China Walks the Middle Path Around Obama

American President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao

by Collin A. Spears

In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s first presidential trip to Asia, many of his more ardent critics and fervent supporters are left to ponder the same question – what did he accomplish?  This is especially the case in regard to his much anticipated visit to China.  Maybe it is more appropriate to ask why Obama’s foreign policy objectives were met with a lukewarm response from Beijing.  Further, were there any other possible outcomes considering the divergent interests of America and China?  So, what were the issues that Obama felt were most important to address on his tour?

Southeast Asia

One of Obama’s stops was at the APEC Summit in Singapore; the main purpose was which was to shore up relations with the Association of Southeast Asia (ASEAN) member states.  After a decade of neglect by the Bush Administration, China’s power in the region has grown immensely to the point where it has gained control of large sectors of the Laotian, Cambodian, and Myanmar economies.  It has also made significant political and economic gains with traditional U.S. allies, such as the Philippines and Thailand.  On the other hand, it has also engendered some level of fear and suspicion with many in the region, especially Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia.   This fear is not just due to China’s growing economic might, but also its military strength and territorial claims in the South China Sea.

America is trying to walk the middle path, realizing that China’s increasing penetration into the region is not a zero-sum game; the U.S. wants a constructive working relationship with Beijing.   However, Southeast Asia is flush with agricultural and natural resources, and is home to more than half of the world’s annual merchant shipping traffic.  The geopolitical reality is that China’s access to the region will increase, and America cannot afford to be shut out of the region.  In a rapprochement strategy, Secretary of State Clinton announced at the Asian Summit in July that, “America is back…” Her various trips to the region in the past few months have been an attempt to strengthen relations and reassure allies that America’s interest in the region has not lapsed.  Democratic U.S. Senator Jim Webb, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, has met with the Burmese junta, the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments in the last six months.  Although, not traditional allies to the U.S., Senator Webb has offered conditional American support to these regimes in order to balance China’s influence.  Obviously, any nation would like to have room to maneuver politically, instead of just being a “vassal state”.

Obama’s new engagement strategies with Cambodia, Laos, have generated significant criticism from its domestic political base over concern that this new pragmatism will come at the expense of human rights.   From a strategic perspective, the Chinese relationship with states like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos is a far more important consideration than human rights.  The Obama Administration sees an opportunity to increase its soft power in Southeast Asia.  Political rapprochement with Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and Myanmar is key to a not so covert Chinese containment strategy, but any movement in this direction will take years.

Getting allies to help control and moderate China’s rise has been illusive.  Over the last decade Washington has called on India, Japan, Australia, and Indonesia to assist it with security in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.  None of these nations have been especially responsive.  In fact, America’s closest ally in the region, Japan, with recent elections, appears to be moving toward a more Asia-centric policy, although it pays lip service to the special relationship between the U.S. and itself.

As far as ASEAN, historically, the majority of member-states have refrained from criticizing each other or any Non-anglophone State in the region.  Rather than comparing ASEAN to the present day European Union, it is more instructive to compare it to the fiercely nationalistic Europe of the 18th and early 19th centuries, while remaining cognoscente that Southeast Asia is vastly more diverse culturally, religiously, politically, and economically.  Criticism in the past, might have led to military conflict.  There is no indication that ASEAN will take a collectively different stance in the near future.  This is explains why Obama failed to get an ASEAN communiqué mentioning political prisoners in Myanmar.

Knowing the limitations in its own relationship in the region, Beijing is watching American activities closely, especially in regard to states like Myanmar.  A US-Myanmar detente would undoubtedly be viewed as a threat to Beijing’s strategic interests in the region. A Myanmar more sympathetic to the US may be less willing to support China’s projection of power into the Indian Ocean and risks negating advantages gained for the security of its sea lines of communication through avoiding the Malacca Straits.   China is far more interested in its own power projection and securing its energy supplies than working with the U.S. in the region, instead they would prefer the U.S. maintain the Bush policies of neglect.

Chinese Currency Manipulation

For some time, various members of the U.S. Congress have complained over Chinese currency manipulation.  Just after Obama took office, members of his administration actually stated that China is not manipulating its currency, which is a fantastic statement; because a person of the meanest intellect and base knowledge of currency exchange can quickly conclude they are as anyone can look up the official rate that China maintains.  The Chinese Yuan (also RMB) has been pegged to the $US at a low value for many years.  Despite the general media bent, the Obama Administration can stop this situation at any time, but it is not in American interests to do so.  That is a hard sell for the public, so the ceremonial complaints to please economic nationalist constituents domestically require Obama to give lip serve to the issue.

China pegs its currency to prevent inflation domestically and to make its exports competitive internationally.  This is a leading cause of the U.S. trade deficit with China, but the reality is that China is not as stable socially as many in the West believe, there are thousands of “mass incidents” a year, China’s words for riots.  Cognizant of this, Beijing is interested in maintaining stability and economic growth at all costs, because that is where the CCP draws its legitimacy.

The Obama Administration can sell the dollar at a low value to the Yuan.  In the long term, this would pressure Chinese business to exchange at the U.S. rate and ignore the official Chinese exchange rate. However, in the short term, it would cause financial instability, particularly, inflation in the U.S., at a time when the U.S. is already attempting to recover from a deep recession.  Most importantly, it could potentially destabilize China; something that most serious foreign policy analyst would agree is not good for America’s economic and political interests in East Asia.  It would also cause tension with China, which will make China less far less likely to cooperate on issues where the United States needs China, such as Iran, North Korea, and Climate Change.

North Korea

The United States has tried to apply pressure to China, hoping to persuade it to be a “responsible” global actor.  This actually means that China should work with the West in various international institutions on goals the West deems appropriate, which is not likely to happen unless China’s interests coincide with the West.  Case in point, the United States expectations that China should help reign in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and get the North to return to six-party talks.  It seems China has helped convince the North to return to talks, but this is really a non-issue, as neither side is naive enough to believe that will actually accomplish anything over the long term. North Korea will remain a nuclear state, with de facto acceptance by the larger powers in the region. The reason is China.  Beijing will not cut off Kim Jong Il, because China is more afraid of an American friendly United Korea on its border and a refugee crisis, in the event of the collapse of the Kim family regime.

For its part, the U.S. is not concerned with North Korea launching a nuclear strike on Japan or South Korea, but the U.S. is worried about the North selling nuclear material to other rogue states (Iran, and it seems also Burma is working with North Korea in some capacity).  The U.S. will not attack North Korea because North Korea can level Seoul in 45 minutes and easily overrun the U.S. troops on the DMZ.  The situation is a stalemate.  Kim Jongil is eccentric, but he is not an irrational actor, if one considers his only concern is maintaining his family’s power.  He has managed to outmaneuver the last two U.S. Presidents, Obama will fair no better.  Obama should continue to push China on ship inspections in order to limit its ability to sale weapons, nuclear materials, and drugs, which besides Chinese aid, is the regimes primary means of revenue.  Still, Obama should have realistic expectations of China’s willingness to help.

Iran

Chinese President Hu Jintao has proposed a similar strategy for dealing with Iran as with North Korea,  basically stalling and paying lip service, primarily because China has not decided how much of an obstructionist role it wants to play, if any, in hampering Iran’s goals of gaining a nuclear weapon.  Make no mistake; Iran wants a nuclear bomb, which is strategically rational.  Iran is surrounded on all sides by the United States military or its allies.  Due to the nature of Iran’s relationship with the U.S., since the Islamic revolution and general Iranian suspicion of the West, it is not surprising that Iran wants a means to insure itself against a possible American invasion or an Israel air strike.

The U.S. is moving cautiously in regard to Iran, maybe more so than Europe and definitely at a slower pace than many hawks in Israel would like, primarily out of fear of an Iranian retaliation in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel to any air strikes on its nuclear facilities.  It remains unclear as to what the true nature of Iranian influence in any of these places is which is critical to anticipating any proxy attack by the Islamic Republic.  With two wars and a military stretched thin over a long period it appears the Obama Administration is not willing to risk an outright provocation, it also is not willing to allow Israel to do so, as any Israeli attack will be blamed on the U.S.  The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it has refused to give Israel bunker busting bombs that might penetrate the various underground Iranian facilities.   Any strike without this technology will only set Iran back in their nuclear program, not destroy it.

So the Obama administration is desperate for a way out, it is pressing Iran to accept a deal, whereby Iran will send its nuclear fuel to Russian for processing.  If Iran does not accept, the U.S. will need the ability to apply harsh sanctions against the regime.  These sanctions will mean little if China is not onboard.   Iran is China’s third largest foreign supplier of oil.  So far, China has spoken characteristically vague about the issue, a sign that Zhongnanhai they do not see the situation as urgent as the U.S. and Europe.  China’s primary concern, is gaining access to energy resources to maintain its economic growth, not making a diplomatic statement by harming itself in order to punish Iran when it is no strategic threat.  Historically, China has voted for weak sanctions against Iran at the U.N.  There is no reason to believe that this policy will change.

The Future

Obama’s policies and diplomatic approach in dealing with China are not the reason he seemed to accomplish so little, other than setting a framework for future discussions, on his recent trip.  The problem Obama has, even more than his predecessor, is that China is stronger in relation to the United States than it ever has been.  Further, China has made its cooperation critical to various U.S. interests, including the covering of billions in U.S. debt during a shaky American economic recovery.  In this way, the Chinese have effectively insulated themselves from bulk of U.S. pressure.  In fact it is the U.S. that has begun to tip-toe around issues sensitive to China, such as Tibet, human rights, and currency manipulation.  The world is no longer one where the center of political gravity is in the Atlantic, with the U.S. as the leader of a Western + Japan club.  Mr. Obama, and future presidents, will have to learn to work with China, because it is no longer in a position to dictate terms.  For many in Washington and America as whole, it is indeed a brave new world.

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