How China Helps the Pivot

March 21, 2013 Topic: Grand Strategy Region: China

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.