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Foreign Policy

Obama Takes A ‘Cheap Shot’ at China in SOTU Speech

Jan 26 , 2015

Using the State of the Union address to deliver a ‘cheap shot’ is hard to imagine, but this is what President Obama did when on January 20 he declared “…as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest growing region.”

And what Obama said next was no less provocative:  “That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage.  Why should we let that happen?  We should write the rules…” Obama was clearly referring to the U.S.-crafted Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “21st century trading agreement,” seeking a way to spur the now Republican-controlled Congress to grant him “fast track” authority needed to bring talks to conclusion.

That he would allege a competitive threat or rivalry with China (which is not participating in the TPP talks and was never invited to do so) as a fillip to Congressional action evidences how the Obama administration has cynically made the myth of a “China threat” a central feature of its “pivot to Asia” political and economic strategy.

When robustly proclaimed by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010, “pivot” or “rebalance” was overwhelmingly Pentagon-driven military and security-oriented: its goal to maintain U.S. military and political hegemony in the region by reorienting toward China and augmenting through new weapons, protocols, and battle plans Cold War alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia.

Since then the military/strategic “pivot” has been further embellished and informed by a distinctly neoliberal “universal values” agenda that conflates American political and economic ideology with commercial interests and by preventing any substantive change to “rules” made during the post-WWII “American century.”

For Obama (and Hillary Clinton) the only rules that can or should be followed–particularly, in Asia–are those recognized by the United States: “In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules — in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, how they participate in meeting common international challenges….”

Many American readers will find nothing particularly remarkable or untoward in such a statement.  They fail to understand how people in Asia read and respond to the same words. Asia is not the United States and the United States is not an Asian countries.  To the question of what “rules” should be followed, it should be the nations of Asia, not the United States, that provides the answer.

For the record, what China “wants” is not to “write the rules” for the region, but to work with neighboring countries–Japan, South Korea, the ASEAN states—to forge new, mutually beneficial, non-coercive bi-lateral and multilateral trade arrangements that take full account of the particular economic, social, and cultural conditions of the countries concerned.  And this is what China is doing, without the bullying and arm-twisting that has characterized U.S. negotiating style in the TPP talks.

Despite his presumed internationalist perspective and sensitivity, few American presidents have seemed less willing to admit or allow Asian nations’ sovereignty about their cultures, politics, and interstate relations than Hawaii- and Indonesia-raised Barack Obama.

The Obama administration, surely reflecting his personal belief—but also the powerful vested interests of the Pentagon/Washington establishment—has arrogated to the United States the moral authority to “lead” Asian nations the gamut of organizations, initiatives, and debates, in most cases fully expecting Asian nations to accept often patently self-serving and unequal U.S. “rules,” while, in the name of “universal values,” also condescendingly proffering tutelage in America’s political culture and dystopian morality to societies with proud and noble moral and cultural traditions.

A manifesto of sorts in this respect would be Susan B. Rice’s November 22, 2014 “America’s Future in Asia” speech at Georgetown University (see my December 5, 2013 post “Why the ‘Soft-Imperialism’ of Susan Rice’s ‘America’s Future in Asia’ is Wrong”).

Dr. Henry Kissinger noted in his latest book, World Order, that from at least the days of Theodore Roosevelt United States foreign policy has been informed by a conceit that America has a sacred duty to spread its democratic and essentially Christian creed to nations of presumed lesser virtue, most particularly those of Asia. A venerable American commentator from the conservative/populist wing of the Republican party, Patrick J. Buchanan, in a 2012 book entitled Suicide of a Superpower, elaborates that this civilizing mission mentality, combined with the notion of Manifest Destiny, has led, seemingly inexorably, to quasi-colonial empire, which remains in tact today.

From the acquisition of Guam, and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War of 1898, to the annexation of the Hawaiian islands in the same year, through the pre-WWII years of Philippine regency, to the occupation of Japan, the Korean War, Vietnam, and until today, in its pan-Asian forward military bases and alliances, the United States has sought to become and has seen itself as the rightful (even indispensable) hegemon, moral tutor, and would-be metropole for Asian societies.

With such a mentality—formed during a 100 year period that was an aberration in Asian and world history—it may not be surprising that American leaders find disconcerting, even threatening, the normal and wholly legitimate inclinations of Asian countries, and most particularly of China, to live by and within their own moral, ethical, and political traditions, and to pursue their separate destinies.

Still, it is more than disappointing, indeed, it is appalling, to hear an American president, feigning injured innocence, take a cheap shot at China, and in the next breath proclaim matter-of-factly that the United States should dictate the terms of a new Asian trading order. As long as Barack Obama remains president no substantive change in American attitudes or policies toward Asia is likely. Two years is not a long time to wait for change, but prudence and realism argues against great optimism even then.

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