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US Pivot to the Asia-Pacific and Its Impact on Regional Security

Tags: China , United States , Obama , Cold War , Asia-Pacific

Zhu Feng

June 25, 2012

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Regional security in East Asia is in transition. The United States has recently launched the first wave of its “Obama offensive.” From Honolulu to Bali, and from Australia to the Philippines, the United States reasserted its high-profile leadership role of the Asia-Pacific region while vowing to tie China down to the rule of law as a responsible stakeholder. To this end, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have coordinated their offensive. They announced the establishment of a new military base at Darwin Port in northern Australia, ushered in the Manila Declaration promising a security guarantee and economic partnership with the Philippines and pushed for a new framework based on multilateral resolution to the South China Sea issue at the East Asia Summit in Bali in an effort to address US concerns over the freedom of navigation. This offensive is obviously grounded in a strategy of persuading and even compelling China through strong US engagement in the region. Despite repeated denials by US government officials of any intention to contain China, the Obama offensive has touched off a media frenzy of “strategic encirclement” of China. It now appears that the US-China relationship might be headed towards the brink of a new Cold War.

Chinese Assessment of the US Strategic Turnaround

What are the key drivers behind the Obama offensive? Is it propelled by US domestic politics in the run-up to the 2012 election or by the apprehension of the Obama foreign policy team over China’s rise and America’s decline? Does the offensive herald a fundamental change of US policy towards China or simply indicate the Obama administration’s frustration with China’s rising nationalist sentiment, lack of substantial cooperation over North Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and China’s desire to throw its weight in East Asia? These questions are unanswerable for now.

The Obama offensive is the alignment of reality and rhetoric. The reality is that the United States wants to build a strategic and economic coalition of allies and partners to resist the expansion of Chinese influence in the region. The rhetoric is that the United States intends to redraw its Asia-Pacific strategic periphery and manage the context of China’s rise. However, faced with the regional turmoil in the Middle East and a lingering domestic economic crisis, the White House seems devoid of enough power to actually contain China—a booming economy second only to America and the most successful business partner in the world. Secretary Clinton’s bold pronouncement that the twenty-first century will be America’s Asia-Pacific century is destined to be an empty promise without substantive engagement between the United States and China.

There is little reason for the US and Japan to overstate the “China threat.” Since China’s military modernization has not quantifiably altered the power disparity between Washington and Beijing, China is still in no position to actually challenge the US presence in the region for the foreseeable future. Despite the apparent concerns of the US leadership, American preponderance in the Asia-Pacific is actually at an all-time high since the end of the Cold War, especially in the light of the enhanced US alliance system, expanding defense partnerships and growing popularity in the region.

China’s rise has caused East Asian countries to feel increasingly uneasy about the regional security order. Since East Asian nations have grown accustomed to American hegemony, they are wary of China’s growing influence. Many East Asian countries believe that the United States’ comprehensive involvement will benefit the region. While the two giants have a certain level of geopolitical competition, this competition may actually benefit the region as long as both countries avoid a military buildup. Many East Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and even ASEAN nations, advocate greater US commitment in the region to hedge against China. In response, the Obama administration has deftly seized this uneasiness in East Asia over China’s future impact to bring all the countries of the region closer to the United States. Thus, the United States continues to utilize all the instruments of its power to strengthen its regional preeminence as China’s abrasive diplomacy broadens the US strategic space in the region.

In recent years, China’s diplomacy toward the East Asian region has lacked vision and creativity in contrast with Secretary Clinton’s successful use of the US smart power portfolio of foreign policy tools. China has encountered difficulties in its efforts to strengthen and perpetuate its influence in the region. Despite Beijing’s insistence on its policies of a “peaceful rise” and “harmonious relations” with its neighbors through material benefit and benevolence, the populism of the Chinese media and nationalism of the Chinese public, as well as a sense of infallibility in Beijing’s foreign policy bureaucracy, have damaged the international image of China’s peaceful rise and deepened the United States’ suspicions and regional countries’ discontent. China’s diplomatic blunders have generated leeway for the White House to reap a “China bonus” in the region.

How Should China Respond?

The most important question is how China will ultimately respond to this new wave of the US strategic offensive, and how far the United States is prepared to advance its new type of leadership on geostrategic issues in resisting China’s challenge. Chinese foreign policy is traditionally pragmatic and risk-averse, and thus it is unlikely that China will now dare to start a standoff with the United States. In light of this, the trend of Sino-US relations seems worrisome.

Despite Secretary Clinton’s proclamation that the twenty-first century will be America’s Pacific century, the reality is that the United States never left Asia. The United States is a long-term stakeholder in the Asia-Pacific, but the Obama offensive portends a worrying trajectory for the Sino-American strategic relationship. Diplomatically, the Obama administration has continually sought to keep China cornered and subdued with regard to the South China Sea issue by allying with Vietnam and excluding China from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. From a military perspective, the United States has sought to increase its combative preparedness for Air-Sea Battle, a response to China’s A2/AD strategy, by selling advanced F-16 C/D jet fighters to Indonesia and establishing a new military base at Darwin Port in Australia.

The Sino-American relationship of today includes a new aspect never before seen since normalization in 1979—power competition over geopolitical influence in East Asia. This power competition is highlighted by Secretary Clinton’s historic visit to Myanmar at the beginning of December. Beijing is fearful that its commercial ties with Yangon will be at stake in the face of the US offensive and that the United States’ strong push for Burmese political liberalization might ignite a new Color Revolution on China’s periphery. Undoubtedly, the most damaging aspect of the Obama offensive is not the fundamental change to Beijing-Washington relations but the deepening of the perceived “security dilemma.” What matters more are not the frayed ties but the growing strategic distrust between the two capitals. Therefore, there is an increasing likelihood for escalating geostrategic tension between the two countries. Beijing has been highly vigilant of the negative consequences of the Obama offensive for China’s role in East Asia. On December 6, Chinese President Hu Jintao unambiguously asserted that China should accelerate the transformation of its naval force structure and promote combative readiness. His remarks are likely not only an attempt to placate his Chinese domestic audience but also the start of a counter-offensive against the United States. In order to mitigate security concerns for both countries, Washington should clearly explain to what extent the United States will respect China’s legal interests while not at the cost of American primacy, and Beijing should work to increase strategic trust between China and its neighbors as well as the United States.

In addition, how can the United States better influence China, and how can China change itself from within? These questions remain far from answered. Avoiding a new Cold War is a common goal for the United States and China, as well as the rest of the world. To a large extent, this depends on whether the United States adopts a balanced China policy—namely, a policy of hedging against the power aspirations of China, while also actively influencing and positively encouraging China to innovate itself. Of course, this also depends on whether China itself can clearly and accurately reset its foreign and security policy toward the United States and the region.

China’s Global Times newspaper fiercely criticized the direction of US strategy, saying the United States’ “return to the Asia Pacific” is the foundation for an “anti-China alliance.” Regardless of how academics or government officials bitterly debate the future direction of the Sino-American relationship, neither country will take substantial steps towards a strategic confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region. China cannot confront the United States head-on over this wave of its strategic offensive, and the prospect of a new Cold War is quite unlikely to come to fruition.

Currently, Beijing remains stuck in this round of Sino-American power-wrestling and seems puzzled by the worsening strategic environment along its periphery. Yet, Chinese officials will not independently seek answers to some crucial questions. China’s rise has brought the East Asian region economic development and prosperity, and China has become nearly every East Asian country’s largest trading partner. China is sincere in its desire for a peaceful rise and in its desire to enhance its image as a major power through a win-win strategy. However, why is a rising China still unable to command the level of respect it deserves? Why is China, whose economic contribution to the region far surpasses that of the United States, losing its strategic clout? At the same time, the Chinese people must ask themselves why China declared a litany of core interests but instead again and again was thwarted in its pursuit of these interests? Why has the last 10 years of China’s foreign policy been unable to safeguard China’s interests?

Chinese foreign policy has truly reached a moment for introspection and is in need of a complete overhaul. From 1990 to the 2008 global financial crisis, China was far weaker and held only a few cards in its hand. However, through Beijing’s “charm offensive” and “smile diplomacy,” China’s international prestige and status have been on a steady rise, and China’s relations with states in the region have substantially improved. Now that China has a good hand, stacked with useful cards, it seems that Beijing does not know whether to stand pat or to play its cards. For this confusion, the Chinese should stop blaming the United States, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, and instead reflect on their own diplomatic blunders.

As Beijing faces a crucial period in its transition to the fifth generation of political leadership, Chinese foreign policy will have difficulty substantially altering its current course. This means that China will likely not stand up to the US offensive and ratchet up Sino-American geopolitical competition in the region. Beijing’s current low-key response demonstrates that China does not desire a standoff with the United States and instead seeks to deflect the impact of the Obama offensive. The twelfth round of defense consultations between the United States and China, held in Beijing on December 7, is the best example of Beijing’s pragmatic stance. On November 16, Cui Tiankai, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, said that China wants to prevent US-China relations from being “hijacked by domestic politics or electoral demands,” reflecting Beijing’s search for a way out of the shadows of an escalating US-China confrontation.

However, Beijing’s official response still oscillates between finding excuses to gloss over China’s loss in this round of US-China competition and indulging the emotional media’s din in the face of the United States’ diplomatic punches. The most important task for Beijing is to avoid showcasing its uncompromising determination in its confrontation with the United States. Instead, Beijing should reconsider the reasons China is losing the battle over the “hearts and minds” of the region to the United States. What will be able to force China to sober up from its “speed daze,” largely induced by its fast-paced economic growth and international influence? Although the “strong-weak” dichotomy is even more pronounced, it is still not enough. If this wave of the United States’ Obama offensive can actually serve as an excuse for the Chinese foreign policy bureaucracy to avoid engaging in introspection of its numerous problems and seeking to increase its real appeal, then this certainly is a lucky thing for China. Otherwise, we will soon see a fierce battle of wills between Beijing and Washington.

Policy Suggestions for Chinese and Japanese Governments

— Both China and Japan should recognize the enduring regional security order in East Asia against the backdrop of China’s rise. Despite speculation about America’s power in the world—whether it is declining or staying the same—US primacy both at the regional and global levels remains intact. Given the huge and enduring power disparities in the world, the increasingly symbiotic nature of power relations in economic terms and the networked relationships among states, no power can take advantage of the current situation to dramatically upset the status quo.

— The US-led balance-of-power system in the region will endure, and the US-centered liberal order will continue. China will continue to enjoy a reemergence in this unipolar system while seeking to avoid stepping on American toes. As long as cooperative relations between Beijing and Washington remain constructive and stable, there will be no surge of military acquisition and no spike in defense spending that could cause an arms race in the region overall. Therefore, the US and Japan should be highly conscious of the reasonable extent to which balancing toward China can work. Otherwise, spiraling tension will impinge on all actors in the region, including Japan. For example, Chinese nationalistic sentiment is bad, but fueling such sentiments is worse.

— In order to ease the tension of 2009 and 2010, a call for moderation in the media within both countries is necessarily. When the newspaper headlines change to reflect the areas of cooperation rather than focusing on the perceived threats, then China and Japan will have the opportunity to work toward improving bilateral relations. Furthermore, focusing on these areas of cooperation in foreign policy means directing attention away from bilateral tension and toward regional collaboration, through which China and Japan could find “mutual respect and interest,” instead of concentrating on independent and clashing “core interests.” For example, the post-Kim Jong-Il era deserves close collaboration between Beijing and Tokyo.

— Given long-run trends, it is suggested that Japanese leaders increasingly see the need to hedge both against the lessening dependability of the US and the rise of China by maintaining a strategic alliance with the US whil seeking to draw China into a regional and global economic and security structure. As efforts to this extent are already being made, and as Japans continues to transform into a more dynamic force, it is very necessary for Beijing and Tokyo to fulfil frequent high-level contacts and boost mil-to-mil relations. Both Beijing and Tokyo should explore a proactive approach to increase the compatibility of China’s rise with the Japan-US alliance.

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