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  • China and the United States:Beyond Balance
  • David M. Lampton (bio)

Maintaining a balance of power in Asia is essential, as is having a relationship between China and the United States that reaps the gains of cooperation and avoids the costs of high levels of conflict. In striving to achieve balance in the region, a principal objective of policy should be to avoid igniting an upward spiral of military competition that diverts the United States and China from their primary strategic task—rebuilding themselves. China requires a new, more sustainable growth model and a revitalized social compact, both of which require rekindling social, economic, and political reform. For its part, the United States must rebuild the foundations for sustainable comprehensive power, not least its human resources, physical and institutional infrastructure, and national balance sheet. A high level of U.S.-China contention would be catastrophic, a major unnecessary distraction from these tasks for both peoples and states. This brings us to the topic at hand—the policy of "rebalancing." What is it? What are its limitations? How can both nations think more productively about the strategic foundation for bilateral ties?

In an international politics version of Newton's Third Law, when one nation's policy goes out of kilter, it produces an equal and opposite reaction by others in the system. Immoderate action begets immoderate reaction, potentially spawning an upward spiral of contention. Thus far, the balancing acts of Washington and its friends in Asia most clearly seen in fall 2011 and thereafter have induced caution in Beijing's foreign policy. That is to be welcome, as is what now appears to be a revitalizing reform impulse in the People's Republic of China (PRC). The long-term consequences of the U.S. rebalancing effort, however, will take years to become apparent. Washington should not overinterpret Asia's seeming welcome, remembering both that China's neighbors will ardently seek to avoid choosing between the United States and the PRC and that each Asian state has goals that are only partially compatible with U.S. interests. [End Page 40]

In 2009 and 2010, Beijing seemingly threw three decades of previously successful foreign policy out the window.1 Among the most notable missteps were ill-advised statements at the mid-2010 ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi admonishing the PRC's neighbors that while they were small, China was big, and that was a fact they ought not forget; Beijing's perceived backing of North Korea after its military provocations of 2010 that resulted in South Korean civilian and military deaths; the implied position that the Yellow Sea was a "Chinese lake" when South Korean and U.S. navies wished to sail in those waters as a deterrent to North Korea; the linking of rare earth exports to a small maritime incident with Japan; a growing number of confrontations in the South China Sea involving a multitude of insufficiently coordinated PRC maritime agencies and actors beyond the People's Liberation Army Navy; and overreaction to things better ignored—for example, threatening Norway over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo.

In reaction to these ham-handed actions and the nervousness they inspired in the Asia-Pacific, in fall 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote an article in Foreign Policy entitled "America's Pacific Century" in which she said that the "United States stands at a pivot point" and called for "forward-deployed" diplomacy.2 The article was followed in close succession by presidential speeches, remarks by other ranking U.S. officials, and visits to Asia by President Barack Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, among others. It was an impressive, coordinated set of activities that was generally well received in Asia. Quickly discerning that "pivot" suggested an abrupt and muscular turn toward Asia, the initiative was promptly renamed "rebalancing." Incorrectly, but predictably, Beijing and Chinese citizens more broadly saw containment where Washington saw regional stabilization.

The Obama administration's rhetorical flourishes surrounding this effort obscured the facts that the United States never had departed Asia and that key features of the effort date back to the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—namely...


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