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Obama on China, weak and strong

Obama on China, weak and strong
Published 15 Mar 2016   Follow @SamRoggeveen

There is a lot of fascinating reading in Jeffrey Goldberg's cover story for the latest issue of The Atlantic, which is centred on a long interview with President Obama about his foreign policy. After you've finished it, be sure to also read this companion piece by NY Times commentator David Brooks. 

In particular, I think Obama's comments on China are worth noting. The President says 'In terms of traditional great-state relations, I do believe that the relationship between the United States and China is going to be the most critical', which will encourage those who believe the 'pivot' has lost momentum. In fact, according to Goldberg:

For years, the “pivot to Asia” has been a paramount priority of his. America’s economic future lies in Asia, he believes, and the challenge posed by China’s rise requires constant attention. From his earliest days in office, Obama has been focused on rebuilding the sometimes-threadbare ties between the U.S. and its Asian treaty partners...

But there is room to quibble with Goldberg's interpretation that Obama thinks 'the challenge posed by China’s rise requires constant attention'. After all, elsewhere in the article, Obama seems to say that his main concern is not China's rise but its potential failure: 'we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China'. Moreover: [fold]

If China fails; if it is not able to maintain a trajectory that satisfies its population and has to resort to nationalism as an organizing principle; if it feels so overwhelmed that it never takes on the responsibilities of a country its size in maintaining the international order; if it views the world only in terms of regional spheres of influence—then not only do we see the potential for conflict with China, but we will find ourselves having more difficulty dealing with these other challenges that are going to come.

It's possible Obama is eliding his true feelings here. Obama may not actually believe that 'we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China', but he may calculate that it would be impolite to say otherwise. An admission that China's rise, which has lifted so many millions out of poverty and is a boon to US exporters, has a strategic downside would be like saying that it is in America's interest for China to remain poor and therefore weak.

If he does believe it, then perhaps Obama is not the master strategist I took him for. Yes, a flailing, weakened China could lash out and destabilise the region in a desperate resort to aggressive nationalism. But is that really a greater concern to America than a country which challenges long-held US dominance and is potentially seeking to redraw the strategic geography of the Asia Pacific with Beijing at its centre?

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