Relations since Obama’s November 2009 visit to China have fallen well short of expectations. Though the atmosphere bilaterally has remained generally quite positive, most of the administration’s longer-term policy objectives have remained unmet. The unprecedented frequency and scope of exchanges at senior leadership levels (including numerous meetings and telephone conversations between the two presidents and between Cabinet officers) have not produced genuine strategic trust between both countries. Bilateral relations are not confrontational or zero-sum, but they lack a sense that both leaderships are prepared to act fully on a mutual recognition of shared interests.
Some of the most contentious issues have involved economics and trade. China’s continued rapid economic gains at a time of global financial turmoil have reinforced concerns about its unfair economic and trade practices. These included China’s unwillingness to consent to more rapid appreciation of its currency in relation to the U.S. dollar, large-scale subsidies for state-owned industries, and major impediments to full access of U.S. firms to China’s domestic market. As very high unemployment persisted in the United States, President Obama voiced mounting frustration with Beijing’s trade practices, deeming them unworthy of China’s steady advance to the top rungs of the global economic ladder.
Chinese foreign policy since early 2010 has also proved prickly, especially on regional issues where the Obama administration sought to advance presumed common (or at least complementary) interests. These issues have included constraining North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and countering Pyongyang’s military provocations, including its sinking a South Korean corvette and shelling a South Korean coastal island in 2010. In the U.S. view, Beijing’s reactions to these North Korean actions were highly unsatisfactory in light of the risks posed to peace and stability on the peninsula. China, in turn, has objected strongly to U.S. calls for a collaborative approach to conflict prevention or dispute resolution in contested maritime domains in the South China Sea.
Also, the leadership at Obama’s Defense Department and senior Chinese military officers have frequently been engaged in a dialogue of the deaf. Long-term Chinese investments in military modernization have begun to bear significant fruit, creating an increasing prospect of Beijing’s being able to restrict the U.S. ability to conduct uncontested operations in waters and air space contiguous to Chinese territory. Despite the major strategic implications of a heightened U.S.-China military rivalry, the relationship between the Department of Defense and the People’s Liberation Army remains episodic and underdeveloped, enhancing the possibility of misunderstanding and miscalculation that neither state seeks.
Amidst these mounting suspicions, the Obama administration has increasingly elaborated a two-track policy in Asia: advancing bilateral relations and high-level contacts with China whenever possible, while expressly pursuing apparently China-focused political, economic, and security ties with other Asian countries that are themselves viewing China’s power ascendance with growing concern. For example, President Obama’s advocacy of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu did not preclude Chinese membership in this regional grouping, but it highlighted requirements for a level of transparency, reciprocity, and attentiveness to environmental and labor standards well beyond China’s present practices. China is the largest trading partner of every country in Asia and is also America’s second leading export market. Against this reality, the U.S. focus on developing a TPP that may well exclude China is an indication of the level of concern in Washington about China’s future role in the region.
The shifts in U.S. regional defense strategy also represented a significant evolution in American thinking. President Obama’s ten-day Pacific trip in November 2011 included visits to Australia, where he announced rotational deployments of U.S. Marines to facilities near Darwin, and to Indonesia, where over China’s objections the United States and other participants at the East Asia summit focused on maritime security issues. In January 2012 the president blessed a new defense strategy in which he had been extensively involved over a number of months. Even as the Defense Department confronted the need to reduce defense spending as stipulated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the revised defense guidance noted that “we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” calling attention to the need for heightened attention to “existing alliances” and “expand[ed] networks of cooperation with emerging powers throughout the Asia-Pacific,” including investment in “a long-term strategic partnership with India.” This same guidance referred to “states like China and Iran,” a startling choice of words, given that the U.S. seeks extensive Chinese cooperation in containing the threat posed by Iran.