Is Strategic Reassurance Working for You?

The Obama Administration’s China policy is one of sending mixed messages.

President Barack Obama listens to National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo while attending a state dinner with President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 17, 2009
President Barack Obama listens to National People’s Congress chairman Wu Bangguo while attending a state dinner with President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 17, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

One of the pillars of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy outlook was the “strategic reassurance” of China. Whereas the last president joined in partnership with Australia, India and Japan to counterbalance China’s mounting assertiveness in East Asia, Barack Obama understood that with the economies of the two countries so intertwined, the Sino-American relation would, in one way or another, come to dominate the twenty-first century. Since he took office however, China and the United States have hardly been as nice to one another as anticipated.

Thomas Wright at The Diplomat points out how the “strategic reassurance” was pivotal to the multipolar world view as espoused by both the president and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. This notion of a “concert of powers,” he writes, was “based on the underlying assumption that the world’s major powers ultimately share the same threats and interests — tackling terrorism and pandemics, ensuring economic instability, and preventing nuclear proliferation.”

That was, and is, largely a sound assessment for outside of East Asia, America’s and China’s interests hardly ever collide. Rather as China’s economic leverage over the United States continues to deepen, their interests will further converge. Economic historian Niall Ferguson has dubbed this phenomenon “Chimerica,” or, “the partnership between the big saver and the big spender.” Neither is served by a disruption of that increasingly symbiotic relationship.

Realizing that much, Obama’s Washington was gracious. It committed to cooperation on a wide array of issues and tried to avoid any steps that might upset the Middle Kingdom. But what was considered an accommodating policy by the administration was interpreted at least by some in Beijing as weakness.

Wright believes that, instead of accepting full partnership, “China became far more antagonistic and assertive on the world stage.”

It expanded its claims in the South China Sea, engaged in a major spat with Google over Internet freedom, played an obstructionist role at the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, regularly and openly criticized US leadership, and, sought to water down sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program at the UN Security Council.

Some in Washington are now supposed to believe that Beijing is expecting the end of American ascendancy and recognizing an opportunity for China to take advantage.

No one seems able to explain just how China stands to profit from a weakened United States however. Too often, it is simply taken for granted that Beijing has far-reaching designs for world domination but this completely overlooks the strong, almost desperate, longing for stability on the part of China’s leaders. They all too well remember a century of humiliation which didn’t really end until China emerged as as economic powerhouse in the 1990s.

China has reclaimed a position of preeminence on the world stage and with it, prestige, much to the delight of the Chinese, but they are no superpower yet. The country can make no military nor moral claim to hegemony and, at least for the time being, it has no desire to. It would rather prosper under the safe umbrella of American might than undermine it.

Yet like any state, China pursues its own interests before anything else. It will do so in the South China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula, especially when its policy there is driven by hardliners who do think of geopolitics as a zero-sum game. It will not allow anyone to dictate the pace of its inevitable democratization process and as such, it will censor Internet access if it feels it has to. And it will obstruct foreign efforts to curtail its growth in the name of environmentalism because it won’t pay the price for two centuries of Western pollution.

It is much too soon to tell whether President Obama’s “strategic reassurance” of China is working or not. Anyone would be hard pressed to radically change the course of a significant bilateral relationship in under two years.

At the same time, it’s important to take notice of minor Chinese grievances because rather than preliminary attempts at challenging American power, they’re likely evidence of China’s frustration with Washington’s lack of consistency.

If indeed this administration intends to foster stable relations with Beijing for decades to come, it can’t afford any sort of needless tough guy posturing in China’s direct sphere of interest. Imagine the roles were reverse and it were the Chinese asserting that America can’t have an exclusive right to meddle in the Caribbean. Recognizing China as a great power implies recognizing its right to dominate East Asia. If anything, it would “strategically reassure” Beijing.

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