Writing in the Global Times Thursday, Chinese scholar Zhou Fangyin argued that the US rebalancing to Asia is having significant regional effects, largely targeted at China.A great deal has been written about the Obama administration’s “rebalancing” in Asia by Chinese analysts. Unfortunately, much of it overstates the amount of change in US policy, the impact of the policy, and often mistakes cause and effect.
Zhou’s article is indicative of these tendencies, though there are parts of his analysis with which I strongly agree.
First, though it was consumed by two wars in Southwest Asia, the US never left the Asia-Pacific. Strengthening alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia and building stronger working partnerships with Singapore and other ASEAN states have been ongoing US policy well before President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008.
More than a few Chinese believe that Washington is trying to develop ties with India, Indonesia and Vietnam. This is true enough. But this process has been ongoing, in the cases of India and Vietnam, since the mid-1990s under the Clinton administration, and in Indonesia, since its democratization after the fall of Suharto in 1998.
Even the still incomplete Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) preceded Obama. US trade officials began working on the idea under the second Bush administration, as I recall having worked in the US Department of State at that time.
Zhou cites the increased US naval presence and military exercising as part of the rebalancing. But given the size of the US forward deployed presence in the Pacific over the past six decades, this is a modest change.
What is noteworthy is the rationale. It is designed to respond to the concerns of US allies and partners in the region about China’s growing comprehensive national power and its military assertiveness.
US allies and partners seek a credible US role in and commitment to the region, not as hegemon, but as offshore balancer.
This is part of the cause and effect not well acknowledged by many Chinese analysts. From the 1990s to 2008, China enjoyed great diplomatic and economic success throughout Asia, with very skillful diplomacy and economic involvement that drove growth and cooperation in the region.
In the aftermath of the Western financial crisis in 2008, Beijing became more assertive in its economic ambitions and its territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific. It is against the background that the US “rebalancing” should be viewed.
Claiming, for example, that the US lifting of sanctions and increased economic assistance to Myanmar requires Myanmar to reform its political system and speed up democratization has it backwards. It was Myanmar’s decision to open its economic and political system and reduce dependence on China that the US and EU responded to positively.
One confusing part of Zhou’s essay suggests that the US is “intervening in Asia-Pacific affairs” by joining the East Asia Summit (EAS), and that its “rebalancing” is impeding cooperation among East Asian nations.
In fact, East Asian economic integration has steadily increased, new economic cooperation agreements are being negotiated between China, and Japan, the South Korea and the ASEAN Plus Six. And like some other EAS members, the US is a Pacific, if not an Asian, power with every reason to be at the table.
The TPP is also poorly understood. It is an effort in the face of a failed Doha WTO global trade round to create a free trade accord of high standards among all APEC partners, including China, who are willing to adhere to such conditions.
Developing Asian states would be able to join whenever they are prepared, even if, like China, they are not currently part of the negotiations.
Finally, the conclusion outlined by Zhou is one that could make a big difference to the emerging world order. I strongly agree that the US and China need to better coordinate their strategic relationship. As Zhou argues, that will be more effective and sustainable and mutually beneficial to both nations, than any zero-sum efforts to gain a strategic edge.
The current trend of strategic competition in US-China relations reflects a classic and dangerous security dilemma that rarely leads to peace and stability. It is not a question of who dominates East Asia, but rather one of how each defines an acceptable presence of the other in the Asia-Pacific region.
Robert Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor from 2001 to 2004 and a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008. This piece was first published on Global Times.