Obama’s Fundamental Shift on China

“Enough is enough,” President Obama said on Sunday, referring to China’s unconstructive trade behavior. The blunt language is in sharp contrast to his previous—and his predecessor’s—words about Beijing. 

The tough talk on trade was backed up with a stunning maneuver. On the previous day, the president announced that the United States and eight other nations—Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Chile, and Peru—had “reached the broad outlines of an agreement” to create a free-trade area now called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “There are still plenty of details to work out, but we are confident that we can do so,” he said during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in his former hometown of Honolulu. The president indicated that final agreement on the terms of the pan-Pacific deal could be hammered out as soon as the end of next year. 

The TPP, as it is now called, could eventually include Canada and Japan—but it will definitely exclude the region’s economic powerhouse, China. China is always free to join the talks, but the outlines of the trade deal—especially the restrictions on the commercial conduct of state-owned enterprises and the granting of state subsidies—were drafted so that they would be unacceptable to Beijing.

It would have been inconceivable a year ago to start trade negotiations without China. Since President Nixon’s groundbreaking meeting with Mao Zedong in 1972, administration after administration has tried to “engage” the Chinese, hoping to bring them into a liberal international system they had no hand in creating. 

This generous—and unrealistic—policy approach only helped China strengthen itself, and a newly confident Beijing has turned both assertive and belligerent, especially since the first months of 2009. Since then, China has harassed American vessels in international waters, carried out unprecedented cyber espionage campaigns, engaged in increasingly predatory trade policies, worked to close off its economy, and opposed vital US initiatives with growing boldness. Senior Chinese military officers have even openly talked about waging a “hand-to-hand fight” with America.

It took the Obama administration a long time to reverse course, but the change in direction, once executed, was both swift and comprehensive. Sunday’s announcement was preceded on Thursday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling Taiwan an “important security and economic partner.” With a few well-chosen words, she publicly challenged Beijing, which seeks to absorb the self-governing island, and supported the democracy of 23 million that was a pariah in Washington for most of the Bush years. 

Clinton’s rhetorical shift followed the Pentagon’s announcement last Wednesday of the creation of a new office to implement the Air-Sea Battle concept. Most analysts see this move, which seeks to combine Navy and Air Force assets, as directed mainly against Chinese expansionism.

At this moment, these initiatives might not be fully thought out, but that may be because none of them looked possible a few short months ago. Now, American policymakers appear alive to the possibility that China’s Communist Party is not benign. The first few weeks of November 2011 will probably be remembered as the time when the Obama administration publicly moved away from China-centric policies that were not serving the best interests of the international community.

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