Critics of the Obama administration charge that the president, by ordering US intelligence agencies to conduct a “full review” of Russian hacking of the US general election, and then by expelling Russian diplomats and closing down some of Moscow’s “diplomatic” operations in the US, has deliberately sought, in the final days of his administration, to put his successor, Donald Trump, in an awkward and vulnerable position in view of the latter’s friendship with Russia.
In so doing, Obama risks allowing President Putin the opportunity to undermine confidence in American democracy without proof that he had affected the outcome of the election. Obama’s actions also seemed to single out Russia when there were probably many hackers. Also, Obama’s move came after he had conspicuously failed to act when Putin’s Russia invaded the Crimea, and later when it took control of the conflict in Syria. Both made Obama look weak and indecisive — outmaneuvered by the Russian leader.
Obama thus seemed to want to “set up” Trump more than he was concerned with pursuing an even-handed foreign policy, or furthering the US national interest.
It similarly appeared that Obama has implemented, or at least had not opposed or sought to block, legislation to birdcage Trump on future relations with China. In other words, he has “arranged” difficulties for Trump’s future attempts to get along with Beijing.
Obama’s moves vis-à-vis China in the sunset days of his tenure in office are of a different order than his Russian challenge. They mainly originated in Congress and are of a legal (legislative) nature. This in some sense is worse than the presidential orders against Russia as they cannot be erased easily or ignored. Also, there are funds allocated specifically to support them.
One is a new provision put into the US National Defense Authorization Act that will allow US military exercises with Taiwan, and exchanges between high-ranking officers (flag officers). Visits are predicted to increase by 50 percent in 2017. Obama put his signature on the 2017 version of the Act just three weeks before the end of his term in office. He had heretofore not supported such a change in policy.
Also, his decision clearly did not comport with his China and Taiwan policy. He had notably concurred with Chinese leaders during his trip to China in 2009 that Taiwan was a Chinese “core interest” (which China would be willing to engage its military to protect), and had subsequently moved to reduce America’s commitments to Taiwan, and perhaps even to abandon the island.
Obama’s action on the National Defense Authorization Act clearly made Taiwan happy, even though experts in Taipei said that it was a case of “too little too late” and might create serious dangers for Taiwan. No doubt it made Chinese leaders in Beijing uneasy and angry, amidst a time when the Chinese military is said to be “anxious” about Taiwan.
In addition, it might put Trump at odds with Congress, where there is considerable support for Taiwan, and with the segment of US voters that favors Taiwan. This could create an impasse for Trump in seeking more amicable relations with China and might even impede a trade deal that Trump wants.
Obama had pledged to cooperate with Trump to make the transition a smooth one; however, in some critical ways he has done just the opposite.
Obama’s action may also be questioned: What good can come from the decision? Greater strategic coordination between US forces and Taiwan’s military will be enhanced. But is that needed? US policy has long been to restrict the development of Taiwan’s offensive capabilities vis-à-vis China in order to prevent Taipei from starting a conflict. US arms sales to Taiwan reflect this clearly. So does America’s policy of strategic ambiguity. Will changing this, which more contacts with Taiwan suggests, contribute to America’s national interest or peace in the area? No argument has been offered that it will.
Clearly Obama has made Taiwan a more contentious issue in US-China relations and this may well handicap Trump in the process.
A second matter is new anti-propaganda legislation, specifically the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, which Obama also signed in the closing days of his presidency. Observers say it may “set the stage” for a war of ideas with China and may plague the coming Trump administration with problems it does not want.
The bill is backed by a special budget of USD 800 million that will be used to train journalists and give grants to non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and consulting companies that decipher disinformation. This will create a momentum that may be hard to control.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut that co-drafted the legislation, addressed the “China threat” during debate on the bill. Meanwhile, Chinese scholars opined that the bill could be used as a club against China.
The timing of the bill, not just Obama signing it, also suggests it is aimed at China. Almost at the same time it got the presidential signature, China’s China Central Television announced its rebranding as China Global Television Network to consolidate its worldwide reach. This followed an earlier report that the Chinese government had allocated USD 6.5 billion to spread China’s message abroad.
It likewise happened amidst recent reports that China is “buying into” Hollywood in grand fashion. China’s richest man Wang Jianlin (through his company the Dalian Wanda Group) already owns America’s second largest theater chain and a major film maker, and is engaged in talks to purchase Dick Clark Productions which is valued at USD 1 billion. This generated some bad vibes in Los Angeles and beyond.
While it has lots of money to expand its media influence and has been spending freely to do that, China is still not very competitive with the mainstream Western media. Furthermore, any influence it may have has been diluted by other countries, especially Middle East nations that also seek a bigger media presence in the US. Thus, anxiety about China influencing public opinion in America thus seems overhyped.
Putting all of this in perspective: Obama had pledged to cooperate with Trump to make the transition a smooth one; however, in some critical ways he has done just the opposite. Clearly, he has made conducting foreign relations with the two most important nations in the world more challenging for Trump when he becomes president.