Sometimes, the most interesting part of a political speech isn’t what is said, but what’s not said. On Thursday, President Barack Obama delivered an address to Australia’s Parliament in which he set out the rationale and priorities of the U.S. policy shift towards the Asia Pacific region. The speech was largely about China, but Mr. Obama barely dared to say that country’s name out loud. The complexity and sensitivity of the U.S.-China relationship were on full display to those ready to read between the lines.
Much of the speech sought to reassure China’s neighbours about America’s commitment to regional security in the face of rising Chinese power. The United States, said Mr. Obama, will “deter threats to peace” and keep its commitments to allies including to Japan, South Korea and Australia. It will adopt a more “flexible” military posture, including by basing Marines in northern Australia and by training the naval and land forces of regional partners. It will also deploy “new capabilities,” an oblique phrase that may refer to ship-based drone aircraft, which have the potential to significantly expand the reach of U.S. air and naval power.
The rest of the speech addressed several other hot button issues in U.S.-China relations. For example, the president emphasized the need to ensure “commerce and freedom of navigation are not impeded” and that “countries with large surpluses take action to boost demand at home.” He called for a “level playing field” for business in which “every nation plays by the rules” and “intellectual property and new technologies that fuel innovation are protected; and where currencies are market driven so no nation has an unfair advantage.” Moreover, he spoke strongly about upholding human rights – and workers’ rights, in particular. These messages were clearly intended mainly for China.
Amazingly, however, Obama barely mentioned China in the speech. The text of his address was 50 paragraphs long, but he referred to China in only one of these paragraphs.
This omission served a diplomatic purpose. China is extremely sensitive to American criticism – and even more so to what it views as American meddling in the region. By speaking indirectly, President Obama was able to reassure China’s nervous neighbours, while communicating his entreaties to China, along with implicit warnings – without unduly insulting or provoking Beijing.
Nevertheless, it’s striking that these messages had to be communicated so obliquely, and that relations between the world’s two most important countries remain so brittle that a speech which is essentially about China needed to be dressed up as something else.
The silences in Mr. Obama’s speech were as eloquent as his words.