The US’ course correction is being dictated by another consideration as well: the US has nothing to gain from taking sides in China’s disputes with its neighbors — unless, of course, US interests are directly at stake, as in the South China Sea, where Chinese maritime claims threaten freedom of navigation in some of the world’s most heavily trafficked shipping lanes.
Concern for its national interest explains why the US has charted a course of tacit neutrality regarding the revival of Sino-Indian territorial disputes, including China’s sudden resurrection of a claim to the large Himalayan Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Similarly, the US has urged Taiwan, Japan and China to peacefully resolve their dispute over the Japanese-controlled Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan. The US’ main goal is to prevent the standoff from escalating to the point that it would be forced — against its own interests — to take Japan’s side.
When US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta met Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) in China in September, he got “an earful” that the US should stay out of the Sino-Japanese dispute. Amid the orchestrated anti-Japanese protests that erupted in China in September, Panetta — instead of advising China to rein in the often violent demonstrations — publicly reiterated the US’ neutrality in the struggle over control of the islands.
The correction in US policy actually extends even to terminology. US diplomats have now abandoned the term “pivot” altogether, owing to its military connotation, in favor of “rebalancing.”
Whatever one calls it, the new policy approach is all about China, with the US bolstering alliances and friendships with countries around China’s periphery, including India, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and South Korea. Yet the Obama administration continues to deny that China is at the center of its strategy. It is reluctant to say or do anything publicly that might raise China’s hackles.
The Asia-Pacific region will loom larger in Obama’s second-term agenda, especially as the ongoing US troop withdrawal ends the Afghanistan war by 2014. However, Obama will have to define a clearer US policy, addressing China’s rapid rise under an authoritarian regime that aggressively pursues border claims and whips up nationalism at home.
The US and the rest of Asia must not merely adjust to China; they must seek to shape a China that will play by the rules.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, India.
Copyright: Project Syndicate