“The goal of minor insults such as the G-20 tarmac kerfuffle is to diminish the U.S.”
SHANGHAI—China, it turns out, didn’t deliberately intend to snub President Obama, although the strained protocol when he landed in Hangzhou for a G-20 meeting of world leaders over the weekend made it look that way.
“This is our country! This is our airport!” an agitated Chinese official snapped at a White House aide in a tarmac row over arrangements for the traveling press corps after Air Force One touched down.
Arriving for the G-20 in Hangzhou, U.S. President Barack Obama had to exit Air Force One through a lower set of steps rather than the usual mobile staircase due to a disagreement between U.S. and Chinese officials. PHOTO: DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS
China plays by its own rules nowadays, even on the simple matter of who should provide mobile stairs for the U.S. president’s aircraft. A disagreement over whose set to use—America’s or China’s—forced Mr. Obama to exit from a lower door on folding steps. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman fumed at “arrogant and opinionated” Western media for suggesting Beijing had deliberately tried to humiliate him.
But the symbolism was apt. China’s behavior toward America during the Obama administration has been marked by a few episodes of collaboration on the global stage—a climate-change accord, U.N. sanctions against North Korea, the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program—and more regular flare-ups of prickly nationalism.
Small insults, minor aggressions: Behind the big set pieces of diplomacy, this is how China has sought to undermine the U.S. superpower and emphasize its own growing stature.
It bullies Washington’s regional friends and allies in territorial disputes. At home, it selectively harasses U.S. investors. And it sends a barely concealed message that American and other Western nonprofit groups aren’t welcome by putting them under a police regime. Added up, these aggravations amount to a potent challenge to Washington, mainly because Mr. Obama hasn’t found a good way to counter them.
Beijing’s immediate goal is not to be able to defeat the regional hegemon —for all the alarm surrounding the buildup of its armed forces, China still has only a fraction of America’s military capabilities—but to diminish it.
The bar to Chinese success in this strategic game is surprisingly low. America’s “grand strategy” in East Asia rests on two pillars: its ability to deter potential adversaries, and its assurances to allies that in a real crisis it will be there for them, with minimum delay and maximum force. All China has to do is sow doubt in the minds of America’s partners about U.S. support, and the strategy starts to unravel.
The next test of American credibility may be coming up shortly. In Hangzhou, even as Mr. Obama urged his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to respect the ruling of an international tribunal that struck down Beijing’s outsize claims to the South China Sea, Philippine officials reported unusual Chinese activity around the Scarborough Shoal, including the presence of what look like dredgers. They fear China plans to add to the seven artificial islands it has already constructed in one of the world’s busiest waterways. China says the situation in the area hasn’t changed.
Mr. Obama earlier this year explicitly warned Mr. Xi not to build another military-capable platform over the rich fishing grounds that sit inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
He sounded tough again in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria before heading off to the G-20. Referring to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, as well as its economic policies, Mr. Obama declared that “there will be consequences.”
Yet that kind of language doesn’t seem to bother Mr. Xi one bit. Amid a chorus of G-20 declarations—inspired by China as host—about the need to boost trade and avoid protectionism as the global economy struggles, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a 116-page report that highlights how China is using national-security laws and other means to exclude U.S. technology companies from swaths of its vast market.
Strong American rhetoric may even play into Mr. Xi’s hands: In the lame-duck period of Mr. Obama’s presidency he might figure Washington is even less likely to match words with action and chance a confrontation.
Meanwhile, Mr. Xi can look on with satisfaction at the dwindling prospects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Asia-Pacific free-trade deal that is the centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, his signature foreign-policy effort to boost deterrence and bolster alliances. Both leading presidential candidates— Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—have rejected it.
In his book “The Pivot: “The Future of American Statecraft in Asia,” Kurt M. Campbell, one of the main authors of the policy in the earlier Obama White House (and a potential secretary of state if Mrs. Clinton wins election) writes that the pivot was “intended to remind Beijing of U.S. staying power.” And the free-trade agreement, he insists, is its “true sine qua non”—its indispensable element.
Mr. Obama was gracious about the airport kerfuffle. Don’t “overcrank the significance of it,” he advised reporters. He has bigger things to worry about than the grandeur of his descent from Air Force One: friends nervous about America’s stamina and a Chinese administration doing all it can to exacerbate their insecurities.