Barack and Mitt do the dragon dance

When it comes to how to deal with China, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are not exactly oceans apart.

Xi Jinping meets with Barack Obama
Obama spoke with China's likely next leader on human rights, the Middle East and currency devaluation [REUTERS]

Hong Kong – It was somewhat cute – that Valentine’s Day get-together at the White House between US President Barack Obama and China’s likely next leader, Xi Jinping.

Tall, affable, self-confident, always ready to smile, with a pop star as second wife (People’s Liberation Army singer Peng Liyuan), a daughter studying at Harvard, and hooked on Hollywood war movies, Xi couldn’t display a more graphic contrast with the departing Hu Jintao, who always looks like he’s frozen at Madame Tussaud’s. 

But what’s love got to do with it, a remixed Tina Turner would say? Not much. While Chinese media was splashing in their front pages that “the eagle and the dragon” must strive to attain “strategic mutual trust”, Xi – like a lover scolded on a blind date – was lectured by Obama on the devaluation of the yuan, human rights and the Middle East.

 Obama spars with Xi over trade and Syria

In slightly over a year, Xi Jinping becomes China’s new president – in fact a first among equals among the ultra-tight, nine-member Politburo standing committee in Beijing; that is, the people who have approved all crucial policies contained in the latest Chinese five-year-plan, which started in 2011.

It’s been a long and winding road since the US fell in love with the Little Helmsman, Deng Xiaoping, during his famous 1979 trip to the US. When he came back to Beijing, Deng – inspired by Singapore but also by much of what he saw in his trip – unleashed his reforms with a bang, “crossing the river by feeling the stones”, but always with a laser-focused goal: “To get rich is glorious.”

A little over three decades later, Chairman Mao’s intellectuals forced to live as peasants were replaced by turbo-capitalist urban plutocrats. China is the second-largest economy and the factory of the world, an emerging superpower, and the United States’ top creditor. And Xi is the man either Obama or Mitt Romney – if he does not become roadkill, courtesy of a legion of irate right-wingers – will have to deal with directly. But how?

There’s the rub – because obsessed-with-China Washington elites remain eminently perplexed about the dragon. Washington demands anything and everything from China – but one never knows what Washington is willing to offer. So is this a partnership – “strategic mutual trust”, as Beijing would like it? Or is this outright strategic competition, openly confrontational? Will they shape, together, the 21st century multipolar world; or are we already in the fog of a New Cold War?

Barack’s blues

Since late last year, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been peddling the US’ Pacific Century. And in early January – in the Pentagon, no less – Obama announced the US’ new defence strategy, immediately dismissed by the War Party for being a “lead-from-behind” failure.

The new US defence strategy is cleverly deceptive. It may be easily interpreted as the blueprint for a New Cold War, this time fought in Asia. When Beijing looks at it, it sees encirclement – not mutual trust. Pentagon “power projections” abound – from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.

As for the much-lauded “pivoting” from the Middle East to Asia, in fact it implies a long-term stop in Southwest Asia – as in Iran. The top three US Middle East mantras remain unchanged; blind support for the six monarchies/emirates of the Gulf Cooperation Council (forget about Arab Springs in the Gulf); “standing up for Israel’s security”; and most of all containment of Iran.

A “pivoting” can certainly be identified in the special emphasis on preventing Iran – as well as China – from going asymmetric, as in electronic and cyber warfare, and developing top-class ballistic and cruise missiles as well as sophisticated air defences.

What the Pentagon calls “rebalancing” towards Asia-Pacific – sometimes described as “repositioning” – centres on outright manipulation of mixed emotions, especially in India and Japan and across the South China Sea, about China’s spectacular rise.

China is described as “assertive” and also “revanchist” – in both cases implying a threat. The scene is set for Washington to come to the rescue – posing as the benign outside power providing regional security.

This will hardly be taken seriously in most parts of Asia. Not with the US national debt (now bigger than the whole US economy) at over $15tn and counting. And not with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the ten ASEAN countries being progressively integrated into China’s economy.

Moreover, Beijing is extremely flexible; its official policy is to create “win-win” trade and commercial situations all across Asia-Pacific, such as the “10+1” (ASEAN members plus China) in Southeast Asia.

As a gathering of expat bankers in Hong Kong commented, in half-jest, the overall impression is that empires don’t roll over and die; they just pivot from dominating one backyard (the Middle East) to another (East Asia).

Mitt’s opera buffa

Now let’s focus on a potential Mitt Romney presidency. Mitt is widely perceived as a candidate of the cream of the one per cent; his mega-wealthy top supporters include executives at Bain Capital (his former firm), Goldman Sachs bankers and hedge fund moguls.

Among his foreign policy team, those in charge of Asia-Pacific policy are Evan Feigenbaum, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for south and central Asia during the second Bush administration; Aaron Friedberg, a former deputy assistant for national security affairs and director of policy planning under Dick Cheney; and Kent Lucken, managing director at Citigroup Private Bank in Boston.

Romney’s foreign policy white paper is titled An American Century. Apart from the fact that it mirrors the exact same Obama/Hillary rhetoric, it’s a neo-con masterpiece. No wonder: Almost word for word, it repackages the neo-con agenda of the defunct Project for the New American Century (PNAC) – that collection of warmongers who brought us the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The key author of Romney’s paper is no other than Eliot Cohen, currently a professor of strategic studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins – the ultimate neo-con training school.

Cohen, a protégé of the infamous Paul Wolfowitz, was one of PNAC’s creators in 1997. Immediately after 9/11 he reportedly came up with the notorious concept of “World War IV”, connecting Saddam Hussein with 9/11 and describing Iraq as “the big prize”.

Dick Cheney helped him to land a job as counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2007. Confirming once more that Washington is the eternal gift that keeps on giving, Cohen is now one of Romney’s top advisers.

Predictably, the Cohen paper – Mitt’s foreign policy roadmap – is an orgy of pristine neo-imperialism. Call it the Bush III administration. Yet to give an idea of the current Republican foul mood, it’s not even hardcore enough for those armchair warmongers who pontificate in the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Unilateralism may be over – but it’s more than alive and kicking in the official roadmaps of both Obama and Romney.”

Here is an example of the average Mitt Romney foreign policy shtick. Cohen the ventriloquist has led Mitt to stress that “the United States will apply the full spectrum of hard and soft power to influence events before they erupt into conflict” (that’s music to the practitioners of the Pentagon’s Full Spectrum Dominance doctrine).

Mirroring Obama’s new doctrine, on China, “the United States should maintain and expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific” and should close off “China’s option of expanding its influence through coercion”.

The icing on the cake is, of course, “a robust, multi-layered national ballistic-missile defense system to deter and defend against nuclear attacks on our homeland and our allies”. It does conjure up images of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks.

Romney has not antagonised China in his campaign trail as much as the other Republican contenders, roadkill or not – at least not yet. But he’s unmistakable; a President Romney will rush to war on Iran – because Eliot Cohen said so. Of course he’s not telling unsuspecting voters that a war against Iran is a war against China – with the vortex of unpredictable consequences included.

In real life, geopolitically, a remix of the classic balance of power among a group of nations, in an arc from East to West, is already emerging. Unilateralism may be over – but it’s more than alive and kicking in the official roadmaps of both Obama and Romney. As Xi Jinping starts to cross the river by feeling the stones, the last thing he sees under these muddy waters is “strategic mutual trust”.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).