In its annual white paper on national security, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense criticized U.S. officials for “strengthening their Asia Pacific military alliances, expanding their military presence in the region and frequently make the situation there tenser.” Conversely, in his just ended trip to Asia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stressed his desire to work with Beijing to dampen regional tensions.
In his Senate confirmation hearings earlier this year, Kerry had tried to focus on the non-military dimensions of the Obama administration’s “strategic rebalancing” toward and within the Asia-Pacific region (sometimes called the “Asian Pivot” or “Back to Asia” policy). “I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up in the Asia-Pacific is critical yet” he told the senators. “That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully.”
Yet, one should not make too much of Kerry’s comments about having an open mind about whether to continue the rebalancing. President Barack Obama is personally committed to the Asian Pivot (and the term) and Kerry will have to execute his preferences. The President believes that his strategy has yielded several important achievements. The administration has launched several successful multinational diplomatic initiatives in the region to supplement U.S. bilateral ties with key Asian partners. The economic dimension of the Pivot has made progress as seen by the growth of support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The U.S. military has managed to establish a broader presence in the region, while the United States has imparted new energy into the five existing formal U.S. bilateral defense alliances in Asia. But the main problem with the Pivot has been the inability to overcome Chinese anxieties about U.S. rebalancing, which has complicated their joint cooperation regarding North Korea and other issues.
Kerry’s statements reflect that the United States has an open mind about how to continue the Pivot policy. For example, the Obama administration has already changed its policies for managing China. During its first two years in office, U.S. official tried to avoid offending Beijing by not, for example, meeting with the Dalai Lama or selling Taiwan all the arms Taipei wanted. But the administration believed it inadvertently communicated weakness to Beijing, which encouraged China to adopt a more assertive foreign policy. So from 2010-2013, the Obama administration, while trying to respect legitimate Chinese interests, proceeded to act in its best interest regardless of what Chinese leaders said, presuming Beijing would still cooperate with the United States whenever it also advances China’s interests.
The MOD White Paper and other Chinese sources have expressed concern that the Asian Pivot is encouraging Japan and other U.S. allies to harden their position against China. It is true that the United States has found it hard to balance deterring but not antagonizing China and reassuring but not overly emboldening allies. But any further reduction in U.S. support for Tokyo and Seoul would, combined with the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce the prominence of nuclear weapons in world politics, encourage more Japanese and South Koreans to acquire their own nuclear weapons, which would threaten Chinese security even more.
Chinese commentators have criticized what they see as the U.S. strategic “hedging” policies toward China. But this perception focuses on only one half of the picture, and neglects the “shaping” dimension—the effort to channel Beijing’s rise in peaceful ways. The intent of this approach is to help shape the targeted state’s choices in such a way that it will pursue policies helpful to the United States, its allies, and also the target itself. Washington wants Beijing to assume its rightful place among the global stakeholders, those powers that help uphold international regimes and standards, such as free access to the global commons, in a way that benefits all states.
To this end, Kerry and his interlocutors discussed how to address the “rising power problem”—that China’s growing economic and military potential would trigger a U.S. response that would lead to a confrontation between these rising and currently dominant global powers. They agreed that, through dialogue and cooperation, Americans and Chinese can overcome distrust and deal with the power transition problem. Nuclear weapons, the interlinked fate of their economies, and the massive exchange of students and other nationals should also help avert a direct conflict.
It is also no accident that Kerry focused on the Korean crisis on his Asian trip. The United States considers China’s treatment of North Korea and Iran an important test of China’s rise. The North Korean leadership has declared its intent to acquire long-range nuclear-armed missiles to destroy the United States. Only a few Americans believe that Beijing is deliberately encouraging Pyongyang’s disruptive behavior as a way to keep Washington off balance and increase U.S. dependence on Chinese mediation, but many Americans believe China can and should do more to reign in a mutual threat.
Conversely, the United States has tried to explain to China that North Korea’s threats and provocations were only worsening regional security by forcing the United States and other countries to increase their military activities near China. Although Kerry probably misspoke at his April 13 press conference in Beijing when he said that the United States would remove its new missile defense assets from East Asia if the North Korean threat ended, the converse is true—North Korea’s threatening behavior, tolerated by China, is driving the United States to accelerate its missile defense buildup in Asia, which China opposes. If Beijing can restrain Pyongyang, then Washington would reduce the pace of its BMD buildup.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.