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Washington’s World: April 14th – April 20th, 2014

Although news from Ukraine, including the increasingly shrill tone from NATO, the latest round in the P5+1 talks with Iran together with the rejection of Iran's nominee as Ambassador to the UN and the deepening travails of the Middle East Peace Process occupy the headlines and commentary pages, the recently concluded visit to China and Japan by Secretary of Defense Hagel may presage more important long-term implications for the US strategic posture. Officials are still analyzing the tone of the various meetings, including with President Xi Jinping, but they are expressing private concern to us that the exchanges showed even greater gaps between the two sides than had been expected. Originally conceived as a preparatory trip for President Obama's visit to Asia at the end of the month, Hagel was attempting to explore ideas for a “new model” for the US-China relationship first raised between Xi and Obama in June 2013. In particular, the US is hoping that this will allow for extensive cooperation between Washington and Beijing over the multiple territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. The sharpness of the Chinese reaction dismayed Pentagon officials. As one commented privately to us: “Hagel always risked treading on Chinese toes during this trip, but their immediate and tough rejection of our ideas was discouraging.” Given that Obama will be visiting US allies in East and Southeast Asia but not China, he will be minded to stress the US commitment to these nations, implicitly against what US officials regard as Chinese bullying. There is every likelihood, therefore, that his visit will highlight rather than mediate US tensions with Beijing. As we have explained before, US planners are fully aware of the care with which they need to manage US-China relations and there is a genuine commitment to avoid a militarization of the current disagreements. Openings for cooperative dialogue with China ar actively sought, for example next week’s exchange on North Korea. However, as one military planner put it to us: “We see the region from entirely different perspectives. We believe that disputes need to be settled through multilateral negotiation, including with US. Beijing thinks the disputes are bilateral and does not regard our involvement as legitimate.” Reconciling those differing approaches will require diplomacy of a high order.

Key Judgments

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