The Obama-Clinton Legacy: A More Aggressive China

The Obama-Clinton Legacy: A More Aggressive China

So much for the famous pivot.


If shots are fired in the wake of the decision of the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration to categorically reject China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing will have only itself to blame. However, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama must also share responsibility.

The Clinton-Obama culpability seems to have been totally lost in the current debate over this issue—virtually every pundit focuses on how to respond to China’s next aggressive move. However, this regrettable situation is a poster child of weakness inviting aggression—with all the unintended consequences such aggression can bring—so it is important to frame this crisis in its appropriate historical setting.


This crisis began with China’s forcibly taking Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012. This shoal is a triangular-shaped chain of reefs, rocks, and small islands barely thirty-four miles in circumference and about 115 nautical miles off the Philippines’ Zambales Province on the western side of Luzon Island. It is well within the Philippines’ two-hundred-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, where an EEZ entitles a country to natural resources like fish and petroleum with it; and only one of its land features, South Rock, is above water at high tide.

China’s taking of Scarborough Shoal began in April of 2012 with an incursion into the shoal by a flotilla of Chinese fishing vessels. Manila attempted to arrest the fishermen. A tense standoff involving paramilitary Chinese Coast Guard vessels ensued.

During the course of this standoff, a series of violent protests erupted in both China and the Philippines while Chinese hackers launched a series of cyber attacks against key Philippine government agencies. In addition China rolled out a particularly punishing boycott of Philippine exports to China and a de facto ban on Chinese tourism.

In June of 2012, a group of U.S. diplomats led by Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell thought they had successfully mediated a resolution that required both China and the Philippines to withdraw from the area and negotiate a peaceful settlement. However, while the Philippines kept its end of the deal, China never left—a move Philippines president Benigno Aquino would compare, albeit with some hyperbole, to Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938.

The following month China further escalated the crisis by blockading a portion of the shoal where Filipinos have fished for generations. It then proceeded to issue a fifteen-mile fishing ban around the area in question.

Now here’s the truly remarkable thing: after Clinton’s State Department brokered the peace deal that China promptly broke, the United States did absolutely nothing. To Beijing, this was an open invitation, and not just to hold on to Scarborough Shoal. America’s response set in motion a chain of events that have gotten us to this point.

For starters, the Philippines, abandoned as it was by America and without the naval resources to enforce its claims against China, filed a complaint in January of 2013 before the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration. And here’s the kicker: the Philippines did not limit its case to Scarborough Shoal. Instead, it went directly after China’s infamous “nine-dash line” claim to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea—a territorial line that includes not just Scarborough Shoal but the Spratly and Paracel Islands, as well as waters through which more than one-third of all global shipping passes.

In addition, the Philippines challenged China’s right to claim a two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone around small, uninhabitable islands like Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, where China has been busy building fortress garrisons on tons upon tons of dredged up sand.

Now the court decision is in for a case that never would have been filed if the United States had simply called China on its reneging of the Scarborough Shoals deal. The verdict: a stinging rebuke of Chinese aggression and territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The only question now is whether a belligerent and revanchist China once again “humiliated” by a Western court will obey international rules or react badly—and most analysts and pundits are voting on the react badly option, and falling over each other trying to offer good advice about a bad situation that never would have arisen if not for the failure of Clinton and Obama to deal with Scarborough Shoal.

Hillary’s Failed Pivot and Barack’s Incredible Shrinking Navy

In this regard, it is equally important to note for the historical record that the failure of U.S. policy in the Scarborough Shoals incident is not the whole reason Clinton and Obama must share a significant blame for the hot mess now in the South China Sea. There is also the matter of Hillary’s failed “pivot to Asia” policy along with the Obama administration’s culpability in shrinking the U.S. navy to its lowest number of ships in decades.

In fact, the pivot entails shifting 60 percent of the naval fleet to the western Pacific. On paper, this pivot seems like an appropriate policy that recognizes the importance of the western Pacific. Opined Hillary:

“The Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics. Stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas, the region spans two oceans — the Pacific and the Indian — that are increasingly linked by shipping and strategy. It boasts almost half the world’s population. It includes many of the key engines of the global economy, as well as the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. It is home to several of our key allies and important emerging powers like China, India, and Indonesia. At a time when the region is building a more mature security and economic architecture to promote stability and prosperity, U.S. commitment there is essential.”

In practice, Hillary’s pivot has not just been a huge failure but also yet another catalyst for the current crisis. One problem is that China immediately (and correctly) saw Hillary’s pivot as a Cold War-style tactic meant to “contain” China. Beijing’s leaders immediately reacted by escalating their expansion in the South China Sea, particularly the artificial “island building” that has been so alarming across the Spratly Island chain.

The bigger problem is that while Hillary was “talking loudly,” Obama was slashing defense spending and undermining the very navy needed to enforce the pivot—and thereby providing Hillary a “small stick” that China promptly ignored. The following “pivot math” underscores the problem: by the year 2020, the United States will have the same amount of combat power as when the pivot began in 2011. This is because while the relative distribution of ships may indeed shift to the Pacific, the absolute numbers are declining. In math terms, 60 percent of a smaller fleet will lead the U.S. pivot exactly back to the grossly inadequate place in Asia where it started.

The emerging Chinese hegemon appears to understand the implications of this pivot math far better than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In response to America’s “talk loudly and carry a small pivot stick” rhetoric, Chinese warships, paramilitary Coast Guard boats, and massive flotillas of “People’s War At Sea” fishing boats have filled the void left by the Obama-Clinton failure of American power projection.

Now, the region faces its most serious conflict since the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995–96. While commentators will have much to say about this turn of events over the next weeks and months, it is indeed important to remember how we got here in the first place—which has been the sole purpose of this missive.

The primary historical lesson is this: weakness does indeed invite aggression. It has been sheer folly for the Obama-Clinton team to pursue its “talk loudly, small stick” pivot in the face of an increasingly credible Chinese navy.

As to where we go from here, hopefully, it will be to a new president who understands that a policy of peace through strength not only requires rebuilding our military, and particularly our navy. It also means revitalizing an economy that is now incapable of generating the growth and tax revenues needed to pay for an adequate defense of America’s global interests.

Peter Navarro is a professor at the University of California-Irvine. He is the author of Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books), director of the companion Crouching Tiger documentary film series,, and policy advisor to the Trump campaign.

ImageThe driver position of a Type 99 tank at Shenyang training base, China. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force