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Obama’s China Re-Balancing Act

The US must be careful not to make China feel like it is being contained. A mix of co-operation and balancing is a much better course.

By Thomas Wright for

Over the past two years, the United States has deepened its strategic engagement in Asia to balance China’s more assertive foreign policy and its military modernization, both of which have rattled the region. This balancing has included developing new strategic partnerships with Vietnam, Indonesia, and India, deepening existing alliances with South Korea, Australia, and Japan, pressuring China in multilateral forums, and taking steps to maintain US force projection capabilities.

As a strategy, balancing reassures US allies and partners in Asia, but it also runs a risk –executed poorly, it could make rivalry with China a self-fulfilling prophecy. Balancing against China could empower hardliners in Beijing who argue that they can’t trust the West and discredit those who favour a prudent and cautious foreign policy. Yet failure to balance would tell the hardliners that they can pursue a revisionist foreign policy without resistance from the United States – hardly a recipe for stability. This is the balancing dilemma – how to deter a competitor from a revisionist foreign policy without discrediting those individuals who seek partnership with the West.

Take the growing tensions and competition in the South China Sea as an example. In China, it’s widely believed that Vietnam, the Philippines and others are stoking rivalry around disputed territories to get the United States to balance China now before Beijing is strong and confident enough to resist. As the US responds, China worries about encirclement and containment. This perception provides hardliners with a powerful argument – only a tougher, anti-western line can stop a strategy of encirclement before it’s too late. On a recent trip to China, I heard some foreign policy analysts express considerable concern that this argument could resonate with an increasingly nationalistic population, particularly in a crisis, and lead to a shift toward the hardliners.

However, the United States can’t just maintain the military status quo. US balancing is in response to a noticeable shift in Chinese defence and foreign policy. Chinese military modernization, such as the development of its ballistic missiles, puts major US bases at risk. Reform of the US force posture, including the dispersal of US forces throughout the region, is necessary simply to maintain the credibility of US commitments in Asia. Avoiding such reform might appear to be the status quo, but in reality it would severely undermine it.

However, even if the current strategy is defensible, the dilemma remains. To understand how the United States can balance China while avoiding unintended consequences, it’s necessary to draw a distinction between two types of balancing strategies.

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The type of balancing, known as containment, that the United States engaged in during the Cold War was aimed at weakening its adversary. Containment’s key political objective was to sow the seeds of discord within the Soviet Union so it would ultimately collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. The United States sought to delegitimize the Soviet Union, isolate it, weaken it economically, and undermine it from within. Only Nixon demurred, accepting the right of the Soviet Union to exist as an empire. Containment was a form of cold warfare. The ultimate goal was victory and transformation of the international order.

The second type of balancing is to preserve the equilibrium. This strategy accepts the right of a rival to exist and even prosper, as long as it does so in a manner consistent with the status quo. This type of balancing characterized most of 19th century European statecraft. States competed with each other, often sought an upper hand and strategic advantage, and occasionally fought. But they always seek to preserve the basic shape of the state system and ensure that its member states enjoy stability, peace, and the recognition of their legitimate interests. This type of balancing was almost entirely absent during the Cold War, save for a brief period of détente during the Nixon administration and at the end of the Reagan administration.

Americans, and others, often conflate balancing with containment, but the Obama administration’s effort in the Asia-Pacific is a marked departure from Cold War strategy. Instead of weakening China, the United States is responding to the risks posed to US bases by Chinese military modernization and to requests from the rest of the region to bolster the geopolitical status quo. It’s designed to prevent fundamental change to the order. While balancing China, Obama has also deepened the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and sought to integrate China into international institutions. China has a legitimate concern about containment, but balancing to preserve the equilibrium poses much less of a threat to it and may even offer an opportunity.

The problem is that in their early stages both strategies look alike. If American intentions change, the equilibrium approach could also morph into containment. This is why the United States ought to take steps now to ensure that its balancing strategy sticks to, and is perceived by China as sticking to, the preservation of the equilibrium. The United States must avoid containment or any perception that containment is the end goal. The key to this approach is to marry balancing with a renewed commitment to economic cooperation with China, showing that the United States supports Chinese prosperity. This would demonstrate that the goal is not to weaken China, but to foster an environment in which peaceful and mutually beneficial co-existence is possible.

What does all of this mean in practice? On the one hand, the United States must deepen its strategic engagement in Asia to respond to the changes in China’s defence and foreign policy. It should insist on the peaceful and multilateral resolution of territorial disputes. It must support democratic states and human rights to prevent regional backsliding. It should guarantee freedom of navigation and protect the autonomy of its partners and allies. Most importantly, it must maintain the credibility of US power that underwrites the order as a whole, which will entail deepening alliances and developing new strategic partnerships.

At the same time, the United States should continue to maintain neutrality in territorial disputes. It should not seek to overthrow the Chinese regime nor should it embark upon a long term campaign to de-legitimize it. It should encourage greater Chinese participation and influence in international institutions. And, above all, the United States should cooperate with China to promote a healthy global economy.

This distinction between the two types of balancing should encourage China to pursue a moderate foreign policy while also hedging against a turn for the worse. It demonstrates that Washington will respond if China upsets the existing order, but it also rules out any action designed to weaken China as a nation. It is also consistent with the fact that both countries are interdependent and rely upon each other to solve common challenges, including the international financial crisis, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. Meanwhile, Chinese moderates can argue that if China moves toward a truly revisionist foreign policy it runs the risk of triggering a US shift toward containment, thus strengthening their own position.

US-China relations are entering a competitive phase. The key challenge for Washington and Beijing is how to compete responsibility so they can avoid a dangerous era of instability and preserve the cooperation necessary to tackle shared problems. Unfortunately, America’s Cold War experience doesn’t provide much of a road map. Responsible competition requires moving beyond the recent past and rediscovering a more nuanced approach to balancing.

Thomas Wright is an adjunct lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. His writing has appeared in the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, the Washington Quarterly, Survival, Orbis, the American Political Science Review, and other publications. He can be reached at [email protected] and on twitter @thomaswright08.