There was less than met the eye at the two-day summit of China’s Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama.
Neither party was in a position to tackle the growing list plaguing the relationship between the superpower and the superpower-wannabe. That might or might not have been a product of their particular personal abilities – and the much too often media true-romance about relations among major world figures. It is a question better left to future historians.
But a two-day schmooze session was about all the leaders of two mighty world powers could hope for. Given their miserable overflowing in-boxes back at home office, it was to be welcomed by both leaders.
President Barack Obama’s administration has turned premature lame duck – even before midterm Congressional elections next year. They hold, at least for the moment, little promise for his Democrats to either retake the House where the purse strings abide but even threaten the fragile Democratic leftwing-nonentity Senate alliance.
Obama came to Sunnylands – how appropriate for a supposedly serious geopolitical conclave vacuous to its core – bloodstained from Washington scandals still metastasizing. Try as he has, Obama has failed to use the bully pulpit to take the spotlight with his talk of a somewhat improved economy and a handful of endorsements for social issues for his far left base.
Instead, there is the Republican Greek chorus drumbeat exploitation of a growing spectacle of incompetence, petty corruption and failed ideologically-driven failed “comprehensive” solutions. Obama’s directed feints at infinitely complicated social, political and economic problems requiring petty politics maneuvering has never had White House vigor.
President Xi, although superficially in better shape, also was vacationing from domestic problems that not only threaten his administration, but according to many knowledgeable observers, the Communist Party’s regime itself. Such warnings have come even from CPC leaders’ public statements.
Xi’s answer to multitudinous crises bearing down on him in his first months in office is ever more slogans. A little learning is a dangerous thing, as they say, and Xi’s short American sojourns have apparently given him a heady notion of “soft power”. He played the role of Charming Old Uncle leading up to his elevation – assisted by his sing-along wife, purportedly a nationally known chanteuse if in military uniform.
But even the best imitation of American PR cannot camouflage a flagging economy with growth falling far below the formerly accepted minimum for stability, a pending regional and local debt-credit crisis, and an overall economy increasingly victim as “the world’s factory” of general world economic malaise, not excluding the EU. Despite repeated assertions of policy changes, Beijing has failed to get off the top-down unlimited expansion of capital plant jeopardizing what must in time become a shift to a more consumer-oriented economy if it is to prosper.
For all the talk of lessons learned from an entirely illogical historical analogy of China to Germany and Berlin’s aggressions in the 20th century as a latecomer to the table of the Westphalian nation-state, there isn’t much evidence Beijing has learned whatever “lesson” there was to be had.
All the while touting peace and stability, China has laid fantastic claims to southern ocean resources never claimed before except with a few dots on a map, initiated a border incident to the century-old Himalayan frontier map dispute with India on the eve of their vice president’s visit, challenged a new more assertive Japanese government over islands for whose claim the Chinese can muster little authority, and been unwilling or unable to rein in chauvinistic and even threatening talk by mid-level military.
Neighbors like the Southeast Asians, while always intimidated by their huge northern goliath when it is ascendant, are furious, flirting with whatever surcease Obama offers with his so-called “pivot” to East Asia, and trying to get their ducks together for a united front to Beijing. [Meanwhile, they are lapping up the benefits of a new China economy next door.] Soft power, indeed!
Nor will Obama’s new foreign policy team likely have answers for any of the outstanding issues which Beijing’s policies or lack thereof present the U.S. Navy, the traditional peacekeeper in the Western Pacific. All are leaders from behind, American exceptionalism deniers, and UN-firsters who like their boss mask all this with macho pronouncements on drone warfare and guard intelligence data mining.
Secretary of State John Kerry apparently blithely plans to outdo Hillary Clinton in accumulating mileage in some sort of time warp in which he thinks he is continuing the old Mideast shuttle diplomacy in the midst of a total breakdown of the 1920s Anglo-French border arrangements.
Susan Rice, with some of the sharpest elbows in Obama’s inner circle, is now supposed to be the great mediator of conflicting bureaucracies as National Security Adviser. Many will see her appointment, finally, as conclusive evidence it is time to make that NSA, too, subject to Congressional advice and consent, like every other cabinet post. For her very appointment was a poke in the eye to the Republicans – if not some of the conservative Democratic senators – given her still unexplained role as spokesman for the administration in the Benghazi affair.
The President, himself, had said she knew nothing and had nothing to do with it.
The new ambassador-designate to the United Nations, Samantha Power, is noted for her shoot-from-the-hip pronouncements on everything from how the UN should organize a military operation to “free” the Palestinians from the Israelis to hints Washington should intervene in the current Syrian shambles. She is consistent in believing the highest U.S. foreign policy priority is averting human rights catastrophes, whenever, wherever, however. In the not so far background is “Brennan of Arabia” as head of CIA, apparently the main influence on Obama’s serendipitous theories about Islam and Muslims – at least before the Arab Spring ripped open the real Mideast underbelly.
There is, of course, the mysterious disappearing act of Tom Donilon, outgoing NSA, as one of the President’s intimates and supposedly author of “the pivot”. Without much Asia background he was the China hand who went to Beijing to set up the meeting’s agenda such as it was. Civilian life is not, in the end, one would assume, going to protect him from Congressional inquisitors – if they ever get back to it – asking his role in the Benghazi “stand down” that refused aid to the beleaguered murdered victims in Libya.
None of the outstanding issues between Washington and Beijing will get anything but rhetoric for a while: Former chief of staff and now Treasury Sec. Jack Lew has reaffirmed that Chinese manipulation of their currency is still as big an issue as ever despite its small appreciation in recent months as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke continues to roll the dollar printing presses.
But Treasury will not formally invoke the sanctions required if Beijing were to be formally named. The private sector, fortunately, has awakened to what continued, persistent and defiant cyberwarfare by the Chinese is doing to the already shredded concepts of intellectual property which Beijing ignores. In the process, of course, our vast but dwindling technological military lead is being eroded.
Washington keeps lighting candles and praying Beijing will do something to restrain the North Koreans building weapons of mass destruction. But despite warm noises from various official and media sympathizers, in fact, what Beijing is doing is turning all its efforts to harnessing the North Korean economy such as it is but with its valuable direct access to the Pacific. Beijing obviously is anticipating that day when the starving, bluffing Pyongyang regime finally implodes and the remnants slide into the lap of South Korea, an American ally.
So, another year, another summit – although actually we are going to have at least two more this year. One has to have sympathy for poor old grand summiteer Henry Kissinger, running around China before the big affair. The aging Henry was only able to get the BBC to listen to his views of what, where and how relations ought to be arranged between the two powers. After all, Kissinger, whatever his exaggerations of his role, did live in the world of the giants now taken over by pygmies in pseudosumitry. No wonder he can’t get his foot in the door.