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

America Cannot ‘Lead From Behind’ in Asia


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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October 16, 2012 at 00:24

I think America very scream about China to be world lear, so America very scream,with china and how to soving fear with china?

October 15, 2012 at 12:00

and yet you conveniently forget your own history, that what you call "China" has indeed existed since 4k years ago; as an empire that split into warring states, and was not re-unified until 210BCE, and then spit apart again, and was not re-united on a permanent basis until the Yuan Dynasty; what you now call Xinjiang was only briefly the territory of the Han, and then was controlled as a military protectorate by the Tang Dynasty, then forced to provide taxes and troops by the Yuan dynasty in return for limited autonomy. It was then lost until the Qing re-conquered it at the  beginning of the 17th century. Tibet wasn't added until the Yuan Dynasty, added by the Mongols as they passed through; this was, for all intents and purposes, a puppet government meant to serve the interests of the Yuan Dynasty. The Qing retook the area from local government in 1724, and did much the same, basically making the area into a colony, though it would not be formally added as a province until 1910! So, no, these are decidedly not your ancestral territories; they are colonial conquest, pure and simple, and should be treated as such by the rest of the world.

October 15, 2012 at 11:35

@Bankotsu "China is the same China that has existed for 4k years"
as i said, that does still not excuse the imperialist, hegemonic behavior, nor the resurrection of empire that the PRC now attempts; your government does not have valid claim to the conquests your emperors made, no matter how it tries to validate them, and especially not if it doctors maps to do so. And the comparison is apt; for it amounts to the same thing: a modern government that claims lineage from an ancient and proud empire now attempts to use that history to validate the conquest and subjugation of other nations, even if it does not yet have the ability to do so. This says nothing of the brutality of that empire in and of itself, as Charles mentioned.

red flag
October 15, 2012 at 00:46

That means China must give back Manchuria, Mongolia, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, Yunnan, Xinjiang, Tibet etc. back to the peoples they have longed to. Oh, how greedy & foolish is commie China!

October 14, 2012 at 17:28

"because the Roman empire once conquered france does not mean that Italy can now do the same"
I reject this comparsion betwen Rome and China.
France is not the roman empire. But China is China. It is the same China that has existed for 4000 years.
"other peoples during the establishment of the Ming and Qing Dynasties"
Ming and Qing is too short. Why not start in Qin or Han? The fact is that China has been here longer than any other people or state in the region. China came first, followed by the other states, This is a historical fact.

October 14, 2012 at 02:12

aye, border wars; wars aimed at "reclaiming" the territory that had been conquered from other peoples during the establishment of the Ming and Qing Dynasties; just because the Roman empire once conquered france does not mean that Italy can now do the same; just because China once received tribute from those territories does not mean that it can justly reclaim them through war.

October 14, 2012 at 02:04

The Chinese are doing these things only because American companies are colluding, Paul.
My point is that there's no reason to believe that China, if it becomes dominant regionally or globally, will behave any more responsibly than any other superpower. I have nothing against the Chinese. I believe that if American corporations behaved more responsibly, China would never have risen as precipitously as it has.
The trailer of Death by China looks like an attempt to blame problems on them that we, ourselves, helped to create. It also looks like crude chauvinism. Just sayin'. 

October 13, 2012 at 12:49

Compared to the U.S, the list is short. And China's wars are all mostly border wars, defensive wars, wars to secure chinese territory. They are not imperialist wars at all.
War in Korea? Border war as U.S was moving into North Korea and maybe into Manchuria.
War with India? Border war. War with Vietnam? Border war. War with Soviet? Border war. War over some small islets in south china sea? Maritime border war.
We don't even need to talk about Tibet as Tibet is chinese territory and not an independent state as protrayed in some western propaganda.

red flag
October 13, 2012 at 00:21

How about Commie China, Bankotsu? Korea War 1950,  Tibet 1950, war with India 1962,  with Soviet Union 1969, Paracels 1974, with Vietnam 1979, Spratlys 1988,  etc. A long long list!

October 12, 2012 at 22:36


October 12, 2012 at 15:34

I actually agree with most of your post here, but the major exception of disagreement with your assertion that maintaining a system of stability in which free trade can flourish is an "imperial mentality."

October 12, 2012 at 14:41

having read some of Friedberg's previous work (Hegemony with Chinese Characteristics), i whole heartedly agree. Best of all, however, i like the summary of China he makes in that article, where he notes, quoting journalist Martin Jacques,that there is 
"…an overwhelming assumption on the part of the Chinese that their natural position lies at the epicenter of East Asia, that their civilization has no equals in the region, and that their rightful position, as bestowed by history, will at some point be restored in the future."
another one i like is an analysis of Chinese military Strategy, specifically that of the Ming Dynasty by Alastair Iain Johnston, who found that the Ming became more military aggressive when they had the advantage in strength, and when that strength waned, they became more prone to less coercive methods. For proof that this is still the case, one need look no further than China's incidents with Vietnam and the Philippines, where it either actively assaulted the territories it wanted to claim, or cordoned them off with disguised paramilitary vessels, knowing that world opinion would turn against the one who fired the first shot. Another is the Senkaku islets, where China attempted to use a fleet of several hundred fishing boats paid by the government to attempt to cordon off the area……..examples such as these effectively toss any notion of a "peaceful rise" out the window; China is not rising, rather, it is attempting to return with all due haste to the position it occupied between 500 and 1840 AD, the position of an authoritarian tributary empire. This is why it is making its claims to the South and East China Seas; China doesn't just want the resources, it wants to use the islets to create a "great sea wall" to keep any "barbarians" who would interfere with "domestic issues", otherwise known as the "righting of historic wrongs", out of the area. It is no surprise, then, that Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and the Philippines–among others–are looking for american reassurance on such matters.

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