US needs to rethink rebalancing

Updated: 2013-01-25 07:25

By Shen Dingli (China Daily)

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Obama should seek cooperation with China rather than trying to contain its rise by ganging up with smaller nations

The United States is facing a number of thorny diplomatic challenges at the start of President Barack Obama's second term. For example, stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan to enable a smooth withdrawal of US forces this year; stabilizing the situation in the Middle East, especially to placate Egypt and Israel, and achieve a smooth political change in Syria; managing the issues surrounding the nuclear programs of Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea; and handling relations with emerging powers, including the stalled relations with Russia and the complex relations with China.

The US government has long been aware that nontraditional security threats are no longer the main threat facing the country. Although it faces a variety of nontraditional security threats by non-state actors, they cannot undermine the US' role as the world's policeman. Only state actors can become the main force pushing forward power transition in the international community. So Washington's focus will return to state-to-state relations, particularly those in the Western Pacific region.

In fact, across the world arena at present it seems only the relationship with China will be able to affect the US' global supremacy.

China's rapid development in the past decade and its development potential for the coming 10 to 20 years made the US National Intelligence Council reach a judgment that the US will no longer be the world's only superpower by 2030. With stable growth, the size of China's economy will surpass that of the US by then, although its per capita level of development will remain far behind the US. For China, with its huge population and territorial resources, its comprehensive competitiveness at that time will see significant enhancement.

The intention of the US' return to Asia is to contain China's rise. However, to realize rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific is beyond the US' capabilities.

The uncertainties in other parts of the world, for example the regional turmoil that has erupted in the Middle East since 2011, will delay the US' redistribution of its security resources to the Asia-Pacific region, and Washington's long-term serious fiscal imbalances will further handicap its efforts to achieve a strategic rebalancing.

Even so, the US still regards its Asia-Pacific rebalancing as imperative. Although Washington has denied that the strategy is aimed at China, its actions reveal the lie. The US Senate has approved an amendment to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which acknowledges Japan's administration over the Diaoyu Islands under Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty. And the US administration has repeatedly claimed the islands, which have been China's since ancient times, are covered under the treaty. In the South China Sea, the US' high-profile interventions have fueled the tensions and instability in this region.

No wonder Kenneth Lieberthal, a leading China expert with the Brookings Institution, says the Obama administration should rethink its rebalancing policy. In a memorandum to President Obama, Lieberthal reminded the president: "Your rebalancing strategy toward Asia has produced desirable results, but this strategy is also generating dynamics that increasingly threaten to undermine its primary goals. Unfortunately, at this point your current strategy is in danger of actually enhancing rather than reducing bad security outcomes. It is therefore time to rebalance judiciously the rebalancing strategy, and China's leadership change provides you with an opportunity to do so."

The fact is, if the US wants stability, it can work with China. The two countries have great potential for cooperation. But if the US tries to unite other countries in a bid to besiege China, it is bound to be counterproductive. Rebalancing by ganging up on China will undermine stability in East Asia, and may ultimately backfire and cause damage to the US' own interests.

So far the US has insisted on ignoring the facts, confusing right and wrong and taking sides in disputes that don't directly concern it. Its support of Japan in the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands has resulted in an imbalance in China-Japan relations and China-Japan-US trilateral relations.

With the formation of Obama's new cabinet, people hope it will be realistic and sober-minded. The power shift in the Asia-Pacific is unstoppable, and the US can only go with the flow, respect the legitimate and reasonable demands of the emerging powers, and help seek a fair and proper settlement of major disputes in the region. Only in this way can it share common prosperity and lasting peace with countries in the Western Pacific region.

The author is a professor and director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.