America Cannot ‘Lead From Behind’ in Asia

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America Cannot ‘Lead From Behind’ in Asia

Amidst warnings that America’s ‘pivot’ could trigger greater tensions, a softer ‘rebalance’ is now in vogue. It may make matters far worse.

In early September, as Bill Clinton wowed the crowd at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, his wife was facing a smaller and less appreciative audience in Beijing.  The Secretary of State had come to China with soothing words and appeals for cooperation.  Seeking to downplay talk of an escalating Sino-American rivalry, she told a conference of smaller island nations where she stopped en route that “…after all, the Pacific is big enough for all of us.”

Her hosts were not convinced.  Washington should “stop its role as a sneaky troublemaker” stirring up tensions between China and its neighbors, advised an article in the government-run news agency.  While her official welcome was somewhat more cordial, the Secretary of State achieved no discernable progress on a range of outstanding issues, including the civil war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Clinton’s journey to Beijing is emblematic of a third shift in the Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to craft a sustainable China strategy. At the time of her first visit in January 2009, Secretary Clinton suggested a “re-set” of sorts, similar to the one she sought with Russia. Henceforth, she declared, the United States would not allow differences over human rights to interfere with cooperation in addressing other pressing issues, including climate change and the global economic crisis.  Perhaps reading them as a sign of weakness, Beijing responded to these overtures by taking a harder line in its dealings with both the United States and its Asian neighbors.  This tendency was most evident in the East and South China Seas, where China sought to reinforce its claims to control over islands and resources.

To its credit, the Obama administration eventually responded in kind.  Starting in 2010 the administration changed course and began to make a series of highly publicized statements and gestures intended to underline America’s continuing commitment to Asia. Much to Beijing’s annoyance, the U.S. inserted itself in ongoing maritime disputes–reiterating its interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and offering to play a mediating role.  Officials also announced that the United States would, in the words of Secretary of State Clinton, “pivot” towards Asia, bolstering its military presence there even as it cut overall defense spending.  The symbolic peak of the pivot came in November 2011, when the President toured the region, stopping in Australia to announce the impending deployment of a small number of U.S. Marines.

In recent months, however,Washington has subtly tacked back towards a more accommodating stance.  Amidst warnings from some China watchers that the pivot had deepened distrust and could trigger a competitive spiral, the Obama administration has looked for ways to soften its tone and reassure Beijing about its intentions. Muscular, martial rhetoric has been replaced with the bland language of accounting. Instead of “pivoting” dramatically towards Asia, government spokesmen now characterize their actions as “rebalancing” America’s strategic portfolio.  Indeed, in recent months, the term “pivot” appears to have been banished from the Obama administration’s official lexicon.

Having sought at first to stiffen their spines, Washington now aims to put some distance between itself and its allies in Asia, reminding them that it takes no stand on the ultimate resolution of their maritime disputes with China.  A striking case in point is the administration’s repeated refusal to clarify whether it would come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of an attack on its forces in the South China Sea.

Following the departure of Secretary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also made the trek to Beijing in September.    Like his counterpart, Panetta’s goal was to convince his hosts that, in the words of a skeptical article in the People’s Daily, the “strategy of ‘rebalance’ in the Asia-Pacific region is not directed against China.” Towards this end the Defense Secretary invited the Chinese navy for the first time to send a warship to participate in an upcoming multinational exercise.  Using a formulation that is certain to furrow brows in foreign ministries across Asia, Panetta declared that the United States wanted to see China “expand its role in the Pacific.”

The latest shift in U.S. strategy is premature and could prove counterproductive.  As the reception accorded Secretary Clinton suggests, China’s leaders are in no mood to be placated. If they believe Washington’s renewed appeals for cooperation to be sincere they likely see them as signs of temporary weakness.  Under the circumstances Beijing has every incentive to play hard to get, demanding that the U.S. take concrete steps to show its good intentions and alleviate the tensions for which it is allegedly responsible.

The danger here should be obvious: as it seeks to soothe Beijing, the administration risks undermining much of what it has already accomplished.  Other Asian nations have no desire to be caught up in a new cold war, but they are also deeply fearful of being left alone to confront an increasingly powerful China.  The point of the pivot was to reassure them that, despite its present difficulties, the United States is not going to pull back and abandon them to their fates.  While they have generally welcomed recent signals of American commitment, many regional observers remain unconvinced that the United States has the will or the wallet to follow through.  Impending defense budget cuts and indications that, after a few months of tough talk, Washington is already prepared to soften its stance towards China can only reinforce these doubts.

As China grows stronger other countries are going to have to work harder to preserve a balance of power that safeguards their interests and helps keep the peace.  Taken together, the United States and its Asian friends and allies have more than sufficient means to maintain such a balance.  But if Washington wants others to do their part it needs to stand firm in its dealings with Beijing.  Even more important, it needs to make costly, long-term investments in the military capabilities that will be needed to counter China’s own.  When it comes to Asia, the United States does not have the option of leading from behind.


Aaron L. Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. His most recent book, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, is now available in paperback.  His essay “Bucking Beijing: An Alternative U.S. China Policy,” appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs.  From 2003 to 2005, he served as a Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs in the Office of the Vice President.