November 20, 2009

November 20, 2009 | Commentary on China

O's China Kowtow

If you were troubled by President Obama's "Wow Bow" in Japan, you won't be any happier with the "kowtow" during his just-concluded trip to the People's Republic of China.

In the latest chapter of Team Obama's at-best-mediocre, teetering-on-the-disastrous foreign policy, the president and a slew of Cabinet secretaries roared into Asia like lions, promising a new era in US diplomacy in the region. But they're leaving like pussycats -- accomplishing, well, a whole lot of nothing so far.

So much for our "first Pacific president," as Obama anointed himself at the start of the eight-day, four-country swing through Asia last week.

The lack of good news was starkest in China, where the United States faces a raft of critical issues that need addressing at the presidential level.

Sure, the joint statement that concluded the visit had a long list of possible areas of Sino-US cooperation such as Chinese aircraft safety, public health, climate change and bumping up the number of Americans studying in the PRC. And the president, to his credit, did raise the issues of human rights and freedom of expression for the more than a billion Chinese.

But a presidential visit should've delivered more than that.

Obama failed to make progress on the most important issue to the United States right now -- economics and trade. We're experiencing a $200-plus billion-a-year trade deficit with China, but no measure came out of the visit to ease that pain.

We could've seen an agreement to help level the playing field for US firms doing business in China by reducing the various subsidies local firms receive from the central government, undermining foreign competitiveness in the PRC.

Or how about the undervalued Chinese currency, the Renminbi? Beijing fixes ("pegs") the RMB's conversion rate against such other currencies as the dollar, instead of allowing it to float with the market. This makes Chinese goods cheaper here and American goods more expensive there.

This inequity adds to the trade deficit, allowing China to become the largest holder of US debt -- and adding to a series of imbalances that could be harmful to both countries in the long-run.

On security, there was also a worrisome lack of movement. China is involved in an unprecedented military buildup -- and US planners are often in the dark about the intent of Beijing's modernization but are especially troubled when it comes to "power projection" capabilities, such as the PRC's missile, naval and air forces.

Obama also flubbed a question on Taiwan, failing to immediately note our obligation under US law to sell arms to the island (which China considers a renegade province) -- and the most likely place America and China might cross swords. He later corrected himself, but the damage was done -- possibly adding doubt in Beijing's mind about the US commitment to a peaceful resolution of Taipei's future.

While there's been a thaw in cross-Taiwan Strait ties lately, better relations have historically been fostered by strong US support for Taiwan.

Then there are the matters experts wish the president hadn't touched upon -- offering up Sino-American cooperation in space, where China is taking steps to challenge the United States for military supremacy.

There was also no noticeable traction on efforts to roll back North Korea's nuclear program -- or, arguably more urgent, getting Beijing to take tougher measures on preventing Iran from joining the Mushroom Cloud Club.

Responding to criticism of the visit, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that the administration hadn't expected "the waters would part and everything would change over the course of 2½ days in China."

Fair enough -- except that the American people were seemingly promised just that during last year's presidential campaign: a new approach, leading to a more effective foreign policy that would burnish America's image and improve Lady Liberty's security.

That just hasn't happened. Instead, the administration keeps floundering on foreign policy. And there's nothing in sight to suggest reality will suddenly start measuring up to Obama's campaign rhetoric.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First Appeared in the New York Post