Three years after President Barack Obama vowed to shift his focus toward Asia in response to China’s growing power, the advisers who set that policy in motion are gone. So is their expertise.
Instead of the Treasury secretary who had studied Mandarin as a college student in Beijing and was seen by a politburo member as a family friend, Obama has a budget expert heading the department. While the previous secretary of state stressed the need for an Asia pivot, the nation’s top diplomat now has focused on a quest for Middle East peace. And the U.S. ambassador in Beijing has said he’s “no real expert on China.”
As a result, former policy makers in both parties say, the U.S. is reacting to events rather than shaping them in the face of an increasingly assertive China.
“The administration was heavy on China people in the first few years, and now we seem to be completely devoid of them,” said Jon Huntsman, who served as ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011 and speaks Chinese. “I think the president has assessed that there’s no political upside to managing the relationship beyond just the status quo.”
For Obama, who’s visiting Beijing this week for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, it’s a bad time to have a thin bench.
President Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader in a quarter century, is changing China’s behavior at home and abroad with a difficult-to-fathom impact on the U.S.
China is embroiled in territorial disputes with two U.S. allies. Chinese prosecutors have rattled foreign investors with probes of companies such as Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) And a dispute over trade secrets led in May to an extraordinary U.S. indictment of five Chinese military officers on cyber-espionage charges.
The U.S. lacks “a credible response to the rise of China,” said former U.S. ambassador Chas Freeman, 71, who served as President Richard Nixon’s interpreter during his groundbreaking 1972 trip to China. “We’re not dealing effectively with the consequences of China’s gradual displacement of us at the center of the global economy.”
Administration officials reject the criticism, saying they’re fully engaged and that Obama has spent more time with China’s leaders than any U.S. president since the normalization of relations in 1979. Secretary of State John Kerry last week labeled the Sino-U.S. relationship the “most consequential in the world.”
U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, meet at the U.S. ambassador's residence in The Hague on Mar. 24, 2014 ahead of the Nuclear Security Summit.
Still, Freeman and other critics talk of policy drift, with some laying the blame on Obama’s advisers.
“The China team is weak,” said Douglas Paal, 67, who was a U.S. diplomat in Taiwan under President George W. Bush and is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The U.S. is not well-structured right now to bring together all the strengths it could in dealing with China.”
Some of the erosion of China expertise came from the departure of senior presidential aides. First-term Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who studied Mandarin as a college student, was replaced by Jack Lew. Lew directed the White House budget office in two Democratic administrations and served as the State Department’s chief operating officer, focusing mainly on resource issues not policy.
Though not fluent, Geithner quoted Chinese proverbs during his meetings with officials. Wang Qishan, then-vice premier, jokingly called himself Geithner’s “uncle,” a reference to Wang’s friendship with Geithner’s father, a Ford Foundation executive.
Others who have left -- though not China experts -- were instrumental in developing the pivot to Asia.
Hillary Clinton, who first voiced the concept in 2011 as secretary of state, was replaced last year by Kerry. While Clinton signaled her commitment by making her first trip as the top U.S. diplomat to Asia, Kerry initially devoted more time to a long-shot settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
At the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Huntsman, 54, who left in 2011, has been replaced by former Senator Max Baucus. The Montana Democrat, 72, who was active on China trade issues as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, brings the prestige of a veteran politician to the post. Unlike two of his three most recent predecessors, however, he doesn’t speak Mandarin.
The top regional official at the State Department is Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary for East Asian affairs and a Japan specialist. Deep familiarity with Japan is valuable, yet some China hands grumble.
More pointed criticism is directed at Susan Rice, the national security adviser. A Rhodes Scholar and Africa specialist, she served previously as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“Who’s a heavy-hitter on foreign policy on that team? There isn’t anybody,” said Freeman.
The administration’s leading China hand is Evan Medeiros, 43, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council. Medeiros, who reports to Rice, was a political scientist at Rand Corp. before joining the White House in 2009. Though well-regarded, he lacks the same access to Obama enjoyed by his predecessor, Jeffrey Bader, 69, a veteran diplomat who left in 2011, say two people familiar with the relationship.
In the White House, challenges perceived as more urgent -- the Islamic State terror group and Russia’s meddling in Ukraine -- crowd the stage. And the economic centerpiece of the turn to Asia -- a proposed trans-Pacific trade deal -- is languishing almost a year after officials hoped to finish it.
Administration officials scoff at the notion that a nation of 1.4 billion people that did $562 billion in trade with the U.S. last year is somehow being neglected because the bureaucracy is too busy. Kerry said last week that senior U.S. officials interact with their Chinese counterparts in more than 100 bilateral dialogues, far more than in previous years.
“Our extensive interaction with Chinese authorities and our focus on U.S.-China relations is the same in the second term as it was in the first,” said Patrick Ventrell, a deputy NSC spokesman. “Our commitment to the Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy is stronger than ever.”
Upon taking office in 2009, Obama rebranded an annual bilateral meeting begun by the Bush administration as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue to emphasize the two major strands of the relationship.
He has spent more time with China’s leaders -- Xi and predecessor Hu Jintao -- than any American president in the 35 years since diplomatic ties were established, officials say.
Kerry, who last month entertained China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi at his home in Boston, has made nine trips to Asia in 21 months.
The policy rebalance that the administration has moved to implement calls for rotating as many as 2,500 Marines through a base in northern Australia, shifting naval and air assets to the region.
The administration has also tapped outside experts for help, including before a trip Rice took to Beijing last month. “They have access to all the expertise they need, and they take advantage of it,” said David Dollar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who spent four years as a Treasury official in Beijing.
Yet the White House lacks a senior figure whom the Chinese regard as a direct channel to the president for serious concerns, according to both Republican and Democratic China specialists.
Starting with Henry Kissinger in the Nixon administration, a senior figure has usually operated as a conduit between American and Chinese leaders. The late Michel Oksenberg, as a top National Security Council aide, negotiated with Deng Xiaoping in the Carter administration and later served President Bill Clinton. In Bush’s administration, Robert Zoellick, then deputy secretary of state, filled a similar role.
“The Chinese have felt for some time that they don’t have a go-to person in this administration, somebody that they feel really understands China,” said Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The White House says the change is deliberate. “China policy is now a team sport with numerous cabinet members deeply engaged all the time,” said Medeiros. “Gone are the Kissingerian days of just one ‘go to’ person for China, which Beijing used to great effect for their interests.”
Some observers worry about strains between the two nations worsening as the 2016 presidential campaign approaches. Winston Lord, 77, who accompanied Kissinger on his secret trip to China in 1971 and later served as U.S. ambassador there, says “mutual wariness” now characterizes the relationship.
“We’re in for a period where it’s going to be less positive,” Lord said.