With U.S. President Barack Obama returning to the United States from a highly touted trip to the Asia-Pacific, almost as much is being made of what didn’t happen as what did. Specifically, analysts have noted China’s muted response to various U.S. criticisms and initiatives including over China’s currency, the announcement of a new basing agreement with Australia and questions over China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
In a week that saw the United States make significant headway in gaining traction for the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, namely getting a Japanese commitment to take part in talks, the United States has managed to underscore how serious it is about refocusing its attention on the region.
China, meanwhile, has remained uncharacteristically quiet. During the week leading up to the ASEAN and East Asia summits in Bali, China issued little in the way of a formal response as the United States moved to what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as “pivot” to the Pacific. The U.S. commitment was underscored by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who said that any budget cuts will not affect America’s commitment to the region.
According to one commentator, China has engaged in a round of “turning the other cheek.” The question many are now asking is: why?
“I'm not sure it’s so much ‘turning the other cheek’ as an uncertainty about how to respond to being continuously on the back-foot in this setting, not only with the usual suspects of the Philippines and Vietnam bringing up the South China Sea, but now also with Australia allowing U.S. troops at Darwin and the Singapore deployment,” says Kelly Currie, a China expert at the Project 2049 Institute.“Their situation keeps eroding at the East Asia summit, and once again the United States has been skillful in picking up on it and positioning to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, the tendency in Beijing is to blame the U.S. for this state of affairs rather than examine how their own behavior is at work in causing it.”
“Since the last time this happened in summer 2009, the Chinese responded with a lot of anger and I think they’ve seen that this did not work well for them at a strategic level, even if it played well at home,” Currie says. “So, I think they are in a period of trying to figure out what strategy is going to work, and that is why their response has seemed muted.”
Regardless, some analysts have argued that China’s quiet response, and its apparent acceptance of the need to discuss the South China Sea dispute at the regional level – something it has previously strenuously resisted – marks a significant diplomatic victory for the United States. Others, including China specialist and University of Miami professor June Teufel Dreyer, aren’t so sure.
“That depends on some positive result coming from the discussion,” she says. “When I was on the USCC (United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission) bureaucrats were always saying ‘we have engaged them [Chinese authorities] in dialogue,’ as if they believed dialogue was a synonym for success. Which it is not. Sometimes it is a stalling technique, to play for time while one solidifies one’s position into a fait accompli.”
“It can also be a gesture intended to win over public opinion – ‘see how reasonable we are? We have agreed to talk.’ After which, it’s easy to make some plausible sounding condition that is nonetheless going to be unacceptable to the other side.”
It’s a view echoed by Tran Huu Dung, a Vietnam watcher and professor at Wright State University.
“I don't think the fear of Chinese aggressiveness can be easily tempered by a temporary softening of its voice,” he says. “Many believe that this is only a tactical retreat, and only in diplomatic posturing at that.”
Harry Kazianis is assistant edtor of The Diplomat.