Obama’s Pacific pivot

US policy towards a rising China indicates caution – not aggression.

Chinese soliders rifle training
China is increasingly anxious about a supposed US containment policy in the region [EPA]

Cambridge, Massachusetts – Asia’s return to the centre of world affairs is the great power shift of the twenty-first century. In 1750, Asia had roughly three-fifths of the world’s population and accounted for three-fifths of global output. By 1900, after the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, Asia’s share of global output had shrunk to one-fifth. By 2050, Asia will be well on its way back to where it was 300 years earlier.

But, rather than keeping an eye on that ball, the United States wasted the first decade of this century mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in a recent speech, American foreign policy will “pivot” towards East Asia.

President Barack Obama’s decision to rotate 2,500 US Marines through a base in northern Australia is an early sign of that pivot. In addition, the November Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting, held in Obama’s home state of Hawaii, promoted a new set of trade talks called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both events reinforce Obama’s message to the Asia-Pacific region that the US intends to remain an engaged power.

The pivot towards Asia does not mean that other parts of the world are no longer important; on the contrary, Europe, for example, has a much larger and richer economy than China’s. But, as Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, recently explained, US foreign policy over the past few years has been buffeted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, concerns about terrorism, nuclear-proliferation threats in Iran and North Korea, and the recent Arab uprisings. Obama’s November trip to Asia was an effort to align US foreign-policy priorities with the region’s long-term importance.

In Donilon’s words, “by elevating this dynamic region to one of our top strategic priorities, Obama is showing his determination not to let our ship of state be pushed off course by prevailing crises”. The Obama administration also announced that, whatever the outcome of the defence-budget debates, “we are going to make sure that we protect the capabilities that we need to maintain our presence in the Asia-Pacific” region.

Obama’s November trip was also a message to China. After the 2008 financial crisis, many Chinese expressed the mistaken belief that the US was in terminal decline, and that China should be more assertive – particularly in pursuing its maritime claims in the South China Sea – at the expense of the US’ allies and friends. During Obama’s first year in office, his administration placed a high priority on cooperation with China, but Chinese leaders seemed to misread US policy as a sign of weakness.

The administration took a tougher line when Hillary addressed the South China Sea question at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Hanoi in July 2010. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s subsequent official visit to Washington in January 2011 was successful, but many Chinese editorialists complained that the US was trying to “contain” China and prevent its peaceful rise.

China’s anxiety about a supposed US containment policy is on the rise again, now that Hillary is insisting that the country’s maritime disputes with its neighbours be placed on the agenda at next year’s East Asia Summit in Manila, which will be attended by Obama, Hu Jintao and other regional leaders.

But American policy towards China is different from Cold War containment of the Soviet bloc. Whereas the US and the Soviet Union had limited trade and social contact, the US is China’s largest overseas market, welcomed and facilitated China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, and opens its universities’ gates to 125,000 Chinese students each year. If current US policy towards China is supposed to be Cold War-style containment, it seems unusually warm.

The Pentagon’s East Asia Strategy Review, which has guided American policy since 1995, offered China integration into the international system through trade and exchange programs. Although the US hedged its bets by simultaneously strengthening its alliance with Japan, this does not constitute containment. After all, China’s leaders cannot predict their successors’ intentions. The US is betting that they will be peaceful, but no one knows. A hedge expresses caution, not aggression.

American military forces do not aspire to “contain” China in Cold War fashion, but they can help to shape the environment in which future Chinese leaders make their choices. I stand by my testimony before the US Congress of 1995 in response to those who, even then, wanted a policy of containment rather than engagement: “Only China can contain China.”

If China becomes a bully in the Asia-Pacific region, other countries will join the US to confront it. Indeed, that is why many of China’s neighbours have strengthened their ties with the US since 2008, when China’s foreign policy became more assertive. But the last thing the US wants is a Cold War II in Asia.

Whatever the two sides’ competitive positions, Sino-American cooperation on issues like trade, financial stability, energy security, climate change, and pandemics will benefit both countries. The rest of the region stands to gain, too. The Obama administration’s pivot towards Asia signals recognition of the region’s great potential, not a clarion call for containment.

Joseph S. Nye, a former US assistant secretary of defense, is a professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of Power.

A version of this article was first published by Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.