U.S. Strategy in Asia: Is the Pivot Working?

Thursday, October 6, 2016
Larry Downing/Reuters
Elizabeth C. Economy

C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Coauthor, By All Means Necessary: How China's Resource Quest is Changing the World

Kurt M. Campbell

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Asia Group, LLC; Author, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia

Thomas J. Christensen

William P. Boswell Professor of World Politics of Peace and War, and Co-Director, China and the World Program, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University;
Author, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power

Tim W. Ferguson

Editor, Forbes Asia

Kurt M. Campbell, chairman and chief executive officer for Asia Group, LLC and author of The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, Princeton University’s Thomas J. Christensen, and CFR Fellow and Director for Asia Studies Elizabeth C. Economy, join Forbes’ Tim W. Ferguson to discuss the Obama administration's "Pivot to Asia" strategy. Experts discuss the strategy’s successes and failures, the rise of China, and the evolving dynamics of U.S. relations across Asia.

The John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture was inaugurated in 2002 in memory of John B. Hurford, a devoted member of the Council on Foreign Relations. This series is funded by the Hurford Foundation and features individuals who represent critical new thinking in international affairs and foreign policy.

FERGUSON: Welcome to today’s session, which is the John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture, or in this case tripartite discussion on U.S. foreign policy, “U.S. Strategy in Asia,” subtitled “Is the Pivot Working?” So some brief background before I introduce our panelists. Pivot, or the rebalance as it’s sometimes called, is traced by most—at least—at least some to the to the—campaign of 2008, became most pronounced with Secretary’s Clinton’s remarks in Vietnam in July 2010—have that date right?—that really put it front and center as a—as a new statement of American policy.

In a sense, shifting emphasis to Asia, at least from the perspective of today, seems a bit of a no-brainer and that Asia’s rise, economically and strategically in the meantime has become quite clear. Nevertheless, the pivot or rebalance has its skeptics, some of whom question whether it has actually manifested any real change, some of whom wonder if it was a mistake in terms of either how it has been implemented or how it has been seen as by some a containment policy with regard to China. I think we’ll get into some discussion as to whether that’s a proper characterization of the policy. But nevertheless, it does—it has established itself as the basis for most policy discussions with regard to Asian foreign policy of the U.S.

So, on that score, today we have three eminently qualified participants on the topic. To my immediate left, Kurt Campbell, among many other things was the—a senior State Department official in that Hillary Clinton State Department. He was certainly present at the creation, and then probably much more than present at the creation of the pivot rebalance policy. We’ll perhaps hear some background on that today.

To his left, Thomas Christensen—

ECONOMY: Whoops.

FERGUSON: Oh, Liz, sorry.

ECONOMY: Well, he is still, but I guess I’m in the middle.

CHRISTENSEN: I’m on the far—I’m on the far left.

FERGUSON: How could I miss the green—

ECONOMY: I can incorporate Tom. Tom is—I’ll take your body. OK, no.

FERGUSON: So, to his left, Elizabeth Economy, the C.V. Starr senior fellow in Asian studies here at the Council, an expert on China and other related geostrategic matters in Asia. And to her left, Thomas Christensen, professor at Princeton, the—one of the ranking China scholars in the United States and also expert on the regional strategic issues.

I’m going to start by asking each panelist—and by the way, thank the Hurford Foundation. We have a couple of representatives from that today with us. Thank them for the sponsorship of today’s event, and also to note that each of our panelists have produced some very interesting books, the latest of which for each panelist are available outside the door. And I think we’ll hear some references made to those books today.

I am going to start, before I take the discussion down some alleys—hopefully not blind alleys—but some alleys of subtopics, ask each of the panelists to give a sort of capsule assessment of where do we stand with regard to American strategy in Asia and the pivot rebalance, if you see that as the representation of that policy. Just a capsule assessment. Are we gaining ground, losing ground, holding ground, in the years since?

Kurt Campbell?

CAMPBELL: Great. And thank you very much, and it’s great to be here today. I see my old friend Richard Haass. Thank you for the leadership of the Council and for helping set this up today, and it’s great to be with my two friends Tom and Liz.

The—you know, if you travel around Asia today and ask in any corridor of power about what are the biggest concerns confronting the region—and, you know, as Americans our—probably our preconceived notions will be, well, is it North Korean provocations, its nuclear missile tests, its developments? Is it a sense that China is rising in a way that’s more provocative than in the past? Is it concern over instability among a number of countries that have recently democratized in Southeast Asia? Is it worries that economic growth is lagging in various countries? And you think—you anticipate that that’s what you’re going to hear the most about, but in fact the biggest concern in Asia, the thing that you hear number one about right now is the United States. So the key variable in Asia, currently, is what’s happening in the United States, and that’s playing out before our eyes in the election campaign. And, you know, I have a particular candidate that I favor, but I think anyone has to—

ECONOMY (?): Who is that? (Laughter.)

CAMPBELL: —who is involved in American politics needs to understand that the concerns that have been raised during this period will not be resolved by a simple vote and that the questions about the United States and its role are going to linger. And there is a fear in Asia that some of the fundamental aspects of American foreign policy—our strong commitment to our alliances, a nonproliferation agenda, our support for a comprehensive, realistic engagement strategy with China, strong support for defense—that these sort of foundational aspects of American foreign policy are all in play. And so in addition to everything else that we’re facing—and to begin with, a Europe that I would argue is job number one in any new administration, making sure that our traditional alliances are—understand our enduring role, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit, uncertainty about Russia—followed by enormous challenges in the Middle East and South Asia, of which it’s not clear there are any good answers; and then of course, pressing challenges that we are going to be talking about today in the Asia Pacific region.

But the most important thing is not new initiatives in Asia. It’s not, you know, a particular new twist on the rebalance or pivot. And we can talk about the—sort of the distinctions and how this came about. The real issues are about reassuring our friends and partners in the region that the United States understands that the lion’s share of the history of the 21st century is going to be written in Asia, and we’re going to play a strong role there.

FERGUSON: And would you say that we have gained ground over the last eight years in that respect?

CAMPBELL: I—look, you know, the problem with sort of kind of that linear like—you know, like, you know, how we’re moving in this direction, I think it is undeniably the case that there is a recognition that the United States has done more and will need to do more. But the expectations have risen exponentially, and I’m afraid that the United States doesn’t fully understand what it’s going to take to be really effective in Asia going forward. And we’re going to need a much more integrated, much more cohesive, much more determined set of efforts. So I do think we’ve made progress. But anyone who studies the region closely understands that more is going to be expected.

FERGUSON: Liz, I’m going to let you bat cleanup, if I might.

ECONOMY: All right.

FERGUSON: Tom Christensen, your comment.

CHRISTENSEN: Yeah. Well, the question’s a little odd for me, because I’ve been a critical of the public diplomacy around the pivot, while I’ve been a public fan of a lot of the policies that fall under that public diplomacy label. I think the Obama administration has done a lot of things right in East Asia. I said so in the pages of Foreign Affairs. But I don’t like the public diplomacy of the pivot, in part because I think it’s somewhat inaccurate to say we had left Asia in the past. And it’s somewhat troubling to various actors around the world, the notion that we had left and we had returned, because it suggests that maybe we had left another region of the world, and it suggests that maybe we might leave Asia again if there’s some problem in the Middle East or elsewhere.

So I don’t like the public diplomacy around the term either pivot or rebalance. But the policies that the Obama administration has pursued under Kurt’s leadership, to a large degree, have been quite constructive. And people have asked me—I served in the Bush administration as deputy assistant secretary of state for China. People ask me, can you compare how the Bush administration did in Asia and how the Obama administration is doing in Asia. Usually the motivation behind that question is to say: When the Bush administration left office the region was much more stable and less tension-ridden than it is today, therefore the Bush administration did a better job. And I reject that, because I think that the China that we had to deal with in the Bush administration was a very different China than the one that the Obama administration has had to deal with.

And a lot of the instability that’s come out of the region has come out of China’s policies since the financial crisis. And I think that China’s policies since the financial crisis have posed more challenges for American diplomacy than we had to face, and they did so because China was feeling more confident abroad, and the Chinese Communist Party was feeling more afraid at home. And the combination of those two things led to either China reacting to provocations from others in—what they perceived as provocations from others, in counterproductive ways. Or, actually, just being assertive in ways that destabilized the region, to some degree, and led others to get closer to the United States.

And I think the Obama administration’s successes were in seizing those opportunities to improve U.S. security relations in particular with pretty much all of China’s neighbors—with the Philippines, with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement; with Japan, which is playing a more assertive role as part of the alliance with the reinterpretation of the constitution; with Korea in the form of the Theater High-Altitude Air Defense system; with Vietnam with the lifting of the arms embargo; with Malaysia with P-8 access; with India on a range of issues. So I think those were the right things to do in response. And I think it does get China’s attention that maybe some of its policies have been counterproductive, and maybe they should rethink those policies.

And that’s the real goal in the long term, because at the end of the day even though the United States is doing better in its security diplomacy with a lot of China’s neighbors, it would be better still if China were simply reassuring its neighbors as it rose—as it did from 1997 to 2008—and the region was stable, as it was when the Bush administration stepped out of office. So I guess I agree with the spirit of Kurt’s first answer, which is that it’s hard to compare across times and it’s hard to do straight-line projections. But we need to keep doing the things that we’re doing in the region. I would prefer it to seem more of a continuity that—in terms of the public diplomacy—that we’ve been there for a long time, we’re staying there for a long time.

And the region is going to get more important to us and to the rest of the world in ways that are outlined really well in this book—(laughter)—which I read. You see these post-its? That means I was paying attention. So I read this book, and he does a very good job of explaining why Asia is so important to us. And that’s going to continue to happen. And I would just change the title, and other than that I just love the book. (Laughter.)

CAMPBELL: Can I respond to that? No, you got to you. OK, you go.

ECONOMY: Yes, it’s my turn.


ECONOMY: So let me say flat out—I thought the pivot was brilliant. And why? Because I think it actually was an expression of U.S. core values and ideals—you know, above all, free trade, freedom of navigation, and political freedom, right? Or at least, principles of good governance, like official accountability and transparency and the rule of law. And to me, that gives it an inherent logic, and also hopefully a sustainability, right, because those are things that reasonable presidents, you know, should be able to buy into over time, right, because they really are just an affirmation of what the United States stands for. So I’m a full-out, unabashed supporter of the pivot or rebalance or whatever you want to call it.

Beyond that, I think we’ve done a reasonably good job since it was articulated of moving forward to try to implement measures that fulfill sort of what we set out to do. I think on the trade front we have the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And I’m sure you’re going to want to talk to some more about it. But, you know, we got the deal negotiated, now we just have to ratify it. It’s a major, major accomplishment. On the security front we’re well on our way to fulfilling our objective of having, you know, 60 percent of our forces, you know, air and naval, to transition to the Asia-Pacific. And we’ve clearly developed much stronger relations with all of our allies, and established new partnerships, right? And President Obama, as near as I can tell, right, has visited Cambodia, Laos, and, you know, Myanmar has opened up.

So you’re right, Tom, that we could look upon it as one long continuum, but I think there was a pretty significant change. And it was a change from early Obama, actually, into—you know, a few years into President Obama’s tenure. That was a change as well. So I think it’s—I think—you know, is it perfect? Are there things left to do? Clearly. And we’re going to have some issues with it moving forward, no doubt. I think we’re seeing now with Duterte and what’s going in Thailand that we can’t control the region. New challenges are going to arise all the time, and we’re going to have adjust and adapt. But overall, I think it’s precisely the kind of policy we need for the region—very clear. Maybe we need to sell it a little more. Maybe we can do a video series off of your book or something, Kurt, I don’t know.

FERGUSON: There you go. There you go. So on balance, mostly a favorable cast on this. Liz made reference to the TPP. No act of policy making has more symbolized the push by the Obama administration than the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though it did have some earlier origins.

Kurt, I’m going to put its fate in your lap here. It seems to be hanging by its fingernails. If we don’t get it completely by the end of this administration, given Hillary Clinton’s statements and certainly Donald Trump’s, is it dead? Can it somehow be revived? Is it in fact central to the whole pivot proposition?

CAMPBELL: Thanks. I’m going to just take a moment just to—before answering that very important question—to actually agree fundamentally with the points that both Tom and Elizabeth made, because I actually think it’s very important. I think the rollout was not handled very effectively. And I have to—and I tried in the book to take some responsibility for that. And for those of you who have been in government, let me just say how this works. Ninety-nine times out of 100 you have an initiative, you roll it out, and it immediately disappears. And no one knows what you’re talking about and you’re pointing it out and people are like, what? And on the very rare occasion where you do something and it becomes much bigger and it takes on a life—and the real, you know, genesis of this was an article that Secretary Clinton published in Foreign Policy.

 I had people do a textual analysis like a biblical tract about what this meant. And I, you know, read it in the middle of the night, not exactly—you know, couldn’t remember exactly—and so had to deal with some of the unintended consequences, the most important of which is the one that Tom talks about, about the perception of abandoning our allies. The idea that we would leave Europe—everything that the United States has ever done of any purpose and consequence we’ve done with European friends. And so a huge part—the only countries that are pivoting faster to Asia than the United States are in Europe. And so the argument was to try to do that more effectively, and that rather than just talk about Iran and other things, that we would elevate Asia in our discussions with Europe.

And a lot of that got lost. And a lot of that didn’t come through effectively. And the idea, the mental image that we had of the pivot, was of a basketball player that could effectively maneuver back and forth, and would have sort of command over a special area that was broad, again was lost. It had the perception of turning away. And you don’t get do-overs, but you have to acknowledge, if you want to be effective in policymaking, where you fell down. I will say that the hope was not to suggest that this was different than Republicans, that it was a continuity largely, because basically everything that we’ve done in Asia has generally been bipartisan. I don’t know what bipartisan is going to mean anymore, but basically there is very little difference, even though we’ve all served in different ways, in terms of our overall positions. And I do agree very much with Elizabeth. I do think it is a statement of purpose and a recognition of the future, and though imperfect, it has to be manifested if we’re going to be effective more generally.

So let me just say, to pivot off that point to your question.

FERGUSON: LeBron has to save TPP.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, to you—to your general question, so if you—if you believe that one of the key aspects of sort of where America is going is a degree of economic revival, I think probably all of us would agree the most important thing that we can do over time is to increase our exports of goods and services. And the United States as an economy has really never needed to export. This is really the first time in our history that this becomes a manifest importance. And we have the fastest rising middle classes, the largest amount of disposable income in the world, is in Asia. And so this dynamic, over time, is going to be essential.

Now, I’m not going to rehearse, for you know what the candidates have said, and you have seen very clearly the positions that Secretary Clinton and her team have taken. I would say that there is nevertheless an undeniable, critical commercial component of an effective strategy in Asia, and that’s just—that’s just undeniable. Our—the real risk of our Asia strategy is that it becomes unidimensional, and so the part—we have a U.S. government with one agency of our government that is on steroids—our military—and the rest of our government is essentially on life support. And so the key will be a multifaceted approach that will involve a strong security component, working with allies, working constructively with China, a commercial dynamic that is about not shipping U.S. job, but U.S. exports and services to Asia; a commitment to building institutions to multilateralism; bringing other partners into Asia, like Europe, working closely with Europe; and a general recognition that it’s going to take not one but several administrations—Republican and Democrat—to make sure that this is a stable and secure pathway ahead.

FERGUSON: So let’s shift the discussion to China, if we can. Obviously on various fronts the relationship, U.S.-China relationship has become more fraught. Is what has developed in China over these eight years something that this policy initiative could have anticipated? Has it in some sense prompted events in China? Is it prepare to deal with the China that we face in 2016 and beyond?

Liz, you want to take first crack at that?

ECONOMY: Sure. So I don’t know that we could have necessarily anticipated Xi Jinping. I think—we didn’t even know Xi Jinping was going to be the next president till—or general secretary till he walked out on the stage in, you know, November of, you know, 2012, and even the Chinese didn’t know themselves. So I don’t think we could have anticipated him.

You know, look. China today, in my own sort of thinking, is both more insular and more ambitious than any time in the recent past. And both of those things make it more difficult, although I would argue on the ambition side maybe there is some leverage for us there. But in terms of the insularity, I think Xi Jinping has made it clear that, you know, in his China foreign ideas, even to some extent foreign capital, foreign civil society, NGOs are less welcome, right, in order to accomplish what he wants to accomplish in terms of making the Chinse Communist Party more robust, in order to legitimate it, in order to legitimate whatever the—whatever ideology it is that he’s trying to develop. I think he needs to do that, right? He needs to put a sort of dome over China because these other kinds of ideas from the West are threatening to that legitimacy. And he’s not prepared and not able, frankly, I think, to negotiate with those ideas. So I think that’s one issue. And so what that means for U.S. policy is that we have to at some times accommodate, but sometimes push back very hard. And I think what we found, when we look at something like a draft law on management of foreign NGOs, is that when we and our partners in Europe, and to a lesser extent, I think, on this one in Asia, push back, and push back hard, that we can get some movement from the Chinese, right? They will listen, and they will modify and moderate. And I think we’ve seen that to some extent in the business side as well. So I think challenging to deal with, but not impossible.

I think in terms of foreign policy, the way I see Xi Jinping is both as trying to develop, you know, within in the region a kind of all roads lead to Beijing, on the one hand, and I think eventually—and people will disagree with me on this, I’m sure—but actually I think his overarching goal over a long period of time is to push the United States out as the regional hegemon, right? It’s not to say that the United States doesn’t have a place, but I think he would like for China to be the major power in the region. And that’s really what the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation is all about. I mean, he’s talked about, you know, having China not only be able to write the rules of the game but also to be able to construct the playgrounds on which the game is played. So he wants to be a rule writer, and I think that’s most clear in the Asia Pacific—again, challenging for us, right, moving from, you know, staking claims in the South China Seas, I think, to realizing them over the past, you know, four years that he’s been in office pretty assertively. You know, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, you know, One Belt One Road—I don’t think these pose significant challenges to us, necessarily. I’m not even convinced they’re going to have a major impact. We’ll have to wait to see how they play out. So far I’d say they’re not terribly impressive in the actual realization of them, but, you know, we can give it a little bit more time.

But I think globally, obviously we’ve managed. And I think here’s the real strength of the Obama administration when it’s come to dealing with China. We’ve managed to find, through a lot of hard work, areas of cooperation, right? And I think in some respects to leverage Xi Jinping’s ambition, right? So the fact that he wants China to be a global player and I think he himself wants to be a power on par with the United States means that, you know, he’ll come to the table on climate change, that when we embarrass him about Ebola, they’ll step up to the plate and do more. So I think those kinds of opportunities exist, and that’s kind of the—I think that’s the biggest open space for us right now.

FERGUSON: Tom, I’ve read you, if I’m correct, over the years, to be what I’d call hopefully realistic about China, but also, if I’m correct, somewhat more wary of late. How would you—if I’m incorrect, please correct me.

CHRISTENSEN: Well, no, maybe I could answer your last question, the one that Liz addressed so well. I think a lot of the tensions that we’ve had with China were not only predictable but were predicted, which is that China was gaining the economic and military wherewithal to project power of its shore for the first time. It had many outstanding maritime disputes with its neighbors. It was not particularly trusted by its neighbors. And you see friction. And people wrote about that, including myself, you know, 10 years ago, 15 years ago.

Here’s why the rise of China poses challenges for U.S. national security policy. I think what’s really happened—I mean, Liz talked very eloquently about Xi Jinping and what kind of leader he is and what kind of image of China he’s trying to portray, and I think that’s important. But I really do believe that the biggest breaking point in Chinese foreign policy from our perspective was in 2008, 2009, because I think the financial crisis had a fundamental impact on the way the Chinese Communist Party viewed the nexus of domestic political stability and foreign policy. They were very concerned that this traditional economic model of growth that helps keep them in power was not necessarily stable because the international economy wasn’t stable and China had linked itself very tightly to that international economy in ways that produced a lot of jobs and quite a bit of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party at home. And at the same time, there were expectations within China, partially drummed up by the party’s own propaganda machine, that said that China’s time had arrived, that the United States was not so strong, the United States was not very powerful, because, after all, the United States was the center of the financial crisis. It was the cause of the financial crisis by most measures. And as a result, the United States lost a lot of power and prestige in a hurry.

And this was the China that Kurt Campbell and the very able people, like Jeff Bader, who started in the first term of the Obama administration, inherited—and that’s the China they had to deal with in East Asia. And I say the policies. I like the policies. I don’t like the pivot, but I like the policies that were under the pivot. And I think that one of the problems that I have with the pivot is I thought that the language fed very well into a narrative in China about what the United States was going to do as it pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was going to come after China. And the problem with that is it made it harder for those who had advocated a very successful policy in Chinese diplomacy from 1997 to 2008, from the time of the Nye initiative, which Kurt was involved in, really got China’s attention and made China think: We really need to get along with our neighbors for our own national security. And we should reassure them though multilateralism and through economic engagement.

That was a very successful run in Chinese diplomacy in that period. But that position was based on the notion that if you don’t go that route, the United States is going to tighten its security relations with our neighbors and we’re going to end up in worse place. After the financial crisis, that argument was harder to sell. And after the pivot was rolled out, that argument was harder to sell. And it wasn’t just the 2010, 2011 period that was described here. It was Secretary Clinton’s first trip to China—to Asia—substantive trip to Asia, which was in July—it was her second trip, I believe—in which she said: We’re back. Which was this notion that we’re coming back to Asia—we’re going to leave these other wars and we’re going to come back to Asia. That really was the pivot. And I think that’s well-described in this book.

Kurt identifies the pivot as something that really was from the beginning of the first term of the Obama administration right through. It just had different wording, right? And it feeds into a kind of nationalism in China that makes it harder for moderate arguments to win debates, which is what a big component of U.S. foreign policy towards Asia, should really be about that, is assisting those in China who believe that it’s in China’s long-term interest to have very constructive, less-distrustful relations with its neighbors. Let them win the arguments. And I that think one way to do that is, as Liz put so well, when China behaves in a destabilizing way or in an assertive way—whatever term you want to use—that there’s pushback, not just by the United States but by China’s neighbors. And I think the policies that Kurt and others put in place allowed for that.

And the big contribution, I would say—the biggest contribution of the Obama administration was not in the military sphere. Pretty much all the military components that are associated with the pivot were in train in the Bush administration. These things take a long time to go through, right? They’re good policies. It’s good that a lot of them were maintained. I wish there were more of them. And it’s not so much in the economic sphere. The TPP was created by four non-American APEC members during the Bush administration. The Bush administration started negotiating it with the idea that it would create a gold standard Singapore-style free trade agreement that would then make China jealous. China would then want to join and it would open it up its economy more and it would be win-win. But it got caught up in the pivot, and it started to look like something that was excluding China, a policy that was excluding China, which was never really the intent.

So I want the TPP to go through for one fundamental security reason. And that is that we negotiated that over several years, the Obama administration successful negotiated it, to the great credit—put a lot of energy into this. And unfortunately got caught up in this argument that it’s an aircraft carrier, which it isn’t. Or it is—if we don’t write the rules, the Chinese will write the rules. That’s not true either. If we don’t write the rules, we’re going to live by the old rules. If we want better rules, we’re going to have to write the new rules. I think that’s a much better way to put it. But if the TPP fails now, after we’ve asked all of our friend and allies and partners in the region to make domestic sacrifices to sign on to it, we’re going to look like weak partners. And that’s going to have really big security implications. And that’s where the security pieces really comes in. And I worry about that greatly.

So just to sum up, I think that the challenges that the Obama administration faced in Asia were real and were amped up because of the financial crisis, which they didn’t cause, right? So I always have difficulty comparing. But the real goal should to be to get China back in that place where it was from 1997 to 2008. It shouldn’t be, necessarily, to strengthen American security posture everywhere at all times in every way. It should be to encourage China to realize that its behavior has led to a lot of these new relationships that it worries about, and get it to alter its behavior. Because if China behaves constructively towards its neighbors and the region is stable, everybody wins. And when China behaves in destabilizing ways towards its neighbors, even when the United States is able to take that opportunity to strengthen its relationships, the United States does not win. It’s not worth it. It would be better if the region were stable and if China would behave in a constructive—persistently constructive and stabilizing way in the region.

I do think that’s an achievable goal. And I think one of the reasons it’s an achievable goal is I think Chinese security analysts will notice that the overall Chinese portfolio is not really better today than it was in 2008, despite the increased military modernization, despite the artificial islands, despite a whole bunch of things. I listed all that cooperation between China’s neighbors and the United States on the military front earlier. I won’t go through them all again, but you can go from Korea all the way around to India. None of that would have been possible if China hadn’t abandoned that constructive, reassuring policy, and that successful policy that China had adopted from ’97 to 2008. We should wish they would go back to that and everybody would win, because at the end of the day it’s not a zero-sum game.

FERGUSON: Liz, you want to add something, and then I bet Kurt would like to respond.

ECONOMY: Just very quickly. I mean, I think, Tom, it’s important to remember that—at least in my memory—(laughs)—that when the Obama administration first came in, they did come in with a more sort of accommodating approach to China. I mean, the idea was almost, but not quite—nobody in the administration that I know of supported it explicitly—a sort of G-2, right? They really thought, I think, that they could somehow elevate the relationship beyond what the Bush administration had accomplished, and that China could become a really important partner for the United States. Then you had President Obama’s trip to China, which did not turn out particularly well. You know, both, I think, substantively and optically it wasn’t a big success. And to my mind, that maybe was a slight inflection point, you know, for the administration as well, right, I think.

And the other point I would make is I’m not sure—it seems to me perhaps what you’re arguing that if we change the—all we need to do is change the rhetoric, right, but because, as you said, to support the policies. But I’m not sure that China, you know, wants a very different relationship with the United States if it means accommodating to a lot of what the United States would like China to do. I’m not sure what space you think is not being explored for cooperation between the United States and China, because I think the administration has made a significant area to find areas of cooperation. So what more is it in real terms that the administration should be doing? Or is it simply you don’t like the framing of the pivot and the rebalance, and the sense that, you know, we have to push back and take this kind of tough edge?

CHRISTENSEN: Yeah, no, I don’t—I’m not critical of the policies. And I didn’t praise fulsomely enough the policies of 2009. I had really problems with the joint statement that was made in 2009 with the core interests. I thought that was a mistake. I think there was a lot of public diplomacy mistakes. I think new type of great power relations, signing onto that was a mistake. But the policies—again, this is the public diplomacy. The policies have been good. And one of the real successes—and this is where to the degree that the pivot really matters, and there was a pivot—it’s not the TPP that was in train, it’s not the military piece because almost all those programs were in train before. It was in diplomacy. And this is where Kurt’s contribution has been so great, and Secretary Clinton’s contribution has been so great.

Signing onto the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and joining the East Asia Summit was a very good idea. And Kurt’s initiative, which he really did spark—I tried to do something with a couple of my colleagues in the end of the Bush administration with Burma and we got almost nowhere. And Kurt really poured tremendous energy and a lot more prestige and power into it. And he really—he really got it done. And what we’ve done with Burma is really significant for the region, and also for the American position in the region. So that engagement of multilateralism, and in sending higher-level officials on a regular basis to the meetings, it matters in the region. So all that was very, very important and very successful.

But I think you have to be able to push back. And what that did is provided us an infrastructure from which to push back. When China did policies that were destabilizing or worrisome to the neighbors, we were there and ready to cooperate with those actors. And we had a much more robust set of fibers connecting us because of the diplomacy of the first term of the Obama administration. But it wasn’t as if we were absent before. It just got better. And I think that’s the way we need to portray it, because I’m a little concerned that there’s going to be a re-pivot or a re-rebalance. And I just—at some point we just have to say we’re there and we need to strengthen our position, and we need to continue to strengthen our position, drop the slogans, say less, do more, I guess would be my—and the freedom of navigation operation is a perfect example.

We should have been doing them earlier. We should be doing more of them, not fewer of them. And we shouldn’t talk about them, because the whole nature of freedom of navigation operations is that they’re normal behavior. But instead, we do these—what are militarily relatively mild things—we do them rarely, and we flex our muscles, it’s on the front page of the Times. Look what we did. We sailed by something in a straight line, right? (Laughter.) Wow, right? That’s counterproductive. That feeds into domestic politics in China in a negative way. It’s unnecessary. They will notice that we’re there. And we can tell our allies if they don’t notice we’re there, but I suspect our allies will notice we’re there, too.

FERGUSON: Kurt, you want to round out this part of the discussion? And then we’ll go to the members.

CAMPBELL: I think there’s a very interesting discussion of how we got here, and I think I would probably talk a little bit more about where we’re going and what I would expect in the U.S.-China relationship in the future.

I will say sometimes, you know, this is a very—you know, it’s a nostalgic time for the U.S.-China relationship. We’re at that period where we’re looking back at the founders, the people that opened the relationship. You know, the Nixon Library is opening up its new hall dedicated to China. Many of the architects are—this is a period of deep reflection, right?

And I find myself in some of those meetings, and, you know, there’s almost always a sense of back then we really understood and knew how to work with China, and now maybe in this arena maybe not as much, right? I would just simply say one thing about that. I think the strategies that you follow when you’re trying to lure a country out of self-isolation, relatively poor, back out onto the international stage 40 years ago—45, 50 years ago—are very different than the strategies that you utilize now as you deal with, frankly, the most rapidly rising country in history, with very different perspectives about global commons, about freedom of navigation. And so I think what I would suggest for the future practitioners is a recognition that U.S.-China relations are just going to get much harder. And, in fact, is there is not tension in the relationship, it probably means that someone is not doing their job.

And you’re going to find areas that we’re going to have to work together, and those areas generally are going to be because it is in the best strategic interests of both countries. And if you look back over the last five or six years, I actually think there are a number of areas where you’ve seen some real success in U.S.-China diplomacy.

I do think there was a sense of, after 2008-2009, that maybe the correlation of forces had shifted. But nevertheless, financial diplomats took steps to preclude the worst potential options. And we have to credit those folks, both in the Bush administration and subsequently the Obama administration, working with their counterparts in China to head off the worst.

The Iran deal, whether you like it or not, is largely a result of very careful diplomacy behind the scenes between the United States and China. We worked very closely with China on the opening to Myanmar, so that it was not perceived as some chess piece falling off the edge, and we were strongly supportive of a continuing strong relationship between Myanmar and China. And, as relations between South Korea and China improved, rather than saying, no, no, that’s not—you know, they’re in our sphere, it’s one of the only positive things that we’ve seen in Asia, a(n) increasing trust and a recognition in China that maybe they’re got the wrong Korea, right? I could go beyond that. I think a relatively mature and responsible management of issues across the Taiwan Strait, something we really can’t very regularly talk about in public. But there are a number of areas, in addition to the climate agreement, that you’ve had some degree of success between the United States and China.

Looking forward, though, starting, you know, in a new administration, the challenges are unenviable. And I would say at the top of the list is North Korea. And I think we’re going to have to be very clear with Chinese friends. People will say, well, look, we’ve tried sanctions. We have not actually tried sanctions. North Korea is not a particularly heavily sanctioned country. It has nothing—no comparison with either Iran or Cuba or Myanmar. And we are going to have to take steps that are quite firm and that will likely involve financial institutions that have engagements in China. And we—I think the idea is you go to China and say, look, we’d like to work on this together, but we have to be prepared to make the case that what’s going on in North Korea represents an existential threat to the United States. And we’re not going to—you know, we’ve tried diplomacy, we’ve tried a number of things. A degree of pressure is going to be inevitable. I think the cybersecurity issues have to be addressed more effectively, and a very clear line has to be given about certain acts that are contrary to specifics.

I think—what Tom has laid out about doing a few things more quietly I think makes great sense. I also think we need to underscore that we are committed to a relationship with China that is constructive, but we want to do this in a context where U.S.-China relations are embedded in a regional context. We do not want to take steps in a U.S.-China context that somehow undermine the confidence and security of surrounding neighbors.

And so the challenges are real. I do think that some of this is structural. And I’m talking like the Princeton professor, but I think some of this, you know, could be—you know, there could be steps that could have been taken that could have eased certain things. But the truth is, China is a—is a rising power. Signs of that were apparent even before 2007-2009. And that’s going to play out.

The only thing I would agree with—I would ask questions about—and I’d ask us all to be careful about—we have a tendency to suggest that Chinese strategic thinkers look in their current situation and say this is not—you know, we’re in a worse situation today than we were four or five years ago. I’m not sure that’s right, and I think we have to be very careful about this. And I think it is possible that Chinese strategic interlocutors believe that they’re actually on a necessary course that’s going to be tough and it’s going to be harder, and that they will offer to every country here’s areas that we’re going to work together and here’s areas that we’re going to be tough. And that new reality I think is much more likely than a return to the kind of diplomacy that was practiced at an earlier stage.

That does not mean that we cannot work together, because we can. Probably the—the two countries in the world that are most uncomfortable with interdependence are probably the United States and China, and no two countries are more engaged in an interdependent relationship as our two countries.

FERGUSON: So we are looking forward now, and there are lots of other players in the region making noise. Question or comment from the floor?

Q: Thank you. Earl Carr representing Momentum Advisors. And thank you, Kurt, Liz, and Thomas, for an exceptional presentation.

I wanted to ask a question regarding Taiwan. The president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, has taken a very different policy and approach to dealing with mainland China. How do you assess Sino-Taiwan relations? And what are the implications for that for the United States?

ECONOMY: So I think actually Tsai Ing-wen has been remarkably diplomatic, and while trying to maintain I think her support base to ensure that they are comfortable with what she says and what she does, I think she has steered very far away from any sort of radical commentary that should give cause for concern in Beijing. I think her primary focus has been domestic politics, right? She wants to rejuvenate the Taiwanese economy, you know, get more jobs for the young people, take care of the old people. And she wants to diversify her relations in terms of foreign policy and, you know, trade and investment. And to me, those are all very, you know, wise steps, and I think she’s laid them out in a way that should be non-threatening to Beijing.

I think Beijing was prepared for Tsai Ing-wen to be a challenge. And, you know, it’s the DPP, so of course it’s not as easy for Beijing to deal with as the KMT and Ma Ying-jeou. I mean, fundamentally, you know, what the DPP stands for is in opposition to what Beijing would like, right—mainly, you know, some form of greater Taiwanese independence, some form.

So I think relations are clearly strained right now. When I was in Taiwan before she took office but after she had been elected, before her inauguration, you know, they were right in the midst of trying to negotiate the issue with the Taiwanese who had been arrested in Kenya and were being put on planes to Beijing. And they couldn’t even get their counterparts in the—on the mainland on the phone to discuss it. I think in a—first of all, in a Ma Ying-jeou presidency, I don’t think the Chinese would have behaved that way. And, second of all, they probably would have gotten on the phone had there been some kind of problem, you know, going on.

So I think they’re making it more difficult for the Taiwanese. And I think that has the potential, then, of course, to make it more difficult, you know, for the United States because, you know, as Kurt said, we had a pretty great eight years. I mean, I think for all of us who are used to having Chinese delegations come and say the first thing they want to talk about is Taiwan, nobody wanted to talk about Taiwan for the most part. It was kind of off the table. Things seemed to be bubbling along in a way that even if Beijing realized that Taiwan wasn’t, you know, politically growing closer to the mainland in the way that it would want to, they could at least make a case that the bonds were growing stronger, the ties were growing stronger, and sort of a web was developing. So they could talk themselves into thinking that progress was moving along in a direction that they’d like. I think those days are clearly over now. So I think the challenge is going to be more significant than—I think it’s going to be a—it’s going to be a—it may, in fact, rise again on our—on our agenda with the mainland.

FERGUSON: Let’s seek another touchpoint. And a reminder: this is on the record, so please also identify yourself and your affiliation.

Q: Hi. Barney Rubin, Center on International Cooperation, NYU.

It seems that the pivot—I’ll use that term, with apologies—to Asia is, in fact, a pivot to Pacific Asia, to the Asia-Pacific. But Asia and the Asia-Pacific are not the same thing. And as the U.S. is pivoting toward the Asia-Pacific, China is pivoting toward the west, to continental Asia, as part of its “Look West” policy. Now, as most Asia-Pacific experts are, Elizabeth was dismissive of the Belt and Road Initiative. But if you work with the Chinese who are working on it, it’s difficult to be dismissive. I won’t go into anecdotes here; there’s not time.

In the west of China, also, we have more—our interests are more similar to China’s in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and so on. It’s an arena where cooperation has been relatively successful. Yet, we have no policy framework for that region. Now we have no allies, there’s no military alliance, there’s no regional organizations, and China, Russia, and others are moving into it. And we don’t seem to have a policy, except for the New Silk Road project, which followed exactly the model that Kurt described about the rolling out of projects. So I wonder what you would propose for our policy toward China and continental Asia.

FERGUSON: Continental, Central Asia. Anyone want to grab that?

CHRISTENSEN: I would just say that, you know, India is a big part of the recent initiatives across administrations, going back to the Clinton administration in the ’90s, through the Bush administration, through the Obama administration. And improving relations with India will be a big part of how we react to issues in Central Asia. I don’t think we have been particularly active in Central Asia, for reasons that you’ll be familiar with given the recent history.

But I would say the One Belt, One Road Initiative is a perfect example of how things are not a zero-sum game. I agree with Kurt. I’m not rosy-eyed about China returning to the policies of ’97 and 2008 in their entirety. China’s a lot more powerful now. It’s more assertive. It feels like it wants to play a larger role than it did in the past. But when China plays a larger role, it’s not always bad. And I think it was unfortunate the way the public diplomacy was handled about the Asia Infrastructure Bank, because that’s literally China playing an assertive and constructive role—literally constructive, right? (Laughter.) And if China does that in One Belt, One Road; AIIB; or some combination of the two in Central Asia, my strong sense is that will be good for everybody. If China has a stake in the stability of those countries, the U.S. will have a benefit that flows from that because we want stability in those areas. And I don’t think it’s true—you know, Kurt mentioned academia and structural theories. I don’t think it’s true that he who controls Tajikistan controls the world, you know? (Laughter.) I just—I don’t think that that’s, you know, the key—the key point, you know.

So, if China increases its influence in Central Asia through literally constructive projects—building infrastructure, building roads—that that will probably lead to more stability there, which will probably be good for us in terms of issues like terrorism. And we really need to avoid—as part of this idea that Liz laid out so well, that if China pushes you have to push back, the other thing you have to do is when China does the right thing, you have to applaud. And you can’t always be looking to—looking like you’re pushing back. And that’s how you feed into the nationalism in a negative way. Sometimes it’s public diplomacy, sometimes it’s actual policy that makes it look like we think that anything that’s good for China is somehow bad for the United States. And there are plenty of people in China who have that reverse attitude. And that’s the thought process that you need to get out of the way, and that’s the thought process you need to address when you come up with this idea that it’s not a zero-sum struggle and that we can both benefit.

And when I look at that ’97 to 2008 period, I don’t think we can rewind the film, but I really think that that period, where a lot of people were saying China was having our diplomatic lunch in Asia, that was a really good period for the United States in that region because it was a good period for the region, and the region is really important to the United States.

CAMPBELL: Can I just—another point? Just I very much agree with Tom’s idea that—I think if China does more in South Asia and Asia Minor, it’s very much in our best strategic interest. And I think we should coordinate where possible, if it would be helpful. And I think these are outcomes that are in our best strategic interests.

Tom has not been briefed on the secret Tajikistan initiative that we’re about to roll out that’s really going to turn things around. (Laughter.)

CHRISTENSEN: The real plan. (Laughter.) I’ve been out of government for too long.

CAMPBELL: But I do want to say one thing on this, just as an aside. I do think that, if at all possible, underscoring that there are going to be areas in which there are positive outcomes for both sides. But I will also say, even with very respected, extremely sophisticated diplomats, I at least found some of those conversations challenging, where, you know, Chinese friends would roll out what they were doing in some area and we would say that—we really support that, that’s great. And rather than being pleased by that, they would think, well, there’s got to be something—(chuckles)—what going on here? Because there’s got to—there’s a little jujitsu or something—(laughter)—because clearly there is a strategic competition here. I think there is a sense of a lens sometimes, and we have to resist it ourselves, of which all of this falls into some sort of Go board, you know, where we’re maneuvering our white and black rocks. There are many areas we’re going to be able to work together on.

And if I could just say, the one thing that I’m most struck with, if you actually go in and look at U.S.-China relations, we do remarkably little together. We really have not established very much what I would call habits of cooperation. We don’t work in aid and assistance together. We don’t work very much in disaster relief together. We don’t work very much in, you know, anti-piracy efforts. Building those habits of cooperation are much more important than the new headline of great power strategic—you know? We’re beyond the period of those banners. What we really need are structural efforts at figuring out how we work together to solve common problems.

FERGUSON: We only have about five minutes left, so I’m going to take two questions. We’ll wrap them together here. The lady there right in the middle, please.

Q: My name is Elizabeth Holtzman. I used to be in Congress.

I just want to ask, in terms of the issue of provocation and getting off into a situation where what we’re doing doesn’t lead to further cooperation or positive results, would you explain to me why the United States put 750 troops into Australia? What signal does that send to the Chinese? Are they expected to quake in their boots at 750 troops? Or does this indicate, wait a minute, the U.S. has really got military objectives in mind? It seems to me that that’s really a counterproductive move, and I—

CAMPBELL: You think it’s counterproductive to send—I just want to understand the question.

Q: Well, it was 250 troops at a time in Australia that we agreed to do. What’s the—


CAMPBELL: No, I—no, I understand, but, so—

Q: What’s the point of it?

CAMPBELL: What’s the point of it, I see. OK.

Q: Certainly not a military point.

FERGUSON: Why don’t you respond directly to that?

CAMPBELL: Well, so when this initiative was first rolled out, I had to say I played a role in it. And it was—you know, some friends in Beijing, you know, raised some concerns about it. I would point out that where they are stationed is about 9,000 miles from China, so it’s not like it’s a knife pointed at the heart of China. So I just—and so most of what those Marines are involved with are contingencies associated with humanitarian relief, anti-piracy operations. No, they’re basically—the idea that this is an advance group that is somehow going to project across three expanses of the United States to China is not reasonable.

And so I have—I made no apologies. Australia is one of our longest allies. We’ve worked very closely with them. There is a number of security issues—refugees, problems associated with enormous disruptions associated with climate change, you know, and storms. I mean, we’ve had terrible earthquakes of which these capabilities support us in that way. We want our forces that are primarily in Northeast Asia to be more positioned in places across the Indo-Pacific.

And I would—this would be one of those things where I would just reject out of hand the idea that this is somehow aimed at China. I just—that’s just not—it’s not reasonable and it’s not like this is some new relationship. Australia has been with us in every conflict in our—you know, in our recent history, over the last 150 years. This is a reasonable thing to do. And we want to modernize each of our alliances in a way that makes them relevant for the 21st century.

FERGUSON: Thank you, Congresswoman, for that. There’s a gentleman in the back, in the middle. Yes, and that’ll be our final question.

Q: Thank you. My name is Manik Mehta. I am a journalist.

I have been listening to your wonderful presentation and discussions but, you know, you did not speak very explicitly about certain countries. We have a new president in the Philippines, for example. The soundbites that we are getting from that country are very disturbing. How do you see the future of the alliance, considering that he has threatened to send back all American troops? Thank you.

FERGUSON: Thank you for that. And I might add, did not policymakers have any inkling this was coming from the Philippines? It seems to have caught people flat-footed. Anybody—

CHRISTENSEN: Well, I think people knew that in the presidential campaign that there was a potential problem in the future, because of some of the campaign rhetoric of the new president. At the same time, there have been some infrastructural improvements in U.S.-Philippine relations on the security front that are quite significant. I can’t predict what any foreign leader would ever do, but it would be extremely damaging if any Filipino leader were to walk back that progress, particularly at a time in which the Philippines has real disputes in the region with China, and China has been rather assertive in its handling of those disputes.

I read really carefully the statement of the Filipino foreign minister. It was a lengthy statement about his interpretation of the president’s comments on the U.S.-Philippine alliance. And I read it really carefully. And I started to think, this might not be an entirely bad thing from an American perspective, because what was being emphasized is we’re too dependent on the United States to take care of us, and we need to have more strategic independence.

Well, if the result of that conversation is that the Philippines for the first time in memory really devotes a lot of resources and a lot of effort into projecting maritime law enforcement, navy, into the areas where they have disputes, that would be a huge plus for the alliance. And I don’t think it’s America’s desire to have a weak Philippine military that’s totally dependent on the United States. I think the United States would like to have strong partners in the region, and that if the Philippines is able to contribute more that would be good.

So I can see a kind of silver lining in the discussion of what it may all mean. I would be surprised and extremely disappointed if somehow the alliance were to break down. That would be really a radical policy. I don’t think it would serve the Philippines’ interests. I don’t think it would be popular in the Philippines. It is a democracy. So maybe I worry a little bit less on that score than others.

And really, the U.S. position with all the allies in the region—I think the initiative with Australia was—it was a very good idea. It did go back, again, into the Bush administration—not the actual formal basing type of arrangement, but the idea of sending Marines to Darwin. And I think it’s a good idea to build that kind of fiber with our allies. And I think it’s really terrific that Japan has reinterpreted the constitution to allow for collective self-defense. That was long in coming. I know Kurt, when he was working in the Pentagon in the ’90s, would have liked to have seen that kind of outcome. And we’ve gotten that.

So this is a potential for the future where the United States can play a leadership role in its alliance system, but the allies can actually contribute quite a bit more. And that’s what we’re going to need.

FERGUSON: Tom, I’d like Kurt to make a final response on the Philippine question.

CAMPBELL: I like Tom’s comments. I’m probably a little bit more troubled and a little bit more concerned. And I’m not as concerned about the strategic parameters. I think Tom laid that out, I think, very effectively. But I think some of the extralegal, extrajudicial steps that are being practiced in the Philippines invariable and inevitably are going to undermine our ability to cooperate effectively. I just—I think it’s going to be very challenging going forward.

And it is—you know, look, foreign policy is never easy. And you accept a lot of stuff. But when the leader is calling you really bad names, it’s really hard. It’s hard to get over some of that. It’s hard to figure out how to—how to go forward. I’m all for the Philippines positioning itself, that it has stronger relations in the region as a whole. And I think that they are working more closely with China. I have no problem with that. I think it’s smart. I think it’s wise. But I think it’s the other contours of his policies that I think are going to cause a real challenge in U.S.-Filipino relations going forward. And I don’t think this current trajectory that we are on is sustainable.

FERGUSON: Well, we’ve run overtime and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Please join me in thanking our authors and panelists. (Applause.)


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