What China Thinks About Obama's "Asian Pivot"

“The American continents are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.”

So reads the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, that articulated a Western Hemisphere free from European colonial interference. Replace “America” with Asia and European by America, and you have China’s current view of America’s so-called “pivot to Asia.”

The pivot, called “Obama’s premier foreign policy initiative” by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, was supposed to be a renewed military and diplomatic focus on the world’s most dynamic region. Its main significant military development so far has been the opening of a small training base in northern Australia. But in an age of rising Chinese influence, the pivot was supposed to reassure nervous Southeast Asian countries, along with Japan and Korea, that the US was committed to the region in the long-term.

But as sequester cuts take effect, and Secretary of State John Kerry even publicly expresses doubt about the pivot’s goals, there is reason to believe the pivot might go quietly into the night. The Chinese are already taking Kerry’s comments favorably to mean that the pivot will not amount to much. And even Hagel wants to review the strategy in light of current budgetary realities. While a greater overall U.S. focus on Asia is indeed needed, the military aspects of the pivot and its focus on containment in an age of uncertain budgets are troubling and counterproductive.

While never openly saying so, the administration’s re-tooled focus on Asia has always been aimed at countering China’s rise. The opening of better relations with Myanmar (in the wake of that country’s reactions to China’s heavy-handed dam-building efforts) was the most significant accomplishment of the administration’s efforts in Asia. But it’s larger problem is that it can’t help but be seen as containment. And that in and of itself only empowers Chinese hardliners who are advocating for a more assertive military presence in East Asia: to eventually control the Taiwan strait, and perhaps sometime in the future push the U.S. military out of Asia altogether.

In this sense the tide of history as well as geography are on China’s side. It views Asia as its rightful sphere of influence, as the U.S. once saw Latin America. Before the Opium Wars, it’s image of itself as the “middle kingdom” was based on the tribute system that at various periods formally counted Korea, Vietnam, and theoretically even Burma as “tributary nations.” While not ruled directly by the Chinese emperor, they sent tribute and trade missions to China in exchange for protection.

The world is far more complex now, and China will never be the only country with trade and influence in Asia. The U.S. will still have a large role here for decades to come. But take ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as an example: Regional trade with China was almost double trade with the U.S. Southeast Asian nations have already been discussing a regional trade bloc with China that would exclude the U.S., just as Obama’s planned trans-Pacific partnership (TPP) made a point of excluding China.

A renewed focus on Asia should have an economic and cultural component. But the TPP, the economic piece of the pivot, has not and will not be able to pull Asian neighbors out of China’s inexorable pull. As former under-secretary of state for East Asia and key architect of the pivot, Kurt Campbell, recently said, nations in Asia are looking for better relations with both the U.S. and China. That means that any deal the TPP accomplishes will not be able to somehow insulate Southeast Asian countries from China’s economic influence merely by excluding China from the TPP. These countries will seek their own deals with China to gain access to its nearby markets and investment. 

This is an odd situation in which the U.S. continues to shell out for military spending to aid regional security, while China continues to benefit economically from that stability. The pivot seems like a bad return on investment. Japan, under new prime minister Abe, recently announced plans to join the TPP, a boon to the U.S.-sponsored regionally free trade agreement. While this may open Japanese markets to American companies (notably in agricultural products), it is only spurring China to cut its own deals with Japan and Korea.

America is in a pickle in East Asia: It can’t abandon it’s military investment in a region that is home to the most dynamic countries in the world today. But it also shouldn’t continue to view China as a temporary rising power that can be dealt with using traditional “containment” strategies. China’s growing role in Asia is only going to increase, whether the pivot continues or not. China doesn’t need to issue its “Monroe Doctrine” for the countries of the world to realize it will be the dominant power in Asia.

The pivot has succeeded in re-focusing American attention on East Asia and assuring allies that the U.S. is committed to the region. But it has failed by ratcheting up suspicions and rhetoric in the region, and has only added to China’s suspicion that America will not tolerate it’s rise. The Obama adminstration needs to make it a priority in the second term to have a more unified and coherent China strategy, coordinated by a high-level official with knowledge of Asia who commands respect in China, as Henry Kissinger once did in earlier times. The pivot is not a substitute for having a better relationship with China directly.

The pivot to Asia must be accompanied by more direct efforts to engage China. The Obama administration and the new Xi Jinping administration should set clearer protocols for managing the world’s most important bilateral relationship: regular high-level diplomatic and military meetings, more contact between the leaderships, and more engagement on North Korea and other issues of cooperation like nuclear nonproliferation, which a stability-obsessed China should theoretically support. While there will undoubtedly be competition between the U.S. and China, a better general working relationship is a platform on which to build stability across the Asia Pacific region.

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Andrew Stokols

A 2010 graduate in history and urban planning from the University of California, Berkeley. I have been living in China for the past year, first as a fellow at a Chinese non-profit involved in urban planning and historic preservation in Beijing. Now I am a Fulbright scholar based in Xi'an where I am studying urban and rural redevelopment and relocation. Although originally from southern California, I've never been on a surfboard and don't enjoy driving. I do enjoy snowboarding, reading, urban adventuring, Beijing duck, and photography, to name a few.

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