Last week’s U.S.-China summit offers an object lesson in how President Obama conducts foreign policy. All the rhetoric, assumptions, and diplomatic tics of the Obama Doctrine are there. And the outcomes, as usual, are not good.
For example, no matter how provocative China is, it must be, according to Obama, “engaged.” It may launch a devastating cyber attack against the Office of Personnel Management costing billions of dollars, or it may send fighter aircraft to harass U.S. aircraft over international waters days before the Washington summit. It may even build airstrips on disputed islands and challenge the freedom of navigation of U.S. and other ships. No matter. China must be rewarded with a state visit, which is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on a foreign leader.
The thinking behind the engagement-at-any-cost strategy is not hard to discern. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes has said U.S. ties with China represent “the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world.” This is diplomatic code for the idea that China is so big and powerful that it can do pretty much what it wants. “Engagement” becomes a diplomatic shibboleth to soothe over acceptance of Beijing’s antagonistic behavior as a hard new fact of world politics.
We may be fooled into thinking that a few critical words whispered behind closed doors counterbalance the overall message of acceptance from the state visit, but President Xi Jinping is not. He knows full well that Obama is, with the gift of a state visit, offering tacit approval of Beijing’s new aggressive posture in the world.
And then there is the administration’s incessant talk of the benefits we supposedly get from cooperating with China. The list includes Beijing’s adoption of a cap-and-trade system to combat climate change, its support for the Iran deal, a ban on the ivory trade, and the agreement reached last week to oppose economic espionage in cyberspace.
If these are benefits, however, they accrue mostly to China, not us. They expressly avoid touching on any of the strategic irritants, such as China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. Some, like China’s support for the Iran deal, are actually in Beijing’s self-interest and entail no concessions at all. In fact, you could argue, as many do, that the Iran deal is strategically harmful for the United States and that China’s support is consistent with its overall policy to challenge U.S. power and influence.
As for issues such as climate change and the ivory ban, they are props for Obama’s domestic political agenda. Internationally, they are largely symbolic and, at best, of marginal importance. The cap-and-trade and other climate agreements, for example, will not significantly alter China’s existing policies to clean up pollution. Nor will they do much to lower the Earth’s temperature.
Yes, there is something new in the agreement on economic cyber espionage, but even the administration is skeptical of the follow-through. Notwithstanding the new hotlines and high-level “working groups,” serious doubts exist that Xi will make good on his promises. In addition, nothing was said about stopping China’s cyber espionage attacks against U.S. government agencies, which some have likened to acts of war.
All this adds up to one thing: Whatever minor agreements are reached, the United States is tacitly accepting China’s new definition of “great power relations.” When Xi says he wants to avoid confrontation, he doesn’t mean he should stop his confrontational behavior. He means the U.S. must not be “confrontational” in opposing his.
How do we get out of this one-sided diplomatic trap? We must reject the false choice between confrontation and engagement. Obviously, we need to speak with the Chinese and even work with them when it’s in our interest. But that doesn’t mean we have to settle for such an unbalanced relationship. If we impose sanctions on China because of cyber attacks or send in naval ships to challenge China’s interference with freedom of navigation, we are not the ones being confrontational. We are merely responding to aggression and letting China’s leaders know that such aggression will no longer be cost-free.
Originally published in The Washington Times.