Is it China’s Turn to Pivot?

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Is it China’s Turn to Pivot?

The U.S. ambushed and isolated China at the East Asia summit. If China wants to recover it needs to manage its competition with the United States – and not scare its neighbors.

If 2010 was the year China made a series of strategic and tactical moves to strengthen its position in East Asia, 2011 saw the region push back.   

Nobody knows this better than Beijing.  At the recently concluded East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, China was literally ambushed by the United States, which skillfully coordinated a pushback against China’s assertiveness on the South China Sea.  Except for Burma and Cambodia, every other country present at the summit, including Russia, implicitly criticized China’s stance on the South China Sea and called for a multilateral solution, which China has consistently opposed.

The bad news for Beijing actually preceded the Bali summit.  The United States and Australia announced an agreement to open a new U.S. Marine base in Darwin, in a move clearly intended to signal to China that, despite its budgetary woes, Washington would double down on its military presence in the region. 

Then, as if to show China that it has a few more cards to play, the Obama administration announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would soon be paying a historic visit to Burma to encourage its military junta, which is taking tentative but promising steps toward a transition to democracy, to continue the course.  Should the U.S.-Burma rapprochement bear fruit, Burma could be freed from China’s orbit.

Taken together, these three developments have put the United States back into the driver’s seat in East Asia, while China has clearly suffered the most serious strategic setback in the region in years. Some in Beijing may naturally want to push back against the United States’ reassertion of its power in East Asia.  But any steps in that direction will certainly escalate tensions with Washington while leaving China further isolated.

A more sensible approach is for China to fundamentally alter its thinking on East Asian security and take concrete steps to regain its diplomatic initiative. China should start with an overall reassessment of U.S.-China relations.  Obviously, the rare geopolitical fortune China has enjoyed in East Asia since 9/11 is gone and America’s resolve to keep East Asia as one of its top strategic priorities is bound to give China a great deal of discomfort.  However, equating recent moves by Washington, consequential as they are, as decisive steps toward “containing” China would be exaggerating their importance, reading too much animosity into U.S. intentions, and ignoring the Obama administration’s careful balancing act. (Chinese leaders should note that Barack Obama reiterated, at the East Asia Summit, the U.S. policy of engagement with China.)

The middle course between a U.S.-China partnership and outright U.S.-China conflict is a managed U.S.-China competition.  There’s no denying that, unless China’s one-party regime becomes a liberal democracy, the United States and China won’t be able to build mutual trust.  The Chinese Communist Party’s existential fear of democracy makes it view the U.S. as a political threat, while America’s fundamental rejection of the legitimacy of authoritarian rule means that Washington will regard a powerful one-party regime in China as a security threat.  The lack of trust may make cooperation difficult, but doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict.

So, as China’s ascendance and America’s relative decline continue, these two great powers, though economically interdependent, will continue to compete for geopolitical influence.   Managing this competition, rather than denying it, is the most challenging task for both Washington and Beijing in the coming decade.

Of course, managing competition requires both countries to rethink their current approach to each other.  For China, this involves abandoning its long-held strategy of “befriending afar and attacking near” – or yuanjiao jingong.  In the past four decades since Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, Beijing’s grand strategy has been to pivot its foreign policy, correctly, on a stable and cooperative relationship with the United States.  But Chinese leaders haven’t been able consistently to follow a complementary and productive regional strategy that would allow China to leverage a stable and cooperative U.S.-China relationship in reconstructing East Asia’s security order.  Beijing’s conventional wisdom, if not wishful thinking, has been that a good U.S.-China relationship will give China greater leverage in dealing with its neighbors.

What such thinking ignores is that Chinese neighbors, out of fear of a powerful China unconstrained by an offshore strategic balancer such as the United States, will only grow more afraid of China as it rises, and move closer to the United States.  Good U.S.-China relations rarely confer any real advantage to China in managing its contentious ties with its neighbors.  The only possible exception was the last decade, when China invested enormous efforts in improving ties with the ASEAN and South Korea.  And the results speak for themselves – China had the best relations with most of its neighbors while U.S.-China relations were stable as well.

What this example illustrates – and China’s recent setback in the region shows – is that China must re-pivot its foreign policy by focusing on its neighbors and calming their fears.  Without necessarily downgrading its relationship with the United States, China can alter East Asia’s geopolitical dynamics significantly if it modifies its long-standing grand strategy and make it “befriend near before befriending afar.” 

This strategic adjustment requires, first and foremost, that China resolve its territorial disputes expeditiously.  These festering disputes are antagonizing Japan, Vietnam and India and making them eager partners of a potential anti-China coalition.  The same disputes also raise regional fears about China’s future intentions and have motivated ASEAN, a longtime neutral third party, to join the fray on the side of the United States.

Another crucial step China needs to take quickly is to become more proactive on security issues.  This can be accomplished by more high-level and more substantive engagement by the Chinese military in regional security dialogue, greater military transparency, moderation in its military modernization program, more frequent exchanges between the Chinese military and its counterparts in the region, and experimental regional initiatives to maintain collective security (such as maritime security and humanitarian relief). 

Such measures of strategic reassurance may not dispel East Asia’s fears of China overnight, but they will go a long way toward demonstrating, through action and commitments, that China has a new grand strategy that ties China’s security inseparably with that of its neighbors.

As for the U.S.-China strategic competition, Beijing’s adjustment in its regional strategy, peaceful, multilateral, and constructive, will unlikely intensify its structural rivalry with Washington.  Instead, as the United States is also a Pacific power, China’s new Asian strategy will reduce potential points of friction with the United States and create several multilateral venues where China and the United States can manage their competition more effectively.

Of course, whether a one party regime known for its political paranoia can pull off a feat of such strategic dexterity and sophistication is anybody’s guess.  It’s up to Beijing to prove its skeptics wrong.