Argument

A Stronger Pivot

A Stronger Pivot

The most significant "pivot" of Barack Obama’s first (and perhaps only) term as president was his own 180-degree reversal on China. In his first year in office, the president prioritized relations with Beijing over those with Tokyo, New Delhi, and other partners — including our European allies. This created the distinct impression, at home and abroad, that Obama was abandoning our traditional friends in favor of a neo-Nixonian "China-first" strategy.

This idea of a "G2" — the notion that the current superpower and the rising one could form a condominium of power to manage global governance backfired. It contributed to Beijing’s sense that it was a near-equal to Washington, superior to everyone else, and fueled Chinese assertiveness over a range of previously dormant territorial conflicts with its neighbors. By late 2011, Obama had shifted gears: He announced a new "pivot to Asia" that appeared, to our Chinese friends, to be a policy of encircling and containing Chinese power. The White House’s course now was heightening suspicions in Beijing that the original Obama policy was designed to allay.

Every new U.S. president goes through a learning curve on China. In 2013, however, the stakes will be much higher: China is much more powerful than when Governor Bill Clinton spoke of "the butchers of Beijing" or when Governor George W. Bush labeled China a "strategic competitor."

China is a global economic power — the world’s second largest — whose decisions on interest rates and budgets move markets. China is an aspiring regional hegemon: Its sharp-elbowed approaches toward its neighbors, and Japan in particular, risk igniting a shooting war that draws in the United States. At the same time, China is also more politically brittle than it has been since 1949. Its decade-long leadership transition has exposed enormous strains within the governing elite and society over endemic corruption, abuse of power, inequality, and the future of reform.

The stakes in U.S.-China relations, therefore, have rarely been higher. Both countries are struggling to find a formula that makes peaceful coexistence, rather than militarized competition, more likely. Conflict serves neither country’s interests: America’s next president will no doubt spend much of his term digging the United States out of debt, while China’s next president will be obsessed with maintaining social stability and transitioning to a sustainable economic model amidst rising grassroots pressure for change. A global test of wills promises to only make both leaders’ most pressing priorities even more difficult to achieve.

The problem is that neither China nor the United States can separate domestic politics from foreign policy. China’s currency manipulation and unfair trade practices make it a domestic issue in the United States, as we have seen in this election cycle. America’s determination to defend its allies and interests in Asia against Beijing’s expansionism incite popular nationalism in China — which its leaders manipulate to divert attention from problems at home and ingratiate themselves with key constituencies like the People’s Liberation Army.

Should Obama manage to win reelection, he will have to invest resources behind what has been mostly a rhetorical policy of rebalancing U.S. power toward Asia. Whether he will do so successfully, however, remains to be seen. How can the president "pivot to Asia" at a time when U.S. armed forces are already stretched thin, and sequestration threatens to cut $1 trillion from defense spending? How can he reinvigorate U.S. economic leadership in Asia — as important as our military power in securing our influence there — when he has proposed not one new trade initiative? How can he reassure our Japanese allies that Washington will honor its treaty obligations to firmly deter armed Chinese revisionism in the Sekakus — islands long under Japanese control that China now seeks to reclaim — while at the same time triggering Japanese insecurity by saying publicly that Washington is "neutral" over that territorial conflict?

To effectively manage Chinese power in a second term, Obama is going to need to do more than deploy 2,400 Marines to Australia and give a set of good speeches. He is going to need to do more than tilt U.S. Navy deployments toward the Pacific at a time when the United States has the smallest Navy since World War I (yes, it is a more capable Navy — but China’s aggressive naval, missile and air power buildup puts U.S. maritime access at serious risk). And the president is going to need to do more to assure our Japanese and Indian friends, who have felt neglected by his focus on engaging China, Russia and Iran.

At a more parochial level, Obama will need to find suitable replacements for the departing hawks who drove the Asia "pivot," including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell. In the economic realm, he will need to return the United States to its historic commitment to lead on free trade. Finally, the president will have to formulate a more strategic response to China’s unfair trade practices than imposing tactical tit-for-tat sanctions on particular sectors of the economy.

A President Mitt Romney will face these same challenges. He will, however, have a stronger hand to play. First, his pragmatism makes him more likely than Obama to cut a deal with Congress to put the United States on a sustainable fiscal trajectory. His business savvy makes him more likely to reinvigorate the U.S. private sector, which has struggled with uncertainty over the outlook on budgets, taxes, trade, and entitlements under this administration. In the eyes of this Republican voter, a President Romney seems more likely to renew American economic vitality than his competitor — reinvigorating American power and international prestige in the process. This will have important and beneficial consequences for the United States’ ability to manage a rising China.

Governor Romney has been clear on the issues where President Obama has been fuzzy: He has put Beijing on notice that he will directly confront its unfair trade practices, he would increase rather than cut naval shipbuilding, and he would increase, not hollow out, defense spending — sustaining an American military that no country would dare to openly challenge.

Wouldn’t China react negatively to this new president’s policies? On the contrary: Our Chinese friends respect strength, clarity, and predictability. So do our allies in Asia. They too would welcome a president who put them, rather than their adversaries, back at the center of American foreign policy.