Is it China’s Turn to Pivot?
Image Credit: White House

Is it China’s Turn to Pivot?


If 2010 was the year China made a series of strategic and tactical moves to strengthen its position in East Asia, 2011 saw the region push back.   

Nobody knows this better than Beijing.  At the recently concluded East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, China was literally ambushed by the United States, which skillfully coordinated a pushback against China’s assertiveness on the South China Sea.  Except for Burma and Cambodia, every other country present at the summit, including Russia, implicitly criticized China’s stance on the South China Sea and called for a multilateral solution, which China has consistently opposed.

The bad news for Beijing actually preceded the Bali summit.  The United States and Australia announced an agreement to open a new U.S. Marine base in Darwin, in a move clearly intended to signal to China that, despite its budgetary woes, Washington would double down on its military presence in the region. 

Then, as if to show China that it has a few more cards to play, the Obama administration announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would soon be paying a historic visit to Burma to encourage its military junta, which is taking tentative but promising steps toward a transition to democracy, to continue the course.  Should the U.S.-Burma rapprochement bear fruit, Burma could be freed from China’s orbit.

Taken together, these three developments have put the United States back into the driver’s seat in East Asia, while China has clearly suffered the most serious strategic setback in the region in years. Some in Beijing may naturally want to push back against the United States’ reassertion of its power in East Asia.  But any steps in that direction will certainly escalate tensions with Washington while leaving China further isolated.

A more sensible approach is for China to fundamentally alter its thinking on East Asian security and take concrete steps to regain its diplomatic initiative. China should start with an overall reassessment of U.S.-China relations.  Obviously, the rare geopolitical fortune China has enjoyed in East Asia since 9/11 is gone and America’s resolve to keep East Asia as one of its top strategic priorities is bound to give China a great deal of discomfort.  However, equating recent moves by Washington, consequential as they are, as decisive steps toward “containing” China would be exaggerating their importance, reading too much animosity into U.S. intentions, and ignoring the Obama administration’s careful balancing act. (Chinese leaders should note that Barack Obama reiterated, at the East Asia Summit, the U.S. policy of engagement with China.)

The middle course between a U.S.-China partnership and outright U.S.-China conflict is a managed U.S.-China competition.  There’s no denying that, unless China’s one-party regime becomes a liberal democracy, the United States and China won’t be able to build mutual trust.  The Chinese Communist Party’s existential fear of democracy makes it view the U.S. as a political threat, while America’s fundamental rejection of the legitimacy of authoritarian rule means that Washington will regard a powerful one-party regime in China as a security threat.  The lack of trust may make cooperation difficult, but doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict.

So, as China’s ascendance and America’s relative decline continue, these two great powers, though economically interdependent, will continue to compete for geopolitical influence.   Managing this competition, rather than denying it, is the most challenging task for both Washington and Beijing in the coming decade.

Of course, managing competition requires both countries to rethink their current approach to each other.  For China, this involves abandoning its long-held strategy of “befriending afar and attacking near” – or yuanjiao jingong.  In the past four decades since Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, Beijing’s grand strategy has been to pivot its foreign policy, correctly, on a stable and cooperative relationship with the United States.  But Chinese leaders haven’t been able consistently to follow a complementary and productive regional strategy that would allow China to leverage a stable and cooperative U.S.-China relationship in reconstructing East Asia’s security order.  Beijing’s conventional wisdom, if not wishful thinking, has been that a good U.S.-China relationship will give China greater leverage in dealing with its neighbors.

Ma Ai-mu
January 25, 2012 at 14:23

Beijing should go to war and emove the Hanoi reime and replace it with a friendly one. Then let’s see what all these garbage commentators have to say. And don’t blame us. We only did what your idol – the U.S. – have been doing for decades.

Ma Ai-mu
January 25, 2012 at 14:19

Ha Ha!. I like that. Good one, Liang1a.

December 4, 2011 at 07:13

The 2 of you are stating a lot of nonsenses.

>>>“Taiwan must trade because it does not have all the advanced technologies and has little or no resources. Mainland China on the other hand has everything it needs from food to energy to high technologies”.

Taiwan: GDP per capita of 23K$ (2009) , a GINI of 0.33, compared to
Mainland China: GDP per capita of about 4,000$ and a GINI >0.47

Sure Taiwan’s trade-to-GDP ratio is 150% (3 times of China’s 50%), But so what? Which is surviving and which is giving its people the highest standard? Which has high educated population and high productivity?

>>>“ Taiwan is weak and has a lot of shameless Japanese wannabe and American lackeys, of course they are gutless to defend Chinese heritage.”

Taiwan’s population is composed of 98% Han !!

shen liang
December 4, 2011 at 03:43


“Not that I do not have the facts, but I would rather save them for more deserving minds.”

掩耳盗铃 Just make sure you return the bell!

“Does it serve any purpose telling an over-zealous evangelical Christians that religious fanaticism is bad?”

Probably not. But obviously it doesn’t serve a purpose to tell supporters of all things CCP that they are subservient. Nor does it serve a purpose, obviously, to debate history with them. For they see history and politics in quasi-religious terms, as faith rather than fact based. (It’s a deranged form of Marxist utopianism, in case you want to know)

@John Chan

“This article is about how China should move forward from now on. How can you get into ranting about Korea War with all those stories fabricated thru thin air is puzzling.”

Since lws (and later you) turned to the Korean War to show how China was going to have to teach those people a lesson, obviously you are being mischievous again, Mr. Chan.

“China pushed US led aggressors all the way back to 38th Parallel, subsequently there is no war between China, USA and the Koreas up to now is a fact, unless you have been living in the Cuckoo land.”

Not only does this not respond to the comments I made on the effect of the Korean War on China’s internal politics and the disasters that followed, you don’t even believe it is a fact yourself. You have acknowledged, haven’t you, that the Chinese fought the US in Vietnam and have had to struggle against (obvious) CIA involvement in Tibet, haven’t you? You do realize the Korean war hasn’t officially ended, don’t you? As I said, considering what happened to China between the Korean War and the reestablishment of relations with the US, only a fool would think engaging in a completely unnecessary and unprofitable war and creating a powerful enemy was a positive. North Korea has done nothing for China except be an embarrassment. Chinese soldiers were chopped to pieces. China pursued a rampant and feckless strategy to “spread the revolution”, becoming an interventionist. And all of Mao’s worthless babble against the US came to ridiculous fruition by Dengxiaoping studying from the US in order to lift part of China’s citizens from the horrific poverty into which the CCP had thrown them.

With respect to the war itself, you don’t show much knowledge of the events, though you do manage to work in an “aggressors“ charge against the US despite it being a war they did not begin (I know we are taught otherwise in China)! Of course, the battle wasn’t simply fought by China in the North. China relied on extensive Russian air support throughout the war. More importantly, the North Koreans had initially pushed US and South Korean forces back to Pusan, only to be subsequently routed. Certianly the same thing shouldn’t have happened to Chinese soldiers, because they were thoroughly dug in, but they were facing the same logistics problems the North Korean soldiers faced previously. Perhaps, when you consider how angry Pengdehuai was, far graver. And it is worth noting that after the fifth phase offensive, UN forces had already extended their lines considerably beyond the 38th parallel in the central and eastern parts of Korea. If the US wouldn’t have reined in its generals from bombing the supply lines and potentially other parts of China, it would have been disastrous.

“CIA incited dictator Suharto to carried ethnic genocide against Chinese for the vengeance of humiliation in Korea under the cover of purging communist.”

The CIA did provide a list of 4000 people who had worked to support the communist rebellion. For this they should be condemned. If you have a source which proves the list was exclusively restricted to Chinese, please share it.

While the CIA does deserve ample blame for providing a list to a killer, nothing was as important to Chinese being targeted as China’s involvement and provision of arms to PKI rebels. This is fact and it is finally starting to receive greater attention. Here is another source:

“Anyhow your stance is dictatorial, because you insist only you have the truth, it is a trait of dictator and autocrat. In a democratic world, people opposing freedom of speech like you is automatically deemed demon, evil and immoral.”

You are very funny and small, John Chan. It’s a sad thing when someone who claims anything published by “Westpac” which disagrees with China’s official consensus on history is mendacious, when someone like that pretends he understands what freedom of speech means. It is not me who “have the truth”; I’m just not as conveniently cynical and benighted as you. I don’t deny evidence on a whim, and I offer it when asked.

December 3, 2011 at 17:45

@shen liang

Here it goes, the whole shouting match starts. Not that I do not have the facts, but I would rather save them for more deserving minds. Does it serve any purpose telling an over-zealous evangelical Christians that religious fanaticism is bad? Yawn! Yawn! I am going to bed. No more response from now on. THE END. 唱衰中国, 天塌不下来 (China would not collapse just because you wish ill of it)!

December 3, 2011 at 15:40

To the-diplomat moderator:

Can you please do a better job of moderating your comment forums?

I am shocked that a professional ezine would allow uncivil discourse – especially that fails to support statements with nothing more than blustering nationalism and Wikipedia comments –

I would advise all of you to read this:

What is most interesting about it is that the author rejects both the American and Chinese histories concerning Sino-American relations. It is a well researched academic piece that has stood up to challenges by both Chinese and American academics (challenge as in when someone writes such a piece, they consult with academics on both sides of the issue to ensure their research and assertions are sound). It would serve both sides of this supposed debate to read it.

December 3, 2011 at 15:07

OK – I have to cut in here – if you use Wikipedia as a source, you lose a huge amount of credibility.

I find discourse interesting, but lets use peer-reviewed, or at least independent organizations (i.e. NOT the People’s Daily, or the U.S. DOS web site) to support your facts.

Those of us who do work in academe would be laughed out of our respective schools of learning if we ever even attempted to use those types of sources –

So clean it up and use real facts to support your arguments. Otherwise, you make yourself look amateurish and a mouthpiece at best.

Henry Nguyen
December 3, 2011 at 14:49

John Chan:
Imperialistic is when China uses 1000 years old map ( that no country recognizes ) to claim the whole SCS for itself. Imperialistic is when China used forces to take Paracel islands in 1956/1974 and Spratly islands in 1978 from Vietnam. Imperialistic is when Chinese navy sinking Filippino and Vietnamese fishing boats, trying to make a living in their ancestorial water.

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