Washington is charting an expanded American political and military role in the Asia-Pacific region. Termed “rebalancing” or “pivoting” to Asia, the Obama administration argues that the realignment of American military might and political focus is not meant to counter a more assertive China, but to refresh relationships with allies that have been neglected in recent years and to maintain stability in the region.

While proponents of the policy insist it is long overdue, Boston University’s Robert Ross, an expert on Chinese politics, argues in a recent Foreign Affairs essay that the move is unnecessarily provocative toward China and will likely stimulate further polarization of an already tense region. Ross discussed this critical issue, and Christopher Clarke, retired China analyst for the U.S. government, added his thoughts. Carnegie’s Michael D. Swaine moderated.

The Rise of China

  • Domestic Policy: Ross argued that China’s increasing assertiveness in foreign policy stems from its domestic political and economic instability, as well as the rise of nationalism. Clarke disagreed, dismissing the frequently bleak impressions of China’s economy and contending that Beijing is able to modulate public nationalist sentiment.

  • Foreign Policy: Ross stated that despite China’s military modernization, U.S. supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region remains largely unchallenged. But Clarke cautioned that Washington should not underestimate the development of China’s military capability and hence the need to reassure the region that increasing Chinese power will not produce instability.

U.S. Rebalancing Toward Asia

  • Communication: According to Ross, the U.S. rebalancing has been handled poorly and generated more tension in Asia. Throughout the whole “Asia pivot”, the U.S. government has not maintained frequent communication with China, leading Beijing to misread Washington’s intention. However, Clarke argued that Washington-Beijing interaction has actually improved significantly.

  • U.S. Military Expansion: Ross stated that recent U.S. engagement initiatives in Asia (Vietnam, South Korea, and the South China Sea) have been too extensive, costly, and unnecessary. But Clark contended that there is no immediate vast expansion of U.S. military presence in Asia, and that most of these initiatives are only limited to search and rescue missions. Thus, he concluded, this is hardly a full-scale effort by Washington to encircle Beijing.

Overall, both Ross and Clarke agreed that Washington has to become more cognizant of the Chinese leadership’s mindset and avoid stoking more tension in the Asia-Pacific region.