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    Greater China
     Jan 30, 2013


'Pivot' could cost Obama, Asia dearly
By Brendan P O'Reilly

Barack Obama launched his second term as president of the United States on January 21 with an impassioned speech promising to uphold and advance America's core values.

While he specifically promised the American people that,"a decade of war is now ending", China and Japan have increasingly militarized their standoff in the East China Sea, with Japan stating on the same day its ability to fire on any Chinese air patrols over disputed islands.

An American strategic "readjustment" that will see massive military forces parked off China's coast, and increasing tensions between the world's second and third largest economies, threaten to derail Obama's vision of a peaceful second term.

At the same time, a series of open letters to Obama from the

 
Brookings Institution reveal the challenges that Sino-American relations may hold for Obama's presidency. The suggestions of America's political class expose the archaic and disingenuous nature of American political discourse on the People's Republic of China.

The Brookings Institution - one of Washington's oldest and most revered "think tanks", has outlined a series of "Big Bets" that could advance Obama's foreign policy goals. It has also warned of "Black Swans" - unlikely yet possible events that could pose serious international troubles for the American government over the next four years. These different opportunities and potential threats are explained in a series of open letters addressed to the president himself.

Perhaps the most interesting letter, entitled "China in Revolution and War", explains the threat of serious internal instability and foreign war to China.

This letter, authored by Cheng Li of the John L Thornton China Center, links the possibility of domestic instability and foreign adventurism. In the unlikely event of serious Chinese domestic instability, newly-appointed Premier "Xi [Jinping] may be cornered into taking a confrontational approach to foreign policy in order to deflect criticism of his own strong foreign connections." [1]

Cheng Li very reasonably advises Obama to forge closer personal ties with Xi , as well as to promote military-to-military links, and put pressure on all sides to avoid the use of force in territorial disputes.

However, Cheng Li also calls on Obama to do the impossible: "Clarify to the Chinese public that the United States neither aims to contain China nor is oblivious to their national and historical sentiment would help reduce anxiety and possible hostility across the Pacific." [2]

It would not be easy for Obama to explain to the Chinese people that America's military repositioning to the Pacific is not meant to contain China - because countering China is exactly the aim of America's "pivot" towards Asia. Any serious suggestions to the contrary are either strategically blind or downright disingenuous. Deploying 60% of the most powerful navy in the history of humanity to the Pacific to counter, say, North Korea would be rather excessive.

Meanwhile, America's "pivot" towards Asia, and backing of Japan in the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, have provided the Chinese leadership with the perfect foreign threat for distracting their people from China's domestic troubles.

The Brooking Institution's open letters to Obama are by no means completely pessimistic regarding relations with China. One "Big Bet" dispatch calls for "Bringing Beijing Back In" by improving and deepening political, military and economic ties between China and the United States. However, this letter by Kenneth G Lieberthal from the very outset reveals the schizophrenic nature of America's China policy:
Your rebalancing strategy toward Asia has produced desirable results, including convincing China that the United States is serious, capable and determined to be a leader in the region for the long term. But this strategy is also generating dynamics that increasingly threaten to undermine its primary goals. [3]
The Chinese government is indeed convinced that the United States is committed to being a power in Asia - at the expense of Chinese influence. For the last year, China's state-run media has consistently decried America's overly military "Cold War mentality" towards the People's Republic.

Lieberthal further addresses his sensible admission that there are unstable dynamics to America's Asian aspirations:
Unfortunately, at this point your current strategy is in danger of actually enhancing rather than reducing bad security outcomes. Most notably, territorial disputes have become sharper, and Beijing is largely operating under the false assumption that the flare-up of these disputes reflects an underlying US strategy to encourage Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines to push the envelope in the hope that Chinese responses will lead those countries - and ASEAN - to become more united and dependent on the United States.
Liberthal is absolutely correct in noting that local territorial disputes have been sharpened in the year since outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for "America's Pacific Century". However, increased tension is an entirely predictable outcome of such a policy. Smaller powers naturally feel emboldened against China by the protection of the world's most advanced military.

All sides share a degree of responsibility for the ongoing tensions off of China's territorial waters, but the American military "readjustment" to the region takes the lion's share of the blame. It may be no coincidence that conflicts between China and Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan began to intensify almost immediately in the wake of Clinton's open call for an American "pivot" to Asia.

America's strategy exacerbates tensions in the region for two related reasons. First, it gives American allies who have territorial disputes with China added muscle for confronting the rising power. Secondly, it inspires a resolve in elements of the Chinese leadership to test the extent of America's willingness to back up regional allies.

Chinese announcements of increased maritime and air patrols around the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands could be related to a desire to see exactly how the United States will react in the event of a military clash.

If the increasing possibility of a shooting war between Japan and China is a "desirable result" of America's Asian policy, then by all means America's pivot has been a resounding success.

While it may be counterproductive for Japan and China to damage their deep economic ties with mutual threats of military action over a few uninhabited islands, it is downright strategically reckless for the United States to commit itself to the possibility of universal economic ruin - and indeed, the outside chance of global Armageddon - over the distant and intractable conflict.

Even Obama's uplifting inauguration speech could be seen as implicitly aggressive to a Chinese audience.

When calling for cooperation to advance American goals, Obama said: "the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias".

This speech was of course dutifully translated by the Voice of America and viewed online in its entirety by millions of curious Chinese citizens. As America faces the possibility of fiscal ruin, America's leadership would be wise to remember that their single largest foreign creditor still believes in "communism" (at least on paper).

Current American policy and rhetoric towards China is confused, blatantly disingenuous, and self-defeating. Pleas for increased economic cooperation coincide with a deep mistrust of Chinese investments in the United States. America seeks to "rebalance" its massive military assets off China's shores, but claims not to be seeking to create an anti-Chinese regional alliance. While calling for democracy, the United States may find hyper-nationalistic forces the benefactors of meaningful reform to the Chinese government.

Meanwhile, how can the Chinese government strategically balance their position America's strategic rebalance? As Kenneth G Lieberthal warns:
US friends and allies are encouraging the United States to enhance its security commitments, but they are also tying their economic futures to China's growth. The United States is thus in danger of having Asia become an ever greater profit center for China (via economic and trade ties) and a major cost center for the United States (via security commitments)[4]
The Chinese leadership can take to heart from the advice of their ancient sage, Lao Tzu: "Do that which consists in taking no action, and order will prevail."

China's still-massive potential for internal economic growth and growing international trade are far better assets for regional influence than even the most advanced weapons in the world.

Instead of distracting the people with a potentially devastating war, perhaps the Chinese leadership could make increased investments in China's expanding space program. Landing a person on Mars or establishing a permanent lunar colony would be a massive international propaganda boon, and may prove less costly than an arms race with Uncle Sam.

The Obama administration must craft a Chinese policy that reflects the changed strategic nature of our world. Time is on China's side. If the Chinese leadership can avoid directly challenging America's military posture, than China is sure to win the conflict that will never be.

Notes:
1. "China in Revolution and War", Cheng Li, The Brookings Institution, January 17, 2013.
2. "China in Revolution and War", Cheng Li, Th Brookings Institution, January 17, 2013.
3. "Bringing Beijing Back In", Kenneth G. Lieberthal, The Brookings Institution, January 17, 2013.
4. "Bringing Beijing Back In", Kenneth G Lieberthal, The Brookings Institution, January 17, 2013. http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2013/01/bringing-beijing-back-in

Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.

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