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2.10  US' Pivot to Asia under Obama and Hu-Xi (2009 - 2017)

1 January 2017

Three Big Breaks from the US to China


After the turn of the century, US presented China with three big breaks which fundamentally and possibly also irreversibly changed the relative power dynamics in the Sino-US relations in China’s favour.


China’s first break came when Clinton’s granted permanent normal trade relations to China in October 2000 which cleared the way for China to join the WTO. A year later, China received its second big break from the new Bush administration was distracted, by the New York 9/11 attack, from its original mission of ‘containing’ the rise of China and embarked on its decade-long military actions in Middle East and the global “War on Terror”. Finally, in 2008, Bush presented China with the third break: the Global Financial Crisis triggered by the meltdown of the subprime loans and their derivatives in US financial markets.


Collective, these breaks not only weakened the US financially and dented the US’ international reputation but also provided China with the opportunities (by Clinton) and the time and space (by Bush) to build its physical infrastructures, accelerate the growth of its economy, and accumulate a massive financial reserves. By the end of Bush’s second term, China’s nominal GDP had more than tripled from $1.34 trillion in 2001 to $5.11 trillion in 2009 overtaking that of France in 2005, the United Kingdom in 2006 and that of Germany in 2007. As of April 2009, its stock of foreign exchange reserves exceeded $2 trillion, an amount larger than the reserves of any other country. The figure represented 30% of all reported foreign exchange reserves, almost quadrupled its share of 8% in 2001.[1] A significant amount of the reserves was invested in low yielding US Treasury bonds. As of 2011, China held almost $900 billion in US Treasury securities.[2]


By 2010, China had overtaken Japan and become the second largest economy after the US. In contrast, even though the US economy was still almost three times the size of the Chinese economy in dollar terms, the US was getting buried in an increasingly bigger and deeper fiscal hole that it had dug for itself with its misadventures in the Middle East, not to mention also the trillions spent in tackling the subprime financial crisis. Meanwhile, China’s economic linkages with the US continued to deepen as China emerged to become US’ second-largest trading partner, third-largest export market, and biggest source of imports. In 2010, the US-China trade deficit increased to a record of over $273 billion in China’s favour. It represented almost 55% of the total US trade deficit of $498 billion in 2010. The high trade deficit and the high budget deficit caused in no small part by the excessive military spending and the fiscal spending to jumpstart the economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis necessitates high level of borrowing. As a result, US national debts doubled from $5.9 trillion in 2001 to $11.9 trillion by the end of Bush’s presidency in 2009.[3]


On the industry and corporate levels, China was also rapidly closing the gap. In the 1990s, Deng’s “reform and opening up” strategy entailed China leveraging on its large potential markets to attract badly needed foreign capital, managerial expertise and technology that were desperately needed domestically. Since then, Chinese enterprises in both the public and private sectors had seen phenomenal growth in terms of both size and competitiveness. In the internet industry, for example, Chinese information technology (IT) firms such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (collectively referred to as “BAT”) had emerged as giants to rival American firms Google, Amazon, and Facebook by leveraging on China’s huge base of internet users. As a result of rising competition from local firms, the Chinese markets have become a more difficult environment for foreign firms. At the same time, Chinese enterprises in several industries have even started “going out” as global investors in their own right. America, in fact, is now a popular destination for Chinese investment.


Hence, Barak Obama (served 2009 – 2017) assumed the presidency at a point in time when US was probably at its lowest point with its economic fortunes declining, due to the deindustrialization and the financialization of its economy, not to mention also the Global Financial Crisis, and its geopolitical influence waning, due to Bush Doctrine of unilateralism and preventive war fully manifested in his administration’s illegal invasion of Iraq.


Obama thus had a harder job than his predecessors to begin with. In addition to reviving the US economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis, he had to restore the international standing of the US and the ties with its allies; continue the relentless fight against terrorism; control the high costs of military actions and of efforts to fight the financial crisis and to induce economic recovery; advance global issues including promoting a nuclear-free world and tackling climate change; and ‘manage’ the rise of China, which had been made a lot more complex, than during the times of his predecessors, by the increasing economic competition amidst deepening linkages between the two economies.


Obama’s China Strategy: “Pivot to Asia”


Not surprisingly, China’s economic success and rising military strength greatly boosted the confidence of its leaders who became more assertive or even aggressive in their conduct of foreign affairs. As East Asia’s largest country as well as a budding regional if not world power, it is inevitable that China has a huge regional role to play. There are fears, however, that China could go ‘rogue’, establishing an East Asian sphere of influence in which it could bully its neighbours, weaken bonds between the US and its regional friends, restrict the freedom of action of US military forces, and erect regional economic arrangements disadvantageous to the US.


For much of the 20th century, successive US presidents sought to prevent any single country from dominating the centres of strategic power in Europe and Asia. That primary goal was achieved when the collapse of the Soviet empire ended the last serious challenge for territorial dominion over Eurasia. In the decade that followed, no power—not Russia, not Germany, not a united Europe, and not China or Japan—posed a hegemonic threat to Eurasia.[4] That desirable state for the US, however, was short lived.


By the turn of the century, the uncertainty of China’s assertive behaviour drove the American political elites to see China’s growing economic clout and military strength increasingly as an imminent threat to the US’ strategic primacy in Asia Pacific. It was thought that, sooner or later, Chinese dominance of East Asia would come at the expense of critical U.S. interests. Great power geopolitics thus demands that the US prevents East Asia from becoming a Chinese “sphere of influence.” There was added urgency particularly after China demonstrated its clear intention, in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, to challenge the dollar hegemony when top Chinese officials, including President Hu, began talking about the needs for a supranational reserves currency, in place of the US dollar, and when China began to renew its earnest push to internationalize its RMB, in competition with the US dollar (See Chapter 302).


In short, Obama had a more intricate job balancing the need for broader co-operation while managing rising competition between the two countries.


To improve co-operation and transparency, the Obama administration replaced the Bush-Hu era SD and SED with the Obama-Hu US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED中美战略与经济对话), a dual-track high-level dialogue for the two countries to discuss a wide range of regional and global strategic and economic issues. Through constructive discussions, the two sides signed military-to-military agreements designed to avoid incidents on the high seas and in international air space, agreed on how to freeze Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and placed caps on growth of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.


However, Obama also wasted no time to try to contain the risks associated with a rising China. Soon after Obama assumed the presidency in 2009, efforts to contain China resumed. In 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton published a Foreign Policy article calling for greater US investments in Asia to “sustain our leadership and advance our values.”[5] The strategy to “return to the Asia Pacific” was first introduced by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the ASEAN Regional Forum held in Hanoi on July 23, 2010, which outraged China because there was no prior consultation with it.[6] By 2012, the Obama administration formally launched the ‘Pivot to Asia’ initiative, proclaiming himself as "America's first Pacific president".[7] The pivot, or ‘rebalance’ as it is later known, was meant to be a strategic "rebalancing" of US interests from Europe and the Middle East toward East Asia.[8] The idea is to extract US from the Middle East so that diplomatic and military assets as well as economic focus, through Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), could be redirected to East Asia.


As part of the strategy, the US would lead the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade framework that excludes China. In making his case for the TPP, Obama asserted “…we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy. We should write those rules.”[9] The TPP agreement therefore had important strategic values for the US. In addition to affirming US’ commitment to free trade and providing a coherent set of economic rules for trade, investment, and services that could help to strengthen the US neoliberal economic model currently under siege, the TPP would also strengthen political, social, and economic bonds between US and its Asian partners.


Militarily, to support the pivot, the US Defense Department had committed to deploying 60% of its naval and air assets to Asia.[10] This is reminiscent of the Cold War during which the US deployed 60% of its navy and air force in the North Atlantic while keeping 20% for home territory and the remaining 20% for strategic mobility. Its Seventh Fleet, for example, is currently stationed in the Pacific. As the largest forward-deployed fleet of the US Navy, it includes not only the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Regan, stationed at the US naval base in Yokosuka, Japan but also other assets distributed across the region in also South Korea and Singapore. More recently, there are also talks about deploying also Third Fleet, whose area of responsibility includes the Bering Sea, Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and a sector of the Arctic in the eastern and northern Pacific ocean areas, to the region in 2018. At the same time, the United States secured an agreement with Australia which provided for the rotation of a modest size of 2,500 Marines through the northern port city of Darwin. In total, approximately 375,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel are assigned to the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) whose subordinate component commands include

  • US Pacific Fleet, which commands the Third Fleet and Seventh Fleet, consists of approximately 200 ships (including five aircraft carrier strike groups), nearly 1,100 aircraft, and more than 130,000 Sailors and civilians dedicated to protecting our mutual security interests.

  • Marine Corps Forces, Pacific includes two Marine Expeditionary Forces and about 86,000 personnel and 640 aircraft assigned.

  • US Air Forces, Pacific comprises of approximately 46,000 airmen and civilians and more than 420 aircraft.

  • US Army, Pacific has approximately 106,000 personnel from one corps and two divisions, plus over 300 aircraft and five watercrafts assigned throughout the area of responsibility (AOR) from Japan and Korea to Alaska and Hawaii.[11]


Finally, the pivot was also supported by what Hillary Clinton called “smart power” in diplomacy, a term that was first introduced by Joseph Nye who argues that neither soft power (i.e. the power to convince) nor hard power (i.e. the power to coerce) alone could produce effective foreign policy in diplomacy. Smart power thus goes beyond traditional diplomacy by broadening the range of diplomatic tools to include also the use of economic, political, legal and cultural influences to help advance US’ international interests.[12]

Hence, as part of the “rebalancing” efforts, Obama sent top officials more frequently than his predecessors to engage with Southeast and East Asian countries; ramped up US participation in the negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which could serve as the counterweight to China’s extensive bilateral trade relationships in the region; signed a free-trade pact with South Korea; improved relations with Burma (also called Myanmar) which shares a geopolitically strategic 2,185 kilometres border with China (see below)[13]; participated in the ASEAN Regional Forum which addresses security issues within the region; and joined the East Asia Summit.

[The Sino-Myanmar Relations under Aung San Suu Kyi: China was the Myanmar junta’s biggest supporter over the 1988 – 2011 period. Today, China is Myanmar’s number one foreign investor and trading partner. China’s relation with the now de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi dates back to her rise to political prominence in 1988, when the then Chinese ambassador paid the first of several visits to her, including one after her party’s 1990 election victory. From the Chinese perspective, Myanmar poses no threat to Chinese interests. Myanmar has no territorial disputes with China. Despite her international standing as a democracy icon, Aung was not a supporter of the Chinese democracy and human rights movements. More importantly, Aung had proclaimed herself as a pragmatic politician leading a country in China’s backyard. She is more eager to position Myanmar to ride on the growth from China’s New Silk Road initiative and to tap the loans from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to fund the country’s grossly under-developed infrastructures.]

To Obama and Hillary, however, smart power as the “21st century statecraft” apparently also means taking advantage of China’s conflicts and disputes with its surrounding countries to drive wedges among them. Indirectly, the Obama administration encouraged countries in the region to deal with China on a multilateral rather than bilateral basis in resolving territorial disputes.[14] It was also no coincidence that, during a visit to the US in September 2012, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara’s announced his intention to purchase the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from private Japanese owners. To prevent the issue from being exploited by the Japanese right wings, Japan government moved to nationalize the islands. In January 2013, Philippines President Benigno Aquino also unilaterally submitted its territorial disputes with China in South China Sea for arbitration by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).


Finally, in response to China’s declaration that the SCS represented one of its ‘core interests’, Hillary told an audience at the 2010 ASEAN meeting that freedom of navigation in the seas was a ‘national interest’ of the US. The US Navy also stepped up maritime operations in the SCS on the ground of maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflight in what it sees is international water.


Pentagon’s Preparations for War with China: ASB & JAM-GC


Since the WWII, the maritime security of the Western Pacific has been underwritten by the US’ unrivalled naval and air power. Starting in the early 1990s, US’ ability to project its power in the region has been progressively curtailed by China’s growing anti-access/anti-denial (A2/AD) capabilities comprising of including anti-ship missiles, short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, stealth submarines, and cyber and space arms. These sophisticated but low-cost weapons pose particular threat to two key elements of the US force projection strategy in the Western Pacific Theatre of Operations (WPTO): its fixed bases (such as those in Japan and Guam) and aircraft carriers.


In the event of conflict, the overall Chinese strategy appears designed to inflict substantial losses on US forces in these sanctuaries within a very short period of time to render US unable to defend its allies. This would possibly be achieved by PLA


  • conducting large-scale pre-emptive attacks designed to inflict severe damage on US forces based or operating in the WPTO;

  • keeping other US air and naval forces well out of range or unable to penetrate into the homeland;

  • disrupting US command and control (C2) networks; and

  • heavily constraining US operational logistics by destroying major supply nodes and the relatively few US logistics ships.


If successful, the Chinese A2/AD strategy would also inflict on the US a high political cost by raising the human and economic costs of the US’ military role in the region to prohibitive levels making any sustained military interventions less tenable back home.

To offset the risk arising from China’s rapidly improving A2/AD capabilities, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates instructed the Chiefs of Staff to begin work on the concept of “AirSea Battle” (ASB) in September of 2009. The US Army and Air Force employed AirLand Battle principles, designed to deter the Soviet Union in Central Europe, very successfully in both Gulf Wars. But in the WPTO, actions will be dominated by naval and air forces.


In 2010, the Pentagon came up with the ASB concept which calls for “interoperable air and naval forces that can execute networked, integrated attacks-in-depth to disrupt, destroy, and defeat enemy anti-access area denial capabilities.” With the concept, the ASB planners aimed to make the US so clearly powerful that it would achieve both deterrence through denial, by convincing would-be aggressor that he cannot achieve his objective so there is no point in trying, and deterrence through punishing, by persuading him that even though he may be able to achieve his objective, the anticipated costs will outweigh his gains.[15]


The concept received Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ official imprimatur the same year. In late 2011, Gates’ successor, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, not only signed off on the ASB project but also formed the new Multi-Service Office to advance the operational concept. Thus, ASB was conceived, born, and began to grow.[16] By 2012, ASB began to move from operational concept to a militarization programme which entailed purchases of new weapon systems and force restructuring.


To address access threats, for example, Pentagon began to increase investments in the systems and capabilities, including anti-submarine warfare, electronic warfare, air and missile defense, and information sharing. To facilitate projection of power in the Pacific, the US Navy planned to commission fifty-five new Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs), which are vessels designed to deftly navigate shallow coastal seas. The first LCS was deployed in Singapore in 2013.[17] In the 2013 defense budget, new investments were made to enhance the resilience of the C4ISR [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] capabilities of the US forces to fight networked wars. For FY2014-FY2018, the US Navy budget plans included new investments in electronic warfare, cyber warfare, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the P-8A maritime patrol aircraft, and the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle).[18] In addition to investments in new capabilities, Pentagon also redeployed various advanced assets including US nuclear submarines and Aegis SM-3-based missile defense vessels to the Pacific in close cruising distance to China and North Korea. Other vessels in the Pacific were also moved to Guam and Hawaii to cut transit time to possible areas of conflict.


As the ASB began to move beyond its conceptual stage, however, criticisms began to surface. First, the concept was criticized for its exclusion of a role for US land forces. Next, critics were concerned that the concept ostensibly named China as the aggressor. The report released by CSBA in 2010 declared openly that AirSea Battle was about overcoming China’s anti-access strategy and weaponry in the WPTO. This was too frank and too premature. Designating an adversarial great power as a potential enemy could make that rival into an actual enemy.[19] Third, several critics point out that ASB is inherently escalatory and is likely to accelerate the arms race in the Asia-Pacific. Australian military strategist Hugh White, for example, points out that the ASB will result in China putting a very high priority on maintaining its capacity to strike the US.[20] It can result in China accelerating its expansion of its conventional forces as well as its nuclear, cyber, and space weapons programs. Moreover, deep inland strikes as proposed by ASB could be mistakenly perceived by the Chinese as pre-emptive at­tempts to take out its nuclear weapons, thus cornering them into “a terrible use-it-or-lose-it dilemma.” China is thus likely to respond with all the military means at its disposal—including its stockpile of nuclear arms. In short, ASB is prone to lead to a nuclear war.[21]


In January 2015, amidst all the debates and criticisms, Pentagon announced that the “Air-Sea Battle” concept was being renamed and absorbed into a broader multiservice effort to develop a “Joint Concept for Access and Manoeuvre in the Global Commons” or JAM-GC.[22] Despite the refinements, some observers have called the change a mere renaming exercise which had to be carried out because AirSea Battle sounds warlike and vaguely sinister. In contrast, JAM-GC sounds like an obscure rap group. It would attract scant notice even if its substance were identical to AirSea Battle.


In essence, JAN-GC is still about A2/AD only that China is no more the outwardly named potential adversary; the theatre of operations is no more just Western Pacific but the global commons (i.e. any stretch of non-territorial water in the world); and that the focus is no more just on Air Force and the Army but all the five warfighting domains (land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace). As a director of a Joint Staff director put it, tongue in cheek, JAM-GC is the concept “formerly known as Air-Sea Battle.”[23]


Xi’s Response to US “Pivot” or “Rebalancing”


Meanwhile, in March 2013, China saw the transition of top leadership from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. By now, it was clear to the Chinese leadership that the actions of US and its allies were deliberate calculated moves to provoke China into taking forceful actions to defend what the Chinese view as ‘core interests’ thus creating doubts over China’s self-proclaimed peaceful rise and providing justifications for US’ interventions in the region. The corollary is that unless China winds down its challenges to the American supremacy, a localized clash with the US and its allies is imminent.


Faced with unprecedented challenges from the US, Xi did not back down. To assuage the US’ mounting sense of insecurity with regard to the rise of China, though, he proposed to Obama in 2014 a new model of great power relations based on the dictum of “no conflict and no confrontation; mutual respect and win-win cooperation” (没有冲突,没有对抗,相互尊重,合作共赢).[24] Xi, however, wasted no time in also preparing China for any contingencies of military conflicts with the US.


Psychologically, Xi sought to invigorate the Chinese’ nationalistic pride by espousing his dream of the “great revival of the Chinese nation” through an exhibition called “The Road to Revival” (复兴之路). In addition, he also launched a meticulously orchestrated propaganda campaign through all state-controlled media to incessantly remind them of China’s humiliating history of semi-colonization by foreign powers and the invasion Japan.


Politically, Xi embarked on an unprecedented anti-corruption drive to enhance the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party as the ruling party; consolidate his powerbase by appointing his people to replace corrupt officials in key positions including those in the military; uproot deeply entrenched vested interests in SOEs to facilitate the downsizing of the state sector and the restructuring of the slowing economy; and most importantly, gain the confidence of the Chinese people in his leadership. He also strengthened his grip over the party by accumulating several titles within a short span of time and became the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao.[25] In 2016, Xi further assumed the appointment of commander-in-chief of the Joint Battle Command (JBC). In addition to the authority he already has as the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) to manage and restructure the armed forces, the new appointment now gives him on the ground operational command over the regional military commanders.[26] The appointment puts Xi in a better position to pre-empt any internal revolt that may threaten the stability of the regime while also establishes a clear chain of command in times of conflict.


Militarily, Xi embarked on a renewed push to modernize the Chinese armed forces. The 2016 US annual congressional report on China’s Military and Security Development, for example, outlines Chinese efforts in building islands in SCS and equipping them with radar stations, airfields, harbours, and missile systems; expanding its navy by refurbishing an acquired old aircraft carrier and constructing new ones while also expanding its submarine fleets; upgrading its air force; and developing its capabilities to engage in internet and space warfare. Beside outlining the abovementioned hardware enhancements, the report also delineates the sweeping organizational reforms China implemented to overhaul its entire military structure in order to strengthen the CCP’s command and control, to upgrade its ability to conduct joint operations, and to improve its ability to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts at greater distance.


Economically, China stepped up its efforts to internationalize RMB by expanding the worldwide network of authorized RMB clearing centres. In 2015, China also launched its own cross-border RMB payments system China International Payments System (CIPS) to reduce its dependency on the US-dominated SWIFT payment system. On the trade and investment front, China launched the negotiation for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP) in 2012 and the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative in 2013 as alternatives to US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In 2014, China facilitated the setting up of New Development Bank jointly with the BRIC states to deepen co-operation within the grouping. This was soon followed by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral development bank that aims to support the building of infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region.


Hence, amid the progressive delegitimation of the US-led international monetary system in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, China’s moves indicate its intention not to remain just as a subservient rule-taker that accepts the status quo of the current US-centric international monetary order. As a rising power, it has begun exhibiting behaviours both as a rule-maker, promoting global reforms, and a rule-breaker, creating its own arrangements.[27]


The net result of China’s accelerated growth afforded by its accession to WTO is that the economic gap between China and the US closed rapidly during Obama’s second term in office. Based on purchasing power parity (PPP), China overtook the US as the largest economy in 2014. At the end of 2015, China’s total manufacturing output represented 150% of the US, or was equivalent to the combined total of the US and Japan. By mid-2016, China’s real GDP was already 12% higher than that of the US.[28] By the end of Obama’s second term, China was on its way to become a formidable regional superpower as well as a full-fledge competitor to the US even though economic linkages between the two countries continued to deepen with US becoming China’s largest market place and China emerging to be America’s largest foreign creditor. That interdependence precluded US from using market access as leverage against China without also hurting itself.


Obama’s “Rebalancing” Strategy: Too Feeble & Late


Looking back, hence, Obama’s “rebalancing” strategy was a little too feeble and late and for it to be effectual. It not only failed to contain the rise of China but also deepened China’s strategic mistrust of the US. In the end, US actions incentivised and provided justifications for the Chinese to spring into actions, to which the US failed to follow up with an effective response. A good example is US strategy in the SCS. The Chinese began fortifying and building islands in the SCS in 2013 in response to US “rebalancing” strategy. Yet, the best response the Obama administration could muster up was the so-called “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOP) which began in October 2015. At the time, the plan was to make two patrols every three months though only four were ultimately conducted in total. More importantly, the FONOP failed to hold China's military buildup in the sea in check, prompting Philippines President Duterte to tick off the US for not deploying an armada of its 7th Fleet to stop China in the track right from the start. Duterte had since chosen to “pivot” to China rather than be part of US’ plan to contain the rise of China.


Obama’s inability to deliver an effective response to the rise of China points more to a fundamental systemic flaw in US’ policymaking than to Obama’s personal failures. In its post-WWII struggle against communism, US had a consistent and effective Cold War strategy of containing Soviet expansion and undermining both the idea and the practice of communism regardless of whether the administration was presided by a Democrat or a Republican. Since the demise of communism and Soviet Union, however, the US appears to be lacking a coherent long-term China strategy that can be consistently executed across administrations. In the absence of such a grand strategy, critics assert that US’ real strategy appears to be one of “hope” that China would somehow just implode as the Soviet Union did. Western media often wage a co-ordinated effort to trumpet the imminent collapse of the rapidly burgeoning Chinese economy, said to be overheated from its high investment-driven growth, only to see China grows from strength to strength while the US mires itself in one strategic misstep after another due to a leadership deficit at the top.


Likewise, critics hold that neither the Obama White House nor State Department ever formulated a coherent, consistent, proactive China strategy. The administration’s China policies were thus primarily reactive.


As a Senator campaigning in the 2008 election, Obama’s philosophy was to engage the nations of the world rather than confront them; to rely on diplomacy rather than on aggressive, let alone coercive, measures; and to draw on multilateralism rather than on unilateral moves.[29] In other words, Obama was trying to compensate for Bush Junior's unilateralism and preventive aggression and he was elected because Americans, wearied by the fighting in the Middle East and by the lies of Bush Junior, clamoured for change.


As an elected president, Obama eschewed both containment and the realpolitik of power balancing with regard to China. Instead, his administration advocated a three-pronged policy based on: “(1) a welcoming approach to China’s emergence, influence, and legitimate expanded role; (2) a resolve that a coherent stance on China eventually coalesced to see that its rise is consistent with international norms and law; and (3) an endeavour to shape the Asia-Pacific environment to ensure that China’s rise is stabilizing rather than disruptive.”[30]


Despite efforts to engage with China, the Obama administration was increasingly ‘irked’ by various Chinese moves, from its assertive declarations about the South China Sea to the cyber-attacks originating from within China. The Obama Administration ‘stiffened’ both its rhetoric and diplomatic stance towards China as a result of those transgressions. In response to the cyber-attacks, for example, Hillary delivered a speech criticizing China’s abuse of Internet freedom and argued that such nations “should face consequences and international condemnation”.[31]


Notably, though, the administration made no reference to ASB indicating that the White House neither bought into the concept nor had a clear idea of the military’s role in the US’ China strategy. In November 2012 during the only presidential election debate dedicated to foreign policy, President Obama said that his “pivot” policy sent a “very clear signal” to China that the US is and will remain a Pacific power without any mentioning of the ASB concept.[32]


Similarly, the Congress did not thoroughly review the ASB strategy before it moved from being an operational concept to a militarization programme. Congress held many hearings about China in 2008 and in the years that followed but their main focus was on economic issues such as trade, job losses due to com­panies moving them overseas, the U.S. dependency on China for financing the debt, Chinese currency controls, and Chinese violations of intellectual prop­erty and human rights.[33]


On the whole, Obama’s “pivot” strategy was therefore often criticized as eloquent talk with little follow-through especially in terms of military options other than the FONOPs and the redeployment of existing assets. Some critics also saw the pivot as the Democrats’ attempt, during an intense re-election campaign, to shift attention from the military quagmires of the Middle East to the Far East.


In any case, Obama’s more accommodative approach of dealing with China gave Xi manoeuvring room to proceed with his plans to slowly but surely shift the military balance at least in the East China Sea and South China Sea progressively in China’s favour.

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[1] See Eswar Prasad and Isaac Sorkin. (2009). “Sky’s the Limit? National and Global Implications of China’s Reserve Accumulation.” Brookings Institution. July 21, 2009.

[2] See Joshua P. Meltzer. (2011). “The U.S. Trade Deficit, China and the Need to Rebalance Growth.” Brookings Institution. February 14, 2011.

[3] See Treasury Direct. “Historical Debt Outstanding - Annual 2000 – 2015.” Figures extracted on March 19, 2018.

[4] See Ivo H. Daalder & James M. Lindsay. (2003). “The Globalization of Politics: American Foreign Policy for a New Century.” Brookings Institution. January 1, 2003.

[5] See Hillary R. Clinton. (2011).

[6] See Jin Canrong. (2016). “How America's relationship with China changed under Obama.” World Economic Forum. December 14, 2016.

[7] The Obama administration’s “pivot” is laid out in The White House, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January 2012.

[8] The intent was to rebalance strategic attention and some defence resources to the Asian theatre. To prevent creating the impression that the US was pivoting away from other partners, the Obama administration began calling it a “rebalance.” However, the term “pivot” stuck and continued to be used.


[10] See Hans Binnendijk. (2016). Pp 101

[11] See US Pacific Command official website. Extracted on April 23, 2018.

[12] See Global Diplomatic Forum.

[13] See Naing Ko Ko. (2016). “What’s next for Myanmar-China relations?” Myanmar Times. March 29,2018.

[14] See See Amitai Etzioni. (2013). Pg. 46.

[15] See Andrew F. Krepinevich. (2012). “Strategy in a Time of Austerity: Why the Pentagon Should Focus on Assuring Access.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. November 1, 2012.

[16] See Amitai Etzioni. (2013). “Who Authorized Preparations for War with China?.” Yale Journal of International Affairs. Summer 2013.

[17] Elizabeth Bumiller. (2012). “Smaller Navy Ship Has a Rocky Past and Key Support,” New York Times, April 5, 2012.

[18] See Amitai Etzioni. (2013).

[19] See James Holmes. (2015). “Redefining AirSea Battle: JAM-GC, China and the Quest for Clarity.” National Interest. November 22, 2015.

[20] See Hugh White. (2012). “The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power” Melbourne: Black Inc. Pg. 78.

[21] See Joshua Rovner, “Three Paths to Nuclear Escalation with China,” National Interest, July 19, 2012,

[22] In short, ‘commons’ refers to land or resources that belong to no one. In this context, ‘global commons’ thus refers to the stretches of water around the world that do not belong to any country and thus can be accessed by anyone.

[23] See James Holmes. (2015).

[24] See Embassy of the PROC in the USA. (2014). “Xi Jinping Holds Talks with President Barack Obama of the US, Stressing Promoting Construction of New Model of Major-Country Relationship Between China and the US in Six Key Directions and Putting into Practice Principles of No Conflict, No Confrontation, Mutual Respect, and Win-Win Cooperation.” November 12, 2014.

[25] Economist. (2016). “Chinese Politics: Beware the Cult of Xi.” April 2, 2016.

[26] See Chan, Minnie. (2016).

[27] See Helleiner, Eric & Kishner, Jonathan (Ed). (2014).

[28] See Jin Canrong. (2016).

[29] See Amitai Etzioni. (2013). Pg 44.

[30] See Amitai Etzioni. (2013). Pg 48.

[31] See James Mann. (2012). “The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power.” New York: Penguin Group. Pg. 245; Quoted Amitai Etzioni. (2013). Pg 45.

[32]Transcript: Presidential debate on foreign policy at Lynn University.” Fox News, October 22, 2012.

[33] David E. Sanger. (2012). “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power.” New York: Random

House. Quoted in Amitai Etzioni. (2013). Pg 45.

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