Belmont Club

Of Jumbo Jets, Boxers -- and Hillary

Up next on the world’s via dolorsa: Saudi Arabia. Karen Eliot writes at the Washington Post that “from afar, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia appears immune from the turmoil and uncertainty engulfing nations such as Syria, Egypt and Libya. But rather than being an oasis of stability in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is nearing its own crisis point.”

In fact you could say it was a timebomb waiting to go off. The fuses smoldering beneath its serene facade are succession, money and theology. “The three historic pillars of Saudi stability are cracking. Massive oil revenue, which has bought public passivity, is threatened by peaked production and sharply increased domestic energy consumption. A supportive Wahhabi Islamic establishment that bestowed legitimacy on the House of Saud is increasingly fractious and is losing public credibility. And now, the royal family is in danger of division as it is forced to confront generational succession.”

And they are not styrofoam pillars, but supports on which the region and Western energy depend. The President has a plan for dealing with it. He must. We just don’t know what it is.

So for the foreseeable future, the royal Saudi 747, richly appointed but mechanically flawed, flies on, its cockpit crowded with geriatric pilots. The plane is losing altitude and gradually running out of fuel. On board, first class is crowded with princely passengers, while frustrated Saudi citizens sit crammed in economy. Among them are Islamic fundamentalists who want to turn the plane around, as well as terrorists who aim to hijack it to a destination unknown. Somewhere on board there may be a competent new flight team that could land the plane safely, but the prospects of a capable pilot getting a chance at the controls seems slim. And so the 747 remains in the sky, perhaps to be hijacked or ultimately to crash.

I'm Just the President of the United States

In the meantime Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in the Pacific hoping among other things to find out what is happening in China. China and Japan, the second and third largest economies in the world respectively, are at each other’s diplomatic throats.

In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy on Friday evening, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta cast himself as a mediator in the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, which both see as sovereign territory. “What we’ve urged both China and Japan to do is to resolve these disputes as peacefully as possible as well, and that will be one of the things I will urge Japan to do,” Panetta said …

The elephant in the room, of course, is the mystery that is China. Developing a trusting, transparent relationship is key to good relations, Panetta said, and on his must-do list while there. “That’s one of the things I’m going to urge,” he said. …

But he has yet another challenge in China, he acknowledged. Xi Jinping, the vice-president and China’s heir apparent, hasn’t been seen for two weeks.

“One of my challenges is to find out where he’s at,” Panetta joked.

Xi came out of hiding to meet Panetta. The Washington Post reports that “this is Panetta’s first trip to China as defense chief, and it is expected to include several historic visits, including a meeting Wednesday with the country’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, just days after the ruler reappeared in public after a two-week absence.”

All the same Panetta was worried. “Just before landing in Tokyo on Sunday, Mr. Panetta told correspondents aboard his jet that he was worried that territorial disputes in the Pacific raise ‘the possibility that a misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence.'”  And violence between these two giants would not be a counterinsurgency affair. It would be tempting to put it all down to misunderstanding, but the NYT was beginning to suspect that the Chinese, unlike the Arabs, were not simply inflamed by a YouTube video and were instead orchestrating the demonstrations for their own purposes. In other words it’s deliberate.

Complicating the diplomatic dispute, Japan’s newly appointed ambassador to China, Shinichi Nishimiya, died Sunday after falling ill last week in Tokyo, according to Japanese and Chinese news reports. He was appointed ambassador last week and was to assume his duties next month. …

There was evidence on Sunday that some Chinese government officials were involved in the protests. In the western city of Xi’an, activists on the Internet identified one of the officials as the police chief.

The political analyst Li Weidong said the official tolerance fit a longstanding pattern of behavior in which the Chinese government uses mass protests to further its foreign policy goals. In a text message sent to friends and associates, Mr. Li compared the current protesters to the Boxers, a quasi-religious group that was used by the Qing dynasty to oppose foreign incursions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Beijing dares not to fight, but it’s unable to talk it over either,” Mr. Li wrote. “So it has to employ Boxers, using product boycott to press Japan.”

It is probably fortunate that Leon Panetta instead of Hillary Clinton or even President Obama is in Asia. When Hillary was in China a few weeks ago the leadership went out there way to insult her. The Guardian reported:

Personal and stinging attacks in the state media heralded the US secretary of state’s arrival in Beijing. “Many people in China dislike Hillary Clinton,” said an editorial in the state-run Global Times. “She has brought new and extremely profound mutual distrust between the mainstream societies of the two countries.” Such stringent remarks were extremely unusual on the eve of a visit by a US secretary of state, noted Shi Yinhong, an expert on the bilateral relationship.

The Washington Post noted that Xi was too sick to see Hillary on her earlier trip though the nature of his indisposition was not revealed.

Panetta’s meeting with Xi is particularly notable because he had not been seen since Sept. 1, and had canceled sessions with a number of other foreign dignitaries since then, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Chinese government has yet to explain Xi’s public absence, but there had been rumors that he had been ill.

The arrival Panetta and his reception by the Chinese may be an indirect expression of Beijing’s lack of enthusiasm, or even contempt for Barack Obama and his coterie of foreign policy advisers like Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. The Chinese may regard Obama and this group as useless to converse with. And hence Panetta.

Big in Japan

Not so big in China

As for Hillary, will she get her Talking Points straight?

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