly, Main Street matters. Chinese public opinion is also beginning to loom large in a range of issues critical to Sino-U.S. relations, such as the exchange rate, the role of domestic consumption in Chinese growth, and private-sector development. Yet the foreign-policy establishment in Washington has behaved as if Sino-U.S. relations were still the exclusive province of Nixon and Kissinger and of Mao and Zhou. The United States has not seriously tried to make its case and communicate its views directly to the Chinese public.

Of course, this isn't easy in a country that heavily restricts press freedom. But technology is beginning to crack a few holes in Beijing's system of media control. There are now more than 300 million Internet users in China, about the same size as the entire population of the United States. On top of that, China has 700 million mobile-phone subscribers -- and both categories are expanding by tens of millions of people each year.

Yet for some inexplicable reason, U.S. administrations have always chosen the most censored, tightly controlled medium to communicate with the Chinese public. In 2009 Obama's town-hall meeting in front of a live TV audience completely failed to resonate with most Chinese because the censors made sure that only the most banal questions were posed for discussion. (Sample: "Shanghai will hold the World Exposition next year. Will you bring your family to visit the Expo?") Contrary to how it was interpreted in the Western media, the Chinese censors also limited those questions critical of the United States. They did not want to embarrass Obama.

The U.S. administration has also made its case in ways that can alienate the Chinese public. On human rights, the United States has always voiced strong criticisms of China on Tibet and on its treatment of dissidents. These criticisms typically backfire with ordinary Chinese because they are viewed as challenging Chinese cultural values and political norms. They also ignore issues that have far greater resonance in Chinese society at large, particularly in the area of property rights. When elderly widows are forcibly evicted from their homes or entrepreneurs suddenly lose the assets they have toiled for years to build, these are the "teachable moments" about why human rights and due process matter.

On the currency issue, for example, the United States consistently picks arguments that do not resonate with ordinary or even educated Chinese. The weakest of the arguments is that China has a responsibility to strive for balance in trade between the two countries. But exactly why should China bear any more responsibility for the imbalances than the United States, with its high consumption and low savings rate? The truth is that both countries are responsible -- the United States through its macroeconomic excesses and China through its currency policies. To place all the onus on Beijing legitimately strikes many Chinese as extremely unfair.

There is another problem with this argument: It amounts to asking the Chinese to sacrifice jobs in the export sector to create the impression that the United States is doing something for its unemployed. This is hardly a winning argument on the streets of Chongqing and Guangzhou. The Chinese, the vastly poorer of the two countries, are being asked to reduce their living standards so that American politicians can feel good about doing something for their voters. The insult to injury goes even deeper than that -- those Chinese who stand to lose most from a currency revaluation hail from the poorest, most vulnerable segment of the  population: rural migrant laborers.

To be sure, the vast majority of serious economists are absolutely right that in the long run, a currency revaluation is in the interest of the Chinese. But this is politics, where the issue is not about the technocratic intricacies of who is right and who is wrong. The Obama administration has chosen to frame the discussion in ways that are offensive to Chinese while shunning arguments that have a better chance of resonating. For example, one could argue that a currency revaluation may aid China in its aspirations of becoming a producer not just of cheap and labor-intensive products, but also a center of innovation and technology. This argument would go down better in China both because it is based on a rationale that emphasizes serving and enhancing Chinese interests and because it fits with the technological ambitions of many Chinese.

For too long, the United States has not paid attention to an important force in the Chinese economy: the rise of indigenous entrepreneurs. This is in sharp contrast to the U.S. approach in India. During his India trip, Obama met with 25 Indian entrepreneurs, soliciting their views on job creation and business expansion. Chinese private entrepreneurs have never received similar treatment from a U.S. president. Soon after Google decided to terminate its search-engine business in China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States deplored restrictions on the Internet and called for web freedom in China. This was a laudable speech, but it may have had the unintended effect of conveying the sense that only foreign firms, such as Google, stand for Internet freedom, whereas Chinese Internet companies do not. The simple fact is that even before Google's exit, the vast majority of Internet activities were provided by entrepreneurial Chinese companies, such as,, and Google's exit simply provided more space for their growth. Many of these Internet companies are run by ambitious, U.S.-educated Chinese entrepreneurs. The Internet revolution in China -- which has vastly expanded the free exchange of ideas and goods -- is a cumulative result of the vision, successes, and technological savvy of both foreign and Chinese entrepreneurs. The administration should be careful, both in words and in deeds, not to pit the interests of Chinese and foreign businesses against each other.

In the next two years, both China and the United States will have some monumental political and policy issues to grapple with. China faces a leadership transition in 2012, and Obama will also be judged in 2012 on whether he has delivered growth and prosperity. China will figure prominently in how Obama tackles this challenge, and engagement is the only viable option. But to engage only with official Beijing is no longer enough. It is vital that American leaders learn to communicate more effectively with the Chinese people -- lest the conspiracy theorists do the communicating for them.

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How to Win Back Pakistan

Nine years into the war in Afghanistan, the United States should have a clear idea of Pakistan's interests there. It's time to take these lessons to heart -- and start applying the right incentives.

As recent intelligence findings reported by the Washington Post in late October confirm, Pakistan remains at the heart of the U.S.-led coalition's problems in Afghanistan -- where the war is hardly lost, yet hardly headed for clear victory either. Indeed, Pakistan arguably remains the most complex ally the United States has ever had in wartime, making President Franklin D. Roosevelt's challenges in dealing with Stalin (a far worse leader, but at least one who knew the outcome he wanted) seem simple by comparison.

Nine years into the campaign, we still can't clearly answer the question of whether Pakistan is with us or against us. America needs bold new policy measures to help Islamabad -- in all its many dimensions and factions -- make up its mind.

The crux of the problem is this: Despite allowing massive NATO logistics operations through its territory and helping the United States pursue al Qaeda operatives, Pakistan tolerates sanctuaries on its soil for the major insurgencies fighting in Afghanistan. These include the Afghan Taliban (otherwise known as the Quetta Shura Taliban because its principle base remains in Quetta in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan) as well as the Haqqani and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) networks. The Haqqanis straddle the border between the Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika as well as North Waziristan and other tribal areas within Pakistan; HiG is further north, operating in and around the Khyber Pass connecting Kabul and Jalalabad in Afghanistan with Peshawar and points east in Pakistan. Thus, all three major Afghan insurgent groups have home bases in Pakistan, and despite the occasional drone strike are generally beyond NATO's reach as a result.

Pakistan has done some worthy things against extremists in its remote northern and western areas in recent years. Specifically, it has recognized the so-called Pakistani Taliban (the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) as a mortal threat to the Pakistani state and responded accordingly. After suffering hundreds of bombings and assassination attacks by the TTP, including the killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and several thousand casualties a year to its troops and citizens since roughly that time, it has responded in force, particularly over the last year and a half or so. It has swung about 100,000 troops previously guarding the border with Pakistan's nemesis India to the northwestern tribal regions and cleared several major areas including South Waziristan, Bajaur, and the Swat Valley. This is all to the good.

Pakistanis argue, however, that limited numbers of ground troops combined with the past year's admittedly devastating floods prevent them from doing more. Quetta, North Waziristan, and other key places remain dens of iniquity, havens for extremists who continue to attack NATO and Afghan troops across the border and then return home for rest, regrouping, and fresh recruiting. Major command-and-control hubs are permanently located within Pakistan as well, and key insurgent leaders like Mullah Omar (to say nothing of Osama bin Laden) probably remain safely ensconced on Pakistani territory where U.S. forces cannot get at them.

But even if limited Pakistani capacity is part of the problem, there's more at stake. Pakistan worries that President Barack Obama's promise to start reducing U.S. troops in Afghanistan come July will lead to anarchy and civil conflict next door, and it is retaining proxies that it can use to ensure that its top goal in Afghanistan -- keeping India out -- can be accomplished come what may. Pakistan would rather have the Taliban and the Haqqanis back in power, especially in the country's south and east, than any group like the former Northern Alliance, which it views as too close to New Delhi. It is this strategic calculation, more than constrained Pakistani resources, that constitutes Obama's main challenge in Afghanistan. And it could cost him the war.

Under these circumstances, part of the right policy is to keep doing more of what the Obama administration has been doing with Pakistan -- building trust, as with last month's strategic dialogue in Washington; increasing aid incrementally, as with the new five-year $2 billion aid package announced during that dialogue; and coordinating militarily across the border region. But Obama also needs to think bigger.

First, he needs to make clear America's commitment to South Asia, to wean Pakistan away from its current hedging strategy. Obama has frequently used general language to try to reassure listeners in the region that there will be no precipitous U.S. withdrawal next summer. But few fully believe him. Hearing stories like Bob Woodward's accounts of how the vice president and White House advisors have generally opposed a robust counterinsurgency strategy in favor of a counterterrorism-oriented operation with far fewer U.S. troops, they worry that next summer's withdrawal will be fast. Obama needs to explain that he will not revert to such a minimalist "Plan B" approach under any imaginable circumstances. More appropriate would be a "Plan A-minus" that involves a gradual NATO troop drawdown as Afghan forces grow in number and capability, without necessarily first stabilizing the entire south and east, should the current strategy not turn around the violence by next summer or so. This would represent a modification to the current plan rather than a radical departure. The president can find a way to signal that this is in fact his own thinking, sooner rather than later -- ideally before the year is out.

Second, Obama should offer Islamabad a much more expansive U.S.-Pakistani relationship if it helps win this war. Two major incentives would have particular appeal to Pakistan. One is a civilian nuclear energy deal like that being provided to India; Pakistan's progress on export controls in the wake of the A.Q. Khan debacle has been good enough so far to allow a provisional approval of such a deal if other things fall into place as well. Second is a free trade accord. Struggling economically, Pakistan needs such a shot in the arm, and a trade deal could arguably do even more than aid at this point.

But the key point is this: Pakistan should be told that these deals will only be possible if the United States and its allies prevail in Afghanistan. Small gestures of greater helpfulness are not adequate; bottom-line results are what count and what are needed. If Afghanistan turns around in a year or two, the deals can be set in motion and implemented over a longer period that will allow the United States to continually monitor subsequent Pakistani cooperation in the war.

It may seem harsh to Pakistan that America would put things in such stark terms -- but in fact, it is not realistic that any U.S. president or Congress would carry out such deals if the United States loses the war in Afghanistan partly due to Pakistani perfidy. As such, these terms are really just common sense, and they are based on political realism about America's domestic politics as well as its strategic interests.

America's current strategy for the war in Afghanistan is much improved. But it is not yet sound enough to point clearly toward victory. The most crucial problem is the role of Pakistan in the war, and so far, the Obama administration is not thinking creatively enough about how to fix it.

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