• Hamsini Hariharan

Obama’s tryst with the dragon

This article, co-written with Monish Tourangbam, first appeared in The New Indian Express on January 12, 2017 and can be accessed here.


Outgoing US president’s Chinese policy has set the base for competitive coexistence or even peaceful coexistence in Asia


No other relationship is perhaps more consequential than the one between the United States and China. The curious dynamics between a US on relative decline and an ascendant China has caught the attention of policymakers and scholars alike. What has been the result of Obama’s rebalancing strategy that in many ways is seen to be targeted towards containing China? As Donald Trump takes over the reins of power, uncertainties surround political predictions on what course the USChina relations will take.

George W Bush had bequeathed an ambiguous foreign policy towards China. While it began as a hardline stance focused on supporting Taiwan, the 9/11 attacks marked a turnaround— Bush, now committed to the War on Terror, allowed China to take the lead on North Korean issues. The first term of the Obama presidency, with Hillary Clinton as the secretary of state, tried to focus on Asian affairs. With the Pivot to Asia policy, he recognised that US foreign policy had neglected Asian affairs during Bush’s presidency.

In 2011, it was repackaged as Rebalance to Asia. The US planned to allocate 60 per cent of its airforce and naval resources to the Asia-Pacific. In the same breath, Obama also stepped up engagement with friendly countries in the region including Japan, Philippines and India. The largest issue of contention currently remains China’s approach to the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Allies in the region expect the US to take up a stronger role in the conflict. Freedom of Navigation Operations were intended to assert maritime rights in international waters and also contest China’s anti-access/ area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

China’s declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea in 2013 was an interesting turnaround. The US immediately flew two B-52 bombers in the area to indicate its rejection of this zone but advised private airlines to comply with the zone unlike the Japanese government that forbade its airlines from falling in line with the identification zone. This could perhaps be seen as the first indication of a US that was looking to accommodate China in the Asia- Pacific.

While Obama was intent on playing a larger role in Asia, it was hindered by US interests in other parts of the world, particularly in West Asia. The Philippines’ unilateral move to take up the South China Sea conflict to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and Japan’s stronger policy under Shinzo Abe (particularly the amendment of the Japanese Constitution to allow the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force more flexibility) indicates a cognisance of these countries to look at other avenues than merely relying on America to counter China. Indeed, Obama’s relations with Philippines have visibly soured since Rodrigo Duterte took over leadership, even as Duterte tried arguing that he intended a “separation of foreign policy” rather than “a severance of ties”.

In order to lift America out of the economic slump, Obama required massive economic changes. China played an important role in this as it purchased large amounts of US sovereign bonds. In some ways, Obama continued with the base that Bush had laid in his second term as president. The USChina Economic Dialogue was expanded to the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Negotiations for the US-China Bilateral Investment Treaty also began in order to improve trade between the two countries. This is not to say that the US has only been accommodating China through the Obama presidency. One of the key areas of contention has been the realm of cybersecurity. High levels of mistrust have ensued since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the PRISM programme which led to allegations of US spying on China. After five PLA hackers were indicted in 2014, Beijing suspended the US-China Cyber Working Group.

In June 2016, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping inked a pact on cybersecurity which meant to increase lines of communication but the effectiveness of this agreement is unclear.

In the realm of climate change, Obama can finally claim to his credit that significant progress was achieved. As his term draws to a close, Obama’s final trip to Asia saw him sign the Climate Change Agreement along Xi at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou. This was indicative of the fact that the two largest economies in the world have managed to find common issues of cooperation.


The US is still the most preeminent military power in the world, and has influence across the global like no other country has. However, the same US, under Obama’s presidency, seems to have recognised the limitations of American power in preventing the rise of another superpower. It is also important to remember that China is not Russia. Obama has taken these factors into consideration and looked to engaging with China and working with it in ways that could provide benefits for America. Instead of focusing on a scenario of strategic competition which America can ill afford, Obama has set the base for competitive coexistence or even peaceful coexistence in Asia.

Despite President-elect Trump’s aggressive campaigns raising fears of a trade war with China, the nature of USChina relations portends that he and his team will most likely find ways to accommodate China’s concerns in Asia and try to reduce chances of confrontation. What it will mean for the rest of the world remains the question.