Washington, we are told, is now "pivoting" its energy, resources and attention from the Middle East and Europe to Asia, reflecting a recognition of the increasingly vital importance of that region for future American wealth, security and global influence. Unfortunately, the execution of this shift, and China's response, are combining to deepen mutual suspicions and potentially destabilize the entire area, ending the decade-long stability in Sino-American relations that resulted from a U.S. foreign-policy shift after 9/11.
At that time, Washington moved decisively away from viewing China ominously as a rising "strategic competitor" (to quote George W. Bush) and toward significant levels of Sino-U.S. cooperation in combating terrorism and dealing with a growing array of common problems, from climate change to global economic instability. This shift brought Washington’s approach back into line with an earlier, long-standing U.S. policy of fostering greater Sino-American engagement while conducting low-key military hedging against the possibility of a future hostile China.
With President Obama and Secretary Clinton's recent trips to the South and Western Pacific, expanding U.S. involvement in multilateral economic and security-related fora, and a strengthening of Washington's traditional military alliances, the United States is now signaling an intention to move back toward the pre-9/11 strategic focus on a rising China. That focus places a premium on explicitly balancing against and constraining Chinese power and influence across the region.
These moves are reportedly driven by a need to counter increasing regional anxieties over China's recently assertive behavior regarding several maritime territorial disputes with Southeast Asian countries and Japan and a growing perception of an America in decline and disarray.
While a clear and reassuring reaffirmation of Washington's commitment to Asia is certainly needed, it is not producing the desired effect. Despite all the reassuring talk emanating from President Obama during his recent trip to the region about welcoming China as a rising power, and despite repeated expressions of the U.S. intention to remain neutral in Beijing's disputes with other powers, Secretary Clinton and other senior U.S. officials have been sending a very different message since at least the middle of 2010. Most notably, their words and deeds are creating the impression in some Asian capitals that Washington is now supporting Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan in their increasingly acrimonious disputes with Beijing over maritime territories.
For its part, Beijing is acting—and reacting—in a confusing and at times belligerent manner. Tensions over its growing military presence in maritime Asia are deepening as China fails to exert adequate control over the behavior of its ships in nearby seas and acquiesces in (or perhaps even encourages) the nonsensical conspiracy theories being spewed out domestically by hypernationalist critics of the United States.
Diplomatically, China's leaders gyrate between voicing completely unpersuasive statements about the nonthreatening nature of its military activities and demanding, through words and actions, that others accept its absolutist (and in some cases unclear) positions on a variety of highly contentious territorial issues. All the while, Beijing signals, with increasing energy and directness, that the region needs to move away from a U.S.-centered, bilateral-alliance-based security structure.
America's leaders apparently think that the only way to manage this increasingly complex and challenging situation is to apply a more robust and strident version of that security structure, albeit with a nod toward what it has until very recently viewed as multilateral "talk-shops" and a continued stress on negotiation over confrontation in its bilateral interactions with Beijing.
Moreover, U.S. officials seem confident that Washington can maintain indefinitely the two factors required for the ultimate success of this effort: a predominant level of military power and presence—right up to China's maritime borders—and its past level of political and economic leadership. Unfortunately, the Chinese do not support this approach, while others in and out of the region question whether America can sustain its leadership and predominance. Some even question the wisdom of attempting to maintain such a defense of the status quo in the face of a growing regional and global diffusion of power.
Washington must rethink its basic assumptions about its role in the region. First, it should initiate serious discussions, internally and among friends in the region, about how best to reassure its allies and the Chinese that it is not pursuing a zero-sum approach in Asia. As a central part of this reassessment, it should reexamine how best to address and when to accommodate China's most critical security concerns, especially along its maritime borders.
More broadly, the United States should develop a long-term strategy for gradually leading the region toward a more multipolar security environment and away from a heavy reliance on American naval superiority and a bilateral alliance system that is increasingly out of touch with regional and global realities.
For its part, Beijing should exert greater control over its military in the Western Pacific, restrain its hypernationalists, and recognize, in words and deeds, that regional concerns over its growing power in Asia are not created or orchestrated by the United States. It should engage in direct and frank discussions with Washington and other Asian powers regarding its image of the future regional environment and its intentions and concerns over the long term.
These changes could pave the way for a much-needed regional-security dialogue, led by America and China, regarding the long-term future of the Asia-Pacific. Without such actions, the most important bilateral relationship in the world is in danger of lapsing into one of growing strategic rivalry and contention.
Michael D. Swaine is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the new book, America's Challenge: Engaging a Rising China in the Twenty-First Century.