Sino–American ties: building relations beyond Washington’s ‘rebalancing’

Author: David M. Lampton, Johns Hopkins

The principal objective of Chinese and US foreign policies in Asia should be to avoid military competition.  That diverts the United States and China from their primary strategic task: rebuilding themselves.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and China

China needs a more sustainable growth model and a revitalised social compact, both of which require social, economic and political reform. For its part, the United States must rebuild the foundations for sustainable comprehensive power, not least its human resources, physical and institutional infrastructure, and national balance sheet. The US policy of ‘rebalancing’ fails to address these objectives. For this reason, both nations must think more productively about how to establish the strategic foundation for peaceful and prosperous bilateral ties.

International politics usually works according to Newton’s Third Law: a change in one nation’s policy produces an equal and opposite reaction by others in the system. Immoderate action begets immoderate reaction, potentially spawning an upward spiral of contention. So far, Beijing has reacted cautiously to US foreign policy changes, but its long-term approach is still unclear.

This caution stands in contrast to Beijing’s actions in 2009–10, when it threw three decades of successful foreign policy out the window. At the mid-2010 ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi, China told its neighbours that they were small, China was big, and that was a fact they ought not to forget. Beijing also seemed to back North Korea after its military provocations of 2010 resulted in South Korean civilian and military deaths, and then, when South Korean and US navies wished to sail in those waters as a deterrent to North Korea, implied that the Yellow Sea was a ‘Chinese lake’. It linked rare earth exports to a small maritime incident with Japan, engaged in  a number of confrontations in the South China Sea, and overreacted to events better ignored — for example, threatening Norway over awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo.

In October 2011, the United States reacted. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote an article in Foreign Policy entitled ‘America’s Pacific Century’ in which she said that the ‘United States stands at a pivot point’ and called for ‘forward-deployed’ diplomacy. The article was followed in close succession by presidential speeches, remarks by other ranking US officials, and visits to Asia by President Barack Obama, Secretary Clinton and Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta, among others. It was an impressive, coordinated set of activities that was generally well received in the region. While the abrupt and muscular-sounding pivot was promptly renamed ‘rebalancing’, Beijing and Chinese citizens more broadly saw containment where Washington saw regional stabilisation.

It could be that China has become slightly more cooperative as a result of the pivot — China’s recent policy toward North Korea and Iran seems to provide evidence on that point — but ultimately rebalancing will compound mutual strategic distrust between Beijing and Washington.

Of Washington’s genuine policy changes, all but the decision to reach out to Myanmar provoke scepticism. Is it wise to place a small number of US marines and air assets in Darwin and elsewhere in Australia on a rotating basis, given that these forces are located so remotely as to be largely irrelevant? Surely all this does is signal hostile intent to Beijing. Is it unwise to insert the US more centrally into disputes over rocks and atolls in the South China Sea (since great nations do not fight over rocks)? None of the parties to these disputes have the best interests of the United States in mind.

The promises America makes also lack credibility. With the US budget under considerable pressure, can Washington be believed when it says that defence resources in the Pacific will be entirely insulated from cuts that will affect every other government program and every other theatre of military operations? Is it feasible to think that Japan, with its recent history of government dysfunction and weakened economy, will be able to share the military burden, as the United States seems to expect? In short, rebalancing is premised on US resources that may not be forthcoming and on the provision of allied resources that may not fully materialise.

On the other side of China, the United States will be able to move resources from Central Asia and the Middle East to the Asia Pacific only if the countries in those regions cooperate with Washington’s plan. And in South Korea, with each new government comes a new way for Seoul to position itself in the complex Washington–Beijing–Pyongyang triangle. Although Washington had an unusually cooperative partner in the South Korean Lee Myung-bak administration, successors, like Park Geun-hye, could prove to have different ideas.

Another dimension of the rebalancing effort that must be examined relates to the genuine need for the United States to strengthen its position as a free trade leader in the region. A great first step was the Korea–US Free Trade Agreement, which came into force in March 2012. But the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) includes just nine modestly sized Pacific Basin economies, plus Japan, which is not certain to participate. China has not been invited. The United States ought to be doing what it can to come up with feasible arrangements with the region’s major financial and economic players, including China. By relying on a ‘high-quality’ arrangement with smaller economies the United States sends the message that it is not interested in Chinese participation except on US terms.

There is less to rebalancing than meets the eye. To the degree that there is substance to the policy, some of it is unnecessarily provocative, and some of it is infeasible. The military soundtrack has the volume turned up too loud, while the volume on the economic soundtrack is too low. It sends mixed strategic signals to Beijing and, more importantly, diverts resources from the national renewal that both the United States and China need. In the end, such renewal is the only sound basis for Sino — US cooperation and a more peaceful future. Just as the anti-Soviet rationale provided a foundation for relations that proved durable in the 1970s and 1980s, and as economic mutual interests buttressed productive ties in the 1990s into the 2000s, the imperative today is to rebuild the respective homelands. Commitment to that project is the foundation for the sound ties on which both Beijing and Washington should build in the second decade of the new millennium.

David M. Lampton is Hyman Professor and Director of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is the inaugural winner of the Scalapino Prize awarded by The National Bureau of Asian Research and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Leading China where?

A longer version of this article was first published in Asia Policy (vol. 14 no. 1, July 2012).