Obama's China Syndrome

President Barack Obama's Washington summit and White House state dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping marked one of the administration's last big attempts to place U.S.-China relations on a good track. With China's secretive and troubled massive economy affecting others in ways we're still learning, growing American concern over cyber-espionage matched by Chinese concern about global surveillance, and China becoming still more aggressive in its extraordinary maritime claims, Obama has a lot to overcome.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping made mutual toasts of cooperation at a lavish White House State Dinner honoring the the People's Republic of China.

Aside from a new agreement on climate change, some mutual make-nice rhetoric on spying, obvious agreement to oppose maritime piracy, and self-interested big business deals on China's part with Boeing and Cisco, there wasn't much to point to. Xi, in fact, was quite defiant on China's highly aggressive maritime claims.

Obama's China syndrome is that he seeks both to engage China and to contain China. Both are appropriate and arguably quite necessary goals for American statecraft. But they presuppose a state of creative tension between the established superpower and would-be superpower. The tension is real enough, especially coming from the Chinese. The question is whether it's matched by creativity.

Senator John McCain, in his by now exceedingly familiar role as knee-jerk Obama critic, scored the administration in advance of the Xi summit in an early September hearing of his Senate Armed Services Committee. The topic, maritime strategy in the South China Sea.

In furtherance of its extraordinarily aggressive claim to sovereignty over virtually the entire body of water, one of the world's most strategically significant, shared by several other notable countries, China has taken extraordinary extra-legal steps. It has not only built artificial islands in the South China Sea, placing garrisons on them, it is now building jet fighter bases on some of the islands.

McCain is particularly troubled that the Obama administration -- which promptly sent U.S. Navy and Air Force planes through China's supposed air defense zone over the East China Sea when the People's Republic proclaimed it in 2013 -- is today declining to challenge the latest Chinese move sending Navy ships within 12 nautical miles of the new Chinese bases. (Twelve nautical miles, roughly 14 regular miles, being the standard zone of sovereignty around national lands.)

Of course, the Navy operates without seeking any Chinese permission throughout the South China Sea, despite the Chinese claim of sovereignty over it, so McCain's point has a certain redundancy to it.

Still, McCain is getting at an important larger point. China has no right to be claiming the South China Sea or building bases on artificial islands within it. Are we being firm enough in opposing these moves?

In its historically fraudulent V-J Day parade in Beijing on September 3d (fraudulent because it was the Nationalist Chinese, now on Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War, not the Communist Chinese, who did by far the great bulk of the fighting against Japan in World War II, which severely weakened them for the war with the Communists), the PRC presented a heavily militarized spectacle clearly intended to overawe its much smaller neighbors. None of them have the capability to take on Chinese forces. Only Japan to the east and of course the US have the ability to do that.

So, two big questions suggest themselves. Are we getting, or are we going to get, enough from China to justify our relative reticence in the short term? And do we have good enough intelligence about China to properly gauge matters of timing and emphasis with regard to the PRC?

China has built artificial islands to bolster its extraordinary claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea.

After nearly seven years of trying, the Obama administration hasn't come up with much in the way of Chinese cooperation. Rather than undertake joint efforts to deal with global and regional problems, the PRC has opted to use what has been -- at least until its sudden and still secrecy-laden economic downturn -- its take from big foreign trade surpluses to gain economic advantage in a host of countries.

China has done very little in global economic stabilization or revitalization efforts. It hasn't even done much in peacekeeping or disaster response efforts, the basic minimum standard for a great power.

China's new commitment to set up a cap and trade scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may, however, be a big deal. Especially coming as it does on the heels of the 2014 agreement with Obama to at last begin cutting its vast contribution to the worldwide greenhouse effect.

But much of the necessary spadework for these deals has been done by California leaders, notably Governor Jerry Brown and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who have been working with Chinese officials on climate and energy issues for the better part of a decade.

I remember talking with Chinese officials at Schwarzenegger's first Governors Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles back in 2008, when Obama was still just the president-elect. The Chinese were fascinated by California's landmark climate change program -- which Obama himself cited on Earth Day 2007 in Iowa as his exemplar -- including the very cap and trade program Schwarzenegger had insisted on.

Since then, Jerry Brown, while expanding California's climate and renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, has engaged in aggressive climate and energy diplomacy with President Xi and other Chinese leaders, repeatedly hosting them and making agreements.

In 2013, Brown conducted a lengthy tour of China, discussing climate change and renewable energy and conservation throughout. Later in 2013, when Obama summited with Xi in California, Brown conducted what was in effect his own parallel summit with Xi, again heavily emphasizing his longstanding climate and sustainable energy agenda.

As to the question of how good the Obama administration is on China-related intelligence, that is hard to say.

In Earth Day 2007 remarks in Iowa, then Senator Barack Obama identified California as exemplar of what he would try to do as president on climate change.

Before Obama conducted his California summit with Xi in 2013, he evidently expected to develop a rapport with the then new Chinese leader, a scion of Communist Party royalty. That's why the summit was held in the elegant yet relaxed confines of Sunnylands, the famed Annenberg estate and retreat in Rancho Mirage. Yet Obama's anticipated rapport with Xi itself turned out to be a mirage. Now Obama and Xi have a clearly distant relationship.

The reality is that U.S. intelligence gathering and analysis, ever more focused on massive electronic surveillance of all kinds, tends to capture the trees but miss the forest. That's been largely the case for decades, not least because of a fateful fascination with covert operations rather than intelligence. But whatever the true state of our intel vis a vis the PRC, it has to be better than our intelligence was on the late Soviet Union.

Our highest-ranking expert analyst on the Soviet Union kept on insisting to the end that the Soviets were big and bad and quite likely even more dangerous under that fake reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. Of course, this worthy never set foot in the Soviet Union until shortly before the end. And then, surrounded by the regime's elites, he still saw what he expected to see. Even I'd been to the distant reaches of the USSR more than a decade earlier as a curious grad student roaming the vicinity of the old Silk Road's "hippie trails" in Central Asia. From that view, the Soviet Union seemed rather frayed even before Moscow was sucked into invading Afghanistan.

The name of the unfortunate chief Soviet analyst for the CIA? Robert Gates, secretary of defense for Obama and George W. Bush.

Our intelligence on China has to be better than that, right?

The biggest problem for the Obama administration with regard to China is that it is still too distracted. The U.S. in Obama's Asia-Pacific Pivot is still stuck in mid-pivot, like a basketball player, to use a metaphor related to the president's sport, simultaneously torn between two very different shots on the basket.

While the importance and challenge of the vast Asia Pacific continues to rise, America under Obama continues to be pinned down in the relatively tiny Middle East and, more recently, a top secret, ill-defined, and potentially self-defeating remote control global war on jihadists.

Obama's next big meeting with another not exactly friendly foreign leader Monday in New York, Xi ally Russian President Vladimir Putin, will likely bring this into sharper focus.

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