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America, Syria, and the World: China

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
September 13, 2013
Wall Street Journal


Mr. Obama's Syria debate with himself, Congress and the American public marked open season on the U.S. in China. No matter which path Mr. Obama pursued—a military strike or adoption of the Russian plan to put Syrian chemical-weapons stocks under international control—Chinese analysts claimed that he had weakened his presidency and American standing in the world.

In discussing the military option, the Wenzhou City News, for example, argued that the president was in a no-win situation: If Congress vetoed the proposal but Obama still pursued war, the opposition would "bind his feet" on other initiatives; if Congress vetoed a military strike and Obama complied, the "president's credibility and America's influence" would "take a hit"; and if Congress supported the president, then Obama would earn himself "infamy" in public opinion, which did not support military action.

President Obama's decision to delay a congressional vote on military action in favor of the Russian plan prompted criticism in China's Global Times: Washington, said an editorial, has "lost its sense of direction in the Middle East," and the "Kremlin's proposal, resolute and tactical, dealt a blow at Washington's Achilles heels [sic]."

It is hard to know whether such commentary is representative of Chinese popular opinion. Its real purpose is to serve the broader political and strategic objectives of the Chinese government. Focusing on U.S. weakness underscores an impression of U.S. decline and the onset of a power transition in the international system, something that Beijing has actively sought to promote over the past few years.

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