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Obama's "Sun Tzu" China Strategy

posted Feb 15, 2012, 7:03 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Feb 15, 2012, 7:10 PM ]
Veteran political journalist James Fallows writes a lengthy and thoughtful review of the Obama presidency so far in the March 2102 issue of The Atlantic.  The article touches upon several interesting topics, including this analysis of what it calls Obama's Sun Tzu-like China strategy:  

As Obama began his term, official China was growing smug and prideful. The triumphant Beijing Olympics were just behind it; the American financial collapse symbolized the decline of a superpower and the world’s reliance on its new paymasters, the Chinese. Because of China’s heavy reliance on exports, its labor force was hit harder by the worldwide collapse of demand than that of any other major economy, but the Chinese pulled themselves out far more rapidly. Americans and Europeans dithered about applying stimulus; the Chinese went ahead and applied it, creating jobs for many millions of people and expanding the country’s physical infrastructure in the process.

By the time Obama made his state visit to Shanghai and Beijing, in November 2009, the press in both countries and the rest of the world was primed to present his usual low-key demeanor as servility. The Washington Post and The New York Times contrasted Obama’s supposed hat-in-hand manner with the bravado of Bill Clinton, who had mentioned the Tiananmen Square protests while standing next to President Jiang Zemin.

Yet even as Obama was politely listening to lectures about China’s new superiority, members of his administration were executing an elaborate pincer movement to reestablish American influence, real and perceived, among the growing economies of Asia. In practically every formal statement by U.S. officials, from President Obama to Secretaries Clinton, Geithner, and Gates, U.S. representatives hammered home a single message. The message was that Americawelcomed rather than feared China’s continued rise. This was directed at a widespread Chinese suspicion: that America would try to thwart China’s continued development because it viewed any increase in Chinese influence as a flat-out loss for the United States.

Many Chinese officials remained skeptical, but the reassurances set the stage for the next phase of the administration’s message: we welcome your rise, but we disagree on the following things—censorship, currency, and pollution, all matters that could be presented as containable items for discussion rather than as inherently threatening aspects of China’s ascent.

In the few months after Obama’s visit to China, some Chinese military and diplomatic officials began believing their own adulatory press clips. China entered its period of what was broadly described as overreach: challenging the Japanese, South Korean, Vietnamese, and Philippine navies with expanded claims of coming supremacy in the South China Sea and the broader Pacific; antagonizing trading partners from Russia to Burma to Australia with more-aggressive practices and claims. Through this period, the U.S. government was stitching up relations with every one of these countries. Part of the message was that with its inevitable extraction from the mire of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States could reassert its presence in the fastest-growing economic region of the world; the other part was that, for all its excesses, the United States was an easier regional power to live with than the Chinese would be.

Two years after Obama’s “humiliating” visit to Shanghai and Beijing, U.S. relations with China were a mix of cooperation and tension, as they had been through the post-Nixon years. But American relations with most other nations in the region were better than since before the Iraq War. In a visit to Australia late in 2011, Obama startled the Chinese leadership but won compliments elsewhere with the announcement of a new permanent U.S. Marine presence in Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast.

The strategy was Sun Tzu–like in its patient pursuit of an objective: reestablishing American hard and soft power while presenting a smiling “We welcome your rise!” face to the Chinese. “It was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see,” Walter Russell Mead, of Bard College, often a critic of the administration, wrote about the announcement of the Australian base. “In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.”

(Full article here)

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