Rebalancing China: Obama’s “Pacific Pivot”

It’s hard to believe that politicians and prominent scholars of international relations were heralding the birth of a “new world order,” and even proclaiming “the end of history,” as recently as two decades ago.  A lot has changed since then, particularly since America’s 9/11 moment.   The United States has fought protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—countries peripheral to America’s core interests.  Those wars have cost the United States trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.  Instead of exporting democracy and American values to a troubled region, they have undermined America’s credibility in the world and compounded the economic challenges it faces at home.

Theorizing about American decline has become increasingly prevalent in foreign policy circles since President Bush left office.  Some scholars allege that the failure of the Bush Doctrine, budgetary woes, and the rise of China are foretelling the end of American hegemony.  The decline debate has focused attention on the shifting balance of power in the international system, and on the need for a new grand strategy capable of extending American leadership into the future.  The semblances of a forward-looking grand strategy are now coming together, and with the November election fast approaching, the stakes are high.  President Obama’s grand strategy can be interpreted as eschewing global hegemony in favour of offshore balancing.

Obama’s grand strategy is discernable in some of his foreign policy decisions, and especially in the Department of Defense’s 2012 “Strategic Guidance.”  Obama has slashed defense expenditures with the aim of reducing the deficit.  He has emphasized selective, multilateral engagement to share burdens among allies and restore America’s international legitimacy.  Most importantly (for my research paper, at least), President Obama has made the Asia-Pacific region the focal point of America’s foreign policy.  My research paper will explore the rationale behind this “Pacific pivot” – primarily China’s naval modernization, assertiveness in territorial disputes, and revisionist interpretation of navigational freedom.  I will describe diplomatic facets of the pivot, such as strengthening alliances, as well as military dimensions, like procurements, deployments, and the new Air-Sea Battle concept.  I will also argue that in balancing China, the United States must be sensitive to Chinese perceptions and the risk of security spirals.  Competitive aspects of the strategy should therefore be matched by efforts to socialize China into the existing order, embed China in rule-based institutions, and facilitate communication about each side’s interests and intentions.

I look forward to meeting all of you in Washington this fall.  I’m the International Presidential Fellow from the University of Toronto.  This project will build on my previous research on territorial disputes in the South China Sea with Dr. Alan Alexandroff (my Faculty Advisor) at The Munk School of Global Affairs.

Alex Ognibene


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3 Responses to Rebalancing China: Obama’s “Pacific Pivot”

  1. vivian0405 says:

    Hey Alex, it’s very interesting to see you choose this topic as an International Fellow from Canada. I’m also an International Fellow of this year’s program, from China. Indeed the territorial disputes in the South China Sea the East China Sea has significantly drawn our attention nationalwide, from the meanstream media to our daily discussing, especially since this spring. And only two days ago, when I went to Shanghai for the Visa interview, I witnessed a spontaneous demonstration aiming at decalring sovereignty of Diaoyu Island (also know as Senkaku Islands, guess you know). Our concerns with the territorial disputes are obvious and very clear, and I’m also exploring the “Pacific pivot” concept by President Obama, altough it’s hardly relevant to my research topic for the program. So look forward to meeting you in the Fall Conference. –Meicheng

  2. alexognibene says:

    Hi Meicheng! It’s pretty exciting that we will have the opportunity to discuss these issues. I’m sure you will have lots of valuable insights to share. I have been very careful throughout the course of my research to objectively assess the U.S.-China relationship, but also to understand the unique perspectives of each side. I’m aware the South China Sea disputes, in particular, are very sensitive to China. U.S. involvement in the Asia-Pacific seems to reinforce the impression that the West seeks to contain and bully China. I hope you can tell me about China’s perception of the United States and how it links back to China’s historical experience with “gunboat diplomacy” and foreign interference. I’m also interested to hear your thoughts on the explosive nationalism that has become so central to the regime’s legitimacy and stability (especially in a transition year).

  3. Hi Alex—this sounds like a great topic! I’ll be especially interested to hear a non-American’s views on American hegemony and apparent decline. (Often it’s easier to objectively assess this subject from an international point-of-view.) Good luck with your research; I’ll look forward to meeting you in DC in November!

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