The Debate

The Problem With the Pivot, Part 2

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The Debate

The Problem With the Pivot, Part 2

“The pivot to Asia is a pivot to conflict with China.”

The Problem With the Pivot, Part 2
Credit: White House video screenshot

Part One of this essay argued that Hillary Clinton’s former chief diplomat to East Asia, Kurt Campbell, takes a cavalier approach to history in an attempt to justify contemporary American primacy in East Asia. Part Two, below, considers the problems with Campbell’s vision of expanded American power and influence in Asia.

Throughout his book The Pivot, Campbell treats China as an object to be “shaped” by American policy. He smugly dismisses the Chinese perception that the pivot is really about containing China, explaining that it’s actually about mixing “reassurance with resolve,” inducing “fidelity to international norms,” preserving and extending “American power,” and bending “Asia’s evolving distribution of power away from hegemony and more toward balance.”

The trouble with this argument is twofold. First, even if Campbell actually thinks the pivot isn’t about containment, this does nothing to assuage the concerns of Chinese statesmen who not only do not trust American officials, but who see American forces literally surrounding their nation in Afghanistan, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, Singapore, Guam, Hawaii, and all of China’s near seas. Wang Jisi, China’s leading scholar of international relations, has given eloquent expression to this reality “of strategic mistrust” in a 2012 Brookings report. Good intentions, even when they’re actually good, are unable to prevent tragic outcomes.

Second, and more importantly, Campbell seems to think that since the pivot is not about containment, it will be acceptable to China. This is unlikely, because Campbell wholeheartedly supports the perpetuation of American military supremacy over China in Asia. This, as a key part of worldwide military primacy, has been the grand strategic goal of America at least since the end of the Cold War, as Christopher Layne and many others have demonstrated.

Campbell supports both engagement with China and military containment of it. Such a position has been smartly called “congagement.” Congagement worked fine when China was a weak nation, but China is no longer a weak nation. The status quo, which Campbell is seeking to reinforce with reinvigorated American activity in Asia, is incompatible with China’s status as a rising Great Power or with an actual “balance of power,” a phrase that Campbell consistently uses in a muddled manner.

A balance of power exists when two or more states or alliance groupings share an equal distribution of power. Campbell currently believes that America possesses “military superiority” – i.e., that American power outweighs Chinese power. The purpose of the pivot is to ensure that the United States and its allies maintain this superiority, combining primacy with more active diplomatic and economic engagement. Campbell’s plan to prevent Chinese “hegemony,” which he speaks of darkly, is to preserve American primacy. This is what he calls a balance of power, though it is obvious that this is a soothing phrase to disguise his desired imbalance of power.

The trouble with pursuing an imbalance of power is that Great Powers feel threatened by other powers dominating their region. In America’s own case, this was what the Monroe Doctrine was about: ensuring that no European Power increased its influence in America’s hemisphere. As America’s power grew, so did its jealous desire to be the predominant power of the Western Hemisphere. For example, in 1912, in response to rumors that Japan was seeking to purchase land through a front company in Magdalena Bay in northern Mexico, the U.S. Senate adopted the Lodge Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which sternly warned that the United States would not countenance the acquisition by foreign governments of any strategic sites in the entire hemisphere. Does Campbell really believe that a Great Power China could tolerate American aircraft carriers and bases dominating its own region? Does Campbell realize that since such Western naval dominance led to China’s Century of Humiliation, the issue of foreign dominance is felt even more keenly in China than in most other nations?

For around 20 years, China’s leaders have been developing asymmetric capabilities intended to diminish American predominance in East Asia. These so-called anti-access/area denial capabilities — including anti-ship ballistic missiles, submarines, sea mines, and anti-ship cruise missiles — have matured so significantly that it has become an open question whether the United States could dominate maritime East Asia in a conflict with China. Indeed, to a large extent, the pivot is a response to these Chinese advances.

Herein lies the fundamental clash between American and Chinese interests. Campbell seems to genuinely think that the U.S. can reinforce its military dominance of the Asia Pacific without evoking a meaningful Chinese reaction. If the U.S. just demonstrates “resolve” to China, all will be well. But this is how arms races and crises develop and that is the direction in which Sino-American relations are moving. All of the economic, diplomatic, and personal engagement in the world cannot change the fact that the status quo is based on Chinese weakness and American (and allied) strength.

China wants to remedy some of the remaining consequences of the Century of Humiliation by solving its maritime territorial disputes, through force if necessary. Campbell believes the United States should resolutely oppose such efforts, dismissing China’s claims and tactics as relics of the 19th century. He attempts to sell this position by conflating “territorial security” with America’s traditional anti-hegemonic policy. But the two are not the same. If China acquired the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, it would become no more “hegemonic” than it is now, and the truth is that except for the islands surrounding Taiwan, the U.S. has never taken a serious interest in the rocks and shoals of the South and East China Seas. Only in 1996 did a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific affairs first imply that the Senkakus were covered by America’s security treaty with Japan. This deputy assistant was none other than Kurt Campbell, though strangely he does not note this in his book.

In addition to maintaining U.S. military superiority and preventing China from changing the status quo, Campbell also opposes treating China like a Great Power, going so far as to criticize the Obama White House for holding too many high-profile state visits with China because he believes that such visits over-emphasize China’s importance. Herein lies another fundamental clash of objectives. A critical component of the China Dream (Zhongguo meng) is to be treated as a “big power” (daguo). Big powers treat one another as equals and respect one another’s core interests. But this is a thought Campbell will not brook.

The Final Verdict

In summary, The Pivot abuses history in order to justify an aggressive anti-China foreign policy that will almost certainly lead, with time, to intensifying conflict with a rising power. The gloomiest part of this assessment is that Campbell, who appears to be guided by a powerful ideology, is oblivious to facts that are outside of his universe. Such facts include the record of America’s own historical actions in Asia and the fears and anxieties of China’s leaders. Such myopia would be less of a problem were Campbell an anomaly. But indeed, there is a bipartisan foreign policy consensus that shares Campbell’s views.

President-elect Donald Trump and his nominated secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, may yet challenge this consensus. But if they attempt to reverse the policies of Clinton and Campbell, expect outrage among an elite convinced of the nation’s historical role as a benign “liberal force” in Asia. Regardless of which way the winds of policy blow, the pivot to Asia is a pivot to conflict with China. Rewriting history and ignoring contemporary warnings will not expunge that fact.

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.