America's Pivot: One Big Contradiction
Image Credit: Official White House Photo (Flickr)

America's Pivot: One Big Contradiction


Particularly among Asia scholars, there is broad support in Washington for a pivot to Asia in general, and U.S. China policy in particular. Unfortunately, there are two central flaws in U.S. Asia policy that promise big problems for America down the road.

The first problem is that Washington cannot figure out what it wants from China. Washington supports engaging China economically, and even takes credit for China’s economic growth. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “China has prospered as part of the open and rules-based system that the United States helped to build and works to sustain.”

At the same time, Washington is ringing China with an array of bilateral alliances and partnerships, all of which are more or less anti-China. It is not paranoid for Chinese to view this as a policy of military containment. When pressed on the containment question, U.S. policy officials offer absurd responses like that from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in June of last year. According to Panetta, the pivot “is not about containment of China.” Rather, Panetta stated, "it is about the challenge of humanitarian assistance and needs; the challenge of dealing with weapons of mass destruction that are proliferating throughout the world; and dealing with narco-trafficking, and dealing with piracy; and dealing with issues that relate to trade and how do we improve trade and how do we improve lines of communication."

Would any American accept such a rationale for China deploying 60 percent of PLAN assets to the Western Hemisphere? Dealing with humanitarian assistance and needs, stifling nuclear proliferation, suppressing narco-traffickers, and dispatching pirates do not require more than half the U.S. Navy. Even Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state, knows this is nonsense: “When the administration says it’s not about China, it’s all about China. China knows this.” If the success of America’s Asia policy relies on Chinese elites believing our official rationale, the policy is in trouble.

But the more basic problem is that economic engagement is working at cross purposes with military containment. If Washington isn’t comfortable with a more powerful China demanding a greater say over Asian security issues, making China wealthier by trading with it doesn’t make much sense. By the same token, if Washington supports the robust trading relationship that helps narrow the relative power gap between the two countries, why contain it, especially considering that the trading makes the containing costlier?

When I have raised these concerns with U.S. policy officials, they brush off the reasoning as crude and simplistic, but they have little response beyond that. A normal formulation is that America welcomes a “strong, responsible, and prosperous” China that plays a “constructive role” in world politics. “Responsible” and “constructive” go undefined in these responses, however, negating much of their value. Would a responsible China demand control over its sea lines of communication? Would it be constructive for China to continually escalate its demands on Taiwan for reunification?


[...] the United States government attempts its “Pivot to Asia” by strengthening military alliances with democratic and (contrary to the official portrayal of [...]

[...] If Washington isn’t comfortable with a more powerful China demanding a greater say over Asian security issues, making China wealthier by trading with it doesn’t make much sense. [...]

[...] the United States government attempts its “Pivot to Asia” by strengthening military alliances with democratic and (contrary to the official portrayal [...]

Brett Champion
February 28, 2013 at 08:34

An alternative explanation for the pivot is that the move is aimed at helping China's peaceful rise as opposed to being a sign of American unease with it. A stronger American presence will help to reassure China's neighbors that if China's rise does turn nasty, the US will be there to help. This would hopefully reduce the desire of China's neighbors to align against it more forcefully than what the US has so far done, which should reduce the risk of conflict breaking out in the region.

February 4, 2013 at 07:20

@John Chan
You may be interested to know that Chinese economic organizations, AKA businesses, are investing abroad.  Not just in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but also in Europe and North America.  There are all kinds of good business reasons people do that, and perhaps you will come to accept it as productive and normal rather than exploitative and evil.

February 4, 2013 at 07:15

Interestingly, history did not play out that way in 1950 when the US Viceroy in Tokyo initiated war on China.  Despite that the US Embassy was still open, that US businesses in China were still operating, that the US had not recognized Chiang Kaishek in Taipei, General MacArthur directed the fleet to blockade Chinese ports, he withdrew the US Embassy and warned all US citizens to get out fast. 
Does this make one wonder what might happen if there's a next time?  Doncha just love it when everybody loses?

February 3, 2013 at 03:42

See my earlier comments which are appropriate responses to yours.

February 3, 2013 at 03:31

Again, most commentators are ignorant of history and the facts. Way back in the late 60's and the 70's,U.S. manufacturers were seriously looking into using more and more automation for the production of labor-intensive goods, because fewer and fewer American workers were willing to do that kind of work (except for illegal immigrants).There were plans for fully automated factories that eliminated cafeterias, restroom and workers so there was no need to pay for worker healthcare, worker vacations, pensions and fringe benefits. The factories would operate 24/7 with minimal heating, cooling and lighting requirements. Manufacturers then discovered that the cheap labor in China was even more economical, not to mention the huge potential market for the goods in China itself. These were the main reasons "jobs" moved to China. Now they are moving to even lower cost countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, etc. and will eventually move to sub-Sahara Africa.

February 3, 2013 at 03:15

It seems to me most of the commentators are so ignorant of the reality and facts. Nations trade with China because they see the huge market potential in China with its 1.3 billion population. This is why the U.S. and European countries forced open (by military means) the Chinese market, starting in the 18th century! One only has to look at General Motors and Apple today to see how profitable those companies have been with their manufacturing and sales in China. American and other foreign countries manufacture products in China primarily with the hope of selling much of those products in China with its huge population (therefore consumers).
There is gross ignorance of the fact that although Japan spends a small percentage of their GDP on their military, they have been spending a steady, consistent amount year after year, whereas  the PRC started with a very low base. The result is that , although the PRC defense budget has finally surpassed that of Japan's, the cumulative expenditure will not catch up with that of Japan for many more years and she will not catch up with the U.S. cumulative military expenditures for several decades. This fact has allowed Japan and the U.S. to accumulate military equipment, infrastructure and military bases (U.S. bases) that cannot be matched by the PRC for decades if ever.

February 2, 2013 at 16:04

It's a long shot for sure, and has very little chance of working.  But think about how the government could advertise that to the Chinese people:  "Weak Japan needs China's help, and because we are magnanimous and forgiving, we will protect our backward Japanese friends.  Oh by the way, we're doing this also because America is weak and can't protect their own friends anymore". 
I think a lot of hypernationalist Chinese would eat that right up.  It would be like occupying Japan without firing a bullet.  And on the Japanese side, they couldn't care less.  If China wants to waste money on guns and ships, let them do it.  Japan can spend more on quality of life things, and at the end of the day if China tried something fishy, there are many countries who would aid Japan directly, or shun China.

Andrew Dewitts
January 31, 2013 at 21:26

Spot on.
The whole world should forget about America or that a country called the USA exists at all.
They, only contribute negatively to the world and mostly in term of toxic sub prime financial products, cooked up by devious Wall Street cheats! Besides selling these toxic waste and jet airliners and weapons of mass destruction and perhaps some agricultural products, what else do they sell??
And pensioners all over the world saw their life long saving disappeared in the financial tsunami created by them in 2008. So,  I say, forget about them and lets get on with our lives, for goodness sake!

January 31, 2013 at 21:10

Pity all the Stephens in the world…… no jobs, got no monies,very soon even your pensions and health care will disappear!
We Chinese don't care about selling to you guys anymore, as I say, no money no talk and other markets are beckoning!
Blame all your politicians generals and admirals for wasting trillions upon trillions of good monies in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of investing it in job creations, manufacturing and infrastructure renewal. Want China to build bullet trains for you guys, dream on my friends.

January 31, 2013 at 09:43

@vulgor schnecte
………………..good point. part of the frustration (and fear) on my part which gets translated into my comments is that in a very real way, the PRC and the USA are distorted reflections of one another in terms of notions of cultural position as well as their legacies. So, when all the PRC or HK posters on here lambast the U.S and etc, my thought is "how can you say this when you are doing just the same as us, and repeating our mistakes? what happened to being the "light of civilization"?"

Vulgor Schnecke
January 31, 2013 at 05:08

@ ACT and nirvana:
THe examples you give are correct. However there are two things I would like to adress:
1) All these actions and PLA generals talking, just to point out, there are hawks everywhere, heck, the US military is full of hawks too. Just because a general says something, does that mean its the official goal of the country?
There is this common misconception that China is this big, well oiled machine where everything marches to the beat of the drum of CCP. When you look longer and more closely at Chinese politics and especially foreign policies you will see that China is highly federal in the sense that provinces have a lot of power. Even if the Politbureau wants to make something happen, the Provinces usually have had a lot of say in the process or sometimes simply dont carry out orders from Beijing. Secondly, there are many who argue that China doesnt have a coherent strategy when it comes to foreign policiy. Heck, the foreign minister is under the jurisdiction of the minister of state and basically has little power. Same goes for Generals, who cant do anytrhing without Politbureau approval. Quite frankly, China's foreign policy is just an exntension of its domestic policy. It doesnt really have a masterplan to overthrow the current system and take revenge for 160 years of Western insult. Here is a short but interesting read from a study done by the London School of Economics.

2) Delusion of Grandeur: I dont like this word simply because it implies a moral supremacy of the accuser. Whether you think what CHina does is right or wrong is one thing, but calling it delusional is ill-placed. In the end what China is doing is simply Power Politics. Exactly the same the US has been doing for the last 50 years.
Heck, what about the Monroe Doctrine that basically claimed all of Latin America as the USA's backyard? Invasion of the Panama Canal 1989? All the wars the US has started wihtout UN approval (3rd Gulf War) or even against the ruling of the UN?All the governments overthrown or removed during the Cold War due to fear of these governments becoming communist. Come on, if China's behaviour ( drawing new lines on landmaps, strong use of political language, sending fishing boats to Japanese waters), then what do you call the USA's behaviour in the past 50 years.
Again, im not saying that the USA is/was bad and China can just do the same thing. What im trying to say is if we judge, we should judge equally with the same standards.

Again, Im not saying the USA or China did or are doing are wrong or right, its just pure plain simple Power Politics. But accusations of of having delusions of grandeur is ill-placed.

Vulgor Schnecke
January 31, 2013 at 04:43

I completely agree with you on this one. I was just stating what the situation is like, it not my personal statement or how things should or shouldnt be. I used the term "production capacity flexibility" not as en euphemism, but simply as a common economics term, since we were talking abou economics. If someone wants to bring in a moral/ethics/emotionalo discussion, thats something else entirely. We shouldnt get these mixed up though, because if we dont stick to one clear line, we're just gonna be shouting at each other like mad dogs(like some people on this forum are aready doing, aint that right Jean-Paul and John Chan?)
Is the work being in done in China questionable? Dang right it is, but after all its the "greed" of capitalism so to speak that creats this situation. Capitalism is about profit. Do I think capitalism is bad? Certainly not, but it could sure do with a bit of social structure and moral values behind its economic train of thought, and there i absolutely agree with you.. But Im afraid that we wont see this change too soon in the US, especially when I look at the discrepancy regarding social safety nets(such as Obama Care) between Democrats and Republicans. Even if you start talking about a bit of government interference in what Republicans regard as free markets, they start shouting socialism..but im getting off topic…
As for the question if it is morally inacceptable to produce in China especially when looking at cases such as Foxconn? To be honest, yes and no. It is inacceptable when people are basically regarded and treated as stock, machine parts whcih can be exchanged and laid off and whatever else you can think off. It is morally questionable. On the other hand, and this is something many people dont realise who have never been to countries like China, there is the fact a lot of those factory workers cant get a better job than for example at FOxconn. Its either no job=no income=no life, or maybe going back to being a farmer, which in recent years hasnt been much better than being unemployed and homeless.
Do the workers deserve to be treated better? Heck yeah. But unless the thinking in the US about pure free market capitalism and in China about corruption and social inequality change, not much will change about this whole trade situation in general, especially when it comes to these low income jobs.
 I just feel like theres too much USA hating or China bashing going on simply because its easy to do. I just wanted to point out that theres always 2 sides to a coin, and that a sword is double-edged.

Kim's Uncle
January 31, 2013 at 03:51

Funny how international leftists complain so mightily about how the US uses its military to end tyrany n destroy tyrants like Saddam Hussein n the Taliban but still countries feel secure enough to seek and maintain an alliance with the US! In contrast no country in Asia is seeking an alliance with a nazi wannabe regime of china? In contradicts the argument that somehow the US is an outlaw country seeking to dominate others by military means. The people who feel threaten by US military might are the very same freaks who would sympathize with Saddam Hussein and the Taliban and al Qaeda.

January 31, 2013 at 03:10

@Nguoi Phan Bien
unless this
"I don't usually agree with John Chan but I will give him the credit for not being pretentious; unlike his opponents who are literally morons but are often delusional enough to think they know something."
was meant as the purest form of sarcasm, i have not yet found your reply to John Chan, Nguoi. Please tell me how I–or anyone else on this forum who bothers to come well informed–could possibly be a moron; i am not an academic, and i post on here out of interest, not because i cannot get published. That said, i am well informed; i read multiple news articles and journals on the situation, and i have (shock!) bothered to read Noam Chomsky for his analysis of similar situations. I have also read several academic journal articles on the subject. Again, please explain to me how commenting on the situation, or bringing up notable points of hypocrisy when John Chan et al. claim that China is right, and that its truth should be the only truth, is in any way moronic? For that matter, do tell me how attempting to slander every pro-western poster makes you in anyway better than those who you fail at attempting to debase? you have only proven your final comment to Vulgor about the internet being a breeding ground for insular thinking that much more true.

Nguoi Phan Bien
January 31, 2013 at 01:25

@Kim's Uncle, Jean Paul and ACT

You guys can't even read English properly. Go back and read my original post re: John Chan again and you will realize what an —– you are. You fit perfectly the type of people that I described.
And Kim's Uncle, you call me; a graduate of Truong Vo Bi QG Dalat a Viet Cong? LOL. I was fighting the Commies in all kinds of battlefields when you were still in your mom's womb. That's why I have such a disdain for armchair pundits.

Questionable Honorary "Whites"
January 30, 2013 at 13:56

Ever question why japan is considered 'part" of the West?  Ever considered too, why Turkey" is considered "part" of Europe?  The answer is simple.  It is to divide the East Asian tribe.  To ensure they do not unite.  They understand the foibles and vanity of human nature.  So the same with Turkey and their Muslim tribe.  Meantime when East Asia remains divided, the US and West Europe rules.  Imagine how powerful a potential enemy the East could become with their population, economic and military might if united.  Which is why Washington seeks to "pacify" – read bully and cow – and contain the biggest potential Eastern threat of all – China.  Tell me, isn't it all about power and glory ultimately?  Amerikan power and glory, that is.

January 30, 2013 at 09:42

That's odd… If you're in China, wouldn't you need VPN to get around the Golden Shield Project? Are you implying that everyone who has a computer can get a VPN that easily? Despite strict government controls?

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