The east wind is prevailing over the west wind — at least as long as the global economy remains trapped in a depression. This is the geopolitical weather forecast that follows the China visit of President Barack Obama. Obama was the first US leader in nearly two decades to be disallowed from speaking uncensored and live to the Chinese public. Obama also scrapped the US presidential tradition of a pre-visit meeting with the Dalai Lama. The reference to both countries “supporting” better relations between India and Pakistan is probably best understood in this context: a US that has concluded its interests are best served by humouring the Middle Kingdom’s whims. Beijing is no doubt pleased at a stray sentence that gives the impression it sits at the right hand of the sole superpower.
Obama seems to have an exaggerated belief that this is a “post-American world”. The US remains economically and militarily a head and shoulder above any two other countries in the world. China is wealthy, but much of its accumulation of riches remains dependent on Western consumer whims. On the deeper measures of power like technology, social stability and global influence it remains a pale shadow of the US. China may hold billions of dollars of US debt, but it is so because this buttresses US consumption of its own exports. More importantly, there is little evidence that China’s willing or able to provide the sort of global public goods that legitimise superpower status in the rest of the world.
Obama’s officials seem to believe that his policies of engagement and concession will reap their country benefits down the road. So far, the evidence indicates that hard-nosed countries like North Korea or China have seen the US’s deference in only one light: acts of weakness. Tellingly, Obama earned no concessions from China on Iranian nuclear roguishness or yuan manipulation. Worse, US allies around the world are confused: is Obama bowing from the waist down in foreign affairs part of a tactical gesture or a strategic mindset? The new administration is almost certainly right to compensate for the blunt unilateralism that marked its predecessor. However, the US’s global leadership role is anchored by speaking softly as well as carrying a big stick. Wielding only one of each sends wrong signals to partners and rivals alike.