The Response of China’s Neighbors to the U.S. "Pivot" to Asia

Editor's Note: In a speech at a January 31 event on understanding the U.S. pivot to Asia, Richard Bush examines the varied responses of East Asian countries to the recent pivot or re-balancing of U.S. policy, and what this means for China’s future course in the region.

My task is to look at the responses of China’s neighbors to the “pivot” or re-balancing of U.S. policy. First I will inventory those responses and, moreover, look at differences within individual countries. Second, I will step back and review the context for recent U.S. steps. Finally, I will assess what is new in all this.

How Asia Reacted

On the reaction of countries other than China, my first point is a simple minded one: different Asian states responded to American rebalancing in different ways. Take, for example, the announcement that the United States would rotate Marines through Darwin in northern Australia. Close U.S. allies like Japan welcomed it. So did friendly countries like India. They said it would contribute to regional stability. But other countries voiced caution or anxiety because of how China might respond. Thus, the Indonesian foreign minister’s initial comment noted the danger of "a vicious cycle of tensions and mistrust." The Malaysian prime minister worried about increased tensions. Even Singapore's Foreign Minister observed that ASEAN states want to avoid getting "caught between the competing interests" of major powers.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Different Asian countries have different interests. They will respond in different ways to the moves of the major powers. Northeast Asia has a different dynamic than Southeast Asia, and various ASEAN countries view the regional reality differently and depend on the United States to different degrees. Japan has a rather dire view of China’s long-term intentions but has not taken particularly robust steps on its own in response. So its dependence on the United States to deter both China and North Korea is rather high. Cambodia is probably at the other end of the spectrum, aligning itself closely with Chinese interests.

Note that just because the United States has reaffirmed its commitment as an Asia-Pacific power does not mean automatically that we have better security relations with our friends in the region. U.S.-Japan ties remain stuck on the relocation of the Futenma air station. And there is the possibility that some Asian partners will seek to extend our commitment in ways that are good for them but not necessarily good for us. A case in point is the Philippines desire to extend the territorial scope of the U.S. defense commitment to include islands in the Spratlys that Manila claims.

The fundamental reality is that all Asian countries want to have good relations with the United States and with China. Regarding China, they want the benefit of economic engagement and a reduction of tensions. From the United States, they want a security hedge should ties with China go sour. So where did South Korean president Lee Myung-bak and Japanese prime minister Noda go after President Obama’s November swing through the region: to Beijing. Whom did Thailand and Vietnam welcome for a visit in December? PRC vice-president Xi Jinping.

Asian countries may not want to get crushed in the nutcracker of U.S.-China competition, but they do want a balanced competition to continue. One reason that Burma has been willing to engage Washington is its needs to create a greater balance with China. For the rest, however they define their interests, the last thing they want is for Washington to take itself out of the game. At the same time, they want us to be smart in the way we serve our counterweight function.

My second point is that for most Asian countries, the government’s response was not the only response. These are all pluralistic nations where the definition of the national interests is contested, including the role of the United States. So if governments supported American rebalancing, the media, which reflects domestic pluralism, was more skeptical.

In South Korean even conservative dailies that are generally pro-U.S. criticized President Lee's so-called diplomatic dependence on the United States and urged that he strengthen China ties. The views of progressive Korean media outlets made those same points more strongly. Similarly, on President Obama's new defense plan, Seoul officials publicly supported the announcement and stated that its impact on South Korea would be negligible. ROK media outlets, on the other hand, expressed concern about potential reduced troop levels on the Korean peninsula and the possibility that South Korea would have to shoulder an increased defense-spending burden.

These understandable divisions limit the freedom of action of leaders and, by the way, suggest an agenda for U.S. public diplomacy. The Administration will have to make a continuing effort to shape Asian opinion in favor of its policies.

Drivers

Let me turn now to issue number Two: what caused the U.S. “pivot,” and how were our friends and allies part of that cause?

Generally, our policy-makers have come to a strategic recognition that the Asia-Pacific is where the action is and will be in international affairs. How the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific play out over the next couple of decades will determine the future of the international system as a whole. This recognition was, for example, the starting point of the decision-making process that culminated in the defense strategic guidelines that President Obama issued in early January. You will not be surprised to know that I, as an Asia specialist, believe that our leaders are absolutely correct in this assessment.

My parochial views aside, the dynamics of China’s revival as a great power will be much more complicated than previous periods of system transition. Opportunities and risks coexist, and there is little certainty about the long term. And one of those dynamics concerns the choices that second-tier powers make. Do they stress accommodation of China or balancing against it? Their answers, in turn, will be a function of America’s stance. So there is a lot at stake in the big picture.

Less generally, although rebalancing was driven in part by forces that had nothing to do with the Asia-Pacific, the pivot’s pace and character was shaped by a number of factors that were region-specific. Most important was China’s behavior over the course of 2010, which alarmed our friends and allies and led them to seek American backing.

Now this is a complicated subject. Some in Asia and America believe that the pattern of PRC behavior in 2010 reflected a high-level and integrated decision to toughen policy at all points on the China’s periphery. To borrow another basketball metaphor, this has been seen as a PRC full-court press, or at least a half-court press.

I actually disagree with that assessment, and think that different factors were at play in different parts of the region. The shift in Korea policy at the end of 2009 appears to have reflected a high-level change in policy—in favor of active measures to ensure that the North Korean state survived. Actions in the South China Sea suggest not a change in fundamental policy but a more aggressive implementation of China’s long-term strategy to delay resolution of the fundamental disputes while augmenting China’s relative power. Also, there may have been a failure of Beijing’s command and control over the China’s various maritime agencies operating in the South China Sea. Poor command and control were obvious in the fisheries episodes concerning Japan and, more recently, South Korea. Also contributing to the new pattern of PRC behavior were probably stronger Chinese nationalism, an over-reaction to U.S. economic difficulties, and a more complicated decision-making pattern in Beijing.

Yet in a way, it really doesn’t matter whether Hu Jintao ordered each and every action. What is important is that various Asian countries regarded those actions both as somehow connected to the Chinese state and as threatening their interests. That being the case, it is not surprising that they looked to the United States for help. Nor is it surprising that we responded. What we call the pivot was really the cumulative expression of that response. We acted in different ways in different arenas. We were more careful in our response than the New York Times or Chinese observers give us credit for. We are conscious both of the risk that some of our friends in East Asia might try to lock Washington into their own agendas and of the need to reassure China that ours is not a policy of containment. But one of the threads that runs through the pattern of our behavior is that the United States reacted to the response of our Asian friends and allies to China’s actions.

Continuity

There is a question of how new all of this is. This could be the subject for an afternoon-long symposium. I would simply argue that today’s rebalancing looks like an adjustment to a long-standing U.S. approach to the complexities of East Asia. To summarize that approach, I will quote the formulation of Prof. Thomas Christensen of Princeton University, who was a deputy assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, with responsibility for China. He wrote: 

"Rather than trying to rollback or contain the growth of Chinese power, the United States has used the combination of a strong U.S. regional presence and a series of creative diplomatic initiatives to encourage Beijing to seek increased influence through diplomatic and economic interactions rather than coercion, and to use that increased influence in a manner that improves the prospects for security and economic prosperity in Asia and around the world."

Tom’s conclusion is spot on. The United States will best shape China’s future course in a positive way through a regional presence that sets boundaries and by exploiting the opportunities provided by shared and overlapping interests. Such an approach does not reject the revival of China as a great power. Far from it. But it seeks to increase the odds that China’s revival will be constructive.

What is new in all of this, I think, is whether the United States will have both the capacity and the will to continue to provide hegemonic stability and security public goods in regions like East Asia. The impasse over the federal budget is the most obvious manifestation of this new reality, but there is a lot more going on. My anxiety is that we will be unable to act on the commitments the Obama Administration has made and will disappoint our Asian friends and allies.

Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore last week did a long interview with Fareed Zakharia at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Among the interesting observations he made were three points. One, the United States has had a long-term and benign impact on East Asia. Two, he was glad to see the renewed engagement even as he recognized that China was wary and watchful about underlying American intentions. And third, he hoped that the United States would be able to sustain its initiative over time.

I think the PM has it just about right.