The sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il drives home the
importance of being able to work not only with U.S. allies but also with China
in managing Asia's key threats. This is what makes striking the right balance
in America's overall strategy toward Asia so vital.
The Obama administration's overall posture toward Asia has in fact evolved
considerably over the course of the past couple of years. President Barack Obama
laid out the result in its fullest form last month, as he traveled to Honolulu,
Australia, and Indonesia for a series of major meetings. The message of this
remarkable trip warrants careful examination, as it articulated an integrated
diplomatic, military, and economic strategy that stretches from the Indian subcontinent
through Northeast Asia -- and one that can profoundly shape the U.S.-China relationship.
The core message: America is going to play a leadership role in Asia for
decades to come.
The U.S. media portrayed this message as directed solely at confronting
China in Asia, but it is in fact much more complex than that. How realistic is
the strategy the president articulated, and how is it likely to affect
U.S.-China relations and the roles of both countries in Asia? Does America have
the resources to make good on the rhetoric concerning this historic
What Has Changed?
Obama came into office as avowedly "the first Pacific president," convinced
that George W. Bush's administration had paid too little attention to Asian
regional issues and that the United States should restore and then enhance its
traditional level of engagement there. Efforts accelerated as China's Asia
policy became more hard edged during 2010 and as, during 2011, the United
States' military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan significantly declined.
Especially during 2010, the United States did not hesitate to respond to
Chinese heavy-handedness in the region. In reaction to North Korea's test of a
nuclear device and then launch of deadly provocations against the South, the
Obama administration unequivocally supported Seoul, pressured China strongly to
rein in Pyongyang, and against China's strong objections carried out naval
exercises in the Yellow Sea to serve as a warning to North Korea.
In both Northeast Asia and the South China Sea, the Obama administration
formally affirmed its neutrality in territorial disputes involving China but
adopted substantive positions that predictably raised hackles in Beijing. When
Japan detained a Chinese fishing-boat captain after an incident in the
territorial waters near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the State
Department confirmed that the U.S.-Japan alliance covers these waters because
the islands are under the effective administrative control of Japan.
Renewed contentiousness over conflicting territorial claims by various
littoral countries in the South China Sea led Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi in mid-2010 to affirm an
American vital interest in freedom of navigation in this region and in keeping
the region open for normal commercial activities. At the same time, the
secretary stated that the United States would be willing to facilitate a
collaborative process for addressing the territorial claims and that the United
States believes that all maritime claims must be supported fully by claims to
land features. China bristled at the suspicion that Washington was inserting
itself into these territorial issues and made clear that Beijing could see no
threat that had arisen to freedom of navigation in the region.
In these and other instances, during 2010 the United States made discrete
responses to various Chinese initiatives that were seen as potentially
leveraging China's economic power to achieve diplomatic and security gains in
the region. These responses were combined with very active bilateral U.S.-China
diplomacy to keep the U.S.-China relationship on track and to manage
expectations on both sides. A successful state visit for Chinese President Hu
Jintao in Washington in January 2011 indicated that this combination of
firmness on defined issues and active bilateral diplomacy had left the
bilateral U.S.-China relationship on reasonably solid footing.
Against this background, the president's November 2011 Asia trip highlighted
that U.S. policy has now taken a significant step forward in four areas:
Multilateral organizations. Over the past decade China
invested substantial efforts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN), the ASEAN+3 (ASEAN, plus China, Japan, and South Korea), and the ASEAN
Regional Forum (ARF). Beijing negotiated a free trade agreement with ASEAN that
provided for generous "early harvest" measures in the mid-2000s; the
full agreement came into effect in 2010. This agreement, of course, excluded the
United States. Beijing also supported the ARF as the key regional security
forum, possibly because the ARF had demonstrated over many years that it would
operate wholly by consensus and would not take up difficult specific issues.
Against this background, Obama in November 2011 brought to fruition his
decisions to support decisively two different multilateral organizations. On
the economic and trade side, the president declared that America hopes by
December 2012 to see the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now being negotiated,
become a high-quality trade and investment platform that will include the major
economies of the Asia-Pacific. The TPP is being structured around principles
America champions in terms of transparency, protection of intellectual
property, labor rights, environmental protection, and so forth (these could be
considered to be "WTO plus"). While Obama noted that all who accept
its principles will be welcome to join, the TPP principles differ greatly from
those that guide most Chinese actions in the economic and trade arena. China is
not among the initial group of countries negotiating to establish the TPP.
On the security side, America formally joined the East Asia Summit (EAS),
and Obama used his inaugural participation to steer this new body toward
focusing on difficult, concrete security issues in the region, especially
maritime security. This was not at all to Beijing's liking, but most EAS
participants supported the overall American approach.
In short, Obama moved boldly to shift the center of gravity among the key
multilateral organizations in Asia, favoring those that include the United
States and leading them to take approaches favored by Washington but are
neuralgic for Beijing.
Economics and trade. The Obama administration had a disappointing
record on trade issues during its first two-and-a-half years in office. But in
early November 2011 it finally achieved ratification of the free trade
agreement with South Korea, and it then, as noted above, turned its focus to
developing the TPP as a new trade and investment platform in the Asia-Pacific.
This pair of initiatives has thrust Asia back into the center of U.S. economic
and trade initiatives, in line with Obama's oft-repeated assertion that there
is no region as vital as Asia to America's future economic prosperity. All this
came amid rising economic and trade tensions with China -- tensions that are
unlikely to subside during the coming year of electoral politics in Washington
and succession politics in Beijing.
Security. Obama declared unequivocally on this trip that he
will protect America's Asian security investments from any future cutbacks in
overall U.S. military spending. In Australia, moreover, he signed an agreement
to allow rotational deployments of 2,500 marines in Darwin. Following a trip by
new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta a few weeks earlier to the region, the
president left no doubt that the U.S. military and broader security focus was
now shifting from Iraq and Afghanistan to Asia and that this new posture will
remain at the top of America's security priorities and will be protected from
any future defense cuts.
Democracy. A global democracy agenda had not been a prominent
part of Obama's tenure, but this changed significantly with the 2011 Arab
Spring. The president made clear on this trip that America will lead in Asia in
promoting democracy and human rights, declaring in Australia that, "Other
models have been tried and they have failed -- fascism and communism, rule by
one man and rule by committee. And they failed for the same simple reason: They
ignore the ultimate source of power and legitimacy -- the will of the
people." At his final stop, Obama announced that Hillary Clinton would
visit Burma (Myanmar) in early December -- the first U.S. secretary of state in
50 years to do so -- to take the temperature of new reformist stirrings there
and encourage progress toward more democratic governance. The new comprehensive
strategy, in short, elevated the democratic component of American diplomacy in
Most of the specific initiatives unveiled on the president's November 2011
trip had their antecedents in 2010 or before. But whereas previously the United
States selectively pushed back when it objected to Chinese actions and focused
great attention on managing the overall U.S.-China relationship, the November
trip marked a significant shift. Washington is still very much focused on
sustaining a constructive U.S.-China relationship, but it has now brought
disparate elements together in a strategically integrated fashion that explicitly
affirms and promises to sustain American leadership throughout Asia for the
China, not surprisingly, is worried about these new developments. They in
many ways reinforce China's abiding suspicions about the United States. In
Chinese eyes, the United States has always been concerned primarily with
protecting its own global dominance -- which perforce means doing everything it
can to retard or disrupt China's rise. That America lost its stride in the
global financial crisis and the weak recovery since then while China in 2010
became the world's second-largest economy has only increased Beijing's concerns
about Washington's determination to postpone the day when China inevitably
surpasses the United States to become the world's most powerful country.
Beijing, for example, sees basically hostile American efforts in the
following spheres: promoting dissent in China in order to create instability
that America can then fan via cyber activities into upheaval that will bring
down the Chinese Communist Party's rule; pressing China to revalue its currency
so as to increase destabilizing unemployment in China and direct Americans'
attention away from the United States' own failures; creating problems for
China by fanning fears about Beijing's intentions among its neighbors and
encouraging those, such as Vietnam, that have traditionally harbored deep
suspicions of Chinese ambitions; forging cooperation among countries --
especially the major democracies -- in Asia to create obstacles to China's
achieving its rightful role as the major power in the region; challenging
China's model of development as an alternative to the tarnished Western
democratic model; and using measures such as the formation of the TPP to reduce
the scope for internationalization of the renminbi, which China thinks is an
important step in reining in America's abuse of the dollar's role as the global
reserve currency. In sum, the president's Asia-wide strategy and some of the
rhetoric accompanying it played directly into the perception of many Chinese
that all American actions are a conspiracy to hold down or actually disrupt China's
China's leaders retain enough respect for American strength and capabilities
that Obama's self-assured declaration of America's ongoing leadership role in
Asia -- backed by ample evidence of comprehensive U.S. strategic thinking and
diplomacy -- has at the same time at least raised the unwelcome possibility for
Beijing of a significantly new context for China's own regional strategy.
What Will Happen?
The American press portrayed the Obama trip as affirming American leadership
of Asia, challenging and trumping China at every turn. The fact that the United
States' initiatives apparently received warm vocal support from nearly all
major countries at the East Asia Summit reinforced this perception. But the
reality is more complex, both as to what the president sought to do and as to
the likely results.
A more complex U.S. strategy. The Obama administration does
not seek to confront China across the board. Rather, it has adopted a
two-pronged approach: to reaffirm and strengthen cooperative ties with China;
and to establish a strong and credible American presence across Asia to both
encourage constructive Chinese behavior and to provide confidence to other
countries in the region that they need not yield to potential Chinese regional
The administration is thus continuing to make focused efforts to develop
close personal ties between the key top officials in Washington and Beijing.
Obama has met with Chinese President Hu 10 times (including their meeting in
Honolulu) and with Premier Wen Jiabao repeatedly. Clinton has made a special
effort to engage her chief Chinese interlocutor, Dai Bingguo, on a personal
level, regularly holding informal meetings with him that last for hours. And
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has established very close communications
with his counterpart, Vice Premier Wang Qishan.
In these private meetings the spirit has been one of explaining each side's
positions in terms of more than formal talking points in order to gain mutual
understanding and increase mutual trust. The starting point has been mutual
respect and recognition of the deep interconnected interests between China and
the United States. These closed-door discussions have thus been designed to
lessen the chances of unnecessary Sino-U.S. hostility. This quiet dimension of
bilateral diplomacy seeks to manage U.S.-China tensions going forward and to
set the tone and agenda for the many regular U.S.-China meetings across the two
governments throughout the course of any given year.
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.
American credibility. A tougher line may in fact produce more
constructive Chinese behavior if it convinces Beijing that America retains the
capacity to lead in Asia over the long run and is willing to encourage China's
ongoing development so long as that does not produce behavior that challenges
America's overall position or vital interests in the region. China's leaders
are, after all, very pragmatic. They are unlikely to "take on" the
United States if America has adopted a strategically coherent Asia strategy
that is widely respected and viewed as credible in the region.
Rhetoric and diplomacy, after all, can shape perceptions and expectations
and thus are important determinants of foreign-policy outcomes. But over time credibility
is crucial, and credibility requires demonstrably having the resources and
capabilities to implement the overall strategy over the long run.
In this context, it is striking that Obama and Clinton talked in Asia as if
Asians did not view the global financial crisis as "made in America,"
as if the American system of democracy has recently been performing splendidly,
and as if the American military had all the resources necessary to sustain any
type of deployment Washington wishes across the vast Pacific region. But none
of these is true.
The biggest question in Asia is whether America will bounce back from its
current fiscal crisis and soon get onto a path to fiscal health and future
strength. The political meltdown over raising the debt ceiling in August 2011
did enormous damage to America's standing in Asia because it generated such a
strong negative signal on exactly this issue. As the president was laying out
his strategy toward Asia in November, the congressional
"supercommittee" was failing to reach even a minimal agreement to
present to the Congress as a whole -- a failure that was announced within days
of the president's return to Washington.
There thus may have been more than a little wishful thinking in the
president's rhetoric during his November trip. While the president indicated
that all countries would be welcome to join in Asian prosperity if they
accepted the high standards being developed for the TPP, the reality is that at
present it is China and not the United States that is the largest trade partner
for every major economy in the region, and China does not operate according to
these standards. No Asian country appears willing to do anything to jeopardize
its economic ties with the rapidly growing Chinese economy, especially at a time
of weak American growth and a very uncertain economic prognosis for Europe.
The U.S. military, moreover, is facing potential total budget reductions of
over $1 trillion over the coming 10 years. Most Asian governments wonder
whether this will, despite current protestations, adversely affect American
military capabilities -- and the United States' willingness to use them -- in
Asia. China's military, far weaker than that of the United States, appears set
to enjoy double-digit annual budget increases for years to come.
In short, a tremendously important factor shaping the future American role
in Asia will be how well the United States does in repairing its domestic
economy and in demonstrating that, as has happened so often in U.S. history,
the American system can bounce back from severe domestic problems stronger than
ever before due to the changes the crisis has forced America to adopt.
China's trajectory. There is also the matter of China's own
prospects. There is an impression when discussing Beijing's international role
that China's growth momentum is unstoppable and that its system is on very firm
ground domestically. But both of these are in fact in question. Beijing has
already made clear that it must change its development model, as the model that
has proved so successful in the past few decades has run its course and is now
increasingly generating outcomes -- extreme disparities in wealth, pervasive
problems in product and food safety, increasing corruption, catastrophic
environmental degradation, decreasing returns to investment, widespread feeling
that the system itself has become unfair, and so forth -- that are economically
unsustainable and socially destabilizing. But there is sparse evidence to give
confidence that the very tough political decisions required to effect this
change -- decisions that will challenge vested interests in the corporate world
and among some powerful local leaders -- will in fact be made during this time
of succession politics in Beijing.
Indeed, the protracted nature of the succession warrants pessimism about
substantial domestic reforms before about 2014, if then. Yet, China's political
stability cannot be assured without the types of changes in the political
system that have become very difficult -- perhaps too difficult -- to make.
Should China experience major political unrest or a sharp disruption in its
growth momentum, perceptions throughout the Asia-Pacific will shift in ways
that can easily affect attitudes toward China's role and the U.S.-China balance
in the region.
A pivot too far?
The declaration of America's strategic pivot to Asia announced in November
clearly sought to generate confidence in America's future leadership role in
this region and respect for Washington's capacity to orchestrate this very impressive
diplomatic tour de force. Many in
Asia have been worrying about American decline. Obama projected American
optimism, principles, determination, and leadership.
This strategy has substantial potential benefits, but it is not nearly as
certain a trumpet as the president and Secretary Clinton made it sound. Most
importantly, the United States will not have the resources and capacity to
fully meet the president's promises unless it addresses its domestic fiscal and
related political problems far more effectively than recent experiences suggest
is likely. Putting America's domestic house in order is a necessary condition
for the success of the new Asia strategy. In addition, the Chinese may respond
in increasingly challenging ways, especially as their domestic politics
Most countries in Asia, moreover, are determined to continue to expand their
economic and trade relations with China even as they worry that Beijing will
leverage its growing economic clout for diplomatic and security advantage.
While they therefore want the United States to prevent China from successfully
taking advantage of others in the region, no country wants to see a
tension-filled U.S.-China relationship that creates pressure for everyone else
to choose sides. They rather want to be able to maintain equally effective
relations with China and the United States and to derive benefit from both the
cooperation and the competition between the two giants in the region. The
notion that the United States will shape the major outcomes in the region
because countries there will welcome clear American leadership misunderstands
these more complicated calculations around the region.
The United States had been responding to entreaties from its friends and
allies in Asia by taking actions primarily on the diplomatic and security side
until well into 2011. This ran the immediate risk that some countries, such as
Vietnam and the Philippines, might succeed in dragging the United States into
their own territorial disputes with China, a situation that Washington had
wisely taken care to avoid in the past. More fundamentally, this broad approach
ran the longer-term risk that Asia will increasingly become a cost center for
the United States (providing security is expensive), while the region will
continue to serve as a growing profit center for China (due to its vast
economic engagement). Given America's fiscal plight, that is not a comforting
or possibly even a sustainable trajectory.
The Obama administration's pivot to Asia prospectively establishes a more
balanced economic, diplomatic, and security approach. The recent U.S.-Korea
Free Trade Agreement ratification and efforts to create the TPP are very
important steps in this direction. But this new integrated Asia strategy risks
overreach by creating expectations that Washington will not be able to meet,
feeding suspicions in China that may lead to a far more irascible U.S.-China
relationship, and assuming goals among other Asian countries that miss their
more complex perceptions of American prospects and strategies in the region.
It is therefore very important for American officials to keep tight control
of their rhetoric so as to avoid unnecessary distrust and tension as they flesh
out details of U.S. strategy. During the critical period coming up with North
Korea, for example, U.S.-China communication and cooperation can prove
extremely important. To the extent that American rhetoric feeds strategic
distrust in Beijing, such cooperation on the issue of North Korea, which China
regards as a major security concern, will be far more difficult to achieve.
While significant progress in U.S.-China relations is unlikely during the
coming year because of the succession/election taking place in both countries, therefore,
the United States should not neglect the importance of enhancing the
relationship with Beijing as part of any successful regional and global
strategy. No amount of success among other countries in Asia will in itself
produce the regional results that Obama seeks.
Indeed, both the United States and China must keep in mind that they are
best served by adopting positions that engender a healthy respect in the other
capital concerning capabilities and goals so that neither acts rashly and both
have strong incentives to cooperate where possible. As of now, it is too soon
to tell whether Obama's November trip has laid the basis for a truly more
balanced, sustainable strategy in Asia.
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images