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The Pivot
Does China Take America Seriously?

The U.S. has made a series of bold gestures lately with regards to the South China Sea in an effort to make it clear to Beijing that America won’t stand for its territorial aggression. But there’s a problem: the message doesn’t seem to be getting through to the Chinese. As we noted over the weekend, Beijing appears to be largely unfazed.

More evidence for our take from Josh Rogin’s report for Bloomberg from this weekend’s Shangri-La conference:

The main takeaway for many of us Westerners present was that People’s Liberation Army is feeling confident, and it has little respect for an Obama administration that talks big about confronting China but has yet to lay out a clear strategy for doing so.

“A member of the PLA asked me whether, in 18 months if Hillary Clinton is elected president, will she be much tougher on China than the current administration,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I said, ‘The premise of your question is that in the next 18 months you have enough running room to do whatever you want.’ He just laughed.”

The dangerous situation in the South China Sea is the result of years of broken promises and idle threats—and not just in Asia. The world’s revisionist powers have been watching carefully as to how the Obama Administration has handled its return to geopolitics.

One of the most important tools in the American foreign policy toolkit is the ability to make credible threats. If opponents start to think the U.S. doesn’t have the guts to follow through on what it says it cares about with hard power, then one of two bad things can happen. The first is that opponents ignore an American threat and turn out to be right that it’s a mere bluff. The second is that opponents call what they think is a bluff, and wind up surprised by the brutality and intensity of the sleeping dragon they have awakened. Neither of these outcomes, powerlessness or war, secures U.S. interests.

Let’s hope that the U.S. has a plan here for what it’s next steps are. If not, the administration is just pounding in the lesson that American ultimatums don’t have to be taken seriously.



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  • JR

    Nobody, but nobody, takes Barack Obama seriously, unless the skill required is the ability to blame Republicans and/or read from a teleprompter in front of the cameras. However, I think it would be a mistake of both America’s foes and allies to confuse the United States of America with Barack Hussein Obama. Things change, paradigms shift, they always do…..

    • Fat_Man

      I’ll wager that Michelle and the girls don’t take him seriously either.

  • Dan Greene

    Josh Rogin’s report makes big claims about the Chinese laughing at our weakness, but there is not one real piece of evidence in there to support the contention–merely the general contention that that was the “take away” of the various think-tankers and media types at the conference. Appears to be just an attempt to stir up the educated masses with a “China-doesn’t-respect-us-(Obama)” meme for general consumption.

    The question is, what do we want Obama to do? That’s what all these TAI “weak-Obama” pieces on the China, etc never seem to get around to addressing. The big picture is that we rapidly empowered China by outsourcing a lot of manufacturing in the 1990s and because it represented a great investment opportunity for Wall Street. But having empowered them, we then realized that they weren’t going to accept our demand that they recognize us as the ultimate strategic authority and arbiter on the planet in perpetuum. Oops!

    Now, in pursuit of perpetuating our global strategic dominance in the midst of our gradual decline and world-wide economic chaos, we face the triple problem of Russian resurgence, China’s rise and the fiasco in the Middle East. To say that we have handled all three of these issues badly over multiple administrations would be a gross understatement.

    All the folks who can’t wait until the day Obama leaves the White House, imagining that the next President is going to do “something,” are likely to be very disappointed by the reality.

    • mdmusterstone

      It’s a matter of China
      not following international law of the sea.
      It’s a matter of them bullying the civilian ships–water cannons,
      ramming or threats thereof–of the countries that reside around the South
      China sea. All of which
      raise tensions, particularly when they get their own population invested in “mustn’t
      loose face”, situations that could lead to a war, large of small where
      everyone ends up a looser.

      • Dan Greene

        Well, yes, it’s partly a matter of China’s creating artificial islands and potentially asserting 12-mile limits around them. But it’s much more than that. China is implicitly declaring its own Monroe Doctrine and asserting itself as one of a handful–perhaps only two–global powers. It does not recognize our claim to be perpetual arbiter of global affairs.

        I agree that we are on a trajectory towards war, although I don’t foresee it arriving for some decades.

        But how should we respond to China in your view? What do you want Obama to do?

        • mdmusterstone

          I enjoy your posts for the most part Dan in that you force
          careful thinking on the part of fellow posters and who can complain about
          that? I’ve been sorry not to have had a
          chance to finish our exchange on another matter here at TAI i.e. acceptable
          brutality but…

          Chinese Monroe
          Doctrine? This isn’t the 19th century
          that idea is inoperative. And by the way
          China is about
          to go ahead with a new canal across Nicaragua;
          so much for arguments of MD. It’s the
          typical argument of the school yard bully i.e. what’s mine is mine and what’s
          yours is mine too.

          International law of the sea and land isn’t
          “ours”, the US,
          it has been agreed upon so the countries of the world, powerful and less so,
          can have some predictability in their relations with others, to lessen friction
          that would lead to unproductive conflict.

          has all the makings of a world class power except they don’t have the leadership
          to bring it home. Considering China’s
          belligerency in the last few years, not even bringing up The Great Leap Forward
          and Tiananmen Square, who would look forward to China
          being the policeman for the Commons?

          What would I have Obama do?
          Nothing!! I wake up every morning
          terrorized to learn that he’s anywhere other than the golf course. LOL

          What could the US
          do? Well, not much that’s in the realm
          of possibility. We could of course
          become very aggressive while we still have the upper hand but there’s no
          stomach for that in Washington .

          1. What we need to do
          for long term survival is to forget aircraft carriers and build lots of subs,
          nuclear and diesel and develop scads of very smart mines. China
          is not in a good position strategically as far as geography. The implicit threat would be to lock down all
          Chinese commerce both in the harbors and stop all movement by sea.

          2. Hypersonic

          I think you are right that open conflict between China
          and the US
          would be years away but there are other factors. Much more likely I would see serious conflict
          between Japan
          and China. Then if we don’t fully support Japan
          some hard decisions will be made and by many other countries who will be
          looking on.

          But let’s continue with this. China
          gives Japan a
          bloody nose leaving her with two choices, to take a place in China’s
          back pocket or do the unthinkable i.e. develop nuclear weapons, which they
          could do probably inside of a year. Once
          that happens how long before South Korea
          (who has quit rightly sees itself as a nut between two powerful jaws) develops
          or buys one. Taiwan
          making a secret visit to the Walmart of nukes, Pakistan,
          does the same. Not forgetting Australia. It’s everyone for themselves at that

          Now what would China’s
          belligerency have gotten it, surrounded by nuclear powers and so we can all
          break into song… “…and what a wonderful world it will be”.

          There’s more of course but I’m sure you won’t let me off
          easy. LOL

          • Dan Greene

            I wouldn’t say that the Monroe Doctrine is inoperative. After all, what is the MD? Nothing more at its core than the desire on the part of the US to maintain strategic dominance in the Western Hemisphere. It is pursued in different ways than in the past, but I don’t think it’s gone away. If anything, in the post-Cold War world it has been subsumed in an expanded vision of global US strategic dominance. But with the rise of China and its potential for reaching into all corners of the world, the issue of untrammeled US dominance in the Western Hemisphere will be in play again. I discussed the MD issue in connection to the Nicaragua Canal in the very recent article on the subject of the canal.

            On a relative basis I don’t think China has been all that belligerent, though certainly more assertive and more aggressive than we have been accustomed to. But belligerent or not, China means to be a peer of the US with a full share of authority in directing global affairs.

            We have two choices:

            If we want to attempt to remain the sole superpower, then we must actively oppose the rise of China which we have fostered since Nixon went to China in 1972. It means that much of what we have done since 1989 is basically wrong. Objectively, it is probably too late to achieve this goal except through pre-emptive war. Every year that goes past increases the costs of such a war and reduces the likelihood of anything that could be called a good outcome. Our technological edge will diminish as time goes by and eventually lead to a situation where we cannot possibly win a naval war in the western Pacific (though that is decades away.)

            The second option is to acknowledge that China and a few other countries are going to be peer or near-peer states and to agree to try and govern the globe by some sort of consensus, in effective surrendering our unipolar crown and settling for a primus inter pares role that may become secundus inter pares at some point. So that means giving up our unipolar authority and the perks that come with it. It also means, in effect, informal spheres of influence and, for example, Chinese dominance in the Western Pacific and East Asia. This multipolarity could eventuate in another 1914 if conciliar governance cannot be made to work.

            Both the courses of action are risky. What we would like, of course, is to keep things more or less as they are. What we are currently doing is ignoring the choice and opting for an imagined third way down the middle that somehow preserves the status quo. As they say, failing to choose is still a choice.

  • Rick Johnson

    When has Obama shown any interest in having a plan to protect US interests? All the evidence points the other way.

    • Dan Greene

      What evidence?

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    It isn’t America the Chinese don’t take seriously, it’s Barrack “Red Lines” Obama. The worst President in American History, a proven Liar, a strategic Moron, and a Leftist useful Idiot.

  • AaronL

  • Anthony

    “Clearly, China has faced major challenges within the existing global system as it tries to crave out a role befitting its economic might. That may explain why, with its one belt, one road initiative and its establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China government is increasingly attempting to recast the world order – in particular, the monetary and trading systems – on its own terms.” See:

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