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Foreign Policy

Is the US Crying Wolf over its Rebalance?

Apr 30 , 2013
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

 After China released its White Paper entitled “the Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces”, critics emerged to decipher China’s defense and foreign policies. China’s lack of transparency in its military capabilities is brought up time and time again. One analyst asserted that China merely “regurgitates propagandistic platitudes and pre-existing material” in the White Paper.

At the same time, China is blamed for implying in the White Paper that the US is a factor that sabotages regional stability. The US is seeking to assure China that its rebalance to Asia is not to contain China, and that China’s concern is groundless. It portrays China as acting out a monodrama with the US as a simulated enemy.

Containment Cannot Be Revived

Containment is not the appropriate word to describe US policy towards China. On one hand, China is not qualified for US containment. Even though China is already the No. 2 economy in the world, neither the hard nor soft power of China and the US is “diamond cut diamond. The countries facing China’s development feel pressure rather than a concrete threat. The US will probably define China as a major competitor in the world, not necessarily a major enemy.

On the other hand, it is difficult for the US to reproduce its containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War period. Currently, the US is burdened by its domestic issues, the global economic crisis, and its overseas military activities, all of which have confined the US capacity from playing a more active role in the Asia-Pacific. The US tends to make its regional allies shoulder more responsibility and provide more support for its regional designs.

China understands the realities. However, it is neither helpful for the US to misinterpret China’s positions, nor exaggerate the influence of the Chinese conspiracy theory.

The US Rebalance in Disguise

Even though the rebalance is not containment, it is difficult for the US to embellish its strategy in a China-friendly disguise.

As early as July 2009, the US publicly announced a strategy to shift its pivot to Asia. In October 2010, then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton comprehensively explained the goals and approaches of the strategy in her speech. In the year 2011 and 2012, the strategy was extensively implemented.

Up until now, the strategy has been developed in three areas. The first and most prominent perspective is the military perspective. The US achieved a de facto permanent military presence in Australia, sought to establish the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral military alliance, and accessed strategic sites such as Subic Bay, Cam Ranh Bay and Changi. The country also put forth the plan to expand its anti-missile system to Asia. In 2012, the drills headed by the US in the Asia Pacific reached an unprecedented level, whether in scale or frequency.

US officials and scholars have tried to explain to China the reasons for the above actions. They emphasize that the US may need to deal with potential risks and emergencies in the Asia-Pacific, and provide necessary support and guarantee for its alliance. However, it is impossible for China to turn a blind eye to the US increasing its military presence in the region, which means more uncertainties for China.

The second perspective of the rebalance concerns the economy. Initially, this perspective was rather dim compared with the remarkable progress in military arrangements. With the implementation of the strategy, the US began to sense the questioning and concern from China. In 2012, the US used the term “rebalance” to replace “pivot” to Asia, in order to reduce the military implication of the strategy. At the same time, the US emphasized that the strategy is comprehensive and not specifically focused on the military.

However, China finds it hard to be truly involved in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP) talks, which are enthusiastically promoted by the US, even though the US claims that the framework is inclusive.

As for the third perspective on US foreign relations; while the US has drawn closer to its traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea and Philippines, it is paying more attention to countries like India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Mongolia. The small countries in the South Pacific are also included in the US blueprint.

China does not say that all of Washington’s strengthening relationships with its allies and regional countries is meant to challenge Beijing, however China is concerned about the increasing US influence and somewhat biased stand in regional affairs. Japan and the Philippines’ seeking of support from the US to counterbalance China in their territorial disputes may be good cases in point.

On the whole, no matter how the US adjusts its rebalance, its key intention is to reshape the order of the Asia-Pacific and gain a long-term strategic advantage and leadership in the region. In this process, the US will inevitably seek to “shape” or “regulate” China’s behavior.

Critics may not be effective in dealing with China. The US at least needs to work with China to find an acceptable way for both sides to co-exist in the region.

Su Xiaohui, Deputy Director, Department of International and Strategic Studies, China Institute of International Studies





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