The List

The Top 10 Unicorns of China Policy

Unicorns are beautiful, make-believe creatures. But despite overwhelming evidence of their fantastical nature, many people still believe in them. Much of America's China policy is also underpinned by belief in the fantastical: in this case, soothing but logically inconsistent ideas. But unlike with unicorns, the United States' China-policy excursions into the realm of make-believe could be dangerous. Crafting a better China policy requires us to identify what is imaginary in U.S. thinking about China. Author James Mann captures some in his book, The China Fantasy.

Here are my own top 10 China-policy unicorns:

1. The self-fulfilling prophecy. This is the argument that has the most purchase over the United States' China policy. Treat China like an enemy, the belief goes, and it will become an enemy. Conversely, treat China like a friend, and it will become a friend. But three decades of U.S.-China relations should at least cast doubt on this belief. Since the normalization of relations with China, the aim of U.S. policy has been to bring China "into the family of nations." Other than China itself, no nation has done more than the United States to improve the lot of the Chinese people and welcome China's rise peacefully. And, rather than increase its deterrence of China -- a natural move given the uncertainty attendant to the rise of any great power -- the United States has let its Pacific forces erode and will do so further. The United States may soon go through its third round of defense cuts in as many years. Here is just one example of how unserious the United States is about China: As China continues to build up its strategic forces, the United States has signed a deal with Russia to cap its strategic forces without so much as mentioning China. Unless Beijing was insulted by this neglect, surely it could take great comfort in an anachronistic U.S. focus on arms control with Russia. But despite U.S. demonstrations of benevolence, China still views the United States as its enemy or, on better days, its rival. Its military programs are designed to fight the United States. The self-fulfilling prophecy is far and away the most fantastical claim about China policy and thus the No. 1 unicorn.

YangShiZhonh -China Daily/AFP/Getty Images

2. Abandoning Taiwan will remove the biggest obstacle to Sino-American relations. Since 2003, when President George W. Bush publicly chided then-Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian on the White House lawn with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at his side, the United States has been gradually severing its close links with Taiwan. President Barack Obama's Taiwan policy has been the logical denouement. Arms sales have been stalled, no cabinet members have visited Taiwan since Bill Clinton's administration, and trade talks are nonexistent. There is essentially nothing on the U.S.-Taiwan policy agenda. The reaction from China? Indeed, it has moved on. But rather than bask in the recent warming of its relationship with Taiwan, China has picked fights with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and India. It does not matter what "obstacles" the United States removes; China's foreign policy has its own internal logic that is hard for the United States to "shape." Abandoning Taiwan for the sake of better relations is yet another dangerous fantasy.

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3. China will inevitably overtake America, and America must manage its decline elegantly. This is a new China-policy unicorn. Until a few years ago, most analysts were certain there was no need to worry about China. The new intellectual fad tells us there is nothing we can do about China. Its rise and America's decline are inevitable. But inevitability in international affairs should remain the preserve of rigid ideological theorists who still cannot explain why a unified Europe has not posed a problem for the United States, why postwar Japan never really challenged U.S. primacy, or why the rising United States and the declining Britain have not gone to war since 1812. The fact is, China has tremendous, seemingly insurmountable problems. It has badly misallocated its capital thanks to a distorted financial system characterized by capital controls and a non-market based currency. It may have a debt-to-GDP ratio as high as 80 percent, thanks again to a badly distorted economy. And it has created a demographic nightmare with a shrinking productive population, a senior tsunami, and millions of males who will be unmarriageable (see the pioneering work of my colleague Nick Eberstadt).

The United States also has big problems. But Americans are debating them vigorously, know what they are, and are now looking to elect the leaders to fix them. China's political structure does not yet allow for fixing big problems.

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4 (related to 3). China is America's banker. America cannot anger its banker. In fact, China is more like a depositor. It deposits money in U.S. Treasurys because its economy does not allow investors to put money elsewhere. There is nothing else it can do with its surpluses unless it changes its financial system radically (see above). It makes a pittance on its deposits. If the United States starts to bring down its debts and deficits, China will have even fewer options. China is desperate for U.S. investment, U.S. Treasurys, and the U.S. market. The balance of leverage leans toward the United States.


5. America is engaging China. This is a surprising policy unicorn. After all, the United States does have an engagement policy with China. But it is only engaging a small slice of China: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The party may be large -- the largest in the world (it could have some 70 million members). The United States does need to engage party leaders on matters of high politics and high finance, but China has at least 1 billion other people. Many are decidedly not part of the CCP. They are lawyers, activists, religious leaders, artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs. Most would rather the CCP go quietly into the night. America does not engage them. U.S. presidents tend to avoid making their Chinese counterparts uncomfortable by insisting on speaking to a real cross-section of Chinese society. Engagement seen through the prism of government-to-government relations keeps the United States from engaging with the broader Chinese public. Chinese officials come to the United States and meet with whomever they want (usually in carefully controlled settings and often with groups that are critical of the U.S. government and very friendly to the Chinese government). U.S. leaders are far more cautious in choosing with whom to meet in China. The United States does not demand reciprocity in meeting with real civil society -- underground church leaders, political reformers, and so on. China has a successful engagement policy. America does not.

ANDY WONG/AFP/Getty Images

6. America's greatest challenge is managing China's rise. Actually, America's greatest challenge will probably be managing China's long decline. Unless it enacts substantial reforms, China's growth model may sputter out soon. There is little if nothing it can do about its demographic disaster (will it enact a pro-immigration policy?). And its political system is too risk averse and calcified to make any real reforms.

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7. China's decline will make our lives easier. China's decline may make the challenge for the United States more difficult for at least a generation. It could play out for a long time, even as China grows more aggressive with more lethal weaponry (e.g., what to do with surplus males?). Arguably, both Germany and imperial Japan declined beginning after World War I and continuing through the disaster of World War II. Russia is in decline by all useful metrics. Even so, it invaded a neighbor not too long ago. A declining, nuclear-armed nation with a powerful military can be more problematic than a rising, confident nation.

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8. America needs to extricate itself from the "distractions" of the Middle East and South Asia to focus on China. This is a very popular unicorn among the cognoscenti. But how would this work? As Middle Easterners go through a historic revolution that could lead to the flowering of democracy or the turmoil of more extremism, how does America turn its attention elsewhere? Is it supposed to leave Afghanistan to the not-so-tender mercies of the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence? This view is particularly ironic given China's increased interests in the Middle East and the U.S. need for a partnership with India to deal with China. The United States has no way of creating the kind of order it wishes to see in Asia without exerting a great amount of influence over the oil-producing states in the Middle East and by allowing India to become tied down in a struggle in South Asia. America is the sole superpower; its foreign policy is interconnected. "Getting Asia right" means "getting the Middle East and South Asia right."


9. America needs China's help to solve global problems. This is further down on my list because it is not really a fantastical unicorn. It is true. What is a fantasy is that China will be helpful. The United States does need China to disarm North Korea. It does not want to, and North Korea is now a nuclear power. The same may soon be true with Iran. The best the United States can get in its diplomacy with China is to stop Beijing from being less helpful. It is a fact that global problems would be easier to manage with Chinese help. However, China actually contributing to global order is a unicorn.


10. Conflict with China is inevitable. A fair reading of the nine "unicorns" above may lead to the conclusion that America is destined to go to war with China. It may be a fair reading, but it is also an inaccurate one. Sino-American relations will be determined by two main drivers -- one the United States can control, one it cannot. The first is the U.S. ability to deter aggressive Chinese behavior. The second is how politics develop in China. The strategic prize for Washington is democratic reform in China. Democracy will not solve all Sino-American problems. China may be very prickly about sovereignty and very nationalistic. But a true liberal democracy in China in which people are fairly represented is the best hope for peace. The disenfranchised could force their government to focus resources on their manifold problems (corruption, misallocated resources, lack of a social safety net). The United States and the rest of Asia will certainly trust an open, transparent China more, and ties would blossom at the level of civil society. Historically, the United States has almost always been on China's side. It is waiting patiently to do so again.


The List

Loss of Inspiration

Highlights from al Qaeda's in-house magazine

On Sept. 30, a drone strike in southern Yemen killed American jihadists Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Among their other accomplishments within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), they were the main ideological force and main editors behind the English-language jihadi magazine Inspire, which has intrigued readers since it arrived online last year with its mix of radical theology, practical advice for aspiring terrorists, and slick graphics. Here's a look at the greatest hits of what now appears to have been a short-lived publication:

Issue 1: Summer 2010

Inspire's first issue featured a cover story from Awlaki, titled "May our souls be sacrificed for you!" The editors' note promised that the magazine would be "geared towards making the Muslim a mujahid in Allah's path.… Our concern for the ummah is worldwide and thus we try to touch upon all major issues while giving attention to the events unfolding in the Arabian Peninsula as we witness it on the ground."

Inspire's unique front-of-the-book features included "Hear the World," -- later renamed "Jihad Talk" -- a collection of quotes from friends and enemies of the jihad as disparate as Times Square would-be bomber Faisal  Shahzad and David Letterman. A section on "Open Source Jihad" promised to teach readers how to "Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom." All you need is an "inflammable substance," "decoration lamp (what is normally used for Christmas trees)" and an "Iron pipe."

A practical feature called "what to expect from Jihad" was full of sensible tips for the aspiring holy warrior. For instance, what should you pack?

When on jihad one has to bear in mind that they will have to pack light since one will be constantly moving from one place to another and it wouldn't be practical to carry large suitcases everywhere one goes, especially if the car ride is tight. What I recommend is bringing a solid, well-built backpack that can last in any weather condition. Bring two to three pairs of clothes; don't worry about them getting dirty since in nearly every base, you should be able to clean the clothes.

Issue 2: Fall 2010

The most prominent feature in the second issue is an essay by Khan on how he had come to embrace jihad:

"I am proud to be a traitor in America's eyes just as much as I am proud to be a Muslim.… And how reputable, adventurous and pleasurable is such a life compared to those who remain sitting, working from nine to five?"

Fellow U.S.-born jihadist Adam Gadhan gives some advice to President Obama: "As Shaykh Usama told you, if you don't heed our warning and stop your support of Israel, we will have no choice but to continue to use other ways to get our message across."

This issue's Open Source Jihad idea involved using a pickup truck equipped with "butcher blades or thick sheets of steel" to mow down pedestrians in a crowd: "The idea is to use a pickup truck as a moving machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah." But we warned: "After such an attack, we believe it would be very difficult to get away safely and without being recognized. Hence it should be considered a martyrdom operation. It's a one-way road."

Awlaki also contributes an essay in which he explains his skepticism of nonviolent resistance, writing, "This might be the way of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but it is not the way of Muhammad (peace be upon him) who said: 'I was sent with the sword before the Day of Judgment.'"

A caption on a photo of Awlaki claims, "Not a single shred of evidence has been produced to incriminate Imam Anwar al-Awlaki; so why has the US Government put him on their hit list?"

One could claim that the magazine itself is such a shred of evidence, but why split hairs?

Issue 3: November 2010

This was a special issue devoted to the October 2010 cargo-planes bomb plot, in which bombs hidden in printer cartridges were sent through the mail from Yemen, bound for the United States. The plot was foiled, but Inspire claimed success thanks to the expensive, increased security measures the United States was forced to implement in response: 

"$4,200. That is the total cost of Operation Hemorrhage. The operation has succeeded in achieving its objectives. We thank Allah for his blessings

[T]o bring down America we do not need to strike big. In such an environment of security phobia that is sweeping America, it is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve less players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America has worked so hard to erect. This strategy of attacking the enemy with smaller, but more frequent operations is what some may refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts. The aim is to bleed the enemy to death."

The issue features a special section with technical details and behind-the-scenes photos of the plot. 

Issue 4: Winter 2010

Issue 4 opens with letters from readers. "The release of your majestic magazine brought tears to my eyes, brothers," wrote Hamza. Muhammad wrote in: "With the current media under control of the Jews, it is a great change to have news that are from the ummah to the ummah." Less-than-glowing reactions from Fox News and the Anti-Defamation League were also proudly highlighted.

Inspire focused this issue largely on recent events:

On Taimour Abdulwahhab al-Abdaly's 2010 bombing in Stockholm: "The iron fist of jihad is more apparent than ever in the midst of the kuffar. This is now the second operation within a month inside Europe."

On forest fires in Israel: "We ask Allah to hasten their destruction"

On news that a supposed Taliban envoy who had been negotiating with the Afghan government turned out to be a fraud:  "LOL!… It was the most embarrassing event for both the United States and Karzai-led occupation since their conjoined invasion of Afghanistan in 2001."

On British student Roshonara Choudhry's stabbing of a British MP for supporting the Iraq war: "A woman has shown to the ummah's men the path of jihad! A woman my brothers! Shame on all the men for sitting on their hands while one of our women has taken up the individual jihad."

The issue also featured the debut of a new graphic feature, "Cold Diss":



Issue 5: Spring 2011

Inspire's Spring 2011 issue looked at the recent upheavals in the Arab world. Khan penned a letter to the Egyptian people:

"You have to decide what your identity is. This will help determine your future course of action. Do you define yourself according to your culture or your religion? What really takes more precedence in your heart?"

Awlaki disputed the notion put forward by Western terrorism analysts, including the AfPak Channel's own Peter Bergen, that the Arab Spring would lessen al Qaeda's influence:

Peter Bergen believes that al Qaeda is viewing the events with glee and despair. Glee yes, but not despair. The mujahidin around the world are going through a moment of elation and I wonder whether the West is aware of the upsurge of mujahidin activity in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco? Is the West aware of what is happening or are they asleep with drapes covering their eyes?

One feature took a shot at the Saudi government for harboring deposed Tunisian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali:

When Tunisia's taghut [idolater] was driven away, homeless and on the run, he didn't know where to go after he was refused to enter into his masters' country of France. However, he ended up in the land of Muhammad. It's as if though Nayif ibn Abd al-Aziz heard about his eviction, phoned him and said, "Come here to find wealth and security. Come here for plotting and conspiring."

A humor feature listed some of the more bizarre pronouncements of Libya's "clown taghut" leader:

Muhammar Gadhafi will certainly go down in history as the most lunatic of the tawaghit due to his repeated contradictions, beating around the bush, hilarious conspiracy theories and pure stupidity. We don't know what's funnier: his contradictions, quoting himself from his green book or how he opened the BBC interview with an arrogant laugh and then asked, "What is the question?" We have thus dedicated a place to laugh at this enemy of Allah.

Issue 6: Summer 2011


Released after the death of Osama bin Laden, Issue 6 was, not surprisingly, more downbeat than normal. The editors opened with an apology:

"We apologize for the delay in the publication of the magazine. Things have been quite hectic over here. The country is falling apart and our brothers are busy picking up the pieces. It's like walking into an orchard of ripe fruit that is falling off the branches and all what you have to do is walk through it with a basket over your head."

But Khan was resolute, writing, "His death will only bring them misery and it will be a curse for them until they leave our lands."

He continued:

Obama came out with ringing declarations; among them, Shaykh Usama was not a shahid because of his rejection of democracy! This has to be the first time in history that a kafir leader has declared that a Muslim mujahid died rejecting shirk! [Idolatry] Democracy to the Muslims is shirk because, quite frankly, how can anyone vote on whether or not to establish the law of Allah?

Most of the rest of the issue was devoted to obituaries for other recently slain jihadists. It wasn't all doom and gloom, though: "Open Source Jihad" offered advice on "training with the AK" and "making acetone peroxide." "Cold Diss" featured recently disgraced U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner, who had been a leading advocate of having Awlaki's videos removed from YouTube, and called him an "Angry Weiner Head."

Issue 7: Fall 2011

The most recent issue of the magazine was meant to be a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of al Qaeda's greatest triumph, but at only 20 pages, most of them old 9/11 photos, rather than the usual 60, it felt more like a sign of its decline. Khan was typically optimistic: "For us it's just a matter of time. The question is not whether America will fall or not. America is already falling; it just didn't hit the ground yet."

Most intriguingly, the editors appeared angry at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's suggestion that al Qaeda may not have been responsible for the attacks:

The Iranian government has professed on the tongue of its president Ahmadinejad that it does not believe that al Qaeda was behind 9/11 but rather, the U.S. government. So we may ask the question: why would Iran ascribe to such a ridiculous believe that stands in the face of all logic and evidence?

Everyone likes to get credit. So will Inspire be able to continue without its two leading figures? We'll find out this winter.