America – standing astride. How should Washington’s strategy towards China look like?

17.09.2018 | By Mateusz Ambrożek
  • America stands before potentially the biggest geopolitical challenge since the end of the Cold War.
  • Continue to channel the attention towards the Pacific, hoping that the threat of military intervention will force China to slow its’ international expansion?
  • Or instead turn towards Europe and contend with China for European economies?

For the last few years, Washington and Beijing had been playing the game of cat and mouse. When Barack Obama was declaring a strategic shift of US diplomatic and military resources to the Pacific aimed at neutralising the growing Chinese potential, Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as Chinese venture into Europe, which the US was then abandoning. Now, from a few years of perspective, we have to examine whether the American geopolitical gambit was indeed a successful move.

Barack Obama’s pivot to the Pacific is commonly described as a ground-breaking moment for the American political strategy. Changes in the balance of power led to the conclusion that there is a new player in Asia, capable of matching the American potential and threatening its’ influence in Eurasia. Originally, pivot referred only to the American diplomatic offensive in the Pacific, that was connected to a decrease of Europe’s significance in the National Security Strategy. However, since 2012 it can be observed, that American military resources were diverted towards the Pacific, particularly to Australia and Japan. According to David Scott’s research, around 60% of American naval forces are stationed in bases located in the Pacific Ocean.

The purpose of the redirection of diplomatic and military resources was to gain control over the Chinese government’s moves. However, the outcome now poses the question whether the US correctly interpreted Chinese intentions.

At first glance, the decision to embrace the pivot to the Pacific seems entirely rational. The US can influence China best when its’ direct actions are not restrained by other countries, mainly because a country can embrace the renversement des alliances, as seems to be happening now with Germany. The other important factor is the US naval force. US Navy is still the most powerful in the world, and its’ extensive number of bases in the Pacific Ocean gives America free rein to demonstrate its power. It is easier to enforce a policy independently when it’s backed by military force rather than when relying on other countries, creating more or less stable alliances.

However, this raises a fundamental question: whether one-sided concentration on the Chinese movements in the Pacific has not blinded the US to other areas where China could gain influence? Was the choice to embrace the military approach rather than economic a strategic mistake? To put it simply: what if the American blockage had been put in the wrong place?

The end of the American hegemony

Though it is not widely admitted, the world does not function in a system of American hegemony anymore, but rather as something between a multipolar (comprised of China, German, Russia, the US, and maybe India) and bipolar system of China and America as the two leading economies.

The American power of the past is no more, as evidenced by the inability to impose its’ policies and the need to consult its’ actions, often with much weaker states (as evidenced Singaporean and Helsinki summits).

The above thesis, though strong, is maintained by several arguments.

The first one is the US modus operandi in international relations. Until now, Americans were able to make decisions and enforce every initiative, whether political or military. International institutional and organisational facilities served to develop and legitimise individual measures, nevertheless, in the event of resistance, the US could ignore those it or change the character of its’ actions – as exhibited during the second war in the Persian Gulf.

Secondly, the process of reaching multilateral binding decisions has mostly changed. In the past, the process relied on institutional multipolarity – that depended on a broad consensus among the smaller countries, ceding the responsibility for some decisions on them. It meant that decisions had hallmarks of international, collective legitimisation. Nowadays the atrophy of international institutions resulted in the creation of decision-making groups comprised of the most influential countries. The agreements are often informal or take the form of a verbal declaration of action. This trend can be observed since the Minsk agreements.

Finally, the ambivalent conduct of Washington – simultaneously calling for the rebuilding of the international institutions and at the same time leaving the UN Human Rights Council or imposing tariffs on the European Union. The chaos caused by these actions leads hitherto US partners to consider it no longer as guarantor of the international stability and more as an unpredictable player, who does not know what he wants.

The Chinese enter the game

2014 was the symbolic turning point. This year saw China become the world leader in the ranking of countries with GDP measured with the purchasing power parity. In terms of institutions, Chinese international influence is founded on organizations such as: the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB; Chinese answer to the US-dominated World Bank; AIIB cooperates with 67 countries, Poland among them), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCIP; agreement on free trade between 16 countries of Asia and Oceania, as well as India) or the renewed Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Not to mention 49 African countries cooperating with Beijing, as well as the European initiative 16+1, where Warsaw maintains an active role.

From the European perspective, the most important undertaking is the Belt and Road Initiative. Though there are various routes proposed, the most popular are the four land routes (Kazakhstan-Russia-Belarus; Central Asia-Iran-Turkey; Central Asia-Caspian Sea-Turkey; India-Pakistan-Iran-Turkey) and one naval route (along the coasts of Indochinese Peninsula, India, Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea and Suez Canal to Italy). From the perspective of building a new geopolitical and economic infrastructure, an alternative to the existing American-led world order, this project has the potential to be a game-changer.

Washington’s geopolitical mishit?

Those circumstances showcase clearly that the stake in Washington’s geopolitical game with Beijing is not stopping China’s potential growth (because it is too late for that) but rather to anticipate and block Chinese initiatives as effectively as possible. The question is, however, in which areas and how should America do it?

The decision to redirect American focus towards the Pacific was an invitation for China to focus on Europe. Washington has abandoned the policy that every geographic sphere of influence is of the same importance, and began regarding the Pacific region as of paramount importance instead.

It seems that the White House has not noticed, that the Chinese strategy aims at developing a new international institutional framework (mainly of economic character), that would in the long term replace the American infrastructure. Meanwhile, America, instead of responding to Chinese actions, decided to move the resources to the Pacific.

Trump’s presidency introduced further measures of this character, such as the suspension of TPP talks and the imposition of tariffs. It further discourages cooperation with hitherto allies instead of focusing on presenting itself as the more attractive partner.

However, the fluidity and changeability of the US politics under its’ current president is at least partially balanced by actions that should be treated as attempts at counterweighing Chinese influence in Europe such as The White House approaching president Macron based on the disputes about the latest nuclear deal with Iran. This attempt could have presented an interesting development in Trump’s anti-German rhetoric and to establish France as a channel of American influence in Europe, however, those attempts have not come to fruition. Lately, we can observe the attempts at swaying the mood at the Baltic-Black Sea Belt in the form of the proposal to increase the contingent of the American army in Poland, the energetic revolution in the region facilitated by LNG shipments from the US and the activity of the US military advisors in Ukraine. However, it remains to be seen whether any definite results will come out of it.

What does Beijing think about the Pacific?

The Pacific is not a region attractive for the Chinese economic expansion. Beijing would be satisfied with the neutralisation of Australia, the Philippines, countries of the Indochinese Peninsula, Japan and South Korea by the continued separation of those countries from the US. This process is ongoing, though the rate at which it progresses depends on each state.

It can be best observed in the Philippines, where president Rodrigo Duterte regularly uses anti-American rhetoric. In the case of other countries, China is not nearly as much acquisitive. It is satisfied with the lack of public declarations of cooperation with America, which is sometimes supplemented with bilateral agreements (such as the economic agreement with Australia in 2013 and India in 2017) and collaboration in the aforementioned Chinese initiatives: SCO, RCEP and AIIB. Beijing also looks favourably on new projects developed by those countries that exclude the US such as MIKTA (the informal partnership of Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia) or TPP-11 (agreement of parties to TPP without the US). Thus Beijing is content with the policy of balance of power in the region. It does not have to assume the role of US and build alliances with the strongest countries in the Pacific.

Was Pivot a mistake?

Does this mean that the pivot to the Pacific is utterly useless for America? Certainly not – presenting it as such would a be a great misstatement. However, pivot’s usefulness can be utilised fully only in one scenario – actual war between China and America.

The problem with this assumption is that a war between China and America (if it breaks out at all) would be an effect of political changes (rising power of China) and not an element of the strategy of either party. If Americans have not decided upon military conflict yet, it means that: a) they fear that it may result in more losses than benefits; or b) they are confident that they can still block China politically.

This shows that the pivot should have been a backup strategy, employed adequately to the growth of China’s standing. Instead, we are witnessing a paradoxical situation: assuming that China’s potential will grow proportionally to the decline of American power, Americans should be readying themselves for a potential military conflict. After all, common sense dictates to attack, when we are relatively more powerful than our opponent. Meanwhile, president Trump vacillates about his European policy, thus does not improve American military potential in the Pacific and does not contend economically with China. The US seems to be straddling the fence.

Orient themselves to the Pacific, hoping that the military pressure and potential conflict will force China to slow their international expansion, or back out of the pivot strategy, return to Europe and contend Beijing in the European sphere of influence? Americans stand before potentially the biggest geopolitical challenge to their one-sided global dominance since the end of the Cold War.

Translation from Polish: Małgorzata Raś


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.