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Foreign Policy

Interpreting and Misinterpreting “Lessons Learned” from Obama Pivot

Mar 02 , 2017
  • Alek Chance

    Research Fellow, Institute for China-America Studies
The Problem with Conventional Wisdom
There has been much cogent criticism of Obama’s “pivot to Asia”—that its messaging was poor; that the means provided were insufficient to its grand aims. But some emerging conventional wisdom should be regarded with caution. One line of criticism, that Obama signaled American weakness to China and thus “invited” its assertiveness, looks to secure itself as a central lesson learned.
The question of whether U.S. policy has been perceived in China to be weak or aggressive is an important one, as is the question of the degree to which recent Chinese behavior is driven by American actions in the first place. If Americans interpret current Chinese activities to be a reaction to American weakness, they will likely come to a very different understanding of Beijing’s motives than if they viewed China’s actions as a response to American strength. Unfortunately, much of the discussion on this topic issues from assumptions that are not always critically evaluated.
It is easy to find analyses that proclaim that the pivot has failed through lack of American resolve, that it wasn’t meaningful, or that Chinese officials viewed Barack Obama to be a pushover. Such arguments tend to group together a few key assumptions: First, that Chinese leaders share the view of American China hawks that the pivot lacked substance; Second, that perceptions of a competitor’s weakness invite aggression rather than complacency—the logic of the “Munich analogy;” Third, that Chinese actions (particularly in the maritime domain) are directed primarily with a view to strategic competition with the United States, rather than arising from domestic or regional considerations.
We should be careful with these kinds of assumptions, not least because they influence our interpretation of subsequent events. Faulty conventional wisdom can be dangerously misleading. Those assumptions relating to Chinese perceptions require still more circumspection: social scientists have identified pervasive human tendencies misinterpret others’ viewpoints, overestimate the role that they play in others’ decisions, and misjudge the perceptions they themselves generate. Combined, these dynamics can present challenges to properly interpreting China’s or any other state’s behavior.
Failing to recognize alternative explanations for a counterpart’s actions can misinform plans or distort views of the present. This is because, try as they might, it is hard for observers of international affairs to disentangle interpretations of a given action from theories about the intentions behind it. Once we establish a framework for interpreting ambiguous information, it becomes difficult for us to remain open to other explanations. Taking stock of common Chinese views of the pivot can inform this discussion by illuminating alternative hypotheses and avoiding a potentially misleading narrowing of our explanatory narratives. Sensible Americans might well conclude that some policies toward China should be pursued with a firmer hand, but such a judgment should not derive from the premise that Obama and his policies were seen to be weak.
Common Chinese Views of the Pivot
Chinese responses to the pivot have varied, but as one American observer notes, early reactions mostly ranged from tepid criticism to outright condemnation of American attempts to contain China. Another account observes that the pivot has “increased the sentiment of insecurity and sense of being threatened among elites and the public in mainland China.” Unlike Obama’s critics in Washington, many Chinese view American military activities as significant, closely scrutinize evolving U.S. relations with other Asian states, and see important shifts in U.S. policy in the South China Sea. Such perceptions are formed within a broader understanding that American foreign policy is determined by invidious motives and seeks to militarily encircle China and thwart its rise.
Deeply held Chinese beliefs about American grand strategy necessarily condition subsequent interpretations of U.S. policies. Many Chinese and American analysts have observed that there is a pervasive view in China that U.S. foreign policy is driven by the tenets of offensive neo-realism and seeks to maintain hegemonic control over Asia at China’s direct expense. The U.S. is often accused of embracing the “law of the jungle,” pursuing “power politics,” and failing to escape a “cold war mindset.” Even purposeful American shifts towards appeasement or retrenchment would have to swim against this tide of baseline views.
Some pivot policies have arguably reinforced rather than undermined these images of the United States. Chinese pundits and academics frequently portray the pivot to be an intensification of military activity. Chinese academics frequently claim that the tempo of U.S. close-in surveillance activities has intensified over the last several years, as have sea-days and joint exercises for U.S. Navy ships in China’s near seas. U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations are widely regarded in China to be shows of force rather than simple exercises of legal rights. Chinese discussion of the pivot often echoes the Pentagon’s claim that the quality of American and allied military technology has stepped up in recent years. While some Americans have downplayed new agreements with Australia and Singapore, Chinese analysts see a qualitative shift in strategy aimed at embedding the U.S. in the region in new ways.
On the diplomatic front, it is very common to hear Chinese scholars and pundits contend that the U.S. no longer has a policy of neutrality in the South China Sea territorial disputes. Most will point to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks at the July 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum in which she announced that the U.S. has a “national interest” in freedom of navigation in East Asia as a signal of intensified U.S. pressure. One can often hear Chinese analysts accuse the United States of having prompted the Philippines to pursue its case against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, or even to have somehow influenced the court’s verdict.
Some of these viewpoints are clearly off the mark. Many are sincere misapprehensions, while others are likely disingenuous rhetoric. On the other hand, many Chinese views of the pivot’s assertiveness are in fact shared by some American analysts. One American scholar notes that an element of the pivot has been a potentially provocative shift toward stronger ties with continental Asia, particularly with Vietnam beginning in 2010. Another observes that the kinds of relations built by the agreements with Singapore and Australia were integral to a long-desired goal of creating partner capacity and interoperability in Asia in the name of external balancing against China. This turn towards a focus on trilateral or multilateral relations aimed to replace the U.S.-centric “hub and spoke” model of security cooperation with a new concept called “federated defense.” As early as the George W. Bush administration, the concept was regarded to be instrumental to a new approach to “dissuading” China from challenging the status quo. Few people outside of China seem to believe that the US forced the Philippines into a legal confrontation with China. However, some in the US and elsewhere have speculated that American diplomacy in 2010 and after inadvertently encouraged some partners to overplay their hands.

The Risks of Misinterpretation
By potentially overstating the applicability of the “Munich” logic to the U.S.-China security relationship, Obama’s critics turn their backs on the possibility that other dynamics might be at play. In fact, most of the Chinese perceptions described above indicate that recent American security postures have increased China’s sense of insecurity and added to longstanding views of U.S. “encirclement.”  The possibility that security dilemmas might apply to aspects of the U.S.-China relationship shouldn’t simply be defined away by announcing that China is inherently and implacably revisionist. Unfortunately, maintaining an open mind can be difficult. There are many cognitive and institutional reasons for hawkish worldviews to predominate, and some have speculated that the human mind has a bias towards “Munich” thinking.
Moreover, by assuming that Chinese assertiveness in the maritime space has been “invited” by American weakness, Obama’s critics run the risk of overestimating the degree to which China has the U.S. in mind when it takes a given action. China’s territorial ambitions in the Spratly Islands and perhaps even the modernization of its navy are driven in large part by considerations external to the U.S.-China relationship—for example, appeals to nationalism in the domestic political sphere. Incorrectly assuming that each Chinese action is in essence a test of American resolve might unnecessarily and counterproductively introduce a dynamic of zero-sum competition. This is not to say that the United States shouldn’t assert its own, its allies,’ and the international community’s legitimate interests in the region. But policy should be calibrated with a view toward those interests themselves, not their symbolic value in a contest of wills that may or may not be at hand.
Much commentary in the U.S.-China relationship contains the kinds of framing assumptions that can subtly influence our interpretation of events and even diminish our ability to consider alternative perspectives. Given the many misperceptions about American strategic culture in China, such problems are a two-way street. American and Chinese views of the other are often described as ambivalent, and their policies towards one another as hedging or balancing aspects of competition and cooperation. Our methods of interpretation and means of explaining the other’s behavior should be accordingly nuanced, flexible, and open to adjustment. 
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