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

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

Where we are now

Evans-Pritchard is right: the West is being tested. Time after time China pushes incrementally for more. China wants regional hegemony. It hordes rare earth minerals that are vital to advanced technologies. It demands that an EU arms embargo be ended. It expands its naval capabilities and it allows its military wings to push their commercial interests. It picks squabbles not just with Japan but also South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam (the region is awash with territorial disputes).

Aaron Friedberg, also writing in “Foreign Affairs”, notes that (according to Pentagon planners) China is pursuing a policy of “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD): it is developing low-cost missile technology to allow it to target most bases in the Western Pacific, and it is developing the ability to sink enemy surface vessels. China knows that for Western allies the US is indeed currently the “indispensable nation”, the holder of the ring, even if the American Left is too abashed to say so. China thus wants a weakened US presence in order that neighbours pay proper political and strategic tribute to the Middle Kingdom.   

Obama’s “pivot” response has been mostly feeble. Sending marines to Australia is not wrong but it is not impressive. Nor is the deployment of resources that are not new but are transferred from other theatres. The US is apparently bereft of a strategy to manage or contain China, and its lack of credibility threatens to destabilise the region.    

What the US Should Do

We cannot know whether the Obama administration’s lack of strategic clarity will strengthen Chinese doves (“no need to worry about America”) or hawks (“They are weak: take things”). But modern wars are neither deterred nor won from a defensive or muddled position.

The US needs to maintain its defence technology superiority, have the ability to 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.

US policy towards China currently does not even have a label, let alone a strategic vision. “Détente”, “Ostpolitick” and “M.A.D.” were clear to friend and foe alike. China must know what the US is about; it must value the US as a partner but fear it as a potential enemy. The vast resources of the American economy must underpin a strong military and the US must be clear that it values its own system and deplores China’s mercantilist authoritarianism.

Obama’s “nothing to see here folks” approach is well tested (c.f. the killing of its ambassador in Libya) but wrong and dangerous. “Talking endlessly and giving Romney some stick” will please the non-Fox media but the policy vacuum is detrimental to the long-term interests of the US and the West.

In the US presidential election China is usually only mentioned in relation to trade. Obama says he will crack down on Chinese auto part imports (tactically good… for auto workers). Romney says he will label China a “currency manipulator” (true, and strategically well founded – China is a free rider in global trade and its manipulation contributed to the credit crunch).

But the China Challenge is not simply a trade issue: it is about the world order and American leadership. The US needs a leader with a strategic vision that manifests itself in consistent policy responses and initiatives

Surely we know by now that these issues are beyond the capabilities of the poseur that is Obama. He dodges the problem of emergent powers just as he dodges the domestic deficit. Let’s hope that a President Romney will arrive next January to restore strategic clarity, signal faith in Western values, and face down with restraint but purpose the existential threat that China represents to US leadership.       

Andrew Gibson lived in East Asia for nine years and is a regular contributor to The Commentator

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