The architects of the Obama administration’s strategy of “rebalancing” American military assets and diplomatic attention to Asia insist that the effort is not aimed at containing China, but rather, enhancing bilateral cooperation with Beijing. To demonstrate their sincerity, US officials have recently taken steps to improve ties with their Chinese counterparts, engaging in high-profile heads-of-state summitry, expanding military-to-military relations, and strengthening coordination on Korean Peninsula issues. These efforts have been touted by both sides as evidence that the two countries are developing a “new type of great power relationship.”
In the multilateral realm, however, the rebalance has, whether by design or by accident, primarily worked to isolate Beijing. The Obama administration has inaugurated or deepened security partnerships with countries throughout the Asia-Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia. As part of these efforts, Washington has extended military aid and offered weapons deals that directly contribute to an escalating regional arms race. The United States has also engaged countries in the region in broader fora, such as the US-Japan-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, which have little unique strategic value outside of a China-oriented context.
Although administration officials generally avoid any explicit reference to China in the course of these discussions and insist that such enhanced ties are not aimed at Beijing, most of these efforts have arisen in the absence of any significant motivation other than alleged Chinese “bullying” (cooperation with South Korea and Japan in response to North Korean antagonism excepted.) Explicit evidence of this subtext can be found in administration officials’ expressions of solidarity with China’s neighbors against purported threats to “freedom of navigation.” Through these and similar statements, Washington has all but sided with Asian countries in their various territorial disputes with Beijing. Such maneuvers have occurred at the expense of intra-Asian cooperation, which is crucial to America’s own most fundamental security interest in the region—peace and stability.
To be sure, the original impetus for the deterioration in China’s relations with its neighbors in recent years was not US policy, contrary to the accusations of many Chinese observers. The onset of this negative shift largely predates the “Pacific pivot” in America’s foreign policy and can be traced instead to increased tensions over territorial disputes arising from a range of provocations instigated by both China and its Asian neighbors. Indeed, such tensions arguably helped usher in the pivot in mid-2010, providing US policymakers an excuse to implement a multi-pronged diplomatic and militaristic reassertion of America’s commitment to the region.
The steps Washington has undertaken as part of that effort threaten to lock Asian nations into an escalatory spiral of mutual distrust and confrontation with Beijing. If the rebalance is truly at its core an attempt to reassert responsible U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific region, America should be actively encouraging improved relations between Beijing and other Asian countries, accompanied by inclusive multilateral engagement. As it stands, the imbalance between bilateral accord and multilateral animus that currently characterizes US policy toward China threatens to undermine the very purpose of the rebalance to Asia.