‘U.S. pivot in response to both China and India’
Leaders at a photo session at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. File photo | PTI

A former top official in the Obama administration has sought to allay rising Chinese concerns about the American ‘pivot’ to Asia, telling an audience in Beijing that the move to strengthen U.S. presence in the region was directed not just at China but also at India.

Jeffrey Bader, who as senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council of the Obama administration played a key role in shaping China policy between January 2009 and April 2011, said in a speech at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University that the pivot, announced in November 2011, was a response to concerns voiced by many Asian governments about a lack of U.S. attention to the region amid the rise of China and India.

“When I became involved, in 2009, I heard repeatedly from senior officials from throughout Southeast Asia and also in the region that they were unhappy with what they saw as lack of American attention to the region, particularly Southeast Asia,” he said. “They see China rising. They see India rising on the other side. And if you’re a small country in that situation, your natural instinct is you want more big countries involved rather than less,” said Mr. Bader in the lecture last month, according to a transcript that was recently made available.

Biggest challenge

The U.S. ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ has, in recent months, been seen by Chinese analysts as the biggest foreign policy challenge facing the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping, who took over as Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary on November 15 and will become President in March.

Mr. Bader, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told the audience of officials, students and strategic analysts that he was of the opinion that the Obama administration in its second term and the new Chinese leadership would effectively manage the relationship and avoid a rivalry.

The relationship, he argued, citing the growing economic interdependence, was “in pretty good shape” and not, as media reports portrayed it to be, “on a downward spiral”. “Leaders have spoken of a new type of relationship, not of rivalry between the rising power and the preeminent power but of interdependence, cooperation and expanding common interests,” said Mr. Bader.

He saw Chinese concerns over a U.S. “containment” strategy involving China’s neighbours like India, Japan and South Korea as being unfounded.

“I lived through a period where the U.S. pursued a policy of containment to the Soviet Union for decades,” he said. “A policy of containment in that case involved the explicit objective of the downfall of the Soviet empire, and the termination of its form of government through political and military alliances explicitly aimed at containment of the Soviet Union… I don’t see those elements in the U.S.-China relationship.”

Mr. Bader, in his speech, rejected the criticism aimed at the Obama administration for its approach to China during its first year in office — seen by some countries in Asia, including India, as being too accommodating of an increasingly assertive Beijing.

“I did not have illusions that we were about to wash away all problems in a sudden spirit of harmony,” Mr. Bader recalled. “Now, I’m afraid that a lot of people looking in from the outside read this as meaning that we had unrealistic expectations about the relationship and put emphasis solely on the positive and didn’t see the difficulties in it. And then when difficulties arose… in early 2010, that we were, as it were, mugged by reality and changed course. I don’t believe for a second that that’s what happened.”

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