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East Asia expert Kawashima Shin reviews America’s China policy under Obama and considers the prospects for relations between Washington and Beijing under Trump, along with the implications for Japan.
The Obama Administration’s China Policy: Engagement and Hedging
As the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump approaches, we hear much discussion of the prospects for the United States’ relations with China under the new administration and Japan’s status in this context. As a prelude to considering such matters, I think we need to look back at the course of the China policy that the United States has followed under President Barack Obama.
Ever since its launch in January 2009, the Obama administration has maintained a consistent stance toward Beijing, adopting a basic “engage-and-hedge” policy and aiming to turn China into a responsible stakeholder in the international community. However, this approach does not seem to have produced the desired results. One question that needs to be addressed is whether the Chinese have understood what the Americans mean by “engagement” and “hedging.” Meanwhile, though the basic stance has been maintained, if we review the entire span of the administration, we can see that Washington’s China policy in Obama’s second term differed from that of his first term, with a number of turning points along the way.
Beijing’s Wariness of the G2 Concept
At the start of Obama’s first term, the United States placed high priority on China. Underlying this stance was the hope that China would serve as the growth leader for the world economy at a time when the United States was struggling with the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. At this juncture, with prices of natural resources rising, the international community’s attention was starting to focus on the role of emerging countries.
When Obama visited China in November 2009, it was suggested that he was going to set forth the idea of G2—a “group of two” global leaders consisting of the United States and China. People at the time foresaw the formation of a system based on cooperation between these two superpowers at the global level. Some even used the term “Chimerica” to refer to the expected duopoly. But the administration in Beijing, then headed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, was leery of this concept.
One reason for Beijing’s wariness was the fear that a G2 system would impose heavier burdens on China, which still identified itself as a developing country. Also, though the Hu administration had been taking an increasingly hard line in its approach to external affairs, it had not totally abandoned the foreign policy stance of tao guang yang hui—the idea that China should keep a low profile on the international stage and focus on its own economic development, as advocated by Deng Xiaoping.
Beijing’s Emphasis on Sovereignty and National Security
The Obama administration, which used the term “strategic reassurance” as it moved to redefine the US-China relationship, accepted China’s rise and sought to have China join it in recognizing the existence of the “global commons” and in promoting world peace and stability. This posture, which was proposed by James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state during Obama’s first term, was supposed to lead to stronger ties between Washington and Beijing.
But in 2009, just as the Obama administration was getting underway, China shifted its foreign policy stance again, adopting an emphasis on sovereignty and national security issues alongside economic affairs. Beijing revealed its posture of challenging the existing regional and international orders in a number of ways, notably in the energetic pressing of its territorial claims in the South China Sea, its angry response to the granting of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo, and its uncooperative stance at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. And in 2010, China held to its hard-line position regarding the South China Sea and started referring to its claims there as a “core interest.”
In the face of these developments, it became hard for the Obama administration to find conditions conducive to a repeat of its earlier G2 proposal. But it continued to pursue efforts to have China act as a responsible stakeholder on the global scene, and held to its basic engage-and-hedge policy.
Continuity and Change After Xi Jinping Takes the Helm
Even after Xi Jinping took over as China’s leader, becoming general secretary of the Communist Party in November 2012 and assuming the national presidency the following March, Washington initially kept its basic policy unchanged. When Xi and Obama held their first summit meeting in California in June 2013, Xi was probably fully prepared to accept the G2 concept. But the American side was no longer advocating such a setup. The Chinese proposed a “new model” of relations between major powers, but the United States did not explicitly endorse the idea. Even so, the United States continued its policy of respecting China, and it seems fair to say that a consensus was forming that saw the age ahead as one in which the two countries would be the world’s superpowers. With the help of strategic dialogue between them, Washington and Beijing built up a multifaceted, vertically thick structure for cooperation.
From 2014 to 2015, however, there was a major shift among America’s China specialists in their views of the country. In 2015, because of developments like China’s construction of military facilities in the South China Sea, Washington adopted a strongly vigilant stance toward Beijing, and it undertook “freedom of navigation operations” in this sea, including the dispatch of a warship. But these operations did nothing to change China’s position. And at around the same time, the United States sent a different warship to conduct joint exercises with China in the waters off Shanghai and invited the Chinese to participate in RIMPAC, the US Pacific Fleet’s multinational Rim of the Pacific exercise. Thus the United States continued to engage and hedge.
Failure to Restrain China’s Hard-Line Moves
From China’s perspective, these moves simply showed that the United States was mixing firmness and softness. Even as the Americans hedged against China, they continued to engage with it; this probably indicated to the Chinese that their behavior was not causing any significant problems.
In the face of China’s ongoing construction of military facilities in the South China Sea, the United States continued its freedom of navigation operations in the area. Following the July 2016 ruling against China’s territorial claims in this sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, visited China for talks. Then, at the September Group of 20 summit hosted by China in Hangzhou, Obama and Xi put on a show of accord at their first-day meeting by announcing their countries’ simultaneous ratification of the Paris Agreement on climate change, but at their second-day session they criticized each other’s positions on the South China Sea issue. This set of developments did nothing to restrain the Chinese, and a certain degree of bilateral tension has continued, as highlighted by China’s December seizure of a US Navy underwater drone operating in the South China Sea.
Elsewhere in the region, meanwhile, South Korea has fallen into a state of political volatility, and the Philippines has started to distance itself from the United States. In the context of developments like these, the Obama administration cannot be said to have done a satisfactory job of managing its alliances in the Western Pacific.
Editorial Planning Committee chair of Nippon.com and professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), 21 seiki no Chūka: Shū Kinpei Chūgoku to Higashi Ajia (The Sinic World in the Twenty-First Century: Xi Jinping’s China and East Asia), and other works.
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