How China Helps the Pivot

After years of improving relations with neighbors, Beijing has driven them into U.S. arms.

But in 2009 things began going wrong for Beijing. This was both by accident and by design. Relations with Seoul suffered when China refused to rein in North Korea after its military provocations against the south; keeping the north intact as a buffer zone along the Chinese border apparently had higher priority. In the meantime, increasingly aggressive claims to disputed islands under Japanese control damaged the Tokyo relationship, while Southeast Asia was startled by brusque assertions that most of the South China Sea also belonged to faraway China rather than nations closer by. These debatable claims were not new, but concern grew as Beijing’s expanding military gained the ability to project power. Its forceful seizure of remote islands despite resistance from the Philippines and Vietnam gave the issue fresh urgency.

Other items added to the neighbors’ worries. Chinese passports began using maps that included all the disputed territory, irritating governments with rival claims. China’s Hainan province seemed to assert the right to board any ship sailing in the South China Sea (though the true intent may be less sweeping). Chinese dam-building plans for the upper reaches of the Mekong River and others that flow into Southeast Asia threatened local economies. A fit of fervent nationalism, seemingly tolerated at first by Beijing, saw Chinese mobs trash Japanese offices and products before they were brought under control. Beijing’s ships and planes grew more aggressive near disputed islands and shoals at the risk of military incidents, though whether senior Chinese officials understood the danger wasn’t clear. Efforts by Southeast Asian nations to negotiate a code of conduct with China for operations in disputed waters—pending settlement of sovereignty issues—have gone nowhere.

Other Asians took note. “Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior in disputed maritime areas…has undermined some of the results of China’s earlier charm offensive,” according to Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an influential advisor to Indonesia’s vice president. The Philippines president, Benigno Aquino III, has called for an expanded Japanese military to offset China’s “threatening” presence. Even some Chinese scholars have doubts. Yinhong Shi of Beijing’s Renmin University has written that China’s policy of “triumphalism” means its “diplomatic influence and effectiveness has significantly shrunk.”

Enter the Americans. As often happens, the Pentagon got in front quickly and gave the policy shift a more military tone than the White House may have wanted. This lets China complain that it is being unfairly “contained” and worries other Asians who don’t confrontation in their backyard. Yet credible U.S. forces are essential as China modernizes its own military and pursues what a retired American admiral calls “access denial strategies”—the ability to keep others at a distance. This makes limited force realignment part of the U.S. package; ground and air units are being added in Australia, Guam and Hawaii even as others are pulled from Okinawa (where they too often cause political trouble). And 60 percent of all American naval forces will be deployed to the Pacific, up from the current 55 percent.

Yet creating credible political and economic policies remains central to longer-term U.S. interests. Economists agree that it needs to become more deeply involved with Asia’s dynamic markets for its own prosperity, while closer links to China’s neighbors should help persuade Beijing to resolve regional issues through multilateral negotiations rather than the bilateral sort (“big me, little you”) that it prefers. Asia “will be the center of strategic gravity,” according to Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific in the first Obama administration.

Washington officials often find themselves pushing on open doors. Because former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew expects U.S. and Chinese competition in Asia—though not conflict—he believes “the weight and capacity” of China means “we need America to strike a balance.” The new, near-cordial relationship with Myanmar stems in part from Burmese worries about becoming a Chinese affiliate. Hanoi may open Cam Ranh Bay—an American-built port from Vietnam War days—to U.S. ships. Washington has joined the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, a feel-good document important to those nations that the Bush administration wouldn’t sign. And unlike his predecessor, President Obama shows up at Asian summits and promises to keep doing so, proof that he takes the region seriously.

The goal is not to stall the rise of China or displace it—impossible in any case—but to shape its actions in ways that promote a peaceful, prosperous balance in Asia. No Asian wants to face choosing between the United States and China. Postponing, if not resolving, territorial disputes is on the agenda, as are more open trading agreements that benefit all nations. This requires careful diplomacy. “If the United States attempts to humiliate China, keep it down, it will assure itself an enemy,” Singapore’s Lee has warned.

Yet not all Asians are entirely reassured by the renewed U.S. interest. They’ve seen the United States come and go before, and have doubts about its attention span and staying power—especially given the Washington preoccupation with debts and taxes. According to one American analyst just back from a month in the region, Asian officials appreciate the president’s declared interest but note that he seldom mentions it back home, such as in the State of the Union address. The official says they wonder just how serious Obama is at heart: “They ask: Does the U.S. really care?”