Shadow Government

China and The Age of Contempt

Just four days after the conclusion of President Barack Obama's trip to reassure the United States' Asian allies of its commitments to defend them, China challenged U.S. credibility and staying power in Asia. Obama's week of tough-minded statements during his swing through the region -- including his announcement that the U.S.-Philippines alliance is "ironclad" -- apparently left Beijing, the unstated target of the trip, unmoved.

Escalating the already tense situation in the South China Sea, China sent an oil rig into waters also claimed by Vietnam, and followed this provocative move by dispatching 80 vessels, including naval and coast guard ships, to defend the rig.

Though China has been increasingly aggressive in the South and East China Seas over the last three years, the dispatch of an oil rig indicates a troubling change in Chinese behavior. First, the nature of the act marks a notable shift: An oil rig is a more permanent signal of China's intent to explore for oil in contested waters and therefore a brazen attempt to unilaterally define maritime territory. Second -- and more ominously -- given that the move was made right after the president's trip,  there is every reason to believe that China is treating the United States not with anger or fear but with contempt.

The United States' allies in Asia needed reassurance from Washington that, despite missteps in Syria and Ukraine, it was serious about defending the political and economic order in Asia. But reassuring allies also means demonstrating U.S. intent and capability to stand up to China's revanchism.

Unfortunately for the United States, the Chinese pay close attention to world events and make careful assessments about U.S. credibility based on its global actions. And Beijing has assessed that American credibility is in tatters. After the Obama "red line" debacle, Syria has made a mockery of the United States as Assad escalates his use of horrific weapons against his own people. Russia, meanwhile, has successfully taken the first step in reversing nearly a century's work of creating a Europe "whole and free."

Can anyone argue with a straight face that U.S. action -- or inaction -- in one region does not affect how the United States is perceived in another? To believe that is to believe that geopolitics can somehow be siloed, or that the United States can harm its credibility in one place while preserving it elsewhere.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which respects power above all, has determined that Washington will not use U.S. power to check Beijing. So China no longer fears or respects the United States. It never had any love for the United States, and now contempt and disdain are all that remain. Any relationship marked by contempt is difficult to salvage.

There is little reason to believe that Obama will regain the respect of the CCP. Where, for example, is the counter-coercive toolkit the Pentagon revealed during the president's Asia trip? Are statements labeling the Chinese move as "provocative" supposed to alter Chinese behavior? A serious response would include moves to lift the ban on arms sales to Hanoi and to negotiate naval base access for U.S. warships. Nothing of the kind seems to be in the works. Washington needs to act to re-establish a modicum of fear and respect in Beijing.

Obama administration officials complain that Putin and his ilk -- and implicitly Chinese President Xi Jinping -- are trying to drag the international system back into an early 20th century world. Leave aside the rather arrogant and ahistorical idea that power politics would be abandoned in the 21st century on America's say-so. If we need a new label for this era, let's call it the "Age of Contempt." Presidential words and speeches are met with collective eye-rolling, new U.S. policy initiatives are not carried out, and in the absence of a U.S. security blanket, chaos reigns as aggrieved citizens turn to violent acts against innocents (in this case, Vietnamese are attacking Chinese nationals). Meanwhile, the revisionists change the liberal international order that has served so many so well.

LE QUANG NHAT/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Obama's Unwanted Legacy

It is hardly a secret that in the sixth year of his presidency, Barack Obama has begun to focus on his legacy. In the realm of foreign and national security policy, he clearly is determined to be remembered as the president who, like Dwight Eisenhower, brought American troops home from war and kept them from engaging in another one. Indeed he has brought the war in Iraq to an end, but unlike the Korean War, that conflict continues to rage on as Sunnis and Shiites resume their civil war; only Americans and their partners no longer engage in combat. At the same time, under Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri ak-Maliki's increasingly dictatorial leadership, the country has moved ever more closely within Iran's orbit. Indeed, Iran, both as the leading supporter of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's increasingly successful campaign to crush the Syrian opposition and remain in power, and as Hezbollah's primary sponsor, promises to remain an ongoing threat to Middle East stability for years to come.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan may well lead to similar unfortunate results. It does not bode well for Washington that former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who thus far is the leading vote getter in Afghanistan's presidential election, is now receiving support from current President Hamid Karzai's chosen candidate, Zalmai Rassoul. Karzai has refused to sign any agreement for the stationing of a residual American force in Afghanistan once all combat troops are withdrawn. Now that Abdullah has tied himself to Karzai's man, will he too refuse to countenance an American military presence in Afghanistan?

Even more than the withdrawals from Iran and Afghanistan, the president's clear determination to avoid any American foreign entanglement, his characterizing any alternative to his hands-off approach as war-mongering, and his tacit approval of defense budget reductions has sent an unequivocal message to the world that America is in a state of retreat. It is not clear that the President actually has intended to convey such a message -- in fact, he denies that this is his goal. Perception is reality, however, and it is a perception that, absent a major sea change in American policy over the next two years, could linger for years, will be difficult to alter, and could irreparably harm America's international standing.

The consequences of this perception have already manifested themselves worldwide. They include Russian President Vladimir Putin's reckless annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine; China's increasingly aggressive posture in the East and South China seas; and Assad's use of chemical-like weapons in his increasingly successful effort to destroy the Syrian opposition. No doubt the Iranians and North Koreans, and the various al Qaeda offshoots, among other adversaries, likewise have factored into their own strategies the perceived American withdrawal from the world.

It is not only potential or actual adversaries who are modifying their strategies based on their perception of American passivity. Egypt, an American partner for decades, has openly announced that it is reaching out to Russia. India's relations with Washington have cooled significantly in the last few years, and are unlikely to get much warmer if, as expected, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Narendra Modi becomes that country's next prime minister. On the other hand, India has maintained its traditionally warm relations with Russia to the degree that it was a major voice supporting the Russian takeover of Crimea.

It is noteworthy that nearly 60 countries, including most African states, refused to support the U.N. General Assembly's condemnation of the Russian takeover of Crimea, despite heavy American lobbying that they do so. Among those countries was Israel, which has long prided itself as America's closest ally in the Middle East, but which clearly did not want to get caught in a Russo-American crossfire. Meanwhile, France has just announced that it will go ahead with its sale of warships to Russia.

President Obama's clear distaste for military action, and the perception that he is disengaged from the nuts and bolts of security policy, has also led Israel and the Gulf Arab states to question his assurance that America will under no circumstances allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. They fear that in his haste to reach an agreement with Iran, thereby foreclosing the possibility of American military action, he will be prepared to accept a deal that will not prevent a rapid Iranian nuclear weapons breakout capability. Moreover, the common Israeli and Palestinian perception that the American president is just not as personally engaged in foreign policy as any of his post-World War II predecessors certainly contributed to the collapse of their peace talks. Finally, America's Central and Eastern European NATO allies, particularly the Baltic states, have become increasingly worried that once Moscow achieves its objectives in Ukraine, American passivity will enable it to pressure them into concessions that will impair their sovereignty.

The president's long standing commitment to "nation building at home" at the expense of maintaining America's standing abroad mistakenly assumes that world events will not impinge on his domestic priorities such as Obamacare. In fact, by demonstrating passivity instead of the leadership the world has come to expect of the United States, the Obama administration may create the very circumstances it has sought to avoid: an American military response to an aggressor that mistook temporary passivity for permanent weakness. Such aggression, and the military reaction it would provoke, may take place after Obama will have left office. It will nevertheless constitute his defining legacy, one that he has tried so hard to avoid, yet that could well overshadow whatever else he may have accomplished in his eight years as president of the United States.

A version of this article appeared in the National Interest.

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