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Foreign Policy

Time to Rethink the China-Focused Pivot

Aug 14 , 2014

The US push for a rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific, a strategy very much with China in mind, has not been smooth sailing – for good reason. To avoid further setbacks, the United States would do well to examine the limitations and inherent flaws of the strategy, weigh the pros and cons, and change course in the region. 

First off, a “perfect storm” is brewing in the international landscape. From the crises embroiling many regions, it should dawn on the United States that by focusing on the “China threat”, it is barking up the wrong tree and missing the big picture. 

Just look at the world we are in: 

– As shown by the downing of MH17, the Ukraine crisis is spilling over like never before. Instability is enveloping Eastern Europe. Russia’s firm support for separatist armed groups in eastern Ukraine sets it on a collision course with the US and Europe in a year that marks the centenary of WWI. The tension and contest between Washington and Moscow is rapidly coming to a head. 

– The Gaza Strip is again in flames. Ignoring US opposition, Israel has killed scores of civilians in Gaza, reviving conflict with Palestine. 

– Terrorism, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), is running rampant in Iraq. Libya is in a worse mess than before. The broader Middle East is teetering, haunting a US that is clearly less able to intervene to get the situation under control. 

– The political stalemate in Afghanistan in the wake of electoral disputes may wreck US counterterrorism efforts in the past decade. The real possibility of a Taliban comeback is working against Washington’s plan of troop withdrawal before the end of 2014. 

Secondly, even if there were a need for the US to keep China down with its “pivot” to Asia, the strategy simply would not work. If not reversed soon, the “pivot” will go down as a “strategic fiasco” in the history of international relations, for the following reasons: 

– The “pivot” is based on a gross misunderstanding and distortion of China’s foreign policy goals. Committed to peaceful development, China has no intention to seek hegemony or challenge US leadership in the world. 

– Containing China is a costly business that the cash-strapped United States can ill afford. Besides, given the interdependency between the two economies, the United States will end up hurting its own interests as well. 

– As a global power grappling with a long list of challenges in the world, the United States does not have the luxury of focusing its primary attention on China alone. More emphasis on the Asia-Pacific will divert attention from other flashpoints in the world. 

– The strategy may open the door to many potential risks. The United States is taking advantage of China’s maritime disputes with its neighbors by shoring up the position of its allies (Japan and the Philippines) vis-à-vis China. It is painting China as a military threat in an attempt to make money from selling arms to the region. What Washington has not realized is that it is also being used by its allies. By condoning the rightward shift of Japanese politics and allowing Shinzo Abe to lift restrictions on the right of collective self-defense, Washington has opened a Pandora’s box. The ambitious Abe will not stop at denying Japanese aggression during WWII, he will also wrest Japan from US control. The United States is “feeding a tiger to its own detriment”, to quote a Chinese proverb. It may have to foot the bill for Abe’s adventurous moves against China and find itself drawn into a Sino-Japanese dispute on the sea. Eventually, a more “normal” Japan will “bite the hand that has fed it”: when that happens, the United States will regret what it is doing today. 

Thirdly, despite the unfounded view of China as an adversary, the fact remains that the interests of China and the United States converge far more than they diverge. The western media just love the story of a “structural tension” between the world’s two preeminent powers. But any disinterested observer can see that China lags far behind the United States in comprehensive power and the fear of a resurgent China challenging US interests is overstated. Instead of hedging and working against China, the United States should embrace China’s rise and work with Beijing to deal with regional hotspots and the array of global challenges facing mankind. 

The good news is that cool heads have prevailed in both Beijing and Washington. When the media relish any sign of Sino-American confrontation, the two sides are talking to each other: the recent Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) has delivered many results; China is participating for the first time in the US-led RIMPAC naval exercises; trust is building at the strategic level. American officials have welcomed the positive tone returning to the relationship: President Obama, in his message to the S&ED, reaffirmed US commitment to working with China to build “a new model of major-power relations” that advances practical cooperation and constructively manages differences; Secretary Kerry told the opening session that the United States is not trying to contain China and a partnership is what it seeks with China, not strategic rivalry. 

The world is in flux. The China-US relationship should do their best to keep abreast of the following transformations: 

– Ours is a more multi-polar world. Gone should be the days of superpower hegemony or the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. As the world’s two largest economies, the United States and China should share both power and responsibilities in the region. 

– Ours is a more globalised world. The mutual dependency between China and the United States should give us pause to think: Isn’t it much better to pursue win-win cooperation and fair competition instead of zero-sum rivalry? 

– Ours is also a more diverse world. No country, not even the United States, has the right to belittle others. Countries should learn to admire others’ strong points to improve themselves. 

In this, China and the United States should lead by example. 

Chen Xiangyang, Deputy Director & Research Fellow at World Politics Research Institute, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

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