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U.S.-China: Partners with Inevitable Frictions

11-06 14:09 Caijing
Frictions are bound to arise in the relationship between the world's dominant power and its major rising power, but reasonable leaders can put people on the right course and prevent problems.

By Qiu Zhaoqi, Caijing correspondent in New York

The contest between U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will be settled on the Nov. 6 as Americans head to the polls to vote for their favored candidates.

During their campaign, the two candidates clashed repeatedly on who would take the strongest stance on China. "As America's election season nears its finish, the debate seems to have come unhinged. Nowhere is that more evident than in the fixation on China," wrote world-renowned economist Stephen Roach in an article "A New Low for China Bashing."

In an exclusive interview with Caijing, Jeffrey A. Bader, senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council under the Obama Administration from Jan. 2009 to April 2011, said the essence of the Obama administration's rebalancing policy in Asia, of which he was the main architect of, is recognizing and understanding China's rise and ensuring said rise is good for regional stability.

Bader said frictions are bound to arise in the relationship between the world's dominant power and its major rising power, but reasonable leaders can put people on the right course and prevent problems.

"Rebalancing" rather than "Pivot"

Caijing: If Obama wins reelection, do you see a possibility for change of his China policy?

Bader: On the U.S. side I don't expect significant change. The policies that President Obama has been pursuing for four years reflect his considered view of China's importance and the U.S. stake in the policy of constructive relationship with China. Events can change things in small ways, but not in large ways in my opinion. President Obama's approach to China has been in the mainstream of U.S. presidents since Nixon visited China in 1972.

Caijing: A recent article by the New York Times says that in Obama's first year, his China policy was too soft and there was a change in policy after the first year. Is that article accurate?
Bader: I disagree with that part of the article. I believe that President Obama and his key advisors, including myself, had a full appreciation of the differences between China and the United States. Of the impossibility of creating a common approach, and identical approach, and the notion that we were disillusioned or disappointed because we did not achieve that strikes me as frankly ridiculous.  We always had realistic expectations, and those realistic expectations were in my view, satisfied. Now there were problems and there were frictions. But that is different from saying that we felt that we fundamentally misjudged the relationship from the beginning, or that China sought to take advantage of a misjudgment on the U.S. part. I think that those are incorrect interpretations.

Caijing: You are the main architect of the U.S. rebalancing policy in Asia. I know that you don't like the word 'pivot,' why?

Bader: First, let's separate two factors. One is the name and the second is the policy. I don't like any of the names. I think 'pivot' sounds like we weren't there in the first place, and suddenly we're coming back. And we're leaving behind some other place. Plus it sounds vaguely military, and I don't like any aspect of that. A few people who thought that it was an attractive label for a policy initiated the use of that word. Let's just say that it was politically attractive. I think it's a bad word, and it's not an accurate description of the policy.

Rebalancing I think is a better term, because certainly we did have excessive focus on Iraq under the Bush administration for understandable reasons. And that consumed American resources, American personnel, and the time and attention of our senior leaders.

So, when Thomas Donilon in particular speaks about rebalancing, what he has in mind is moving away from an obsessive concentration on conflicts and wars in places that aren't as important to U.S. long-term interests, towards paying greater attention to the most dynamic part of the world, which is East Asia. And he did not mean that in the military sense, he meant that in terms of overall U.S. policy. From the beginning of our administration, we did try to increase attention to the Western Pacific and to East Asia. We didn't have a name for it, but we just did it.

The name 'pivot' came in Nov. 2011. Before then we were doing largely the same things, but since it didn't' have this lightning rod of a name, it didn't get as much dramatic attention.

Caijing: What is the main strategic consideration of this policy?

Bader: Number one is understanding and recognizing that China's rise is perhaps the most important development of the late 20th and 21st century - the most important strategic geopolitical development, and that intensification of the relationship with China, respecting China's rise, respecting China's legitimate interests. Making clear to China that we will be on its side in its legitimate rise rather than opposing it is vital to peace and prosperity in the 21st century. Rebalancing in the first instance means paying attention to China's rise and being aligned with it.

The second component is making clear that there are uncertainties about China's rise. China itself is not clear where its rise will end and certainly many of its neighbors have anxieties. On the course of 2010, China's incautious and gratuitously assertive diplomacy and actions had alienated most of its neighbors. Instead of building a peaceful environment in its neighborhood, China seemed to be encouraging creation of a belt of hostile states on its periphery, all seeking- and in fact developing- closer relations with the U.S.

The third component of rebalancing policy is the administration sought to ensure that China's rise served to stabilize, not destabilize, the Asia-Pacific region, which included five US allies and other partners in whose security Americans had an interest.

There are ASEAN countries that have approached me from the beginning of the administration saying that the most important thing we could do was just make it clear we were staying, that we weren't packing up and leaving. They benefitted from China's rise, but they were also uncomfortable about China's rise if it occurred in isolation from other powers. They welcome having competing or complimentary powers.

Caijing: China has repeatedly stressed its rise is peaceful. What can reduce the anxieties in the region?

Bader: There are two things that we think are important to reduce those anxieties. Number one is to ensure that China's rise is consistent with International law, and international norms. And that involves the Law of the Sea, the WTO, international standards on investment, cooperation on the Security Council at the UN, a whole range of international standards. And the second part is to provide comfort to other countries in the region, like Japan, South Korea and Australia, the ASEAN countries that the United States is here to stay in the Asia Pacific, that we are not leaving.

Caijing: However, the U.S. military presence did increase with its rebalancing policy in Asia-Pacific region. It's hard not to suspect a hostile attitude to China's rise.

Bader: I've heard other U.S. officials who've talked about 'refocusing' on Asia. I think it's a misconception on both the American side and the Asian side, is that this is principally about military presence. It is not right now. I mean I've spoken to top U.S. military leaders, and they are not thinking of it that way, and it's important that it not become so in the future. That will depend upon the relationship between the U.S. and China, so that the two sides don't see each other as enemies, and don't start making worst-case assessments of each other's capabilities and intentions and build up military capabilities and doctrines and resources to counter each other. That is not an inevitable outcome. That is not what the rebalancing is about. It is possible that there would be a mistake, but it would require errors by both sides for it to happen.

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