Visiting Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting just days after his party suffered huge losses in the midterm elections, President Obama appears to be playing into the stereotype that domestically beleaguered U.S. presidents focus on foreign policy in the final years of their term. Such a turn is a trickier proposition for Obama, given the multitude of crises he faces abroad, from Ukraine to the Islamic State and Iran.
If there is one area where he can reasonably claim more general success, however, it is Asia, which appears markedly peaceful in comparison with the rest of Eurasia. Here, too, is the one area where Obama crafted a coherent strategy with an accompanying catch phrase: the so-called “rebalance” to Asia, meant to acknowledge Asia’s global economic and political prominence, and to take advantage of the region’s continuing growth while maintaining the stability that has been so central to its success.
Yet when Obama lands in Beijing today, he will meet his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, in an environment far different from that of their last confab, 18 months ago, at the Sunnylands summit. Then, hopes were high that the new Chinese leader would embrace Obama’s desire for a more cooperative Sino-U.S. relationship, while the U.S. president had recently been reelected, quashing Republican hopes to retake the White House and roll back the Obama agenda.
If anything, today is the inverse of those days of anticipation. Domestically, the U.S. president fits the classic definition of a lame duck. His party has lost control of the Senate and shrunk to its smallest number of seats in the House of Representatives in nearly a century. Meanwhile, he is almost universally criticized for his hesitant actions in the Middle East and Europe. Conversely, Xi has emerged as China’s strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping, Beijing relentlessly pushes its territorial claims in Asia’s waters, China has just passed America to become the world’s largest economy (at least according to one measurement), and Beijing has confidently proposed initiatives once undertaken only by America, such as the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and rekindled a strategic relationship with Russia.
What, then, can be expected from Obama’s meeting with Xi at APEC, and the bilateral gathering the two leaders will have afterward? In truth, very little, aside from some agreement on uncontroversial issues like air pollution. Yet the meeting will be crucial for Obama to show that he is not a lame duck abroad.
Ostensibly, this should not be an issue. After all, Obama is still leader of the world’s most powerful nation, and America’s military remains the most powerful and technologically advanced, in Asia as around the world. Yet perception matters as much as reality in foreign affairs, and the world has watched Obama fall far short of the high expectations he brought with him to office in 2009. In his last years in office, the president will not wish to be dismissed abroad as a has-been. More importantly, he must be wary of giving any impression of weakness that aggressive actors might decide to take advantage of.
Media in China, Japan, and other countries are already pointing out what they consider to be Obama’s weaknesses, and American media are following suit. This puts the White House at a disadvantage, at least in terms of optics, but the actual diplomacy is what matters, and here the stakes are indeed high. Obama needs to come out swinging, making clear that he is in no way hobbled by American domestic politics. That means no business as usual, with vague pronouncements about cooperation and the rebalance, but rather some specific initiatives that he will raise either privately in bilateral meetings or publicly.
The countries of Asia are watching to see whether the president will be engaged in foreign policy in his last years with a forward-looking plan to maintain America’s role in Asia, offering a realistic counterweight to China. Such a policy could involve aggressively promoting the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade pact, or some type of enhanced security partnership with Southeast Asian nations. It could also be accomplished by a more forthright defense of liberty, unlike the muted statements from the White House on the Hong Kong protests.
No matter what he does, Obama will face the most scrutiny during his post-APEC meeting with China’s Xi. Chinese press have been hammering both Obama and the United States, steadily pushing a narrative that it is time for Washington to more genuinely acknowledge China’s leading role in Asia (if not globally). That means acquiescing to Chinese national interests and undercutting what America considers its (and its allies’) best interests. If he repeats the mistakes of his first China trip, in 2009, where the Chinese government rode roughshod over the young president, censoring his remarks and limiting press access, then Obama’s image will be permanently damaged in the region. Like everyone, Asians respect strength, and a second-term, sixth-year president who still can’t face the Chinese square in the eyes will be increasingly dismissed for the remainder of his time in office.
So far, there is little reason to be overly optimistic about Obama’s trip. The White House has given little indication that the president will lean in the way that the region hopes or that the Chinese will respect. Instead, we are likely to get more of the same approach, which has led to some of the tensest Sino-U.S. ties in years and a region increasingly worried about its future. Whatever the outcome, what may be President Obama’s last trip to Asia will provide plenty of lessons for the next president.
— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.