In its first year, the Obama administration envisaged a two-pronged foreign policy. The first prong—cooperative strategic engagement—sought to build and sustain cooperative partnerships with states and non-state actors who operated within (or hoped to join) the international order. The second, which was aimed at actors like the Taliban and North Korea who seek to undermine or destroy the international order, consisted of a quite different approach—war, containment, or coercive diplomacy.
US policy toward China was supposed to be the centerpiece of the first approach, based on the underlying assumption that the world’s major powers ultimately share the same threats and interests— tackling terrorism and pandemics, ensuring economic instability, and preventing nuclear proliferation. The Obama administration hoped to build on these shared interests to bring emerging powers, like China and Brazil, fully into the US led international order.
Essentially what the administration aspired to create was a concert of powers—geopolitical competition was supposed to be consigned to history. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in July 2009, the multi-polar world would be a multi-partner world, with the United States set to use its unique role in the world to help major powers overcome barriers to cooperation so they could collectively pursue their common interests.
And China was supposed to feature strongly in these plans, with the administration working hard to deepen strategic and economic dialogue and offering China more influence in the international order. Senior officials talked up China’s importance and leverage over the United States and avoided any actions that could antagonize Beijing. For example, in 2009, the president didn’t meet the Dalai Lama and accepted a tightly choreographed visit to China, while his administration initially avoided selling defensive arms to Taiwan and explored adjustments to its relations with India.
But what followed was nothing short of a revelation for much of the administration’s foreign policy team.
Instead of accepting the offer of a full partnership, China became far more antagonistic and assertive on the world stage. It expanded its claims in the South China Sea, engaged in a major spat with Google over Internet freedom, played an obstructionist role at the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, regularly and openly criticized US leadership, and, sought to water down sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme at the UN Security Council.
Senior administration officials said influential voices in Beijing saw the United States as a power in decline and perceived an opportunity for China to take advantage. The United States’ regional allies and partners, meanwhile, expressed their concerns over this turn of events and called upon the United States to restore its traditional leadership role in the region.
The mounting evidence that China simply isn’t interested in becoming a full stakeholder in the US-led liberal international order has forced the administration to respond with a new policy in Asia. In addition to ongoing engagement with China, this new tack seeks to deepen US ties with other powers in the region, and unlike the earlier approach doesn’t shy away from advancing US interests and values—even if it upsets Beijing.
This new approach has been on full display over the past few weeks, with the United States standing shoulder to shoulder with South Korea in the face of North Korean aggression by undertaking military exercises in the region to demonstrate its alliance commitments, and it has also offered to mediate on disputes in the South China Sea, much to Beijing’s displeasure.
But the implications of this shift extend well beyond China policy. More than any other development, China’s increasing assertiveness revealed a fundamental flaw in the Obama administration’s worldview—that although multilateralism is needed more than ever, emerging powers (and not just China) will often define their interests in ways that conflict with US interests and they will continue to engage in traditional geopolitical competition with the United States.
So what does this mean for US foreign policy? The United States is likely entering a geopolitical period unlike any it has faced before. Americans are used to countries being friends or enemies—for us or against us (something that fit 20th century realities almost perfectly). But relations with China will be a peculiar blend of cooperation and rivalry, meaning the US will be faced with a more competitive world than it has over the past 20 years (although unlike the Cold War, it will be a competition within limits, between interdependent powers, and with plenty of potential for cooperation).
Such unprecedented developments have also sparked a vital debate inside the Obama administration about how to respond, and how best to preserve the liberal international order created at the end of World War II.
On the one hand are those who wish to persist with cooperative strategic engagement so the international order is run by a concert of powers, with the United States and China at its heart. On the other are those who believe that, even as they cooperate, relations between the United States and emerging powers will be far more competitive and prone to limited rivalry than relations between members of the old Western order, meaning the United States will have no choice but to compete with emerging powers to shape the international order while maintaining a geopolitical advantage over its competitors.
If the China policy is an early test case, then it shows a tilt toward competitive strategic engagement. The question now is whether this approach will stick and gradually spread to influence the president’s overall grand strategy.
There’s no guarantee it will—the 2010 National Security Strategy, released in May, continued to articulate the old way of thinking. But if America’s new Asia policy is a sign of things to come, China’s major gambit to take advantage of what it perceived as US weakness in 2009 may go down as its greatest foreign policy mistake in recent memory.
Beijing’s assertiveness discredited those Americans who were most willing to compromise with China. Its spurning of them has now acted as a catalyst for a more competitive—and geopolitically savvy—US multilateralism.