The characteristics of the U.S. pivot to Asia are strongly influenced by American perceptions of the growing power of China and its leaders' intentions to use that power to advance Chinese interests in the Asia-Pacific region. All the reasons for the U.S. reemphasis on its Asia policy predominantly feature considerations on what China is or presumably will be doing. It should be emphasized that, even if China were not a potential rival to the United States, there is high probability that Washington at this juncture of history would shift its focus to the Asia-Pacific: the global economy alone necessitates that focus. Nonetheless, the emergence of China as a rival to the U.S. makes the pivot unavoidable. The reason it is unavoidable is because the United States is the strongest and most visible power in the Western Pacific, and it is the nature of superpowers to protect their privileged position wherever possible.
The question being asked in Beijing and other regional capitals is whether it is possible for the United States to back up its statements of a strategic pivot with the force posture and other resources necessary to implement the strategy. There are indications that many Asians feel the 21st century will not be an American century at all, but rather an Asian century as China, India, and other regional powers come into their own after several centuries of eclipse. It is a truism that kingdoms wax and wane, and the United States is widely seen as waning in comparison to China and Asia as a whole. Although this may be a romantic notion, perceptions in foreign policy may be harbingers of reality because, if the American pivot to Asia is to be successful, it must have the cooperation of friends and allies in the region.
The strategic dilemma for China is that, if its asserts its power too overtly, other regional countries will support an enhanced American presence as a counterbalance; if China restrains its use of power, then its neighbors may more easily accommodate Beijing's increased influence and prestige, and support for an enhanced American presence may be less enthusiastic. The incentives for Chinese leaders to use their power wisely are great; however, Chinese nationalism and the desire to rid the nation of centuries of humiliation are very powerful forces that can excite domestic politics.
As the Bo Xilai affair has shown, the Chinese Communist Party is strongly polarized between those who believe China should be ruled by a revolutionary party and those who believe that China should be ruled by a more progressive and less centralized government. The outcome of this internal ideological and power struggle is not clear at the time of writing, but it very well could have a profound impact on the nature of Sino-American relations.
April 28, 2012