Dan Blumenthal’s excellent Shadow piece this week on Chinese interests and capabilities is thoughtful and informative, but it is also unsettling when understood in the context of the strategic vacuum that is the Obama administration’s foreign policy. One doesn’t have to be a China-phobe to appreciate that the last four years have emboldened the Chinese to assert themselves while they can.
For during those four years, the U.S. president has made clear that he believes the United States’ proper role in the world is to be a convener or a conferee, and in extreme cases one of a coalition led by the U.N. to act when that international organization deems it appropriate. The only deviations from this approach have been the successful effort to take out Osama bin Laden, the launching of numerous drone attacks, and very briefly the threat of "unbelievably small" military strikes on Syria in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons the second time it used them. Otherwise, the administration’s theory and practice have been very much multilateral, to act as a follower, to be one of several involved in an action when others take the lead. In short, the United States doesn’t articulate and pursue its global and regional interests boldly and consistently, and there is a price for that.
The Chinese are watching, and they are not ignorant of what this all means for their interests and goals. So what is it that they are seeing in the world that encourages them? America’s tragic Middle East policy. When the world’s only superpower lets the very strategically important Middle East be overwhelmed by its enemies and ignores the needs of its allies, states that want changes in the balance of power in their own neighborhood are sure to take note. China is one of those change agents; the country doesn’t like U.S. hegemony in East Asia and seeks to end it, and China can only be encouraged to believe that the United States isn’t interested in asserting itself for the sake of its interests in East Asia. If America isn’t serious and determined about the Middle East, why should it be about East Asia?
What exactly has everyone, China included, been witnessing? Among other things:
- 1) The rise and fall and the sort of rise again of democratic forces in Egypt with no attendant U.S. leadership on the side of the good guys. In fact, the United States put its faith in Islamist radicals bent on creating another theocratic Islamist state. Only the Egyptian military acted to save the world from that, and no one knows how it all will end.
- 2) Iran’s methodical attempts to obtain nuclear weapons while the administration continues to believe that aggressive Islamist dictators bent on controlling the Middle East can be talked out of their own vital interests.
- 3) Syria’s massacre of over 100,000 people with chemical and conventional weapons — and with support from Iran and Hezbollah — in an attempt to save its murderous regime. U.S. dithering and tacking has finally led to an outsourcing of its Syria policy to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
In sum, over the last four years the president has indicated that he is not interested in foreign policy unless he is forced to be and that he has no strategy for pursing U.S. interests even in the most crucial part of the world for America — the Middle East.
Why, then, should China expect him to seriously reconsider his muddled and inadequate strategy for dealing with China’s desire for hegemony in East Asia? As Blumenthal says, his approach to China is: "a policy of engaging, balancing, and hedging against China, with some vague notion that doing so will nudge it into becoming a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the international system. But is U.S. military planning supposed to force it to become this kind of world actor? That sounds far-fetched." Indeed. No self-respecting power — and China sure is that — is worried about a United States that won’t defend its interests and its allies.
So it should be no surprise for us to read that China is uninterested in talks to settle its dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea. Tensions have been mounting for months, and there has been no sign that they will abate. There also has been no sign that the Obama administration really cares. So while we stand by and watch the formation of an inchoate unholy alliance between Iran and Russia determined to run the Middle East, we appear poised to countenance a war — hot or cold — in East Asia between China on one side and Japan on the other with every other state in the region caught in the middle.
All this could have been mitigated if not avoided if the president had been strategically leading his country these last four years instead of treating foreign policy as a nuisance and a photo op. Change agents, balance disturbers, and aggressors take their cues from other players in the international system. The United States has been cueing them; they have been responding logically.