By Chas W. Freeman, Jr
China is on the rise. Its GDP will soon exceed that of the United States. It aspires to be acknowledged as a great world power. It is flexing its military muscle in ways that challenge the effective hegemony America has exercised in the Western Pacific region since the end of World War II.
In response, the U.S. government has rebalanced its own global strategy with the so-called “pivot to Asia.” In itself, this is not a bad idea. The problem is that the Asian pivot is more about maintaining American regional supremacy than about adapting to a changed reality.
It’s not just China that’s on the rise. Think of India to the west, and Indonesia to the south. Think of Japanese recovery, and of Vietnam and South Korea.
In the immediate power vacuum left by the destruction of the Japanese Empire and the collapse of European imperialism, these and other nations in the region enjoyed American protection and support against the perceived Communist menace. Today, they still value American friendship, but they equally value their own independence.
As China’s power increases, these nations do not want to be drawn into a Sino-American confrontation. They look to the United States to use its influence more benignly as the balance of power shifts.
If the Asian pivot were less about buttressing the status quo and more about buying time and helping our regional partners negotiate their accommodations with China, it might yield a productive outcome for all involved. Unfortunately, it is not: The U.S. government is blustering and posturing, refusing to accept the inevitability of change.
The United States has sadly shown that it’s not very good at effective diplomacy. For one thing, it interprets China’s assertion of itself as a maritime power as inherently expansionist and potentially aggressive. It fails to recognize that China sees its military modernization initiatives and pursuit of an anti-access/area denial (A2AD) strategy – securing its home waters and strategic maritime corridors against the intrusions of adversaries – as defensive, and, at least to some degree, as a response to U.S. policy.
Although an ostensible plank of the Asian pivot is to deepen U.S. relations with China, it’s easy for Beijing to view it as the familiar ogre of containment dressed in a new set of clothes.
While foreigners tend to focus on China’s transformation into a modern, developed nation, confident of a bright future, the Chinese have a keen sense of their own vulnerability. After all, this is a nation with a 1,000-year history of foreign invasions. It’s had to fight repeatedly for its independence.
For all its remarkable economic growth, China doesn’t have much margin for error. It has to feed, clothe, and house almost 1.4 billion people. It has to preserve its national integrity in an environment that comprises 14 neighbors, not including those across the sea. As a result, the Chinese are inherently cautious and averse to military confrontation.
If the Chinese are suspicious of America’s Asian pivot, they should be comforted by the fact that it simply won’t work.
For one thing, a pivot towards China would require a pivot away from the Middle East, which, in current circumstances, would be absurd. Having destroyed Iraqi power, the United States is now the only balance to Iran in the region, and is still talking about possible war with the Islamic Republic. Israel’s approach to its security, meanwhile, is entirely based on its military. Thus, to the extent that the United States feels obliged to defend Israel, it’s stuck in the Middle East.
Given its own political and fiscal infirmities, moreover, it’s unlikely that the United States has the will or capacity to support the kind of military engagement in the Pacific region that would be necessary to neutralize China’s drive for an effective self-defense capability.
America’s days as the lone superpower, able to assert its interests without much heed for those of other nations, are over. We’re seeing a devolution of authority and a shift to a multipolar world in which U.S. interests will be best served by skilled diplomacy and accommodation with a new world order.
Chas W. Freeman, Jr. is an author and former diplomat. His career in the U.S. Foreign Service and State and Defense Departments included a position as the principal interpreter for then-U.S. President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking 1972 visit to China. He also served as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1989-1992).