China Assesses President Obama’s November 2011 Asia-Pacific Trip

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 23

One of China's More Compelling Commentators, Beijing University's Zhu Feng

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Asia-Pacific trip in November was widely seen as a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific and a clear signal of Washington’s intent to increase its attention to Asia as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. In all, the trip underscored Washington’s determination to address regional fears that the United States would retreat as China rises. President Obama and Secretary Clinton made it clear that the U.S. would strengthen its commitment to Asia—militarily, diplomatically and economically—and make the region a defense priority despite looming budget cuts ("America’s Pacific Century," Foreign Policy, November 2011).Yet even as the trip underscored America’s willingness and ability to counter a more assertive China when necessary, President Obama also reiterated in the Australian Parliament House that the United States welcomes “the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China” and promised to seek “more opportunities for cooperation.” Notwithstanding those assurances, Beijing appeared to be watching warily throughout the week. For some observers in China, their country appeared to be the clear “target” of the vigorous U.S. diplomacy that characterized the trip (Global Times, November 18). As one Western observer concluded, “With the Obama administration’s high-profile pivot toward Asia…China is feeling at once isolated, criticized, encircled and increasingly like a target of U.S. moves” (Washington Post, November 16). Beijing’s official public response was relatively muted on the whole, though noticeably prickly at times. As for the reasons, China’s reaction appeared to reflect not only some uncertainty about the motives underlying the most recent U.S. initiatives, but also deeper concern about the broader implications of the unfolding U.S. strategic “pivot” to Asia.

China’s Cautious but Somewhat Prickly Response

China’s reaction to the trip seemed somewhat muted on the whole, though there was quite a bit of variation, ranging from cautious statements by Foreign Ministry spokesmen to more strident language in the Global Times, a popular, tabloid-style newspaper known for its hawkish and sometimes bellicose editorials. Reactions by Chinese scholars and government analysts also varied. Some highlighted concerns about U.S. intentions toward China, others appeared somewhat puzzled by some U.S. actions and at least a few seemingly urged a more introspective look at China’s foreign policy behavior.

The Foreign Ministry’s reaction was relatively restrained. For example, in response to a question about closer U.S.-Australian military cooperation, a spokesman said “We have noted the relevant report. Peace, development and cooperation are the trend of the times as well as the mainstream foreign policies of countries in this region. Against the backdrop of a sluggish global economy and international consensus and focus on promoting development, it is worth debating whether strengthening and expanding military alliance is appropriate and consistent with the common aspiration of regional countries and the whole international community” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 17). The Defense Ministry spokesman’s response was similar, though he also criticized the move as a “reflection of Cold War thinking” (Ministry of National Defense, November 30). Nonetheless, Beijing was clearly concerned that the South China Sea dispute would come up at the East Asia Summit in Bali. Ahead of the meeting, the Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated Beijing’s “clear and consistent” position that disputes should be handled bilaterally and that “foreign intervention will not help settle the issue but will complicate it instead and is not conducive to peace, stability and development of the region” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 17).

China’s objections stemmed from the fact that discussion of the issue in a multilateral setting with the United States in attendance could undermine China’s preferred approach of maximizing its leverage by dealing with the other claimants bilaterally and avoiding outside intervention. Chinese officials stated the South China Sea dispute should not be on the agenda and the overseas edition of People’s Daily warned raising the issue there “could open up a ‘Pandora’s Box’ and intensify regional tensions” (November 18). In keeping with this theme, in his speech to the 14th China-ASEAN leaders meeting on November 18, Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated Beijing’s opposition to outside involvement in the South China Sea dispute. Wen stated the dispute over the South China Sea “ought to be resolved through friendly consultations and discussions by the sovereign countries directly involved. Outside forces should not use any excuses to interfere.” In what could be seen as a diplomatic defeat for Beijing, however, China was unable to avoid discussion of the South China Sea at the meeting. Premier Wen had to respond to the concerns raised by the leaders of many of the countries in attendance. Official Chinese media reported Wen restated China’s position and indicated the East Asian Summit was the wrong forum for discussion of the issue. U.S. officials described the discussion as constructive on the whole (People’s Daily, November 20; Wall Street Journal, November 20).

Judging by some of the other comments heard during the week, some Chinese officials seemed to feel as though they were on the defensive. For example, in response to a U.S. official’s comments urging China to play by the rules of international trade, Chinese Foreign Ministry official Pang Sen said “If the rules are made by the international community through agreement and China is part of it, China will definitely abide by them. But if the rules are decided by one or several countries, China does not have the obligation to observe them” (People’s Daily, November 15). Some commentaries were pricklier still in responding to the U.S. initiatives. For example, one Xinhua piece stated “Today, when the world is still facing many difficult global challenges, the United States needs to first revisit its double standards on international rules and start observing them itself instead of lecturing China.” Another piece charged “The unilateral U.S. maneuver to expand its influence in the region is noticeably motivated by opening up new markets in the region for U.S. goods and services so as to lower its domestic high jobless rates.” The piece attributed U.S. actions at least in part to the politics of the approaching election: “Obama, whose job approval rating continues to slip, seems to be staking his reelection on high-profile diplomatic ambitions in the Asia Pacific, as he is failing to bring America’s slack economy back to the path of strong growth in his first term” (Xinhua, November 18; November 16).

Bewildered in Beijing?

Zhu Feng, a professor at Peking University, suggested Beijing was bewildered by some of Washington’s initiatives. Other Chinese scholars also conveyed the impression that China was unprepared for and perhaps somewhat confused by the challenges it faced in trying to shape the unfolding events (South China Morning Post, November 22; Xinhua, November 22). Chinese officials clearly were trying to make sense of the U.S. “pivot,” in part by “tasking academic experts to review the initiatives and submit options on how to respond” (Washington Post, November 17). One possibility, as Renmin University professor Shi Yinhong suggests, is that Beijing is unsure whether U.S. actions reflect the dynamics of the presidential election campaign or a broader shift in U.S. policy toward China (Xinhua, November 22). For instance, Niu Xinchun of CICIR suggested at least part of the explanation was President Obama’s desire to impress voters and counter his Republican rivals ahead of the 2012 presidential election (China Daily, November 20).

Many Chinese observers, however, emphasized that they saw the U.S. initiatives a part of a broader trend. For example, Yuan Peng of CICIR commented that President Obama’s participation in the East Asian Summit “highlights the complete shift of Washington’s strategic focus to the East. The strategic gravity of the US will remain in the Asia-Pacific region in the coming decade” (Global Times, November 18). Chinese wariness about the U.S. return to Asia” was clearly on display, as demonstrated by numerous warnings about supposed U.S. attempts to prevent China from threatening U.S. hegemony through a strategy of “containment.” One editorial said the expanded U.S. military presence in Australia was “widely seen as a renewal of the U.S.-Australia alliance to keep China in check.” Another such editorial highlighted the fact that the South China Sea issue was discussed at the East Asian Summit against China’s wishes, opining that “Coupled with strengthened U.S.-Australia and U.S.-Philippines military alliances, this move is only a part of [Washington’s] new Asia-Pacific strategy” (Global Times, November 18; November 16).

Similarly, in an article commenting on a recent RAND report about the possibility of a U.S.-China war, Major General Luo Yuan highlighted a number of aspects of the U.S. strategic pivot to Asia as matters of concern to China. Specifically, Luo cited U.S. involvement in the South China Sea dispute, the U.S. relationship with India, the presence of U.S. military forces in Central Asia, U.S. military cooperation with Mongolia, efforts to strengthen the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea, U.S. reconnaissance off China’s coast, the development of “Air Sea Battle,” and the announcement that U.S. Marines would be dispatched to Australia, as indicative of U.S. strategic intentions toward China. “These things cannot be regarded as friendly acts,” Luo warned, and China “cannot go without defenses” (Global Times, November 22) [1].

Signs of Recalibration

There have been some signs that Chinese leaders realize they miscalculated by asserting Chinese claims too aggressively. Even before President Obama’s Asia-Pacific trip, Chinese scholars have been lamenting China’s recent troubles with its neighbors. For instance, according to Zhu Feng: “One after another, frictions with neighboring countries have arisen…From the territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea to tensions with Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, relationships that were sound, if not always friendly, have now soured” (Project Syndicate, October 31). Some Chinese scholars even opined that these problems suggest a need for Beijing to reconsider aspects of its regional diplomacy. “If the Chinese government is clever, it would do well to think about the reason why the [United States] is suddenly so popular in the region,” said Shi Yinhong of Renmin University, “Is it because China has not been good enough when it comes to diplomacy with its neighboring countries?” (New York Times, November 15). Moreover, there is some reason to believe that China may be recalibrating its approach in response to such concerns. For example, according to Taylor Fravel’s recent analysis of China’s strategy in the South China Sea, Beijing has taken a more moderate tack in recent months to avoid further escalation [2]. In July 2011, Beijing agreed to adopt “Guidelines on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” which it characterized as a roadmap for implementation of the November 2002 “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.” The move was important from a symbolic perspective, though it should be noted that the guidelines are largely devoid of substance and China has not altered its claims.

More broadly, recent publications by Chinese scholars underscore the fact that Beijing clearly still recognizes the importance of the US-China relationship, notwithstanding its concerns about the implications of the U.S. “pivot.” In a May 2011 article, for example, Niu Xinchun highlighted the US-China relationship as the most important and the most complicated bilateral relationship in the world [3]. Furthermore, Niu argued that the U.S. “return to Asia” should be seen as aimed at balancing Chinese influence and assuring U.S. friends and allies, and greater U.S. involvement thus should be seen as competition, but not as “containment.” Similarly, Jin Canrong of Renmin University characterized the U.S. approach as “somewhere between engagement and hedging, but not containment” (The Economist, November 21).

Meanwhile, an editorial published shortly after the conclusion of the President’s Asia-Pacific trip cautioned that “China does not need to panic about the U.S. return to Asia,” given China’s own growing economic influence. China should instead follow Deng Xiaoping’s guidance to “observe calmly and secure our position” (lengjing guancha, wenzhu zhenjiao). Furthermore, rather than being flustered and perhaps overreacting as a result, the editorial suggested China should continuing to focus on its own economic development, which in turn will further increase its already growing leverage (Global Times, November 21). Only a few days earlier, however, another editorial highlighted the perils of being seen as the world’s number two power, suggesting awareness that this status almost inevitably creates concerns in other countries, especially the United States (Global Times, November 16). Overall, Beijing’s concerns about Washington’s recent Asia-Pacific diplomacy, and its perceptions of the U.S. “pivot” as a whole, indicate friction between Beijing and Washington is to be expected as part of a complex relationship that embodies both opportunities for cooperation and intensifying competition for regional influence.

Notes:

  1. For the report cited in Luo’s commentary, see James Dobbins, David C. Gompert, David A. Shlapak, and Andrew Scobell, “Conflict with China: Prospects, Consequences, and Strategies for Deterrence,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2011, http://www.rand.org/pubs/occasional_papers/OP344.html.
  2. M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s Strategy in the South China Sea,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 33, No. 3 (2011), pp. 292-319.
  3. Niu Xinchun, “Zhong-Mei guanxi de ba da misi” [Eight Myths of US-China Relations], Xiandai guoji guanxi [Contemporary International Relations], May 2011, pp. 5-12.