Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Problem with America's "Pivot" to Asia

America's so-called "pivot" to Asia has gotten much attention here in the States and worldwide. The pivot seemed to signal that Washington was done obsessing over the Middle East; instead, now it was going focus on the rise of China. Ostensibly, the goal of the pivot was to counter China's dominance in its own region and to strengthen America's strategic hand vis-a-vis China. Given the rocket-like ascension of China on the world's stage, Washington's shift in foreign policy priorities makes sense.

What is less clear is whether the policies underpinning the pivot are the right ones. To be frank, there's been little discussion about this in the academic and policy arenas. Which is unfortunate, because the pivot could lead to a host of important consequences, some of which are quite undesirable for the U.S, for Asia, and for the entire international system.

Traditionally, America has dealt with China, and the entire region, for that matter, through a series of policies termed "hedged integration." Put simply, hedged integration has consisted of two parts."First, U.S. has tried to envelop China in a web of interdependencies via a host of bilateral and multilateral ties. The prevailing wisdom is that these ties, mostly though not exclusively economic in nature, will make it too costly for China to wreck relations with the U.S. and other countries in Asia." But as a back-up plan, just in case these linkages don't lock in the type of behavior and policies that Washington prefers, the U.S. "has created, sustained, and enhanced security relations with many Asian countries. After all, consider the following. The U.S. has thousands of troops in the region, is a major supplier of arms and defense capabilities, and has good military contacts with its counterparts in Asia. This is the coercive element to America's approach to China and is done to keep China in check."

America's new posture vis-a-vis Asia does contain elements of economic and diplomatic interdependence. There has been an active diplomatic front, as evident in America's engagement in Asean, Apec, and the East Asia Summit, among other forums. And yes, economic ties remain important to Washington's relations with Asia. As Kenneth Lieberthal points out, "in early November 2011 [the U.S.] finally achieved ratification of the free trade agreement with South Korea, and it then...turned its focus to developing the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] as a new trade and investment platform in the Asia-Pacific." And economic issues, most notably trade and investment, dominated Hillary Clinton's visit over the last two weeks to such places as Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Japan.

All of that said, it's becoming clear that beefed up military and security ties really are the main thrust of America's pivot. Team Obama has signaled that it will shield America's security commitments in Asia from any defense cutbacks. The U.S. announced the creation of a new military base in Darwin, Australia, where 2500 marines will be stationed. Washington is actively looking to tighten military and security ties to Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines. Furthermore, the U.S. is considering returning to military bases in Thailand and Vietnam.

In early June, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta delivered a revealing address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a yearly meeting of senior level defense officials from Asia-Pacific countries. According to James Holmes:
Panetta used his bully pulpit to reaffirm American resolve in maritime Asia. Despite budgetary headwinds, he said, Washington will "rebalance" forces to keep faith with regional allies like the Philippines. It will remain the self-appointed guardian of the regional commons -- the seas and skies beyond the jurisdiction of any coastal state, where seafaring nations carry on commerce and project military power. Now as for many decades, command of the commons is the substructure on which U.S. strategy is built.

Panetta also boasted that America's next defense budget will be "the first in what will be a sustained series of investments and strategic decisions to strengthen our military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region." And that "Over the next few years, we will increase the number and the size of our exercises in the Pacific."

Holmes further commented that:
[T]he big news was in the numbers the defense secretary affixed to his remarks. By 2020, he announced, "the Navy will reposture its forces from today's roughly 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers ... a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships [LCSs], and submarines." The navy's goal is to field "about 300" battle-force ships total, slightly more than the current 285-ship inventory. Panetta's plan thus equates to reassigning around 30 ships to the U.S. Pacific Fleet over the next eight years.
The emphasis on enhanced security and military relations is a problem. It is provocative to Beijing, particularly right now, as China enters a sensitive transition in political leadership. China could very easily, and arguably already does according to some accounts, interpret America's moves as an effort to muscle and intimidate it on its own turf. This is very risky, on a number of levels.

It risks making china feel like its being encircled and contained. It risks causing Beijing to speed up its military modernization program. It risks triggering even more Chinese assertiveness in the region. It risks ratcheting up Sino-American tensions. It risks emboldening American allies like the Philippines to take more confrontational economic, diplomatic, and security positions against China. And it risks creating security dilemmas.

Worst of all, America's approach is unnecessarily risky. Yes, I understand the idea of preparing now for China's rise. And sure, I realize that China's actions in its backyard, especially in the South China Sea, has unnerved neighboring countries. But let's be clear here: China, right now, is not a threat to the world order nor to the U.S.

China largely supports the status quo, though there are exceptions to be sure, precisely because it has profited so much from existing institutions, rules, norms, etc. And while competition and rivalry between china and the U.S. are on the rise, as expected, there are no signs of heated tension and hostility between both sides. Despite the worries of some in the military, policy circles, and academia, who fear the emergence of a new cold war, there is no reason to assume that Sino-American relations will dramatically sour over time. Historically, China is not an expansionist power and has demonstrated some but not many traces of overt military aggression.

In my view, in rolling out the pivot, the U.S. should have implemented a more evenly balanced approach that relies on both liberal and hardline, coercive diplomatic tools. Certainly, I am not suggesting that Washington roll over in the face of increasing assertiveness from Beijing and China's rapidly expanding economic and military power. In fact, the U.S. should publicly reaffirm its commitments to its friends and allies in Asia, like South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. And sure, wooing emerging powers like India is also a good move. Additionally, devoting more diplomatic time and effort to Asia seems smart. But I do not recommend the U.S. publicly emphasizing its shift in military and security strategy in the region. And I find the base in Darwin a dubious move. The base won't have enough assets and resources to do much other than to send a combative signal to China.

The pivot should contain more elements that aim to bind China to the existing international order and to America itself. By continuing to expand the number of interests that China has at stake in the U.S. and in the current international order, and, as a corollary, by raising the costs to break these relationships, Washington can protect against any temptations Beijing might have to significantly alter the status quo. This approach also helps to ensure that America continues to work within, and reap benefits from, the international order it has created over the past 67 years.

Toward this end, the pivot ought to have broached issues that the U.S. and China already has a host of shared vested interests in: trade, finance, currency manipulation, the stability of world economy, debt, economic growth, and so on. Here's one idea: perhaps it is time to consider moving beyond the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which was launched in April 2009, to a more formal G-2, a form institutionalized cooperation between China and the U.S. that's much more rule-bound and organized than what exists nowadays. Such a mechanism could be both a problem-solving and a cooperative-building entity, both between China and the U.S. and between the G-2 and the rest of the world. After all, consider that a G-2 can link itself to other economic and strategic organizations and institutions worldwide.

Yes, there are potential problems here. I don't doubt that other countries won't like this proposal, as it can create the feeling of being pushed aside, as the U.S. and China begin to exert leadership over various world issues. I'm also not sure that, at the moment, China wants to call itself, and thereby attract attention, as one of the two most powerful countries in the world. It has tended to approach its rise in an almost stealthy way, seeking to fly under the radar. That's one of the reasons Beijing elites stopped referring to their country's "peaceful rise." They worried that any phrase or term that explicitly alluded to China's rise would worry, if not scare, foreign countries.

But upside of a G-2 could be huge: tighter bonds between China and the U.S., greater leadership and management in world, and maybe even a solid foundation for a concert-based system in the future.

Here's another thought. More recently, so as to dampen the potential for regional conflicts, the U.S. has called for the start of a dialogue on a comprehensive code of conduct for the South China Sea, one that was supposed to begin earlier this month at an East Asia Summit meeting between Asean countries and several Asean partners including China. Washington has expressed a strong desire for China participate in these talks, which could start later this fall. However, it remains to be seen whether China will actually involve itself in the process.

Washington's call is a good one, but has come way too late. And quite frankly, if it was serious about exhibiting leadership in Asia, the U.S. probably should have taken the initiative rather than wait for Asean to get the ball rolling on the manifold South China Sea problems. More to the point, America ought to have broached the idea when it initially rolled out the pivot. Such a move would have shown all countries in the region, including China, that conflict resolution is high on Washington's agenda. Now, it looks like an afterthought, secondary to America's desire to dominate the region.

For now, the U.S. can still play a productive role. I believe Washington should flesh out its call for a code of conduct. It might be best to situate the code of conduct within a larger institutional setting, one that gathers all the countries with vested interests in stability in the region and has formal organizational structures and capacities, including a staff, a budget, routinized international meetings, a charter, an early warning monitoring system, mechanisms to punish undesirable behavior, and mediators empowered to assist in working through all the thorny territorial and waterway claims.

While it would be great if all relevant and concerned countries, especially China, signed on to such a proposal--and that's no guarantee, given Beijing's insistence on settling the claims bilaterally, not multilaterally--the U.S. could still gain important benefits even if they don't. This kind of proposal, with specifics and details, would signal to countries in Asia that America is very serious about seeing the South China Sea disputes get resolved peacefully.

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