by Stephen Harner

Using the State of the Union address to deliver a “cheap shot” is hard to imagine, but this is what President Barack Obama did on Jan 20, when he declared “…as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest growing region”.

And what he said next was just as provocative: “That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why should we let that happen? We should write the rules…” Obama was clearly referring here to the US-crafted Trans-Pacific Partnership, seeking a way to spur the Congress to grant him the “fast track” authority needed to bring talks to conclusion.

That he would allege a competitive threat or rivalry with China, which is not participating in the TPP talks and was never invited to do so, to trigger congressional action evidences once again how the Obama administration has cynically made the myth of a “China threat” a central feature of its “pivot to Asia” political and economic strategy.

When first introduced, this was Pentagon-driven military and security-oriented. Its goal was to maintain US military and political hegemony in the region by reorienting toward China and augmenting through new weapons, protocols, and battle plans, Cold War alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia.

Since then the “pivot” has been embellished and informed by a distinctly neoliberal “universal values” agenda that conflates US political and economic ideology with commercial interests and by preventing any substantive change to the “rules” established in the post-World War II “American century”.

For Obama the only rules that can or should be followed – particularly, in Asia – are those recognized by the United States: “In the Asia-Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules – in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, how they participate in meeting common international challenges….”

Many US readers will find nothing remarkable or untoward in such a statement. They fail to understand how people in Asia read and respond to the same words.

Asia is not the US and the US is not an Asian country. To the question of what “rules” should be followed, it should be the Asian nations, not the US, that provide the answer.

For the record, what China “wants” is not to “write the rules” for the region, but to work with neighboring countries – Japan, South Korea, the members of ASEAN – to forge new, mutually beneficial, non-coercive bilateral and multilateral trade arrangements that take full account of the particular economic, social, and cultural conditions of the countries concerned. And this is what China is doing, without the bullying and arm-twisting that has characterized the US’ negotiating style in the TPP talks.

The Obama administration has arrogated to the US the moral authority to “lead” Asian nations in the gamut of organizations, initiatives and debates, in most cases fully expecting Asian nations to accept often patently self-serving and unequal US “rules”. And, in the name of “universal values”, it has also condescendingly proffered tutelage in the US’ political culture and dystopian morality to societies with proud and noble moral and cultural traditions.

From the acquisition of Guam and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War of 1898, to the annexation of the Hawaiian islands in the same year, through the pre-WWII years of Philippine regency, to the occupation of Japan, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and today its pan-Asian forward military bases and alliances, the US has sought to become and has seen itself as the rightful (even indispensable) hegemon, moral tutor, and would-be metropole for Asian societies.

With such a mentality – formed during a 100-year period that was an aberration in Asian and world history – it may not be surprising that US leaders find disconcerting, even threatening, the normal and wholly legitimate inclinations of Asian countries, and most particularly of China, to live by and within their own moral, ethical, and political traditions, and to pursue their separate destinies.

Still, it is more than disappointing, indeed, it is appalling, to hear a US president, feigning injured innocence, take a cheap shot at China, and in the next breath proclaim matter-of-factly that the US should dictate the terms of a new Asian trading order. There will be no substantive change in US policies toward Asia in the next two years, but prudence and realism argue against great optimism even then.


Stephen Harner is a former US Foreign Service Officer who served in Beijing and Tokyo.

This commentary appeared in


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here