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Foreign Policy

Obama Will Be “Smarter” in Rebalancing towards Asia and Engaging China

Nov 08 , 2012
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

Since the incumbent Barack Obama has won re-election in the US presidential race, more consistency is expected in US foreign policy in the next four years. China has paid great attention to US rebalancing towards Asia and the increasing US presence in the region.

In his second term, Obama will not make drastic changes in the US strategic focus, and therefore, will continue to give policy priorities to Asia. The adjustments will merely appear in the implementation level. Specifically, Obama will be “smarter” in carrying out this strategy and engaging China.

With increasing strength and influence, China in turn expects increasing interdependence and more cooperation with the US in the future.

Asia Will Remain the Pivot in the US Strategy

The importance of Asia has made the region the pivot in the US national strategy. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Asia will occupy the center stage in strategic and economic affairs in the 21st century. According to statistics, the Asia-Pacific accounts for 65% of the world’s raw materials, 61% of the world GDP and 47% of the yearly total volume of international trade. The region is vibrant in growth. Actually, the Asia-Pacific is the first region that showed signs of recovery in the aftermath of the global economic crisis.

In his first term, Obama has made great efforts in promoting the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific. Because the terms of “return-to-Asia” or “strategic pivot shift” aroused great discussion, the Obama administration has re-defined the strategy as “rebalancing”. However, the nature of the strategy remains the same. The US will continue to seek long-term strategic advantage and leadership in the region. The Asia-Pacific will maintain its priority position in the US strategic arrangements and be provided with greater investments in the future. In his second term, Obama will continue to enrich its rebalancing and extensively carry out its strategy.

Rebalancing will be Implemented in “Smarter” Ways

Fundamentally speaking, the intention of the US rebalancing is still to shape the order of the Asia-Pacific by shaping China’s behavior. However, with China’s rapid development and expanding influence in regional and international affairs, the US has to pay more attention to China’s response and concerns, and accordingly adjust its policy implementation, in order to avoid unnecessary irritation. The US has acknowledged that a direct confrontation with China is not in line with the US interests. The US will carry out the rebalancing in smarter ways, with the aim of featuring the defensive purpose of the strategy.

Obama is trying to assure China that the strategy is not to contain China. The US does not aim at and is incapable of launching a new cold war against China. The US has realized that most Asia-Pacific countries are not willing to take sides between China and the US. Even though Southeast Asia is a focus for the pivot shift, the US is still unable to incite full-scale anti-China actions in this region.

The US is also trying to obscure the military implication of the strategy. Obama re-named the strategy as “rebalancing”, instead of the “shift of strategic pivot”, since the latter reveals obvious military intentions. He described the “rebalancing” as a comprehensive design covering political, economic and security aspects, not necessarily focusing on the military.

Another important adjustment is that the US is becoming more cautious with its positions on the territorial disputes in the region, especially those involving China. Currently, the US distinctly avoids taking a position on sovereignty or taking sides in the disputes.

It is interesting that the US used to be active or even aggressive in interfering in the regional territorial disputes. In the context of the ship collision incident between China and Japan in the waters near the Diaoyu Islands, Hilary Clinton claimed that “we have made it very clear that the islands are part of our mutual treaty obligations, and the obligation to defend Japan.” Ever since, Japan has succeeded in confirming with the US on this point on various occasions. However, faced with current tensions in the East Sea, ignited by Japan’s so called “nationalization” of the Diaoyu Islands, the US is busy exercising dispute control approaches, in order to avoid further escalation of the problem, or even worse, a breakout of armed conflicts.

The Future of US-China Engagement in Asia

China has acknowledged the fact that the US will not change its strategic focus and will continue to enhance the deployment and operation in the Asia-Pacific. However, China has perceived at the same time that the US is turning more cautious in implementing the rebalancing.

The influence of both China and the US will increase in Asia-Pacific. Fortunately, the two countries are likely to avoid direct conflicts or confrontation in the future, for neither side can afford serious setbacks in the bilateral relationship.

China is looking forward to maintaining a stable relationship with the US and more cooperation with the US in Obama’s second term. Both countries will have more shared interests in maintaining security and stability in Asia-Pacific and achieve closer ties.


Su Xiaohui, Research Fellow, Department of International Strategic Studies, China Institute of International Studies

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