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US Pivot to Asia or to Cold War 2.0?
April 27, 2014, 5:40 am

Barack Obama’s Asian visit is not a pleasant one. He has to promise America’s military allies and so-called friends in this region, that the US is always ready to lend a hand whenever they have troubles, but his promise is hardly convincing. At the same time, he tries to threaten his illusionary enemies to step back, but his threat is not credible.

President Barack Obama addresses U.S. military personnel at Yongsan Army Garrison in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, April 26, 2014 [AP]

President Barack Obama addresses U.S. military personnel at Yongsan Army Garrison in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, April 26, 2014 [AP]

Of the four countries that Obama visits this week– Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines — three of them are America’s military allies, and all four of them have territory disputes with China. True, there is growing anxiety in Asia, but not all the tensions are related with China. There is the aggressive North Korean authority trying to build nuclear powers. There is the deteriorated relationship between South Korea and Japan, two of America’s major allies, due to historical resentments stemming from World War II. But the itinerary of Obama’s Asia visit clearly outlines the main message he wants to deliver- Washington’s intention to counter a rising China.

The challenges of an Asia Pivot

The shift of the US strategy dated back in 2011, when Obama announced in Canberra, Australia, that America will “pivot” to Asia, meaning Washington has decided to reallocate more diplomatic, economic and military resources to this region. But what exactly does this “Pivot” policy mean for the Sino-US relationship is always ambiguous.

If its goal is to reap economic benefit, then the best option for the US should be to engage China. China is already the largest economy in Asia and will continue to expand at a fast pace. Beijing is gradually opening up its domestic market and the emergence of China’s middle class, or “one billion customers”, lauded by the former The Wall Street Journal China bureau chief James McGregor, is the magnate for producers in Asia, and also something that American companies could not afford to ignore.

Yet the priority of Washington’s Asian agenda on economic cooperation is trying to build a trade bloc without China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a massive free trade pact led by the US, followed by Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and some ASEAN countries. China is not invited to the club. Ironically, China is on another regional trade negotiation table, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP), where Americans are absent. In principle, a regional free trade agreement (FTA) can boost regional economic growth by facilitating further integration of member countries’ markets, but if the current FTA negotiation tends to drive a wedge between the US and China, and force other Asian countries to take positions and choose sides, that will be a different story.

If the “Pivot’s” main concern is regional security, then it’s quite clear that the Pentagon is treating China as the main challenger. This worry is to some extent legitimate, giving the fact that China is building up its military strength, especially its navy force. This, understandably, is a new thing for the US.

For decades, America has been the unquestioned hegemon in Asia, underpinned by its naval supremacy. But China is catching up quickly. By the estimation of Robert Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for STRATFOR, a private global intelligence firm in the US, China will have more warships in the West Pacific than the US Pacific Fleet by the late 2020s. In the next few decades, China’s ability to project naval power will extend deep into the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. To keep China in check, the US has vowed to reposition naval forces so that 60 per cent of its warships are based in Asia-Pacific by the end of the decade, up from about 50 per cent now.

Even though their overt language remains very cautious, it’s quite obvious that the centerpiece of American’s “Pivot” policy is containing China.

Fortunately, China’s not as aggressive as many foreign observers see/portray it, nor is it unreasonable. China does not harbour ambitions to challenge the current international system, which is to a great extent influenced by American interests and ideology. Nor has it any hidden agenda to build an imperial “the Great East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere”, as Japan did during the Second World War. What China is trying to do is seek a dominant role in an adjacent sea, the same as the US did in the Caribbean and Europe did in the Mediterranean. As Robert Kaplan says in his new book, Asia’s Cauldron, “if it weren’t, great power politics over the course of the past few millennia would not have been as they have.”

China is also, contrary to popular perception, quite pragmatic and flexible when dealing with territory disputes with its neighbors. China and Vietnam have a long and antagonistic history, but the two countries can still sit down and strike an agreement on contended territories. But why does China suddenly move to a more hawkish attitude toward the provocations from America’s allies, Japan and the Philippines? Simply because China needs to build its ‘tough guy’ reputation, by showing it is willing, and able to defend itself and defeat its enemies.

An imminent military showdown?

Both China and the US believe that they have made the rational choice, given their situation. Yet this could lead to a “Prisoner’s dilemma” where everyone is locked in. Strategic competition can quickly build its own momentum. Escalating rivalry between China and the US poses serious risks to regional security. If the US goes further down this track, it will find itself not pivoting to Asia, but to the Cold War 2.0. Or even worse.
A man with a mask of US President Barack Obama attends a protest against Obama's visit to Japan, in Tokyo, Japan, April 23, 2014 [Xinhua]

A man with a mask of US President Barack Obama attends a protest against Obama’s visit to Japan, in Tokyo, Japan, April 23, 2014 [Xinhua]

One hundred years ago, Europe burst into an unprecedented bloody war. At least 10 million soldiers died and more than twice that number were seriously injured. Cities were destroyed and buried in rubbles. Why did the great war happen? Recent study of historians argue that war is a tragedy, but not a crime. In other words, no one predicted what exactly will happen in the summer of 1914. Christopher Clark in his new book on the causes of the First World War, described the protagonists of 1914 as “sleepwalkers”, “watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to reality”. A series of mistakes made by reckless risk-takers, disaster leads to disaster.

What we can and must learn from history is to avoid the miscalculation of power equations. For the US, it has to recognize the reality of China’s rising. Whether China grows fast or slow, whether China is a democracy or authoritarian, whether China has a “grand strategy” or not, China will be a rising power. It’s simple and clear. Rather than confronting China, the US needs to think of how to accommodate China. It’s by no means an easy task, since it relies on the subtle co-evolution of both the US and China.

Dr. Kissinger narrates a story in the opening of his book On China: When China faced a crisis concerning a border dispute with India, Chairman Mao told his comrades that the lesson they can learn from is an ancient campaign one thousand years ago in the Tang Dynasty. This, of course, is a unique Chinese way of thinking.

If ancient wisdom can shed some light on the recent tensions in East Asia, the Chinese classic, Mencius, written two thousand years ago, is recommended reading. When asked by the King Xuan of Qi: “Do you have a formula for diplomacy with neighboring states? ” Mencius answered: “I do. Only a humane prince is able to put his large state stoutly at the service of a smaller one; Only a wise prince is able to promptly put his small state in the service of a larger one.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.