Ambiguous reaction on US posture from China

By Richard Halloran  / 

Thu, Dec 01, 2011 - Page 8

China’s response to US President Barack Obama’s plan to “pivot” US attention and military power from the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan to East Asia has been remarkably mild.

Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last month in Hawaii, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia that the US would give security priority to Asian allies and friends, as well as US forces in the Pacific. Obama pledged that coming budget cuts would not affect this plan.

Experience shows China often greets such strategic designs with outraged cries that the US is seeking to “contain” China or impose US “hegemony” on Asia.

However, in this instance, the initial response came in a routine statement from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin (劉為民), who was limited to saying: “When developing state-to-state relations, one should take into account the interests of other countries as well as the whole region, and peace and stability of the region.”

Subsequent statements last week were equally bland, some with a touch of sarcasm, others with a tone of condescension and still others with a murmur of confusion. The intriguing question: Why the subdued pushback?

It might be that China’s leaders, who have repeatedly shown that they do not understand the US, do not know what to make of Obama’s new strategy in Asia.

Perhaps the members of the Chinese Politburo, like many Americans, want to see whether Obama takes action to execute his new security posture.

“If [the US] sticks to its Cold War mentality and continues to engage with Asian nations in a self-assertive way, it is doomed to incur repulsion in the region,” Xinhua news agency said.

Another possibility is that Beijing sees this as evidence of the decline of US power, that the US will soon be confronted with the reality of its economic weaknesses and that it is desperately seeking a way to cover up the consequences of that.

“It was not a good time for US President Barack Obama to attend the EAS [East Asia Summit], given the unstable state of the American economy, and the Congressional supercommittee’s failure on the federal budget,” the China Daily said.

“The biggest challenge facing the United States is its sluggish economy, so China should pay greater attention to the economic measures of the superpower, which is actively seeking a ‘return’ to Asia,” the People’s Daily said in a commentary.

“The United States should depend on its own efforts to recover its economy. If it only cares about strengthening its dominant status ... no Asian country will have time or interest to play the old strategic poker game with the United States,” it added.

Another Chinese assessment is that Obama’s strategy in Asia is intended to support his re-election campaign.

“No sooner had the curtain fallen on the summit meetings in Bali, Indonesia, than Obama sent home the message that he had garnered business deals to support hundreds of thousands of jobs for his countrymen,” the China Daily said. “His country’s struggling economy needs them. His chances of re-election need them. That is why Obama portrayed his nine-day trip around the Pacific Rim as a hunt for new markets.”

The most concrete response seems to have been the establishment of a strategic planning department within the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army. This must have been planned for some time, but was announced last week by Xinhua.

“The newly-founded strategic planning department has been tasked with studying key strategic issues, drawing out development and planning for the military’s growth, and raising proposals on the general allocation and macro control of the military’s strategic resources,” Xinhua said.

Richard Halloran is a commentator based in Hawaii.