How China could counter Obama's Asia 'pivot'
Chinese President Hu Jintao gestures the way forward for visiting U.S. President Barack Obama in Beijing in November of 2009.
April 5th, 2012
12:00 PM ET

How China could counter Obama's Asia 'pivot'

Editor's Note: Robert E. Kelly is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University, South Korea. A longer version of this essay may be found at his website, Asian Security Blog.

By Robert E. Kelly - Special to CNN

For all the talk about how the US might ‘pivot’ to Asia, there is little Western discussion of how China might respond to its semi-encirclement. Here are five possibilities:

1. China might pull South Korea into its orbit

China’s regional problem is that no one really trusts it. Its allies are weak – North Korea and Myanmar. The best way to head-off encirclement is to break the ring with some decent allies. Nasty, dependent dictatorships are not enough. South Korea is a central link in any semi-containment ring around China, but one where China has a lot of leverage.

Korea was Confucian China’s closest ally for a millennium. Korean and Chinese culture are close. Koreans will not tell you that China is a major enemy of Korea, no matter how many Japanese and U.S. pundits say so. Instead Japan, or even the U.S., is seen as a greater threat. The Liancourt Rocks dispute activates Koreans a lot more than China’s growth.

Korea also has a tradition of anti-Americanism. Yes, they are a good ally to the U.S., but mostly because they need America a lot more than most U.S. allies, not because of some deep affinity. Many feel the U.S. is heavily responsible for the division of the country, bullies South Korea’s leaders, unnecessarily provokes North Korea, forces unfair trade deals on the country, sends pot-smoking English teachers and soldiers to prey on their young students, etc. True or not, consider the opening this gives China.

Finally, Koreans want unity, and China is probably best placed to give it to them. If we accept that North Korea is all but dependent on China now, then China could accelerate a solution in which Korea got unity on southern terms, but only if U.S. Forces in Korea left. Yes, many Chinese see North Korea as a buffer against the robust democracies of Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. But North Korea is a losing horse. Someday it will crash, and how much does it help China now anyway?

North Korea elites are so unpredictable than the Beijing must always be wondering what they’ll do next. Chinese-backed, ‘finlandized’ unification would electrify the region, neutralize a major link in the ring, isolate Japan, and confuse the U.S.

2. Keep flattering India.

India and China will never be too close. The long border, China’s communist oligarchy, and a history of tension make the relationship tough. But China would benefit if India did not fully join the U.S. camp. In 2010, I predicted that India would have U.S. bases within a decade because of the almost tailor-made fit between India and the U.S. But India is not following this script. It’s hedging the U.S., and the evolution of the ‘responsibility to protect’ into triumphalist Western regime change in Libya looks to New Dehli like neocolonialism. There’s a ‘BRICS solidarity’ play for China here: Given that India is still pretty soft on the American option, a charm offensive, however humbling, would be wise.

3. Build missiles and drones; don’t bother with a navy.

Trying to ‘out-ship’ the Americans one-to-one in the western Pacific would be a costly fool’s errand. Japan failed in the 1940s; Americans fought tooth-and-nail to prevent it. Wiser is to pursue an ‘access-denial’ approach in the medium-term.

China should pursue regional (East Asian) dominance first and then tangle with the Americans over the much larger Pacific game later. So access-denial - making it harder for U.S. navy to operate west of Guam (the so-called second island chain strategy) - is a good first step.

Throwing swarms of cheap rockets and drones against hugely expensive, slow-moving U.S. carriers is vastly cheaper, fights asymmetrically where the U.S. hegemon is weak, looks less threatening (defensive balancing), and can be marketing as defending Asia against U.S. interventionism. And stick with robots and missiles. They’re getting very cheap and increasingly outclass human platforms. Let the Americans go on buying fewer and ever more expensive ships and planes costing mountains of money - and then ‘swarm’ them with masses of super-cheap missiles and drones.


4. Buy European debt

Buying European sovereign debt enhances leverage over the West. It pressures the U.S. by reminding it of China’s leverage over the American budget. China could take its money elsewhere, and a nasty U.S. budget crunch would ensue a real rupture with China.

Nothing fuels American hysteria so much as the idea that China ‘owns’ the U.S. Buying Euro-debt drives up U.S. interest rates and keeps America fretting that it needs to be nice to its ‘banker.’ It also keeps the Europeans out of any tangles between China and the U.S. camp in Asia. A dependence on Chinese finance handicaps NATO grandstanding about Asia.

5. Keep propping up global troublemakers.

Nothing distracts U.S. policy-makers like upstart countries that stick their finger in America’s eye. Witness Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Cuba. And nothing convinces the U.S. to spend lots of money on costly defense procurement and conflict like these guys.

So if you’re China, propping up local bad guys is great tool. Yes, it makes you look like you’ll support anyone, but the benefits - wasteful American military spending, coupled with U.S. hysteria and imperial overreaction, leading to consequent global unease with American power - more than outweighs the costs. China could woirk to keep Americans saying stuff like ‘Iran is a mortal threat to the US’ - talk that alienates much of the developing world where 4/5 of the globe’s population now lives.

China could encourage the U.S. to dissipate its energies in the periphery while the rest of the world worries that the otherwise good ideas, like the ‘responsibility to protect,’ are really neoimperialism, because American just can’t control itself. If American comes off as a revisionist hegemon that can’t help but chase rogue states, China looks restrained by comparison.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Robert E. Kelly.

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Topics: Asia • China • East Asia • Foreign Policy • Military • Strategy • United States

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