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Foreign Policy

Mending the Gap between Reassurance and Rebalance

Oct 23 , 2012


In about two weeks, a winner will be declared in the 2012 U.S. presidential election and the chosen candidate will work to form his administration. Whether the winner is President Barack Obama or Governor Mitt Romney, an understanding of how each administration would handle the next four years of the bilateral relationship with China is critically important. How the Obama administration’s China policy can be characterized and to what extent it can be fixed, is of equal importance to how a Romney administration would handle one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.

For the last four years, the Obama administration’s China policy has been a combination of two contradictory approaches: “strategic reassurance” and “strategic rebalance”. The concept of “strategic reassurance”, initiated by former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, is designed to mitigate China’s suspicion of American intentions by encouraging China to cooperate with the U.S. agenda and countering the case that cooperation for mutual interests between the two countries is blocked due to a lack of trust. The U.S. rhetoric of “welcoming a China that takes on a responsible leadership”, “China’s peace and prosperity is in accordance with U.S. interests” and “keeping a neutral stance towards China’s territory disputes”, serves to that end.

The concept of “strategic rebalance”, originally employed by the Department of Defense, is designed to correspond to China’s increasing military power and its persistent ambiguity of its strategic intentions. Though Obama’s administration frequently claims that the strategic rebalance is not targeted at China, coping with Beijing’s growing influence in the periphery is obviously one of its top concerns. By strengthening its military presence, actively participating in multilateral institutions, and consolidating its relations with its alliances, the Obama administration is determined to counter China’s “anti-access and arena denial” (A2/AD) capability, shape the environment for China’s rise, manage China’s pace of “going out” and dissuade China from challenging U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.

After the global financial crisis and the U.S. pivot to Asia, it’s urgent for both China and the U.S. to have more strategic cooperation with each other, while the geopolitical competition is also deepened. Therefore, it is insufficient for the U.S. to maintain the current mutually beneficial relationship by the approach of engagement or integration. Building mutual trust by strategic reassurance is not only a guarantee for continuous mutual beneficial cooperation, but also a foundation for higher-level strategic cooperation in a range of global issues. At the same time, in U.S. perspective, China’s rapidly growing military power, especially marked by A2/AD capacity, is going to be a serious challenge to the regional presence of the United States. Though it is still early and costly to talk about containing China, something more must be done in the whole framework of the Asia-Pacific strategic rebalance in order to eliminate the prospects of a military conflict between U.S. and China unimaginable.

However, this policy has been mostly ineffective thus far. There is an obvious contradiction between strategic reassurance and strategic rebalance. The goal of strategic reassurance is to ease China’s suspicions to America’s intentions and prevent China’s possible overreaction to the presence of the U.S. in Asia; while the strategic rebalance not only gives China further evidence to doubt U.S., but also encourages China to better protect its territory, security and development interests. As a result, the credibility of reassurance has been dramatically weakened by the hand of rebalance, and even worse, could be possibly considered some kind of deception.

It 's just this design flaw that caused the friction and fluctuation of Sino-U.S. relations over the course of the last several years. Consequently, the willingness to cooperate with each other on many urgent regional and global issues, such as the change in the Middle East, climate change, etc., is badly weakened due to the lack of mutual trust. Furthermore, cooperation on economic and trade issues is also jeopardized. The investment by Chinese companies in the U.S., which could be mutual beneficial and the new basis for increasing the two countries’ economic ties, has been forced to face the obstacles of unnecessary security concerns.

It seems, however, that the Obama administration and the U.S. academia alike have realized that a gap exists between reassurance and rebalance, and started to think seriously how this gap can be mended. Secretary Hillary Clinton claimed that “new answers” should be applied to the “old question” about the relations between established and the rising powers; some experts in U.S. academic circles are calling for a “re-rebalance” to U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy; and Secretary Leo Panetta, during his recent visit to China, also welcomed a more close cooperation of two countries’ military forces. All of the previous examples show that cooperation is possible and the U.S. side intends to improve the coherence between strategic rebalance and strategic reassurance. As a response, a joint effort has been made on the Chinese side by advocating the initiative of establishing “new type of major power relationship”, more actively pursuing dialogue with U.S. within series of channels, and exploring the concrete cooperation on wide range of regional issues.

Currently, both the U.S. and China are occupied with leadership transitions. The potential for a coinciding set of two new governments in the next month could present an opportunity for the bilateral relationship. In order to establish a stabilized relationship between the U.S. and China in the following years, greater effort should be devoted to mutually beneficial policies. The U.S. has the responsibility to make strategic reassurance more substantial with concrete actions instead of purely rhetoric, and make the hand of strategic rebalance less provocative by pursuing more greater cooperation with the Chinese military. China’s responsibility, as a rapidly rising power, is to transparently exert its growing power by contributing to regional security and development with cooperative and constructive involvement in the Asia-Pacific region.


Wang Honggang, deputy director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

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