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A Debtor’s Strategy?

Although the results — or more accurately, the lack of results — from Obama’s China visit suggest the opposite, the $800 billion the U.S. owes to Beijing “had no impact on [Obama’s agenda in China] whatsoever,” claimed Deputy National Security Adviser Mike Froman.

“The $800 billion never came up in conversation, and the President dealt with every issue on his agenda in a very direct way and pulled no punches,” Froman said at a news conference yesterday in Beijing.

On Nov. 15, the New York Times described Obama as a “profligate spender coming to pay his respects to his banker” and predicted before the trip’s beginning that “Mr. Obama will be spending less time exhorting Beijing and more time reassuring it.” It was a prediction that Froman’s statement contradicts.

And a savvy prediction, indeed, as it turned out. Obama offered vague statements on human rights—admittedly, an improvement on previous silence. Both sides reaffirmed their cooperation on environmental issues, nuclear nonproliferation and security – agreements likely less solid in reality than in rhetoric. Both promised increasing student exchanges. But all these stated commonalities are mild. If anything, the U.S. lost ground, minimizing India as a first-rate Asian power and making concessions on Taiwan, as Foreign Policy’s Daniel Blumenthal noted.

So the question is one of correlation or causation: whether Obama’s conciliatory approach can be blamed on the debt alone, or whether it is instead indicative of a larger China-policy outlook.

True, as Froman said, there was no documented mention of the $800-billion debt on the White House website. (But, given its status as a quite rotund elephant, perhaps it was a topic that should have been broached at least once.)

But if Obama intends to shift U.S.-China policy altogether, expect bigger foreign policy problems soon, a dilemma articulately described by Robert Kagan and Dan Blumenthal, who wrote for the Washington Post before Obama’s visit.

Previously, the American strategy has been to simultaneously engage and balance China, Kagan and Blumenthal write. But this time, throughout the visit, Obama repeated that “we do not seek to contain China’s rise,” words that must be musical to a country historically accustomed to regional dominance and hegemony.

Blumenthal and Kagan suggest a tension between reality and a policy of strategic reassurance: The U.S. doesn’t want to diminish its Asia presence or power, but China demands parity at bare minimum. “So it will quickly become obvious,” they write, “that no one on either side feels reassured. Unfortunately, the only result will be to make American allies nervous.” As if Obama’s recent treaty forfeitures in the Czech Republic and Poland were not enough.

Either way, the tone of the visit belied a less confident America—but whether that’s by dollar or decision, we have yet to see.


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