Influencing China

Since President Nixon’s historic meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972, the U.S. – China relationship has developed into a dynamic and challenging strategic relationship that should not be taken for granted.

China on world map

The bilateral relationship was established primarily because both the U.S. and China were concerned about Soviet expansionism.  China witnessed this during the 1960s, concerned that the Soviet Union would use nuclear weapons against a defiant China.  The U.S. was concerned with Soviet inroads in Latin America and threats to our NATO allies.  This convergence of interests, to counter the Soviet Union, brought President Nixon to Beijing to meet with Chairman Mao.  Eventually, in 1979, normal diplomatic relations were established.

Chairman Deng Xiaoping, after being purged twice and surviving the Gang of Four, quickly moved China closer to the U.S.  His priorities were clear:  Improving a sick economy and countering the Soviets.  Deng did both.  He discarded Marxism and introduced capitalism to an economically sick China.  He encouraged U.S. investment and exhorted Chinese students to get an education in the U.S., so as to help jump start the economy. At the same time, Deng worked with President Carter to ensure that both countries shared information on the Soviet Union and cooperated in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Eventually the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan and after their withdrawal in 1987, President Gorbachev visited Beijing in June 1989, in an effort to solicit a loan from China.  How ironic.

Cooperating against the Soviet Union was in the interest of both China and the U.S., as was a close economic relationship. Thus bilateral relations thrived when it was mutually beneficial.

The 1989 Tian An Men incident was a clear statement from Chairman Deng that civic disobedience would not be tolerated.  The crack down on the students and others at Tian An Men on June 4, 1989 was reaffirmation from the leadership that the Communist Party would not tolerate civil unrest; that the Party was in charge and controlled the gun.  While Marxism was dead, Leninism and Party control would retain power.  U.S. condemnation of Beijing for its handling of this incident put a chill in the bilateral relationship.

The 1990’s, with Chairman Jiang Zemin in charge, was a period of economic cooperation, with Prime Minister Ju Rongji working hard to enhance U.S.- China economic cooperation.  The U.S. worked equally hard to get China into the World Trade Organization and to grant China Most Favored Nation economic status.  Politically, however, the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis was a clear message from the U.S. to China that the U.S., in line with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, would come to the defense of Taiwan if China attempted to use military force to invade or intimidate Taiwan.  The introduction of two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 was a stark message to China that the U.S. would not abandon Taiwan.  It also impressed upon the Chinese leadership that China’s military was no match for the U.S.

The beginning of the 21st century witnessed U.S. – China collaboration, on issues dealing with international terrorism, proliferation, piracy on the seas and North Korea, for which China took the lead in hosting Six Party nuclear negotiations with North Korea, starting in August 2003.  It was during this period that the Strategic Dialogue with China was established, headed by the Deputy Secretary of State and China’s Deputy Foreign Minister.  These geopolitical issues were of interest to China and the U.S., thus cooperation was good.  It was also during this period that China started to put more emphasis on building its military capabilities.

Currently, the U.S. – China economic relationship is extensive, with significant U.S. investment in China and significant bilateral trade.  There is considerable bilateral tension with issues dealing with the South and East China seas.  China’s declaration of the nine dash line and its claimed sovereignty over this expansive area has resulted in international condemnation and a U.S. commitment to ensure these sea lanes remain open.  Friction of reported Chinese Cyber intrusions into U.S. public and private entities recently resulted in a bilateral Cyber Agreement, signed by Presidents Obama and Xi that neither country will use cyber to steal the intellectual property and trade secrets of the other country.

The Xi Jinping administration in Beijing is ensuring that the Communist Party not only controls the gun, but remains dominant in all aspects of China’s peaceful rise.  That means the middle class will grow and economic progress will continue to be key priorities.  It also means that the security services will continue to play a dominant role in all aspects of Chinese society, to ensure stability.  The lessons of the  160 years of humiliation, from the Opium War of 1841 to liberation in 1949, followed by internal upheaval with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution,  which resonate with the people, is that when China is weak, militarily and from within, foreign entities will exploit a weak and vulnerable  China.  The late Ming period, when corruption and decadence made imperial China vulnerable to subjugation by the warrior Manchus and the imposition of the Qing Dynasty in 1647, is contemporary history for which all Chinese students are familiar.  Thus Nationalism speaks to the pride with which many Chinese view China’s economic rise and its assertive military.

These historical realities speak to Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, which prosecuted over 16 senior government officials and over 1,500 less senior officials.  Appointing a noted senior Chinese official, Wang Qishan, to head this campaign was testament to Xi’s commitment to make this a successful campaign.    Indeed, this campaign resonates with the people.  Xi Jinping’s assertive policies in the South China Sea also resonates with the people, given their historical humiliation by foreign entities and by its weak military and inability to repel foreign invaders.

Although I believe the South and East china seas probably are negotiable, what is not negotiable are China’s core interests – Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.  Any leader in China who negotiates these issues would be replaced.

China’s leaders will continue to modernize its military, while devoting significant resources on domestic security.  According to recent pronouncements from Beijing, foreign non-governmental agencies will be monitored to ensure these entities do not interfere in China’s domestic affairs. 

Past dealings with China tells us clearly that the government will cooperate with the U.S. and others if it’s in China’s interest.  Lecturing China doesn’t work. 

This piece is based upon a presentation before FPRI’s Competitive Soft Power and Engagement Seminar held in Washington, DC, on May 4, 2016.

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Why the US doesn’t have a Muslim problem, and Europe does

I’m first generation American, with a Pakistani-born father. My dad and his older brother both left Pakistan at the same time, but that is where their similarities end. My uncle, an engineer working for the German Space Agency, never felt German. His son avoided mandatory German military service and struggled with finding his identity. My father, on the other hand, came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, ran a successful business, raised two sons (one of whom joined the United States Navy), and proudly votes in every election be it local, state or federal. The contrast between these two brothers is why Europe has a Muslim problem. It’s not the influx of Muslims; rather, it’s Europe’s inability to welcome and assimilate immigrants. The resulting racial tension creates a perfect recipe for ISIS recruitment among disenfranchised young men. America is doing it right, and we cannot repeat the European model.

Officials believe that over 5,000 Western Europeans have made their way to Syria to support ISIS. However, the actual number is considerably higher according to the Soufan Group, with several European countries contributing a disturbing number of fighters to ISIS: France (1700), Russia (2400), UK (760) and Belgium (470)[1]. For a country like Belgium with only 11 million citizens, having almost 500 citizens join ISIS is a shockingly high number. Furthermore, large pockets of Muslims are concentrated in cities like Brussels where more than a quarter of Belgium’s Muslim population resides. These heavily concentrated Muslim enclaves, according to a 2007 report from the Centre of European Policy Studies, are more likely, than the EU general population, to be poor, segregated and crime-prone neighborhoods[2].  But the question remains, why is this trend of European Muslims joining ISIS happening now?

With the crisis in Syria, Europe has received a massive influx of Muslim refugees. However, with 19 million Muslims in Europe, have the refugee numbers contributed to ISIS’ recruiting efforts? The short answer is no. Of the UN reported 4.2 million Muslim refugees, only 850,000 have fled to Europe. While this is a large number of refugees a large number are women and children, with only 62% being men[3]. The reality is that the Muslim migration started long before the crisis in Syria. In fact it grew as a result of an influx of foreign workers taking advantage of lax guest worker programs after the Second World War. Originally meant to be temporary, these workers became permanent and brought with them waves of descendants. Once settled these immigrants did what first generations immigrants do: they had babies. As a result the Muslim population has been steadily growing, not from immigration but by births. The increase in the number of Muslims is a pattern that is expected to continue through 2030, when they are projected to make up 8% of Europe’s population.  Even though the population has been steadily growing the consistent poverty has contributed to racial tensions between Muslims and Europeans even well before the Paris attacks.

Unlike Europe, the US has a very different track record with Muslim immigrants. According to the Pew Research Center there are 3.3 million (or 1% of the population) Muslims living in the US. Furthermore, in the US Muslims make up 10% of US physicians, are the 2nd most educated group after the Jewish population, are as likely as other American households to report an income of $100,000 or more, and over 6,000 serve in the military[4].  The report found that Muslim Americans are “highly assimilated into American society and . . . largely content with their lives.” Unlike European Muslims the report also found that 80 percent of US Muslims were happy with life in America, and 63 percent said they felt no conflict “between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.”[5] Furthermore, this integration into American culture and society, according to the report, is evident in the rates they participate in various everyday activities such as following local sports teams or watching entertainment TV — all similar to those of the American public generally. Lastly, most telling of their loyalty and sense of inclusion, according to the Pew report, is that half of all Muslim immigrants display the US flag at home, in the office, or on their car.[6] It is this sense of inclusion that in large parts contributes to the fact that only an estimated 250 Americans have joined ISIS – a number far less than the number of Belgium citizens who have gone to Syria and Iraq.

My uncle was one of the immigrants who came to Europe under the guest worker program. Unlike current refugees, neither her nor my father were fleeing war; instead they left to pursue professional careers. My uncle was an educated and a skilled worker who climbed the ranks of German’s fledgling space agency to hold a senior scientist post. While he was professionally successful, his children, who were both born in Germany, struggled. They still feel they are outsiders, not quite German but definitely not Pakistani — a feeling that is repeated as they have children of their own. This experience juxtaposed with that of my father shows a clear difference. Even though I was raised in a predominantly white New York City suburb, I was never considered anything other than American. It is treatment that is extended to my children who, like the subsequent descendants of immigrants, are only aware of the ethnic roots as a distant fact. This is the fundamental difference between European and American Muslims: the ability for American Muslims to assimilate. It is an ability that is key to winning the battle with ISIS, which relies on a steady stream of volunteers. As such, as long as Europe continues to make it difficult for Muslims to integrate and assimilate, ISIS will have a pool of disenfranchised and angry young Europeans from which to recruit.

Naveed Jamali is a Senior Fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an author of How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent.


[1]The Soufan Group, “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq”,, (December 8, 2015).

[2]Richard Youngs and Michael Emerson, “Political Islam and European Foreign Policy: Perspectives from Muslim Democrats of the Mediterranean”,,  (28 November 2007).

[3], “Facts about the Syrian Refugees”,, (Posted on November 23, 2015).

[4] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”,, (May 22, 2007).

[5] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”.

[6] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”.

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How Can America Respond to a Double Standard in War?

When the Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, came under fire by an AC-130 gunship at the beginning of October, there was a swift and sharp media reaction. Human rights activists, lead by UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein immediately accused the U.S. military of committing a war crime, and MSF has said they will consider it a war crime until proven otherwise. The media coverage of the strike amplified that charge for weeks afterward.

The location of the Kunduz hospital strike

There remain many unanswered questions about the Kunduz strike, including how and when the U.S. forces involved in the strike actually learned about the hospital and how they reacted after learning. But in the meantime, it is interesting to compare how both MSF and the international community has responded to this strike, versus other strikes against MSF aid workers. It reveals a troubling double standard about American conduct that policymakers need to learn how to manage.

The closest analogy to the Kunduz strike happened just this week, when the Saudi air force destroyed an MSF hospital in Saada, Yemen. Unlike in Afghanistan, MSF has not called the strike a war crime and the UN has not led the charge to investigate the strike with an independent team (UPDATE: while MSF still does not refer to the strike as a war crime, after I wrote this the Yemen country director did so in a statement to Reuters; however, since many falsely believe the Saudis to be acting on behalf of American interests, the larger point here still applies I think). Saudi officials have admitted to Vice News that they targeted the hospital deliberately, and have accused MSF of not submitting sufficient notification of the hospital’s location to their military. And yet, MSF remains mute about the strike, criticizing it (no one wants to lose a hospital) but not using the same heightened language. And no one has called for a war crimes probe.

The two strikes are similar in a lot of ways: both involve humanitarian workers providing medical care in areas controlled by insurgents (at the time, Kunduz was occupied by the Taliban and Saada is a stronghold of the Houthi insurgency). In both cases, MSF had at some point registered the hospital’s location with the attacking forces, and the attacking forces both believed the hospital had either been overrun or used as a base for engaging in combat. Both strikes could, conceivably, be war crimes if investigations reveal the violated the Law of Armed Conflict governing medical facilities. 

Other attacks on MSF workers reveal the same troubling tendency to only call incidents involving Americans a war crime. In August of this year, two MSF doctors in South Sudan were killed during a battle between government forces and rebels in the town of Leer. Despite photographic evidence that the hospital was the site of violence, including defamatory graffiti on its walls, MSF has not called the incident a war crime and it has not called for any party to the conflict to be investigated for war crimes (more than 30 aid workers have died in South Sudan). 

The pattern repeats elsewhere: in 2014, in the Central Africa Republic three MSF workers were killed in the capital, Bangui. The attack by the mostly-Muslim Seleka rebels targeted the MSF clinic and killed more than a dozen other civilians. MSF did not call the attack a war crime, and UN did not issue a demand for a full investigation into the incident to see if any war crimes were committed. In 2008, a bomb blast at an MSF hospital in Kismayo, Somalia, killed four volunteers. Same pattern: no media campaign to call it a war crime, no UN demand for an independent investigation, no media campaign against the bombers. 

So why is there unique, immediate, and aggressive public outcry when the U.S. is involved in a tragic incident like Kunduz? At least for MSF, the United States is held to a high standard the group simply does not reserve for other parties to conflicts, whether states or non-states. When the Taliban killed five MSF workers in Badghis province, Afghanistan in 2004, the group decided to blame the United States instead of the killers. In MSF’s view, when the U.S. military began providing medical services and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, it put humanitarian workers in danger. Elsewhere, they chalk up even deliberate attacks against their facilities that kill their volunteers as the tragic and horrible consequence of random violence in a conflict zone. But for the U.S., their only explanation is a deliberate strike.

There is a reflexive, open anti-Americanism from the aid group. The group proudly says it treats everyone at their hospitals, regardless of affiliation: Taliban, Boko Haram, civilian. They find moral courage in treating even “bad” people because of their belief in the humanitarian principle of treating all people equally… unless the U.S. is involved. One soldier who deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 has told me that one MSF facility refused to treat an injured child because she was brought to the hospital by U.S. troops. Their laudable commitment to medical ethics and political neutrality in war seems to falter when Americans get involved.

But reflexive anti-Americanism probably does not tell the whole story: plenty of aid groups are deeply skeptical, even mistrustful, of the U.S. military without displaying MSF’s double standards. Globally, the U.S. is held to a higher standard than any other party to conflict, partly as a consequence of America’s unmatched military power, partly because of American global economic and cultural dominance, and partly because of a general sense of anti-imperialism that influences many internationalists. 

This double standard creates a dilemma for policymakers. In war, mistakes happen, people get coordinates confused, and sometimes the wrong target gets struck and innocent people die. The U.S. military, however, is expected to operate with zero mistakes, or at least a zero tolerance for mistakes: collateral damage, targeting mix ups, and acting on flawed intelligence are simply not acceptable to a broad swath of the international community. It can put U.S. troops at greater risk when restrictive ROEs (and rhetoric aside American ROEs exceed the minimum standards required by international law) limit how they can respond to attacks — such as if some Taliban militants set up a firing position from a hospital and Americans cannot respond in kind.

The politics of America’s wars have not caught up to the political reality of American force around the world. Within Congress, and among candidates for President, there is a broad agreement that American military force can and should be used for good around the world — that American forces should directly intervene in conflicts from Libya to Syria to Afghanistan — but do not account for either domestic or international reactions to how they operate. You see the same push from policymakers and working-level analysts: a demand for force to address crises, but little desire to handle the political aftereffects. 

In Afghanistan, the result has been a muddling defensive action as the Taliban advance across the country and American troops have fewer and fewer options available to them for defense or counterattack. In Iraq, it limits the U.S. to limited air strikes, which have had few consequences for the ISIS militants they target. A zero-risk approach to war, where troops are kept out of harm’s way but civilians are somehow protected, is not possible. What is possible, however, in a world where American troops are subjected to a double standard no one else is, remains unclear. Policymakers need to start addressing how to respond to this impossible standard in a proactive and deliberate way.

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