It was also unsurprising, Susan Rice’s statement that “they did things that weren’t anticipated” notwithstanding. Obama has earned China’s contempt.
The administration’s “pivot to Asia” was not, objectively, terribly meaningful. But to the extent it had meaning, the Chinese reasonably perceived it as an attempt to counteract China’s large and growing influence in the region. Subjectively, the pivot was full of meaning for China.
Obama hoped through his “pivot” to forge stronger alliances with our traditional friends in the region and make new allies out of nations like Vietnam and Burma that feel threatened by China. However, as William Wan of the Washington Post observes, “the very Asian allies the pivot was meant to reassure had their doubts” about Obama’s seriousness. “Many wondered how much of the pivot was empty rhetoric and how much it would be backed by economic and military substance.”
As a result, the “pivot” was counterproductive. China became more belligerent while the nations that were supposed to help us curb Chinese belligerence wanted little part of it.
The consequences are there for all to see. Claudia Rosett lists some of them:
China’s territorial grabs at sea, provocations toward the U.S. Navy, cyber attacks, military exercises with Russia and evident tolerance — despite United Nations sanctions — of illicit traffic that enables North Korea’s continuing nuclear missile program.
How could China resist the urge to show its contempt for Obama under these circumstances? From its perspective, Obama picked a fight with China but backed off as soon he was punched. To many in the American foreign policy elite, this is “smart power” or something. To China, and to every other ascending power in the history of the world (including the U.S. back in the day), it’s weakness deserving of punishment.
And let’s not forget what Obama came to China to do. He came to sign the Paris climate accord, further evidence of his weakness. Rosett explains:
[I]n practice, this deal amounts to Americans paying tribute. . . .
For Americans. . .the result will be to increase the regulatory strictures already strangling an economy now growing at a dismal 1%. You, the American consumer, taxpayer, shunted-aside voter, will pay. For China, the cost is far less clear. As the state-controlled China Daily summarizes the arrangements, China has pledged to “peak” carbon emissions by 2030. Obama, by contrast, has promised that America will cut emissions by 28% by 2025, as compared to the year 2005.
In other words. . .America starts paying now. China has 14 years to play around before the deal starts to bite. Plus, under China’s despotic system, coupled with a treaty in which governments are effectively held accountable only by their own citizens, the rulers in Beijing have plenty of room to toss their international commitments right out the window.
Thus, says Rosett, “to the rulers of China — and Russia, and a great many others — Obama’s ‘ratification’ of the Paris climate deal looks not like leadership, but like a kowtow.”
Rosett also argues that the way Obama circumvented Congress by failing to treat the Paris accord as a treaty adds to China’s contempt. I doubt it. If anything, the Chinese probably admire Obama’s willingness to disregard the U.S. Constitution.
However, the fact that he could not deliver Senate approval of a treaty likely confirms their view that he is too weak to respect.
No wonder the Chinese decided to “greet” Obama’s arrival with, in Rosett’s words, “a gesture of gross disrespect, seen around the world, putting the American president in his place.”