How China Helps the Pivot

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

The restaurant sign in English and Chinese near Beijing’s Forbidden City, one of the country’s most popular tourist sites, was clear enough:

This shop does not receive

The Japanese The Philippines

The Vietnamese And dog [sic]

The Mr. Wang who owns the Beijing Snacks eatery probably didn’t make many foreign (or canine) friends by comparing certain other Asians to animals that Chinese tradition often considers little more than dirty scavengers. But his attitude may have gone down well with many of his countrymen and illustrates a diplomatic problem that Beijing has brought upon itself in recent times.

After years of great gains in relations with its Asian neighbors, thanks to skillful use of soft-power tactics, Beijing since has managed to worry the region with confrontational talk and actions that create a welcome for America’s so-called “rebalancing” or “pivot” back to Asia after years of distraction by costly Mideast wars. As the restaurant sign suggested, a narrow, sometimes angry nationalism has been both a cause and a result of this shift, undermining China’s longer-term interests but showing no sign of ending anytime soon.

The opposite seems true, in fact. Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leader and new Chinese president, is giving a more aggressive tone to official statements though his motives remain unclear. He has begun wooing the armed forces vigorously by promising to fulfill “the Chinese dream,” an ill-defined restoration to greater power—“a strong nation [with] a strong military.” Whether this means he plans to compete for military dominance in the Pacific, or primarily wants to get the People’s Liberation Army under firm control before launching tough and unpopular domestic reforms, remains unknown. But the tough rhetoric and related actions have an adverse effect in the neighborhood.

The Obama administration is working hard to exploit this diplomatic opening and restore lost balance to its foreign policy. Beijing calls it a conspiracy to “contain” China and deny the nation its proper place in the world despite its enormous economic and military progress. And it is true that the pivot is partly about countering Chinese global and regional gains, though U.S. officials generally won’t say so out loud. Yet something more fundamental also is involved. According to his aides, president-elect Obama directed his new team to begin revising American priorities even before he took office, shifting attention from the “over-weighted” Middle East—where he hoped to leave wasteful wars behind—and focusing more on “under-weighted” East Asia.

The change began late in the preceding Bush administration, after earlier years of relative neglect, but has gained extra emphasis from the Obama team. “ . . . Our guiding insight was that Asia’s future and the future of the United States are deeply and increasingly linked,” National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon has explained, noting, for example, that Asia will account for about half the world’s economic growth over the next five years (the U.S. excluded), and Washington needs to be more deeply involved. Beyond that, the shift also responds “to the strong demand signal from leaders and publics across the region for U.S. leadership, economic engagement, sustained attention to regional institutions and defense of international rules and norms.”

Translation: China’s neighbors were getting nervous and wanted the Americans back on stage. And so they are—though not yet conspicuously enough to satisfy everyone. While American diplomats and politicians have returned in greater numbers, some experts believe the U.S. economic program is not what it could or should be and doesn’t match the diplomatic effort. And whether President Obama will provide the sustained emphasis needed for success remains an open question.

The rebalancing scene was set during the past decade. As the United States devoted more time and resources to the dubious results of Mideast wars, China aimed a shop and smile policy at its Asian neighbors with great success. It became the main trading partner and a key investor in the region, and gained political points in the process. Despite historic qualms about their big neighbor’s true intentions, many Asian lands started seeing China as a benign force that served their own interests. South Koreans, for example, began to cite China—and not the United States—as their best foreign friend, even though Beijing’s aid kept hostile North Korea afloat. Japanese students flocked to China, as did Toyota, Nissan and other manufacturers. Southeast Asian nations prospered as they shipped components for Chinese products then exported to North America and Europe (a pattern that makes raw trade-figures deceptive), while Chinese tourists kept that industry prosperous. As China rose, many Asians saw America in decline. The fact that President George W. Bush and his senior officials disdainfully avoided Asian summits didn’t help.

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?”

Likewise, America’s economic policy is longer on trade details than broad national strategy, according to Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia specialist at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. The United States is pondering an alphabet soup of Asian trade and economic agreements—some with China, some without—that can have contradictory goals; more clear thinking is needed. Washington’s main emphasis is on one called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that so far excludes the large Chinese economy, though it may soon add Japan. But parochial claims of other members, such as Mexico and Canada, have stalled negotiations and the goal of having TPP terms completed by year-end seems unlikely. And whether it’s wise to omit China remains debatable; Beijing calls it just another containment tactic.

This leaves the pivot a work in progress. It already has brought diplomatic gains and most Asians are pleased to see the Americans back in force. The policy may discourage China’s more abrasive actions over time and thwart a drift toward gunboat diplomacy. New trade pacts eventually should boost regional economies though the American strategy needs clarification. It also needs a sustained political push and some Asians have doubts: will John Kerry care as much as Hillary Clinton?

Above all, the rebalancers must ensure that their program doesn’t take a clear anti-China tinge, confirming Beijing’s worst fears. If that happened, the cost of pivoting toward Asia could exceed that of past neglect.

Robert Keatley is a former editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post, both of Hong Kong.