The Washington Post headline blares: “China is happy with John Kerry because it thinks he’ll drop the ‘pivot to Asia’”. The Post article itself gets its ammunition from this Liz Economy post over at CFR which rounds up some of the reactions to the new security team from around China. The mood is upbeat.
China Institute of International Studies’ Ruan Zongze: “Compared with Clinton’s tough diplomatic approach, Kerry as a moderate democrat is expected to stress the role of bilateral or multilateral dialogues”;
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Ni Feng: Kerry’s “diplomatic measures” will “greatly embody Obama’s concepts.”
In reviewing Secretary Kerry’s congressional voting record, Chinese observers also noted that he “generally voted in favor of bills conducive to promoting the development China-U.S. relations and generally voted against or expressed different opinions for bills not conducive to China-U.S. relations.” Overall, as People’s Daily observed, “Kerry stresses more on coordination rather than confrontation in foreign relations.”
What are the Chinese so happy about? One possible clue: during his confirmation hearings, John Kerry seemed to indicate that a further military buildup in Asia is not in the immediate future.
I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet. I’m not convinced of that. That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully when and if you folks confirm me and I can get in there and sort of dig into this a little deeper. But we have a lot more bases out there than any other nation in the world, including China today. We have a lot more forces out there than any other nation in the world, including China today. And we’ve just augmented the president’s announcement in Australia with additional Marines. You know, the Chinese take a look at that and say, what’s the United States doing? They trying to circle us? What’s going on? And so, you know, every action has its reaction. It’s the old — you know, it’s not just the law of physics; it’s the law of politics and diplomacy. I think we have to be thoughtful about, you know, sort of how we go forward.
Though the Chinese may be misunderstanding Secretary Kerry somewhat—he seems to have been been offering his assessment that our current force posture in the Pacific is adequate for the task at hand—there is an unmistakeable change of tone in his remarks.
Three possible things could be going on; one is excellent, one is OK but could bring trouble down the road, and one is catastrophic. Let’s start with the rosy scenario: the Obama administration hasn’t changed its Asia policy beyond changing the mood music and China, aware that it can’t change America’s basic approach to the region and lacks the strength to challenge us, has decided not to make a fuss about something it can’t change. It is taking the change in American tone as an opportunity to back down from a confrontation it can’t win without losing face.
That would be smart on China’s part: whining ineffectively about how much you hate something you can’t do anything about is an excellent way to look like a weakling and a fool (sort of like complaining about how much you hate Butcher Assad without doing anything about it).
If that’s what’s happening, look for things to quiet down in Asia.
Another, less hopeful possibility is that while US policy hasn’t changed in Asia, China thinks that it has. It has mistaken Secretary Kerry’s softer tone for a softer policy and is being nice because it thinks it has won the showdown. Chinese resolve and America’s Middle East and budget troubles have convinced the Americans that they can’t sustain the pivot, China thinks. In that case, we should expect some problems down the road as Chinese assertiveness runs into American resistance.
The third and worst possibility is that the Chinese are right and the Obama administration is ratting out on its own pivot and getting ready to betray our Asian allies who trusted the promises the administration made in its first term. In that case we can expect a crescendo of instability and crises that could escalate to include military conflicts and could well see South Korea, Japan and Taiwan going nuclear as China bids to establish a sphere of influence in the region.
It would be a tragic mistake for the Obama administration to shortchange the pivot by failing to devote the adequate amount of resources to the region—an enormous folly that would permanently undermine American credibility around the world. If your goal was to weaken the United States and alienate Washington’s closest allies, announcing a pivot to Asia with great fanfare and boldness, lots of parades and marches, and then slink ingloriously away would be about the best possible way to do it.
That said, the Obama administration has a big problem. Last year it seems to have believed it was on a winning streak in the Middle East that would allow it to continue withdrawing and moving toward a low-cost approach to a high-maintenance region. But that fell apart as the Syrian civil war, the mess in Libya and beyond, and the rising disquietude about Egyptian stability darkened the horizon. (Oh, and there’s that unfinished bit of business with Iran.) The pivot to Asia came when the administration felt bullish on its prospects for Middle East disengagement; that hope turned out to be misguided, and now the administration has got to deal both with a chaotic Middle East and an aroused China—when all it really wants to do is cut the defense budget and spend the money at home.
Backing away from Asia might seem like the easiest solution, but we hope and believe that the White House is smart enough to understand that this would be a mistake of historic proportions, one that historians would be shaking their heads over 100 years from now. Backing off from Asia might temporarily soothe US-Chinese relations, but at the cost of increasing the propensity among some Chinese to think the US is in such rapid decline that it can be bullied and pushed aside.
The White House, like most Americans, wants a calm international environment so that the US can concentrate on its problems at home. As we’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with that, but unfortunately a calm overseas still depends on foreign perceptions that the US is willing to do what it takes to maintain its geopolitical position. If that confidence is lost, the international scene will become very tumultuous very quickly as other powers begin to plot the Wars of the American Succession. The cheapest and least risky foreign policy in the long run involves doing what it takes in both the Middle East AND Asia.
This is not as hard as some in the White House appear to think. President Obama would gain political capital and stature, not lose it, by stepping up to the plate overseas, and by explaining the international situation and our interests in it to the American people.