The Magazine

Obama Blunders Through Asia

Undoing Bush's years of deft diplomacy.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Some good news is that America's China policy has been fundamentally stable since the Nixon-Mao opening of 1971-72. This continuity has resulted from four enduring factors: Washington is markedly more powerful than Beijing, and Chinese political and military leaders know it. China, unlike the United States, faces multiple potent neighbors; challenges other than from Washington can and do rear up. Third, for Chinese leaders, domestic development and stability is a higher priority than foreign policy goals. Finally, successive American presidents have seen no net benefit in again tangling militarily with China, as the United States did in Korea and Vietnam.

The age of globalization locks in this stability. We are no more dependent on China for buying U.S. Treasury bills than the Chinese are dependent on us for buying their apparel and electronics. This mutuality should prevent any collapse in China policy, whatever the Obama administration does; mutuality on such a scale seldom breaks down suddenly.

The bad news about Obama and China is that his China policy resembles a pack of cards that is reshuffled to suit the occasion.

In February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "issues such as Tibet, Taiwan and human rights     can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis." This is one of the worst statements by any secretary of state in memory.

The Taiwan issue is about whether 23 million people will live in a democracy or under the Chinese Communist party. As Bush said, "Free nations are peaceful nations," and China threatens Taiwan. Taiwan's future is also about the balance of power in Asia. But Clinton averts her eyes and thinks, Don't let threats to Taiwan "interfere" with talking about global warming in Copenhagen! Obama declined to see the Dalai Lama before his trip to China, because that would displease Beijing. He will see the Tibetan after the trip to China: Who does that please?

Freedom is about whether the Chinese people will get news of the world unfiltered or only what the Communist party chooses for them to have. Freedom is about whether American products will get the access to Chinese markets that Chinese products have here. Freedom is about whether American scholars doing research in China are allowed the unfettered access that Chinese scholars working in the United States have. Freedom is not a card to pull out or whisk away as the occasion may require.

Obama on November 14 welcomed "the rise of a strong, prosperous China" as a "source of strength for the community of nations." Unlike Bush, he did not say a "free" or "democratic" China. Here is change we must denounce. There is a world of difference between China as an unfree superpower and China as a democratic superpower. Obama ducks the issue. Yet to see East Asia's U.S.-led security system replaced by an authoritarian Chinese leadership would undermine the interests of Washington and numerous capitals in the region.

While in China, Obama let Hu take the lead on how the visit was handled and on how the issues were framed. The mention of Taiwan in the joint Obama-Hu statement favors China by implying that sovereignty is the heart of the issue (meaning Taiwan ultimately belongs to China). No mention that any change in Taiwan's status should be with the Taiwan people's agreement or that stability in Asia would be upturned by Taiwan's disappearance as a separate nation.

The joint statement also talks condescendingly about India as part of a problem (with Pakistan) that Obama and Hu must together assess. But India is a partner no less important for Washington than China; would Obama condescend to China by jointly pontificating with India on China's relations with the appalling regimes of Burma and North Korea? It is simply not the case that China is Washington's global partner, with democratic India down at a lower rank.

A Los Angeles Times editorial asserted in January, "Obama assumes the presidency in a multipolar world." Not so. The United States was easily the world's only superpower on January 20, 2009. The danger is that Obama's "changes" will bring on a multipolar world: Talk with everybody about nothing and with nobody about anything. Slight the notion of clashes of interest among nations. Soft-pedal the idea of evil in the world. Such mushiness could soon shrink U.S. power.