Many days after Barack Obama’s four-nation Asia trip, the American media are continuing to discuss it. Some people believe he “successfully” demonstrated US authority as “the boss;” some think he appeared weak and was “duped” by the Japanese; others feel he stepped into the dangerous “containment trap.” The apparent initiative was illusive, and China’s shadow was simply inescapable.
The most interesting part was that mainstream American media repeatedly highlighted that Obama wanted to both confront and please China, walking a tight rope between allies and China. On one hand, Obama himself and some high-ranking American officials made harsh remarks, stating that the US wants to make sure international rules and conventions are observed, including in regards to “maritime disputes;” and on the other hand, they constantly clarified that the US’ goal is not to confront, or contain China, making the gesture of releasing “goodwill” to China. This is unprecedented in the history of Sino-US relations. While apparently self-contradictory, it reflects the US’ bet hedging strategy under new circumstances, as well as the strategic need of the US “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific.
To preserve and consolidate the “strategic rebalancing,” where it maintains an absolute superiority, the US will inevitably make every effort to eliminate various “negative energies” it perceives. In the eyes of the idealists of American neo-conservatism, China is obviously the no.1 “imaginary enemy.” Therefore, it cannot help but contain and encircle China, and to take advantage of allies to provoke China, especially Japan. Yet with economic interdependence with China deepening, it has to seek Chinese collaboration, because without engaging China, the resolution of any major international security issue is out of the question.
Anyone with knowledge about gambling knows that bet hedging is expediency under certain circumstances. It is both highly risky and unsustainable. The current US bet hedging is not 50:50; it’s 60-70:40-30, or even 80:20. While betting heavily on Japan and allies, the US anticipates that at the same time its “small bet” on China can also receive huge dividends by enticing China to abide by what it calls “international rules and conventions.” This is wishful thinking in the first place, which misjudges the conditions and China’s commitment to its independent diplomacy. Secondly, it mistakes China, as a “positive energy” (who can be a cooperative partner and even friend) for a “negative energy,” the result of which could be, in American scholar Joseph Nye’s words, “creating an enemy” in itself. Thirdly, it takes Japan, which is dedicated to returning to a military path, as a “positive energy,” the hazardous consequences of which are evident. The American public, who has been through Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Wars, know very well that Japan is now taking advantage of American prowess, and someday it may very likely become the “negative energy” that hurts the US. China isn’t a gullible country. What about the US? Never be fooled by the Japanese!
Like it or not, time changes; so do countries’ comparative strengths. Even some pragmatic Americans at decision-making levels also acknowledge that the US can no longer order the world around. Professor Meghnad Desai, a member of the British House of Lords, once advised that the US should “enjoy decline” (which is relative currently). My suggestion is that the US should conform to the trend of history and “enjoy cooperation.”
China has proposed to build a “new-type major-country relationship” together with the US. Such a show of goodwill is based on serious deliberation, and China has been making concrete efforts toward that goal. President Obama has also stated on many occasions that the US side is willing to work with China and build a “new-type major-country relationship.” Then why shouldn’t the US increase its bet on the positive prospects of Sino-US relations? Let the “less-than-comfortable interdependence” become a little more comfortable, and hence gradually become true “cooperative partners,” and enjoy the fine wine of win-win cooperation, instead of the bitterness of regret.
Wang Yusheng is the Executive Director at China Foundation for International Studies.