Chinese whispers: Obama's muddled Beijing strategy

The US needs to maintain its defence tech superiority, control sea lanes to China, bolster its alliances with middling military powers such as Japan and India - and it needs to spend the money to do all this

Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao
Andrew Gibson
On 27 September 2012 08:40

Japan and China’s dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, which flared up again this summer, has been presented by some as a slightly absurd Gilbert and Sullivan affair that need not concern us. Others, such as Max Hastings in the Daily Mail, have set the dispute in the context of longstanding Japan-China antipathy. Both views are wrong.

This dispute is about an emergent Super Power, China, and its substantial policy challenges to the status quo powers – most obviously the US.

The Obama administration knows it is being tested. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is busy implementing a “Pivot” towards Asia-Pacific, whereby the US will focus its energies and resources on that region.

Is this policy credible, and how might China react? 

View from China

China’s decline is visible before its peak has been reached. True, it runs a huge trade surplus with the West, holds over a trillion dollars of US T-bills, is making commercial inroads globally, is catching up technologically, is modernising militarily and is urbanising fast. But it also faces an aging population, has hostile neighbours and provincial populations, is riddled by corruption and its military is commercially meddlesome and divided.

The Chinese Communist Party has little legitimacy beyond delivering economic growth. For China’s leadership, the temptation to stoke nationalism through revanchism is strong.

Against this background, a nervous Chinese leadership is wary of the US and its motives. An insightful article in Foreign Affairs (Nathan and Scobell, Sept/Oct ’12) notes that many in the Chinese policymaking establishment subscribe to “offensive realism” – the view that, in this context, the US will not accept a strong China and will do all it can, despite soothing words, to weaken Beijing.

Hence the US’ network of security alliances and bases in the region; the shipping of new naval defence systems to Japan; the continuing support for Taiwan; moral support for Tibet; the maintenance of Western norms in international fora; the pivot towards Asia, etc.

On this view, China should not trust the US, should especially ensure it controls the sea lanes around its vast seaboards and beyond, and perhaps (as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard posited is happening) calibrate confected crises in order to test the US and see how far the US will go in restraining China. The big question for the Chinese is of course, would the US protect a besieged Taiwan?  

View from the US   

After the immediate question of Iranian nuclear capabilities, the rise of China is the biggest foreign policy question facing the US. How is the Obama administration doing? It recognises the challenge, hence Panetta’s “pivot”. But what is the policy substance?

Reflecting the personality and disposition of the President himself, US policy sways between various ways of “making nice”. By seeking common ground the US and China will – it is hoped – learn to get along. Staffers trust that the supposed magnetic personality of Obama will lead the US and China to bask in the values that are proclaimed mutual and indeed universal.

Even when Panetta went to meet his Chinese opposite number regarding the Senkaku flare up he couldn’t help but butter up his hosts.  

Obama’s fantasy pitch began in September 2009, with the US adoption of “strategic reassurance”. This involved downplaying links with the Dalai Lama, say, or bigging up cooperation with China on climate change. Is this engagement? Appeasement? Containment? What does it mean for China’s nervous neighbours? The US is resolved to do what, exactly?

Recently, that concept has been dropped (for want of clarity?) There is a policy vacuum for a recurring condition – handling a rising power – that ought to be central to every State Department textbook.

We are left with the US’ new emphasis on a network of defence and other partnerships with the various actors on China’s borders; the famed “pivot”. How credible is this containment, if containment it be, when the US President has backtracked from commitments elsewhere: “leading from behind” in Libya; second fiddle to Russia in Syria; inconstant in central and eastern Europe over missiles; distant from Israel; confused in Iraq and Afghanistan. And who would be deterred by a President who allows, for domestic partisan purposes, a fiscal cliff to loom that would gut the US defence budget?

What is Obama going to do if China moves on Taiwan, or on Japanese islets? Hold a seminar and laud shared values? Strength only deters if it is backed by credible will. Can we envisage Obama advocating Western values or interests without immediately caveating what they are?

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