Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 06:57 | SYDNEY
Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 06:57 | SYDNEY

Obama was rolled in China


Raoul Heinrichs

27 November 2009 11:25

President Obama might have bowed in Japan, but it was China where he was really humbled. Beyond the countless diplomatic formalities and expansive, but typically platitudinous communiqué, the most striking thing about Obama’s recent trip was his inability to wrest a single, meaningful concession from Beijing.

Of course, human rights were always going to be a non-starter. China is already too powerful for western leaders to be censuring it loudly and publically for the mistreatment of its own citizens, and Obama, having dodged the Dalai Lama in Washington, was never going to lay down the law in Beijing.

But even on issues as important to the US as China’s currency manipulation, which may be stoking US unemployment at a time when the US economy is reeling, or the Iranian nuclear program, which threatens to undermine American dominance in the Persian Gulf, Obama found himself ‘talking to the hand’.

Here’s the problem: since at least the mid 1990s, US China policy has been built on the dubious expectation that China, as it became more wealthy and powerful, would become more cooperative and accommodating of US interests, and more reluctant to upset a regional order that accorded, however imperfectly, with China’s national interests. An increasingly prosperous and secure China was expected by many to be indefinitely satisfied with US primacy in Asia.

At the same time, China’s international behaviour seemingly aligned with these expectations. Its diplomatic charm offensive, proactive (if often hollow) multilateralism, extraordinary international trade and investment profile, and acquiescence to basic US preferences — all of this seemed to augur a new international role for China as a ‘responsible’ global player, one which had largely conformed to the prescriptions set out for it by the US.

But did China seriously reconstruct its international outlook overnight, or was this a tactical shift, designed to maintain a low profile and minimise its exposure in US strategic headlights while it was still relatively vulnerable — all the while allowing its power and influence to build?

The jury’s probably still out on this, but evidence for the latter is mounting. China’s newfound self-confidence appears to entail an increasing willingness to openly defy the US. Indeed, the extent to which it has managed to quietly but systematically chip away at American relative advantages across virtually every policy sphere — diplomatic, economic and military —  suggests that, at the very least, China is not content to live forever in the shadows of US primacy.

Although it’s become de rigueur to pay homage to a shifting distribution of world power, leaders in Washington, including Obama, have never actually grappled with the consequences of that process for America’s power and role in the world. Last week in China, however, it could not be avoided.

What began as an exercise intended to restore confidence in American leadership in Asia culminated, over the course of a few days, in the quiet humiliation of an administration that came face-to-face with a competitor over whom it has very little leverage, and with the uncomfortable reality of its own hegemonic decline.

Photo by Flickr user heatingoilcom, used under a Creative Commons license.