Obama and Asia

Confronting the China Challenge

Chinese President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan arrive at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, September 22, 2015. David Ryder / Reuters

China’s rise poses two broad challenges for U.S. foreign policy: how to deter the People’s Republic from destabilizing East Asia and how to encourage it to contribute to multilateral global governance. Although China is not yet a military peer competitor of the United States, it has become powerful enough to challenge U.S. friends and allies in East Asia and to pose serious problems for U.S. forces operating there. And although China is still a developing country with significant domestic problems, it has become an important enough actor that its cooperation is necessary to solve global problems such as nuclear proliferation, climate change, and international financial instability.

At the end of President George W. Bush’s second term, the U.S.-Chinese relationship was heading in the right direction on both fronts. Under President Barack Obama, significant progress has been made on some issues, but the U.S.-Chinese security relationship and the Asia-Pacific region in general are far more tense today than they were at the start of 2009. That is not necessarily the Obama team’s fault, however, because Chinese actions bear much of the blame. China emerged from the global financial crisis cocky on the international stage but insecure at home, a toxic combination that has made managing relations with it even more difficult than usual. With some exceptions, the Obama administration has generally done well under what have been extremely difficult circumstances. The next administration will face the same double challenge and will need to build on its predecessor’s accomplishments and learn from its successes and failures.


China weathered the financial crisis much better than the United States and other great powers, increasing its confidence in international interactions. But the crisis also worried Chinese elites about the sustainability of a domestic growth model that was so reliant on export markets and large infusions of capital. Since jettisoning communist economic principles in 1978 under Deng Xiaoping, moreover, the Chinese Communist Party

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