China is no refuge from Obama’s woes

Beijing sees the US president as a weak leader in the autumn of his presidency

Second-term US presidents traditionally seek solace on the global stage. Barack Obama is no exception. Following last week’s drubbing in the US midterm elections, he lands in China on Monday for a summit with Xi Jinping. He is unlikely to find Beijing more pliable than Washington DC. As time goes on, it becomes ever harder to separate his domestic weakness from his global standing. Even the tone is spreading. “US society has grown tired of [Obama’s] banality,” China’s semi-official Global Times said last week.

Mr Xi is too polite to put it like that. Yet there is no mistaking which of the two is on the way up. In his first year in office, Mr Obama offered Beijing a “G2” partnership to tackle the world’s big problems. China spurned him. Mr Obama then unveiled his “pivot to Asia”. China saw it as US containment and reacted accordingly. Its defence spending today is almost double in real terms what it was when Mr Obama first visited China in 2009. Over the same period, the US military budget has barely kept pace with inflation.

Will a weakened Mr Obama have better luck with China? The answer is not necessarily “no”.

With the exception of North Korea, China’s neighbours are clamouring for a stronger US presence in the region. As the quip goes, Mr Xi talks like Deng Xiaoping – who opened China to the world – but acts like Mao Zedong, the imperial strongman. Countries that were once wary of military ties with the US, such as Vietnam, India and the Philippines, are now openly courting it. Mr Obama’s pivot means 60 per cent of America’s military resources will be deployed in the Pacific – against the old 50:50 split with the Atlantic.

The rest of the world, and China in particular, sees Mr Obama in the opposite light – as a weak leader in the autumn of his presidency. China-watchers say Mr Xi’s ebullience since he took power has been spurred by the view that Mr Obama has only a limited window in office. After that, Hillary Clinton, or a Republican, will take over. Either would be tougher on the world stage than Mr Obama. Even if that is wrong, Mr Xi has shown Mr Obama little respect since their first summit in California last year. Mr Obama warned his Chinese counterpart to stop the cyber attacks on the Pentagon and other targets. China’s cyber-incursions increased. Earlier this year, the White House indicted five Chinese nationals for cyber-espionage, including a senior military officer. None are likely to be brought to trial. It was the kind of empty gesture Beijing has come to expect of Mr Obama.

Full article: China is no refuge from Obama’s woes (Financial Times)

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