Obama, China and a shift in status quo?

President Obama has left office with several policy successes on record, but ultimately, America remains divided, insecure at home and overstretched abroad, with waning authority and credibility in former spheres of influence. Two prolonged conflicts, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2008 recession had already strained the country’s military and economic resources. But America’s continual mismanagement of upheavals in different regions and its struggles to cope with terrorism have challenged its hegemony in the modern era.

This has paved the way for the emergence of China as the principal actor in the Pacific. While the U.S. administration in this transitory period has been preoccupied with Putin’s Russia and the Assad regime in Syria – not to mention the fight against ISIS – the longer-term strategic focus for policymakers is the development of Sino-American relations. Indeed, the “pivot to Asia” – a phrase coined by the Obama administration – was underway in 2012, with the stated goal of embedding American economic and strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region. But from this quest to establish economic trading pacts, strengthen alliances, and foster cooperation, a perilous situation in the South China Sea has emerged, with brinkmanship, military posturing, and intimidation tactics eclipsing any remaining goodwill between China and the United States.

Image source: Politico

It is crucial to understand the divergence between American and Chinese foreign policies, which stems largely from cultural and historical differences. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger points out that since its founding, America was fortunate enough never to have faced invasion, in large part due to its fortification by two vast oceans. He adds: “As a consequence, America has conceived of foreign policy as a series of discrete challenges to be addressed as they arise on their merits rather than as part of an overall design. Not until the post-World War II period did we begin to think of foreign policy as a continuous process, even in seemingly tranquil circumstances.” American exceptionalism implies “conversion,” the notion that the United States is entitled to “educate others because if they adopt [its] principles, the world will be peaceful.” It assumes the world’s natural state is peaceful, and therefore when a conflict arises, defeating the “bad” actor will restore order. The Chinese approach is not one of conversion. In the Chinese view, conversion can never succeed, and American intervention in Chinese affairs would be illegitimate, as would Chinese intervention in other societies. In Kissinger’s view, the application of Chinese exceptionalism has not been one of governance, but of preeminence and showmanship. As an example, while the U.S. fought in Vietnam with the dubious goal to develop its society into a democratic one, China occupied the northern provinces of Vietnam to “teach them respect.”

Consequently, American involvement in Chinese affairs – specifically the latter’s territorial claims in the South China Sea – could risk escalating current tensions into a military conflict. In light of the shifting power dynamics, China is confident it can test America’s resolve and further undermine its authority. China has shown no signs of complying with Washington’s demands to cease “island-building,” which the United States and its allies consider to be unlawful and imperialistic. Xi Jinping’s regime alleges that it is merely claiming sovereignty over Chinese territorial waters, and considers Washington’s remonstrations as groundless meddling, and its military deployment in the region as encroachment.

Following the assignment of two American aircraft carriers to the Western Pacific, Chinese defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun issued an initial warning statement. And after a U.S. admiral called for the establishment of a dividing line at the Spratly Islands near the Philippines, the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times proclaimed in a foreboding editorial that a “U.S.-China War would be inevitable in the South China Sea.” Defense Minister Chang Wanquan has already called for Beijing to “prepare for a people’s war at sea.” The belligerent rhetoric is reinforced by blatant displays of militarism from both sides. China continues to develop naval bases in scattered islands throughout the South China Sea, while the United States deploys long-range bombers with nuclear capabilities from Australia and Guam, and anti-missile systems in South Korea and Japan. Following Trump’s election win, China flaunted its own nuclear-capable bomber jets along the “nine-dash line” – which it uses to mark its territory – and over several disputed islands. American and Chinese warships have moved into dangerous proximity to one another but have somehow avoided physical confrontation. The latest in the string of provocations came last month, surrounding the “One China” policy, a long-standing agreement between the two nations that declared Beijing’s claim over self-ruled Taiwan as uncontestable. But much to the ire of Chinese policymakers, who consider Taiwan to be of utmost strategic importance, Trump thrust the treaty forward for debate, fueling further discord. This is perhaps the closest both parties have reached to a breakdown in bilateral relations.

Unlike his isolationist platform with respect to Russia and Syria – a significant deviation from the Obama administration’s international strategy – Donald Trump has so far adopted a hawkish approach to China. He has not ruled out a trade war, but the larger threat to global order is physical warfare, given the presence of American military resources in the Western Pacific already, in addition to the strategic positioning of American allies, Japan and South Korea. Restoring goodwill to Sino-American relations will require a dramatic shift in the approach both parties take to foreign affairs. The idea of measured diplomacy prevailing in the current climate may seem far-fetched, with the threat of an eruption in the South China Sea looming ever closer. But it is important to note that both countries to date have managed to avoid physical skirmishes. It is likely that the military posturing is to gain leverage and concessions, but brinkmanship needs to be checked; it is up to the institutions and governmental bodies in either country to reign in their leaders and help form sensible policies. The leaderships of the two most technologically and militarily endowed nations must recognize that any conflict would divide the world and cause horrific destruction. It is an outcome in neither side’s interest.

The first step to restoring constructive dialogue would be an affirmation of the “One China Policy,” which China upholds as central to any bilateral arrangement. Finding a common ground could also entail pursuing new opportunities for cooperation. Perhaps expanding efforts to contain their common adversary, North Korea, and providing China with a larger global role will be beneficial. Already China has made significant strides recently to curtail corruption and human rights abuses, which should improve its standing among Western nations. The Chinese dragon is only beginning to relish its time in the sun; its advancement has been rapid, but not without a host of new responsibilities, challenges and relationships. For the United States, repairing a broken global image and regaining authority in the Western Pacific are paramount to its role as the guarantor of global security. The paradigm of rising versus established power has historically wrought conflict and turmoil, but opportunities do exist today for Washington and Beijing to diffuse military and economic tensions and restore a climate of cooperation and constructive bilateralism.

How they are handled, however, will be a different story.

Kabir Vassanji

Kabir Vassanji

Junior Editor at InPRA
Kabir Vassanji graduated from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, with a degree in Finance and International Business in 2015. He has interned in the fields of wealth management and capital markets, and now works at an investment bank. His areas of interest include finance, economics, technology, and foreign affairs. Particularly of interest is the intersection of finance and macro-economic policy, within his home country Canada, as well as in emerging markets. In exploring these topics with InPRA, Kabir hopes to enhance his writing and research skills to complement his quantitative background.
Kabir Vassanji

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