In November 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his pivot to Asia and declared that the U.S. has been and always will be a Pacific nation. His announcement came at the same time China was becoming increasingly powerful. Roughly five years later, on November 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of State held a Daily Press Briefing, at which Spokesperson John Kirby was asked about China and the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. Kirby stressed two points. First, he said that the rebalance is not about China. Second, he argued against the idea that countries are turning away from the U.S. and turning to China, saying that the idea “is just not borne out by the facts.”
But the rebalance is about China, and the idea that more and more countries are turning away from the U.S. and turning to China is completely borne out by the facts.
First, the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific has been and always will be about an increasingly powerful China in a very important part of the world. In 2010, for example, the same year that the Chinese economy expanded by 10.3%, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. will play a leading role in the Asia Pacific and that America will project its leadership in economic growth, regional security, and enduring values. The timing of the rebalance, not to mention its core strategy of building and strengthening strategic U.S. alliances, sends a clear signal. The rebalance was designed to sustain U.S. global leadership.
Second, although the U.S. remains relevant in the region, China is expanding its relevance. In a 2015 Fact Sheet entitled, “Advancing the Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific,” the U.S. lists a stronger treaty alliance with the Philippines and a deeper partnership with Malaysia as two important accomplishments. One year later, both countries have moved closer to China. For example, Philippines President Duterte’s first non-ASEAN state visit was to China and the two sides have worked hard to warm relations. This does not mean that the U.S. is out, but it does mean China is in. Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Malaysia Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, told People’s Daily Online in October that Duterte is just trying to balance his national interests between two the superpowers. And Malaysian Prime Minster Najib Razak, who believes that China has retaken its place on the world stage as a great power, recently signed numerous agreements with China, including security agreements. The U.S. may still be relevant, but so is China.
It is not just the ASEAN nations that are moving closer to China. America’s neighbor to the north, Canada, has been moving closer too. In August 2016, Canada applied to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s version of the World Bank. Other U.S. allies, including Australia and South Korea, are founding members of the China-backed bank.
If the U.S. views itself as a Pacific nation, and if regional peace depends on a strong U.S. security presence and its alliances, as the U.S. argues, then the rebalance has everything to do with China. The argument that the rebalance is not about China does not hold much weight.
Facts are facts. The U.S. should reflect on the true nature of its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and try to understand the impact it is having on regional peace and security.
Below is part of the transcript of the Daily Press Briefing on November 1, 2016, in Washington, DC
QUESTION: Malaysia and China have signed today a kind of defense pact. What’s your take on this? Is it bad news for the rebalance and pivot policy of the U.S. toward the Asia Pacific?
MR KIRBY: And this idea that people are turning away from the United States and turning to China I think is just not borne out by the facts. Everywhere we go in the Asia Pacific region it’s reiterated time and time and time again how important foreign leaders there view American presence, American economic assistance and participation and trade, as well as American leadership. So we don’t view it, again, as a binary sort of equation, and we don’t view it as a zero-sum game. The whole idea of the rebalance is to foster the kind of dialogue that you’re starting to see happening. And so again, we welcome this.
QUESTION: And I don’t want to get too conceptual here, but what do you mean it’s not borne out by the facts that countries in greater numbers in Southeast Asia are becoming friendlier with China? I mean, it is completely borne out by the facts.
MR KIRBY: Name ‘em.
QUESTION: Well, the Philippines, for one.
MR KIRBY: Okay, there’s one.
QUESTION: Well, then you just said that it wasn’t true. Thailand, perhaps. Cambodia.
MR KIRBY: Perhaps, perhaps. So – but you got one. You got one so far.
MR KIRBY: You got one.
MR KIRBY: You got one. Laos?
QUESTION: Laos. Cambodia. Malaysia, as we’ve just seen.
MR KIRBY: Okay. So we have two or three, four, whatever. There’s a lot of nations in the Asia Pacific region. My point is that you’re --
QUESTION: There’s only 10.
MR KIRBY: This idea that there’s some sort of --
QUESTION: There’s only 10 in ASEAN.
MR KIRBY: This idea that there’s some sort of landslide movement towards China and away from the United States is simply not borne out by the facts, especially in so many of those countries where we too have strong and improving bilateral relationships. So again, this is not – it’s not – they don’t have to be binary choices. And we don’t – we have nothing to fear from the peaceful, productive rise of China, and we have nothing to fear from nations establishing better and warmer and more productive relationships with China.
QUESTION: Okay. But that’s – that wasn’t the – that wasn’t what you were saying was not true, was not borne out by the facts. The facts are that there are a number of countries in Southeast Asia that are developing better, closer ties with China.
MR KIRBY: I don’t really – I don’t want to get into a debate over semantics.
QUESTION: Anyway, the other – okay. The --
MR KIRBY: The point is – the point I’m trying to make is that the – this idea that by – that there are several nations who are reaching out and to develop warmer relations with China – I’m not disputing that. But the notion behind that, that that is something to be feared, that that is some sort of worrisome trend, that that is something that is not in keeping with the whole idea of the rebalance, that is an inaccurate reading of it.
QUESTION: But wasn’t the rebalance though designed to keep the United States relevant in an area with tremendous potential, economic growth, which is, as you say, a huge transit spot or an area where lots of the world’s commercial trade goes through?
MR KIRBY: It wasn’t – the United States has been and will remain relevant in the Asia Pacific region.
QUESTION: Right. But wasn’t the --
MR KIRBY: The rebalance wasn’t about trying to shore up relevance. It was about recognizing where the economic future of the globe is going to reside --
MR KIRBY: -- or where it’s going to be deeply affected and to make sure that we were maintaining our focus on that part of the world.