U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s swing through Asia has been marked by a revelation in Beijing: the source of all China’s problems with its neighbors is the United States. A Xinhua editorial paints the United States as a “sneaky trouble maker sitting behind some nations in the region and pulling strings.” In the Global Times, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Ni Feng states that the U.S. pivot is “stirring up tensions between China and its neighbors”; while Renmin University scholar Jin Canrong argues that Washington aims to “dominate the region’s political agenda, and build a Trans-Pacific Partnership that excludes China, as well as further consolidate its military edge.”
Fortunately, these same media and analysts have a relatively simple answer to the problem: the “U.S. owes China convincing explanation of true intentions of its Asia Pivot policy”; the United States needs to prove that it is “returning to Asia as a peacemaker, instead of a troublemaker”; and a real zinger from the Global Times, “We hope Clinton can reflect upon the deep harm she is bringing to the Sino-U.S. relationship in the last few months before she leaves office and try to make up for it.”
If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, when the problem is misstated, the solution is likely to be as well. China’s problems in the region do not originate with the United States but with China’s own interactions with its neighbors. Some context might help:
First, take the South China Sea, perhaps the source of Beijing’s greatest concern at the moment. Tensions in the region—particularly between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines—have been heightened over the past year. However, conflict between China and its neighbors (as well as among the neighbors themselves) in the South China Sea has been a fact of life for almost forty years. The year-old U.S. pivot did not create the problem nor did it exacerbate it. U.S. policy has been consistent. In 1995, Washington explicitly supported the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea, as well as any diplomatic effort to resolve competing claims peacefully. More than 15 years later, Secretary of State Clinton articulated U.S. policy as follows: “The United States does not take a position on competing territorial claims … but we believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation and certainly without the use of force. That is why we encourage ASEAN and China to make meaningful progress toward finalizing a comprehensive code of conduct in order to establish rules of the road and clear procedures for peacefully addressing disagreements.”
Second, the United States is not a puppet master, “sitting behind other countries” and “pulling strings.” Countries in Asia are replete with intelligent leaders and diplomats. They are fully capable of debating the issues surrounding the U.S. pivot and making their own decisions about how to interact with China and the United States. The Philippines kicked the United States out of Subic Bay two decades ago; if it now wants to allow some U.S. submarines to dock there, China should take a step back and ask itself what prompted the Philippines to shift its policy.
Third, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is not a plot against China; negotiations for the agreement started in 2007, well before the current tensions and the pivot (the original negotiations did not even include the United States). The TPP is an effort by the United States to realize the economic benefits of deeper engagement with the most economically robust region in the world—much in the same way that China has done for decades. Moreover, China is welcome to join the TPP under precisely the same conditions as any other member, the United States included. People can disagree about the merits of the TPP, but it represents a recognition of past failings of U.S. trade and economic policy, not an effort to box out China.
Fourth, security relationships in Asia are not exclusionary. China and the United States each have military-to-military relations with a wide range of countries throughout Asia (including with each other), and those countries have security ties among themselves that engage neither Washington nor Beijing. Moreover, China increasingly has military ties throughout the world. In the United States’ backyard, for example, China hosts military personnel from at least eighteen Latin American countries and sells arms to countries such as Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador. The United States clearly can’t define the terms of engagement for its neighbors, and China shouldn’t attempt to do so in its neighborhood.
China spent more than thirty years earning the respect and admiration of its neighbors for its economic accomplishments, for its repeated emphasis on “win-win” solutions, and for serving as an important engine of growth in the region. What is causing consternation in the region now is not change in U.S. policy but more assertive Chinese rhetoric and military maneuverings. Once Beijing can acknowledge the real source of its problem, it has the opportunity to identify the correct solution. It is not about the United States assuaging Chinese concerns; it is about China assuaging the region’s concerns.