Grand Strategy in Asia II: Jeffrey Bader's Obama and China's Rise



As Jeff Bader notes in the preface to his new book, memoirs provide crucial data for historians and analysts. I do not have the pleasure of knowing Bader, so no cronyism is involved. But if you have any interest at all in US Asia policy, you should buy this book. Bader, who headed up Asia at the NSC, has written a short, crisp and honest account of the Obama administration’s Asia policy.  Among other things, it provides evidence that the tilt, rebalance or pivot to Asia has in fact been real.

The contrast in tone to John Bolton's angry tome —which excoriated the Clinton administration at every turn--comes in the first sentence: “Under the George W. Bush administration, U.S. policies toward most of the major countries in Asia were generally sound.” Rather, Bader sees the primary fault of the Bush administration to lie in the diversion of attention to Iraq and the corresponding perception that the US was not fully engaged in Asia.

However, there are in fact more substantive differences in overall approach than Bader suggests; two are noteworthy and run through the book. As we would expect from a Democratic administration, multilateral institutions play a much more central role in policy than they did under the Bush administration. Even if they do not appear to accomplish much, they serve to signal US presence. Conversely, institutions can also exclude; Bader talks in depth about the efforts to get the US into the East Asia Summit process, from which it was initially excluded. This involved signing the Treaty and Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN.

A second and somewhat surprising theme was the felt need for a much more consultative approach to key allies in the region, and in both Northeast and Southeast Asia. These differences had implications for Korea policy, as the Obama administration walked away from the largely bilateral process that had characterized the US-North Korean negotiations over the course of 2008.

The exception to Bader’s observation about the general soundness of Bush’s Asia policy is precisely with respect to North Korea. Not only was the policy riven by ideological divisions, but the incoming team saw it as inadequately tough-minded. Chapter Four on North Korea is called “Breaking the Pattern.” North Korea policy had clearly not been worked out in detail prior to the inauguration, but the intelligence on preparations for a missile/satellite launch appeared to push the administration in a more forward direction. At a March NSC meeting, “the president told his senior staff he wanted a policy to break the cycle of provocation, extortion, and reward,” arguing that the US should “behave in ways that threw the North Koreans off their game and presented them with some unwelcome surprises.” These sentences could have come out of any of the Bush administration memoirs.

Bader walks through pursuit of Security Council action, and supports our interpretation that the April 2009 Presidential Statement was designed specifically to resolve the satellite vs. missile issue. Secretary Clinton is identified as the source of the policy of greater restraint toward the Six Party Talks; according to Bader, Clinton believed that the US was squandering leverage by placing too much emphasis on the talks. If the US showed greater reserve, the Chinese—who had invested heavily in the Six Party Process—would do more work. Bader does not provide detail on the negotiation of the tougher sanctions resolution following the second missile test, but is modest about his expectations of the effects of sanctions; he notes that even if they did not “work” in a simplistic sense, they raised costs and also made proliferation more difficult. That’s about right to us.

Bader’s treatment of the Laura Ling-Euna Lee saga is too good to pass up, and needs no comment: “We all felt a sense of relief that the journalists, who had been mistreated, were safe and sound. We also felt considerable irritation at American innocents abroad who stumble into such situations as if they were in downtown LA and then expect to be saved, with regard to the damage they do to US national security interests. The possibility of repeat performances by other gullible or misguided Americans, putting us in a similar box, worried us, and rightly so, although subsequent incidents did not involve as “valuable” a prize as Ling and Lee were.” Hear, hear.

Chapter Eight, “Tensions in Korea,” walks through the post-Cheonan events. The central theme is the difficulty in getting China’s attention on the issue, as Beijing drifted into a more permissive and supportive posture toward Pyongyang in the months following the second nuclear test. Bader details several sharp exchanges between Obama and Hu Jintao on the issue as well as the decision-making behind the deployment of carriers of both the east coast (initially) and the west coast (following the Yeonpyeong shelling).

An interesting detail is the revelation of internal disagreements in whether to support the South’s more aggressive posture, manifest in live fire exercises to take place just as the George Washington was steaming into the Yellow Sea. The administration, including Bader, decided to support the exercises although with some nervousness about the prospects for escalation.

Bader admits sentiments surprisingly similar to those driving Republican frustration; that it is possible that no resolution to the issue will occur until North Korea collapses and is absorbed. But Bader rightly notes that this is not the basis for a policy, and he believes the administration had set the stage for a resumption of the talks on more favorable terms by showing restraint. Which is precisely why the missile launch announcement is such a disappointment. So close, yet so far.

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