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Washington’s World: May 30th, 2016 – June 5th, 2016

Although President Obama’s schedule of foreign travel for his remaining time in office is a busy one, some of this driven by international summits such as APEC and NATO, our conversations with Administration contacts do not suggest that these will break much new ground. As with his recent visit to Hiroshima, these will have a valedictory quality to them rather than introducing fresh ideas and initiatives. There are, however, two potential exceptions on the foreign policy where Obama is taking decisions now that will leave his successor with unfinished business. The first is China policy. Obama’s decision to open the door to the supply of lethal weapons to Vietnam has prompted Chinese warnings about “overhyping” the issues involved in the South China Sea. There is little doubt that, despite regular efforts by Obama to cultivate his Chinese counterpart and to reassure him about US intentions, Obama will leave office with relations with Beijing much more strained than when he arrived. It is clear that the earlier consensus based on the mutual advantage of deep commercial relations has given way to a tense suspicion focusing on issues like China’s naval expansion. As one State Department official commented to us: “The familiar question of whether China is a potential partner or a potential adversary has firmly shifted in the latter direction.” Pentagon planners are factoring in the possibility of a major maritime incident and are thinking about ways to keep tensions from escalating. In the Middle East, the steady increase the deployment of US Special Forces to Libya, Syria and Iraq, in each case with more robust rules of engagement, could lay the groundwork for a more expansive US engagement on the ground by the incoming Administration. Our sense is that, with Pentagon concerns rising about the ability of local forces to hold or regain ground against ISIS without direct US help, Obama has decided to allow a sufficient deployment to maintain a tense status quo, but not to tip the balance of forces decisively one way or the other.

Key Judgments

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