The Monitor's View

Obama’s new hardball with China, Iran

The White House shifts from conciliatory diplomacy to get-tough actions, notably in arms sales to Taiwan and in stiffer sanctions on Iran for its nuclear deceit. Obama can no longer appear to be weak, but then again, there are risks to adopting a confrontational style.

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After a year of trying to talk softly with Iran and China – only to be perceived as weak – President Obama has now decided he must carry a big stick. 

Among several steps, he’s selling $6.4 billion of arms to Taiwan, seeking tougher sanctions on Iran, inviting the Dalai Lama to the White House, and beefing up Arab defenses against Iranian missiles. And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has also escalated her rhetoric, just as defending Google against Beijing’s censorship of the Internet and Chinese hacking attacks. 

Obama’s new get-tough actions, however, come with two risks: They could easily escalate into unintended confrontations and they appear to end the Obama strategy of approaching adversaries with an outstretched hand of cooperation.

Recommended: War with Iran? 5 ways events overseas could shape Obama's second term.

In recent months, Obama has been openly snubbed by leaders of China and Iran despite gestures of conciliation. The most noticeable snub was the cold shoulder that the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, personally gave to Obama at recent international talks on climate change. 

If the president has erred in his hopes of winning compromise by offering compromise, it is possibly because he miscalculated how much the leaders of Iran and China feel endangered by their own restless populations and other threats within while they also try to exert more power in their respective regions.

The two countries are linked in American eyes by China’s refusal to allow the UN Security Council to approve tougher economic sanctions on Iran – despite Tehran’s evident deceit about its nuclear program. 

Preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East or an Israeli attack on Iran is one of Obama’s top foreign-policy goals – and China just isn’t cooperating. It would rather keep importing oil from Iran. And Obama faces pressure to act from recent votes in Congress on bills that would  tighten the screws on Tehran by imposing strictures on the global sale of gasoline to Iran – an Achilles’ heel for its economy.

In altering his style of diplomacy, Obama’s strongest move was his announcement Friday to approve the sale of defensive military equipment to Taiwan. Such arms, which include Blackhawk helicopters, Osprey anti-mining ships, and Patriot antimissile systems, are necessary to counter China’s rising military threat to democratic Taiwan. Those threats include about 1,000 missiles pointed at the island nation, which Beijing claims as its own.

China’s reaction to the proposed arms sale included suspension of military exchanges with the US and a threat to sanction American companies tied to the purchases, notably Boeing. If that is the extent of its retaliation, then Obama may have succeeded at one level. But it remains to be seen if China will now avoid vetoing sanctions against Iran at the UN.

Rarely does China bend when it has been so openly shamed.

Still, Obama had little choice. He needs China’s cooperation on a number of fronts, not just Iran but also North Korea and Sudan. And in his State of the Union speech, he promised to raise US exports fivefold to create more jobs. To achieve that, he’ll first need Beijing to end manipulation of its currency rate which now discourages US exports to China

These two giant nations, dubbed G-2, have yet to find a mode of diplomacy – like that between the US and Europe – that can compromise on key irritants without violating the basic values and interests of each nation. China’s rise as a global power and America’s steady dilution of its economic and military strengths could continue to make for a difficult transition to stable ties in the 21st century.

In his first year in office, Obama tried to appeal to China as a responsible stakeholder in global affairs. But it didn’t respond to his overtures. Now he’s reverted to asserting US interests, just as his recent predecessors also discovered they needed to do with China.

Switching from softball to hardball with China does not rule out the possibility that Obama can once again be deferential toward the Communist Party leaders. But he’ll need a firm signal that China is ready to accommodate him rather than take advantage of his overtures. 

It will take more trust for the G-2 to dance.

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