Google, China, Hillary, and Roswell

What is the Obama State Department doing on this Google-China thing? Nothing explicable by any prior actions or expression of priorities.

Is this a great country or what?  While doing some research on Google, China, and Hillary Clinton (who had dinner with Google’s CEO last week and performed very credibly as his mouthpiece this week), I came across a tidbit I just can’t keep to myself.  The Paradigm Research Group (PRG), which pesters the federal government to release files on Roswell, NM so we don’t have to, has been demanding the release of files relating to a previous assault on the Clintons for release of Roswell-related files, back in the mid-1990s.

Got that?  PRG put its Open Letter to Hillary Clinton on the web in April 2008, and reported afterward that Google apparently manipulated its search engine to prevent the Open Letter from coming up at the top of a Google search (on, if you were wondering, “open letter to Hillary Clinton”).  Read PRG’s argument for yourself if you want to form an opinion; neutrality reigns here.

Things get more fascinating if you pursue a few links, however.  Here’s something you don’t see every day.  There’s a whole bunch here.  Who knew?  Our Secretary of State is being pursued relentlessly for what some indefatigable theorists out there think she knows about UFOs.

That is so cool.

Here I was, just wondering why Secretary Clinton was so Hillary-on-the-spot with her vocal support of Google’s recent China gambit, and this glinting gemstone comes to light.  I still haven’t fully formed an opinion on the original, pedestrian question as to the whys of Google’s move and the State Department’s unusually prompt and specific endorsement of it.  I don’t attribute things like this to Trilateral Commission conspiracies or even back-room baksheesh, so my thinking is that the Obama administration is looking for bargaining chips with China.

As a number of commentators have, with straight faces, pointed out, Obama is becoming disappointed with the unsatisfactory results of his charm-and-appeasement offensive with Beijing.  At the behest of union supporters, Congressional Democrats authorized a big tariff on tires imported from China in September, and Obama has appeared to be trying to use calibration of that tariff in a carrot-and-stick approach throughout the fall, to get China onboard with sanctions against Iran.  Also as a nod to the unions, Obama filed a complaint against China with the WTO, in the summer of 2009.  The complaint alleges that China is hoarding raw materials, with the effect of price manipulation in world markets.  (Half a dozen other nations, including, most recently, Canada, have joined the complaint.)

With all this positive energy in the trade realm, it shouldn’t surprise us that China’s position is that we’re full of it, and China’s going to do what she has to do.  The US and the EU have been urging Beijing to let the yen rise – to revalue it – for weeks now, and the Chinese are having none of that.  A low yen keeps their exports relatively cheap and attractive, and penalizes competitors.  Earlier this week, an official who administers China’s sovereign wealth fund, in a speech to an academic audience that made ripples through the financial columns around the world, asserted that China is in a position now to affect the value of the US dollar (in effect, to exercise a veto in managing its float), and predicted that it would rise in 2010 while the yen would remain soft.

Unlike Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the Chinese don’t go around letting fly with the verbal inanities with no appreciation of their impact.  Any such statement would have been premeditated, even if the timing was not pre-vetted.  The Chinese official later clarified that he was offering a personal opinion in an academic environment, but in fact, his comments confirmed existing suspicions abroad rather than being actually surprising.

There’s a lot of jockeying for position erupting out there.  As the nations glare at each other over trade and currency policy, China has also announced a major change in her security policy:  she will now embrace the concept of national missile defense, rather than insisting on mutual assured destruction as the basis of global security.  I suggested reasons for that here.

There was also an unseemly rush by Russia and China to sign fresh aid and cooperation agreements with Yemen in the week after the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt.  They have decades of arms sales, bribery, and influence purchasing invested in Yemen, and if the US increases our footprint there it will represent a significant and unprecedented event, from the standpoint of the geographic distribution of clients in the region.  Yemen’s not “ours,” Yemen’s “theirs.”  They don’t have to be Soviet Communists to read a map and care about where the best footholds are in the Middle East; they just have to be Russia and China.  It would be downright stupid to assume they are incapable of seeing, as quickly as we have or faster, what we are likely to think we need to do in Yemen – and they will be standing there with suitcases full of cash and container ships full of weapons, ready to maneuver around every enlargement of our objectives and operations.

So we come to Google’s move with China.  The business press thinks Secretary Clinton was briefed on this move last week, during her dinner with CEO Eric Schmidt.  The fanfare with which Google has gone about this suggests to me that Clinton was at least positive, and very likely encouraging.  Industry pundits have pointed out that it would have been more typical for Google – or any other big internet services company – to do this quietly, and leave both Google and China room to maneuver, save face, and reach an agreement.  Google’s inveterate willingness to operate in this accommodating manner makes the take-it-or-leave-it posture of the 12 January announcement out of character, at the very least.

The uncompromising Google statement, and Clinton’s synchronous endorsement, look from here like the result of more than prior agreement.  They look like the seizing of an opportunity already sought – independently – by the State Department, to put China in a position to want to bargain.

How this would be done using the Google threat is the subject of much conjecture around the blogosphere.  A number of analysts suggest that the US might make the case to the WTO that government censorship is a restraint-of-trade issue, and file a pathbreaking complaint against China.  They cite Clinton’s upcoming 21 January speech, on technology policy as an issue of international relations, and postulate that her on-cue support of Google’s complaints against Beijing is connected to the overall posture that will be outlined then.

All of that remains to be seen, of course.  I’m not convinced that the Obama administration will do as well at hardball bargaining as the Chinese, at least not when the realm of operations at issue is the internet.  Since the internet-governing body ICANN ceased reporting to the US Department of Commerce last fall, China’s options for branching out and basically creating her own top-level domain(s) and protocols have been institutionalized – instead of it being an act of deliberate isolation, China (and anyone else) can do a lot now that there is no longer an a priori institutional prejudice against.  (There is a good and accessible summary here of some key consequences from the 2009 shake-up of ICANN, its governing rules, and its relationship with the US DOC.)

ICANN also reports now solely and ultimately to its Government Advisory Committee, on which any nation that wants representation can have it.  The GAC’s December conference notes are somewhat humorous for the hint they give of the bureaucratic impediments that lie in store for the makers of internet rules, now that there is no US DOC in the picture to break ties and impose efficiency.  ICANN’s professionals are all still at work, but there’s no official “big dog” overseeing concepts and implementation from the very top echelon now – and the nations on the GAC have already figured out they don’t agree on everything.

In an evolving situation like this, the government of China will be far less constrained than the US government is by the obligation to guarantee regularity for its people’s access to a functioning internet.  There would be visceral resistance on all sides to upsetting a status quo that is so deeply embedded in everyone’s commercial life – but the outer wall is already breached, simply by the fact that ICANN and the GAC have avowedly shifted to a new basis of operations that is not subject to the final review of the US DOC any more.  It’s no longer an official hurdle, for China to propose to do something the US doesn’t approve of in the most basic level of internet operations; indeed, on ICANN’s new basis for operations, accommodating the wishes of all users is explicitly to be prioritized.

If Obama tries to strong-arm China over the internet, it’s at least as possible that China will begin setting up her own proprietary infrastructure, and making business with China contingent on subscribing to it, as that she will knuckle to US pressure.  In fact, if I were China, I’d see this as an excellent opportunity – a costly one, to be sure, and one to be watched and prepared for, and only seized under certain conditions.  But the conditions could very well emerge in the next few years.

It is not in the US national interest to promote the emergence of those conditions.  It will be harder, not easier, to manage our relations with China on multiple levels, if Beijing starts claiming a list of inconvenient multilateralist privileges under the new, improved ICANN governance.  Nothing the Obama administration has done so far has suggested that it is motivated strongly by concerns about freedom of speech, religion, or association; Obama’s comments about internet freedom in China were tepid and weasel-worded.  Hillary Clinton seems more likely to be endorsing the Google complaint as a pretext for ratcheting up diplomatic disputes with China – and that is a dangerous game.

Again, we will see where this all goes.  I hope the Obama administration is not manufacturing dispute actions against China as a way of racking up bargaining chips.  That would be Chicago politics, or Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian” foreign policy, and the opposite of statesmanship.  Whatever we do in this regard, we will find that Beijing will play harder ball than Washington has the latitude to.  Going on a “technology policy” crusade, assuming Hillary Clinton fulfills the promise of next week’s speech, comes out of the blue for the American people and our expectations about Obama’s priorities – if this is a deliberate maneuver, it’s a serious question whether Obama can really manage the consequences his administration would be inviting.

But at least we’ve got that Hillary-and-the-UFOs connection out in the open now.

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