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The false promises of the Asian “pivot”

December 1, 2011

Minxin Pei, in his latest piece for the Diplomat argues that China ought to respond to America’s recent gains in building clout in East and Southeast Asia by joining in in efforts to “manage competition” with the rival power.

Taken together, these three developments have put the United States back into the driver’s seat in East Asia, while China has clearly suffered the most serious strategic setback in the region in years. Some in Beijing may naturally want to push back against the United States’ reassertion of its power in East Asia.  But any steps in that direction will certainly escalate tensions with Washington while leaving China further isolated.

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Of course, managing competition requires both countries to rethink their current approach to each other.  For China, this involves abandoning its long-held strategy of “befriending afar and attacking near” – oryuanjiao jingong.  In the past four decades since Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, Beijing’s grand strategy has been to pivot its foreign policy, correctly, on a stable and cooperative relationship with the United States.  But Chinese leaders haven’t been able consistently to follow a complementary and productive regional strategy that would allow China to leverage a stable and cooperative U.S.-China relationship in reconstructing East Asia’s security order.  Beijing’s conventional wisdom, if not wishful thinking, has been that a good U.S.-China relationship will give China greater leverage in dealing with its neighbors.

The solution that Pei offers is for China to try to focus on building friendships within its region, but within the context of a friendly relationship with the United States and a more cooperative approach to international security and military-military relations. However, even if Chinese conventional thinking is rather wishful, I do not see this plan as faring better once in contact with geopolitical realities.
To the extent China was able to improve relations with ASEAN and South Korea, it was precisely because it avoided addressing the serious security issues where the most pressing divergences occur. The low hanging fruit of greater regional economic cooperation and stabilization of bilateral relations are rapidly disappearing, however, and the tasks of forging these agreements into a comprehensive reassurance of East Asia, let alone in a way that integrates and accommodates US policy objectives, is highly unlikely. For these reasons as well, though, America’s Asian pivot is also destined for long-term frustration and likely failure.
For example, a resolution of territorial disputes over the East and South China Seas, or the Chinese border with India, are unlikely to address the underlying reasons for frustration. While the border disputes certainly provide flash points for potential conflict, they are rarely, in and of themselves, the propulsive forces of suspicion and enmity between China and its neighbors. Indeed, governments make deliberate choices as to how much to emphasize border dispute issues so they can advance their policy agendas – they are often means to broader ends of state. To the extent border disputes tap into the Thucydidean triptych of fear, honor and interest, they become issues of serious geopolitical concern. So while resolving these, if possible, would reduce potential proximate threats, vitally, it does not remove the underlying problem of a China with more capacity to coerce its neighbors. These very fears will likely make the disputes difficult to resolve in the first place.
In fact, it is ultimately in the interest of the United States to demand terms adverse to the resolution of many of these disputes. Advocating a multilateral solution, even if it fails, builds cooperation between the United States and a plethora of China’s reluctant neighbors, while legitimizing the presence of the US military in the region. Even a successful resolution, on terms acceptable to at least the United States and one other participant in the dispute, would probably still result in the presence of the US military presence in what Spykman called the “Asian Mediterranean.” Much like the Washington Naval Treaty, any resolution of maritime disputes which concludes with an international legal legitimization or tacit sanctioning of foreign interference in another great power’s home region will remain an ulcer to regional stability and further alienate it from international institutions.
It’s simply not enough to say both sides want peace and stability, they want it on their own terms.
A solution that reassures China’s neighbors at the cost of reducing China’s ability to circumvent American military power in East Asia is, for Beijing, not a solution at all. After all, that is why Beijing’s neighborhood tilting towards the United States is a problem, because now it is having serious security implications. So too are these maritime disputes only a problem for China to the extent the US can leverage them to expand its security presence in the region.
As for the United States, Pei notes there is a serious ideological component to Sino-American antagonism that helps overdetermine, along with the traditional competition between offshore balancing powers and would-be continental hegemons, Asia-Pacific enmity. However, the problem is not so much American democracy as it is the way that Americans feel their foreign policy ought to reflect it. China opposes democratic countries insofar as they pursue foreign policies aimed at reproducing their own forms of government around the world in general and in China in particular. China does not have much of a problem with Brazil or South Africa and the reason has less to do with their internal structure than their  radically different interpretations of what democracy demands of their foreign policies. Similarly, even a post-Communist China would still likely be an ideological enemy of the United States, unless it transitioned into a liberal democratic regime interested in acquiescing to a US wielding the preponderance of military power in China’s own neighborhood. As the fraught American relationship with Russia over the past two decades shows, even young democracies do not always find this acceptable, and indeed the very foreign policy which seeks to exploit the advantages of a newly democratized rival can discredit the liberal candidates the US most wants in power.
While it is well and good for the United States to redirect some of its resources and attention to Asia, the policy, like the Russian reset, will eventually falter without an acknowledgement that rising powers are not going to buy into a multilateral architecture to lock in Western, and especially US dominance, and that includes American concepts of sovereignty and security, which rising powers strongly oppose. While competition between the great powers is certainly manageable, it will remain a competition with military potential, and that is indeed the root of the problem. That China and America are not the only two players compounds the problem. The “great crescent” extending from the Kuriles to the Seychelles will not respect the compartments foreign policymakers attempt to force problems into. The American “pivot” which sees American policy in Africa solely in relation to the Middle East or American policy in South Asia solely in relation to East or Central Asia will inevitably turn awry.
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