LONDON — The idea of “Chimerica” was always too good to be true, but the rapidity with which Sino-U.S. ties have unraveled over the past few months has even surprised those who were cynical about Barack Obama’s overtures to China to begin with.
The state of Sino-U.S. ties is so pitiful these days that even as the Chinese commerce minister openly warns the United States that it will suffer consequences if it levies punitive tariffs on Chinese imports, Chinese military leaders are contemplating the possibility of an eventual, all-out war with the U.S. over the status of global superpower.
The West, meanwhile, is souring on China. Gone is the talk of China as a responsible stakeholder in the international system. Instead, Google’s withdrawal from China following a high-profile public spat is seen as symptomatic of the problems that China’s rise generates for Western global norms. China’s undervalued renminbi, for example, is no longer considered a trade problem solely for the U.S.
China has failed to play a constructive role in finding a solution to the North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, much to the consternation of the West, and has made it impossible for the international community to resolve these dangerous flash points. There is growing fear that China may soon become the pre-eminent world power without showing even a patina of democracy.
China’s rise was bound to be a challenge, but for a long time the West tended to put the onus on itself for China’s behavior. It was deemed to be the West’s responsibility to ensure that China was not alienated from the international system. Such assumptions have fallen by the wayside as China’s ascent has continued unabated while the Obama administration signals that it is more interested in managing America’s decline than in preserving its pre-eminence in the global order.
It was China’s growing economic and political clout that forced the Obama administration early on to toy with the idea of a Group of Two condominium whereby the U.S. and China looked after and “managed” the Asia-Pacific. Realizing that their security concerns were being sidelined, Tokyo, Seoul and Canberra made a concerted effort to make the new administration see it was in danger of permanently marginalizing itself strategically in the Asia-Pacific.
Major players in the region started re-evaluating their own security doctrines. Even the Sinophile Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was forced to come up with a security strategy in which Australia hedged its bets vis-a-vis the potential threat from China and the apparent unwillingness on the part of the U.S. to play the role of regional balancer.
Chimerica, however, soon faced its inevitable demise. After the Obama administration notified the U.S. Congress that it planned to sell weapons systems to Taiwan worth $6.4 billion, China showed an aggressive reaction. Not only was the U.S. ambassador called in by Beijing to receive its protest against the arms sales, but China also canceled some military exchange programs with the U.S. and announced sanctions against American companies that supplied weapons systems to Taiwan.
The announcement of sanctions came as a surprise and was another sign of China’s increasing international assertiveness. It marked the first time that China had decided to penalize U.S. companies engaged in commercial arms transactions that were not in violation of global nonproliferation norms.
In its attempt to court China, the Obama administration was quick to downgrade the burgeoning strategic partnership with India forged during the Bush period. If there is a meta-narrative to Obama’s foreign policy approach, it is America’s apparent desire to court adversaries while ignoring friends and potential allies.
If the Obama administration rejects balance-of-power politics as a relic of the past, it will no longer have a strategic framework with which to view and organize its Asia policy. At present, though, it is too preoccupied with domestic issues to give any serious thought to Asia’s rapidly evolving strategic landscape.
China’s growing economic and military capabilities as well as its assertive diplomatic posture are a source of worry for India at a time when Washington has little clarity about the kind of strategic role it wants to play in the region.
Given the heavy U.S. economic dependence on Beijing, a G-2 made some sense for the U.S. but left American allies in the region feeling marginalized. India was perhaps the worst hit. From being viewed as a rising power and a balancer in the Asia-Pacific, India was back to playing a regional South Asian actor whose only relevance for the U.S. was in making sure that Pakistan fought the Taliban vigorously without getting preoccupied with India in Kashmir.
Smaller countries of East and Southeast Asia cannot help noticing the shifting balance of power that Washington’s maneuvering signals.
The Obama administration’s failure to reaffirm the U.S.-India strategic partnership will have consequences for the region and U.S. global standing. It is hoped, though, that the emerging problems with Beijing will convince Washington that it needs to take its friends and allies in Asia more seriously.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.
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