Obama Administration Still Figuring Out China Policy with Less Than 16 Months Left in Office

Were confused why taking a more confrontational stance led to China doing the same.


White House

The president of China, Xi Jinping, arrived in the United States yesterday for an official state visit—it will be his third meeting with President Obama since taking office in 2013, but the Obama administration, as The New York Times reports, is still struggling to articulate a clear China policy:

This week's meeting between President Obama and Mr. Xi is fraught with points of conflict, and its unspoken subtext is whether the president will confront the Chinese directly, deliberately causing friction in the relationship in hopes of drawing some lines around their behavior, or celebrate an unexpected partnership on issues like climate change and Iran, handling contentious issues in private.

The administration has tried both approaches, and has often come away frustrated and dissatisfied, according to senior officials, some of whom have left the government recently and spoke on the condition of anonymity. But Mr. Obama recognizes that what amounts to his third long meeting with Mr. Xi, a formal state visit full of ceremonial displays of respect and cooperation that begins here Thursday, is likely to be his last chance to start what one White House official calls "long-ball diplomacy with the Chinese.

As The Times explains, the Obama administration was caught by surprise because it did not expect Xi to be as confrontational as he has been. Many members of the administration expected him to be, in the words of The Times, "a dynamic reformer who would press for broader engagement with the United States while bringing the military under his control." Instead, the administration got Xi the "risk-taker."

The most prominent of the confrontations was in the South China Sea, where the Chinese government has asserted claims of sovereignty over disputed territory. Last week, the senior Pentagon official for Asia and the Pacific admitted, in a line of questioning by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that the U.S. had not sent any ships or aircraft to within 12 nautical miles, the internationally recognized zone of sovereignty that extends from land, of China's claims in the South China Sea. McCain and other hawks would like to see the U.S. challenge Chinese claims more directly. The U.S., of course, does not make any disputed claims of sovereignty over any territory in the South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam do. The U.S. considers a number of those countries, most notably Taiwan and the Philippines, allies. Neither has the military capability to challenge China on their own, in part because of the long history of military commitments the U.S. has been more than willing to make in regards to those country's security.

President Obama announced an "Asia pivot" in a visit to Australia in 2011. That wasn't so much a comprehensive strategy as it was a commitment to spend more money, sending more military, commercial, and diplomatic resources to various U.S. allies surrounding China.  The Chinese government, unsurprisingly, is not impressed. It's important to note this "pivot," which was clearly about containing China, was first announced more than a year before Xi took office. And yet the Obama administration, apparently, expected Xi not to adjust China's U.S. policy in response to a U.S. China policy shifting toward the more confrontational. These are the people in charge of foreign policy.

It gets worse. Republican presidential candidates haven't challenged America's China policy as being too needlessly confrontational, but not enough. Recent presidential drop-out Scott Walker wanted the U.S. to cancel Xi's state visit. Frontrunner Donald Trump constantly complains about China. And Bernie Sanders, the insurgent Democratic presidential candidate whose positions are increasingly influencing other Democratic candidates, also complains about China and its effects on the American worker.

On Xi's current trip to the U.S., the Obama administration is urging American businesses to bring up their concerns about cybersecurity with the Chinese government. The U.S. has had some limited success engaging China on cybersecurity—the two countries agreed not to launch "first strike" cyberattacks on each other and for the first time China acknowledged the difference between cyber-espionage for national security interests and cyber-espionage for intellectual property theft.

But as the Obama administration's appeal to U.S. business shows, commercial, not diplomatic, pressure may be more powerful. And the voluntary kind may be far more effective than sanctions. If enough U.S. companies find the cost of doing business in China too high because of Chinese government policies, Beijing may be incentivized to change those policies, lower the costs, and thus encourage more economic prosperity. One of Xi's goals in the U.S. is assuring American business, not the government, that China is open to them. Especially during an economic downturn, this is very important. Sanctions would have the opposite effect—disincentivizing the government from changing policies because it would look like capitulation to the U.S., and providing a convenient scapegoat for the economic slowdown that brings attention from the Chinese government's major contributions to the poor economic climate.