In November, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma, and the first to visit Cambodia. As part of his administration's pivot to Asia, Obama has ratcheted up his diplomacy with the region. Besides Southeast Asia, which is moving closer to the United States at the cost of its relationship with China, Obama has also re-emphasized his security relationship with China's rival Japan. But as the United States pivots out of the Middle East and Afghanistan and into East Asia, Beijing is debating a pivot of its own: a grand strategic proposal to shift its attention from East Asia and rebalance its geographical priority westward to Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
The strategy, called "Marching West," was recently articulated by Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University and one of China's most important strategic thinkers, in an October article in the Global Times newspaper. The proposal has passed the stage of academic research, and the front-runners of Beijing's foreign-policy apparatus have been mobilized to study feasibility, implementation, and potential reactions. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China's most prominent think tank, will be holding an internal conference to study Marching West, according to a Beijing-based scholar. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is quietly investigating Marching West, according to several people who spoke with U.S. officials about the strategy.
It's a bold idea. As Washington rebalances to Asia, Wang sees the relationship between the United States and China growing increasingly contentious and zero-sum. He argues that because both powers are seeking to expand their influence in East Asia, a head-on military confrontation with the United States might become inevitable. Beijing thinks Washington is trying to block China's rise in the East through strengthened military alliances, sabotaging China's ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and undercutting China's effort to lead the region's economic integration by pushing the U.S.-centered (and China-free) Trans-Pacific Partnership. In response, Wang advocates enhancing China's presence, resources, diplomatic efforts, and engagement in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
While Wang see threats in the waters to the east, the region to China's west bears no such risks. The area lacks a U.S.-dominated regional order or a pre-existing economic integration mechanism. Unlike Western Europe or East Asia, it has not and will not form an American-led military alliance, says Wang. The only true U.S. allies in that region are Israel and Saudi Arabia; compare that with East Asia, home to several powerful countries that have deep trade and security ties with the United States, from Australia to Japan.
The logic of Marching West reflects China's complex regional quagmire -- but also untapped opportunity. Unlike in East Asia, where China and the United States are often at loggerheads, to the west they share common interests. Both want stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, an end to hostilities in Syria, a curbing of terrorism and regional nonproliferation, and a constant flow of oil. Marching West would offer Beijing additional strategic leverage against Washington, which "is desperate for China's assistance in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan," Wang writes.
Just as the U.S. pivot to Asia does not mean Washington intends to abandon the Middle East or the rest of the world, China's proposed western shift doesn't mean it's giving up East Asia. Chinese leaders are well aware of the rapid deterioration of China's external environment in that region. But Wang's policy does call for yielding in certain areas. Indeed, China now appears to be more willing to cooperate with the United States on North Korea; it supported a U.N. resolution in January tightening sanctions against the country and has used harsher-than-normal tones against Pyongyang.