The one-two punch delivered by Washington this month must have sent Beijing reeling. Within a week, the geopolitical tide in East Asia seemed to have turned decisively against China. The United States has not only reaffirmed its security commitments in the region with the establishment of a permanent marine base in Australia; it has also managed to isolate China on the South China Sea dispute at the East Asia Summit in Bali.
Chinese leaders must be understandably frustrated and befuddled by this rapid turn of events. Not too long ago, many of them believed that the US was in an irreversible decline and would no longer have the capacity to constrain China's growing influence in the region. But Washington has demonstrated, once again, that betting against Uncle Sam is a bad idea. Instead of acquiescing to China's assertive behaviour in the region, particularly in territorial disputes, the US adroitly exploited the fears generated by such behaviour and turned the geopolitical table on China.
From Beijing's view, East Asia's diplomatic landscape bears little resemblance to the situation two years ago, when Chinese influence was at its peak and the Obama administration was wooing Chinese leaders and expanding the US-Chinese partnership. Unfortunately, Beijing frittered away this opportunity with a series of disastrous diplomatic blunders last year, such as its overreaction to America's arms sales to Taiwan and President Barack Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, bullying Japan over the detention of the captain of a Chinese fishing boat near the disputed Diaoyu Islands, and failing to rein in North Korea's aggression against South Korea. Obviously, these missteps created a strategic opening for the US.
So, today, Beijing finds itself on the defensive. The new US marine base in Australia, though militarily insignificant, has sent a powerful signal underscoring Washington's resolve to remain East Asia's strategic balancer. The Obama administration's decision to throw its weight behind the other claimants in the South China Sea disputes has put Beijing in an uncomfortable spot - China is now almost completely isolated. At the East Asia Summit, all the participating countries, except for Burma and Cambodia, spoke out against China's insistence that the disputes be resolved bilaterally between claimants.
The bad news does not stop here. With the political thaw under way in Burma, a long-time client state of China, Washington is adjusting its policy and sending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to visit Burma next week. Should the incipient moves towards a democratic transition continue in Burma, China could quickly lose a strategic asset and see its influence in Southeast Asia decline further.
Given its setback in strategic fortunes, one can sympathise with those in Beijing who see these American moves as new measures of 'containing' China. They are both right and wrong. Obviously, declaring East Asia a US strategic priority, as Obama did during his visit to the region this month, and strengthening American security alliance and commitments, as shown by the announcement of the new marine base in Australia, serve to accentuate Washington's policy of hedging against China. But conspiracy theorists in China are wrong if they view America's new moves purely in terms of Washington's interests in constraining Chinese influence.
Take the South China Sea disputes, for example. While the US clearly has a security stake in this area (such as freedom of navigation and prevention of armed conflicts between the claimants), a more important motivation for the US is to ensure that territorial disputes are settled according to international law. A longstanding fear in the US and East Asia is that China will seek to rewrite the rules of the game once it has gained the power to do so. So, for the US, the South China Sea disputes are a litmus test for Beijing's intentions and behaviour.
Regrettably, China's position on the disputes, instead of dispelling such concerns, has exacerbated the suspicion that Beijing is not willing to be bound by international rules. Its claims, based on no more than nine dots that effectively turn the South China Sea into the South China Lake, cannot be supported by existing international law - the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Its insistence on a bilateral, not multilateral, approach to the disputes not only sounds odd, but also confirms everybody's worst fears: since the other claimants are much weaker, bilateral settlement will most likely favour China.
Obviously, this flawed policy allowed the US to lead a regional pushback against China with minimal effort. By confronting Beijing on its claims in the South China Sea, Washington can both force Beijing to adhere to rule-based international behaviour and strengthen its diplomatic hand in dealing with a more powerful and assertive China.
For Beijing, fortunately, all is not lost. While the Obama administration's recent moves have dented Beijing's prestige and influence in East Asia, China can regain its strategic initiative, not by overacting, but by changing its policy.
Specifically, since China's inflexible stance on the South China Sea has become an albatross around its neck, Beijing should adopt a new and more flexible approach that both complies with international law and calms the fears of its neighbours. In other words, another charm offensive, not a display of intransigence and bellicosity, will help China reclaim its moral high ground.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College