“Pivots” and Great Powers – From One Side

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The ASEAN meetings last week – and especially the debate – or non-debate as it turned out over territorial challenges in the South China Sea, raised again the question of the US-China relations.  Secretary Clinton expressed publicly again the US position that the territorial disputes among ASEAN members and China needed to be addressed in a “multilateral setting” while China was equally firm that the matter should not even be on the agenda for the ASEAN Ministerial. Though discussed openly by various ASEAN members, the ASEAN ministers were not able to issue a joint communique at the conclusion of the meeting  – the first time in 45 years that such a failure had occurred.

The US-China relationship is the key to stability or instability in the region – and indeed beyond.  As I was thinking about this key bilateral relationship I eyed – and was impressed with – an analysis of China’s strategic concerns in the NYT by Minghao Zhao on July 12 (“The Predicaments of Chinese Power”).  Aside from the evident quality of the article, I was struck by the fact that Minghao Zhao is a research fellow at the China Center for Contemporary World Studies apparently a think-tank of the International Department of the Central Committee of the CPC.  So the NYT is not a usual place for a researcher of his sort to place an op-ed piece.  I will get to this article and the implications for China’s strategic policy but I thought I’d start with the US position.

Now the Obama Administration has signaled – since at least the Honolulu APEC Leaders Summit last year – that with the winding down of US efforts first in Iraq and now Afghanistan – that the United States was back in Asia.  The United States was rebalancing (various terms have been used – the most notable “pivot”)  its strategic efforts from the Middle East  to Asia.  As an example of this rhetorical shift, assess these words from President Obama before the  Australian Parliament on November 17, 2011:

For the United States, this reflects a broader shift.  After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.  In just a few weeks, after nearly nine years, the last American troops will leave Iraq and our war there will be over.  In Afghanistan, we’ve begun a transition — a responsible transition — so Afghans can take responsibility for their future and so coalition forces can begin to draw down.  And with partners like Australia, we’ve struck major blows against al Qaeda and put that terrorist organization on the path to defeat, including delivering justice to Osama bin Laden.

This rebalancing has become know as America’s Asian or Pacific “pivot” – though it is interesting that in the various speeches and press conferences that Obama gave at the time around November 2011 he never referenced the term “pivot”.  But the media has picked it up from others including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who used it in her “America’s Pacific Century” article in November 2011.  At the conclusion she wrote:

This kind of pivot is not easy, but we have paved the way for it over the past two-and–a-half years, and we are committed to seeing it through as among the most important diplomatic efforts of our time.

More recently Robert Merry, the editor of the well-known National Interest, writing a book review for the New York Times’s David Sanger’s newest book Confront and Conceal (in last week’s, July 15, 2012) New York Times “Book Review” Section provided a cogent assessment of Sanger’s – and I suspect his own –  “temperature-taking” of the US-China relationship:

With regard to China, Sanger sees a possible “Thucydides trap” (Sanger earlier made clear that he is taking the term from Graham Allison the former Dean of the Kennedy School) – a reference to the the Greek historian’s narrative of the clash born of Sparta’s fear of Athens’s growing military might.  “We are seeing similar themes today,” he writes, adding that what some perceive as mounting nationalistic fervor in China could lead Beijing to underestimate the American response to Chinese adventures in the South China Sea.

So let’s focus briefly on the “Thucydides trap” and the “pivot” in US strategic policy.  As to the Thucydides Trap, Sanger has the best assessment.  In his NYT January 22, 2011 piece “Superpower and Upstart: Sometimes It Ends Well”  this what Sanger wrote:

Or ask Thucydides the Athenian historian whose tome on the Peloponnesian War has ruined many a college freshman’s weekend.  The line they had to remember for the test was his conclusion: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” … Both Mr Hu and President Obama seemed desperate to avoid what Graham Allison of Harvard University has labeled “the Thucydides Trap” – that deadly combination of calculation and emotion that, over the years, can turn healthy rivalry into antagonism or worse.

The so-called pivot has raised concerns that in fact the US actions may feed the Thucydides trap.  Part of the issue is of course that in the face of a growing fiscal crisis with budgetary cuts likely to be enacted after the election – no matter who wins – that this presentation of a US pivot to Asia is overreach.  While Chinese behavior might be constrained and even constructive in the near future, this would only be likely if Chinese leaders were persuaded that the US had a coherent Asia strategy that is viewed as credible and widely accepted.  That is hardly yet the case.  Indeed many in China have commented on what appears the growing crisis in the US and the decline in the US.  This rather pessimistic view of US leadership and the pivot in policy leads the perception that the Obama administration is long on rhetoric but no strategic policy is likely to be forthcoming.  In fact the rhetoric has fed the view by many in China that US policy remains committed to dominance and a continuing effort to pospone the day of China’s successful rise.  As Ken Lieberthal in his insightful piece in Foreign Policy argued, the pivot impacted in the following way:

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 rise.

If, and it is a big if still,  were China’s leaders to conclude that US policy in Asia was a direct challenge to China’s rise and designed only to contain China, then it does seem to set up that poisonous brew that can indeed turn “healthy rivalry” into growing antagonism and even confrontation in Asia.  This would be very bad.

So where is Chinese leadership on its relationship with the United States?  I’ll be back with that shortly.



Image Credit: circleofblue.org – President Hu and President Obama 2011





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