John Kerry’s first visit as secretary of state to Asia this week will be rightly dominated by the heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, where Kim Jong-un’s regime continues to generate headlines around the world with its bluster and brinksmanship. But as important and urgent as the growing threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities is, there is another strategic question facing the region, which policymakers from Tokyo to New Delhi will be closely scrutinizing Kerry’s trip for clues about—namely, the approach the Obama administration will adopt during its second term toward Pyongyang’s vastly more powerful neighbor and ally, China.
The Obama administration’s handling of Beijing has undergone a significant evolution since 2009, and in many respects is at the heart of the story of its broader Asia policy. At first, the administration had great expectations for the U.S.-China relationship, signaling new willingness to be respectful of Beijing’s core interests and sensitivities in the hope that this would lead to greater cooperation on global challenges, such as Iran, climate change, and, yes, North Korea. While the White House hardly threw U.S. allies and partners neighboring China under the bus during this period—the first foreign leader Obama greeted in the Oval Office was the Japanese prime minister, and the first state visit he hosted was for the Indian prime minister—there was an unmistakable sense that the new administration was inclined toward a more Sino-centric view of Asia. This sense was deepened by voices in Washington calling for a U.S.-China “G-2” arrangement, and disavowing as retrograde any kind of U.S. role in upholding a regional “balance of power” in Asia—which is to say, a military hedge against Beijing’s rise.
Responsibility for upending the Obama administration’s initial approach to China belongs overwhelmingly to China itself, which reciprocated the White House’s gestures of deference and graciousness with unprecedented military and diplomatic assertiveness. From torpedoing climate change talks in Copenhagen to muscle flexing in its territorial disputes with its neighbors, Chinese behavior had begun to set off alarm bells not only across Asia, but in Washington, by the end of 2009.
To its credit, the Obama administration then switched gears, and by mid-2010, Secretary of State Clinton was confronting the Chinese over their bullying in the South China Sea—declaring a U.S. national interest in freedom of navigation in these waters at an ASEAN summit in Hanoi, to the applause of Southeast Asians and the fury of Beijing. The concept of the U.S. pivot—or “rebalance,” as it was later rebranded—to the Asia-Pacific soon followed.
With the departure of Secretary Clinton, however, some in Asia now worry about the prospects of another pivot by the Obama administration—this time, away from the tough-minded, ally-centric approach to China that it gradually tilted toward over the past three years, in favor of another run at strategic partnership with Beijing, which they fear will inevitably come at their expense.
The continuing crisis surrounding North Korea has sharpened these concerns, as the most obvious path to pressuring Pyongyang of course runs through its lone protector, Beijing. Recent hints by Chinese leaders of impatience with the North Koreans, some suspect, may tempt the Obama Administration to downplay or dodge tensions with China on other fronts, in the hope of winning increased help.
The Obama administration may have inadvertently compounded these fears in its recent public messaging, which has suggested that the Pentagon’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific is being accelerated in response to North Korean provocations—the implication to China being, if you don’t want more American ships, aircraft, and missile defenses in the skies and waters of the western Pacific, you need to do something to restrain your friends in Pyongyang.
The problem with this construction is that it implies that, were the Kim regime actually to be brought to heel, the U.S. might then be prepared to scale back its plans for a defensive build-up in Asia. Given that many of China’s neighbors are today as much if not considerably more worried about Beijing’s rapidly growing military capabilities as they are about North Korea’s saber rattling, this is an unwelcome linkage.