A rising China, both militarily and economically, is posing new threats in a region once dominated by Western trade.
To his credit, President Obama has signaled a foreign policy “pivot” towards East Asia. During his administration, the United States has established a permanent marine base in Australia, promoted political reform in Myanmar and has engaged several other possible East Asian allies.
Most students seem to realize and shrug off this military shift, as if it’s just a logical response to China’s rise. Run Ze Cao, a College freshman from Kaifeng, China, agreed. “The United States believes China is a more viable threat to its dominance than the Middle East [is].”
Over the last two administrations, there has been a strong American interaction with China called the “Strategic and Economic Dialogue.” Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson started the initiative to encourage the world’s largest powers to engage one another on issues that affected them economically and militarily. Up until 2010, this dialogue had been largely constructive.
However, at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum of 2010, Secretary of State Clinton estranged the Chinese delegation. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi described Clinton’s comments as “an attack on China,” essentially stalling the strategic sharing between the two global powers.
“The Chinese don’t like … Clinton — they didn’t like her in 1995, they don’t like her now,” said Avery Goldstein, the director of the Penn Center for the Study of Contemporary China.
Jia Qingguo, professor and associate dean of the School of International Studies of Peking University, endorsed the success of the SED earlier this week. As a guest lecturer at the PCSCC, Jia pointed to the 117 agreements that the Chinese delegation agreed on in Washington, D.C. during May of last year. “Both dialogue and consultation [have] become more focused and substantive,” he said.
While Jia correctly analyzed the economic growth between the two nations, he failed to point to any substantive development in Sino-American military relations. The reality is the relationship has seriously degraded on both sides.
A host of issues ranging from U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, American aid to Tibet and the Dalai Lama, trade and intellectual property rights and security in the South China Sea have sparked animosity at the discussion table.
Instead of discussing shared strategic outlooks on intellectual property protectionism, cyber security and North Korean nuclear proliferation, Chinese military officials have disengaged.
“It is in part stylistic,” Goldstein explained. “The Chinese have done things that are more troubling than they did in the Bush years. When the financial crisis hit, they saw an opportunity with the U.S. in decline.”
Obama’s “pivot” suggests that the U.S. is responding to Chinese disengagement with increased military presence in Southeast Asia with hopes of coercing the Chinese at the discussion table.
“The U.S. position has been pretty consistent, we expect regional issues to be resolved peacefully, but if our allies are attacked, we are obliged to protect,” Goldstein said.
Some argue that Obama’s pivot has gone too far, funding military-run autocracies such as Cambodia or Laos, or flawed democracies such as Malaysia. I disagree — the pivot is not enough.
But concerns on the Spratly Islands, Taiwanese self-determination and trade and relative North Korean aggression have re-emerged, sparking the need for a “pivot” in the first place. The “pivot,” however, does very little to protect an American strategic outlook.
If the Chinese have in fact entered a period of being more comfortable confronting a standard scale American presence in Southeast Asia, American response cannot be half-hearted.
Obama’s “pivot” operates too heavily in the middle ground. The U.S. needs to demonstrate its interest, its strength and its ability to protect vital trade roots in the region. More so, the U.S. needs to display to the Chinese Politburo that America is not a meek enforcer of strategic treaties.
A true “pivot” would be full American re-investment in the strength of anti-communist armies and economies. America must build up multilateral alliances with every noncommunist Asian nation.
The American military must demonstrate its capabilities while it still unreachably dominates the international order. Before China reaches its true stride of power, the U.S. must fully establish itself in East Asia.
Anthony Liveris is a College junior and vice president of College Republicans from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @AnthonyLiveris. “Liberatus” usually appears every other Monday.