Back in 2009, it seemed that all the White House had to do to demonstrate wisdom was to declare that the solution—whatever the problem—was "Anything But Bush" (ABB). Those were heady days for the Obama administration.
How to deal with China? The ABB solution was the G-2, or Group of Two. It was quite the hot idea—before it flamed out.
The logic behind the G-2 was pretty simple. The U.S. and China, as two great powers, should sit down and settle the world's problems between them.
The idea had some high-powered fans. Zbigniew Brzezinski
Soon, the G-2 was being promoted as the "easy button" for handling almost every intractable challenge, from climate change to the global financial crisis to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The idea quickly died a natural death. And no wonder: there was a huge divide between the notion that the U.S. and China could agree on how to solve the world's problems (and the related idea that they could then convince the rest of the world to go along) and reality. And reality wouldn't budge.
In an article for Foreign Affairs, Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal warned that the G-2 was an idea whose time had not come. "It will raise expectations for a level of partnership that cannot be met," they wrote, "and exacerbate the very real differences that still exist between Washington and Beijing." Their article went on provide a long list of reasons for why the idea was impractical. They were right. Nobody in Washington talks seriously about the idea anymore.
Yet the ghost of the G-2 still wanders around Asia-focused think tanks and academic fora, as well as Asian foreign ministries—and it’s no "friendly" ghost. The new iteration of the G-2 is not only more simplistic than the one embraced by Brezinski and Clinton; it’s malevolent as well. The new G-2 holds that the U.S. and China can solve the world's problems simply by divvying up the world—with China getting Asia.
From Delhi to Canberra to Seoul, that’s a scary notion that spooks a lot of people. The nightmare is fueled by popular writings like those of Hugh White. An Australian professor of strategic studies, White argues that China is rising and the U.S. isn't; so everybody should just get used to Beijing having more influence in Asia.
But China getting its own piece of the rock isn’t likely to happen.
China is a mercantilist power in a globalized world. That inconsistency creates friction that can’t be greased over—not even if White is right and Beijing increases its power dramatically in its half of the world.
That also means the G-2 remains a non-starter for the U.S. Carving up the planet today as the Soviets and the West split the spoils of World War II is inconceivable. Back in the day, Washington didn't much care that Moscow walled itself off from the West. The Western world didn't do much business with the Russians. All the productive economies emerged on our side of the Iron Curtain.
But, that was then. Today, Asia is peopled with growing economies and vibrant democracies. America isn't going anywhere—least of all back to the other side of the Hawaiian Islands.
So if the idea of G-2 makes no sense even on the surface, why do people in Asia still fret about it, even after Obama promised to "pivot" to Asia?
Partially, it’s because—from the East China Sea to the Indian Ocean—many people still have trouble making sense of what the administration means by “rebalancing.” Indeed, now that the Oval Office is a few years into its rebalancing project, folks in Asia are starting to wonder if there is much “there” there.
On the foreign policy front, the U.S. remains mired in the Middle East—and not in a good way. From the perspectives of those in Asia, the Middle East seems to dominate Oval Office concerns. Worse, the initiatives originating in the White House seem to be reactive, ad hoc responses to a region spinning out of control. The Iran and Syrian "deals" are exceptions, viewed with great optimism in the East as signs Obama has got his ‘mojo' back. But the Syria deal already looks sour, as the Islamists continue to rise, the death toll climbs, and Assad hangs on. As for Iran, well, folks are just holding their breath for six months. But if there aren't next steps, some in the East are already poised to blame Obama.
On the economic front, there is hope that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will become an important symbol of U.S. commitment to Asia. But, if the White House can't deliver a real "free" trade agreement to Congress, that initiative may go nowhere.
On the security front, those in Asia are running the numbers, then scratching their heads over how the U.S. plans to maintain sufficient military capacity to meet all of its global commitments. Even if the U.S. tries to beef up its presence in the Pacific, everyone in the Orient who can add knows that if Washington has to respond somewhere else, it will have to drain forces out of the region.
The hollowness of the pivot keeps the ghost of the G-2 alive. And that can't be good news for the Obama administration.
As the recent ADIZ incident in the East China Sea shows, when it comes to bullying by China, the first thing our friends and allies look for is a strong show of support from the United States.
Few think this incident is the last of China's attempts to rewrite international norms, stretch its influence, and push the U.S. further from Asia. The specter of the G-2 will continue to haunt the region as long as regional leaders think that Washington hasn't done enough to reaffirm its place as an Asian power.
James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Images: White House/Flickr.