Obama rebalances against China

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President Obama and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan hold a press conference at the White House on April 30, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • The Obama administration is beginning to rebalance America's Asian relations away from China and toward old partners

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  • Sino-U.S. relations seem headed for a potentially turbulent spell.

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  • Obama's administration is finally taking a tougher stance on Beijing after years wasted trying for cooperation.

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It may have seemed rude for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to jet off to China just minutes after finishing a gala dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in Washington on Monday. Yet Japanese officials, and others in Asia, should take comfort from Mrs. Clinton's travel schedule.

After reaffirming the centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance to America's security policy in Asia, the Obama administration is gearing up for a difficult meeting in Beijing between the secretaries of State and Treasury and their Chinese counterparts. In its final months, the Obama administration is beginning to rebalance America's Asian relations away from China and toward old partners.

Now that Mrs. Clinton has arrived in Beijing, Sino-U.S. relations seem headed for a potentially turbulent spell. The rhetorical shift against China began over 18 months ago, in Hanoi, when Mrs. Clinton inserted the United States into the middle of roiling territorial disputes in the South China Sea. President Obama doubled down on the position last year, proclaiming a U.S. "pivot" to Asia that would see increased deployment of U.S. forces around the region, including 2,500 Marines to Darwin, Australia, and new U.S. warships in Singapore.

While these moves disturbed Beijing, recent events are far more likely to antagonize Chinese leaders. First, after three years of staying largely silent on human rights issues, including the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in 2010, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last week gave refuge to blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from his own domestic confinement.

This is something Washington has not done since the dramatic harboring of dissident Fang Lizhi in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre. This puts Washington directly in the middle of Chinese domestic politics and in response, the administration over the weekend dispatched its top official on Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, to Beijing to discuss the situation with Chinese leaders.

Then there's the news from last Friday that the Obama administration has agreed to consider selling F-16 fighters to Taiwan. Last year, the White House announced it would help upgrade Taiwan's older F-16s, but would not approve the sales of newer models. Now, however, a letter to U.S. Senator John Cornyn indicates that new jets are indeed being considered. As one Washington insider noted, such language is not used by an administration unless the decision to go ahead has already been made. The move is certain to upset Beijing.

And while it's laying down new rules in its relations with China, the Obama administration is reinvigorating its ties with old partners throughout Asia. Japan and the United States have finally agreed to resolve a lingering dispute over relocating a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter squadron in Okinawa, thereby freeing up the move of 9,000 Marines off the island. Japan has also agreed to buy the U.S.-made F-35 as its next fighter, and to relax prohibitions on exporting arms, all of which will allow it to train and operate more closely with American forces.

Moreover, just before hosting the Japanese leader for dinner, Mrs. Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with their Philippine counterparts for the first-ever summit between the two countries' top defense and diplomatic officials. This comes on the heels of a week-long face-off between Chinese and Philippine maritime patrol vessels over Chinese fishing activities in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

The Philippine officials are expected to seek closer maritime security relations with Washington, and there are rumors that an agreement to allow temporary deployment of U.S. forces on Philippine territory is being mooted, though nothing official came out of this week's meeting. This would mark a limited U.S. return to the Philippines exactly 20 years after the main U.S. bases at Subic and Clark were closed.

U.S. critics of the administration's pivot have asked how Washington intends to increase its presence in Asia while simultaneously cutting defense spending by almost $500 billion. The White House has yet to provide a compelling answer to that question, but clearly it is hoping to offset the increased pressure on U.S. forces by creating new opportunities for foreign engagement in Asia.

So far, that is an acceptable strategy. In the short-run, these recent moves will reassure allies and partners that Washington intends to cover more territory in Asia than in recent years. Other nations will also take notice of the new, more realistic line toward Beijing. This may convince them that the U.S. will not sacrifice regional stability to the chimera of greater engagement with China.

Of course, Mr. Obama's new tack may cause the Chinese to become more obstreperous. Already there is whispering that Mrs. Clinton will face a harder line herself while in Beijing. It is also possible that when Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping takes over as president later this year, he will decide to act less cooperatively, so as to prove to the military and other hardliners within the Communist Party that he won't take America's new stance lying down.

All this posturing is in some ways Mr. Obama's own fault, since Beijing's combative behavior is the fruit of his administration's decision back in 2009 to try to create a strategic partnership with China. Ignoring the warning signs, Washington was rewarded with a far more assertive China.

At least, the administration is now trying to rebalance the scales in Asia. If for nothing else, Mrs. Clinton's hectic schedule is worth it if America restores its credibility in this part of the world.

Mr. Auslin is a scholar in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for wsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin

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