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Obama’s Cautious And Calibrated Approach To An Assertive China – Analysis


Whether the US-China relationship after Obama continues with confrontation or cooperation may be in Xi’s hands.

By Robert Sutter*

As heads of state and delegations from more than 50 nations gathered in Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit, there were only two bilateral meetings on the sidelines and one was between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Obama-Xi meeting not only underlines the centrality of Sino-American relations, but also its urgency as tension builds in the South China Sea and President Obama prepares to leave the White House. With barely eight months left of Obama’s presidency, it is a good moment to assess the president’s historical legacy.

Headline news from the meeting was the announcement that they would be the first to sign the global climate change agreement reached in Paris in January. The positive news showing cooperation between the two big powers probably won’t change Obama’s recently more resolute approach to challenges that Xi’s government poses to American interests over the South China Sea and other sensitive issues handled largely behind closed doors. Washington seems to accept tensions as unavoidable consequences of America’s need to protect key interests from negative Chinese practices. However, Obama also clarified the priority of South China Sea disagreements with China – presently the most important area of bilateral differences – as having not reached a level where they could spill over to other sensitive areas in the relationship, like Taiwan, and jeopardize cooperation.

The Obama administration has continued to view US-China policy as a mix of positive goals sought by the Americans along with adverse elements reflecting often protracted and deeply rooted differences with China. The US president and Hu Jintao, China’s president from 2003 to 2013, likewise appeared to share common ground in emphasizing constructive engagement and avoiding serious problems with each other. Notably, both leaders were preoccupied with domestic and foreign problems elsewhere. In contrast, Xi has boldly taken initiatives that seek Chinese ambitions at others’ expense, notably the United States. In particular, Xi’s China:

  • uses coercive means short of direct military force to advance Chinese control in East and South China Sea at expense of neighbors and American interests in the regional order;
  • uses foreign-exchange reserves and excess industrial capacity to launch self-serving international economic development programs and institutions that seek to undermine US leadership or exclude the US;
  • advances China’s military buildup targeted at the United States in the Asia-Pacific region;
  • continues cyber theft of economic assets and intellectual property, market access and currency practices, and intensified repression and political control – all with serious adverse consequences for US interests.

With rare exceptions, Obama avoided publicly discussing differences with China during his first six years in office. Since his April 2014 trip to Asia, he became more outspoken about Chinese behavior on the above issues impacting the order in Asia and other American interests. Xi has publicly ignored the complaints which lower-level officials continue to dismiss. During his March 31 meeting with Obama, Xi emphasized a purported “new model of major country relations” with the United States.

American critics increasingly accuse Xi playing a double game at America’s expense.

Following a strained US-China summit in Washington in September 2015, Obama has had less to say publicly about China. Rather, he and his lieutenants took stronger actions. For example:

  • much stronger pressure than seen in past targeted sanctions, notably indictments in May 2014 against Chinese military officials to compel China to rein in rampant cyber theft of US property;
  • stronger pressure to compel China to agree to international sanctions against North Korea;
  • active US military deployments in the South China Sea, along with blunt warnings by US military leaders of China’s ambitions, following China’s continued militarization of disputed South China Sea islands, despite a promise by Xi during the September summit not to do so;
  • more prominent cooperation with allies Japan, the Philippines and Australia along with India and concerned Southeast Asian powers that strengthen regional states and complicate Chinese bullying;
  • the abrupt decision in March 2016 halting access to American information technology that seriously impacted China’s leading state-directed electronics firm ZTE – after reports that ZTE had agreed under US pressure to halt unauthorized transfers to Iran of US-sourced technology and then continued such transfers through secret means;
  • the unprecedented US-led rebuke of negative Chinese human rights practices in a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2016 that was endorsed by Japan, Australia and nine European countries.

However, recent developments suggest that the significance of these steps was less than first appeared. The public pressure in two of the areas subsided once arrangements were made to start bilateral talks on cyber theft and China went along with tougher UN sanctions against North Korea. The abrupt treatment of ZTE was reversed after a few days of secret consultations, allowing US suppliers to continue shipments to ZTE. The rebuke in the Human Rights Council turned out to be a one-time occurrence. Meanwhile, the so-called Taiwan issue in Sino-American relations became more sensitive following the landslide election in January of Democratic Progressive Party, DPP, candidate Tsai Ing-wen and a powerful majority of DPP legislators. Rather than do anything that might “rock-the-boat,” the Obama government has carefully avoided controversy and endeavored to sustain peace and stability through cross-strait dialogue.

In sum, the Obama government’s greater resolve against China’s challenges seems to focus on the South China Sea disputes and related American maneuvering with Japan, Australia, India and some Southeast Asian nations to respond to China’s destabilizing and coercive measures. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris have repeatedly spoken of China’s “aggressive” actions and what Harris calls Chinese “hegemony in East Asia.” They and others point to US military plans “to check” China’s advances through deployments, regional collaboration and assistance to Chinese neighbors. American officials also expect a Chinese defeat in a ruling later this year at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, undermining the broad and vague Chinese claims used to justify expansion in the South China Sea.

Looking ahead, continued opportunistic and incremental Chinese expansion in the South China Sea seems likely. The benefits of Xi’s challenges appear to outweigh the costs. Notably, in China, Xi appears a powerful international leader while Obama has appeared weak. China’s probing expansion and intimidation efforts in the East China Sea have run up against firm and effective Japanese efforts supported strongly by the United States. These have been complicated for Beijing by China’s inability to deal effectively with provocations from North Korea. The opportunities for expansion in the South China Sea are greater given the various weaknesses of governments in that region, including all the claimants and the main regional grouping ASEAN. And the case at The Hague may incentivize Chinese expansion.

The Obama government’s efforts to counter China are significant. However, they are carefully measured to avoid serious disruption in the US-China relationship. Those circumstances have allowed China to use coercion and disruption to advance its control at neighbors’ expense without serious cost. The recent cordial US-China summit indicates that this overall trend will continue during the remaining months of the US president. Whether or not his successor will have to conduct such a circumspect but resolute policy to deal with the Chinese challenge remains unclear as the China debate among the 2016 candidates thus far has been characterized by positions notably tougher than President Obama’s carefully calibrated approach to China.

*Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University. He has published 20 books, more than 200 articles and several hundred government reports dealing with contemporary East Asian and Pacific countries and their relations with the United States. His most recent book is Foreign Relations of the PRC: The Legacies and Constraints of China’s International Politics Since 1949 (Rowman and Littlefield 2013).

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