Obama’s Legacy in Asia: A Growing Rivalry?

PRINCETON, NJ — President Obama’s last trip to Asia provides an opportunity to look back at events in the region over the past eight years. The President’s two terms have been marked above all by a significant intensification of the long-standing geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China. While U.S. policies may have contributed to this trend in certain respects, they were not its fundamental cause. Rather, the shift was driven primarily by developments within China itself. The next president will have to craft a more consistent and effective approach for dealing with a strategic competitor that is increasingly capable, self-confident, and assertive, even aggressive, in international affairs — but whose rulers remain deeply insecure about their grip on domestic political power.

The 2008–09 global financial meltdown that ushered President Obama into office had contradictory effects on Beijing, magnifying its arrogance as well as its anxieties. On the one hand, China’s seeming success in managing the crisis encouraged a sense of optimism about the future. America’s power and influence appeared to be declining more rapidly than many analysts had expected while China’s were growing faster than most had dared to hope. At the same time, the crisis raised the spectre of slower growth and social unrest, underscoring the need for economic reform.

The purpose of the so-called “pivot” was to preserve a favorable balance of power in East Asia

From 2009 onwards, these two tendencies combined to encourage a more forward-leaning approach to external affairs and, in particular, a tougher stance in China’s long-standing territorial disputes with its maritime neighbors. Even as it sought to advance its claims to control most of the water, resources, and airspace off China’s coasts, the Chinese Communist Party’s regime used confrontations with foreign foes to stir patriotic sentiment and boost its popularity at home. Under the weak collective leadership of Hu Jintao, these efforts had a tentative, improvisational quality. Since his elevation at the end of 2012, Xi Jinping has made them a central part of his program for restoring Chinese greatness while simultaneously bolstering the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Obama administration has reacted to these developments by attempting to adjust the mix of ingredients in America’s two-part, post-Cold War strategy for dealing with China. The administration sought at first to emphasize engagement, highlighting the importance of deeper cooperation to deal with shared challenges such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the global economic slowdown. Together, with their more immediate benefits, these initiatives were aimed at encouraging China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the existing international system. Albeit unintentionally, this accommodating approach may have actually reinforced perceptions of American weakness and fueled Chinese assertiveness.

By 2011, Washington was compelled to respond by boosting the balancing portion of its strategic portfolio: deepening defense cooperation with regional partners, pledging to increase the portion of its air and naval assets dedicated to the Asia-Pacific, and unveiling a new (and incompletely thought out) doctrine for countering China’s growing “anti-access/area denial” capabilities. The purpose of the so-called “pivot” (later “rebalance”) was to preserve a favorable balance of power in East Asia, thereby reassuring U.S. friends and deterring Chinese attempts at coercion or overt aggression.

During his second term, President Obama has struggled to find the right recipe for dealing with Xi Jinping’s China, holding open the prospect of enhanced cooperation and improved relations while at the same time seeking to counter Beijing’s ongoing military buildup and stymie its creeping expansionism in the maritime domain. As the administration prepares to leave office the results are unimpressive on both counts. On close inspection there is less to the much-ballyhooed breakthroughs on climate change and cyberespionage than meets the eye. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, billed as the economic pillar of the rebalance, appears to be dead on arrival. Instead of simply taking its place as a member in good standing of an American-led international system, China seems increasingly intent on challenging some key elements of the existing order. Meanwhile, the U.S. military’s ability to respond to China’s buildup remains hobbled by budgetary constraints, even as Beijing pushes ahead with its program of “land reclamation” and militarization in the South China Sea. Rather than wait for a crisis to force the issue, whoever is elected in November 2016, should seize the opportunity to order a thorough review of U.S. China strategy and the assumptions on which it is based.

Originally published at www.gmfus.org on August 31, 2016.

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