President Obama will host the leader of China this week as President Xi Jinping arrives for his first state visit since assuming power. The visit is not without controversy because U.S.-China relations are not good. The president’s critics say China—like Russia, Iran, and the Islamic State Caliphate—represents another Obama foreign policy failure. These critics are right: Obama is being bested because he doesn’t respond to aggressors who are seeking to change the world order at the expense of U.S. interests.
First, who is Xi Jinping? He’s the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, who led China from 1978 to 1992. Xi came to power in 2012 and embarked on four major initiatives: 1) consolidate as much power as he can in his own hands; 2) root out corruption by focusing especially on prosecuting his rivals (which provides a bonus of securing his own power); 3) accelerate the maturation of China’s economy by making it more dependent on consumer spending at home and less on exports; and 4) begin to assert China’s power in its region to thwart U.S. hegemony.
Despite the Economy, Xi Is on a Roll
He’s accomplished a lot on his initiatives, except for improving the economy. Xi is large and in charge, gathering to himself all the key levers of politics and the military and determined not to share power or be simply the first among equals, like his predecessors. He’s put a lot of rivals in jail, many of them the favorites of previous party leaders who continue to try to wield influence.
At the same time, he believes corruption is a sickness eating at China, along with materialism and decadence, so by wielding the judicial system more like a club than a sword he has made a decently sized dent in Chinese corruption. There is plenty of it, of course, just as one would expect with state-directed crony capitalism in a country ruled by the Communist Party. He’s probably not done enough to blunt the frustration of the average Chinese person not blessed with great party connections, but the main goal was always to eliminate rivals and seal Xi’s control of China.
Maturing the economy got sucker-punched recently with China’s stock market problems, which have helped cause the U.S. stock market’s correction. This came after Xi’s predecessor had spent trillions to keep the export-driven economy growing after the 2008 Great Recession, and he’s had no chance to abandon this effort. Most of the spending over the last eight years was to prop up exports and, worst of all, to provide loans to state-owned firms and banks. So the worst and most inefficient performers in the Chinese economy received even more money in a desperate attempt to keep the system afloat.
The problem of “ghost cities” and empty skyscrapers has only gotten worse. One thing no Chinese premier wants is to preside over a slowing economy, but it appears that is what Xi is doing. Despite those who have hyperventilated about China taking over the world, that was not going to happen, and the evidence is plain now. China’s state socialism is running out of steam.
Aside from these troubles, in geopolitics Xi is clearly on a roll. From cyber warfare, to expanding China’s physical presence in the South China Sea, to naval shows of force near the United States, China is starting to treat the United States like the power that used to keep it in check.
You Don’t Scare Us
After years of cyber-attacks on U.S. corporate interests for industrial espionage, the Chinese hit the jackpot when they successfully hacked the Office of Personnel Management. Upwards of 20 million current and former government employees are exposed. Some of their most sensitive personal information regarding finances, family, and health are in the hands of the Chinese government.
Besides simply selling the Social Security numbers to criminals who deal in identity theft, China’s damage to our national security networks both now and into the future is incalculable since the privacy of victims’ families is compromised. We are still awaiting the Obama administration’s response. It took months for the administration to admit that China was behind the attack, and still no word on what the response will be other than public handwringing about the need to respond forcefully as a deterrent.
The United States would have been better served by an OPM that was on its guard, but also by a posture in the world that warded off such unprecedented attacks. Every country that can spies in as sophisticated a way as possible, but for China to feel free to commit such an attack says a lot about how little it fears crossing the Obama administration.
Expanding China’s Military Force
In the South China Sea, China continues to sail provocatively into the territorial waters of its neighbors, but more importantly it has spent the last year building up a bit of reef among the disputed Spratly Islands (disputed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines) for “reclamation purposes.” In reality, they were building a military base, complete with airstrips and sophisticated listening devices.
The emerging complex of buildings is coming close in size to the Pentagon, and experts say some of its equipment appears to be the kind that supports China’s new “carrier killer” missile system that ostensibly has U.S. warships as its target. This weapon was featured in early September at China’s unprecedentedly huge military parade that was meant to signal Xi’s personal political power internally and China’s geopolitical power externally.
Finally, adding insult to injury, the Chinese navy sailed five ships through the Bering Sea in international waters off the coast of Alaska— two weeks ago when President Obama was visiting the state. The move was within the bounds of international law, but the message was clear: we are a blue-water navy now, and will act as provocatively as we see fit.
Of course, China has every right to build its navy, but to make this venture near Alaska for the first time ever with the U.S. president nearby was a challenge to America’s status as the dominant global power. While not as serious as the cyber attack on OPM or the buildup in the Spratly Islands, it highlights the loss of prestige the United States has suffered during the Obama years. Prestige—respect—in international relations is an important tool along with economic and military might. In fact, the latter is less needed when the former is in good supply.
China Looks Strong, America Looks Weak
So there is the context of the Chinese leader’s state visit: he’s chalked up success after success against his American counterpart, and so far paid no price for it. His victim will honor him in the highest fashion. Before he even arrives for that triumph, Xi will start his week co-hosting a forum with Microsoft in Seattle, where he’ll also meet with Tim Cook, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos, among other corporate leaders (such as from Google and Uber).
Xi knows how important it is to the Chinese public that he be seen as a “winner” so they can feel like winners (I promise this is not an allusion to Donald Trump, but nativism is nativism), and this visit helps him immensely: China looks strong, America looks weak.
The United States has never before had a president and a foreign policy elite that appears so unaware of how weak it looks, how out of touch with reality—in a word, clueless. They’re clueless because they deny not just the reality of current events, but of how the world works—how it has always worked and always will. Whether you believe the cause of aggression is the security dilemma or original sin, the fact of aggression and the need to guard against it with more than words is reality.
Not to the president: he will give the equivalent of a Roman triumph to yet another world leader who knows his mark and takes his advantages while he can. After all, January 2017 is coming, and this is still the United States to be dealt with. Who knows what kind of cowboy or cowgirl they could bring to power?