Once Again, Obama bows to China

As international observers and foreign policy pundits geared up for Xi Jinping’s visit to the White House, hoping to see a tougher President Obama take on the Chinese leader on China’s actions in the South China Sea and other hot spots, most were somewhat unsurprised to discover that the first order of business was climate change. On September 24, President Obama and Xi Jinping announced their new commitments to combatting climate change, including a promise by China to cap CO2 emissions and put a price on carbon by 2017, a somewhat dubious commitment given China’s dependence on coal. Contradictions aside, it seems that any optimism that Obama would take the opportunity denounce Chinese military buildup and creeping influence in America’s strategic areas of interest, has been flushed down the toilet.

Diplomatic games in the South China Sea

The history of the South China Sea, and the background behind the current political and military grandstanding between China, the United States and the other nations that surround the area, can certainly be a handful to grasp. Chinese claims to control of vast areas encompassed by the “9-dash line” are based more on propaganda and wishful thinking than on any actual fact. With both of the major powers in the area holding positions that are less than defensible, the smaller states and traditional U.S. allies have the most to lose if any restrictions of trade and resource development in the South China Sea are forced into opposition with China. Support from the United States has been lethargic, at best, with the Obama administration choosing instead to concentrate on “retrenching U.S. military capabilities overseas, accommodating international rivals, and focusing on liberal [and misguided] domestic policy legacies”.

China has largely taken advantage of this blindsided disengagement to strengthen its own military capabilities and presence abroad. Up until recently, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has not had the forces or resources to impose their political will on the Southeast Asia region. But over the last few years, the Chinese military has begun or completed projects that have aimed to assert its maritime claims against traditional U.S. allies in the region. 

Although the PLAN would be hard-pressed to conduct a campaign outside of the South China Sea, the list of assets that they can employ in the region is daunting. New technologies to support the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) tactic have been a top priority for the Chinese military. On display during the recent 70th anniversary of China’s Victory over Japan celebration were the DF-21D “Assassin’s Mace” and the DF-26 “Guam Killer” missiles, which are designed specifically to deny American Carrier Battle Groups (CBG) access to the South China Sea.

Both of these ballistic missiles are considered carrier killer missiles and their high-speed and ballistic profile make them difficult to defend against. Ship-borne missiles designed to shoot down incoming missiles would have a nearly impossible time stopping either of these weapons unless the launch moment could be anticipated and the defending forces were placed in the optimal position prior to the launch. This isn’t to say that the DF range of missiles have it easy. Targeting a ship at sea for a ballistic missile carries its own range of difficulties and control of over-the-horizon targeting satellites would be necessary for these missiles to hit their target.

While Chinese military capabilities still fall far behind that of our own military, the fact that the PLAN has been working on the concept while Obama has been ignorantly pushing climate change cooperation is a major concern for the U.S. strategic interests in the region. Obama’s decision to act passively in the face of a confident and militarily capable China has in some ways legitimized Beijing’s behavior, giving it more reason “to push the American military further away from its shores”. It now looks as though we have a president who has chosen accommodate American adversaries rather than defend its military influence in the region.

Next stop: Africa

While the Obama administration has been thinking of ways to cooperate with China, Beijing has been not so quietly focusing its forces in achieving its own goals, far beyond its traditional sphere of influence and right in the heart of U.S. strategic interests.

In the small nation of Djibouti, home to the only U.S. military base in the region, Camp Lemmonier, China has been punching its weight, with a proposed plan to build a naval base in the African country currently in the works. In light of these plans, rumors have surfaced that Djibouti’s president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, has just handed over the small military base in Obock, currently used by U.S. forces, to the PLAN, which means that not only are U.S. and Chinese militaries now next door neighbors, but that China could now have a base for launching conventional and nuclear missile strikes, with the ability to disrupt crucial trade routes in the region.

For his part, Guelleh, who has been in power since 1999, has been raking in millions from rent charges for the U.S. military base, cracking down on civil society, and extending his grip on power to ensure that only he can be the sole beneficiary of Djibouti’s vital position. Clearly, Obama’s diplomatic concessions in the form of turning a blind eye to the Guelleh regime’s civil rights abuses and dismal democratic record, mean that Guelleh has managed to pocket U.S. funds and pursue his authoritarian aims with little intention of changing course, all the while cozying up to power-hungry China. Furthermore, Guelleh’s recent decision to become the first head of state to testify as a witness in front of the UK High Court against multimillionaire Abdourahman Boreh, is another shortsighted attempt by his government to eliminate a potential political opponent. The Obama administration has been standing on the sidelines, letting China curry favor with Djibouti’s leader and thereby ensuring that its position vis-à-vis the U.S. is increasingly strengthened in the case of a showdown.

Obama’s foreign policy ratings are a dismal 39% and the legacy of U.S. weakness, and the accommodation of rivals he leaves behind will be damaging for U.S. interests for years to come. Rather than play nice with China, President Obama should focus on restoring U.S. military superiority in areas of strategic influence. If the president fails to change course, he will be remembered as little more than the man who singlehandedly awarded the greatest U.S. rival a playground for its military might.