The goal of the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ was encircling and containing China. This was officially denied but was evident from the facts and, therefore, naturally was transparently clear to China’s leadership,consequently considerably increasing tensions in the Pacific region.
A new element in the ‘pivot’ was the clear US administration calculation that China was now sufficiently strong that the US alone could not by itself feel sure of winning a contest with China in the Pacific. Therefore the US administration attempted to construct an ‘anti-China alliance’
US policy steps in line with the ‘pivot’ only made sense in that framework - stationing US military forces in Australia; announcing the Diaoyu Islands were included in the military alliance with Japan; stating 60% of US military forces would be in the Pacific; encouraging Philippine challenges to China, seeking agreements with Vietnam clearly de facto aimed against China.
China undoubtedly attempted to persuade the US against a course of confrontation. In June 2013, shortly after becoming president, Xi Jinping went to California, for a summit with President Obama, to try to establish US-China relations based on what China terms mutual respect for 'core interests'/a ‘new type of relation’ between powers. Regretfully the US did not change its policies. If there was a personal coolness at the Xi-Obama press conference after the APEC summit, as some commentators have suggested, this was possibly due to the fact that Xi’s personal attempt to head off a US-China confrontation had been rebuffed.
Slightly over a year later, around the APEC and G20 summits in November 2014, it is evident that China’s growing strength has won a decisive victory against the US confrontationist policy. But, regretfully, as will be seen, US neo-con forces have not concluded this fight is strategically damaging but merely that the terrain of confrontation with China must be shifted.
Analysing the key developments in the region, Abe’s calculation was that ‘Abenomics’ - yen devaluation to increase exports combined with monetary expansion - would restart Japan’s economic growth while nationalist rhetoric would create political support.
Instead ‘Abenomics’ has failed failed. Japan has re-entered recession.It is clear that Abe's calculations were wrong. Internationally the US economy is not growing fast enough to create a surging market for Japan’s exports and Abe’s confrontation with China damaged exports to the world’s largest goods trading nation. Domestically yen devaluation created inflation without wage growth, cutting Japanese living standards. Abe’s popularity therefore shrank, with him now dashing to a new election before his support errodes further.
To China’s south, India’s new Prime Minister Modi is eager to ensure enhanced US military guarantees for India, but refused to join a strategic ‘anti-China alliance’. Talks during President Xi’s visit to India were constructive and Modi rejected US calls not to join the China supported Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with India becoming a founding member.
To China’s north, Russia’s already good ties with China became even closer following US and EU sanctions over Ukraine.
Vietnam recently moved to smooth relations with China, and the Philippines is too weak compared to China to constitute a significant threat.
In the last year therefore, on almost every front in Asia, China used economic strength, skilful diplomacy, and a policy corresponding to Asian countries interests, to win foreign policy victories.
But unfortunately regretfully, instead of concluding that a confrontationist policy should be abandoned, US neo-cons have concluded that they must regroup to launch a renewed confrontations after the APEC and G20 summits.
This was made clear, for example, in an article in the Wall Street Journal sourly analysing the failures of the confrontationist ‘pivot to Asia’. Under the title’ China’s Gift-Bearing Evokes Ancient Ritual’ this analysed, rather ironically for a US which had long used its foreign aid budget and economic strength as a primary foreign policy tool, that:
‘Traditionally, the East Asian order was held together by gift-bearing ritual and ceremony.
‘Spectacular processions from Southeast Asia, Korea and other neighbors turned up at the Chinese court to show their deference by offering “tribute.” Emissaries kowtowed, secretaries stooped, sedan-chair carriers and umbrella holders sweated in the heat.
‘In return, the emperor showered his visitors with presents more lavish than those he received to demonstrate his power and benevolence. Once the political hierarchy had been established, the delegations were allowed to set up stalls in the capital and start trading. Business was a reward for correct behavior.
‘What the U.S. now fears is that recent Chinese pledges of bounty for neighbors is part of an elaborate ruse to push America out of East Asia.’
The reason for the sourness of the tone was the conclusion that:
‘If this plays out as a modern game of checkbook diplomacy, China wins hands down.’
More precisely the Wall Street Journal concluded, surveying recent US foreign policy setbacks: ‘ Xi Jinping ’s pockets are jangling with cash; Barack Obama’s are almost empty. That translates into big political influence for China in East Asia.’
The conclusion that should be drawn by the Obama administration from recent events is that the interests of the US, China, and global stability are best served by accepting the formula proposed by Xi of working out an agreement which safeguards both the US and China’s core interests. In the US Kissinger has put forward a somewhat parallel concept. Instead the renewed course of confrontation proposed by the US neo-cons is likely to lead to further confrontations in the Pacific, which are harmful to global stability - but but also to further US foreign policy defeats of the type that followed the Xi-Obama summit.
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This is an edited and expanded vesion of an article which originally appeared in Chinese in International Finance News.