Strategic Foresight


The ‘Diplomatic Pivot’: Why the US should Shift its Focus

12 Nov 2014 - 17:21

In October 2011, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed in Foreign Policy spelling out the United States’ pivot towards Asia. One of the central pillars of this strategy is to build a cooperative relationship with China, ‘identifying and expanding areas of common interests’ and ‘building mutual trust’. Three years on, the question that arises is: has this ‘diplomatic pivot’ ameliorated the tense Sino–American relationship?

At first glance, Sino–American cooperation seems to have moved in the right direction. There has been a joint disaster-relief exercise, a joint counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, and China participated in the US-led Pacific Rim drills. At the highest political and military levels, the signs are hopeful as well. The US–China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, for instance, seems to work adequately, and the Chinese Defense Minister and the US Secretary of Defense visited each other’s capitals in 2014, and talked about their shared interests.

Lack of Deeper Trust    

Nonetheless, as controversies such as the May 2014 indictment of Chinese army officials from cyber warfare operation ‘Unit 61398’ remain abundant, it is questionable whether those forms of cooperation created the deeper trust in each other’s intentions that are required to restructure existing security relations between the United States and China.

This lack of deeper trust can be attributed to the absence of a move towards what Henry Kissinger calls a ‘Pacific Community’, a concept in which shared purposes unite China, the United States, and eventually other major powers in the region in a common enterprise. Neither China nor the United States have gone beyond addressing problems that have arisen (first level), and their immediate causes (second level).

Addressing the Deeper Causes of Tension

What is required to engage China fully is addressing the deeper causes of tension: the third level of relationships. Although the democratization rhetoric directed at Beijing by the United States has been somewhat tempered, there has not been an explicit acknowledgment of China’s legitimacy, either at home or in the region. It is also quite clear that the United States has not abandoned its desire to remain the principal power in East Asia, as evidenced by the Obama administration’s continued emphasis on the military side of the pivot. Combined with the strengthening of US regional alliances, it is not difficult to imagine that China perceives the pivot as an attempt to contain China strategically.

Furthermore, while a dialogue has begun, a set of common habits and practices – particularly with respect to naval forces in the East and South China Seas – has not been established, resulting in re-emerging tensions over unresolved issues. With a lack of verification mechanisms and no agreement to limit the levels of ballistic missiles, the spiral of fear and uncertainty remains. As both countries have continued to pursue their own narrow short-term interests, any confidence-building mechanisms established could not have created trust. China and the United States are simply too busy resolving concerns and crises that emerge as a consequence of not changing their respective East Asian postures.

Making the First Move

Until these deeper structural causes are addressed, the underlying mistrust will continue to stand in the way of actual improved relations, making first- and second-level rapprochement futile. The United States should therefore shift its focus from the military to the diplomatic pivot.

A first step in this renewed effort could be for the United States to send a signal to Beijing that it is serious about embedding China in the regional order. The signal should both acknowledge China’s strategic impairment and affirm its legitimate place in a new, shared East Asian power structure. Examples of such a signal could be to cease conducting naval exercises and surveillance off China’s coast, or to apply pressure on treaty ally Japan to demilitarize the Miyako Strait – China’s main naval route into the Pacific.

A New Opening to China

Of course, a valid question remains why the United States would change course while it is still the dominant power. Put simply, the United States has to come to terms with the fact that China is steadily catching up with the United States in terms of asymmetric, regional military strength. Moreover, judging from US and Chinese defense white papers from 2005–2014, it is evident that security dilemma dynamics are at play between the United States and China. Sticking to current confrontational policies in order to maintain US primacy in East Asia could lead the United States down a dangerous path towards conflict with China.

Instead, the United States should follow the example of US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s opening to China. Over four decades ago, Kissinger and Nixon's face-to-face diplomacy with China’s Premier Zhou Enlai and Chairman Mao Zedong radically transformed Sino–American security relations. It is now up to today's leaders to be so bold, and to set the parameters for regional peace and stability in the twenty-first century.

Friso M.S. Stevens studied law at VU University Amsterdam and Northwestern University, and recently completed a Master’s in International Security, also at VU University Amsterdam. 

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