America Cannot ‘Lead From Behind’ in Asia
Image Credit: U.S. State Department (Flickr)

America Cannot ‘Lead From Behind’ in Asia

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In early September, as Bill Clinton wowed the crowd at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, his wife was facing a smaller and less appreciative audience in Beijing.  The Secretary of State had come to China with soothing words and appeals for cooperation.  Seeking to downplay talk of an escalating Sino-American rivalry, she told a conference of smaller island nations where she stopped en route that “…after all, the Pacific is big enough for all of us.”

Her hosts were not convinced.  Washington should “stop its role as a sneaky troublemaker” stirring up tensions between China and its neighbors, advised an article in the government-run news agency.  While her official welcome was somewhat more cordial, the Secretary of State achieved no discernable progress on a range of outstanding issues, including the civil war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Clinton’s journey to Beijing is emblematic of a third shift in the Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to craft a sustainable China strategy. At the time of her first visit in January 2009, Secretary Clinton suggested a “re-set” of sorts, similar to the one she sought with Russia. Henceforth, she declared, the United States would not allow differences over human rights to interfere with cooperation in addressing other pressing issues, including climate change and the global economic crisis.  Perhaps reading them as a sign of weakness, Beijing responded to these overtures by taking a harder line in its dealings with both the United States and its Asian neighbors.  This tendency was most evident in the East and South China Seas, where China sought to reinforce its claims to control over islands and resources.

To its credit, the Obama administration eventually responded in kind.  Starting in 2010 the administration changed course and began to make a series of highly publicized statements and gestures intended to underline America’s continuing commitment to Asia. Much to Beijing’s annoyance, the U.S. inserted itself in ongoing maritime disputes–reiterating its interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and offering to play a mediating role.  Officials also announced that the United States would, in the words of Secretary of State Clinton, “pivot” towards Asia, bolstering its military presence there even as it cut overall defense spending.  The symbolic peak of the pivot came in November 2011, when the President toured the region, stopping in Australia to announce the impending deployment of a small number of U.S. Marines.

In recent months, however,Washington has subtly tacked back towards a more accommodating stance.  Amidst warnings from some China watchers that the pivot had deepened distrust and could trigger a competitive spiral, the Obama administration has looked for ways to soften its tone and reassure Beijing about its intentions. Muscular, martial rhetoric has been replaced with the bland language of accounting. Instead of “pivoting” dramatically towards Asia, government spokesmen now characterize their actions as “rebalancing” America’s strategic portfolio.  Indeed, in recent months, the term “pivot” appears to have been banished from the Obama administration’s official lexicon.

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