If the United States fail to adequate communicate their “pivot” or “rebalancing” to East Asia and emphasize its military component at the expense of necessary economic cooperation, it risks heightening Chinese fears of encirclement, the nation’s former ambassador to China warned earlier this month.
Speaking at the Fortune Global Forum in Chengdu, China, Jon Huntsman, who resigned the ambassadorship in early 2011 to unsuccessfully seek his Republican Party’s presidential nomination that year, said he was concerned that President Barack Obama’s economic policy for Asia excluded China.
“The inconsistencies can come in areas like where you have a goal of a constructive engagement with China and then running up against your economic objective, which is TPP, excluding China,” he said.
The United States are in talks to join the Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that is set to encompass Australia, Canada, Japan, Latin American nations bordering the Pacific Ocean and most countries in Southeast Asia.
Huntsman warned that if China is excluded from Pacific economic integration altogether, “we’re going to have to live in a tit for tat world where China then ends up doing the same thing in response to what we’re doing in the region and we’ll miss a huge opportunity that would come with a more robust dialogue between both countries.”
The Economist similarly wrote last month, “Viewed from China everything in almost every sphere looks like coordinated ganging up against it.” It interprets the pivot as “an American strategy of containing its rise by, firstly, enhancing America’s own military capability in the region and, secondly, strengthening American friendships and alliances with China’s neighbors.”
However, while it has made much of comparatively minor rearrangements—“of American marines rotating through Darwin in northern Australia and of up to four “littoral combat ships” to Singapore”—America’s allies in the region, the British newspaper points out, “are not commensurately reassured.”
The ambiguity of the pivot, which replaced the previous administration’s policy of “strategic reassurance” and has since been reframed as “rebalancing,” is why both China and its neighbors are so skittish.
“Strategic reassurance,” which tried to persuade China to act as a “responsible stakeholder” in the world system, failed—from the American point of view. Rather than act like the great power America wanted it to, China stayed clear of meddling in disputes where its influence could have been helpful, like the Iranian nuclear question, while expanding its revisionist maritime border claims in the East and South China Seas, to the alarm of America’s friends.
China also failed to react in economic terms, wrote Aaron L. Friedberg in Foreign Affairs magazine last year. China’s leaders “largely accepted some form of capitalism in the economic sphere,” he admitted but “they remain committed to preserving their hold on political power.” Further liberalization could imperil the Communist Party’s political monopoly.
“What China’s current leaders ultimately want,” according to Friedberg, is regional hegemony—which “is not something their counterparts in Washington are willing to give.” It would undermine the overriding objective of American strategy: “to prevent the domination of either end of the Eurasian landmass by one or more potentially hostile powers.”
Friedberg advised the administration to continue to expand military relations in East Asia to check China’s ambitions and prioritize reassuring American allies in the region over comforting China that it does not intend to stunt its rise as a great power—when, to an extent, it does.
He also pointed out that China doesn’t necessarily differentiate between commercial and security interests. A hostile American military posture in the region could affect transpacific trade relations. The United States may not be able to “strategically reassure” China and “pivot” to its neighborhood at the same time.
Huntsman was more optimistic, reminding listeners that President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai were able to restart relations in 1972 even when the two nations were engaged in a proxy war in Vietnam and had fought one another twenty years earlier in Korea. “If that could happen forty plus years ago, I have no doubt that we can rally our collective good will on both sides, focus on our interests, manage our downside, because we’ll always have issues that irritate,” he said. “It will always be a competitive relationship. We just have to recognize it.”