Since the latest US defense strategy was unveiled in January, a persistent headline has been the US pivot to Asia. As President Obama wrote in the document’s foreword, “As we end today’s wars, we will focus on a broader range of challenges and opportunities, including the security and prosperity of the Asia Pacific.”
Over the last four months, strategists, policymakers, and pundits alike have speculated whether the pivot is new, genuine, or desirable. The United States pivot to Asia is visible through US weapons sales in Asia, establishing bases in Australia, and developing relations with countries like Burma and Vietnam. Those that see the move as a hedge against China worry about provoking a real arms race and great power competition. Others view the move as prudent given the explosive rise of China and its provocations in the South China Sea/East Philippine Sea.
Undoubtedly the rhetorical shift to Asia is linked to a frustration with long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet it is also driven by perceptions of China’s pivot from Asia. With few exceptions, China is often a top trading partner for many countries and the “Made in China” label is ubiquitous. Chinese-built stadiums and parliament buildings can be found throughout the Western Hemisphere and Africa. It is now possible to watch Chinese government sponsored English language news or study Mandarin at one of the hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world. Chinese warships can be found in the Gulf of Aden protecting shipping from piracy and were off North Africa to evacuate Chinese citizens from Libya. China is attempting to contribute to global security through UN peacekeeping and working with countries the United States cannot such as North Korea.
Given China’s level of global activism, one would expect a corresponding increase of support for China. A recent BBC poll shows that opinions of China’s influence are significant. Positive views of China rose from 46 to 50 percent on average. They jumped particularly sharply in the UK (up 19 points), as well as in Australia, Canada, and Germany (all up 18 points).
Yet, Gregory G. Holyk argues that China is a paper tiger—support is not necessarily influence. He wrote in Political Science Quarterly, “Views of Chinese diplomatic soft power very much depend on where you sit, or more appropriately, where you live. Americans and Japanese give China by far the lowest comparative ratings for its use of diplomacy, respect for sovereignty, promotion of trust and cooperation in Asia, and leadership in international institutions.”
Analysts like Joe Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” agrees with Holyk and is none too worried about China’s charm offensive. Often mischaracterized, Nye defines soft power as “the ability to get what one wants by attraction and persuasion rather than coercion or payment.” Countries change behavior not because they have to or are given new football venues, but because they want to. Coming off the heels of a trip to China, Nye wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “for all its efforts, China has had a limited return on its investment. In an Information Age in which credibility is the scarcest resource, the best propaganda is not propaganda.”
This is particularly true in the internet-driven information age, when governments—even authoritarian ones—can no longer control (or censor) the message. As China attempts to match deeds with words, we are likely to see increased Chinese participation in international affairs, global development, and foreign military operations. With China’s pivot from Asia, the chance for miscalculation increases, which requires continued engagement and military-to-military interactions to prevent tactical accidents developing into strategic crises.
Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a Professor of National Security Affairs and the EMC Informationist Chair at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Photo credit: Yang Yi via Cristy Li.