Vindication for President Obama: Step One for Countering Chinese Influence and Responding to Xi Jinping’s Aggression

Recently, the Wall Street Journal shocked the world with two reports that illustrated just how ambitious and antagonistic Beijing could be in the “new cold war” — these publications should serve as a warning to the United States of China’s growing influence in the Western Hemisphere. The first was a story published on June 8, 2023, detailing Chinese spying operations targeting the United States from Cuba, while the second was a story published on June 20, 2023, recounting plans for the construction of a Chinese military base on the Cuban coastline. The possibility of Chinese soldiers stationed on America’s doorstep, on a hostile island just over 90 miles from the mainland United States, should act as a 21st-century-Sputnik and awaken the American people to the very real threat of disengaging from the world or losing the impending great-power conflict with China.

China has welcomed the increasing tensions with the United States, and it has made its strategy for future competition clear: Xi Jinping intends to challenge the United States at every corner of the globe and in every sphere (geopolitical, economic, military, technological/scientific, etc.) While scholars within the United States contemplate the polarity of the world order, seemingly undecided on the degree of the threat that China poses to our security – and to that of the U.S.-led, human rights-centric international system – the PRC has been readying itself for intense competition.

While the United States sleeps, China has been peddling the yuan as an alternative currency to the global use of the U.S. dollar. The major benefit for those states that increasingly utilize the Yuan is that China is willing to let habitual human rights abusers stay the course with impunity — and U.S. sanctions will become drastically less effective if the U.S. dollar falls into disuse.

In the realm of scientific competition, China had increased its research investment by 18 percent annually from the turn-of-the-century through 2015, successfully eclipsing the United States’ meager 4 percent annual increase. This allowed China to lure skilled scientists away from America’s labs and universities, with the promise of guaranteed research funding, and state-of-the-art research facilities. The result is that, having exceeded the United States for the first time in 2017, the PRC publishes the largest percentage of the world’s scientific research —as well as the largest percentage of the world’s highest quality scientific research (based upon the number of times a paper is cited by another scholar). China has also developed the world’s largest radio telescope, and is intent on building more, while possessing just under a third of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. However, China’s explosion in R&D led it to advance from obscurity within this arena at the end of the 20th-century, to possessing nearly 40% of the world’s top 500 supercomputers and resoundingly beating the United States’ performance in this metric by 2017. That share fell slightly by 2022, to just under a third of the world’s top-500 supercomputers, still solidly exceeding U.S. performance. In 2023, the United States appears to have exceeded China in this metric once again, albeit by a slim margin, a development which has led some media outlets to question whether or not China is deliberately concealing its super-computing capabilities.Additionally, China has made remarkable progress in the fields of artificial intelligence, genetic research, and space technology. Many scientists are beginning to question the United States’ desire and ability to compete with China’s thriving research industry. 

China is also attempting to challenge the United States through nefarious and underhanded statecraft. In its relationship with other nations, China regularly disseminates propaganda that attacks the United States by propagating the notion that U.S. hegemony is amoral and neo-colonial in nature, as well as by highlighting the mistreatment of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities within the United States — which is particularly effective in the post-colonial states of the third-world. On the other hand, China invests heavily in the third world, particularly through its wide-reaching global infrastructure development program: The Belt and Road Initiative. China attempts to portray itself as the savior of underserved developing countries, and its investments as mutualistic, but it is hampered by China’s indifference towards local political circumstances. China utilizes predatory lending practices, which many have dubbed “debt-trap diplomacy,” to extract essential resources from vulnerable countries, while exporting authoritarian practices under the guise of global development. Finally, the National Endowment for Democracy released a report – and held a conference – titled “Defending the Global Human Rights System from Authoritarian Assault,” which details China’s organization and leadership of a coalition of illiberal states, dedicated to “subverting multilateral institutions that are designed to uphold human rights and democratic principles.” China “chips away at the universality of human rights” by utilizing propaganda to paint institutions dedicated to the protection of human dignity as a form of Western imperialism, and the imposition of Western cultural norms upon post-colonial, non-Western states. China’s diplomats have used aggressive tactics to garner support from hesitant nations, in their efforts to destroy the human rights-centric world order, such as threatening those states with complete exclusion from the Chinese economy if they don’t conform to the PRC’s national interests.

With China’s increasing success and independence in other sectors, Xi Jinping has been given the chance to aggressively escalate competition with the United States in the military as well as geopolitical departments, he has seized the opportunity and is preparing China for war. Xi Jinping has made several speeches in the last year containing references to military preparedness, and he made a concerning statement about conflict with the United States which led some analysts to conclude that the leader had declared a new cold war. Additionally, Xi Jinping has promulgated a concerning and consistent enlargement of the Chinese defense budget, an increase of about seven percent for the past several years, and he has insisted on the deepening of China’s policy of Military-Civil-Fusion (which is the conception that all civilian scientific developments can and should be used for PRC military purposes.) China, under Jinping’s leadership, has also become more aggressive towards Taiwan, increasing the rate of provocative overflights near Taiwanese airspace, and even purportedly considering the creation of a blacklist of democratic activists in Taiwan to target for assassination. Xi Jinping even supposedly, according to U.S. intelligence sources, instructed the PLA (a.k.a. People’s Liberation Army/Chinese military forces) to prepare for war with the United States over Taiwan by 2027. This should be the source of much consternation, because Jinping has staffed the PLA with zealots loyal only to him, and he has begun to drastically increase China’s nuclear weapons supply.

The United States needs a creative response to China’s antagonism, one that is as robust and irksome towards Xi Jinping, as his actions are aggressive towards the U.S., as well as its allies. For this, we should look to Obama’s relatively hawkish foreign policy legacy: it is time to consider reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

The Trans-Pacific Partnership was an economic agreement negotiated by the Obama Administration, between the United States and 11 important Asian-Pacific states (accounting for 38 percent of global GDP and 1/3 of global trade), and it was the largest trade agreement ever negotiated by the United States. According to economic statistics provided by the White House, in an overview highlighting the potential positive effects of the program, 

“As a group, the TPP countries are the largest goods and services export market of the United States. U.S. goods exports to TPP countries totaled $698 billion in 2013, representing 44 percent of total U.S. goods exports.  U.S. exports of agricultural products to TPP countries totaled $63 billion in 2013, 42 percent of total U.S. agricultural exports. U.S. private services exports totaled $172 billion in 2012 (latest data available), 27 percent of total U.S. private services exports to the world. America’s small- and medium-sized enterprises alone exported $247 billion to the Asia-Pacific in 2011 (latest data available).” – Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

President Obama endeavored to obtain a favorable deal for U.S. workers and businesses, with nations that already dominated the market for U.S. exports, and he largely succeeded. The agreement could have added up to $113 billion to the U.S. GDP and, despite the public panic over the erroneous notion that free trade costs jobs, the TPP not only would have increased net jobs within the United States, but it also likely would have resulted in increased wages from companies who had newfound export opportunities due to the agreement. Additionally, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would have reduced or eliminated over 18,000 tariffs on U.S. exported goods, further bolstering the welfare of U.S. businesses. The TPP should have been the cornerstone of President Obama’s robust foreign policy legacy, but due to a highly criticized (even by avowed Republicans, such as myself) decision by the bitter then-President Donald Trump, the United States pulled out of the agreement at the last minute. This decision cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars.

More importantly, however, in addition to its economic aspects, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was seen as a containment mechanism upon China’s growing influence, and thus, it was absolutely necessary for the protection of U.S.’ regional allies. Jeffrey J. Schott, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, describes this perspective well,

“The TPP was designed to reinforce foreign policy and national security relations in the Asia-Pacific region. For Asia-Pacific nations that depend on open and secure sea lanes for their commercial prosperity, and those that face the threat of North Korean missiles and adventurism, the TPP was regarded as critically important to ensure strong US economic engagement and ongoing military presence in the region. US withdrawal from the pact in 2017 has had the opposite effect, raising questions about whether the USA can be considered a reliable partner.”

The United States’ abrupt withdrawal from the agreement sent a message to our allies, that the U.S. might actually be a hegemon in decline, and that America was an unreliable ally, about as likely to leave our friends high-and-dry as we were to support them in difficult times. Even worse, China got the same message and interpreted it as a major opportunity to expand its influence.

President Biden has an opportunity to strike back at Xi Jinping, by reviving one of the United States’ most significant multilateral agreements, and garnering influence in China’s backyard. The remaining members of the TPP have signaled that they would welcome U.S. re-engagement — but, for how much longer? President Biden’s “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity” is a good start toward reviving President Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” but it is a half-measure, lacking in any real, substantial, efficacious policy prerogatives (such as tariff reductions.) If the United States is to survive China’s rise, we must take a page from Xi Jinping’s book and meet him mano a mano on whatever – and every – battlefield that he chooses — whether it be economic, diplomatic, scientific, or, God-forbid, military. Joining our allies in the Trans-Pacific Partnership is an excellent first step. 

[Photo by Sgt. Mikki Sprenkle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Logan M. Williams is a student at the University of Connecticut, studying History and Global Studies, and he is presently a researcher at the Center for a Free Cuba. The Center is an organization dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses within Cuba and to advocating for Cuba’s eventual liberalization. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Competing Global Economic Initiatives: A Tale of Two Routes

In recent years, two major economic initiatives have emerged in Asia, particularly in West Asia: China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the India-Middle...

Obstacle to Peace: Why Armenia Needs to Change Its Constitution

Speaking at a meeting with parliament speakers of the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic States in Baku on June 6, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reiterated...

The Generative AI Rush and China’s Fear of Missing Out

The struggle over who controls the course of key technology, and how much, is as old as the tech sector itself. The ongoing geopolitical...