Argument

Friends Like These

This week's tensions aside, China and the United States still need each other more than they admit.

Everyone knows that China is on the rise, that the United States is in decline, and that the two countries depend upon each other more than ever to solve global problems. As it has since the onset of the global financial crisis, this received wisdom in part shapes the U.S.-China relationship, including at bilateral forums such as this week's Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). But what if this "wisdom" is wrong?

The S&ED, though overshadowed by the drama over the fate of activist Chen Guangcheng, addressed other critical issues such as North Korea, Syria, and bilateral economic tensions. But even without the Chen case, Washington and Beijing are approaching each other with more apprehension than usual these days due to each country's ongoing concerns about the other's strategic intentions. For the United States, the growing fear is that it will be "eclipsed" -- that one day China will dominate Asia. For China, the perpetual fear is America's overreaction to its rise. Chinese leaders, with some justification, view the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia as a move to contain China's growing power and keep it down.

But the United States and China are worrying about the wrong things. The downfall of popular Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai exposed the high-stakes political struggles in Beijing during a period of political succession. And though we do not know Chen's motivations for planning his escape during this already shaky period, a negative outcome of this drama could lead to further incidents involving activists who might sense cracks in the system. These sudden changes and their longer-term implications should cause Washington to be more worried about an unstable and unpredictable, yet likely still authoritarian, China. In the United States, a nationwide weariness with global leadership is manifested most concretely in a reluctance to fully fund its grand strategy, even though this will undercut the stated political goals that have provided the conditions for great-power peace in Asia. Beijing should be more troubled by a United States that cannot or will not fulfill its global obligations.

Officials in Beijing often try to reassure their counterparts in Washington that China "does not want to be No. 1" on the world stage. Americans watch China's assertiveness in Asia and greet this reassurance with skepticism. In turn, Washington cajoles Beijing to take on more global responsibility. The Chinese view this as a trap -- a way for America to tie China down in any number of international quagmires.

But, in fact, neither side is entirely disingenuous. Not only does China eschew the burdens of being "No. 1," but the events of recent months demonstrate why it is not currently in a position to be a global leader. Meanwhile, the United States truly is looking to enhance cooperation with partner nations that could lead to the sharing of great-power burdens in the future. There was once a real hope that China might play such a role by applying real pressure to North Korea on its nuclear program or in policing the global commons. However, on these issues, China has largely indicated an unwillingness to play a constructive role.

The United States must adjust to deal with a changing China. Though it is maintaining a veneer of internal harmony, the Communist Party is spooked. The Bo scandal revealed the mafia-like nature of Chinese politics. The fate of Chen and his supporters is uncertain, even after the deal announced Friday, May 4, but their case does demonstrate the determination of reform-minded individuals to shed international light on Chinese human rights abuses and give credence to the fact that the government's view is not the only one.

Growing internal fractures will make China a less predictable and pricklier power that remains authoritarian. But a weak China is nothing to celebrate, especially since the country's failure to enact any democratic reform will make the potential fallout from a political crisis more dangerous. There are no Chinese institutions other than the military that can hold the country together if the leadership fails. A strong, authoritarian China has already demonstrated little interest in upholding the liberal international order. But a brittle authoritarian power may be even less likely to do so. Indeed, a China beset by strife, with a growing role for the military, may well lash out against its neighbors more forcefully. Washington's mistake is assuming that the China it knows today is the one it will know tomorrow.

China's main worry is that the United States is too strong and too tough. An editorial last week in the Global Times summarizes the Chinese view well. The authors cite U.S. military deployments both inside and outside the first island chain as evidence that America is reneging on its "pledge" not to contain China, and calls on Washington to find a new "balance point" for the relationship rather than "hop[ing] to extend the old way of bullying weaker countries." A weaker America, however, would not be in China's interest. Benign U.S. hegemony has provided the stable conditions that have allowed China to prosper. Beijing has long enjoyed a free ride off the security Washington provides. If that ride disappears, China will be in even deeper trouble.

China should think carefully about what the world would look like if the United States fails as a great power. What if no country provided the public goods requisite for great-power peace, such as open access to the global commons, deterrence of adversaries, and efforts to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? Can China continue to prosper in a world with unprotected sea lanes or with an increasing number of volatile nuclear states?

As China grows less predictable and the United States less willing to shoulder its responsibilities, familiar patterns of bilateral relations must change. The first step is for both countries to recognize that weakness in either country will not benefit the U.S.-China relationship or international order. America must be prepared for a less stable China. While continuing to check destabilizing Chinese activities, the key objective for Washington is to press harder for the stability that can only come with democratic reform. China should desist from undermining American efforts to preserve regional and global stability, and instead encourage the United States to maintain its commitments. And both sides need to prepare for the possibility that by the time the next big summit rolls around, China may be in decline and America may still be on the rise.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

The bin Laden Files

What the al Qaeda leader's final correspondence tells us about his legacy.

West Point's Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) has released 17 declassified documents captured during the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The size of this document dump is disappointing: It represents only a tiny fraction of the material that the United States has translated in the past year, and while a lot of interesting information was released, terrorism analysts should be cautious about drawing overly sweeping conclusions based on this limited -- and, no doubt, deliberately selective -- release. Nonetheless, this material offers fascinating new insights into the inner workings of al Qaeda, its views of its own failures, its affiliates, and the recent upheaval in the Arab world.

One interesting document is a scathing critique by Adam Gadahn, the Southern California-raised American al Qaeda spokesman, of the terrorist group's image problems, engendered by the brutal tactics employed by those claiming to fight under its mantle. Gadahn is often justifiably mocked as an ineffective spokesman for the jihadi cause, but the advice he provides in a January 2011 letter to an unknown recipient is at times strikingly perceptive.

Gadahn writes at length of the Islamic State of Iraq targeting the country's Christians, in particular the group's threat to start an all-out war on the Christian minority if Egypt's Coptic church did not release two women allegedly detained in one of its monasteries. Noting the lack of organizational connection between Egyptian Copts and Iraqi Christians, Gadahn draws an analogy, saying that this threat is like an armed group assaulting a mosque in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah and threatening to wage war on Iraq's Sunnis unless the Shia government releases Sunni prisoners in Sadr City. "Does this satisfy any sane person?" Gadahn asks.

He similarly condemns the targeting of mosques and other public places "by some who were referred to as the mujahideen," providing an extended list of incidents in Pakistan and Somalia in which a great deal of Muslim blood was shed. Gadahn even advocates for al Qaeda to dissociate itself from the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq, rather than "praising the killers while they are alive, and condole them when dead, and count them as good doers, irrespective of what we know about them of immorality." He even provides a suggested draft statement for al Qaeda spokesmen condemning those groups' excesses.

While there is no indication of the reception that Gadahn's letter received, it suggests that al Qaeda might be willing to adapt its approach on these issues. At least some of its thinkers are aware of deep problems caused by the group's brutal excesses, which Western observers have described as the group's "Achilles' heel."

Other documents shed light on the February 2012 merger of al Qaeda and the Somali jihadi group al-Shabab, which has emerged as a major military force in southern Somalia, able to control and govern a significant geographic area. Many Western analysts, in trying to interpret what this merger meant, asked whether it was a sign of the groups' strength or weakness. The newly released documents suggest another answer: The leadership change from bin Laden to new al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri may have been the largest factor in bringing about the union.

In an August 2010 letter to al-Shabab leader Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, bin Laden politely rebuffs Zubayr's suggestion of an official merger. In suggesting that it's best not to announce a merger, bin Laden writes that "it would be better" for al-Shabab members to "say that there is a relationship with al Qaeda which is simply a brotherly Islamic connection and nothing more."

Bin Laden argues that an official merger would cause outside powers to escalate their campaign against al-Shabab. Moreover, he claims to have a plan for alleviating the widespread poverty and malnutrition in Somalia and says that "by not having the mujahideen openly allied with al Qaeda, it would strengthen those merchants who are willing to help the brothers in Somalia."

Four months later, in December 2010, a letter to bin Laden was composed asking him to reconsider his stance toward al-Shabab. While the author of that letter is not identified, CTC's analysts infer from both the tone and the critique that it was written by "a high-ranking personality, possibly Ayman al-Zawahiri." The rationale in this critique relates in part to quality control of the al Qaeda brand: If the group's leadership fails to announce which groups are its branches, anybody can claim to be a part of al Qaeda.

Around eight months after Zawahiri became al Qaeda's leader, al Qaeda and al-Shabab announced a merger. While analysts at the time tried to interpret what this said about the strength of the groups, it may have been Zawahiri's ascension that was determinative.

The documents also give us a glimpse of bin Laden's view of the Arab Spring. In a letter dated April 26, 2011 -- just five days before he was killed -- bin Laden describes the uprisings as "a great and glorious event," one that shows "things are strongly heading towards the exit of Muslims from being under the control of America."

Bin Laden did not think that the secular nature of these revolutions undermined al Qaeda's designs for the region. Rather, he focused on the increased freedoms he expected jihadists to enjoy amid the regional turmoil. "If we double the efforts to direct and educate the Muslim peoples and warn them from the half solutions," he wrote, "while taking care in providing good advice to them, the oncoming stage will be for Islam, Allah willing."

Of course, bin Laden's interpretation of the Arab Spring by no means determines how we should view it. But at a time when Western analysts were describing the uprisings as an "ideological catastrophe" for al Qaeda, it is at least relevant that bin Laden seemingly saw far more opportunity than peril in them for his organization.

There is plenty within these documents for analysts to pore over and debate, even though they only represent a quick peek into al Qaeda's inner workings. But one thing the documents highlight beyond a doubt is the need for analytic humility when interpreting an organization that largely operates from the shadows. There is much about al Qaeda that we still have not uncovered, and it is vitally important to separate what we know of the group from our speculation about it.

AFP/Getty Images