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Obama’s Problem with China: No Risk Tolerance

The president needs to start making hard choices in dealing with the rising power in Asia.

By , the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University.
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The atmospherics around Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States this week are not good. Neither Xi’s promise of multibillion-dollar deals to the assembled CEOs in Seattle, nor the fanfare along his motorcade route in Washington will do much to alter that fact. The constantly unfolding evidence of cyber espionage, military construction in the South China Sea, suppression of Chinese civil society and stalled economic reforms is just too overpowering. The Obama administration knows this and has struggled to lower expectations for the summit, while promising to speak candidly to Xi about these problems. On background, staffers are spinning the goal of the summit as “avoiding rivalry.”

In fact, the administration is avoiding choices.

At the same time Xi is demonstrating that he has a higher tolerance for risk in the U.S.-China relationship than the administration expected, Washington is defining its own tolerance for risk down. Sanctions on Chinese organizations involved in cyberattacks on the United States have been deferred until after the summit, as have plans for Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations in the face of China’s completion of a network of interlocking military airfields in the South China Sea. The administration will get something for this self-restraint — reportedly a bilateral agreement based on existing U.N. consensus that there should be No First Use of cyber against critical infrastructure, in addition to an agreement between air forces designed to avoid mid-air collisions. These are worthy CBMS in their own right, except for the fact that they also reinforce the impression that the United States is seeking to avoid damage from China’s new aggressive cyber and maritime postures rather than actually contest them. It is noteworthy that Beijing has not engaged in similar self-restraint before the summit — a Chinese fighter deliberately risked colliding with a U.S. P-3 in the Yellow Sea just last week.

The atmospherics around Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States this week are not good. Neither Xi’s promise of multibillion-dollar deals to the assembled CEOs in Seattle, nor the fanfare along his motorcade route in Washington will do much to alter that fact. The constantly unfolding evidence of cyber espionage, military construction in the South China Sea, suppression of Chinese civil society and stalled economic reforms is just too overpowering. The Obama administration knows this and has struggled to lower expectations for the summit, while promising to speak candidly to Xi about these problems. On background, staffers are spinning the goal of the summit as “avoiding rivalry.”

In fact, the administration is avoiding choices.

At the same time Xi is demonstrating that he has a higher tolerance for risk in the U.S.-China relationship than the administration expected, Washington is defining its own tolerance for risk down. Sanctions on Chinese organizations involved in cyberattacks on the United States have been deferred until after the summit, as have plans for Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations in the face of China’s completion of a network of interlocking military airfields in the South China Sea. The administration will get something for this self-restraint — reportedly a bilateral agreement based on existing U.N. consensus that there should be No First Use of cyber against critical infrastructure, in addition to an agreement between air forces designed to avoid mid-air collisions. These are worthy CBMS in their own right, except for the fact that they also reinforce the impression that the United States is seeking to avoid damage from China’s new aggressive cyber and maritime postures rather than actually contest them. It is noteworthy that Beijing has not engaged in similar self-restraint before the summit — a Chinese fighter deliberately risked colliding with a U.S. P-3 in the Yellow Sea just last week.

The obvious American fear of friction has allowed Xi to weave together two seemingly contradictory narratives in his foreign policy. On the one hand, he speaks openly of a new East Asian security concept without “blocs” (read U.S. alliances) built by “Asians for Asians.” On the other hand, he continues calling for a “New Model of Great Power Relations” with the United States that would avoid conflict and rivalry. In Xi’s formulation, a successful New Model of Great Power Relations depends on American willingness to give China the strategic space it needs to pursue its new security concept … or an American fear of friction.

The next president will want what George W. Bush called a constructive, cooperative and candid relationship with China, but President Obama’s risk aversion is going to leave a large credibility gap his successor will have to fill first.

Rod Lamkey-Pool/Getty Images

Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor at Georgetown University, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair

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