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Understanding the US Pivot: Past, Present, and Future

RUSI Newsbrief, 26 November, 2014

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With the resurrection of Russian revanchism on Europe’s Eastern borders and the near-collapse of the Iraqi and Kurdish states under the onslaught of ISIS, it seems as though the American pivot to Asia may be over before it has begun. Certainly, America’s ‘first Pacific President’, as he has been described, has found it more difficult than anticipated to end America’s wars in the Middle East and swing the country’s focus towards the Asia-Pacific.

The Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia was created during the re-election campaign by a group of the president’s closest advisors, with personal input by the president himself. Initiated with the prediction that Asia would become the centre of the global economy by 2050, by the belief that the US’s political absence had been bad for regional security, and by the notion that the US had become bogged down for too long in unwinnable wars in the Middle East. Emerging as a term to describe the US’s new Asia policy, a key assumption was that despite the challenges posed to the West by Islamists non-state actors and terrorist groups like Al-Qa’ida, these threats were manageable and the true focus of the US should instead be on Asia. The need for the US to shift its diplomatic, economic and defence resources to the region was perceived as especially urgent with the rise of Chinese regional power and influence, and China’s apparent inclination to exercise its burgeoning military power in territorial spats with its neighbours. The fact that these spats affected sea lanes vital to the US and its allies meant that their peaceful resolution was of direct concern to Washington. While these circumstances continue to exist, however, it is clear that growing insecurity in Europe and the Middle East mean that the US and its allies will now have to co-ordinate a much more holistic global strategy for the future.

In the three years since the pivot was unveiled, the policy has been much criticised, much maligned, and some would argue, much misunderstood. This is perhaps because it challenges a number of assumptions inherent to the ‘pre-pivot’ world. First, it challenges the notion that Europe is the global centre of gravity; second, it challenges the notion that the Middle East should be Washington’s overriding security priority; and third, it implicitly challenges the assumption that China will become the region’s lead power. At home, its domestic critics claim that the policy represents mere Democratic posturing, representing – at best – a simple repackaging of various Bush-era policies, including the trilaterals – a unique set of quasi-alliances with Japan, Australia, South Korea and India established between 2002 and 2010 – closer ties with Tokyo, and capability-building among Southeast Asian states. Why claim that the US would return to Asia, they puzzled, when it had actually never left.

Asian critics of the pivot also emerged, viewing the policy as overly-antagonistic toward China, and likely to fuel great-power rivalry, which might force regional states into an unwanted binary choice. Oddly, this saw the same Southeast Asian states that had back-channelled requests for greater US presence in the region voice disquiet as the policy was rolled out, fearing a Chinese backlash. This was not long in coming, as Chinese officials and media blasted the policy as a euphemism for containment – one they claimed rested on a Cold War, balance-of-power logic. Despite the administration’s insistence that this was not the case, the charge became a handy weapon for Beijing to keep Washington on a back foot as President Obama and others toured the region in April.

In Europe, understanding of the policy was even less apparent. Many US allies viewed the shift with alarm, and despite Hillary Clinton’s claim that the US could ‘walk and chew gum at the same time’, there was a concern that the prioritisation of Asia was at Europe’s expense.

Indeed, the ‘pivot’ represented an unfortunate choice of nomenclature as it implied that the US only had one face, and like a player on a basketball court, would pivot either in one direction or another in order to move up court. This debate caused led to an unfortunate dumbing down of the actual issues behind the policy, and one that led to increased misrepresentations of overall US global strategy.

Attempts to correct this definitional issue foundered in light of the fact that President Obama personally liked the term, leaving American diplomats floundering between the use of ‘pivot’ and ‘rebalancing’. In some ways, the debate came to resemble that which had clouded China’s 2003 ‘Peaceful Rise’ policy, in which China’s efforts to reassure the region backfired when many observed the balance of power connotations in the term ‘rise’. Obama administration officials at the coal face of the policy, such as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, worked hard to get the debate back on track by focusing on substantive issues and de-emphasing the policy name on his visits around the region. However, by 2012, the fiscal climate in Washington had begun to deteriorate, sowing new suspicion that Washington could ill-afford the new policy.

The sequestration in 2013 and ensuing budget cuts to the Department of Defense (hitting the Navy particularly hard) have led some, like Senator John McCain, to question the administration’s ability to fund the policy, despite its insistence that such funding was ring-fenced. At a defence industrial event in March 2014, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Katrina McFarland told the audience that ‘the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly, it can’t happen’. Within hours of her remarks, McFarland sought to withdraw them, contacting Navy Times, which was due to publish her comments, with a correction. The unfortunate back-and-forth served only to heighten the gathering suspcioun both within Washington and in the Pacific region that the administration will be unable to follow through on its intentions.

And yet, despite its fiscal challenges, the Obama administration maintains that its efforts in the Asia-Pacific will continue, and despite naysayers, has demonstrated its commitment to the pivot through a major political and military outreach programme. This has included an increase in presidential visits to the region – Obama having carried out more than any other sitting president – significant changes to the country’s defence posture in-region, with new deployments to Australia and Singapore, and an increased American presence in regional fora such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). On top of that, it has sought – with limited success so far – to re-energise its economic relationship with the region through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

However, despite all of this, perhaps critics of the pivot are right in one way: US attention to the region cannot come at the expense of others. As the economies of the Asia-Pacific grow, for example, so too do their dependence on Middle Eastern energy supplies, linking the security of the two regions. The US will therefore have to adopt a more holistic approach to its global strategy and continue trying to co-ordinate with its allies to establish what each can do, and where they can best do it. The pivot to Asia cannot leave behind security of the Middle East, when so many of its Asian and European allies depend on the region for their energy supplies.

US allies in Europe and in Asia can play a constructive role in developing and implementing this linked-up strategy, as a loose bloc to defend and augment the current rules-based order. Indeed, there have already been some nascent signs of this as allies in the Asia-Pacific have become more integrated into NATO missions in the Middle East and the Gulf of Eden, and in Brussels. There have also been signs of European allies integrating politically with Asian powers. Further institutionalised co-operation between these states and NATO is a good way forward, also helping to build up capacity in key target areas, like cyber-security and maritime security. This has already begun – on a limited capacity – between key US allies like the UK, Australia, and Japan.

Those European allies pushing for the US to recommit to Europe will also have to put their own houses in order and recommit to NATO spending targets, despite the recession. The fact that last year the US accounted for more than 73 per cent of all NATO defence spending (up from 68 per cent in 2007), is a sorry state of affairs that simply cannot continue. The US simply cannot carry the weight of all of its allies.

European allies will also have to acknowledge Asia’s importance in US global strategy; after all, Asia – as the future centre of the global economy – is becoming more important to them too. As such, in addition to taking on more stepping up in Eastern Europe and in the Mediterranean, they should help to free up those US assets that are needed in Asia. They can also adopt a more co-ordinated approach towards defence exports to China – one more in line with a broader Western strategy. Meanwhile, another little acknowledged facet of China’s build-up has been its use of European military technology, acquired in civilian joint ventures with firms like Eurocopter, Agusta Westland and Pratt & Whitney. The US should not have to deal with advanced European systems in its bid to maintain stability and a balance of power.

Finally, US strategy in the Asia Pacific region must continue to try to manage the Thucydidean trap presented by China’s rise by careful hedging, combining political engagement with hard balancing. Whether referred to as a pivot, rebalance or something else entirely, Washington must pursue policies that strengthen its Asian allies, including new models of security co-operation, while also trying to deter China from military revanchism. If one compares this period to the 1930s, when Western liberal democracies and the League of Nations were in disarray, one might see that the cards are stacked more in the Western power’s favour. Unlike in that period, the US is fully and proactively committed to the defence of global stability, and its allies – though in financial straits – are co-ordinated and committed to the same. Going forward, this generation must not repeat the mistakes of the past and lose sight of the need to defend the current rules-based order


NATO and the ‘Pivot’ after Wales

 

David Cameron hosts the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales.International Relations and Security Network, 12 September, 2014

 

Now that the NATO Summit in Wales is over, analysts are working to understand its implications for the strategic landscape around Europe. One issue that lay behind many of the discussions was the impact of US global strategy on the force-posture of US military assets in and around Europe. Although Hillary Clinton famously quipped that the United States “can walk and chew gum at the same time”, European allies still wonder how the US ‘pivot to Asia’ will affect its ability to defend the European continent and manage instability in the Middle East.

Overall, the Summit was a success: 28 world leaders came together as a symbol of transatlantic solidarity and moved past much of the awkwardness that had characterized US-German and US-EU ties over the past year. Vladimir Putin’s revanchist policies had reminded them of the purpose of the alliance, as had the growing instability on Europe’s southern border. On the whole, there were no significant differences of principle among member-states, and the leaders of the United States, Germany, France, the UK, and others committed – on paper, at least – to keep Europe “ whole, free, and at peace.”

Some have called the crisis over Ukraine a ‘Munich moment’, referring to the Munich Conference of 1938, when Germany won control of Sudetenland, a Czechoslovakian territory. However, the comparison is a favorable one for this generation. Rather than accepting the dismemberment of Ukraine, NATO member-states pledged support to Kiev in the form of a planned military exercise in Western Ukraine to show the alliance’s commitment. Furthermore, NATO members agreed to invest in reinvigorating the Alliance’s capabilities in three ways: 1) through the development of a new 4,000-strong deployment force, 2) through increased defense spending, and 3) through strategy readjustments to cyber warfare and ‘ambiguous warfare’.

Losing focus?

At a joint NATO-Cardiff University Conference held prior to the official summit, policy-makers and academics struggled to understand how the pivot would affect America’s ability to defend Europe. More than once, the US commitment to allocate more military resources to the Asia-Pacific was questioned. Some even wondered if the pivot was still in place, given the amount of traction that the Ukraine crisis and rise of ISIL were getting in Washington. This was despite US efforts to allay such fears at a press conference held on the 14th of August, where Admiral John Kirby stated that, despite instability on Europe’s eastern and southern flanks, the US remained very committed to the pivot, as illustrated by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent trip to Asia (his sixth as Secretary).

At the August 14th press conference, Admiral Kirby pointed out that five out of seven US treaty allies were located in the Asia-Pacific region, in addition to 350,000 troops and 200 ships. He might also have pointed out that the region is home to some of the world’s largest militaries and now outspends Europe collectively on defense. In addition, as powers like China and India rise, fissures and tensions along their peripheries have begun to threaten the stability of a region that already dominates global trade and is predicted to represent 51% of global GDP by 2050. If the US continues to turn towards the Asia-Pacific, it is out of long-term strategic necessity. Its European allies must recognize this.

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NATO Wales and the Future of Western Grand Strategy

Mistral Projection and Command Vessel
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International Relations Security Network, 7 August, 2014

By John Hemmings for ISN

By all accounts, the upcoming NATO Summit in Wales is likely to be one of the most important since the end of the Cold War. Originally cast as a post-Afghanistan ‘lessons-learned’ and maritime security summit, events in Ukraine and Crimea have dramatically shifted the agenda since February and highlighted the need to redevelop NATO’s core mission of collective defense and deterrence. The sudden massing of Russian armor and more than 150,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border in February at the height of the crisis, reminded Western leaders – particularly those in Poland and the Baltic states – of their vulnerability to old-fashioned conventional forces. However, it has already become clear that these threat-perceptions of Russia are not held equally by all 28 member states in the Alliance, as Germany and Italy balance their security concerns with dependence on Moscow’s energy imports.

These differences may emerge as a serious problem during the summit, stymying a collective path forward. Worse still, European policy elites continue to worry about shifts in US global strategy, particularly the US Pivot strategy and how the shift of US attention away from the European theatre to the Asian one will affect force posture in-region. These fears are likely to run into US frustration over NATO members’ under-spending, a common feature of every NATO summit since the 1990s, and one that will have real – rather than symbolic – meaning this year. Of course, despite all of these challenges, NATO remains the most powerful global defensive alliance, in terms of its combined GDP, military spending, and military technology. As with all collective efforts, its real weaknesses lie in coordination. With the US Pivot to Asia likely to become a permanent feature of its global strategy, the NATO Wales Summit must find a strategic posture for the West that accepts and complements that reality.

What does the Pivot mean to Europe?

The US Pivot to Asia is still poorly understood in Europe. Some believe that the policy is merely rhetorical in nature, while others see it as a misjudged containment attempt towards China, one that – as Australian academic Hugh White contends –fans the flames of great power rivalry. Primarily, European elites view the Pivot in terms of its effect on European security.

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China and America: A Superpower Showdown in Asia?

The National Interest, 14 June, 2014

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Over the past several months, tensions between Washington and Beijing have steadily grown worse. Relying again on the incremental approach that has thus far served it well, China dragged a deep sea-drilling platform into Vietnamese-claimed waters, shouldering aside protesting Vietnamese vessels. Then on the 21st of May, President Xi Jinping proposed a new Asian security pact with nations such as Russia and Iran, a pact that pointedly excluded the US and seemed to be a club for authoritarian states. Then in June, Beijing refused arequest by a UN court of arbitration at The Hague to provide evidence of its claims in a case brought by the Philippines. Days later, a video released by Vietnam showed a heavy Chinese fishing vessel slowly crushing a Vietnamese counterpart; the moment seemed to perfectly symbolize China’s new diplomatic strategy towards the region and one could almost see the phrase “Chinese soft power” slipping under the waves with it. If one thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. As the West has continued to look for ways to exert pressure on Russia over its actions in Crimea, China finally revealed where its cards lay: Beijing inked a $400 billion natural gas deal with Moscow and now looks set to sign another. None of it good news for those who think China ought to be a status quo power, upholding the rules of the global system.

All of this must have been uppermost in President Obama’s mind in late May as he toured the region on what allies called a “reassurance tour” and Beijing called a “containment tour.” The tour failed to make any headway on the White House’s touted trade group, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP), but was overall a success by showing US allies and regional partners that the rebalance has the support of the White House. However, despite this brief show of US soft power diplomacy in the region, China’s rise has gradually shifted from being a welcome to an unwelcome event. One can almost see the exam question at some future university:

Were American leaders right to believe that economic liberalization and heavy investment in China would eventually lead to political liberalization, and make China into a responsible stakeholder?

Until recently, the preferred answer in Washington was yes.

It seemed certain to say that the economic liberalization of China was inherently a “good” thing, that raising millions out of poverty demonstrated once and for all the benefits of free market capitalism. The 1991 collapse of the USSR may have proven the failure of the communist economic model, but a successful China had demonstrated to the world capitalism’s strengths. And as every liberal knew, economic success brings with it a rising middle class, the vanguard of a pluralistic system.

Success, partly…

No one disputes that the first part of the story has been a triumphant success: China’s rampant growth as a state capitalist regime has dominated Western headlines for nearly two decades. An unprecedented influx of US, Japanese, Taiwanese and EU investment turned the Chinese economy red hot in less than a decade after Deng’s Southern Tour, with many becoming blasé about China’s double digit growth figures. Surely, Mao turned in his grave during the 2008 financial crisis, when many were calling China the savior of the global (capitalist) economy. Who could have predicted in his time that Chinese leaders would one day lecture their North Korean counterparts on the benefits of the free market? If anyone fretted that the second part of the story had not yet happened – China had not added political reforms to the mix – optimists would always add ‘yet’sotto voce. It was only a matter of time before China’s growing middle classes began clamoring for political as well as economic rights, they said, and saw signs of this in China’s growing online forums, which became miniature town meetings on corrupt officials and abuses of power.

And as Washington has watched with dismay, this Western notion that China would gradually liberalize politically has been dissipated more and more. Not only does President Xi show no signs of loosening Party control at home or of adopting liberal values abroad, his security proposal in Shanghai reveals an inclination to defend and augment authoritarianism. That brief spring felt before the 2008 Beijing Olympics quickly froze over as the regime reasserted control over television stations, bloggers and netizens, threatening three-year sentences to those who spread “internet rumors.” In early May, prominent journalist Gao Yu was detained as part of targeted campaign against activists in the run up tothe 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, an anniversary that was eerily silent in Beijing. Contrary to expectations, Xi has also consolidated and centralized power with the party and the military quickly, with the Economistcalling him the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng.

Turning the Tide

Is a new Cold War between China and the United States inevitable? Obama’s foreign policy for the region has sought to avoid definitively answering that question, as well, he might. The consequences of radically changing direction when it comes to China policy would be a dramatic shift in US grand strategy, the greatest perhaps since the fall of Soviet Union. Many in the West have claimed that China cannot be “contained,” pointing to Beijing’s role in servicing US debt as well as its place as a major trade partner to so many pivotal US allies. While there is some truth to this, it is not quiet as unthinkable as it once was. Michael Pettis, a renowned economist at the Peking University, along with many others predict a debt crisis for China in the next 4-5 years, in which Chinese growth rates will all but come to a halt. He argues that the Third Plenum reforms promoted by President Xi (raising savings rates for homeowners, raising the currency, dealing with land ownership and the internal passport system) are bound to come into stiff resistance from Chinese elites, happily profiting from the current system. The stakes are quite high: should Xi fail to push these reforms through, China could hit the growth wall suffered by Japan in the late 1980s. As with Japan in the 1980s, China is called the engine for the global economy, but as Japan stagnated in the early 1990s, the West experienced one of the biggest booms in recent memory. This doesn’t mean that China is a paper tiger, it does cast doubt on the idea that China will is destined to inherit the earth…

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Obama’s Pivot to Asia: 2014 and Beyond

4 June, 2014

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Leaving on a Jet Plane

It was late at night as Air Force One taxied to a halt at Narita Airport in Tokyo to kick off an extended Presidential visit to the region. Emerging from the aircraft, President Obama seemed determined to impress upon the region and Japan his personal commitment to the Asia Pacific. Deemed a ‘reassurance tour’, the President’s trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines was meant to ‘underscore a continued focus on the Asia Pacific region and commitment to his vision of rebalancing to the world’s largest emerging region,’ in the somewhat wooden phrasing of the White House.

Despite the President’s many statements to the contrary, over the next few days, it was clear to many analysts and journalists that the trip was meant to reassure US allies over growing Chinese assertiveness. Chinese media like the Xinhua railed against the trip and the wider policy of ‘containment’. The US “rebalancing strategy”, the Xinhua wrote hours after Obama’s plane touched down at Narita, “smacks of a carefully calculated scheme to cage the rapidly developing Asian giant by rallying US allies”.  The Global Times quoted the Chinese Ambassador to Washington as saying the “rebalancing to Asia policy may need some ‘rebalancing’ so that the United States can maintain a good relationship to every nation in the region,” a not-so-subtle warning.

Missing the Point

Unfortunately, Chinese pundits missed the greater point in their haste to see rebalancing as simple containment and only a small number of analysts reported on the US rebalancing as a response to Chinese behavior. One such pundit, Yang Hengjun, a former diplomat and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council posed the question, ‘why are China’s neighbor’s so afraid of her’ in a regional forum, and though his efforts are laudable, he fails to connect Beijing’s problems with its policies, and instead blames the China’s media for hubristic statements that offend and scare neighbors. This neatly moves responsibility away from the military, CNOOC, and the Chinese leadership who have been promoting expansionism in the East and South China Sea maritime disputes. This attempt to forge a ‘CNN effect with Chinese characteristics’ rather reveals the constraints under which political analysts must be written in Beijing.

Japan and ROK

Despite the claims of the Global Times and others to the contrary, the trip was a success. And it was a success for one simple reason. It did what it said on the label. The president had gone to personify and symbolize US commitment to its allies in their various disputes with China and this was done. The United States’ reiterated its political and military support for the current status quo, and stated firmly that changes could only come peacefully and through diplomacy. Obama’s visit to Japan gave Prime Minister what he had long wanted, a presidential assurance that the Senkaku Islands (disputed with China) fell within the remit of the US-Japan security alliance. In return, Obama emphasized that Japan’s role as a regional force for stability would be enhanced by ‘collective self-defense’, a point that shows that the defence commitments of the alliance now cut both ways.

While some pundits have argued that Abe had done little more than take the President to a great sushi bar, giving little on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) front, this overlooks the primary reason for the trip and overstates the need for the TPP to be negotiated within its present time-table. Others – such as Kent Calder, a noted scholar on Japan – have argued that behind the diplomatic niceties between Obama and Abe, the chasm between Washington and Tokyo has become incredibly wide, particularly on history and nationalism issues. Whatever the case, it is clear that Abe and Obama shared a single agenda for this trip: to consolidate the alliance in the face of regional insecurity, and avoid open bickering. This they managed to do, though it is a small victory.

Obama’s pressure on Abe to deal with the ‘comfort women’ issue was rewarded in Seoul as President Park Guen-Hye presented a warm welcome to the President. Days before his visit, the reputable Asan Institute published a survey saying that 93% of South Koreans saw the alliance with the US in a positive light. High strung North Korean media attempts to brand the visit as one by a ‘pimp’ to his ‘crafty prostitute’,[6] only seemed to reaffirm Pyongyang’s isolation and inability to be taken seriously. Despite or perhaps because of warnings from Obama and Park, the awaited 4th nuclear test failed to materialize in the days up to and after the summit. Truly, the visit was marred by the Sewol ferry disaster, which was then boiling over into a cabinet reshuffle; events around the Russian annexation of the Crimea also took precedence. As expected, the latter event caused ripples of disquiet among US allies, concerned about Washington’s military commitments. If anything, however, Russian behavior only served to reinforce the need for the US alliance system.

Malaysia: Symbolically Substantive

Arguably, Obama’s trip to Malaysia was the smoothest as the US rebalance was openly welcomed by Malaysia’s leadership. In a press conference hosted by Prime Minister Najib, the two men agreed to elevate the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Partnership, agreeing on the interdiction principles of the PSI, and continuing to work on increased military interoperability. As with Japan, Malaysia has begun to edge closer to the US as Beijing’s claims have hardened in the maritime sphere. On the other hand, as with Japan, this has yet to bring home the TPP bacon and the President was again disappointed on the TPP front. However, his mood must have been lifted during the ‘town hall meeting’ with a number of Malaysia’s young people as he was greeted with screams of “We love you, Obama”, a reminder of his potent charisma and links to the region. In an East West paper, Elina Noor at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) argues that this was where the real power of Obama’s visit to Malaysia lay – his ability to connect with people. For those who remember the criticism endured by the Bush administration in the region, his ability to connect has been a welcome one.

Last but not least

The final visit of the reassurance tour was to the Philippines, perhaps the place most in need of reassuring. Long-suffering at the hands of Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, Manila was relieved that Obama’s statement that “…nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace, to have their sovereignty and territorial integrity respected”, was supported by a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The new defence pact gave US forces greater access to patrol Philippine waters, and though US forces have eschewed basing rights, it is likely that both Japan and the United States will work to increase coast guard and naval Philippine capabilities.

The real question of course, is how did Obama’s reassurance trip affect China? What has the balance does to deter China from seeking to forcefully change the status quo? The answer to that is unfortunately ‘not much’, as can be seen by Beijing’s establishment of an oil rig in Vietnamese waters in the days following Obama’s return to Washington. There is very little self-awareness amongst the Chinese leadership and that in itself is most worrying. Relying on ‘the century of humiliation’ narrative, China’s media continues to defend expansionism from US ‘bullying’. If rebalancing to Asia does not deter China, what policy should replace rebalancing? “How do we deal toughly with our banker”, as Hilary Clinton once asked. What policies should the US adapt after a future Sino-Vietnamese naval conflict. The US and other regional states have oft told themselves that China cannot be contained, and that is probably true, but it can be restrained. It is really a question of making Beijing pay an economic and political price for its aggressive actions towards US allies. What comes after ‘rebalancing’? What indeed.


China: America Hedges its Bets

 The National Interest, 6 December, 2013

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The rise of China in economic, political, and military terms is a key challenge for the security policy of the United States, which has both helped affect that rise and now hedges against the possible risks of that rise.

China’s sudden declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over Japanese-administered islands in the East China Sea is yet another vindication for US policy in the region. While there have been a number ofcriticisms of President Obama’s pivot to Asia; the policy was and remains the correct one. The decision to re-orient itself back to the Pacific was largely in reaction to a perception that a lack of diplomatic focus had not been good for the region. US allies in the region, such as Japan, Singapore and the Philippines, argued that a continued absence of focus by the United States in the region had become increasingly dangerous as China began to inexpertly exert its power in the region, particularly over maritime domain disputes. It has done this through a long-term incremental approach to de facto sovereignty over the East and South China Seas. In many ways, these claims have resurrected the logic of balance of power politics, and while Southeast Asian states have striven to avoid choosing between Washington and Beijing, the feeling was that China was taking advantage of the vacuum to assert a power-based hierarchical order. While Washington has also tried to avoid a zero-sum competition with China, the Bush administration and Obama administration began to carefully shift their view of China as it behaved with increased hubris in the region.

In the year following the announcement of the pivot policy, Chinese pundits accused the US ofcontainment, asserting a US plan to stem China’s rise as a great power. This is wrong for a number of reasons. First, this accusation ignores the US prominent role in developing China’s economy. All through the 1990’s, the US granted China most favored nation trade status, making this permanent in 2001. In addition, the US sponsored China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in2001. While there are no statistics on this topic, US investments into China since the 1970s could be over the trillion dollar mark. Robert Manning from the Atlantic Council has argued if the US wanted to enact a policy of containment of China, it would look quite different from the complex policy package that we see today. It would, for example, involve far more balancing behaviors including the attempted the diplomatic sidelining of China, a military build-up aimed specifically at Chinese platforms, and the creation of further alliances in and around China’s periphery. The US is not attempting such policies, nor does it think such policies are possible. Instead, as Evan Medeiros has argued convincingly, Washington is carrying out a policy of strategic hedging, a dual-track policy in which it carries out two policy bundles; one of engagement and one of balancing simultaneously. This article seeks to show how the United States came to follow such a complex policy, while also seeking to understand the strengths and weaknesses inherent in such a policy.

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Hedging: the Real US Policy Toward China?

The Diplomat, 13 May, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with China's Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington

Over the past several years, it has been common practice for Chinese academics and pundits to describe the U.S. “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia as part of a greater strategy of containment. Popular Chinese news media like Xinhua, the People’s Daily and the Global Times regularly run articles assuming that the U.S. is enacting a containment strategy as it once did against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the contemporary debate among various Chinese scholars and in the media, the pivot is seen as  a strategy based on American financial monopoly, or at least one based on the military industrial complex’s need for an opponent. Occasionally some in the U.S. like Bonnie Glaser and Joseph Nye warn the U.S. against a policy of containment, apparently giving credibility to such charges.

U.S. policymakers, on the other hand, firmly reject the notion that they are enacting a policy of  containment toward China. There simply has not been the type of policy realization as famously took place after George Kennan sent his ‘Long Telegram’ to Washington in 1946. Containment or balancing behavior involves the building of alliances against a target nation, the developing of national resources and defense capabilities in anticipation of hostilities with that other. This does not describing accurately, what the US policy on China is. Indeed, many in Washington insist that the relationship with China is actually one of engagement and is highly successful in a number of spheres, including trade, counter-proliferation, and global governance. Voting patterns in fora like the UN Security Council show closer U.S.-Chinese positioning than would be expected.

So the question remains: how can we explain the disconnect between the two perspectives? They are, after all, diametrically opposed. One way of explaining them is if one assumes that the U.S. has been pursuing watered down versions of both; if it has in fact been enacting a much more nuanced policy than mere balancing or engaging. Instead, the U.S. is enacting a policy of hedging towards China. In fact, many states in the region (such as Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines) have policies towards China that could be characterized as hedging.

So, what is hedging? Appropriated from the financial world, the basic assumption is that hedging means a state spreads its risk by pursuing two opposite policies towards another state. In international relations, this would seem to be implementing contradictory policy directions simultaneously: balancing and engagement. A state prepares for the worst by balancing – maintaining a strong military, building and strengthening alliances – while also preparing for the best and engaging – building trade networks, increasing diplomatic links, and binding the other in multilateral frameworks. U.S. behavior from towards China from 2000 easily fits into both of these extremes.

Why have U.S. policymakers and a number of their Asian peers decided to pursue such a policy towards Beijing? In essence, the decision to hedge comes from uncertainty. It is difficult to develop policy without strong knowledge of what the other state intends. While this uncertainty exists at some level between all states, diplomatic custom, international government organizations, and multilateral rule systems (like the WTO) minimize this uncertainty by imparting predictability to state-to-state relations. This predictability is enhanced by diplomacy, transparency, and on occasion, espionage. So what is different concerning China that has provoked the US (and others) to hedge?

First, China is a rising power. Beijing’s unfinished rise means that no one yet knows – including China itself – its true potential and willingness to use power. This uncertainty could be described as structural: it has to do with power and the perception of how much power and influence Beijing will eventually have. Second, no one knows how China will use its growing military clout. Indeed, over the duration of the South and East China Sea crises, regional players have been trying to gauge Chinese willingness to use force to pursue its claims. No one knows how far Beijing is willing to go. Thirdly, China’s regime type makes it a particularly difficult state to read; its foreign policy-making system is comparatively opaque. Contrast this with liberal democracies like the United States, where foreign diplomats can access U.S. policy intentions by spending time in Congress, visiting think tanks,  reading  free media, and so on.

Clearly the utilization of a hedging strategy demonstrates that U.S. policymakers are undecided on whether China constitutes a threat. Hedging is about threat potential, in other words. So how can we recognize hedging in the policy world? Hedging is based intentions, rather than just two-directional policy-making. For example, in May 1941, although Germany’s relationship with the USSR looked like hedging, it was not. While Germany was enacting two opposing policies of balancing and engagement with the Soviet Union, it had in fact already decided on war by November 1940. This illustrates a crucial difference between U.S.-China relations and German-Soviet relations: U.S. policymakers are genuinely uncertain which line to pursue. This uncertainty should be good news to China.

In a situation when a state is hedging against another state, what is the optimum policy reaction for the latter? One advantage of the hedging discourse over a containment discourse is that Chinese leaders need not take the defensive. They can attempt to persuade the U.S. and regional powers of China’s benign intentions through a re-engagement of China’s 1990s soft diplomacy. Beijing could begin by shelving or de-prioritizing a number of territorial issues. The Chinese leadership might opt for trust-building through new institutions and customs while resurrecting neglected ones, such as the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement. If Chinese leaders were to accede to a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, or utilize conflict resolution mechanisms such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), it might go a long way to dampen the hedging policies of regional states. If the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were to continue its tradition of issuing White Papers with ever-increasing transparency, it would also go a long way to calming regional fears. In order to mitigate a hedging strategy, one must only address the causes of uncertainty in the relationship. Some of those are structural and difficult to address, but others are well within the reach of policymakers in Beijing.

By that logic, the reverse it equally true. If a state continues to carry out policies which do not reassure regional states and partners, when does hedging become pure balancing? Or to use a historical analogy, when does the US have its George Kennan moment with China? It should be clear to policy-makers in Beijing, that this choice exists and that their actions can change and modify perceptions of China around the region. However, this means adopting wiser strategic policies immune to domestic and bureaucratic pressures. Is Beijing ready or willing to adopt those policies? One would hope so.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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