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February 16, 2012

Caught in Old Patterns

by Mike M

Two helpful thoughts, one from a student and the other forwarded from a Friend of the Blog in Asia, suggest more questions about the Asia Pivot Strategy.

Let’s posit that China is indeed becoming more assertive, that some in its hierarchy began saying, circa 2009, it’s time to translate this Greatness everyone says we’re rapidly accumulating into usable influence.  Hence the parade of pushiness and aggressiveness we saw on display in 2009-2010.

But the result, as we know but as Brahma Chellaney powerfully reminds us in a 2010 piece just brought to my attention by a friend in Asia, was hardly a region cowering and handing Beijing everything it demanded.  In fact closer to the opposite.  Beijing’s “efforts to intimidate smaller neighbors hardly make China a credible candidate for Asian leadership,” Chellaney argues.  “After all, genuine leadership cannot come from raw power, but only from other states’ consent or tacit acceptance.  If leadership could be built on brute force, schoolyard bullies would be class presidents.  … China’s power may be vast and rapidly growing, but it lacks the ability to compel.”

China’s tough-guy act has not won it any bandwagoning candidates.  “As China seeks to translate its economic clout into major geopolitical advantages in Asia,” Chellaney pointed out, “a country that once boasted of ‘having friends everywhere’ finds that its growing power may be inspiring awe, but that its actions are spurring new concerns and fears.  Which states will accept China as Asia’s leader?”

True, there’s a big IR literature debate on this, but it seems pretty clear that the natural regional response to the beginning of a Chinese effort at hegemony was to push back, hard.  Meantime no other state wants China to become its Alliance Leader anyway.  China’s burgeoning influence, therefore, confronts natural constraints, in the form of regional skepticism and opposition, independently of the US role.  States in the region want the US involved—but as much to reduce their burden as because the world will collapse if there are two fewer carriers to go around.

Which leads to a question about the practical effects of US strategy, and a provocative idea posed by a student playing a Chinese official in a small exercise.  The US pivot is great news, he argued.  Without it, the region might have made much more dramatic independent efforts to counter growing Chinese influence.  As it is, the US has just reasserted their ability to depend on American power—which will, inevitably, become less reliable.  And at that point we (China) will be facing a region unprepared to stand up to us on its own, and suddenly deprived of its great protector looking over its collective shoulder.

An exaggerated portrait, and the student knew it, but it raises an excellent point:  What long-term response to China’s growing power is most in the US interest?  Continued dominant US leadership?  Or a more equally shared regional set of voices that have the same effect—a welcome hand to a China committed to a constructive role in an integrating global system, but a credible deterrent posture and a firm message that aggression and coercion will not be tolerated?  The latter would presumably be more lasting; it would surely allow for a more sustainable US role.  And one wonders if the Pivot has made it more or less likely.

Or are we witnessing yet another Surge to Transition strategy in effect here, too?

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