In April 2009, a few months after he took office, President Obama scheduled a summit in Beijing with then-Chinese president Hu Jintao. The Obama administration was faced with a decision. The Dalai Lama was planning to visit Washington and wanted to meet the president. From George H.W. Bush on, no president had denied the exiled Tibetan leader an audience. Hoping to make a good impression on his soon-to-be Chinese hosts, however, Obama decided to postpone the meeting until after he had seen Hu.
Obama was the first president in decades to enter the White House without having criticized the China policy of its previous occupant. Focused on the global war on terror, President George W. Bush had shelved his earlier idea that China was a “strategic competitor” and had maintained good ties with Beijing.
Obama’s team was eager to build on Bush’s successes. What better way to show America’s sincerity, the White House figured, than starting off with a concession? But what began as a relationship infused with the hope that the United States and China would partner to confront global problems ended up as an even more competitive face-off between the two Pacific powers.
Obama administration officials had given China other indications that the president wanted to be China’s partner, even its friend. Traveling to Beijing in February 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled that the administration would not let its traditional support of human rights “interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.” And in the first China-related speech from the administration, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg made an unprecedented public call for “a core, if tacit, bargain” between the two powers.
Washington needed to show China that it welcomed China’s rise, he said on Oct. 5, 2009. In exchange, China should assure America that its rise “will not come at the expense of the security and well-being of others.” Steinberg called for “strategic reassurance” on both sides of the Pacific.
The Chinese saw the olive branches as a sign of weakness. “Strategic Reassurance? Yes, Please!” went the headline in the People’s Daily. The United States should reassure China, it said, by ending all arms sales to Taiwan and all military surveillance activities off China’s coast.
Then, just weeks later, Obama was subject to the shabbiest treatment of any American president visiting China ever; his remarks were censored during a question-and-answer session with students in Shanghai. Whereas a previous Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, had engaged in a wide-ranging joint news conference with a visiting President Bill Clinton in 1998, Hu did not answer a single question with Obama when the two met the press. The public encounter was so frosty that it was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” At home, some in the media portrayed Obama as a deadbeat debtor kowtowing to America’s banker, the Chinese Communist Party.
Obama’s bumpy summit in China coupled with China’s increasingly aggressive claims to all of the South China Sea and to islands administered by Japan laid the foundation for a change in the president’s attitude toward China and a transformation of U.S. policy toward Asia. Ever since Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, American presidents had viewed China as the sun around which U.S. relations with all of Asia revolved. When he went to China in 1998, President Bill Clinton famously bypassed Japan, a sign that from Washington’s perspective Tokyo played second fiddle to Beijing.
But China’s failure to evolve disappointed many who had been hopeful about the partnership. They were distressed that there was still no free market economy and about the continued crackdowns on dissent and the moves to limit the reach of Western business in China. In addition, China’s unrelenting cyberespionage and pilfering of American industrial secrets outraged many in the U.S. government, including the president. Obama was the first American president to go public with his exasperation, dubbing China a “free rider” in a global system built by the United States. In an August 2014 interview with the New York Times, the president noted that China’s unwillingness to shoulder responsibility had allowed it “to secure the benefits of the global trading system with none of the responsibilities.” Obama coined an expression “to do a Hu Jintao,” poking fun at the Chinese president’s habit of monotonously reciting his talking points.
Starting in 2010, the Obama administration began to put more emphasis on its alliances in Asia than on its hopes for a breakthrough with Beijing. To be sure, Obama continued to push China to maintain sanctions on Iran, which ultimately led to a deal to delay Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb. He also reached an understanding with President Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao’s successor, to control greenhouse gases, setting the stage for the Paris Agreement on climate change.
But in most of Asia, the Obama administration focused on shoring up relations with the Asian nations around China. It drew closer to Japan and South Korea. It gave vocal support to members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, worried about China’s claims to the South China Sea.
It was Hillary Clinton, Obama’s first secretary of state, who led the policy change, calling it, in an October 2011 essay in Foreign Policy magazine, a “pivot” toward Asia. Although much of the media attention on the pivot focused on America’s enhanced security commitments to the region, trade played an equally important role.
Americans first came to the Pacific in the 18th century as merchants, and in the 21st century the Asia Pacific was poised to lead global growth. In November 2015, Obama administration officials pulled together the largest free-trade deal in U.S. history, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, linking 12 countries on the Pacific. China was not on the list.
But, significantly, the TPP has not gotten the congressional approval it needs, and Clinton, an architect of the trade deal while she was secretary of state, turned her back on it as a candidate for president.
A failure to enact TPP would represent a significant weakening of the pivot. Kurt M. Campbell, who pushed the policy while he served at Clinton’s State Department, called the trade deal the “true sine qua non” — or irreplaceable element — of America’s policy in Asia.
Other developments in Asia also raise questions about the success of Obama’s pivot. Although Obama had sought to use the policy to reassure Asian leaders that the United States was in Asia to stay, China appeared to have some success at prying some of America’s closest allies from Washington’s embrace. In early September 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, signaled a departure from his nation’s long-standing military reliance on the United States, directing his defense secretary to consider buying weapons from China and Russia and announcing that his navy would end joint patrols of the South China Sea with the U.S. Navy. Duterte’s shift came despite a ruling by a U.N. arbitration tribunal in The Hague that dismissed China’s claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Then there’s North Korea, the one country in Asia where Obama did not pivot away from reliance on China. Throughout his two terms, Obama adopted a policy known as “strategic patience” in dealing with the isolated regime, which amounted to hoping that the North would either collapse or be forced into nuclear disarmament by China. Neither occurred. In fact, the pace of North Korean nuclear testing accelerated under the rule of Kim Jong Un.
After North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9, Washington and Beijing exchanged accusations over who was to blame for North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal. The reality, though, is that China has been far more committed to the stability of the North Korean regime than to its nuclear containment. Obama’s successor will inherit a looming crisis there and one that could very well challenge America’s position in Asia.
John Pomfret, a former correspondent for The Washington Post, is the author of the upcoming book “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom,” a history of U.S. relations with China.