The Problem With the Pivot
ROBERT S. ROSS is Professor of Political Science at Boston College and an Associate at the John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of Chinese Security Policy: Structure, Power, and Politics.See more by this author
At the time, many analysts interpreted China’s new belligerence as a sign of the country’s growing confidence. Writing in The Washington Post, John Pomfret noted that Beijing was evincing “a new triumphalist attitude.” China was on the rise, the thinking went, and its newfound power had convinced its leaders that they could shape events in Asia as never before. And so in 2010, the Obama administration initiated what it called a “pivot” to Asia, a shift in strategy aimed at bolstering the United States’ defense ties with countries throughout the region and expanding the U.S. naval presence there. The diplomatic element of the strategy was on display in 2011, when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reassured U.S. allies, many of which harbor concerns about China’s rise, that “the United States is going to remain a presence in the Pacific for a long time,” and the following year, when he promised that the U.S. military would bring “enhanced capabilities to this vital region.” Worried that a newly assertive China was becoming a destabilizing force, the White House moved to counter any perceptions of its own weakness by strengthening the U.S. presence in the region.
Unfortunately, however, this shift was based on a fundamental misreading of China’s leadership. Beijing’s tough diplomacy stemmed not from confidence in its might -- China’s leaders have long understood that their country’s military remains significantly inferior to that of the United States -- but from a deep sense of insecurity born of several nerve-racking years of financial crisis and social unrest. Faced with these challenges, and no longer able to count on easy support based on the country’s economic growth, China’s leaders moved to sustain their popular legitimacy by appeasing an increasingly nationalist public with symbolic gestures of force.