US China Relations: These Are the Steps Obama Must Take for a Successful Asia Pivot

Looking ahead to President Barack Obama’s second term, foreign policy “success” in Asia will require continued strong relations with regional allies and constructive engagement with China in areas of mutual interest. Plus a few fingers crossed, and a more assertive U.S. foreign policy to prevent territorial disputes over the Senkaku islands and the South China Sea from escalating to open conflict in the Pacific. 

At the moment, all signs point to a continued positive relationship between the U.S. and China.  During President Obama’s recent tour of Southeast Asia, a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Cambodia focused on economic cooperation, with Chinese president Hu Jintao emphasizing the shared “commitment to pursuing a cooperative partnership between the two sides based on mutual respect and mutual benefit.” Both leaders avoided mentioning the China-bashing of the U.S. presidential campaign, a good indication that the Chinese take Obama’s friendly diplomatic overtures more seriously than campaign rhetoric.

Recent political developments in Japan also foreshadow a closer U.S.-Japan alliance. With Diet (Japanese legislature) elections scheduled for December 16 and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) currently leading in the polls, it’s likely that LDP President Shinzo Abe will become the next Prime Minister of Japan. The LDP has traditionally placed a strong U.S.-Japan alliance at the forefront of its foreign policy goals, and as prime minister from 2006–2007 Abe sought to expand security cooperation with the United States.

However, unresolved disputes between China and its neighbors could cause regional instability, forcing the U.S. to abandon its passive role as East Asia’s security guarantor. While Japan and China have argued over ownership of the Senkaku Islands for decades, China’s newly aggressive stance has raised the stakes over the past few months. Tensions spiked in August after Hong Kong nationalists landed on the Japanese-controlled islands, and again in September after “unprecedented” incursions of Chinese surveillance ships into the surrounding waters, as well as efforts by nationalists to land on the Islands.  If continued incursions lead to conflict, the US will be in a tight spot – torn between its alliance commitments to Japan and a desire to maintain good relations with China.

China has also frustrated efforts to address conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.  Seeking to maximize its leverage over smaller Southeast Asian nations like the Philippines and Vietnam, China has insisted that the disputes be addressed only in bilateral negotiations. In some cases, China has also pressured nations receiving Chinese aid to conform to this agenda; at a recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting, host and Chinese aid recipient Cambodia released a purported agreement not to “internationalize” the territorial dispute. Representatives from other nations involved in the dispute quickly disavowed the statement and renewed calls for a multi-lateral solution. 

The U.S. has consistently voiced support for a multi-party solution in the South China Sea, but has been far more circumspect about its stance in the Senkaku dispute. 

While acknowledging that the islands fall within the scope of the U.S.-Japan security treaty and defense obligations, the administration has pointedly tried not to take sides in the current conflict.  Obama can do better – publicly condemning China’s incursions would be a good start. While provoking China should not be taken lightly, simply letting China run roughshod over U.S. allies and partners as it exercises its new found naval might will only make the region less stable.