Obama's Asia Trip Takes Aim at China

The President will skip China on his Asia tour, but his itinerary signals America's growing unease with the superpower's global clout. Peter Beinart on why Obama's cozying up to China's rivals this week—and how his policy is more hawkish than Bush's.

Barack Obama holds a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the United Nations on Sep. 23, 2010. (Photo: Susan Walsh / AP Photo)

We have entered the post, post-9/11 era. The past two midterm elections—2002 and 2006—were dominated by Iraq. Watching the 2010 campaign, by contrast, you’d barely have known the U.S. was still at war. A few years ago, a hawkish stance on the “war on terror” pretty much defined what it meant to be a Republican. Today, the Tea Party—the GOP’s activist core—has no identifiable view on the “war on terror” at all. (Which explains why the media can identify both uber-hawk Sarah Palin and isolationist Ron Paul as among its leaders).

The most important foreign policy issue in the 2010 midterms, in fact, had nothing to do with 9/11. It was China. According to The New York Times, at least 29 congressional candidates bashed China in television ads in October alone. And China is playing a larger and larger role in President Obama’s foreign policy as well. In August, the Obama administration sent the USS George Washington to do joint exercises with Vietnam, which has territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. Team Obama is negotiating a nuclear deal with Vietnam, drawing militarily closer to Indonesia, and has been more aggressive than the Bush administration in selling arms to Taiwan. In July, at the Association of South-East Asian Nations, Hillary Clinton ambushed the Chinese by rallying 12 countries to protest its territorial incursions. And now Obama is visiting India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan, the four Asian countries most crucial to its effort at balancing Chinese power. It all adds up, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Douglas Paal recently told The Economist, to “the most comprehensive burst of diplomatic and military activity in Asia, particularly South-East Asia, in decades.”

This, I suspect, is the new normal. Jihadist terrorists may kill more Americans in the years to come, but they don’t threaten American primacy. China does. Decades from now, historians may well identify the entire “war on terror” as an interlude between great power competition, the kind of thing the United States could afford to focus on in those unipolar years between its rivalry with the Soviet Union and its rivalry with China.

The interesting thing about looking at American foreign policy through an Asia-centric, rather than Middle East-centric, lens is that it is suddenly no longer so clear who the hawks and doves are. President Obama began his dealings with Beijing in a conciliatory vein, but almost two years in, his policy is more hawkish than President Bush’s. He’s angered human rights types by restoring military ties to the Indonesian Special Forces and, according to The Economist, may cut a nuclear deal with Vietnam that allows it to enrich uranium outside of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And if Obama is more hawkish than Bush, the Democrats are, in some ways, more hawkish than the GOP. In September, when the House passed a resolution aimed at pressuring China to revalue its currency, Democrats supported it almost unanimously while Republicans were split. Paul Krugman regularly excoriates China for its currency policies. Nancy Pelosi has long excoriated it over human rights; in 2008 she urged Bush to boycott the Beijing Olympics.

What makes the China debate different from foreign policy debates during the Cold War and the “war on terror” is the role of economics. Since the USSR offered few opportunities for lucrative trade and investment, American businessmen (with a few exceptions, like Armand Hammer) had no problem with the Republican Party taking a hard anti-Soviet line. Similarly, after 9/11, there was no powerful business constituency invested in maintaining ties to the Taliban or Saddam Hussein. But China is different. If the neocons want a new cold war with China, they’ll have to take on corporate America in the process, which would make for very interesting times in the GOP.

If the neocons want a new cold war with China, they’ll have to take on corporate America in the process, which would make for very interesting times in the GOP.

For the moment, America’s China debate takes place in two, artificially separate, spheres. When it comes to defense, the right—more than the left—uses the Chinese threat as a justification for bigger military budgets. But when it comes to economics, the left—more than the right—insists that the U.S. challenge the way China values its currency and treats its workers. The right wants America to grow more economically integrated with China even as we grow more militarily confrontational. The left wants America to risk rupturing our economic ties with China while any national security spills over. It doesn’t make much sense. Sooner or later, China is going to wreak havoc with the foreign policy fault lines to which Americans have grown accustomed since 9/11, and indeed, since Vietnam. Let’s hope it’s sooner.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.