The Debate

The Problem With the Pivot: Part 1

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The Debate

The Problem With the Pivot: Part 1

A critical look at Kurt Campbell’s historical case for the U.S. pivot to Asia.

The Problem With the Pivot: Part 1

A group of Russian soldiers in China as part of the Eight-Nation Alliance force during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

Credit: Imperial War Museum, U.K.

Contrary to much political rhetoric, the United States has not always been a Pacific power. Not until the War of 1898, when the U.S. annexed the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii, did it have significant footholds in the Pacific. Not until the Isthmian Canal was opened in 1914 was there a smooth path for two-way trade and naval power projection. Not until after the World War I was the U.S. Fleet moved to the Pacific, and not until 1940 was the fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor for a long duration. Finally, it was not until Deng Xiaoping’s era of reform and opening up that the China market — after two centuries of expectation — finally proved that its potential could be actualized. Now urbanization, industrialization, and modernization have made Asia the world’s most dynamic region. How the United States will participate in this region is one of the pressing questions of this century.

During her time as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton sought to reinforce American in the region, extolling “America’s Pacific Century” in an October 2011 article in Foreign Policy. The U.S. Navy is in the process of deploying around 60 percent of its vessels to the Asia-Pacific, and the Obama administration has spent the last six years negotiating closer military, diplomatic, and economic ties with the states of the region. Ostensibly, the purpose of this pivot was to reorient American power to where it mattered the most. But no small part of the rebalance was a response to China’s increasing power and an effort to ensure America’s military supremacy in a region it has dominated since the end of the World War II.

Kurt Campbell, who was Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, published a defense of Clinton’s efforts in June 2016. Part campaign polemic for Hillary Clinton, part potted history, part propaganda, and part blueprint for what Campbell hoped (presumably) to implement in a Clinton Administration, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia already seems to be outdated a mere five months after its publication. Campbell’s candidate lost, after all.

This view is mistaken. The pivot to Asia represents Washington, D.C.’s foreign policy consensus, not the unique perspective of one political party. Even traditionally non-interventionist publications are coming to support “balancing” against China in the Asia-Pacific. Unless directed otherwise, the foreign policy of the Trump administration is likely to continue by default the Asia policies begun by the Obama administration and heralded in Campbell’s book.

The nomination of Rex Tillerson for the position of secretary of state, however, may pose a challenge to the status quo. Not initiated into the Wilsonian foreign policy of America’s elite, by all accounts Tillerson represents a pragmatic perspective that resonates with Trump’s own penchant for making mutually beneficial deals. As the nation’s new chief executive diplomat, Tillerson will be faced with a choice: maintain the pivot to Asia, or seek to craft a more pragmatic relationship with China that reflects the reality of latter’s dramatic rise. This is why Campbell’s book matters. The Pivot represents the most comprehensive and eloquent argument yet made for the status quo. Members of the D.C. foreign policy “blob” will summarize and repeat the book’s arguments as Trump’s foreign policy is formulated in this coming year. If the blob is successful, the status quo will be maintained despite the election of a potentially radical president and the appointments of an unusually pragmatic secretary of state and a legendary dealmaker (Governor Terry Branstad) as ambassador to China.

And so we must ask: do the arguments for an American pivot to Asia hold up? Part One of this essay considers Campbell’s historical case for the pivot, while Part Two looks at the contemporary problems with American primacy in East Asia.

Pillaging the Historical Record

The justification for the pivot to Asia begins with history. It is here the problems start. Campbell, for instance, lauds America’s 19th-century ties with China, declaring that the United States “sought greater economic ties with China,” but (unlike the rapacious European powers) “was able to achieve them through diplomacy rather than by force.” According to Campbell’s narrative, the European powers were responsible for China’s “Century of Humiliation” and the opium trade, while the United States, unsullied by the crimes of others, took a “more peaceful approach.”

This is balderdash. In fact, since the Wanghia Treaty of 1844, America’s policy toward China was one of “me too” or “jackal diplomacy,” as Daniel L. Anderson demonstrated in Imperialism and Idealism: American Diplomats in China, 1861-1898 (1986). This meant that as the European imperialist powers forced concessions out of China — such as treaty ports, extraterritoriality, the legalization of the opium trade, and the right to have a legation in Peking — the United States would insist on receiving these same “most favored nation” rights. America’s first two treaties with China were only concluded after China suffered punishing defeats in the Opium War (1839-1842) and the Arrow War (1856). It is a “misconception,” as John K. Fairbank, America’s most distinguished student of China, noted in 1970, to think of America’s historical China policy as somehow distinct from that of the other greedy and proselytizing powers. Just because a jackal happened to be absent at a deer’s death doesn’t somehow make that jackal righteous when it insists on partaking of the meal with the pack.

America’s most basic political interest in China was in maintaining the system of unequal treaties, which had been exacted from China by force. The so-called Open Door policy was about defending this interest. But Campbell declares that America’s Open Door policy of 1899 “intended to protect Chinese independence” and that both it and America’s Second Open Door Note a year later “demonstrated the American alternative to colonialism, a vision based on a liberal world order and free trade.”

Actually, the Open Door Note of 1899, which was issued by Secretary of State John Hay, was not intended to protect Chinese independence. Its stated objective was “to maintain throughout China freedom of trade.” In 1899, this “freedom” was being challenged by the establishment of “spheres of influence” in China by Germany, Britain, Russia, France, and Japan. The idea was that each nation could, if it wished, exclude all the others from its sphere. The threat to American trade with the whole of China was obvious, especially since American public opinion was opposed to America acquiring its own sphere. As John Hay explained to Paul Dana, a New York editor, on March 16, 1899, six months before the first note was issued: “We do not think that the public opinion of the United States would justify this government in taking part in the great game of spoliation now going on. At the same time we are keenly alive to the importance of safeguarding our great commercial interests in that Empire.”

Hay’s solution was the First Open Door Note, which declared that no power ought to exclude other nations’ trade from its sphere of influence and that all powers should pay the Chinese Imperial Government’s tariff. In the issuance of the note, China, as usual, was seen as an object to be acted upon. Hay did not even bother to notify the Chinese of America’s notes until the Chinese minister in Washington inquired, worrying that it was some new scheme injurious to the Imperial Government.

Thus, the Open Door policy of 1899 was not a grand innovation and it had nothing to do with a “liberal world order.” As Michael H. Hunt has demonstrated in The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914 (1983), the notes were a half-hearted policy intended to reinvigorate the concert of powers for the purpose of exploiting China as a whole. The alternative, piecemeal exploitation, would put the United States in an unfavorable position, bound as she was by a populace and Senate wary of foreign intrigues and commitments.

Less than a year later, the Boxer Rebellion broke out, forming an excellent pretext for the other Great Powers to simply annex their spheres. Hay tried to prevent this annexation with the Second Open Door Note (issued July 1900), which affirmed China’s “territorial and administrative integrity.”

The Great Powers ultimately decided against annexation and ended up more or less supporting Hay’s Second Note. Campbell sees this as a “testament to growing American power.” Hay disagreed, saying, “The talk of the papers about ‘our preeminent moral position giving us the authority to dictate to the world’ is mere flap-doodle.” That China was not partitioned in 1900 was more a result of the divisions and fears of the Great Powers in Asia than American pressure, though it is perfectly true that Hay’s Open Door policy of 1900 contributed to the final non-partition settlement.

Campbell’s oversimplified history of American beneficence in the Boxer Rebellion stops here, conveniently glossing over the realities of the situation. Campbell summarizes the Rebellion like this: “The United States dispatched four thousand troops to China to help quell insurgents.” This certainly sounds benign, and from an America perspective, such a curt summary is understandable as the United States was hardly affected one way or another by the rebellion or the “quelling.”

But in fact, Campbell’s hasty summary highlights both his tendency to read history as the record of America doing glorious deeds and his inability to perceive the memories, beliefs, fears, and desires of China and its people. What was for Campbell part of the Open Door policy to bring “liberal world order” to China was, for the Chinese, hell. The December 2, 1900 report of William Rockhill, America’s leading expert in China at the time, conveys the reality of the situation. He wrote:

From Taku to Peking the whole country is in a beautiful state of anarchy thanks to the presence of foreign troops sent there to restore order. The “disciplined armies of Europe” are everywhere conducting operations much as the Mongols must have done in the 13th century. Hardly a house remains from the seacoast to Peking which has not been looted of every moveable object it contained, and in half the cases the houses have been burned. Peking has been pillaged in the most approved manger, and from the General down to the lowest camp follower, from the Ministers of the Powers to the last attaché, from the Bishops to the smallest missionary everyone has stolen, sacked, pillaged, blackmailed, and generally disgraced themselves — and it is still going on.

This is what China’s leaders remember about the Boxer Rebellion. This is what they associate with “civilized Westerners.” This was what American counter-insurgency looked like a century ago. What has happened to Campbell’s “benevolent” United States?

Many more substantive and factual criticisms could be made of Campbell’s attempts at history. In his laudatory section on American missionary activity in China, he avoids mentioning the awkward realities of gunboat evangelism and racist prejudice. He credits Theodore Roosevelt with a “prophetic wariness of possible Japanese expansion southward,” when in fact, as Roosevelt’s distinguished biographer Howard Beale has shown, in 1905 Roosevelt did everything he could to ensure Japan received the most favorable peace settlement possible and even approved of Japanese domination of Korea shortly thereafter. Campbell bizarrely even praises American “democracy promotion” in the Philippines, where the United States impounded Filipinos in concentration camps, ultimately killing hundreds of thousands of them.

Campbell says Japan defeated China in battle in 1896, when in fact it was in 1895. He places the Treaty of Wanghia negotiations in the 1830s when in fact they took place in the 1840s. He speaks of Commodore Matthew Perry using his “fleet of black ships to open Japan in the 1860s,” but Perry died in 1858. He can’t make up his mind whether the United States played “a passive role in Asia” in the 19th century or had a “powerful voice in Asian affairs.” He declares that by 1907 the U.S. “was now an Asian player, using its diplomatic and military might to keep Asia free from hegemony” but in 1914, Acting Secretary of State Robert Lansing rejected just such an opportunity to oppose Japanese hegemony, telling the U.S. minister to China that “it would be quixotic in the extreme to allow the question of China’s territorial integrity to entangle the United States in international difficulties.” Campbell repeats the myth that the United States was somehow responsible for “losing China” but cites no evidence to justify his position. Further examples could be adduced, but the effort grows wearying.

Campbell’s trouble with facts has two possible explanations. He could simply be careless and cavalier. Alternatively, he could have intentionally pillaged the historical record, looking for any evidence that might support his preexisting commitment to neoliberalism. He seems to have done both. That America’s former highest diplomatic official responsible for Asia would take such a casual approach to truth and reality is troubling enough. But the attitude he takes to China is even more troubling, and this is the subject of Part Two of this essay.

Jared McKinney, an incoming PhD student in International Relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, holds master’s degrees in history and international affairs from Missouri State University, Peking University, and the London School of Economics.