Sunday, April 21, 2013

Are We Making You Uncomfortable?

China, America, and the Pivot to Asia

Relatively speaking, John Kerry has  been Secretary of State for a while now. But it took more than ten weeks for him to finally meander over to Asia. He blew through China, South Korea, and Japan all in one visit--his busy weekend stay coinciding with the escalating crisis on the Korean Peninsula which (fingers crossed) seems to be stagnating. 

Make no mistake, Asia is still a vital concern to the Obama Administration; it remains one of the administration's central foreign policy initiatives. Thus, the famous "Pivot to Asia." In laymen's terms: the 'pivot' is a strategic re-balancing of US interests away from the Middle East and Europe and towards Asia. 
So--perhaps Kerry's delay was simply to build anticipation? Or, as he suggested in his confirmation hearings, is Kerry still just ambivalent towards the pivot?

Hypothetical  John Kerry level of enthusiasm regarding the Pivot to Asia.

Regardless, the entire affair is making China supremely uncomfortable. 

 This is evident in their recent "The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces" document released in mid-April--a defense white paper released by Beijing once every two years. Don't be fooled by the snooze-worthy title. In between regurgitation of propaganda and frustratingly little else, the paper reveals China's deep concern regarding the pivot. The language in the paper is pretty clear on this point, bandying around phrases like "volatile security situation" which is due, in part at least, to U.S. intrusion rearranging the balance of power in the region.  U.S. presence , the paper argues, adjusts the Asia-Pacific security strategy. By strengthening its Asia-Pacific military alliance, and ramping up its military presence in the region "some country...frequently makes the situation there tenser."

China is responding to increasing U.S. interest in her backyard in the way that many countries tend to: with dread, suspicion, and a healthy dose of paranoia. In private, even among senior officials, the Chinese claim that the United States has been actively masterminding a number of actions against Chinese interests, including the former governor of Tokyo's intention to purchase three Senkaku Islands. Chen Jian, a former Chinese ambassador to Japan, told an audience in Hong Kong that the Chinese viewed the island dispute as "a time bomb planted by the U.S. between China and Japan" to draw the U.S. military deeper into the region's affairs--justifying the need for a military presence. And while this form of alarm-ism surely isn't present throughout the entirety of the Chinese government, it is just prevalent enough to be...well...alarming. 

Are the Chinese overreacting? Is the pivot all about China? Is it all about the U.S. preparing to check Chinese influence in the region? These questions have the best answer: no...and yes--which is rather like having no answer at all.

China's rise is a big story, as you may have noticed. Beijing is kind of a big deal in that neighborhood, and China more than knows it. It's not like they haven't been throwing their weight around in the past few years.  Smaller countries in the region have been requesting reassurance from the United States regarding Chinese pushiness, and, notably, The Philippines have suddenly gotten very cool with the U.S. resuming hosting military forces at Subic Bay (for the first time in some 20 years). The response by the United States--the only country with the muscle to slow China--should have been anticipated, and perhaps it was. 

At the same time, as you'll recall from your basic geography, Asia is huge. More than that, it serves as the playground for the world's most important issues: nuclear proliferation (we're looking at you North Korea), human rights, climate change, and, of course,  a whole lot of people that have a whole lot of economic potential. 

And that economic potential is one thing that China should definitely keep an eye on. And they definitely should pay more than a little attention to this new-fangaled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that links a number of Asia Pacific Countries (incl. Japan, Chile and the USA). It's one of the most ambitious trade proposals that Washington has seen in a while, and if South Korea ever decides to come on board, it'll be a knock out.

Be that as it may, the increase of US military presence clearly has China most on edge.  

China may beginning to see a trend where, in the future, they'll become isolated and insecure. Perhaps the finger-pointing at the US in China's recent white paper is just hot air while, behind the curtain, one would find China reevaluating its foreign policy. Perhaps they will recalibrate, reign in the regional pushiness. Perhaps they will not, and become increasingly isolated and continue on with its heavy-handed foreign policies.If the status quo proceeds, US presence, perhaps there due to these policies, will likely be met with more of the same. 



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