The fault line embodying the current geopolitical rift between China and the United States can be traced to Barack Obama’s tenure as US commander-in-chief. Just ask the US Navy’s former chief of naval operations, Jonathan W Greenert.

The navy’s former most senior officer has written a commanding exposé detailing how Obama’s dithering actually emboldened China’s behavior. The National Bureau of Asian Research released Greenert’s report in August, which demonstrates how Obama’s enfeebled presidency openly shaped a belligerent China.

Throughout the report, Greenert reveals that Asia-Pacific proper isn’t a homogenized socio-political landscape, but exceedingly fractured in scope, in effect diffusing US power. According to Greenert, the varying impact of US power abroad throughout the Pacific is textured by “different levels of national power, approaches to strategic culture, and understandings of national-security strategies” (Executive Summary). 

Simply put, the actual formation and execution of national power are highly differentiated throughout the Pacific region. This means that US policymakers and combatant commanders have considerable scope in fielding a containment policy toward China. It also means that the current administration of US President Donald Trump must reconsider its previous rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or some reiteration of alliance management, if only to secure redundancy of effort while closing the tyranny of distance that is the Pacific and synchronizing industrial bases abroad.

The recent work of synchronizing US diplomatic and military portfolios (termed 2+2) aimed at shaping India as a base for US maritime operations coalescing throughout the Asia-Pacific region remains premature, for the core of US foreign policy is domestic. Without economic growth exceeding 4% annually, the US cannot hope to begin managing more conflicts. It must redirect its core mission from the Eurasian littoral (Afghanistan, Pakistan) and begin openly managing a contested commons with nation-state rivals. In effect, team Trump’s need to build indigenous institutions abroad exposes the myth of a US pivot to Asia.

What team Trump inherited from his exceedingly demure predecessor is on display throughout the South China Sea, namely a brazen belligerency that damages Chinese soft power that often characterizes its preferred framework abroad. A return to that configuration means acknowledging Sun Tzu’s dictum “an enemy goaded and guided in his reaction is your strength.”

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A Chinese soldier stands guard at the Monument to the People’s Heroes during a ceremony in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, on the eve of National Day on September 30, 2018.