Do personalities in politics really matter? Probably not as often as politicians would have us believe, but sometimes the words they say are worth listening to. And when those words are about the two largest economies on the planet - the US and China - it pays to listen closely.
The United States general election still more than a year away, so it’s not worth forecasting the results just yet. Anything could happen this far out. Nevertheless, one of announced candidates for the US presidency, Hillary Clinton, is worth mentioning for what she said about the Asia Pacific some years ago.
Should Ms Clinton succeed in securing the presidency next year, she will become a part of history. But Ms Clinton is already part of history for a policy decision made when she was Secretary of State. The Obama administration believes the Asia Pacific is the fastest-growing region. Ms Clinton announced that the US would therefore “pivot” to this region to bring both security and greater economic opportunity to both the American people and the citizens of Asia.
At the time, Ms Clinton’s words were interpreted as belligerent by China, which was also maneuvering in the region. The Chinese saw the pivot as another in a long list of suspected attempts to “contain” China into a sphere of influence behind the Japanese island chain in the east, and in the south inside the Himalayas and above the Mekong River basin.
Chinese officials and state media were diplomatically assured this interpretation was false, US strategic goals were not meant to contain China. But someone forgot to tell US military officials who constantly, and very publicly, talk about the growing “threat” from the Chinese military. Other nations in the Asia Pacific also worry about the Chinese military and wonder about Beijing’s plans for expansion into the crowded waterways of the East and South China seas. In the past couple of years, China and its neighbours have tussled over contradictory territorial claims. The tussling has been heated, causing some to ponder whether the competition might lead to war.
But nothing has happened. Not war, not dangerous Chinese expansion and - to an extent - not even the pivot. The Obama administration, firm as it was on focusing towards Asia in the new century, has since became distracted by a convalescent Middle East and a bellicose Russia. Instead of worrying about Asia and the competition for its limited space, the Americans decided other needs were more pressing. It is interesting to ask why the Americans felt they could postpone the pivot.
Despite the American distraction, the situation in the East and South China Seas has not been resolved appreciably. Ahead of annual wargames with the United States, the Philippines recently expressed concern over a series of artificial reefs and shoals constructed by China in the disputed Spratly Island chain. These entirely new sand islands can house military equipment and naval dockyards, with at least one island capable of hosting a full-size aircraft runway. The Philippines warn this “aggressive” construction could lead to “consequences”.
However, if the Philippines was capable of projecting force to the Spratly Islands to defend its claimed territory, it would have already done so. Its largely hollow threats rely on a presumed US military backing. But both the Chinese construction and Manila’s response suggests more is at play here. The pivot has technically worked, but in a quiet and unexpected way.
It was part of Ms Clinton’s job description to front a strategic policy of shifting the preponderance of US naval surface warships and economic invigoration toward Asia. It will remain part of Ms Clinton’s job description to continue the pivot should she become president. The pivot fit with the national imperatives of the US to both keep open the sea lanes of supply and communication and maintain the security of US allies. At the time, China appeared to threaten these imperatives.
Yet two important realities have emerged since the pivot’s announcement. The first is that Chinese military capability is not at a level requiring significant blocking by the United States. The People’s Liberation Army - Navy (PLAN) is an impressive fighting force, no doubt. However it is becoming clear that the PLAN is not built to engage the US Navy on the Pacific. It is likely meant to dominate and hold the waters of China’s near abroad. This is the Chinese imperative.
What the US feared of China’s expansionism has not come to pass, and probably won’t for the foreseeable future. A temporary delay of the pivot was therefore made possible. Any return to a pivot strategy will need redrawing to take the lessons learned about Chinese realities into account.
The second factor for the hesitation is how seriously Asian nations took the China threat. In stark contrast to the anaemic European militaries now dealing below parity with a much stronger Russia, Asian nations are taking direct responsibility for territorial defence. Japan was recently “on the brink of war” with China, but is now considered the second most powerful naval force in the world. This dynamic alone is causing some anxiety in East Asia, but importantly it served to cool Japan’s territorial arguments with China.
South Korea is also finalising a deal with the US for a series of highly-advanced ballistic missile defence systems purportedly to defend against North Korean adventures, but which Beijing is rightly concerned will affect the region’s undercurrents. Affecting the balance of power in Asia is the whole point of such purchases. So although Ms Clinton’s pivot lost some priority over the last two years, a number of quiet strategic advances have tempered the region. This is important for the United States, which is trying to find a way to deal with the world’s problems without resorting to constant and thankless intervention.
While East Asia is still fragile, the region is a vision of how the US wishes the future to proceed wherever there are frozen conflicts. The Asian nations are wary of each other, competing with territorial claims, struggling with uneven economic development and hurting from deep historical animosities. Yet they are proving the rule that balancing power and diplomacy are effective ways to keep tensions low and gun barrels cold.
Whoever is victorious in Washington in 2016 is sure to claim the steady Asia Pacific as their own legacy. But in truth, the pivot is a long-term US strategy spanning decades. It requires an understanding by all nations that success lies in peace, not paranoia. China’s new sand islands notwithstanding, the Asia Pacific is pointing the way forward for an increasingly tense world.