Two years after President Obama’s inauguration, his administration faces a significant sobriety check with this week’s visit of China’s president followed by President Obama’s State of the Union address next week.
At first glance, these two events might appear related only in terms of a coincidence of timing. In fact, both will tell us a great deal about President Obama’s leadership and his ability to adjust to new strategic realities. The administration’s decision to host a state visit for the president of the People’s Republic of China under current circumstances is interesting and risky.
It is unusual timing for China’s leader to come to Washington. A new Congress has been sworn in, but still not fully settled, and anxiously awaits the first formal signal of how the president intends to deal with them. Far and away the top priorities in the new political landscape are controlling debt, expanding employment, and reviving American competitiveness. In this context, high profile focus on China would not seem to favor either China or the Obama administration.
In fact, China’s leader comes to town with a relatively limited agenda.
President Hu Jintao is entering the twilight of his two terms in office and seeks to demonstrate to other Chinese leaders that he commands appropriate respect from the United States. This is measured primarily in terms of symbolism and avoidance of criticism.
Meaningful action on national security and economic issues of great importance to the United States does not enter into the equation.
Such a limited agenda seems perfectly fine to the American foreign policy establishment, but it should not sit well with President Obama.
His administration’s approach so far is entirely consistent with 40-year-old establishment notions that with increased deference to Chinese leaders and expansive bilateral engagement, over time the differences in our national interests will narrow and opportunities for strategic cooperation will expand.
There is no doubt that President Obama and his team share this vision, but there are recent indicators that his team is finding limits to this approach.
In just the last week, three cabinet secretaries have issued reality checks. Secretary of State Clinton emphasized that it is up to leaders in both countries to “translate high-level pledges of summits and state visits into action, real action on real issues.” Treasury Secretary Geithner noted that, “China has a lot of work to do to move from a state-dominated economy… to a more market-oriented economy.” And Secretary Gates’ efforts to establish enduring strategic dialogue with China’s military were met with the display of a new stealth fighter jet -- about which China’s president feigned ignorance.
Based on the administration’s own words, all of its expansive trips, meetings, and speeches to date have not netted sufficient results. In fact, they call into question whether there is any evidence to support continuation of the current approach to China.
Secretary Clinton seems to argue for change:
“We are moving through uncharted territory. We need new ways of understanding the shifting dynamics of the international landscape, a landscape marked by emerging centers of influence, but also by non-traditional, even non-state actors, and the unprecedented challenges and opportunities created by globalization.”
Secretary Clinton is correct, but perhaps not as intended. The world has changed. So have China’s capabilities. But the U.S. approach to China, established at a time dominated by the Cold War and Vietnam War, has not changed in fundamental ways. And the “real action on real issues” that Secretary Clinton helpfully alludes to are in short supply.
President Obama would do well to signal a course correction by pressing President Hu more forcefully on areas where China's actions need to change, especially with regard to North Korea, Iran, human rights, and unfair trade practices. Otherwise a symbolic bow to rising Chinese power will further weaken U.S. leadership in Asia and President Obama's leadership in the world. Not exactly a vote of confidence in the state of the union.
Stephen Yates is president of DC International Advisory. From 2001 - 05 he served as Deputy Assistant to Vice President Cheney for National Security Affairs.