No, fear of China isn’t what’s driving U.S. policy in Asia
July 17th, 2012
11:46 AM ET

No, fear of China isn’t what’s driving U.S. policy in Asia

Editor’s note: Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

By Brad Glosserman, Special to CNN

Frequently dismissed as a talk shop, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is in fact one of the key tests of the U.S. commitment to “rebalance” to Asia. The 27-member security forum may be best known for its after-dinner entertainment – most famously then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s schmaltzy country and western duet with Japanese counterpart Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka – but the readiness of America’s most senior diplomats to travel halfway round the globe to attend the meet is seen as a critical indicator of Washington’s readiness to engage the world’s most dynamic region on its own terms.

Fortunately, the ARF has begun to assume a significance commensurate with its status as the Asia-Pacific’s only institutionalized security forum. Two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told delegates that the United States had a stake in freedom of navigation in the region, called for the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes that dot the South China Sea, and offered U.S. services as a mediator. That statement infuriated Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who left the meeting and returned to imperiously point out that “China is a big country…and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” Clinton’s speech, and U.S. foreign policy more generally, was dismissed most charitably as a distraction – and more ominously as dangerous interference – in regional affairs. (The idea that the U.S. was responding to regional entreaties is considered laughable.)

Then, and since, Chinese officials and analysts have argued that U.S. policy risks a confrontation between Beijing and Washington either by encouraging U.S. surrogates (read: Vietnam and the Philippines) to be more assertive in their claims, or by forcing regional states to choose between the two countries and risking a new Cold War in the region.

The tension between the two countries is the lead story at this year’s ARF, which convened in Phnom Penh last weekend. There, ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the group that chairs the ARF) was unable to reach consensus and issue a joint declaration for the first time in its 43-year history.

The cause of the disagreement? How to refer to China and the territorial disputes in maritime areas. There were behind-the-scenes reports of angry meetings, punctuated by yelling, and the refusal of the chair, Cambodia, to allow language critical of China. Those same reports highlight the considerable economic assistance that Beijing provides Cambodia.

To be fair, ASEAN is working with China to develop a code of conduct to govern those disputes. But that has been in the works for over a decade, and progress is bound to be halting. While rules of the road make sense to keep incidents from escalating to armed conflict, Beijing wants to keep ASEAN (and the ARF) sidelined, preferring to negotiate bilaterally with rival claimants where its size can make a difference. Anything that alters that equation, such as “multilateralizing” disputes or bringing in the United States, is anathema to Beijing.

China characterizes U.S. involvement in the South China Seas disputes – or any other regional problem in which it has a stake – as part of a strategy to contain China. The illogic of that claim, given tens of billions of dollars of U.S. investment and hundreds of billions of U.S. trade, doesn’t register.

American engagement is designed to counter a narrative of U.S. decline in the Asia Pacific. The U.S. strategy to “rebalance” to the region is based on Asia’s increasing relevance to the future of the United States and America’s determination to play its historical regional role as well. Little appreciated is the breadth of the strategy. U.S. engagement is seen as primarily military. In reality, “rebalancing” is first and foremost about “forward deployed diplomacy,” followed closely by economic and cultural engagement. The military dimension is important, but it’s simply the final pillar.

High-level U.S. attendance at the ARF is an unmistakable signal that Washington “gets” Asian concerns. Secretary Clinton’s readiness to join a discussion that may not yield a specific deliverable shows an understanding of, and respect for, regional institutions and priorities. Of course, Washington must do more than just show up – it must provide both leadership and support for regional initiatives. The push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a core component of this strategy, as is outreach to Burma and the readiness to respond to changes there. Modernization of U.S. alliances and the embrace of new partners such as Singapore and Vietnam – along with new missions, particularly humanitarian assistance and disaster relief – are also key elements of this approach.

Ultimately, these policies aid both the United States and Asia, enriching the lives of Asians and Americans alike. It’s those concerns that drive U.S. policy – not fear of China.

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Topics: Asia • China • East Asia • United States

soundoff (170 Responses)
  1. qwerty

    The Economist finds that China has already overtaken America on well over half of 21 different indicators, including manufacturing output, exports and fixed investment. The chart below predicts when China will surpass America on the rest. By 2014, for example, it could be the world’s biggest importer and have the largest retail sales. America still tops a few league tables by a wider margin. Its stockmarket capitalisation is four times bigger than China’s, and it spends five times as much on defence. Even though China’s defence budget is growing faster, on recent growth rates America’s will remain larger until 2025.

    July 17, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
    • Clinton

      The biggest sign of a liar... they post what they contend are "facts" but do not cite the source of their "information". China is no where near eclipsing the US. Estimates have stated that if the Chinese economy grows larger than the US's it's predicted to do so sometime in mid century, those projections were also based on the assumption that China will continue to grow at the rate it was prior to the economic slowdown, which according to CNN's report just the other day, it is not, it has slowed and is continuing to slow... predictions are just that, guesses. Also, I again restate that even if the Chinese rose to our economic level, they have 5X the population of us, in order for them to be as wealthy as us, they would need an economy MUCH larger than our own... do you even know what the food bill is to sustain China? Health care? retirement? ....... China has a lot of challenges ahead, i believe they will come to revolution before they reach our economic level.

      July 17, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Reply
      • Total2199

        Clinton: Your math is obviously primitive. Even though, Chinese population is 5X that of the US, consumption is 4X lower. Chinese people can survive on a bowl of rice a day, whereas American population cannot. Chinese people, contemporaries to the ancient Egyptians and Romans, demonstrated an enormous resilience over the 40 centuries they were around compared to the contemporary American society that is only 236 years old. DO NOT underestimate Chinese baby …

        July 18, 2012 at 12:06 am |
      • Total2199

        Qur'an 70:42 "So let them chat vainly and play about, with their idle disputes until they encounter that Day of Doom which they have been threatened! They will rise from their sepulchers in sudden haste as if they were rushing to a goal, their eyes lowered in dejection and disgrace, aghast, abasement stupefying them – ignominy shall overtake them! Such is the Day that they are threatened with!"

        July 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  2. qwerty

    The USA doesn't have any problems, source...... self,. USA = perfect, wait ... i was dreaming, and Clinton named his source of information. My point, which you missed,,,,, one ship is picking up steam, the other one is taking on water.

    July 17, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  3. Angel

    Milton-Edwards wants to put the record straight in this regard. She starts from the premise that without the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the relationship between 'Islam' and 'The West' might well have developed along a different trajectory. This is because both the attacks themselves, as well as linked bombings that followed, led to a significant change in perceptions of the role of non-state, transnational Islamic actors in international relations. Now it was no longer sufficient to see states as the only actors capable of inflicting large-scale, international political violence: 9/11 led to the death of nearly 3,000 people, while subsequent bombs linked to al-Qaeda killed hundreds more. Above all, the 9/11 attacks emphasised that international religious terrorism was now an important factor in international conflict. It called for: (1) a new comparative focus on the themes of conflict and violence associated in the minds of some with Islam, and (2) examination of links between failed states – especially in the Middle East – and the onset of a new phase of international Islamic terrorism.

    July 17, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  4. qwerty

    If the International Monetary Fund is right, in a mere four years the U.S. will no longer be the world’s largest economy. By 2016, the People’s Republic of China’s total economic output will eclipse that of the U.S. Should this prediction prove true, Americans will see their nation knocked off a pedestal it has occupied for so long that holding any other place has become simply unimaginable.
    Bloomberg Business Week, By Michael Dolgow on July 17, 2012
    Clinton, you have not named one source, so you must be a liar, no, your just a joke. !

    July 17, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Reply
    • qwerty

      I am such a "joke"! but then, look what I have been told (lied) all my worthless life.
      Qur'an 104:4 "He will be sure to be thrown into that which breaks him into pieces, flung to the Consuming One. And what will explain to you that which Breaks him into Pieces, Consuming and Crushing? It is the fire kindled by Allah which leaps up over them penetrating the hearts of men." [Allah is in hell, kindling the fire.]

      July 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  5. Angel

    This post aims at presenting the religious dimension of violence that goes back to the heart and origin of Islam. Despite various political, socio-economic and cultural factors contributing to the rise of violence and terrorism in fundamental Islam (as with all religions), Muslims who commit acts of violence and terror in the name of Allah can find ample justification for their actions based on the open-ended verses and teachings of the Qur’an and the saying of Muhammad (Hadith). Islam’s doctrines and texts are associated with violence, with laws requiring the eradication of what is considered evil by Islamic standard and law, using violent means. Throughout history, Islam’s religious texts or precepts have been used to promote violence. Classically, and in the modern era, Muslims and their leaders, including a large number of jurists, have upheld Islamic ideas, concepts, texts and themes to justify warfare against non-Muslims. Some suggest that the Qur’an contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to war with non-believers for the sake of Islamic rule, verses that are mostly open-ended and therefore are not restrained by historical context of the surrounding text. To offer a general illustration of the inherent relationship, it would do to point out that the root word for Islam is al-Slim which means submission or surrender. The Qur’an not only calls Muslim to submit to Allah, it also commands them to subdue people of other religions until they are in a full state of submission to Islamic rule. Evidently, this has inspired the aggressive history of Islam and its success in conquering other cultures.

    July 17, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Reply
  6. Ya1wee1

    China will win, no doubt.

    July 17, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  7. rad666

    America does not fear China. China provides jobs for the military. America will be policing the South China Sea more to protect those nations from Chinese attacks.

    July 17, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Reply
  8. Pleb

    Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who suffered from melancholia, expressed the sentiment – “how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me the workings of this world. It is an unweeded garden and things rank and gross in nature possess it merely”

    July 18, 2012 at 12:14 am | Reply
    • Pleb

      I am so proud of this comment that I have repeated it in every conversation.
      I am unable to say anything else so I keep repeating what I think is intelligent and Deeeeeeeeeeeeep.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  9. Haiku

    Now I really know the reason for continued violence in the Muslim world! The problem lies with sick, mentally unstable, individuals like yourself!

    July 18, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  10. SoWhat???

    Hmmm, is Clinton on this forum shovelingsnow? The usual troll that goes on every China related article and spams it. Or just a political nutcase?

    July 18, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
    • SoWhat???


      July 19, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Reply
  11. Spikey Apples

    and what's wrong with a little Cold War 2.0 with a Commie regime that still doesn't get it, and falsely claims to be the reason behind its country's economic success, while everyone knows that it's the cooperation with US and other free countries that drove it? and note that even Vietnam is now considered a US ally. and note that free countries, unlike current CPC ruled China, have much easier road to making important treaties and most definitely way less likely to go into a full-blown conflict when they can't quite come to an agreement.
    Red China is far from being a monolith some present it to be; it's internally shaken up by all that discontent by various groups, be it Tibetans, Uyghurs, Muslim Hui Chinese, Honk Kongers and what not. let's see if it can indeed take on the free world; i personally doubt they will last too long. and when they falter, there will emerge a truly free and democratic China, that will pose no threat to anyone

    July 18, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Reply
    • SoWhat???

      You do realize that China's only communist in name only now, right? Or have you been living in a cave the last thirty years.
      And if you think democracy always works out, then why's India still lagging with a small minority gaining all the new wealth.
      Last thing, haven't the US been in enough wars already in the last decade with the Middle East? Why start more in Asia? That's a warmonger mentality....

      July 19, 2012 at 11:57 am | Reply
  12. D M

    Free Tibet. Free Mongolia. Free Turkestan

    July 18, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Reply
    • D M

      Free all the fleas from the camels.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  13. Rob

    Saeed, thats the most stupid comment Ive read, a reflection of your level of intelligence (or lack of it). Do yourself a favour – jump off a bridge.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:25 am | Reply
  14. ameermirza

    Whatever they say, reality is that US is really afraid of china's growing power in terms of economic, military and science and technology.

    Ameer Mirza

    July 19, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Reply
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    September 23, 2012 at 5:15 am | Reply
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