Features | Security | East Asia

Can China Crash U.S. Pivot Party?

The United States is working hard to recalibrate its national security strategy with an Asia-Pacific focus. If China can act boldly, it has multiple avenues for countering it.

Harry Kazianis

For the past several months, the United States has been busy promoting its “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions.  Free from conflict in Iraq, and with the winding down of its involvement in Afghanistan apparently accelerating, the U.S. now has more freedom to focus its strategic muscle on this dynamic part of the world. Through pronouncements in the press, and with some carefully crafted diplomatic and strategic jockeying, the United States is gradually reasserting itself in the region.

Such a shift is no surprise to anyone who has been following recent geopolitical events. Militarily, the United States made its intentions clear in the 2007 Maritime Strategy report under the George W. Bush administration.  While still engaged in two wars in the Middle East, U.S security planners were still crafting a change of strategy well before the withdrawal of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan had been finalized.

In March 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all but declared that a new game was afoot. “We are in a competition for influence with China,” she told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Let’s put aside the humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in. Let's just talk straight realpolitik. We are in competition with China.”

Such a shift makes sense for a number of reasons. The Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions are home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies. With America’s precarious economic position, gaining access to such markets offers the prospect of more American jobs and a boost to a still sluggish economy.

But it’s hard to escape the reality that China is the key reason for the U.S. refocusing. With the United States having spent the better part of the last decade fighting conflicts in the Middle East, China has meanwhile gone to great lengths to enhance its strategic position in East Asia. Beijing has steadily increased its armed forces budget over the last decade. With its advances in anti-access weapons and asymmetrical arms, U.S. forces are, according to one scholar, “On the wrong side of physics.”  While U.S. military forces outgun their Chinese rivals, recent studies suggest China’s military budget will double by 2015, meaning a China-centric strategy makes sense.

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Still, it’s important not to overstate the speed with which the U.S. pivot – and the associated China concerns – have taken place. The fact is that U.S. -China tensions aren’t exactly new. Indeed, seemingly lost in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks is the fact that the United States and China faced off in the Taiwan Strait in 1996 and in 2001 over an aircraft collision near Hainan Island. In The Diplomat last May, Frank Ching correctly pointed out, “Bush himself had already repudiated the Clinton administration’s policy of forging a strategic partnership with China, calling Beijing a strategic competitor, rather than a strategic partner.” Several days after the return of its EP-3 surveillance crew, the U.S.  offered Taiwan a massive arms package. With tensions brewing “shifts in attitudes in both nations seem to be pointing to a showdown.”

So how could – and should – China respond?  Beijing certainly has a number of diplomatic, military and strategic tools at his disposal if it wishes to negate U.S. plans, and Beijing policymakers must be prepared for any flare-ups over Taiwan, the South China Sea or on trade issues.

A good start would be for China to rebuild goodwill with its neighbors by showing some flexibility over regional disputes. Above all, China would do well to consider a multilateral framework to resolve the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  With significant natural resources and fishing rights at stake, every nation in the region has an interest in resolving such issues peacefully. China would be much better served by rethinking its expansive claims and committing to a peaceful negotiated settlement to all outstanding issues. China could also strongly suggest, via diplomatic channels that extend beyond current measures in place, that claimant nations do more to explore the joint development of important natural resources in disputed areas. Some progress has been made here, but all claimants deserve to know how much potential wealth there is beneath the sea, and how much it would cost to develop such resources. A carefully crafted and clear strategy could win China key allies in the region.

One of the reasons many in the Asia-Pacific welcome the U.S. pivot is the ambiguity of Chinese intentions. Beyond the eloquent but often meaningless pronouncements of a “peaceful rise,” a lack of transparency, especially over the military, leaves diplomats in the region wondering about China’s real ambitions. China’s neighbors look at new weapons platforms such as aircraft carriers and anti-ship missiles and court the United States as a balancer to complement their own military capabilities. Beijing could ease tensions by boosting the exchange of military officers with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, and conducting joint military operations. Nothing creates a sense of stability and reassurance like transparency.

Attempts must also be made to reduce tensions with China’s largest regional competitor, India. Beijing could start by launching a serious diplomatic effort to engage India in resolving long standing border issues that have plagued relations for far too long. This may mean China taking the initiative with New Delhi. Progress has been maderecently, but with India seemingly moving to upgrade its military capabilities and considering eyeing closer relations with the United States, it’s in China’s own interests to show that New Delhi doesn’t need to turn to the U.S. for support. If this means downgrading its “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan, then so be it.

But China should also look outside the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific region to ensure the U.S. pivot doesn’t turn into encirclement. Robust support of Europe in its time of crisis would be a useful step, and while Chinese investment in places like Africa and Latin America is controversial, it is often far more complex than portrayed in the Western media.

So far, Chinese leaders have only paid lip service to assisting Europe. But how could China come to the EU’s aid? Fareed Zakaria has an interesting idea on this very issue. “The International Monetary Fund could go to the leading holders of such reserves – China, but also Japan, Brazil and Saudi Arabia – and ask for a $750 billion line of credit. The IMF would then extend that credit to the troubled EU economies, but insist on closely monitoring economic reforms, granting funds only as restructuring occurs,” he argues. “That credit line would more than cover the borrowing costs of both Italy and Spain for two years. The IMF terms would ensure that the two nations remained under pressure to reform and set up conditions for growth.”

So where does China fit in exactly? “(Now), the Chinese would have to devote at least half the funds. What's in it for them? A new global role. This could be the spur to giving China a much larger say at the IMF. In fact, it might be necessary to make clear that Christine Lagarde would be the last non-Chinese head of the organization.” 

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Leading a rescue package for Europe would grant China a greatly enhanced global role no military advances or diplomat maneuvers could supplant, while helping to safeguard one of its largest markets would help underpin China’s economic growth.

Still, China is understandably unlikely to abandon its military advances in favor of diplomatic praise. With this in mind, though, it would be best served by focusing its military capital on further developing its Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy. Dedicating massive financial recourses to second-hand aircraft carriers with limited capabilities, or creating new carries that will take years to develop, could eventually look like an expensive folly compared to an effective and focused A2/AD strategy. China’s resources would be better served further creating and developing capable and ultra quiet next generation Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) diesel submarines for deployment in and around Taiwan and the South China Sea and fully developing anti-ship ballistic missile technology like the DF-21D.

A focus on A2/AD tactics and weapons, combined with the natural advantages of fighting in its home territory, is already proving a challenge to U.S. strategists with naval forces invested in increasingly vulnerable carrier battle groups. With America looking to cut its military budget and still maintain significant forces in the Asia-Pacific through operational concepts like “Air-Sea Battle,” just being able to afford to stay the course may be China’s best military strategy.

All this is easier said than done. But steps such as reining in the country’s self-defeating propaganda machine, including jingoistic op-eds in the Global Times, would cost little – ifChina is to respond to international concerns, then it needs to utilize all means at its disposal, and that doesn’t just mean hardware or even diplomats. Catchphrases like “mutual interest” and “peaceful rise” are no longer convincing (if indeed they ever were) and need to be retired.

China has many potential tools with which to negate the U.S. strategy. Deploying and sticking to such a approach will be a challenge for sure, especially with the coming transition to a new generation of leaders later this year. China may or may not aspire to global leadership – the burden of leadership is never easy to bear after all. But if it wants to avoid being encircled by the United States’ deft pivot to the region in the long run, then it would be well-advised to undertake a comprehensive revamp of all tools at its disposal, however hard that might feel in the short term.