During the time the United States was involved in wars with Iraq and Afghanistan and simultaneously faced an economic crisis in the early 2000s, China’s economy grew at an unprecedented speed, surpassing that of Japan in 2010 to become the world’s second largest economy. In response to the changing power dynamics caused by China’s rise, President Obama announced in 2011 his “pivot to Asia,” a rebalancing of U.S. strategic interests and military resources toward the Asia-Pacific region (Tong). Although the pivot reassured America’s Asian allies of its renewed commitment to the region, this U.S. policy initiative deepened the strategic distrust between China and the U.S. Strategic distrust in a bilateral relationship engenders when one side perceives that the other side is pursuing long-term interests at the expense of the former’s (Lieberthal et al. 5). Without a deliberate effort to mitigate distrust over each other’s long-term intentions, strategic distrust can reinforce itself, thereby transforming the bilateral relationship into a zero-sum antagonism. In this paper, I argue that President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was unsuccessful because the administration had neither the bureaucratic readiness nor the willingness to appreciate Beijing’s intentions as it pursued U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific, resulting in a rising level of strategic distrust between the two countries. If the distrust continues to grow rapidly, the deteriorating Sino-American relations will have negative impacts not only on the countries’ citizens, but also on the world at large, as China and the U.S. will continue to be the world’s two most important countries for decades to come.
Strategic partnership governed Obama’s initial policy toward China, such that China and the U.S. would cooperate with each other to shape a new international order. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. had mostly been pursuing a policy of strategic engagement with China, and Obama’s initial China policy inherited and reinforced that principle. When President Obama took office in 2009, he envisioned “a new liberal global order with the United States still in the lead but sharing more responsibilities and burdens with others where possible or necessary” (Indyk et al. 30-31). He thought that the U.S. could form “enough of a relationship” with China so that the rising power would follow the rule and cooperate with the U.S. (Indyk et al. 33). The global financial crisis of 2008 provided a fertile ground for such a successful Sino-American cooperation; indeed, the two countries contributed to the creation of a $1.1 trillion-stimulus program to help the world economy recover (Wang 62). This joint endeavor created an opportunity for the U.S. to engage China in its pursuit of an overall international order built on U.S. standards. As another friendly gesture from Washington toward Beijing, Obama canceled his meeting with the Dalai Lama which was scheduled just before his first state visit to China in November 2009, suggesting that the U.S. did not intend to intervene with China’s domestic affairs. Yet the honeymoon did not last long; the American public criticized Obama for being soft on China, encouraging the administration to adopt a more confrontational China policy.
The Obama administration announced a “pivot to Asia” primarily because it perceived that the balance of power in the region was shifting in favor of China at the expense of the U.S. The presence and predictability of the U.S. power reshaped the post-WW II order in Asia, yet U.S. regional allies began to doubt the durability of this framework; the newly confident and capable China seemed to be overpowering the U.S. influence in the region, as the latter was suffering the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression (Rudd 10). Indeed, China began to show belligerence toward diplomacy after the 2008 global financial tsunami. For example, Beijing retaliated against the routine U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in 2010 by suspending a Sino-American security dialogue and imposing sanctions against U.S. companies tied to Taiwan (Ross). Washington perceived this “new triumphalist attitude” as an alarming sign of China becoming a destabilizing force in the Asia-Pacific, and the “pivot” was meant to check China’s rise as well as reclaim the U.S.’ long-term influence in the region. “The United States is a Pacific power,” declared Obama, “and we are here to stay” (Wang 89). Obama’s announcement of the “pivot to Asia” in November 2011 publicly committed his administration to allocating resources necessary to protect U.S. economic and security interests in the Asia-Pacific (Lieberthal et al. 2). A series of U.S. actions in the region followed the announcement, including an increase of U.S. military presence, an establishment of new military alliances and strengthening of existing ones, and a proposed formation of a new Pacific trade bloc that would isolate China (Tong). Here, the U.S. officials failed to take into consideration how such a unilateral policy initiative would be perceived by the Chinese, who felt betrayed by Obama’s reversal of policy and grew suspicious of U.S. ultimate goals in China’s backyards.
Despite negative implications of the “pivot to Asia” on the Sino-American relations, Washington’s oblivion toward Beijing’s suspicions was apparent from the outset of the policy announcement, leading to an erosion of mutual trust at the governmental level. The timing of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” coincided with staff changes in the State Department and National Security Council. In the early years of his first term, Obama relied heavily on his administration’s China experts, including Jeffrey Bader, James Steinberg, Robert Gates, and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, in shaping his China policy, which was characterized by cooperation and engagement (Wang 53). Although Beijing officials did not necessarily like these advisers, they could at least trust the latter’s understanding of the nature of Sino-American relationship. However, precisely when the need for such trust was crucial to Washington as Obama announced his “pivot to Asia” in 2011, seasoned China experts were replaced by non-China experts such as Thomas Donilon and “Japan Hands” Daniel Russel and Kurt Campbell. “It is no coincidence,” said Wang, “that around the same time, the Obama administration’s China policy became more confrontational” (51). Failing to consult with true China experts, Washington sent Beijing a hostile signal that it did not have a sincere intention to work with China after its fateful policy transition. China, left without trustworthy counterparts in the White House to communicate with, deepened its strategic distrust toward the U.S. and became convinced that the U.S. was trying to contain China’s ascendance into power.
Just as the Obama administration’s China Team made a transition in 2011, so did China undergo a major leadership transition, which added compounding effects on the strategic distrust between the two countries. While Washington saw China’s rise as something new and threatening, China’s new leadership saw it as a “rejuvenation” of the great civilization. Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China appointed in 2013, expressed his view that China’s increasing international prestige was a mere return to its former status as a global power, which had been temporarily disrupted by the Western and Japanese imperialism (Wang 115). Xi’s rhetoric might lead one to interpret China’s aggressive diplomacy the way Obama’s advisers did: “emboldened China was challenging U.S. interests and undermining regional stability simply because it could” (Ross). That is, Obama’s advisers thought that China’s revived economic and military power enabled and emboldened it to act aggressively in the region at the expense of U.S. interests. However, deep in the thinking of the new Chinese leadership lay a sense of insecurity: the Chinese economy was not doing well, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) needed a source of popular legitimacy other than economic growth. In fact, the global financial crisis of 2008 brought about the worst economic turmoil in China since the 1960s, with rampant inflation, high unemployment rates, and rising income inequality. For a self-proclaimed socialist state, allowing the “official” unemployment rate to reach 4.2%, the highest figure since1980, was a major blow to the legitimacy of the authoritarian rule. The discontented public expressed its anti-government sentiments through riots and protests, a scenario the CCP had feared the most (Ross). Thus, China’s aggressive diplomacy after 2008 was a symbolic gesture of strength meant to stave off a crisis of regime legitimacy, yet Obama’s “pivot to Asia” caused Beijing even more insecurity and forced it to respond with belligerence in order to protect its national honor.
The U.S.’ failure to appreciate the deep thinking of Chinese leadership was most apparent in the reversal of its previous neutrality in regional territorial disputes. China and Japan have had a historical dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, but despite the U.S. alliance with Japan, Washington had never taken a side on the dispute in the past. However, during his trip to Asia in 2014, President Obama declared that the U.S.’ defense “commitments extend to all the territories under the administration of Japan, including the Senkaku Islands,” officially siding with Japan for the first time (Wang 135). This U.S. move upset the Chinese because instead of punishing Japan’s provocative action of unilaterally nationalizing one of the islands in 2012, the Obama administration supported and even encouraged the escalation of the conflict (109). Among numerous other territorial disputes that erupted in recent years with other Asian nations, the Chinese felt that U.S.’ alignment with Japan was particularly offensive, since their bitter memories of the Japanese invasion of China in the past century still persist. Thus, Washington triggered China’s revived national pride with a lack of sensitivity. The fact that the U.S. was implicitly supporting the non-Chinese side in all of the other disputes further fueled Beijing’s conviction that Washington had abandoned its policy of engagement and turned to contain and encircle China with its “pivot to Asia.”
The “pivot to Asia” policy not only undermined regional stability in the Asia Pacific, but also pushed China to counter the U.S. provocation with concrete policies. Washington’s provocative activities in China’s periphery pressured Beijing to go beyond its previous rhetoric and react belligerently. Since 2011, Beijing has abandoned its cooperation with the U.S. in the latter’s effort to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons; instead, it has substantially increased food aid, trade, and investment to Pyongyang (Ross). Without cooperation from China, which was one of the few countries supporting the pariah state, Washington’s pursuit to contain North Korea became ineffective if not futile. China also punished the neighboring countries whose sovereignty claims against China were supported by the U.S. by conducting direct military confrontations and forming a new military garrison defending the country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea (Ross). Thus, Obama’s Asia pivot led to more tension rather than stability in the Asia-Pacific because it deepened Beijing’s strategic distrust toward Washington’s long-term intentions. The “pivot to Asia” further undermined U.S. security interests when Beijing started to take an anti-U.S. posture beyond East Asia. For example, while China cooperated with the U.S. in the sanction against Iran from 2006 and 2010, it threatened to veto the sanction in 2012 and went ahead to make an agreement with Tehran to purchase Iranian oil (Ross). Thus, Beijing has responded to the U.S. provocation with concrete policies within and beyond the Asia Pacific that were detrimental to core U.S. interests.
Therefore, Obama’s pivot to China has increased the level of strategic distrust between China and the U.S. in exchange for what little was gained from reassuring U.S.’ Asian allies of its long-term commitment in the region. Obama came into office promoting international dialogue and cooperation, but his China policy after 2011 ruined the friendly environment with which he started, narrowing the chance for a peaceful coexistence with China. While Beijing is more alarmed by the deepening strategic distrust with the U.S., Washington tends to still see the Sino-American relations in terms of whether China will rise peacefully and insists that China’s rise be contained. However, China’s rise became detrimental to U.S. interests in a substantial sense only after the “pivot to Asia” sent hostile messages to Beijing, and the deteriorated strategic distrust is already causing Sino-American confrontations throughout the world on multiple issues. “History teaches that the rise of new great powers often triggers major global conflict,” says Kevin Rudd, “It lies within the power of [U.S. President] and Xi to prove that twenty-first-century Asia can be an exception to what has otherwise been a deeply depressing historical norm” (15). Regardless of Obama’s intentions, the “pivot to Asia” triggered negative reactions from China that can lead to future confrontations between the two great powers involving the world at large. Thus, Washington bears a responsibility to repair the deteriorated mutual trust in order to avoid such a scenario.
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