The Asia Pivot: Making an enemy of China

Left to their own devices, Americans and Chinese would continue engaging in peaceful, mutually beneficial trade. Washington has other ideas. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, June 25, 2013 ― In an interview this week with PBS’s Charlie Rose, President Obama worried that “a healthy competition” between the U.S. and China could “degenerate into serious conflict.” What he didn’t mention is his own culpability in making “serious conflict” with China a possibility in the first place.

Presidential administrations have become incredibly adept at invoking monsters from abroad to justify military expansion and belligerent foreign policies.

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The Reagan Administration cited the ever-looming Soviet Empire to justify an unprovoked invasion of Grenada and to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua as they carried out atrocities against mostly innocent civilians.

The succeeding George Bush administration faced a difficult task in resuscitating Americans’ fear in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. He overcame that challenge triumphantly by describing a former CIA asset, Manuel Noriega, as a dangerous drug lord so as to justify invading Panama. He then described Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as an act of pure “evil” and Saddam Hussein as “Hitler revisited” in order to grease the wheels for the First Gulf War.

George W. Bush had little trouble summoning monsters from abroad following the 9/11 attacks. But he falsely invoked the threat of al-Qaeda to rubber stamp an illegal war on Iraq, as well as countless other military adventures.

The terrorist menace has proved durable enough for Obama to employ it for nearly every aspect of his foreign policy, from the surge in Afghanistan to regular drone bombings in Yemen and even new military incursions into Africa.

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But there is one aspect of Obama’s bellicose foreign policy so far removed from the al-Qaeda threat that he has been unable to conjure it: the so-called Asia Pivot.

The “rebalancing” to East Asia is a confrontational policy that involves surging American military and naval presence throughout the region ― in the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Australia, Guam, South Korea, Singapore, etc. ― and boosting support to China’s neighboring rivals.

Washington has been refurbishing old WWII military bases in the region and building new ones in order to lay the groundwork for an “air-sea battle” with China. We’ve even deployed surveillance drones near China’s borders. One wonders how might America react to such gestures in her backyard.

What villainous offense has China committed against American security? Are they supporting terrorists? Have they threatened us with military attack? Are they amassing weapons of mass destruction pointed at Washington?

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No, nothing like that. Obama hasn’t been able to invoke a monster to destroy in China because there isn’t one. China’s mere existence as a rising economic and military power is its major transgression. China threatens not the security of Americans, but the hegemony of Washington.

The Asia Pivot harks back to a time when imperial powers didn’t have to justify military expansionism with tall tales of impending attacks on the homeland. It more resembles the famed “Great Game” in which the British Empire fought with the Russian Empire for strategic supremacy in Central Asia.

According to Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, writing in Foreign Affairs, “China is the only country widely seen as a possible threat to U.S. predominance. Indeed, China’s rise has led to fears that the country will soon overwhelm its neighbors and one day supplant the United States as a global hegemon.”

They add that America “is the most intrusive outside actor in China’s internal affairs, the guarantor of the status quo in Taiwan, the largest naval presence in the East China and South China seas, the formal or informal military ally of many of China’s neighbors, and the primary framer and defender of existing international legal regimes.”

The U.S. could cut its defense budget in half tomorrow and still outspend China on its military. But that hasn’t calmed the Obama administration into easing his approach.

This comes with serious risks. Already by 2011, the Center for Strategic International Studies identified in a report the unintended consequences that could come with Obama’s stern posture in Asia.

The report predicted “a shift in Chinese foreign policy based on the new leadership’s judgment that it must respond to a U.S. strategy that seeks to prevent China’s reemergence as a great power.”

“The U.S. Asia pivot has triggered an outpouring of anti-American sentiment in China that will increase pressure on China’s incoming leadership to stand up to the United States,” the report added. “Nationalistic voices are calling for military countermeasures to the bolstering of America’s military posture in the region and the new U.S. defense strategic guidelines.”

Or, in the words of former Chinese diplomat Jia Xiudong: “Don’t treat China as an enemy. Otherwise you end up with an enemy in China.”

The economic interdependence between the U.S. and China has risen to unprecedented levels, and that’s a good thing. Left to their own devices, Americans and Chinese would continue to engage in peaceful, mutually beneficial trade. Only Washington, going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, could turn that into a casus belli. 

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John Glaser

John Glaser is Editor of He has been published at The Huffington Post, Al Jazeera English, The American Conservative, and The Daily Caller, among other outlets. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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