Era of American retrenchment
The big question will be how China perceives the reset of the pivot strategy by Obama. While Beijing is intensely watching Obama’s policies on Ukraine, given its far-reaching impact on the world order, it will be wrong to rush to judgment that China views all of American policy through the prism of the most difficult crisis of the day, rather than taking the longer view.
The coming weeks and months will show whether Beijing would choose to exploit the recrudescence of old European enmities (and America’s entanglement in them, being a congenital Atlantic power), to lean hard on China’s neighbors in the region… So far, the official Chinese reaction by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has narrowed down to a perfunctory objection to Obama’s assertion that the US-Japan alliance treaty also covers Senkaku.
As for the 10-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the US and the Philippines, a commentary by Xinhua over the weekend analyzed that «the next few days could actually derail the implementation of the agreement», given the groundswell of opposition in the Philippine Senate and House of Representatives that their country «would not be getting much in return» for «virtually allowing the whole country to be an American military base».
The paradox cannot be lost on Beijing that although Obama is as ‘Pacific’ an American president as could be in a long while, his presidency is still tied by umbilical cords to the US’ trans-Atlantic concerns and constrained by its involvement in the never-ending exigencies in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere. In a sense, therefore, it is possible to say that Obama’s tour is a valiant reversion of the US’ Asia-Pacific policy to a ‘pre-pivot’ mode – except, of course, that it nonetheless has to cope with the rise in regional tensions following the unveiling of the ‘pivot’ two years ago.
Without doubt, the fizz has gone out of the US’ pivot strategy, as unveiled by the then secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Arguably, Beijing throttled the ‘pivot’ in the cradle in 2012 on the Scarborough Shoal. The ‘pivot’ never really regained its verve after the US’ failure to militarily intervene. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe subsequently has tried his best to inject fresh life into the ‘pivot’, but then, pat came the Chinese move to create the Air Defense Identification Zone [ADIZ]. China promulgated the ADIZ but then, curiously, it wouldn’t enforce it. In essence, Beijing has been reactive. Interestingly, Obama’s Air Force One flew through the ADIZ after filing a routine fight plan.
The core issue comes down to the US’ willingness to engage in a conflict with China, which could well happen if the US is bent on perpetuating its dominance of the region. But Obama understands the US’ severe limitations in going to war with China. During his recent tour, he was throughout taking a position of strategic ambiguity when directly confronted with that question.
It is a moot point why Obama wouldn’t give a blanket, all-weather commitment to protect Japan or the Philippines when he is prepared to do that in the case of the US’ North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] allies. The US, including the Obama administration, has never made any bones about the fact that the NATO is of pivotal importance to America’s global strategies. The US secretary of state John Kerry made a pretty strong valedictorian speech at the 50th Munich Security Conference in February to emphasize the point.
Ironically, the US is better placed today in Asia than it has been in the recent decade or two and why should it upset the apple cart? China’s growth is integral to the recovery and rejuvenation of the American economy. China is potentially the principal source of investment in the American economy. China’s proposed reforms in the direction of opening up the financial system and domestic market are hugely attractive for the American business. China’s cooperation is vital to contain the North Korea problem; to conclude an Iran nuclear deal; to stabilize Afghanistan, and so on.
Again, India has transformed as a close friend of the US and there is huge untapped reserve in the US-Indian partnership. Malaysia has turned the corner and has left behind the openly anti-American decades in its foreign policy. Myanmar is moving out of China’s orbit and is manifestly eager to engage the US. Vietnam has buried the old enmities and looks at the US as a counterweight to rising China, which creates more space for Hanoi to negotiate with Beijing.
Most certainly, the spectre of nuclearization of the Far East haunts Beijing as well as Washington. Again, the US too feels uneasy about the surge in Japanese militarism, as indeed China (and South Korea). As for Beijing, the burgeoning trade and investment relations with the US (and the West) are critical to the realization of China’s Dream. Thus, on the whole, the US-China interdependency could become a factor of regional stability in Asia-Pacific.
Therefore, if a reasonably good case can also be made that the present Chinese leadership consists of cool, rational, thinking people, and, secondly, assuming that China has set its national priorities of reform in all earnestness, Obama is doing the right thing to initiate a reset of the ‘pivot’ strategy. Obama is not going to compel China to accept US leadership, which he knows is an unachievable goal anyway. During the remaining period of the Obama presidency, a US-China confrontation can be safely ruled out.
Besides, it isn’t at all as if the US’s Asian partners do not have a mind of their own and are blithely taking shelter under the American umbrella. Expanding the flourishing trade and investment ties with China is a top priority for each of them. Obama failed to meet the principal objective of his Asian tour, which was to secure agreements on the Trans
Pacific Partnership [TPP], a US-dominated free-trade area. The TPP is facing stiff resistance from Japan and Malaysia, in particular.
By the way, not once during his Asia tour, Obama touched on China’s ‘assertiveness’, an argument that originally provided the raison d’etre for the ‘pivot’ strategy. Obama’s emphasis was on China’s adherence to international law and an overall conduct with a sense of responsibility, which is only expected of big powers.
The notion of China’s ‘assertiveness’ was a flawed one in the first instance. The plain truth is that according to World Bank estimate, China is expected to replace the US this year as the world’s largest economy on ‘purchasing power parity’ [PPP] basis. It means that very soon, China would have a bigger economy than of the US for purposes of military spending. In PPP terms, China’s economy can be 60 percent bigger than the US’ in a decade. Clearly, the talk about ‘assertiveness’ has lost relevance. Containment of China or the ‘pivot’ to Asia is no longer an affordable proposition, either. As a Guardian columnist put it, «Are Americans prepared to give up social security or Medicare in order to maintain US military supremacy in Asia?»
The heart of the matter is that paradigm shifts often elude onlookers. There is a shift in the US foreign policies as a whole taking place under the Obama presidency, which is away from its ‘militarization’. David Sanger of the New York Times recently wrote, «Obama acknowledges, at least in private conversations that he is managing an era of American retrenchment».
Equally, the Asian region is rapidly transforming and while it is in need of more regional security contributions from the US, it is the resident states that are going to make the ultimate difference in the medium and long term. The economic trends are making the ‘pivot’ unsustainable and the need arises for the US to negotiate more with China, promoting peace and stability by working with its allies for a regional framework that can manage tensions in the contested neighborhood. It involves sharing power with China, which may not be easy but is unavoidable and could even have a pleasant outcome, as the end result could be more social and economic progress and reduced risk of wars.