Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Problem with the Pivot

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Problem with the Pivot

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "U.S. Grand Strategy, the Rise of China, and U.S. National Security Strategy for East Asia" by Robert S. Ross, in Strategic Studies Quarterly, Summer 2013

WITH BEIJING'S POWER GROWING BY THE day, the chess match between China and the United States is on. If the past inclinations of other great powers are any guide, China will move its pieces across the board with a fresh assertiveness.

That could spell trouble for the United States. A nation that holds sway over all of Asia invariably threatens North American security, writes Robert S. Ross in Strategic Studies Quarterly. But Ross, a political scientist at Boston College, has a bone to pick with the Obama administration over the "pivot," its strategy for countering China's rise by engaging with countries on the Chinese periphery.

Washington has the right idea in cultivating regional allies. This strategy enables it to secure bases and access rights that allow U.S. ships to dock and American troops and aircraft to keep an eye on China's doings. But many of these potential friends, such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and South Korea, are mainland Asian countries right on China's doorstep. That makes Beijing nervous and has the potential to entangle the United States in fights it can't win.

Take Vietnam. In 2010, the United States raised eyebrows in Beijing when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Hanoi to promote the idea of strategic cooperation. The government of Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung was thrilled--Hanoi had long sought improved military relations. Vietnam has conducted annual joint exercises with the U.S. Navy for three years running and has facilitated port visits by U.S. ships. In a 2012 visit to Cam Ranh Bay, the site of a major U.S. base during the Vietnam War, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta pointed to "tremendous potential here for the future."

But the new American presence is a little too close for Beijing's comfort. China fought a nasty border war with Vietnam in 1979, and a maritime dispute simmers.

The United States hasn't stopped with Vietnam. In 2010, the Obama administration sent American officials to visit Cambodia--a neighbor to China that previous U.S. administrations had "all but ignored." Military maneuvers involving the Cambodian military and U.S. Marines followed.

On the Korean peninsula, meanwhile, the Obama team halted implementation of the Bush administration's plan to gradually withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea. The Pentagon boosted the number of American GIs there and ramped up joint live-fire exercises with the South Korean navy, in part as a response to North Korean belligerence.

In Korea and Indochina, the United States is courting trouble, Ross warns: "Because both regions are on China's immediate periphery, U.S. naval power cannot effectively challenge Chinese coercive power." In a clash on land between China and one of America's friends in the area, China's People's Liberation Army would maul its opponent. "Even as a primitive fighting force in 1950, the PLA held the U.S. military to a draw in Korea."

Small mainland Asian nations are bound to fall into China's orbit eventually. "Unless South Korea and the Indochina countries are willing to once again host significant U.S. ground-force deployments and extensive basing facilities--therefore once again incurring Chinese hostility--they will ultimately succumb to the rise of China by distancing themselves from the United States," Ross writes. …

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