As President Obama embarks on another trip to East Asia, it is hard to find a constructive media assessment of current developments in the region. Most of the commentary is focused on the potential for conflict with China and whether the United States is adequately prepared for it. But how great is the risk of such a conflict?
Some international relations theorists, like John Mearshimer, argue the risk is quite high and that the optimal U.S. response to this risk is to work with regional allies to contain China. Many Chinese analysts believe this is the objective of President Obama’s policies in the region, which are alternatively described as a “pivot to Asia” or a “rebalancing” of U.S. foreign policy. In a recent pair of interviews for the Japanese press, Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian affairs of the U.S. National Security Council, described Chinese behavior in the region, and U.S. concerns about that behavior, in terms that appear, despite his denials, to comport with Prof. Mearshimer’s view of China and how the U.S. should respond.
Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee offered a more constructive set of responses the President and his Asia advisors should consider as they continue to “rebalance” the administration’s “pivot” policy.
“While most governments have expressed support for greater U.S. engagement in the region, the strategy is currently perceived as primarily a military strategy, a perception reinforced by the under-resourcing of the civilian components. As a result, some countries in the region see the rebalance as an attempt to contain a rising China, which may limit their willingness to deepen cooperation and coordination with the United States. As the United States considers how to more fully shape and articulate the public diplomacy elements of the rebalance, it should make clear that the policy is about broadening U.S. engagement, not containing China; the rebalance seeks to expand economic growth, ensure regional security, and improve human welfare for the benefit of all, not the detriment of one.”
One of the “civilian components” mentioned in the committee report is to “redouble efforts to attract and enable more U.S. students” to study in the region. Hopefully those efforts will not include new videos from the FBI on the dangers of study in China. The half-hour FBI special, which has all the subtlety of a driver’s education film, warns prospective students they may be targets of Chinese intelligence agents. Rather than promoting the promise of improved mutual understanding, the video warns prospective students their good intentions could make them pawns in a game of great power politics. It seems even the “civilian components” of the Obama administration’s Asia policy cannot escape its present tendency to emphasize risk over reward when it comes to China.
The tone and language of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale U.S. debate over Asia policy. It recognizes that preparing for perpetual conflict is not the “optimal” U.S. strategy for advancing U.S. interests in what continues, despite all the media pessimism, to be one of the most economically dynamic and productive regions of the world.