In his first term, President Obama has sustained the policy of “creative ambiguity,” mixing firm criticism with calm engagement.
While talk of a 'G2' may have been overblown, the Washington-Beijing relationship may now be the world's most important bilateral relationship. As China continues to grow, some have called for a harsher policy; Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan told a crowd in Ohio on August 16th that “President Obama said he would stop [economically unfair] practices…Instead, they are treating him like a doormat.”
The problem in evaluating American foreign policy is that the 'grading criteria' is hard to define. Some may state that the objective of foreign policy is to protect American interests, but this is more of a restatement than a definition.
America's overarching aim in East Asia boils down to regional stability. So long as the various countries are not currently fighting for dominance, the United States can trade with East Asian countries, keep its navy patrolling the Pacific and continue to have influence in the region. However, this goal has been complicated by China's rise to perhaps the preeminent regional power. President Obama's objective is thus to preserve regional stability while still allowing China to grow.
What complicates matters is the fact that American policy does not largely influence Chinese policy. There is often the misconception that the United States can alter any aspect of world politics if it tries hard enough; if something goes wrong, then someone must have dropped the ball. However, American statements will have little effect on Chinese actions. A recent editorial in The Global Times argued that while “decades ago, the decision of the US to cut the quota of Chinese textile import could put Chinese under severe pressure…nowadays, the Chinese public no longer cares about a specific decision made by the US Department of Commerce, except in a small specialized circle. As China's interests are expanding, the weight of the US is decreasing among Chinese.”
So, when we judge Obama's policy performance vis-a-vis China, we are really asking whether his policies have accommodated China's rise in a way that preserves regional stability, given the limited range and effect said policies would have.
The approach of previous Presidents has been described as “creative ambiguity”; the goal is to be firm enough to prevent aggressive Chinese action, while being vague enough to prevent aggressive action from China's neighbors. Taiwan is perhaps the seminal example: the United States dissuades aggressive Chinese action by giving Taiwan security guarantees, yet actively opposes unilateral Taiwanese independence. Thus, neither side (China or Taiwan) is willing to upend the status quo.
We can see this in President Obama's approach to the South China Sea issue, perhaps the geopolitical issue that is most threatening to regional security. The situation is increasingly militarized as China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and others have all staked claims to islands in the South China Sea. President Obama has stepped up America's security commitments to the region: it has reaffirmed its existing alliances, and launched new ones with countries like Vietnam.
These moves have been harshly criticized by Beijing, whose defense ministry argued that “Any intervention by countries outside the region will complicate the problem and even deteriorate the situation”. More nationalistic commentators see such actions as an attempt by the United States to contain China and limit its growing strength. Many in the Chinese state apparatus are 'offensive realists,' and so believe that the United States, despite its statements to the contrary, will inevitably challenge China's rise.
There are elements of truth to these statements; after all, these alliances do aim to restrain Chinese action. However, if there is a policy of containment, it remains one that only triggers in the most serious of circumstances. America has been unclear on whether it would support any unilateral action on the part of its allies concerning the South China Sea islands. For example, while it may offer to protect the islands Vietnam currently administers, it would not support a Vietnamese 'invasion' of islands administered by the PRC. Given that Vietnam (or the Philippines) would likely lose any battle with China without American help, they are dissuaded from taking any aggressive action themselves.
In a relationship that requires a balance of firm criticism and calm understanding, often at the same time, President Obama has managed to keep a mostly positive relationship with China throughout his first term. He has avoided major diplomatic crises, and has handled those smaller crises that have arisen in a way that allowed both sides to save face. When situations have changed, he has managed to alter his approach in order to best sustain regional stability.
Even the most recent 'spat,' concerning the activist Chen Guangcheng, was handled as professionally as could be expected. The United States was firm in its commitment to protect human rights as embodied in Chen, but not foolish enough to browbeat Beijing. Obama's diplomats were able to react quickly to Chen's public statement that he felt forced to accept the initial solution; despite this, they still managed to create a solution that allowed both sides to 'save face'.
This is not to say that the President's policies have all been perfect. The “pivot to Asia” was oversold; rather than being a major shift in military deployments, so far only a few hundred marines have been stationed in Australia. By calling it a “pivot,” Washington managed to make an understandable refocus in American policy into a shift that fed Chinese concerns about containment. However, this was a rhetorical misstep more than anything, and perhaps represents the only real pothole in the China-US relationship.
The White House has much less control over the Sino-US relationship than people realize. The relationship is complicated, driven by unknown internal factors, and constantly changing. It requires as much reaction as it does action. However, President Obama and his team have done well, considering the dynamics of the relationship; hopefully, this approach will continue into the future.