Against the backdrop of the much-publicised US 'pivot' - or rebalance - to Asia, the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, America’s leading think-tank on foreign affairs, recently dissected the US strategy in Asia, along with its successes and failures and the evolving dynamics of US relations across Asia.
The discussion held under the title 'US Strategy in Asia: Is the Pivot Working?' featured three leading US foreign policy experts who have authored books on Asia.
They are Kurt M Campbell, chairperson and CEO of Asia Group LLC; Thomas J Christensen, a professor of World Politics of Peace and War, and co-director of the China and World Programme at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University; and Elizabeth C Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Tim W Ferguson, the editor of Forbes Asia, presided over the discussion.
Ferguson re-traced the US pivot to the US campaign of 2008; it became pronounced with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s remarks in Vietnam in July 2010 projecting it as a new statement of American policy.
Despite the obvious importance of Asia as a rising economic and strategic region, Ferguson said that the pivot or rebalance had its sceptics “some of whom question whether it has actually manifested any real change, some of whom wonder if it was a mistake in terms of either how it has been implemented or how it has been seen as by some a containment policy with regard to China”.
But Asians have their own concerns about the US. Campbell said that the “biggest concern in Asia … the thing that you hear number one about right now is the United States. So the key variable in Asia, currently, is what’s happening in the United States, and that’s playing out before our eyes in the election campaign”.
While acknowledging that the Obama administration had done a lot of things right in East Asia, Christensen said that “I don’t like the public diplomacy of the pivot, in part because I think it is somewhat inaccurate to say we had left Asia in the past”.
This suggested that the US had left another region of the world and that it might, again, leave Asia if there was some problem in the Middle East or elsewhere, he said.
Christensen, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for China during the Bush administration, rejected the assertion that the Bush administration did a better job because the region was more stable and less tension-ridden than it is today.
“I reject that (view) because I think … the China we had to deal with in the Bush administration was a very different China than the one that the Obama administration has had to deal with,” he observed.
Christensen discerned that China’s policies since the financial crisis of 2008 have posed more challenges for US diplomacy than “we had to face (during the Bush administration) and they did so because China was feeling more confident abroad, and the Chinese Communist Party was feeling more afraid at home”.
In short, China was seeing then provocation and thus turned assertive in ways that destabilised the region, to some degree, and led others to get closer to the United States.
He said that the Obama administration successes lay in seizing those opportunities to improve US security relations with China’s neighbours - the Philippines, the Enhanced Defence Cooperation with Japan, the Theatre High-Altitude Air Defence with Korea, the lifting of the arms’ embargo on Vietnam, the P-8 access with Malaysia and a range of issues with India.
'Some policies counterproductive'
Christensen said that these things were getting China’s attention and making it realise that some of its policies had been counterproductive, and maybe it should rethink those policies.
Elizabeth Economy referred to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA); the TPPA partners are worried over its fate in view of the lame duck period of President Obama’s term of office and both presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump opposing it.
Christensen said that the biggest breaking point in Chinese foreign policy started in 2008-2009, because “I think the financial crisis had a fundamental impact on the way the Chinese Communist Party viewed the nexus of domestic political stability and foreign policy”.
The Chinese were very concerned that this traditional economic model of growth that helps keep them in power was not necessarily stable because the international economy was not stable and China had linked itself very tightly to that international economy in ways that produced a lot of jobs and quite a bit of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party at home.
However, there were also expectations within China, partially drummed up by the party’s own propaganda machine suggesting that China’s time had arrived, that the United States was not so strong, the United States was not very powerful, because, after all, the US was the centre of the financial crisis. It was the cause of the financial crisis by most measures.
Christensen reminded that the TPP was originally created by four non-American APEC members during the Bush administration.
“The Bush administration started negotiating it with the idea that it would create a gold standard Singapore-style free trade agreement that would then make China jealous. China would then want to join and it would open it up its economy more and it would be win-win,” he said.
“But if the TPP fails now, after we’ve asked all of our friends and allies and partners in the region to make domestic sacrifices to sign on to it, we’re going to look like weak partners. And that’s going to have really big security implications,” Christensen said, alluding to the fallout from a number of partner countries which have been critical of the non-ratification of the agreement in the US.