Obama's chance to lift suspicions of China

In his inaugural, Obama's brief mention of foreign affairs called for lifting fears and suspicions through 'engagement.' The idea needs immediate US application in the troubling Japan-China islands clash.

Kyodo News/AP Photo
Paratroopers belonging to Japan's Ground Self-Defense Forces descend off a C-1 transport plane at an exercise Area in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, Jan. 13. This year, the troops conducted the annual drill on the assumption that an enemy invaded a remote island, local media said.

In his inaugural, President Obama gave only a thumbnail sketch of his foreign policy for the next four years. But he put his thumb on what can help the United States keep the peace: the lifting of “suspicion and fear” in other nations by engaging them over differences.

Nowhere is such an approach to dealing with suspicion more needed now than in a dangerous air-and-sea standoff between China and Japan over a set of small, uninhabited islands long controlled by Japan.

As with many issues involving China, it is Beijing’s lack of transparency about its intentions toward the islands that is driving a suspicion that it plans to take the islands by force. In recent weeks, China has stepped up intrusion of the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) with spy planes and maritime ships. As Japan’s ally, the US has beefed up its aerial surveillance while Japan has reportedly weighed firing tracer bullets at any Chinese jet that invades the islands’ airspace.

The guessing game over China’s goals lies at the heart of this showdown, which could easily escalate into war. Is China testing US resolve in Asia? Forcing Japan to simply admit there is a legitimate dispute? Or simply pumping up Chinese nationalism to unify people behind a weakened Communist Party?

Welcome to one of the most common problems in dealing with China: an entrenched habit by its rulers to be opaque or, at best, ambiguous. Many of China’s woes, both at home and abroad, can be attributed to an age-old communist tendency to keep people in the dark.

For years, the Pentagon has asked China for more openness about the strategy and new weapons of the People’s Liberation Army so as to prevent any dangerous misunderstanding. In the past year, more Western regulators are at odds with state-owned Chinese enterprises that don’t want to reveal financial information when making an investment abroad.

International talks on climate change are difficult because China won’t reveal key data about its carbon emissions. And in a recent report, the World Bank made numerous requests for transparency in Chinese statistics, real estate transactions, and courts.

The Chinese themselves are demanding more information from their government, mainly through Internet protests. When Beijing was covered with a dense smog earlier this month, state-controlled media were finally forced to acknowledge this recurring problem. Now the city’s 20 million residents are even being asked to comment on draft regulations aimed at curbing air pollution.

In 2007, China’s government began a campaign – at least on paper – to be more open in official communications. Forcing the shift was a rising number of protests against local officials and the party’s erosion of legitimacy from widespread corruption. Yet implementation of the new rules has been difficult and spotty.

In 2011, the Chinese Defense Ministry held its first-ever regular press conference. And after last year’s transition to a new party hierarchy, Chinese media were allowed to portray the personal lives of the new leaders, including their hobbies.

Transparency in a government is essential to hold it accountable and to ensure peace. But in a one-party state like China’s, the incentives for accountability are weak. To many party leaders, transparency is only a first step toward multiparty democracy.

China’s opacity is especially worrisome as the country now conducts suspicious moves on the many islands controlled by its neighbors, not only Japan’s. Suspicions over Chinese motives have been the main cause for Mr. Obama to decide last year to “pivot” US security strategy toward Asia.

Peace in Asia and for the US now depends in large part on how much China’s rulers lift their veil of secrecy and operate in the open with honesty. In coming days, Obama should make good on his hopes for peace by dealing directly with these suspicions over China. Fears can be lifted with more sunshine on Beijing’s goals.

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