President Obama kicked off his second term with two remarkable diplomatic moves in Europe and in Asia. The first was to stress the strategic importance of Europe to America by enhancing transatlantic ties, which was carried out by new Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Europe and Middle East. And the second was a trip to Beijing made by his special envoy and newly confirmed Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew immediately after Xi Jinping was elected China’s new President. Many observers have seen these moves as a readjustment of rebalancing toward Asia for Obama’s next four years. Some even call it a strategy of re-rebalancing.
The rebalancing, also widely known as the “pivot to Asia”, was launched in November 2011 in the post-counterterrorism era, with the US increasingly viewing the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific. It was also considered a shift of U.S. global strategic posture from Afghanistan and Iraq towards the Asia-Pacific. The transformed strategy led to strong anxiety in Europe as well as in Asia. While the Europeans were preoccupied by a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe, along with the relative descent of its weight in America’s grand strategy, Asian countries are more concerned with negative reactions from China and the reorganization of the regional structure. Although many U.S. officials, such as Tom Donilon and Kurt Campbell, claimed that the strategy was not aimed at China, there were still many debates among U.S. officials and intellectuals over how to pacify China’s doubts and accusations. Kenneth Lieberthal, a seasoned China hand with the Brookings Institution and a former Senior Director for Asia-Pacific Affairs at the National Security Council, called for a rebalance of the Obama Administration’s strategy towards China. The China-U.S. relationship seemed adrift since the second half of last year, because both countries were faced with the shift of political leadership in November 2012.
Obama dispatched Secretary Kerry to Europe and the Middle East, while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first foreign visit was to Asia. The implication of Kerry’s premiere in Europe was very clear: the U.S. and Europe were committed to revitalizing the transatlantic alliance through cooperation on the economic, security and political issues, ranging from the Middle East peace process to Iran’s nuclear ambition, and from the Syrian crisis to cyber security. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership （TTP）negotiation, which will be soon on track, is a measure of the stronger economic ties over a quarter of a century and the most recent signal for the rapprochement of relationships.
The revival of closer U.S.-Europe cooperation is not only aimed at saving a sluggish economic recovery in the U.S. and another recession in Europe, but is also addressing the daunting long-term challenges ahead, including economic competition from emerging market countries. Furthermore, the U.S. also wants to “pivot to Asia” in conjunction with the Europeans, who are eager to benefit from economic prosperity in the Asia–Pacific. The U.S. reassurance of the strategic value of Europe as its closest ally helps alleviate Europe’s worries over the American strategic shift. And the U.S. also treats Europe as a cooperative partner in its “pivot to Asia” strategy.
However, it will take time and patience to convince China that it isn’t the target of the U.S. rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. When China had disputes with neighboring countries over the islands in the South China Sea and the East Sea, though the U.S. claimed that it takes no position over the sovereignty of disputed territories and called for a peaceful resolution, China viewed the U.S. stance as biased towards those countries. For example, Japan may obtain U.S. military support in the case of an escalation of conflict with China over the Diaoyu Islands. In addition, a rotational deployment of 2500 U.S. Marines in Australia was viewed by China as the strengthening of a U.S. alliance for rebalancing China’s fast-growing influence and military buildup, even though it was billed as a symbolic sign of improvement in U.S. military in the region and of closer security cooperation between U.S. and Australia.
Throughout 2012, the China-U.S. bilateral relationship witnessed cold winds not only in the military and security field, but also in economics and trade. Investment from Chinese companies, such as ZTE, Huawei, Sany, were dismissed by the Obama Administration and U.S. Congress with an excuse of so-called “national security.” Chinese turbine and photovoltaic producers also experienced anti-dumping and countervailing trade relief investigations. Most recently, the so-called “Chinese cyber threat” has started affecting bilateral trade. And, federal agencies are forbidden from purchasing high information technology products made by “Chinese government related companies.”
Nevertheless, with new political leadership in both countries, China and the U.S. are faced with new opportunities to “reset” their relationship. Recent communication between Xi and Obama has sent a message of opening the door for further engagement and deeper interactions. Lew’s visit was not only a trip acknowledging the new Chinese leadership and policy orientation, but he also brought a U.S. version of a “to-do-list” for both parties. Lew’s initial trip will be followed by Secretary Kerry and Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; both of whom are scheduled to visit Beijing in April. High-level exchanges are just a warm-up for the incoming Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), which is likely to be in Washington, D.C. in June. It is also widely reported that, for the first time, China has accepted a U.S. invitation to participate in joint military excises in the Asia-Pacific.
With political, economic, military and security links comprehensively reconnected and pushed forward, Sino-U.S. relations are expected to heat up again and result in major achievements. Whether or not the U.S. rebalancing is aimed at China, China needs to react properly and promptly. Both sides should understand that only through comprehensive, deeper and sustainable exchanges at all levels, can mutual respect and understanding and trust be reached, peaceful coexistence and co-development be achieved, and a new type of relations between the big powers be built.
Qian Liwei is Associate Research Fellow with China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.