The US’s foreign policy “pivot” to Asia is designed to balance China’s influence in the region. However, it has so far caused more agitation than calm.
Until the mid-2000s, the byword of US policy towards China was “engagement”. Even the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 and the end of the cold war did not change this policy. The expectation behind it was that China would “become more like us” if the country was brought into the international community.
Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University believes that the US had a pivot-like strategy of “integrate but hedge” even in the 1990s. He might be right (he served in Bill Clinton’s administration) but no American official at the time openly talked about this strategy.
After the 2008-09 financial crisis, the US suddenly found that it had to face a more confident – or in many Americans’ eyes, more arrogant – China. Beijing used to be a student of the American system; Chinese delegates used to be silent in international conferences. But after the crisis, China began to ask Americans this question: “Why have you, our teacher, done wrong?” Some Chinese even began to publicly speak out about the advantages of the Chinese system. Military spending by Beijing has grown by double-digit rates. All these developments taught American policy makers that China was moving away from them. The idea of pivot is not new – the Bush administration probably would have done the same if there had not been the September 11 2001 attacks – but its implementation was definitely accelerated by the US’s perception of a more assertive China.
One of the purposes of the pivot is presumably to hedge China’s military encroachment on its neighbours. It should be noted, though, that the growth of China’s military spending has been largely a result of its economic growth. Military spending is measured in nominal terms and the nominal size of China’s economy has been growing by double-digit rates.
To the average Chinese, the US is once again showing its nature as a hegemon that wields its power wherever it likes to, reinforcing the long-held Chinese view that “being backward is to invite bullies”. If the pivot has any effect on China, it must be that it has pushed Beijing to accelerate its military build-up.
Americans like to say that the pivot is a response to China’s more aggressive claims on some of the islands and reefs in the South China and East China Seas. Informed Chinese would not agree with this view. But regardless of the sequence of the events, the result presented to the world is that the American pivot has escalated tensions in the region. It has been taken as an encouragement by China’s neighbours; in the meantime, it has forced China to take more assertive actions.
The more constructive part of the pivot should have been the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But even on this count, the US has caused more suspicion than goodwill in China. The TPP was designed for like-minded countries to form, in President Barack Obama’s words, “a platinum” free-trade agreement for the Asia-Pacific region. It was the result of both America’s agony with the ineffectiveness of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum and the White House’s political strategy to please those on both the right and the left – it expands free trade, so Republicans are happy; but it also requires member countries to meet labour, environmental and even human rights standards, so Democrats are happy.
To most Chinese, however, the TPP is one of America’s intentional moves to exclude China. For one thing, there is no way for China to meet its conditions in the medium term. For another, the TPP will not bring significant gains to the US, precisely because China, the US’s largest trading partner in the region, is not going to join.
More importantly, China was not part of the design process. To China, the TPP is a club set up solely on American will; China can knock on the door, but can be rejected. Ten years ago, when China applied to join the World Trade Organisation, this would not be a problem. Today, China feels differently: it has become reluctant to accept something if it does not feel ownership.
In a sense, all Chinese history since the mid-1800s has involved China trying to become as equal as other world powers. Today, China’s leaders and the Chinese people are increasingly feeling that point is coming. Yet the existing powers, noticeably, the US and EU, may have different ideas about equality. To them, China will only be treated as “one of us” after China is fully transformed politically and socially. This discrepancy of beliefs will be a major source of tension between China and existing powers in the coming years.
The writer is director of the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University and editor of China Economic Quarterly