All Your Pivots Are Belong to Us

What America's halfhearted "rebalancing" to Asia must look like in Beijing.

Photo by Ed Jones-Pool/Getty images
Photo by Ed Jones-Pool/Getty images
Photo by Ed Jones-Pool/Getty images


MEMORANDUM:
Strategic Planning

To: Central Military Commission Chairman, Xi Jinping

From: Vice Chairman, Gen. Fan Changlong / Vice Chairman, Gen. Xu Qiliang / Minister of National Defense, Gen. Chang Wanquan / Chief of PLA General Staff, Gen. Fang Fenghui


MEMORANDUM:
Strategic Planning

To: Central Military Commission Chairman, Xi Jinping

From: Vice Chairman, Gen. Fan Changlong / Vice Chairman, Gen. Xu Qiliang / Minister of National Defense, Gen. Chang Wanquan / Chief of PLA General Staff, Gen. Fang Fenghui

U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice (who is not related to George W. Bush’s national security advisor Condoleezza Rice) repeated all the usual platitudes about working together and delivered the usual American bounty of scolding and arrogant demands in meetings preparatory to President Barack Obama’s November visit. Despite our assertions of indisputable sovereignty at their close-in reconnaissance, the Americans still fail to understand that the new model of great-power relations means they must now change their behavior to accommodate us.

Obama claims his administration is "pivoting" to Asia, and that certainly reflects the American aspiration to contain us. Our strength is growing at a faster rate than that of any country in history, and the Americans are scrambling to lock in their advantages before we are fully in the position of setting the rules. Their military is toughened from more than a decade of fighting, they have a history of alarming innovation, and their relationships with countries in Asia give them springboards to operate in our region. But their unrestrained appetites and reckless policies present opportunities we did not have before.

Whatever Obama may say about rebalancing, the United States remains preoccupied with the Middle East. The American people elected a president to put a stop to their wars, and he spent five years squandering gains in Iraq and Afghanistan before reversing himself and deciding to recommit in a limited way to counter the threat of militant Islam. The predictable consequences of terminating U.S. wars without consolidating their gains will now vastly increase the costs of stamping out those flames. They also remain tied down in Europe, which pleads for more U.S. involvement, and a sentimental United States rushes to its aid, even though Europe faces very little threat of actual aggression and is strong enough to defend itself.

Good as its military is, fighting two wars has stretched America’s capacity, yet they continue to cut it further. The Americans will send to the vast Pacific Ocean a greater percentage of a smaller Navy, amounting to fewer ships. They will rotate a few thousand Marines already assigned to their Pacific Fleet through Australia. They will add no military bases. Meanwhile, Japan, their closest Pacific ally, continues to stall building bases its own defense necessitates.

Heedless of our growing power, they force further cuts to their spending. Their defense budget is only 4 percent of GDP, so slight a burden they cannot feel it in so prosperous a country, and yet it plummets. They choose instead to preserve pensions and medical care at the end of life than invest in their safety and the children who are their future.

If we had designed a system to leach strength from their military, we could not do better than the law they call "sequestration." It imposes a 10 percent reduction in spending each year, and politicians prevent the general staff from making sensible decisions about where to make the cuts. Worse yet, though it is supposed to apply across all programs, politicians exempt personnel spending — and a full third of programs are off-limits, exacerbating the pressure elsewhere in the budget. The result is a perfect outcome for us: Nearly all the cuts have been to readiness. What was once the world’s best military, with a wealth of combat experience, is idled. Herein lies our opportunity.

With so recent an experience of having land forces too small for the wars they were fighting, their Army will be cut by a fourth. Still, their politicians vote for pay increases and benefits that will crowd out training and equipment. At current rates, by 2025, 98 percent of the Marine Corps’ budget will be spent on personnel instead of its canonical balance of a third each for personnel, equipment, and training. We will not have to turn back those fierce Marines fighting their way ashore in Fujian; the United States is ensuring they will not be able to land.

Obama pretends to practice "smart power," another deceptive phrase to cover their wilting strength. It appears to mean sending their diplomats to convey messages that the United States wants others to fight and to make sacrifices — to attain what Washington desires but is unwilling to risk achieving. Even better, the president draws red lines he does not enforce, rattling weak countries that depend on U.S. promises. Even the South Koreans and Japanese, America’s two most devoted Asian allies, are beginning to hedge their bets and commence independent policies. The Philippines has taken a much riskier course, contesting us in legal venues and allowing Americans to return to their colonial bases. They are where we should drive the first wedge, pressing to show that the Americans will not defend the Philippines.

The American president cannot even see his way through to capitalize on nonmilitary means of power. The Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty that was designed to consolidate their alliances through free trade and investment — and exclude us from commerce — languishes; Obama cannot even persuade his own ruling party to endorse it in their Congress.

The Law of the Sea treaty, which would protect U.S. freedom of navigation and remind countries that the United States respects international laws, is all but dead. With the United States out of the Law of the Sea treaty, our interpretation of its terms will gain traction — and bar U.S. vessels from operating in roughly one-third of the world’s oceans that are now exclusive economic zones. Their substitute, a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, only regulates communication, not behavior, and does not apply to fishing and constabulary vessels we mostly use for harassment.

In all these ways, the United States undercuts its own potential. America’s waning power is being diffused among too many competing demands for the pivot to be realized. If we simply wait, it will come to nothing. But if we act to pick apart the credibility of their commitments and continue building a military they will hesitate to push back against, we can speed the course of our rise to dominance.

Obama’s remaining time in office is optimal for pressing our case, as his influence will wane further and a future president may eventually rebuild America’s credibility. Our strategy should have two components: build enough military capacity to absorb the shock of any new developments, like Air-Sea Battle, that their military can come up with, and dismantle their alliance relationships by causing countries on our periphery to doubt U.S. guarantees. That will likely be adequate to consolidate our power and dominate Asia.

We tried to establish a cooperative framework for a harmonious rise, but instead of acquiescing to an accommodation sensible for a waning power, the Americans responded by trying to keep us down through a combination of military strength and bilateral relationships with weak states on our periphery. We no longer need constrain our ambition to harmonious seas; the new situation offers much more of what we want and deserve.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.