America's Pivot to Asia: A Report Card  (Page 4 of 6)

3. Building a Stable and Constructive Relationship With China

This is the square peg that won’t quite fit into round holes of Washington’s Asia policy: the Obama administration wants the pivot to encompass better relations with China, and yet the pivot is the one policy that annoys China more than any other. In its newly released Defence White Paper, Beijing again criticised the U.S. rebalancing, which it said was making the situation in the region “tenser.”

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Nonetheless, China has now had time to evaluate the U.S. policy, and to see that its military elements are not all that far-reaching. RAND’s Harold reckons that China is gradually coming to accept that the pivot is not all about containing China’s rise. “Yes, the U.S. trying to shape the environment, but that’s not containment,” he says. “Having policies that are different from China’s is not containment.” The U.S. has generally avoided angering China by intervening in its territorial disputes, and high-level visits like that of General Dempsey and John Kerry will increase trust. Inviting China to the RIMPAC exercises in 2014, as well an Australian push for trilateral exercises involving China and the U.S., will also be beneficial.

Points of friction will inevitably remain, such as cyber issues and currency values. But the elephant in the pivot-room is that China and the U.S. are still competitors in too many areas. The American vision of an Asia-Pacific is one that China simply does not share. China is not interested in championing the region’s democratic institutions, for example. It feels excluded from U.S. programs, and instinctively leans towards competing with U.S.-led initiatives rather than joining them. “My impression is that PACOM in particular is making a great effort to develop cordial relations with the PLA,” argues Huxley, “but then it comes back again to that one contradiction: PACOM’s force structure is being enhanced, U.S. forces are rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific – and the question has to be balancing against what?”

So while the U.S. can certainly forge a better working relationship with China, the very nature of the pivot may preclude the constructive relationship which Washington seeks.

Policy Area Progress Rating: 5/10

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