This article was written by Patrick Truffer for the Freie Universität Berlin. This essay explores the relationship of the “Pivot to East Asia” strategy to the increasing power potential of China whilst investigating the implementation of the balance of power strategy. How does the “Pivot to East Asia” affect US-China relations? Does it increase the likelihood of a confrontation between the US and China?Introduction
In his address to the Australian Parliament in November 2011, US President Barack Obama stressed the importance of the Southeast Asia/Pacific region in an unusually clear way. The interest of the United States in the region is nothing new, with the US maintaining its military presence in the Pacific region ever since World War II. After the Vietnam War, the number of US soldiers stationed in the region levelled off at 100,000 and dropped slightly below this value as of 1990 (Tim Kane, “U.S. Troop Deployment Dataset“, The Heritage Foundation, 01/03/2006). The National Security Strategy of 1987 reads: “The United States is a Pacific power and a proud member of the area of the globe that has led the world’s economies in growth”. In 1993, US President Bill Clinton endeavoured to establish a “New Pacific Community” committed to safety, liberal economy, democratisation and human rights; along those lines, he revitalised US-Japanese relations in 1995 (cf.: Bill Clinton, “Building a new Pacific community“, US Department of State, 12/07/1993; Frank B. Gibney, “Creating a Pacific Community: A Time to Bolster Economic Institutions“, Foreign Affairs 72, no. 5, November/December 1993). Finally, the United States entered into a strategic partnership with India in 2005 under US President George W. Bush (Daniel Twining, “Obama’s pivot to Asia“, The Atlantic Times, 28/09/2012). As for Obama’s “Pivot to East Asia”, this does not entail a change to its foreign policy strategy but a build-up of its military presence in the Southeast Asia/Pacific region.
With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress. — US President Barack Obama, “Remarks By President Obama to the Australian Parliament“, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 17/11/2011.
The power potential of China compared to the US
China is an emerging economy and regional superpower in Southeast Asia/Pacific. Power potential (or “capabilities”) can be ascertained using the following factors: “size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability, and competence” (Kenneth Neal Waltz, “Theory of international politics“, Addison-Wesley, 1979, p. 131). However, the US-China power potential comparison considers certain factors to be secondary: for example, size of population and territory. Given that the US and China have no common border, the size of the armed forces plays only a minor role and workforce figures are not the sole indicator of economic potential. A larger territory can be beneficial for economic potential, albeit only if the area is really usable and accessible.
GDP remains the most suitable factor for assessing economic potential as it considers all of the individual aspects (number of workers, use of production factors, etc.). In addition to absolute GDP, GDP per capita and percentage growth rate also convey medium-term economic potential. The GINI index represents the equal distribution of income whereby a high GINI may indicate possible domestic tension and impending social conflict. Sustainable economic growth relies heavily on fossil fuels, whereas a country’s own resources reduce its dependency on other countries. The amount of electrical energy generated is also a significant factor and the number of nuclear power plants may be indicative of technological development. In the military arena, military spending conveys military potential (both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP). In the case of two nuclear powers such as the US and China, the number of nuclear warheads is indicative of military power.
Economically speaking, China has boasted a stellar performance over the last 20 years, although it is highly dependent on the US market. With 17.2% of China’s export volume, the US remains the country’s top export destination. The economic power of the United States clearly exceeds that of China; this is expected to remain so until 2030 (cf.: Tom Shanker, “Study Predicts Future for U.S. as No. 2 Economy, but Energy Independent“, The New York Times, 10/12/2012). Proof of this is provided not only by the absolute GDP, but also by the GDP per capita and the availability of own energy resources. In military terms, the US is set apart from China, as evidenced by its military spending, number of nuclear warheads and advanced military technology (China’s military lags two generations behind the US; cf.: Robert S. Ross, “The Problem With the Pivot“, Foreign Affairs 91, no. 6, November/December 2012).
Overall, the economic and military power potential of China is clearly behind that of the US. The observed behaviour of the US in the Southeast Asia/Pacific region is influenced less by the absolute power potential of China and rather by its relative power gain as a regional superpower. As a regional superpower, China is able to project its military potential in a highly targeted fashion throughout the Southeast Asia/Pacific region. Furthermore, China has been demonstrating an increasingly confident stance since 2009, pursuing its regional interests even against the resistance of other regional States which are partially allied with the US, thus provoking a backlash in the US.
Obama’s “Pivot to East Asia”
During the Bush administration, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the war on terror, any potential conflicts of interest with China were largely subdued, with US-Chinese relations being marked by an optimistic positive trend. Nevertheless, US troops in the Southeast Asia/Pacific region remained virtually constant while the US Navy presence expanded from 2005 (“The Bush administration assigned an additional aircraft carrier to the Pacific theater, and the Pentagon announced in 2005 that it would deploy 60 per cent of US submarines to Asia. Throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military funding for the Pacific theater remained at high levels.”; Robert S. Ross, “The Problem With the Pivot“, Foreign Affairs 91, no. 6, November/December 2012). The on-going commitment to the Pacific after World War II is based on the United States’ perception of itself as a Pacific nation. In 2005, Bush entered into a strategic partnership with India, which was understood less as a way of counterbalancing China and more to compensate for the US-Pakistani cooperation in the war on terror and the military operation in Afghanistan (cf.: Ashok Malik, “The Best American President India’s Ever Had“, Forbes, 11/03/2009).
In all three cases [(Russia, India and China)], recent developments have encouraged our hope that a truly global consensus about basic principles is slowly taking shape. — George W. Bush, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America“, The White House, September 2002, 26.
Even before taking office, Obama proposed a broader foreign policy agenda in the Southeast Asia/Pacific region (“Obama will forge a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond bilateral agreements […]. He will maintain strong ties with allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia; […] and work to ensure that China plays by international rules”. Barack Obama, “The Blueprint for change“, 2008,p. 53). The economic crisis of summer 2007 and its culmination in late 2008 elevated China’s status as a rival economic power, as is evident from Chart 1 , which shows that US economic growth dropped from 2004 onwards to become negative in 2008 and 2009. In the same period, China’s economy grew consistently up to 2007, continuing to post high growth rates since that time. This is associated with its much stronger voice, which was clearly expressed at the 2009 UNFCCC. In January 2010, following the sale of US weapons to Taiwan, China suspended the high-level security dialogue with the US and resorted to economic sanctions against US firms with Taiwanese connections. China also protested against the planned joint naval exercises with South Korea the United States in July 2010 (Robert S. Ross, “The Problem With the Pivot“, Foreign Affairs 91, no. 6, November/December 2012).
There are two power balancing strategies: with or without the incorporation of an extra-regional great power, States can establish alliances to offset a rising power (external balance of power), and/or they can individually expand their economic or military capacity while adapting their strategy (internal balance of power) (Kenneth Neal Waltz, “Theory of international politics“, Addison-Wesley, 1979, p. 118; T. V. Paul, James J. Wirtz, and Michel Fortmann, “Balance of power: theory and practice in the 21st century“, Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 7). Obama’s “Pivot to East Asia” represents an internal balance of power strategy. It has far less to do with the absolute economic and military power of China than with its growing strength as a regional superpower in Southeast Asia/Pacific and, consequently, its increasingly confident self-assertion in the region. For their part, Southeast Asian countries favoured the implementation of the balance of power strategy, which establishes an external balance of power to the regional superpower, China, with the support of the United States as a strong external alliance partner. With its superior economic and military power, the United States is the only possible alliance partner. The United States leverages this advantageous opportunity to build a network of allied states in the Southeast Asian/Pacific region, as a counterweight to the ever-growing power potential of China. This strategy is however not without risks, as China will necessarily respond to the power shifts in its strategic areas of interest.Impact on US-Chinese relations
Consequences of the balance of power strategy of the US and its allies in the Southeast Asia/Pacific region have not yet been conclusively assessed. On a political level, China’s reaction has been rather restrained. In 2012, it failed to endorse sanctions on Iranian oil exports, decreased pressure on North Korea to stop its nuclear program and withdrew its support for the Six-Party Talks. Moreover, China increased its investment in the exploitation of natural resources in North Korea and the extent of the food supply. Nevertheless, tensions between South Korea, the US and North Korea since the end of March 2013 do not constitute a proxy conflict between the US and China – the behaviour of the superpowers during the Cold War has not been observed (yet). Indeed, China has no interest in fostering military confrontation in its strategic backyard (Harry Kazianis, “North Korea Cramping China’s Anti-Access Style“, The Diplomat, 05/04/2013).
It is unlikely that China, the US, and its alliance partners in the Southeast Asia/Pacific region will reach a compromise on regional conflicts of interest. For example, a conflict between China and Japan over the territorial affiliation of the Senkaku Islands is smouldering once more since September 2010. Similar tensions erupted on May 2011 with Vietnam over the Spratly Islands and with the Philippines over Scarborough Reef in May 2012 (Rabea Brauer und Sarah Schulze, “Vietnam vs. China“, 19/10/2011). These States are familiar with US military co-operation during tense territorial disputes. Thus, the likelihood of a more assertive China in the implementation of its regional interests, as counter-reaction to the balance of power strategy, rises significantly. This also applies to US alliance partners in the Southeast Asia/Pacific region: US assistance boosts the confident, uncompromising stance of these States, as does – in conjunction with misunderstandings and misinterpretations – the likelihood of conflict. Therefore, it is assumed that Obama’s “Pivot to East Asia” and a possible backlash in China have moderately increased the likelihood of mutual conflicts. On the other hand, confrontation appears less likely if a massive counter-movement in China fails to materialise and a more balanced distribution of power in the Southeast Asia/Pacific region emerges.Conclusion
China has not yet obtained the status of a global superpower because it clearly lags behind the US in terms of economic and military power. In the Southeast Asia/Pacific region, China nonetheless represents a regional superpower that can project its military potential on specific targets to enforce its interests. From 2009, China’s awareness of the situation and the relative increase in economic power made the Chinese government increasingly assertive. This confident emergence as a regional superpower and the external balance of power of US alliance partners eventually led to Obama’s “Pivot to East Asia”, which is the implementation of the balance of power strategy.
The effects of this US focus shift are yet to be assessed. The likelihood of a more assertive China in the implementation of its regional interests, as counter-reaction to the balance of power strategy, rises significantly. Further, China aggressively resurfaces on territorial disputes with US alliance partners. Obama’s “Pivot to East Asia” moderately increases the likelihood of conflict between the US and China. On the other hand, confrontation appears to be less likely if a massive counter-movement in China fails to materialise and the regional system re-stabilises.