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Yongnian Zheng: U.S. “Pivot to Asia” strategy and its mistakes
By Yongnian Zheng Translator Sheng-Wei Wang
June 1, 2014

Editor’s Note: We thank Professor Yongnian Zheng for giving us the permission of translating this article into English and publishing both the Chinese and the English versions on www.ChinaUSFriendship.com. The Chinese article first appeared on www.zaobao.com (04-22-2014).


Since World War II, the United States has always been a part of Asia with its interests and influence never leaving there. A few years ago, the U.S. announced that it would “pivot to Asia”. From an economic point of view, this was inevitable. Asia has become the center of gravity of the world economy and this situation will not change for a long time in the future. Meanwhile, with expanding economic and strategic interests in Asia, the U.S. is more and more like an Asian country. In order to protect its growing economic and strategic interests, the U.S. needs to pay more attention to Asia. This is totally understandable. But the “pivot to Asia” announced by the U.S. is obviously not so simple.

Strategically speaking, this time the “pivot to Asiais clearly aimed at China. Of course, this is also not the first time after the Cold War that the United States wanted to return to Asia. During the President George W. Bush era, the U.S. diplomacy led by the neo-conservatism had also nakedly labeled China as an enemy”, trying to form “Asia’s Little NATO” to contain the rise of China. However, that “pivot to Asiaeffort ended as the 9/11 terrorist incident took place. China not only did not become America'senemy”, in a sense, it became the U.S.' anti-terrorism partner. In recent years, the U.S. high-profile “pivot to Asiawas a second repetition. However, in the long run, the “pivot to Asiawill turn out to become a major mistake in the U.S. foreign strategic adjustment.

Why do I say so? The reason is that the real challenge to the United States does not come from China, but from its own decline. Many Americans as well as many people from the international community do not believe that this great country of the United States could decline; even many Chinese people do not believe nor wish the U.S. to decline. This is because, whether as a political system or as an international police force, the decline of the U.S. offers no advantage to China. As a political system, in modern times, the U.S. has always been a role model for the political liberals of different countries to emulate; as an international police force, the U.S. has always provided global public goods to the international community.

While the U.S. is still the world's most powerful country, relatively speaking, it has indeed declined. After World War II, as the victor, the United States was very powerful in the political, economic, military and other respects. Economically, the U.S. launched a massive Marshall Plan to revive the European economy; militarily, it was the main pillar of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); politically, American democracy was desired by many people. In all these respects, the U.S.-led Western bloc applied great pressure against the Soviet-led non-Western bloc. At that time the United States contributed its own money and did handily in all respects. But now the situation is different: apart from having the most powerful military in the world, the U.S. economic and political powers are no longer as strong as they have been.

During the Cold War, the United States was only half the world’s policeman. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. became the entire world's policeman. As the half world's policeman, the U.S. was confident, but as the entire world's policeman, the U.S. appears to be out of its depth. The reason is simple: it costs money to be the world’s policeman. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was such an obvious enemy” that all the allies were willing to support the U.S. to act as the policeman and also pay for its expenses. But after the Cold War, the Soviet Union enemy” no longer exists; the allies are not so willing to pay for the U.S. cost of acting as the international police. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy itself is not strong enough to support the role of acting as a world policeman.

After the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, there no longer existed any alliance that was able to challenge the United States. At that time the U.S. should have changed its policy of strategic alliance, or at least should have changed its military strategic alliances against other countries. Any strategic alliance aims at an enemy”, so you first need an externalenemy”. Without an enemy or a direct threat from the enemy, the alliance will disintegrate. After the Cold War, the United States and its Western allies not only did not change their alliance policy, but also expanded and strengthened their alliance. In Europe, the United States and the West incorporated the emerging countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union and placed the geo-political space belonging to the Soviet Union into their own space. In Asia, the U.S. actively looked for a newenemy”; rapidly rising China naturally became the best candidate. China is a big country in Asia. It is very easy to understand the United States'  “pivot to Asia”. Strengthening the relationships between the U.S. and its Asian allies is aimed at China. For the United States, the enemy of my ally is also my enemy”. This explains the U.S.’ and its allies’ relationships on the China issue.

In doing so, on the surface the United States becomes the world's only hegemony after the Cold War, but in fact it is not. The American strategic greed in Europe and its strategic misjudgment of China have all promoted and accelerated the decline of the U.S. itself. In Europe, the U.S. and Western strategic greed has led to Russia’s rebound. For Russia, once the country has the strength, opportunity will knock and it is bound to recover the geopolitical interests that were robbed by the U.S. and the West. Today, Ukraine is actually the victim of the political disputes on geopolitical interests between the United States, the Western countries and Russia. Regarding China as a potential enemy” is especially America's strategic misjudgment that will have an incalculable negative impact on the U.S. national interests.

The United States has not realized that China is not the same as other big powers. For example, China and the Soviet Union are not the same. Since the reform and opening up, China's choice is to join the U.S.-led existing world system and connect to this system by changing their own practice. Although China after joining this system has not always been completely docile and obedient to the United States, in general it has fulfilled its responsibilities and obligations as a Member State.

China’s official diplomatic discourses also form a similar line of thinking. Deng Xiaoping stressed “self-restraint” (taoguang yanghui韬光养晦), Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao emphasized “peaceful rise” and peaceful development", and the current Xi Jinping stresses a new model of major power relations”.  All of these concepts are essentially the same; in Deng Xiaoping's words China will “never serve as a leader” (永不当头). The concept of “a new model of major power relations” is simply to say it for the Americans to hear, but few Americans understand it. Even though some people understand it, they also choose not to believe it. This concept means that China acknowledges that the United States is the “boss” of the international community; China will not challenge that “boss” status and is willing to cooperate with the “boss” to maintain the international order. Of course, at the same time China also asks the U.S. “boss” to take care of some of China's “core interests”.

The U.S. put its interests all around the whole world, but the core interests of China are very limited; they concern territories and territorial waters, and are limited to matters with China’s neighboring countries. The U.S. core interests are everywhere, and it is aware of China's core interests. The U.S. does have the ability to play an active role in coordinating the relations between China and China’s neighboring countries, if it is willing to do so. But the U.S. does not want to play this role, instead it simply chooses “pivot to Asia” to stand on the side of its allied countries (and often they are the countries that have sovereignty conflicts of interest with China).

America's “pivot to Asia”, if it is due to economic reasons, should not be so frightening. Countries in the region including China would also welcome the U.S. to do so. But if it is due to military and strategic reasons, the U.S. will only exacerbate regional conflicts. The U.S. now clearly puts too much emphasis on strategy and the military; even an economic agreement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) carries a strategic alliance nature.

The United States will suffer self-defeat by considering China as an enemy  

If the U.S. considers China as an enemy” to make a major strategic adjustment, it is bound to accelerate its decline. This is not because China and the U.S. will engage in a big war, or because China could defeat the United States, but because America will suffer self-defeat. Here are a few main reasons.

First, China's strategic attitude matters. In international relations, China has always held on to a “conciliatory" approach; unless cornered, China simply does not want to treat anyone as an enemy. That is the meaning of China saying “seeking no trouble, nor showing timidity”. The United States several times has defined China as a strategic competitor or potential enemy”, but China uses its classical marshal art (tai chi太极) approach to respond and escape head-on confrontation, while it even still regards the U.S. as a friend. If China were the Soviet Union, there would already have started another Cold War between the U.S. and China. While the United States and its allies vigorously strengthen their relationships, China obviously knows that the U.S. strategic intention is China; but China does not follow the example of the U.S. to set up its own allies. If it also implemented an alliance policy, there would be no peaceful situation at present.

Second, pivot to Asiameans that the United States has to place a strong military and strategic focus on Asia, which will inevitably lead to a huge waste. China will not be so stupid” to engage in head-on confrontation with the U.S., otherwise it would not propose “a new model of major power relations”. But one thing is for sure. The U.S. pressure will contribute to China’s effort to devote more resources to defense and military modernizations, which will then lead to the true rise of the Chinese military. China's military modernization does need such a bad” kind of international condition or a needed imaginary enemy”. Today China's military modernization that people have seen is impelled by two external factors related to the United States: the U.S. Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s and the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. The Gulf War made China begin to understand what a modern war could be; and preventing Taiwan independence” has become over the years China’s strategic objective. The U.S. “pivot to Asia” has given the Chinese a clearer strategic imaginary enemy” to better facilitate the modernization of its national defense. China will carry out the defense modernization according to its actual needs to avoid military competitions with the U.S. and Japan.

Next, “pivot to Asiawill inevitably force the United States to transfer strategic resources from other regions to Asia, which will contribute to U.S. decline in the other regions. In fact, such a phenomenon has already occurred in areas like the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia where U.S. influence and international prestige have dropped substantially. Meanwhile, as China's diplomatic space in Asia is effectively squeezed by the United States, China will inevitably extend its own strategy to those areas where the U.S. has withdrawn. This will objectively contribute to China's going out” tendency. In some regions, China already has considerable strength. Although the core of China’s Maritime Silk Route (Maritime Silk Road is a 2011 Iranian film about an Iranian man who, according to historical documents, was the first sailor to cross the Indian Ocean to China. His route was then called the Maritime Silk Road;  the Maritime Silk Road started in the Persian Gulf and continued into India, Thailand and China) and New Silk Road (the Eurasian Land Bridge) proposed currently is trade, it also contains strategic considerations of looking west.

Fourth, the Ukrainian crisis not only shows the return of Russian geopolitics, but also indicates that the challenge to the U.S.-led West is not coming from China, but from other major powers like Russia which has similar thinking as the United States. As a civilization-based country, Russia will not wait for its own geopolitical interests being divided by the West. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia had no capability to protect its own geopolitical interests. Once it has that ability, it will make every effort to recapture these benefits. Historically, Russia, like the U.S in the West, was also an expansionist country. The Western and Russian cultures are based on similar dedications to religions whereas the Chinese culture is not based on religions. The Chinese culture is secular and non-expansionistic; therefore, it is natural that it can accommodate other cultures. The U.S. and Western reactions to the situation in Ukraine have shown their limited capacities.

The U.S. has made a strategic misjudgment on China because Americans do not understand China. The U.S. judgment on China is not based on China’s historical or contemporary international behaviors, but on Americans’ deep-rooted ideology. Americans believe that a rising great power is bound to challenge the existing power and also wants to impose its own thinking on that country. The different political systems of the two countries have also deepened the U.S. perception of China. The so-called “big power tragedy” in the history of international relations occurred mostly in Europe. The modern international relations theories are also based on the experiences of international relations in Europe and are not so relevant to non-Western experiences. The Western theories of international relations have only local characteristics, but the U.S. and the West made this local knowledge into universal knowledge and considered it as the universal truth to follow in practice. This explains the current psychological pattern of the U.S.-China relations: instead of saying that China wants to challenge the United States, it is more realistic to say that the U.S. fears the rise of China. There is no valid evidence to show that China is challenging the United States, but the U.S. fear of China is everywhere.

The Americanization of the Chinese academia also reinforced this fear of the Americans. Since the reform and opening up, China's academic community has been filled with the American style of international relations discourses, which have made Americans feel that China and the U.S. have no differences, that we all have the same mindset. Although the Americanized concepts have not been able to explain the actual behavior of China's diplomacy, they do make the Chinese academic discourse of international relations more deceptive. Between the international political discourse of the Chinese academia and the policy discourse provided by the Chinese government, the Americans do not hesitate to choose the former.

A typical example is the U.S. misjudgment of the situations in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. In these two so-called hot spots, China actually wants to keep the status quo. Ever since Deng Xiaoping put forward shelving disputes and carrying out joint development for areas over which China owns sovereign rights development”, the Chinese position has never changed. On most issues, the Chinese always responded to nature. In China's view, China did not take the initiative to provoke these incidents, but since other countries made the provocations, China had to respond. But Americans do not think this way; they seem to think that China was bullying the small neighboring countries.

The decline of a great power is not so much the result of the rise of other countries; instead, it is more due to its own decline. The decline of the Qing dynasty was like this, the decline of the Soviet empire was also like this. If the United States cannot correct its strategic misjudgments on China, cannot control its unlimited strategic greed, then it seems that the U.S. will also inevitably fall into this logic and hasten its speed on the road of decline.

The author is director of the East Asia Institute at National University of Singapore.

The article represents only the author’s personal views.

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Professor Yongnian Zheng is Director of the East Asian Institute at National University of Singapore. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Beijing University, and his Ph.D. at Princeton University. He was a recipient of Social Science Research Council-MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1995-1997) and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2003-2004). He was Professor and founding Research Director of the China Policy Institute, the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. He is Editor of Series on Contemporary China (World Scientific Publishing) and China Policy Series (Routledge). He is also the editor of China: An International Journal and East Asian Policy. He has studied both China's domestic transformation and its external relations. His papers have appeared in journals such as Comparative Political Studies, Political Science Quarterly, Third World Quarterly and China Quarterly. He is the author of more than 20 books, including The Chinese Communist Party as Organizational Emperor, Technological Empowerment, De Facto Federalism in China, Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China and Globalization and State Transformation in China, and editor of numerous books on China and its foreign relations including the latest volumes China's Evolving Industrial Policies and Economic Restructuring (2014). Besides his research work, Professor Zheng has also been an academic activist. He served as a consultant to United Nation Development Programme on China's rural development and democracy. In addition, he has been a columnist for Xinbao (Hong Kong) and Zaobao (Singapore) for many years, writing numerous commentaries on China's domestic and international affairs.
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