U.S. Embassy The Hague

During Barack Obama’s presidency, American foreign policy experienced a number of fundamental changes bound to leave an impact on the international system even after Obama leaves office. The so-called ‘pivot’ to Asia was a policy initiative announced in 2014. Its objective was to shift the United States’ military presence and foreign policy agenda from the Middle East to East Asia. The Obama administration justified this rebalance based on the United States’ need to adapt to the international system’s changing security and economic environment. There was a culmination of developments that instigated the strategic pivot to Asia. First, US military presence began to decline in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second factor was the economic importance of the Asia-Pacific region, especially China, for the financial future of the United States. Thirdly, China has been aggressively posturing in the region as a result of its increased military capabilities and territorial disputes, threatening American regional allies. These conditions motivated the pivot to Asia, but ultimately the military features of the rebalance seem to outweigh the diplomatic efforts. While Obama was capable of fostering cooperation with many Asian states, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement has still yet to pass. Furthermore, China has appeared to be more emboldened than deterred by US naval presence.

U.S. Embassy The Hague
Image courtesy of U.S. Embassy The Hague, © 2014, some rights reserved.

One of the most consequential impacts of the rebalance was the decline in US-Sino relations. The Chinese reaction to the so-called pivot to Asia can be characterised as overwhelmingly negative. Most of China’s policymakers perceived the pivot as an effort to contain China and undermine the nation’s regional influence[1]. Even the more optimistic Chinese policy analysts who do not consider Washington’s shift as overtly hostile still believe that the impact of the rebalance will inevitably result in a weakened strategic position for China in the Asia-Pacific. In 2014, Obama went on a tour where he visited four East Asian countries in China’s proximity and he signed a US-Philippines defence agreement[2]. Deliberate policy decisions like these arguably support China’s narrative that the United States is forming a regional coalition meant to mitigate China’s rise. Obama’s National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon claimed the primary reasons for the rebalance to Asia was forming ‘constructive relationship with China; empowering regional institutions; and helping to build a regional economic architecture that can sustain shared prosperity’ but many Chinese analysts consider this empty rhetoric.

The pivot to Asia has been and will likely be a major point of contention for the future of US-Sino relations. At least three distinct aspects of strategic rebalance can be identified as competing with Chinese regional interests. First, about 60 per cent of American naval and air force assets have been devoted to the Asia-Pacific as a result of the pivot, an increased presence China’s leaders surely see as threatening. Second, the TPP is largely viewed by China as an attempt to restrict its regional economic growth. China is not a signatory of the free trade agreement and is proposing distinct regional trade partnerships to states considering the TPP. Third, the US has had a large voice in maritime disputes in the East and South China Sea. Chinese leaders do not see the US as a fair arbiter; Obama is working closely to enhance relations with countries that have conflicting territorial claims with China, like Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

China’s response to the pivot is a concerted effort to increase its own partnerships around the globe while preserving its core strategic interests without directly confronting the US. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has expanded its economic and diplomatic relations across Eurasia, Latin America, and Africa. The Silk Road Economic Belt as well the Maritime Silk Road are both economic projects that encourage increased cooperation. From a more realist perspective, part of Xi’s ‘China Dream’ initiative can be regarded as an attempt for China to achieve great power status. The policy calls for a rapid modernisation of China’s naval fleet so that the country can freely project power throughout the East and South China Sea. Xi’s presidency is a departure from the less emboldened stance of Hu Jintao’s ‘peaceful rise’ rhetoric.

The Obama administration efforts were geared towards implementing an intricate strategy of balancing competition and cooperation with Beijing. This increased engagement culminated in some major agreements on issues such as global warming. However, for the most part the hard power of the pivot overshadowed its soft power. As China feels antagonised by a US containment strategy, it continues to claim disputed territory and solidify its military infrastructure in the South China Sea. As of late, it has been confident enough to openly condemn US vessels passing through the South China Sea[3]. While US leadership articulates the pivot as a policy intended for deeper engagement and cooperation with China, Beijing may perceive the rebalancing as a threat to their regional influence. The legacy of the pivot will largely be determined by the winner of the next US election. Hillary Clinton would very likely continue the pivot to Asia, as she was the former head of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and has largely advocated a continuation of current foreign policy on the campaign trail. Despite her current opposition to the TPP, many analysts predict she would change her stance once elected. Trump, on the other hand, is adamantly opposed to the TPP and often makes statements implying he would call for a more isolationist foreign policy. It is likely that he would reverse the effects of the pivot to Asia. As of now, the incomplete pivot has resulted in a more assertive China and an uncertain future for the international system.

[1] David W. F. Huang Asia Pacific Countries and the Us Rebalancing Strategy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, p. 70

[2] Ibid, p. 70

[3] Xinjun Zhang, ‘The Latest Developments of the US Freedom of Navigation Programs in the South China Sea: Deregulation or Re-balance?’ Journal of East Asia and International Law 9, no. 1 (2016), pp. 167-68

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