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How Barack Obama Became a China Hawk

As seen from Beijing, President Obama no doubt appears to be embarked on a “2010 Containment Tour” of Asia. While he is making stops in India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan, China is conspicuously absent from the president’s itinerary. The reason is obvious: When it took office in January 2009, the Obama administration declared its intention to broaden and deepen all aspects of America’s longstanding policy of “engagement” with China. In addition to cooperating to resuscitate the world economy and slowing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, administration spokesmen suggested that the two Pacific powers would now work together to tackle big new global problems like climate change.

Contentious issues (like China’s human rights record) would be downplayed, even if they could not be avoided altogether, and, both countries would be at pains to reassure one another about their benign intentions. While the United States would maintain significant military capabilities in East Asia, the Pentagon would focus heavily on winning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and on preparing to meet similar challenges from insurgents and terrorists, rather than arming itself to fight some imagined future high-tech, high-intensity war with China.

Instead of paving the way for a more stable and cooperative relationship, these friendly gestures were followed—and may, to a certain extent, have encouraged—a series of strikingly assertive actions by China. Over the course of the past year, among other things, Beijing has declared control of the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea to be a “core national interest” of China; escalated what should have been a minor incident at sea into a major confrontation with Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands; restricted exports of so-called rare earth minerals, whose production it currently monopolizes, as a tool for exerting diplomatic influence over Japan and perhaps other nations as well; resisted U.S. requests that it help ease trade tensions by significantly revaluing its currency; refused to agree to sanction North Korea despite clear evidence that it was responsible for sinking a South Korean naval vessel; and voiced loud objections to joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercises conducted in international waters in response to this act of aggression.

To its credit, the Obama administration has responded to Beijing’s obstreperous behavior with a significant stiffening in its own posture, of which the President’s trip is the most recent and visible example. This kind of diplomatic signaling is all to the good, but now comes the hard part. Despite efforts by some Western observers to explain away China’s actions as the temporary byproduct of jockeying among civilian and military officials in the run-up to a 2012 leadership transition, there is clearly something deeper at work. Over the last several years, many Chinese analysts and strategic thinkers have concluded that American power is rapidly on the wane, and some appear to believe that it may now be possible for Beijing to act more decisively in reshaping Asia according to its own preferences. In order to reduce the risk of Chinese miscalculation, the United States and its Asian friends and allies will need to act in ways designed to insure that the overall balance of power remains overwhelmingly in their favor. This will require closer coordination on strategic issues among countries like Japan, South Korea, India, and Australia, as well as between each of them and the United States. And it will necessitate some new defense programs designed to counter and neutralize the more troubling elements of China’s ongoing military build-up. Beijing will object strenuously to any such moves, but neither the United States nor its democratic partners should allow themselves to be dissuaded from taking measures whose true purpose is to bolster stability and keep the peace. 

Aaron L. Friedberg is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. His new book, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, will be published in 2011 by W.W. Norton.