By: Asfand Yar Bhutto
“The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” — Sun Tzu
The world politics is changing with the changing strategic environment wherein the international order is transforming from unipolarity to multipolarity largely due to the geostrategic integration among different countries. Amidst the changing dynamics, China is emerging, and rapidly rising, as a great power in Asia and is being perceived by the United States as the most potent threat to its strategic interests in the entire Asian region. The growing apprehensions of US policymakers precipitated Obama administration to launch its ‘Asia Pivot’ or ‘rebalancing strategy’ in 2011 which was focused on engaging with Asia Pacific countries including China, strengthening ties with its allies and ensuring and enhancing the US military presence in the region in order to secure the core US interests. On the other side, China pursues an independent foreign policy in which the norms of non-intervention and sovereign equality have been deeply embedded. The policy seeks to protect China’s territorial integrity and ensure its sovereignty and economic development. China wants to pursue soft economic and diplomatic strategies to hold its sway over the region. Therefore, China’s response to the US rebalancing strategy is based on a desire to counterbalance US presence in the region.
This article consists of two main parts. First it touches on the main characteristics of US’ Asia Pivot policy and then presents a brief yet an in-depth analysis of Chinese response.
Asia as a powerhouse of economic activities: Geostrategic significance
In the 21st century, the rise of Asia has exponentially drawn the attention of the United States to focus especially on Asia-Pacific region. Since Asia has a unique geostrategic importance as it is the economic hub of the world, its emergence as a powerhouse of economic activities can be related to the increasing business and trade activities in which emerging powers like China, India and Indonesia are playing a pivotal role. Asia’s share of global exports and imports almost doubled between 1980 and 2010 with the exports surging from 15.9% to 33.3% and imports soaring to 31.4% from 16.9%. The viable and stable economic activities rest upon the freedom of trade routes across the Indian and Pacific Oceans as these are the main regions of transportation of goods across the globe. About 50% of the world container traffic and 70% ship-borne oil transit the Indian Ocean, mostly destined to reach East Asia. Hence, any estrangement in the trade relations between China and India could bring the peaceful transit to a standstill.
Growing US interests and Chinese counterbalance
In Asia Pacific region, the US has huge economic, strategic and security interests. They include the economic connectivity throughout the region’s huge market, maintenance of regional peace and stability and securing its allies, especially Japan and South Korea, and ensuring the resolution of conflicts in East and South China seas. However, China’s emergence as a great power in this changing dynamics of international political structure did not stop; hence, it is inevitable to comprehend the US-China relations in the context of the Asia Pivot strategy of the United States.
There are multiple significant events in the recent history whereby it becomes discernable that China is emerging as a significant power. For instance, China, in collaboration with Russia, has successfully resisted the Western intervention in the Syrian civil war three times; it came up with the idea of establishing Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) from the platform of BRICS (an association of five developing countries; Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa); it played a key role in expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which is being dubbed as ‘The NATO of the East’; most significantly, it has come up with a revolutionary idea of ‘One Belt, One Road’ which is aimed at connecting a large number of countries on four continents. The OBOR reflects China’s growing soft power in the international political arena. However, with this changing strategic environment in the Asia Pacific, two things are important.
United States’ Asia Pivot
After the end of the Cold War, the international order turned to unipolarity with the US emerging as the sole superpower of the world. With the onset of the 21st century, America’s role as a global leader and its internal security started facing daunting challenges; such as threat of terrorism by the non-state actors, alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) of the Saddam regime in Iraq, Iran’s quest for nuclear power, Russia’s resurgence – evident from the 2014 annexation of Crimea – and most importantly, China’s rapid rise in Asia. North Korea’s aggressive stance, manifested via its tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, has also challenged the American quest for hegemony. Keeping in view the above dynamic geostrategic and politico-economic arrangements in the international political arena, Obama administration came up with its Asia Pivot strategy which was based on shifting America’s focus from Europe and Middle East toward Asia. The mainstay of this strategy was to check China’s aspirations to dominate the region by deploying troops in allied countries in the region. On the one hand, China has been modernizing its military capabilities – with increasing military budget and advanced technology, China’s tanks, destroyers, aircraft and missile capabilities are becoming stronger day by day and comparable to those of the US – and has also sought to turn its historical coastal navy into blue-water navy with global ambitions to counterbalance the US naval superiority in the Indian and Pacific ocean while on the other, the US launched its maritime security strategy for the Asia Pacific in August 2015 to protect America’s growing economic and security interests in the Asia Pacific. The strategy rests on three principal objectives: (1) safeguarding the freedom of the seas; (2) preventing conflict and coercion; and (3) promoting adherence to international law and standards. The policy also envisages that 60% of the US naval and overseas assets will be stationed in the Asia Pacific region by 2020.
China has responded to the Asia Pivot strategy of the US at two levels. Firstly, Chinese officials have strongly condemned this policy and are cautious that US will support its allies in terms of escalating maritime and territorial disputes with China. Secondly, China has termed this strategy as a Cold War-like containment of China because China’s rise is posing a potential threat to America’s global hegemony. Moreover, the introduction of Air Sea Battle Concept (ASBC) by the US is also being depicted as the manifestation of the Cold War-Like hostility between the US and China. International Relations scholar Aaron Jed Rabena asserts that in curtailing the US re-balancing strategy, China has come up with the ‘Marching West’ strategy which aims at fostering China’s diplomatic and economic relations with the Eurasian countries. He is also of the view that China’s response to the Asia-Pivot strategy can be manifested via diplomatic and economic initiatives such as Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and bolstering bilateral relations.
OBOR will serve two purposes: First, it will consolidate China’s soft power, and second it will reinforce China’s economic cooperation with more than 60 countries. A noted Chinese scholar claims that, “The New Silk Road Economic Belt … illustrates China is broadening its strategic aperture and making more efforts in ‘look westwards’ and ‘march westwards’ policy which is crucial in consolidating China’s status as the largest developing country and promoting South-South cooperation.” Chinese response to the Asia Pivot policy as well as its military modernization has created quite a stir in the Asia Pacific region.
In this world of complex interdependence, war is not a feasible option. So, America and China will never go to war because China is America’s second-largest trading partner, its third-largest export market and the largest foreign holder of US government debt. Moreover, Chinese response to this US strategy, too, has been soft as is evident from initiatives like OBOR and AIIB.
America should not take China’s economic and military rise as a potential threat to international peace and its own core interests because China has always been peaceful in coping with the problems of the world as the norms of non-interference have been embedded in the Chinese foreign policy since long. Chinese military modernization is only to protect the Chinese territorial integrity and sovereignty; it would never manifest aggressive behaviour to the world and would not challenge the status quo. China has been countering the US rebalancing strategy with the use of soft power as is evident from a number of initiatives like OBOR, AIIB, BRICS, SCO, etc. China has responded to America through the strategy of ‘Looking West and Marching West’. Some scholars are of the view that the competition between two major powers portrays a new Cold War, but it is just a perception. China will not use its military option as it wants to grow economically and aspires to sway the world through soft power.