China's responses. China was by all accounts surprised at the scope and detail of the American tour de force in November. Its initial reaction has been mild, possibly in part because of private assurances received during meetings between the top leaders and also in part because of the political succession this coming year in Beijing. The Hu leadership wants to avoid any serious deterioration in U.S.-China relations and very likely does not want to generate a major internal review of U.S.-China relations during this very sensitive political year.
However, China's leaders also do not want to fall seriously behind popular nationalist sentiment if that sentiment mushrooms over perceived American efforts to prevent a rising China from assuming its rightful place in Asia. This sentiment could increase pressure on the national leadership to push back against the assertion of America primacy in China's own backyard and to remind the United States of the changing real balance of power in Asia. Possibilities include, inter alia, escalation of tensions in general, reduced cooperation on issues such as sanctions against Iran and dealing with the unfolding succession in North Korea, and increased incidents in China's exclusive economic zone, none of which can be ruled out. Each can produce its own escalation of friction and distrust in U.S.-China relations. The military's role in Chinese politics is very murky but could also factor into these responses during this succession year. The Chinese succession thus can potentially move the situation in either direction, depending on internal dynamics there. Preventing a turn for the worse will require active, sustained, and carefully calibrated American diplomatic efforts.
Internal administration shift. There is a relevant internal administration dynamic at play that is more difficult to pin down but may prove consequential. The Obama administration's China policy from its earliest days was shaped especially by the close cooperation between Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg and the senior director for East Asia on the National Security Council, Jeffrey Bader. These were the first two top officials dealing with China to be in place in 2009, and they developed very effective cooperation to maintain the leadership of the White House especially on China but also on related broader Asian policies.
From late 2009 onward, there was a different strand of thinking in the State Department, supported by some in the Pentagon, that sought a tougher stance toward China and was more prepared to warn others in the region to be worried about China's growing capabilities and to band together to constrain Chinese initiatives. These two streams of policy were not in sharp conflict, but each side sought consciously to shape overall American policy and often proffered different tactical advice as various issues arose.
Messrs. Steinberg and Bader left the government in the spring of 2011. With their departures, there is no China specialist at the level of bureau chief or above at the State Department, the National Security Council, or the Pentagon. The White House briefing provided to journalists before the president's departure on his Asia trip more fully embraced the rhetoric (such as declaring an American "pivot" to Asia) and approach of those in the State Department who have sought a tougher line than at any time previously in the Obama administration. If this change in personnel has produced a substantive change in White House policy, that can prove to be a very significant development over time as new issues arise.
In this connection, it may be significant that Obama never uttered the term "pivot" during his Asia trip, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon speaks in terms of "re-balancing" rather than making a "pivot." Clinton, by contrast, has repeatedly termed America's policy a "pivot to Asia."
Top Chinese officials have for a substantial time clearly perceived the differences within the U.S. government noted above and may react accordingly to signs that the tougher line has now won out.