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?