TSG IntelBrief: China and America’s Pacific Pivot
June 15, 2012


As of mid-June 2012,
analysts and decision-makers throughout the international community were continuing to assess China’s reaction to the recent U.S. policy announcement that it was planning to reconfigure the balance of naval forces in a manner that would deploy a greater concentration in the Pacific than in the Atlantic. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made the announcement at the 2012 Shangri-La Dialogue (June 1-3, 2012), saying that by 2020, 60 percent of the U.S. Naval fleet would be deployed in the Pacific and 40 percent in the Atlantic, as opposed to what is currently (and somewhat inaccurately) described as a 50-50 split. While U.S. officials have offered reassurances that the move is not targeted at a particular country, China has had long-standing fears that it already is being encircled by a network of U.S. alliances, bases, and partnerships with its Asian neighbors. Beijing is now thought to be exceptionally sensitive to an unfolding reality where an already formidable U.S. engagement with Asia will be substantially bolstered by a greater U.S. Navy presence in the future.

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Background to the Shift

Although Secretary Panetta’s June 2012 Shangri-La pronouncement received significant press as a new initiative, the renewed U.S. focus on Asia — referred to in U.S. government circles as “rebalancing” — is of longer duration. President Obama assumed office emphasizing the importance of Asia to the United States. Similarly, U.S. economic officials in 2010 were talking about the need to “re-balance” the U.S. and Chinese economies, while the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) of that same year stressed the importance of U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea as well as making Guam a security hub in Asia.  

In 2011, the White House pushed for a National Export Strategy, calling the Asian countries of China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam key targets for U.S. exports. Also, in a 2011 op-ed piece in Foreign Policy magazine entitled “America’s Pacific Century,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to a “pivot point” for the United States in its coming century of renewed engagement with Asia. Continuing the theme, in February 2012 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Panetta described it as a “strategic turning point,” specifically stating that the United States would rebalance its global posture and presence to focus more on Asia. Both in this testimony and at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Secretary Panetta described a new U.S. defense strategy that would be able to accommodate budget constraints, reflect Asia’s economic and diplomatic importance to U.S. interests, and confront the new emerging threats of the 21st century.

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Immediate Chinese reactions

Although China is known to be wary of the American presence in Asia, its immediate statements following the U.S. Shangri-La Dialogue announcement suggest that, at least publicly, Chinese officials are electing to downplay the issue. Speaking the day after the Dialogue ended, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman issued a mild response, calling the U.S. intention to expand its Asian military presence “inappropriate.” A week later, PRC Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai appeared to deemphasize the issue further, saying that China understood U.S. interests and concerns in Asia and hoped the United States would play a constructive role. He added that both China and the United States hoped to establish new and effective interaction in Asia.

It is unclear at this point whether this soft rhetoric represents Beijing’s acceptance of U.S. reassurances about the rebalancing or a diplomatic calculation to ensure a positive environment for the upcoming 12th formal meeting of President Obama and President Hu Jintao at the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, scheduled for June 18-19. Another possibility for the low profile response could be ongoing sensitivities about political scandals surrounding China’s impending leadership transition later this Fall — also a suggested reason for the absence of China’s Defense Minister, Liang Guanglie, at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue.  

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Reading Between the Lines?

A more complete picture of China’s reaction may lie in the continuing symbolism of Chinese actions and statements that relate more broadly to U.S. regional attention. For years, a number of Communist Party and think-tank analysts in China have questioned U.S. strategic intent in Asia, suggesting that Washington’s motives do not just include anti-terrorism concerns, but also control of Central Asian oil and gas reserves, efforts to undermine Russia, and a desire to contain China. In response to these long-standing concerns about the U.S. role in Asia, the Chinese government has intensified its focus on developing capabilities, institutions, and relationships designed to counter-balance U.S. power and influence. Such mechanisms were notably on subtle public display in the days after the Shangri-La Dialogue, more tangentially expressing Chinese concern about  —  and reaction to — the U.S. presence.  

Reports on U.S. and Japanese military power. On June 5, two days after the Shangri-La Dialogue, a Chinese think-tank issued two reports on U.S. and Japanese military power — unveiled as a response to the annual U.S. report on Chinese military power released in May 2012. General Luo Yan, executive vice president of the ostensibly non-governmental think tank (the China Strategic Culture Promotion Association), has been associated with the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences and has advocated stronger Chinese military control of the South China Sea.  

Enhanced security focus of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In the week following the Shangri-La Dialogue, the 12th summit of the SCO was held in Beijing, involving the heads of its six full member states: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The SCO, founded in 2001, is Beijing’s preferred multilateral vehicle for addressing regional security issues. It has been described by some Chinese analysts as the only hope for countering U.S./NATO regional influence. At the 2012 summit meeting, Chinese President Hu Jintao called on SCO members to strengthen their coordination to deal with regional crises and to work together to safeguard world peace and stability. As a consequence of the SCO summit meeting in Beijing, China became Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first official trip abroad in his current term.  

Upgrading of China-Afghanistan relations. Afghanistan became an official SCO observer at the SCO 2012 summit meeting, with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai in Beijing for the event. During formal talks, Presidents Hu and Karzai agreed to upgrade the relationship of the two countries to a Strategic and Cooperative Partnership. Since the announcement in March 2009 of the Obama Administration’s “Af-Pak” strategy linking the security situation in Afghanistan with developments in Pakistan, U.S. officials have tried to convince a reluctant China to provide targeted aid and reconstruction support for U.S./NATO efforts in Afghanistan. Notably reluctant in the past to deepen its involvement in Afghanistan, China’s willingness to do so now appears on the surface to meet one set of U.S. objectives, but also provides Karzai with an alternative source of strategic leverage to the United States.

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