President Obama brought a climate agreement back from his trip to Beijing last week, and Democrats and the media advertise it as a triumphant step in the U.S.-China relationship. At the weekend, he was in Brisbane for a G-20 meeting where he piled very effectively into Vladimir Putin, according to reports.
When we take a closer look at Obama’s Asian journey, we find Americans in deep trouble across the Pacific, and the guy who gets tough with the Russian leader elicits mostly shrugs. No amount of happy talk can change these realties.
In truth, Obama’s days in Beijing, including a summit with President Xi Jinping, had more defeat than victory in them. Bring the cameras in close: We watch as the U.S. reaches its limits with the Chinese, even as China’s ties to other nations, notably Russia, power on with extraordinary momentum.
There is a simple way to put this: When Washington speaks to Asians now it is the past talking plaintively to the future. With the rest of the region abuzz about all that it’s getting done for itself, nagging China and other Asia nations about America’s once-unchallenged primacy in the Pacific is a certain loser.
The press pictures coming out of this trip, which included a gathering of leaders under the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation banner told a truer story. Obama was at a complete loss in the presence of the Russian president. Plenty of time with Xi, but both of them avoided eye contact every time a shutter snapped.
Bad atmospherics, then. While Xi and Putin put in strong performances, according to my sources in attendance, the American president was caught up in a mission abroad so carefully stage-managed you could all but read the choreography marks on the floor. It’s hardly a surprise that nothing significant was done.
What about that climate pact Xi and Obama signed? The American leader committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by roughly a quarter by 2025, while Xi agreed to stop the growth of China’s emissions by 2030. “Landmark agreement,” The New York Times reported, a “signature achievement.”
Wait a minute. One, while Obama agreed to quicken the pace of U.S. reductions, we’ll have to see how this plays on Capitol Hill. And China’s target is woefully short of anything remotely effective, climate scientists were quick to say. It’s increasingly clear we don’t have enough time for this sort of incremental, off-in-the-distance non-reduction target.
Two, the Chinese leadership and the CEOs at American power companies are going to wake up in, say, 2019 and fret that they aren’t pacing a bilateral pact signed five years earlier—as in, “We better not annoy those Americans,” or, “What will Beijing say if we don’t move faster?”
Risible. In my read, this agreement was an act of charity on Xi’s part, the American sherpas having said, “Our leader has to go home with something, please.”
Obama cut a deal whereby Chinese and American planes and naval vessels can better avoid confrontations off the mainland’s coast. A few market-opening measures of interest to high-tech manufacturers were signed. All good.
But bits and pieces—salad croutons served as the main course. A uniformed officer at the Pentagon could’ve managed the first agreement and an assistant secretary at Commerce the second.
As advanced before Air Force One took off, Obama was to push forward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the administration’s (overly) ambitious trade agreement, which pointedly excludes China. Now we hear not a peep, and no surprise: The TPP—as easily predictable—is no further today than it was before this presidential journey.
This may come over as a harsh assessment. It is more an expression of alarm on the way to fear as the 21st century arrives in the western Pacific. Put Obama’s take- home next to China’s and Russia’s and it starts to look as if our leadership is well on the way to Nowheresville (a little-known atoll off the coast of Saipan).
For months before Obama traveled, Washington fought Beijing’s idea of an Asian-managed lending institution intended to rival the Asian Development Bank. This mistake—and it was one—was all too obvious in Beijing, where the Chinese boasted of the up-and-running Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, its $50 billion capitalization, and its 20 (and counting) members.
Just to make things perfectly clear, Xi announced during Obama’s visit that China was putting $40 billion into a new Silk Road Fund to finance development projects in the seven Central Asian republics.
Stay with me. We’re only part way through the list.
In Brisbane, Obama sat and listened as China pressed its fellow BRICS—the middle-income group comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—to move swiftly to establish the New Development Bank, which will finance infrastructure and make available an emergency reserve fund.
It isn’t clear yet whether western nations will be welcome in either the BRICS bank or the AIIB; in the latter case, Washington had to lobby Canberra very hard to keep Australia from joining. Like the AIIB, the BRICS bank is also intended to preclude western leadership and control.
Now we come to the Russian deals. Xi and Putin announced a second natural gas agreement, this one worth $325 billion, following the unprecedented $400 billion deal struck in March. By 2020, Russia will sell China more gas than it now sells Europe, and the supply is big enough and priced such that it could threaten U.S. sales in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere in the region.
Numerous other agreements came atop this. Most important among them, Russian petroleum sales to China will now double.
This is where sanctions against Russia and a refusal to consider Xi’s persistent, always courteous requests for “a new great power relationship” are getting Washington. The rise of the non-West was destined to be a prominent feature of our century, but the U.S. could not have done more to propel it if it tried.
“The use the U.S. makes of the privileges she enjoys for providing the world's reserve currency are being increasingly contested,” Ken Courtis, a former Goldman Sachs man and a longtime observer of Asian affairs, said in a long interview carried on Australian Broadcasting over the weekend. “Their misuse has, among other things, pushed China and Russia into a tight strategic partnership.”
One can lay this at Obama’s feet because he has little experience managing foreign policy and no gravitas when he is in the room with leaders such as Xi and Putin. At home and abroad, he’s simply out of his depth.
More fundamentally, however, the policy-setting apparatus in Washington, from State, Defense, and intelligence to Commerce and the trade side simply cannot accept that America has to play a new kind of baseball if it is to keep pace with a world voracious to advance beyond old structures, institutions, and relationships.
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