Just four days after the conclusion of President Barack Obama’s trip to reassure the United States’ Asian allies of its commitments to defend them, China challenged U.S. credibility and staying power in Asia. Obama’s week of tough-minded statements during his swing through the region — including his announcement that the U.S.-Philippines alliance is "ironclad" — apparently left Beijing, the unstated target of the trip, unmoved.
Escalating the already tense situation in the South China Sea, China sent an oil rig into waters also claimed by Vietnam, and followed this provocative move by dispatching 80 vessels, including naval and coast guard ships, to defend the rig.
Though China has been increasingly aggressive in the South and East China Seas over the last three years, the dispatch of an oil rig indicates a troubling change in Chinese behavior. First, the nature of the act marks a notable shift: An oil rig is a more permanent signal of China’s intent to explore for oil in contested waters and therefore a brazen attempt to unilaterally define maritime territory. Second — and more ominously — given that the move was made right after the president’s trip, there is every reason to believe that China is treating the United States not with anger or fear but with contempt.
The United States’ allies in Asia needed reassurance from Washington that, despite missteps in Syria and Ukraine, it was serious about defending the political and economic order in Asia. But reassuring allies also means demonstrating U.S. intent and capability to stand up to China’s revanchism.
Unfortunately for the United States, the Chinese pay close attention to world events and make careful assessments about U.S. credibility based on its global actions. And Beijing has assessed that American credibility is in tatters. After the Obama "red line" debacle, Syria has made a mockery of the United States as Assad escalates his use of horrific weapons against his own people. Russia, meanwhile, has successfully taken the first step in reversing nearly a century’s work of creating a Europe "whole and free."
Can anyone argue with a straight face that U.S. action — or inaction — in one region does not affect how the United States is perceived in another? To believe that is to believe that geopolitics can somehow be siloed, or that the United States can harm its credibility in one place while preserving it elsewhere.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which respects power above all, has determined that Washington will not use U.S. power to check Beijing. So China no longer fears or respects the United States. It never had any love for the United States, and now contempt and disdain are all that remain. Any relationship marked by contempt is difficult to salvage.
There is little reason to believe that Obama will regain the respect of the CCP. Where, for example, is the counter-coercive toolkit the Pentagon revealed during the president’s Asia trip? Are statements labeling the Chinese move as "provocative" supposed to alter Chinese behavior? A serious response would include moves to lift the ban on arms sales to Hanoi and to negotiate naval base access for U.S. warships. Nothing of the kind seems to be in the works. Washington needs to act to re-establish a modicum of fear and respect in Beijing.
Obama administration officials complain that Putin and his ilk — and implicitly Chinese President Xi Jinping — are trying to drag the international system back into an early 20th century world. Leave aside the rather arrogant and ahistorical idea that power politics would be abandoned in the 21st century on America’s say-so. If we need a new label for this era, let’s call it the "Age of Contempt." Presidential words and speeches are met with collective eye-rolling, new U.S. policy initiatives are not carried out, and in the absence of a U.S. security blanket, chaos reigns as aggrieved citizens turn to violent acts against innocents (in this case, Vietnamese are attacking Chinese nationals). Meanwhile, the revisionists change the liberal international order that has served so many so well.