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Foreign Policy

Three Features of Obama’s Foreign Policy and Their Implications for China

Oct 27 , 2016
  • Yang Wenjing

    Chief of US Foreign Policy, Institute of Contemporary International Relations

With Obama’s second term coming to its end, it’s time to make an evaluation of his foreign policy as a whole, as well as his policy towards China in particular. The analyses are helpful to understand the potential US foreign policy trend in the next administration and what it may mean to US policy on China years ahead.

Obama’s characteristics as a foreign policy president have become even more obvious as the end of his administration draws near. As a president who took office defining himself to bring “change” to the world and “remake history”, Obama has been described as a “progressive pragmatist” by Martin S. Indyk and Kenneth G. Lieberthal in their book, “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy”. In the early days of his office, on one hand, he had an activist vision of his role in history: He intended to refurbish America’s image abroad, especially in the Muslim world; end its involvement in two wars; offer an outstretched hand to Iran; reset relations with Russia as a step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons; develop significant cooperation with China on both regional and global issues; and make peace in the Middle East. He also paid much attention to “global commons” that were threatened by terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change and pandemic disease. He insisted the US leadership required humility and “a spirit of care and renewed competence”. On the other hand, he acknowledged that all these high-minded objectives are not easy to attain, therefore he could only make “meaningful progress” step by step and be pragmatic when necessary. That’s why he showed his toughness on Afghanistan, as well as firmness in dealing with terrorists residing in Pakistan. And as his reign unfolded, his foreign policy has always revolved around the above-mentioned “lofty” goals and also coupled with practical means when necessary.

Given this, Obama’s foreign policy can be seen in three approaches:

The first was to reach out to adversary countries so as to show the cooperative and modest side of the US foreign policy and regain US prestige. During his first term, he successfully opened up US relations with Myanmar, and the bilateral ties have progressed ever since, with the US recently declaring it would lift sanctions totally. He also considers the breakthrough in US-Cuba relation as one of the most important legacies of his foreign policy. The nuclear deal with Iran is another important achievement. Reached after years of hard negotiation and sanctions, this outreach policy has really worked and helped improve the US international stand and enhance the benign side of US power. Yet with strong opposition from inside the US political circle on the Iran deal, it’s still hard to predict what its fate may be in future.

Second, are his mottos “to be restrained in use of force” and “don’t do stupid stuff”, which have had a decisive impact on US policy on anti-terrorism and Middle East. As a president determined to end the two wars, Obama has been highly alert about the abuse of power and would not let the US be dragged into another war. That’s why he has been criticized as too soft and hesitant in dealing with Libya and Syria. He has emphasized the principle of no US boots on the ground, no military action unless it had a legal basis, and also an appropriate division of labor with allies. Such caution have been criticized as incompetence or inactivity in fighting against the worsening scenario in the Middle East, especially facing the rise of ISIS. In Obama’s eyes, it conforms to the US long-term interest to use power more wisely and limitedly at a time of US austerity, yet he also has to face harsh criticism from others for lack of strength and resolve in dealing with Middle East crisis.

The above can help explain the third facet of his foreign policy, the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. As a president who had spent his early childhood in Indonesia, he has a natural affinity with the region. Powered also by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, rebalance to Asia has become a symbol of Obama’s policy. As Fred Kaplan writes in Foreign Affairs, from the beginning, Obama wanted to shift away from the stagnant battlefields in and around the Middle East and devote more attention to the Asia-Pacific, with its prospects for dynamic growth, trade, and, in the form of China, an expansionist power that needs to be contained militarily and lured into the global economy. In fact, he has always adopted a two-pronged approach on China with both engagement and hedging. On one hand, he attaches vital importance to the US-China relationship, and has invested comprehensively in this regard, including more than 10 face-to-face meetings with President Xi Jinping, and thousands of cooperative arrangements have been reached between US and China during these years. To forge a healthy, stable and constructive relationship with China is one pillar of the US rebalance policy, apart from the alliance system and multilateral mechanisms. On the other hand, it can be observed that with the strategic tension between China and US on the rise related to the South China Sea and the THAAD issue, the US has increasingly strengthened its deterrence leg in the Asia-Pacific area by enhancing military cooperation not only with such allies as Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, as well as its quasi-ally Singapore, but also forging and cultivating new partnerships with India and Vietnam. Obama’s first visit to Laos as a US president last month also shows his interest in winning the hearts and minds of those countries that surround China. On the South China Sea issue, US actions such as freedom of navigation and its rallying of its partners on this activity, as well as its support of the position of the Philippines on the tribunal arbitration case — and its intention to use differences within ASEAN on the South China sea to constrain China, are all well absorbed by China as examples of US containment.

Then, what is the sole purpose of US China policy since either engagement or hedging are only the means rather than the end themselves. Obama’s intention is to use both the tough and soft measures to force or cultivate China into the US-led world and regional order, where US is the ultimate authority and leader, while China, as the second most important country in the world, should share more “global responsibility”, “abide by the international law”, and be prevented from breaking the current international order by “expansion or aggression”, which primarily refers to China’s policy on the South China Sea at the moment. As a former law professor, Obama tends to interpret international affairs from a legal perspective and emphasizes international law and rules-based order, and this is one of the lens through which he sees through China. Yet no matter he recognizes or not, US has always been determined to be the final authority in that rules-based order, which has harmed its moral basis from the very beginning. 

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