Three years into the Obama Administration, the United States changed their China policy from what had been dubbed “strategic reassurance” to the now familiar “Asia pivot.” The latter may better reflect American security interests in East Asia but not necessarily improve its economic relationship with what is now the world’s second-largest economy.
The policy of “strategic reassurance” was carried over from the Bush Administration which, through engagement, had tried to persuade China to act as a “responsible stakeholder” in the world system. Thomas Wright wrote at The Diplomat two years ago that it reflected Barack Obama’s multipolar views. The United States bothered less with criticisms of China’s economic protectionisms and human rights abuses in order to achieve a “concert of powers,” according to Wright, that was “based on the underlying assumption that the world’s major powers ultimately share the same threats and interests — tackling terrorism and pandemics, ensuring economic instability and preventing nuclear proliferation.”
Economic historian Niall Ferguson had described the phenomenon as “Chimerica,” or “the partnership between the big saver and the big spender.” Neither, he believed, could benefit from a disruption in that highly symbiotic relationship.
But Wright argued that, far from accepting partnership, “China became far more antagonistic and assertive on the world stage” as a result of the perceived weakness on the part of the United States. It expanded its revisionist maritime border claims in the South China Sea, engaged in a major spat with Google over Internet freedom, obstructed climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, questioned American economic leadership and tried to water down sanctions against Iran over its suspected nuclear activities. It has since similarly blocked United Nations action against Syria.
In the security area, then, “strategic reassurance” accomplished little. In the economic realm, writes Aaron L. Friedberg in Foreign Affairs magazine, engagement has similarly failed to deliver the hoped for financial and trade liberalization. China’s leaders “have largely accepted some form of capitalism in the economic sphere,” he admits, but “they remain committed to preserving their hold on political power.”
The Communist Party’s legitimacy in recent decades has largely been derived from continued economic expansion. As long as it built homes, created jobs and caused incomes to rise, the people were content to accept the party’s monopoly on power. As growth slows, that monopoly could be in peril. Hence the resistance to further liberalization which at least part of China’s leadership considers not conducive to growth, rather a threat to it.
Discord in the Sino-American relationship is exacerbated by China’s sense of insecurity. To properly understand the Chinese fear of encirclement, remember the Cuban missile crisis fifty years ago this month. Imagine the Chinese said that America couldn’t have hegemony in the Caribbean; that it not only had a string of allies across the regions but soldiers permanently stationed in different Central American republics and was regularly patrolling the Caribbean Sea with warships.
Yet that’s what the Americans are doing in East Asia. As Wikistrat‘s Thomas Barnett pointed out in Equire last year, the United States are selling weapons “at a record pace to every neighboring state, conducting joint naval exercises right off China’s coast and, you know, openly planning to bomb the breadth and length of the Middle Kingdom.”
In other words, America “pivoted” to Asia. The reason is, as Friedberg points out, that there is “a fundamental divergence of interests” between the two powers.
What China’s current leaders ultimately want — regional hegemony — is not something their counterparts in Washington are willing to give. That would run counter to an axiomatic goal of US grand strategy, which has remained constant for decades: to prevent the domination of either end of the Eurasian landmass by one or more potentially hostile powers.
His advice is therefore that the United States bolster their military presence in East Asia to check Chinese ambitions and reassurance not policymakers in Beijing but American allies in the region. That may work to stave off Chinese hegemony in East Asia but Friedberg also points out that China doesn’t necessarily differentiate between commercial and security interests. A hostile American military posture in the region will likely affect transpacific trade relations.
The United States cannot simultaneously “strategically reassure” China and “pivot” to its neighborhood. The Obama Administration has chosen to prioritize security over trade. Regardless of whether this was the right choice to make, Americans should be aware that a choice has been made.