While Republicans at home were slamming President Obama for allegedly going AWOL during the super committee’s deliberations—yet another strike against him in 2012, they calculated—the president was half a world away rounding up allies in Asia for a very different campaign strategy. Obama is trying to prove himself one of the toughest China hawks that the White House has seen in decades.
This robust approach is part of a broad reorientation of U.S. power worldwide, senior administration officials say—one that is expected to quicken now that the military is withdrawing from Iraq and, by 2014, Afghanistan. “We describe this as a fundamental rebalancing of the U.S. presence in the world and how we prioritize foreign-policy issues,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told National Journal. Because of “the changing power dynamic in view of China rising,” Rhodes said, America’s obvious new focus is East Asia. “When we came in, we were very much overweighted in the wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. “When we looked where we were underweighted, we didn’t have enough [resources] in the Asia Pacific.”
It is no accident that the United States is simultaneously beefing up its partnership with India, renewing military ties with the Philippines, and assembling a trans-Pacific trade partnership that doesn’t include China (but could, if Beijing agreed to tougher labor, intellectual property, and environmental restrictions that it has previously spurned). The strategy also explains Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s historic trip to isolated Myanmar, which lies on China’s southwestern border and has rocky relations with Beijing, and Obama’s announcement that some 2,500 U.S. Marines would be stationed in Australia. In short, Washington appears to be trying to box China in diplomatically, partly by exploiting the Asia-Pacific region’s deep mistrust of Beijing.
And more is to come. The White House, Rhodes said, plans “an expanded security presence” that begins with the Australia deployment, which is intended “to train and partner with other militaries in the region.” He would not identify future additions to the U.S. ground and naval presence in East Asia. But in a speech late last month in Darwin, Australia, Obama suggested that America wanted to secure “some of the busiest sea lanes in the world,” which he described as “critical to all our economies.” Here, too, the president appeared to cast an eye on the political debate back home, where Republicans are seeking to block defense cuts. “Reductions in U.S. defense spending will not—I repeat, will not—come at the expense of the Asia Pacific,” Obama told the Australian Parliament in another speech.
U.S. officials deny that the policy should be likened to “containment” or “encirclement,” but the Beijing commentariat in recent weeks has accused Washington of just such a strategy. Instead, says James Steinberg, the dean of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, “the paradigm is that the best way to positively engage China is from a position of confidence and strength,” demonstrating that Beijing “is not going to have the option of pushing people around.” Steinberg retired recently as Obama’s deputy secretary of State and was heavily involved in the China strategy.
Although administration officials don’t like to acknowledge it, getting the word out is also part of Obama’s 2012 strategy for neutralizing Republican attacks on national security—traditionally a Democratic weak point. Mitt Romney, a leading GOP presidential candidate, has already put out talking points that take a tough trade stance toward China, and Congress has turned up the hawk dial with the recent Senate passage of an anti-currency-manipulation bill that, if approved by the House and signed by Obama, would hit China with new trade tariffs.
In nearly three years in office, Obama has shown an increasing fondness for hard power and traditional realpolitik, or what political scientists call the “balancing” of allies against a potential aggressor. The policy, which the president has now extended to Iran, has the benefit of being good politics. “Everything that Mitt Romney said we should be doing—tough sanctions, covert action, and pressuring the international community—are all of the things we are actually doing,” said a recently retired U.S. official privy to current intelligence.
To be sure, Obama can restrain China only so much, considering that Beijing owns a pile of U.S. debt (more than $1 trillion in Treasury bills, at last count). As Clinton put it in a now-famous conversation with Australia’s prime minister published by WikiLeaks, “How do you deal toughly with your banker?” Steinberg added that one problem may not be “a too-aggressive China. It’s a too-weak China.” With the U.S. and European economies in trouble, Washington needs robust Chinese demand at a time when China’s fundamentals are weakening. “We may be sorry for what we wished for,” Steinberg said.
Some old Asia hands say that buddying up with other nations in the region, which generally fear China and resent its occasional bullying, is hardly new. Thomas P.M. Barnett, an often-quoted strategist, called Obama’s China policy “atmospherics of the worst order—namely, plopping down a couple thousand U.S. Marines on Australia’s northern coast and pretending that represents effective management of China’s rise.” Jonathan Pollack, a China scholar at the Brookings Institution, is more sanguine, but he says, “There is a bit of oversell in what they’re saying. Obama wants to make sure he doesn’t get outflanked by his political opponents.”
Nonetheless, for a president who has resolutely avoided being identified with an “Obama Doctrine,” his new turn toward the Asia Pacific may be the closest thing we’ve seen yet.
This article appears in the December 3, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.