Xi's Not Ready

Why Obama should skip the shirt-sleeves summit with China's new leader.

Later this week, President Obama will meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the exclusive Sunnylands estate in California. The two administrations are pitching it as a 'shirt-sleeves' summit,' to emphasize that it won't be the typical, formalized, agenda-driven meeting. Instead, the ambience will supposedly allow for a greater degree of openness to "constructively manage" the two sides' differences, as the White House press office delicately puts it. Unlike the stuffy, robotic former Chinese president Hu Jintao, Xi is seen as a more dynamic and engaging. Indeed, Xi's 2012 visit to the United States, before he became China's paramount leader, consciously tried to portray him as a regular guy, including a nostalgic return to a farm in Iowa he once briefly visited nearly three decades ago. Believing in Obama's informal touch, the White House is betting that personalizing the relationship between the two leaders could help the two sides break through distrust, and revitalize stagnant policy discussions.

But summits like this one should be reserved for friends and allies with whom the United States has close working relationships. George Bush's 2006 Graceland meeting with Junichiro Koizumi, for example, rewarded the then Japanese prime minister's path-breaking support for Bush's war on terror. Similarly, Bush often invited close allies to his Crawford, Texas ranch. Getting the personal treatment from the president of the United States is some of the most valuable political capital any foreign leader can receive, regardless of the concrete outcomes of the meeting. Obama has also provided the homespun touch to close allies, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, who sat next to the president at a basketball game last year, in Ohio.

Yet U.S. relations with Japan and Britain are completely different than those with China. Just last week, the news broke that China has been hacking the United States' most advanced weapons systems; Chinese theft of intellectual property -- both military and commercial -- remains rampant. Beijing continues to support rogue regimes around the world, including North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Sudan. Its paramilitary forces, such as its maritime patrol fleet, intimidate smaller Asian nations like Vietnam and the Philippines over territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. So why is the United States rewarding China, when it should be censuring it instead?

The short answer, of course, is that America is economically dependent on China, with nearly $400 billion dollars in bilateral trade each year, and nearly $1 trillion of U.S. debt held by Beijing. Washington's fears of somehow upsetting this economic relationship have hamstrung consecutive administrations, who have warily watched China's military growth while doing everything possible to encourage economic ties.

Yet as China has grown stronger, it has also become far more assertive, creating uncertainty and even instability in Asia, while undermining liberal norms around the world. In spite of this, the Obama administration is doubling down on its engagement with Beijing. This week's summit is not the only gift that the United States has given China. The Obama administration invited China to join the RIMPAC naval exercise, which is an annual naval practice normally reserved for close American partners. In addition, the top-level Strategic and Economic Dialogue, held annually, has become one of the most-publicized diplomatic initiatives undertaken by Washington. The Chinese leadership must be delighted -- why should they modify their behavior when Washington's China policy is all carrot and no stick?

The administration is forgetting that national interests, and not personalities, drive international politics. It needs to free itself from the idea that finding the soft spot in a foreign leader antagonistic towards the United States improves bilateral relationships. At least since Leonid Brezhnev, U.S. presidents have been trying to tap into the personal side of authoritarian leaders, so as to penetrate the bureaucratic armor that they believe prevents a more meaningful exchanges of ideas.

That, in fact, is one of the great arguments made in favor of regular meetings: that personalities on both sides will not only come to understand each other better, but that our side will come away with keener insight into the preferences and biases of opposing leaders, and have a line into seeing how decisions are made. Yet, despite years of regular communication, the gulf that exists between Chinese and American views of the world belies the idea that summits, no matter how chummy, can create a community of interests where none exist. National interests, not Xi's seemingly effusive personality, will dictate just how much Beijing is willing to reconsider its policy goals. In reality, there are almost no shared values between Beijing and Washington, and little complementary policy. The Chinese engage with the United States because it allows them to play the charade of backslapping, while sidestepping tough issues. 

Unfortunately, Washington finds itself in a dialogue dependency trap. The metric for judging the success of the relationship has devolved to a question of how often and at what level U.S. officials meet the Chinese. The government and proponents of continued dialogue assert that it's of great value to know one's counterpart, in case there's a need to make that 3 a.m. call. The Chinese encourage such thinking, as seen in the statements by a leading academic that, "as long as China and the United States can work to genuinely place themselves in the other's shoes, they have a good chance of minimizing the potential for conflict and of building lasting trust."

But again, that mistakes the personal for the professional, especially between political systems so antithetical to each other as America's and China's. Crises will be resolved if both parties feel it is in their interest, not according to the strength of the personal relationship between leaders. After all, former President George H.W. Bush's longtime experience in China and close relations with its leaders did nothing to avert the Tiananmen Square massacre. Similarly, Vice President Joe Biden is reputed to have rapport with Xi since their meeting in 2012, but that hasn't translated into any resolution of our outstanding differences, or in the tamping down of tensions with U.S. allies in the East and South China Seas.

While it is too late to pull out of this summit, the president still has time to come up with a concrete list of issues that Washington expects movement on. He should make it clear that this experiment in going outside the boundaries of traditional Sino-U.S. meetings will be a one-off if there is no change in Chinese behavior. A better approach in general would be to restrict such top-level meetings until truly necessary, or when it is clear that some agreement on a significant issue has been reached and there will be a measureable outcome. Washington needs not merely to accept that its relations with China are purely transactional, but to act that way, as well. 

Focusing on results during future summits would communicate that Washington is serious about protecting its interests. While our diplomats certainly deal seriously with their Chinese counterparts, the tone set at the top of this administration (and previous ones) has been too accommodating, too willing to play what we think is the long-game of engagement, while ignoring the longer Chinese game of undermining U.S. influence in Asia and globally while avoiding commitment to solving disagreements between us. Unfortunately, this week's "shirt-sleeves" summit will fail to produce a more meaningful U.S.-China relationship because it is driven by wishful thinking, and not by a ruthless desire to protect U.S. interests.


Cory Lum-Pool/Getty Images

National Security

We're Not Going to Need a Bigger Boat

The problem with the Navy and Air Force's belief that they can do it all.

After over a decade of large-scale stability operations, the U.S. military is looking for a new vision to guide the future development of the force -- one that does not involve many boots on the ground or the risk of numerous casualties. To that end, the Pentagon is preparing to meet emerging threats that demand high-end capabilities and involve fighting from a comfortable distance. At the same time, however, it is discounting threats that require capable ground forces.

The U.S. Navy and Air Force have focused in particular on preparing for "anti-access" challenges -- in essence, challenges to America's ability to go where it wants. The goal is for the United States to retain its ability to project power and respond to any contingency, anywhere in the world, while protecting free movement through international waters and airspace.

The military's answer to anti-access threats is the concept of "Air-Sea Battle," laid out by the chiefs of the Navy and Air Force in a recent article in Foreign Policy. Air-Sea Battle calls for integration of naval and air forces to destroy enemy missiles and other high-end capabilities intended to deny freedom of movement to U.S. ships and aircraft. These plans call for over-the-horizon precision strikes with long-range missiles, bombers, and stealth fighters.

Embedded in the concept of Air-Sea Battle is the assumption that, because anti-access threats can be dealt with at a safe distance, there will be no need for ground forces -- be they soldiers, Marines, or special operators. If future wars demand any boots on the ground at all, it will not be until after the Navy and Air Force have decimated the enemy's defenses with long-range strikes -- or so the theory goes. But that's where Air-Sea Battle goes wrong: It is just as likely that ground forces will be needed to ensure access for air and naval forces as the other way around.

Ever since the Gulf War in 1990, when the U.S. military demonstrated its ability to decimate anything visible from the air in a matter of days or hours, potential adversaries have been developing innovative ways to conceal key weapons and military infrastructure so as to protect them from long-range precision strikes.

States like Iran and North Korea -- as well as guerrilla forces like Hezbollah -- have adapted by concealing weapons in jungles, forests, mountains, and in populated areas where they cannot be seen from the air. Iran has reportedly buried much of its missile and nuclear infrastructure deep underground, where, even if it can be located, it may be beyond the reach of precision bombs.

Among the many lessons of Israel's botched war against Hezbollah in 2006 was that airpower alone is not sufficient to halt rocket attacks from southern Lebanon. Hezbollah had dispersed its rockets and other high-end weaponry and hidden it in hills, forests, and populated urban areas -- blunting the effects of advanced airpower.

Locating Hezbollah's rockets required placing forces on the ground backed by close air support -- a task for which the Israeli military was woefully unprepared. Israel had for years focused on strategic airpower and neglected its ground forces. When the time came, it proved unable to locate or defeat Hezbollah's many small units and rocket sites. Even the country's vaunted air force performed poorly when it came to integration with ground forces. The Israeli defense establishment had underestimated its technologically less advanced but resourceful and adaptive adversary -- a blunder that cost the country dearly in terms of blood, treasure, and credibility.

Likewise, the leaders of the U.S. Navy and Air Force today underestimate the degree to which the enemy gets a vote. Future adversaries -- be they North Korea, China, Iran, Syria, or non-state actors such as Hezbollah -- will not leave their weapons out in the open where they can be quickly destroyed from a safe distance. They will hide them in difficult terrain, underground, and in populated areas in an effort to neutralize the effects of precision bombing.

Locating the right targets to strike will be the main challenge of the future. Meeting it will require deploying ground forces to conduct deep reconnaissance, collect intelligence, call in airstrikes, and destroy weapons and military infrastructure that cannot be targeted from the air.

Advances in surveillance technology will no doubt play a role in helping locate hidden weapons sites. Yet much of this capability is limited to what can be seen from above or picked up on the airwaves. Surveillance drones flying through hostile airspace are likely to be shot down. Smaller drones that might fly beneath the radar have shorter ranges and have been employed most successfully by ground forces.

In the face of more advanced anti-access threats, it may be necessary to insert troops covertly from low-signature ships or aircraft. These troops will need to move quickly and quietly, fan out in small formations, leave a light footprint, and sustain themselves logistically -- all of which will require high levels of training and technological support.

U.S. troops did something similar in the initial phase of the war in Afghanistan -- spreading out across the country in small units, identifying Taliban targets, and calling in airstrikes. These forces also engaged groups of Taliban fighters, resulting in a fair amount of ground combat. Air power played a key role in decimating the Taliban's military capability, but only because it was guided by precise intelligence gathered by troops on the ground.

The U.S. military had little trouble gaining access to Afghanistan because the Taliban did not have the capability to shoot down U.S. aircraft. Clearly, this will not be the case in all future conflicts. As the Air-Sea Battle concept implies, such conflicts are most likely to occur with more technologically advanced adversaries. Still, ground troops will be necessary because remote naval and air assets will be unable to locate and destroy enemy military hardware from afar.

Against adaptive adversaries, land forces will be needed to identify key nodes of enemy firepower and command and control. Once identified, they can be destroyed from the ground or by precision strikes called in by land forces, thereby ensuring access for naval and air forces and, if necessary, larger formations of ground forces.

The idea of fighting from afar with advanced weaponry while keeping U.S. troops out of harm's way will never cease to captivate the imagination of military planners and civilians alike, especially after years of ground combat that have claimed thousands of American lives. Unfortunately, war cannot be fought at a safe distance or in a sanitized manner. Like past wars, future conflicts will require more than a few brave men and women to go out and see the lay of the land.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps will most likely see deep cuts in the coming years. Both forces expanded as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and need to be brought back down to size. At the same time, America's ground forces need to be transformed to meet emerging threats, not merely cut across the board to save money for standoff warfare. They will also need to be integrated better with the Navy and Air Force after years of irregular warfare on land.

Achieving this will require new investments in training and education, as well as research and development. Otherwise, the United States could end up like Israel in 2006 -- without capable ground troops in a war that can't be won from the air.

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Pilch