Reinforcing the peace
Filter out the background noise - human rights, Chen Guangcheng , sanctions on Iran, the suspicious likeability of Gary Locke - and it turns out that the governments of China and the United States have one important thing in common: they both want a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific.
Unfortunately, Beijing and Washington have conflicting visions of what a peaceful region should look like. China thinks the Asia-Pacific should involve less America. The Americans, perhaps unsurprisingly, think that more America is the way forward.
Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, was in Asia last week on a mission of reassurance. He first had to reassure the sceptics, notably China, that the US strategic 'pivot' to Asia would enhance, not jeopardise, regional security. Next, he had to reassure those Asian countries that support the US power-up that an indebted America can still afford to play the role of Asia's policeman.
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore earlier this month, Panetta insisted that the US$487billion Washington will slash from its defence budget over the next decade would not detract from the Pentagon's new Asian focus. The US Navy will station 60per cent of its ships in the Pacific by 2020, he revealed, up from 50per cent today. New US force rotations through Australia and Singapore had already been announced, adding to existing presences in Japan, South Korea, Guam and, of course, Hawaii. The Philippines, badly rattled by its continuing maritime disputes with China, may also soon start permitting US force rotations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin reacted to Panetta's speech by describing the deployment of additional US forces to Asia as 'inappropriate'.
However, whether Beijing likes it or not, the US military remains the foundation on which Asia's whole security architecture is built. The purpose of the extra ships and soldiers that Panetta has promised is not to menace China, but to reinforce those foundations.
'Some view the increased emphasis by the United States on the Asia-Pacific region as some kind of challenge to China,' Panetta said. 'I reject that view entirely.' This is an honest defence of the US strategy: it is not a challenge to China, though it certainly is China that has driven the rethink.
Places like Singapore are supportive of the US rebalancing because they are basically happy with the world as it is, at least from a security standpoint. They don't see China as a threat so much as an engine of uncertainty. Of course, China is a rising power: this is a fact of life that the US and its allies must accept and accommodate. But accommodating, not challenging, China is what the pivot is all about. They are shoring up the US-based security structure so that it has the flexibility to withstand the pressures that a rising China will inevitably create.
Panetta's itinerary on his Asian trip - after Singapore, he visited Vietnam and India - highlighted some of the spokes in the Asia-Pacific security wheel that Washington would like to reinforce. Hanoi and New Delhi are not close US allies like Singapore. However, they both suddenly find themselves talking America's security language because of the uncertainty that China's rise has generated.
Vietnam is likely to open its naval base at Cam Ranh Bay to US Navy ships in return for military assistance, and possibly arms sales. India, faced with a numerically superior and fast-modernising Chinese military, understands that hi-tech American weaponry can give it an edge over its local rival. As these countries grapple with the problem of how to handle a rising China, they are finding that the US has some of the answers.
Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie snubbed this year's Shangri-La Dialogue, having attended in 2011. Whether this was retaliation for the US' 'inappropriate' behaviour is open to interpretation, but he would have done better to have argued China's case. In any case, it would be wrong for China to regard itself as the victim of a US-led conspiracy abetted by Singapore, India, Vietnam and others, and designed to keep China down.
The harsh reality is that the failure of China's own foreign policy has prepared the ground for the US pivot to Asia. Beijing constantly tells its neighbours that its rise is avowedly peaceful, but many of them remain unconvinced. Beijing has simply done a poor job of communicating its aims and of living up to its own benign rhetoric in its nasty territorial arguments with the Philippines and Vietnam.
Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea especially has persuaded a number of countries that life under the American security umbrella is preferable to exposure to the changing geopolitical winds blowing in from China.
China, just like Panetta, is on a mission of reassurance: it wants to convince the AsiaPacific that it poses no threat, and that US patrimony is a redundant cold war legacy. Meanwhile, the US promises that it will remain the guarantor of regional security, irrespective of squeezed budgets and the growth of Chinese power. Judging by the response of most Asia-Pacific states, they find the American line a lot more reassuring.
Trefor Moss is an independent journalist based in Hong Kong and a former Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. He can be followed on Twitter @Trefor1