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US should focus on easing China's anxieties
Publication Date : 14-01-2013
At a speech in New York in October 2011, American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the United States would make an "important pivot" back to the Pacific.
At a time of increasing Chinese assertiveness, Asian nations naturally welcomed the pivot. But soon after, this pivot started to look like a poisoned chalice for the US, insofar as regional stability was concerned.
Last year, tensions flared up between certain Asean members and China over disputed territories in the South China Sea. Asian countries fretted over China's rapid military development. And Japan's expression of right-wing inclinations raised much concern across the region.
More importantly, the US move generated a near-panic among Chinese officials and analysts, who suspected Washington was practising an old-style containment strategy.
More than a year into the pivot, two truths seem increasingly evident: The US doubts China's oft-quoted mantra of a "peaceful rise". China, for its part, sees the US pivot as a bid to contain it.
This is not surprising, given that despite efforts by both Beijing and Washington, they face what is referred to as a persistent security dilemma - one country's bid to boost its security leads to a diminution in security for another, which in turn prompts arms races and the outbreak of outright hostilities.
Professor Graham Allison of Harvard University alludes to the Thucydides Trap. Coined after the Greek historian, the term refers to the dangers created when a rising power challenges a ruling power. In 11 of 15 such cases since 1500, war followed.
Three international relations experts have fielded three solutions.
First, the US could concede the field to China in the Asia-Pacific. This sounds elegant in theory, particularly at a time of fiscal contraction in the US. But one can only imagine the chaos that would ensue in the region should this actually occur.
Second, the US could resist or contain China's rising influence. But given the interdependence between the two countries, this option would be tantamount to Uncle Sam cutting off his nose to spite his face.
Third, the US could share power with China.
In The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, published last year, Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University suggested the US and China should be part of a "concert of powers" that would carve out respective "spheres of influence" in Asia.
His analysis is problematic. How would Vietnam - which has fought against Chinese domination for a millennium - react to Indochina being subsumed into China's orbit? Also, Asian countries in the respective spheres would have to make a choice between the US and China - an option many of them find inimical.
And to its credit, the US already shares power with China. The emerging East Asia Summit - which includes the US, China, the Asean nations and another six countries - seeks to give China a say in the regional order.
The question, however, is whether China is satisfied with such an arrangement. The answer is "no".
Speaking to The Straits Times last September, Major-General Zhu Chenghu, a professor at China's National Defence University, admitted both China and the US were holding on to Cold War-era mentalities.
"If China doesn't have a Cold War mentality, why does it see the US as the main threat? If the US doesn't have a Cold War mentality, why does it deploy so many troops in Asia?" he said.
They should "sit down and talk at a deeper level" to maintain stability in their relationship, he noted.
Rather than divide up the Asia- Pacific, as suggested by Prof White, the US and China could adopt an incremental approach.
In the long term, the US should consider stopping the sale of arms to Taiwan and capping the development of missile defences - which have led to concerns about the effectiveness of China's nuclear arsenal.
Washington should stress that it will "take no sides" in the Senkaku/ Diaoyu dispute between China and Japan, while at the same time remaining ambiguous about whether the islands will fall under the auspices of the US-Japan alliance. (After all, would the US want to be dragged into a war with China?)
In return for a Chinese promise to iron out a legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea, the US should maintain that it will take no direct role in the mediation of the South China Sea dispute, apart from expressing its desire that any resolution be in keeping with the spirit of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The two countries should talk frankly about the future of the Korean peninsula, and whether, come unification, Beijing would countenance the stationing of US troops there.
Writing recently in the Foreign Affairs journal, Professor Robert Ross, who teaches political science at Harvard, said the Obama administration's pivot was "unnecessary" and "counterproductive".
The conventional wisdom is that Asian fears of China's assertiveness led to the American pivot.
However, argues Prof Ross, China's assertiveness is largely domestic-driven. Faced with unemployment, inequality and inflation at home, Beijing's leaders had "no choice" but to appease a growing cadre of hardline nationalists who wanted to project the image of a tough China to the world.
In response, the US intensified military exercises with South Korea, reinforced its presence in Indochina and cobbled together a maritime coalition over the South China Sea issue - moves that prompted China to push back.
"The right China policy would assuage, not exploit, Beijing's anxieties, while protecting US interests in the region," writes Prof Ross.
In other words, the pivot should have been trumpeted less as a major shift in US foreign policy and more as a return to "business as usual" in the Asia-Pacific. For decades, the US has maintained a strong presence in the region. This has held true even in the past 10 years, when it was embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US pivot should have been stressed less. Instead, Washington should have put more effort into building trust in its relations with China.
Granted, managing perceptions - particularly regarding US neglect of Asia - is a tricky business. But a US more focused on fixing relations with China - and fostering a more stable Asia-Pacific - would go a long way towards changing those perceptions.