Max Baucus, the former ambassador to China, has unloaded on the Obama administration’s China policy in a candid interview just five weeks after leaving his post. The Washington Post:
“It was very frustrating,” he said. “The White House would make a decision, and we’d roll our eyeballs, and say: ‘This isn’t going to work, partly because we’re backing off, we’re being weak. What’s the strategy going forward?’ ”
Among his complaints: that the Obama administration had not done enough to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership ratified by Congress, despite the hard work that U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman put into the 12-nation Asia-Pacific trade pact.
“The administration didn’t have the same zeal, the single-minded, mongoose-tenacity to get the thing passed that Mike Froman and several others in the bus had,” he said. “The president didn’t get involved nearly as much as I thought he could and should.” […]
Whether it is in economics, the South China Sea or cybersecurity, Baucus said, the United States has to decide where the red lines lie and be prepared to take firm action if those lines are crossed — action that should be measured in “deeds more than words.”
Baucus’s core complaints—that the Obama administration failed to develop a coherent China strategy, that its grand pivot to Asia was more rhetoric than reality, and that it failed to establish or credibly enforce red lines—are ones that we have been issuing for some time now. The fact that such criticisms come so eagerly from a top Obama appointee suggest how his weak posture alienated others in the administration, who persistently pushed for a tougher line in the face of a distracted and risk-averse White House.
By contrast, Trump has sent several welcome signals that he is prepared to take a harder stance against China, while deferring to his more knowledgeable officials in implementing that strategy. Trump has already walked back some of his outlandish ideas, like using Taiwan’s status as a bargaining chip, in favor of a mainstream hawkish policy. On the issue of North Korea, Trump has promised to ramp up the pressure on Beijing, arguing that the Chinese have “tremendous control” over Pyongyang. Contrary to China’s wishes, he has talked about accelerating plans for missile defense systems in Japan and South Korea, while dispatching his Defence Secretary to both countries as a reaffirmation of their alliance. And in the South China Sea, Trump has complained about Obama allowing a massive military complex to grow on his watch; Trump’s early budget priorities include a naval buildup to establish a stronger U.S. presence there.
All of these are welcome developments, and although there are legitimate concerns about Trump’s posture toward China, the early signs have been more reassuring than commonly understood. If Trump can effectively delegate to responsible statesmen like Secretary Mattis, we may see a necessary course correction that turns up the heat on China and changes Beijing’s calculus. As even top Obama officials are now acknowledging, such a policy is long overdue.