US President Barack Obama holds a press conference at the conclusion of the APEC Summit in Lima, Peru November 20, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
US President Barack Obama holds a press conference at the conclusion of the APEC Summit in Lima, Peru November 20, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

People may forget the official motto and the main issues discussed and agreed at the summit of the world’s 20 biggest economies in China; but, they probably still remember the disorderly moment when President Barack Obama landed in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou for the G-20 summit about four months ago.

While all other world leaders departed their planes onto red-carpeted stairs, the American president had to disembark Air Force One via small bare metal steps in the belly of the aircraft.

The image of the leader of the world’s most powerful country exiting from – as some put it – “the ass” of the airplane caught the eye of the world and stunned many people.

As striking as that was the heated dispute on the airport tarmac between American and Chinese personnel upon Mr. Obama’s chaotic arrival. At one point, a Chinese official even yelled at White House staff: “This is our country, this is our airport.”

Some of the American and international media and commentariat, like this one, believed Mr. Obama’s no-red-carpet treatment was a calculated diplomatic snub by Chinese authorities. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson rejected such an interpretation, calling the fracas a “small episode between the staff of the two sides” and accusing the American and international media of hyping it up.

Yet, regardless of what was the real reason behind it, this “small episode” disclosed the uneasiness in US-China relations during the Obama presidency. It also somehow reflected China’s apathy – if not, antipathy – toward the American president.

The no red carpet treatment unveiled China’s apathy toward President Obama.

What is even more telling is that while Mr. Obama downplayed the fiasco, saying he “wouldn’t over-crank” its significance, Donald Trump, then Republican presidential candidate and now US President-elect, depicted it as a snub by Chinese authorities and said he would have flown home had he received a similar disrespect.

Their contrasting reactions to incident, also dubbed “stairgate” or “tarmac-gate” by some,  revealed how different they are in terms of their personality, policy and especially their attitude vis-à-vis China. While the outgoing president relatively favored a cooperative approach to the world’s second largest economy and America’s main economic and geopolitical rival, his successor is not reluctant to take a confrontational line with Beijing.

Obama’s cooperative posture

In November 2009, about 10 months after his swearing-in as the Unites States’ 44th president, Mr. Obama made his first ever-trip to the Middle Kingdom. By doing so, he became the first US president to visit the communist-ruled country during the first year in office.

In an attempt to reach out to the rising superpower, America’s first African American president, who strongly favored a foreign policy based on diplomacy, cooperation and soft power, also made other goodwill gestures toward Beijing before the trip. Notable among these was his decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama when the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader came to the US in October 2009.

By refusing to meet the 14th Dalai Lama on that occasion, Obama also became the first American president not to welcome the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner to the White House since the latter began visiting Washington in 1991. His move pleased China but dismayed human rights advocates and Tibetan support groups, who accused him of kowtowing to Beijing.

Seven years later, on his third and last visit to China as president, though apparently humiliated by Chinese officials, he still tried to speak positively about US-China relations. In his remarks before his bilateral talk with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit, Obama said the meeting would be “an opportunity to discuss the breadth and importance” of US-China relations.” He also stated that this relationship witnessed “steady progress” during the course of his presidency.

However, with few noteworthy exceptions, such as their agreement to ratify the Paris Accord on the climate change, US-China ties were contentious with Washington and Beijing being at odds with each other on several key domestic and international issues during his tenure. Such contention both manifested at and originated from Obama’s maiden trip to China in 2009.

Though he made a significant effort to reach out to Beijing before travelling to China, during that landmark outing, President Obama was led by the nose by the Chinese. Beijing sought to control all aspects of his visit, including preventing him from widely and genuinely engaging with the Chinese people.

Around that time, the US and many other Western countries were facing financial meltdown and subsequent economic recession while China escaped unscathed. Feeling for the first time that it now had better leverage, Beijing was no longer reluctant to flex its newfound muscles.

At a ministerial meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July 2010, Yang Jiechi, China’s then Foreign Minister, told Hillary Clinton, who attended the region’s security conference as US Secretary of State, that US needed to stay out of the South China Sea disputes. He also bluntly told other participants that “China is a big country. And you are all small countries. And that is a fact.”

Obama’s 2009 China visit and the 2010 Hanoi meeting were seen as the turning points in the Obama administration’s policy toward Asia and China. For instance, as he got very little from his outreach, Mr. Obama was less wary of offending Beijing. Few months after the visit, despite Beijing’s forceful objections, he announced a package of arms sales to Taiwan and met with the Dalai Lama.

In fact, what Mr. Obama and his Secretary of State experienced in Beijing and Hanoi in November 2009 and July 2010 respectively played a central role in shaping America’s pivot to Asia.

Though the US stated the pivot “is not about any single country,” implicitly or explicitly, the policy was aimed at containing or thwarting China’s rising power and influence in the Asia-Pacific region. That is why after Mr. Obama unveiled the pivot in a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011, the US-China relationship became edgy. This is particularly the case after Xi Jinping, who has advocated “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” came to power in 2012.

China’s officials, media and commentariat were critical and distrustful of Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, another key architect of the Asia pivot strategy and seen by many Chinese as a diehard Beijing-basher as they saw the policy as an attempt by the US to encircle China.

The no red carpet welcome for the US president and the subsequent heated exchanges between the officials of the two countries at the Hangzhou airport on September 3 can be the result of such suspicion and animosity.

However, to others, the Obama administration’s Asia pivot was mostly rhetoric and failed to live up to its billing. An article by Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro published in Foreign Policy a day before the US’s November 8 election, described the pivot as “an imprudent case of talking loudly but carrying a small stick, one that has led to more, not less, aggression and instability in the region.”

The authors also argued that: “With China’s multi-decade military modernization program bearing fruit — fueled ironically in no small part by the fruits of its large trade surplus with the United States — Beijing was in a prime position to flex its muscles.”

More precisely, they pointed out that China “has created some 3,000 acres of artificial islands in the South China Sea, with very limited American response. Moreover, they noted: “Beijing has also unilaterally declared an ‘air defense identification zone’ in the East China Sea, expanded its illegitimate territorial claims everywhere from India to Indonesia, and further worsened its already loathsome human rights record.”

That is why these two prominent Trump advisers argued Mr. Trump would adopt a stronger policy to contain China’s rise by hugely rebuilding the US navy, selling more robust arms sales to Taiwan and committing to America’s “traditional role as guarantor of the liberal order in Asia.”

A recent joint publication by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and Australia’s Strategic Forum. The report written by Ross Babbage, former senior Australian Defense Department official, concluded that the Obama government failed to “counter China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea” and that during his second term, “Beijing militarized and established effective control over” this important strategic waterway.

Consequently, as implied by its title, “Countering China’s Adventurism in the South China Sea: Strategy Options for the Trump Administration,” the report urged America’s Trump and its close regional allies, notably Japan and Australia, to find ways and work together to “thwart Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea and deter further Chinese adventurism.”

His reaction to the Hangzhou airport incident and many his other notable comments and decisions since his election victory clearly indicate that Mr. Trump is taking such a more hawkish line toward China.

Trump’s aggressive stance

During his president campaign, Donald Trump took several swipes at China, including accusing the Asian juggernaut of “raping” the US through its trade policy.

“Our view is that China’s leaders will quickly understand they are facing strength on the trade issue in Trump rather than the kind of weakness on trade that has characterized the Obama-Clinton years.”

–Navarro and Ross.

The billionaire mogul turned US President-elect has intensified his anti-China posture since his election.

On December 2, he upended decades of diplomatic protocol by taking a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan – the island that Beijing regards as a renegade province awaiting reunification with the China mainland. About 10 days later, he threatened to abandon America’s decades-long “One China” policy, which Beijing regards as a core national interest that is untouchable.

The incoming president has also made series of tweets, stringently criticizing Beijing’s monetary policy, behavior in the South China Sea, refusal to help the US contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and accusing China of stealing US Navy research drone in international waters.

Another obvious evidence that the Trump administration is pursuing a tougher posture toward China is his appointment of several outspoken China critics to his government.

Prominent among the key China-related issues, which Donald Trump has vehemently criticized, is America’s trade policy and huge deficit with the Asian giant. To tackle this issue, he has tapped a group of China hawks for key trade roles.

One of these is Peter Navarro, co-author of the mentioned piece in Foreign Policy, and author of vociferously anti-China manuscripts, including “Death by China”, “Crouching Tiger” and “The Coming China Wars” – probably three must-read books for those eager to know more about the Trump administration’s China policy. The Harvard-trained economist and business professor at the University of California-Irvine will head the newly-created National Trade Council.

Leading Trump’s overall trade policy will be Wilbur Ross, another prominent China critic, who was nominated as Secretary of Commerce. Together with Navarro, the billionaire investor wrote a white paper filling out the Trump economic policy, which underlined how unfair competition from other countries, notably China, has badly hurt America.

The paper, entitled “Scoring the Trump Economic Plan” and issued last September, warned China’s leaders that they would face “strength on the trade issue in Trump rather than the kind of weakness on trade that has characterized the Obama-Clinton years.”

“Just as these Chinese leaders have been exploiting American weakness by cheating in the trade arena, they will acknowledge the strength and resoluteness of Trump and rein in their mercantilist impulses,” it added.

A third key figure – and also a vocal China critic – in the Trump administration is Robert Lighthizer, who was appointed Trump’s chief trade negotiator. This longtime opponent of Chinese trade policies has been tasked with reducing the US trade deficits, notably its huge trade imbalance with China, which Mr. Trump has strongly criticized.

Some Chinese economists have argued that the anti-China stance Trump has adopted during his campaign and since his election triumph is merely tough talk and that he cannot – or will not –  transform such harsh rhetoric into real policy after his inauguration.

Yet, that he has named these three fierce China critics to his cabinet illustrates Mr. Trump’s anti-China talk is not merely talk. Indeed, judging by his cabinet choices and his other pronouncements, he is obviously adopting a more aggressive line toward China and will likely pursue such a posture after January 20.

Though they have not always seen eye-to-eye with Obama during the past eight years, China’s leaders probably prefer him to Donald Trump.

That Beijing has been forced to play catch-up with – and seemingly failed to figure out how best to respond to – Trump’s tweets and taunts indicates why China may find it difficult to deal with the US incoming president.

Faced with such a rough reality and real prospect, the communist leadership in Beijing as well as other Chinese critics of Mr. Obama and his Asia pivot may now have regretted being too harsh on the outgoing president and not offering him a warm and friendly welcome on his last trip to their country as American president.

During the last eight years Chinese leaders have not always seen eye-to-eye with Obama on several key issues, nor have US-China ties been smooth. But, in retrospect, Xi Jinping and his comrades probably prefer him or even Mrs Clinton, his chosen successor, to Donald Trump. They may also find themselves longing for the “good old days” of US-China relations after President Obama has gone.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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