Obama’s strategy to contain China. A success or a failure?

The proponents of the “China threat” theory including John Mearsheimer himself have argued that China was a revisionist power which would challenge the Western world order. Unfortunately, Chinese officials have saddened the theory’s supporters because China is on the track of “peaceful rise.” China has been very much involved in Bretton Woods institutions and is trying to consolidate its position of what Robert Zoellick once called “responsible stakeholder” (Scott and Wilkinson, 2013). It strives for getting more powers inside those institutions rather challenging them – particularly since Trump’s withdrawal from TPP and Paris agreement. This factor and the striking economic growth and development alongside with military modernisation should be and is a concern for the US.
It is known that any relationship between two countries are shaped by actions originated from both sides. Thus, Obama’s actions have shaped different relations with China compared with his successor Donald J. Trump. Barack Obama stated “the relationship between the United States and China is the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century” (https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/assessing-u-s-china-relations-under-the-obama-administration/). Obama’s initial approach to China has evinced that the US won’t try to contain Chinese advancement and the US won’t seek to be the “top dog.” Nevertheless, under the Obama administration there was a policy plan to curb China. It was dubbed as “rebalance to Asia-Pacific.” The policy shifted US focus from Europe to Asia, but to a limited extent. The plan contained trade isolationism of China. Namely, Trans-Pacific Partnership trade-agreement which did not involve China. Also, the Obama administration tried to take advantage of China’s problems with its neighbours. Despite these policy plans China could develop and become increasingly stronger. Its manufacturing industry has surpassed the US manufacturing industry which is a key industry for having a strong and rich economy.
Thus, a question flows out whether Obama failed to contain China or not? Well, my answer is yes. However, it will be foolish to ignore Obama’s success in bringing up a constructive China which has been ready for cooperation. Obama’s policy has failed because China has been successful enough to overcome trade-isolation and managed to strengthen its grasp over the BRICS, and initiated “One belt, One road” program. These programs enable China to enlarge and consolidate its economic growth and in the long term to be crowned as the world’s greatest economic power. This, of course, won’t be welcomed by the US. The factual reality tells us that notwithstanding Obama’s plans China could grow and keep up the fast pace of its economic growth.
With regard to trade China has been victorious. However China’s problems with its neighbours have been “exploited” effectively by the Obama administration, though there have been backfires as well. The South China sea dispute gave the US a chance to have a consistent plan of increasing the number of its allies in Asia. Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and other countries have grouped around the US even closer in terms of both military and economic cooperation. This trajectory of the US role in Asia is Obama’s legacy. From this perspective, the US could use effectively its “smart power.”
However, one could argue that the containment of China has had an indirect impact on current aggressive behaviour of North Korea. Supplying of arms and strengthening Asian allies has been a concern for North Korea and China. It was an incentive for China to modernise its army rapidly and North Korea started to show off its capabilities in the exclusive economic zone of Japan.  The evidence weakens Obama’s success in containing China. Obama has been a great president; however, it is key to understand that China is a natural great power and to limit its advancement may be implausible. For what concerns North Korea it may not be a backfire originated from Obama’s support of his Asian allies, but simply it may be a direct result of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric.
The article has discussed a little part of Obama’s strategy of curbing China. The result is believed to be more of a failure rather than a success. In another post I will explore further the issue of North Korea and great power politics.

Taron Pipoyan (taron.pipoyan@kcl.ac.uk)

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