Amid China's rise, US pivot to Asia takes the shape of a threesome

Tom Plate says state-visit invites to both Beijing and Tokyo signal an intention to triangulate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 February, 2015, 3:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 February, 2015, 8:45pm

Our intellectual (and tall) US president is a well-known connoisseur of the sport of basketball. One of the game's famous offensive strategies is named "the triangle". And, so, with the very welcome announcement by Barack Obama's National Security Adviser Susan Rice, of separate state-visit invitations to the leaders of China and Japan, the much-discussed but so far amorphous US "pivot to Asia" looks to be taking on the shape of a triangle.

But triangles, a common plot device of romance novelists, can make for stormy and unstable relationships. Both Japan and China now field strong leaders with strong wills. America's conduct in Asia has not always been consistent and is sometimes indifferent. Each might wish for the US to choose between them, but with a long-abiding security treaty with Tokyo and economic ties to Beijing that are historically unprecedented, they figure that America will try to play both sides of the street.

Despite the tension, Xi Jinping and Japan's Shinzo Abe will accept a shared relationship with Washington as preferable to any other geometry of uncertainty. Two of the three triangle points are nuclear powers and a rapid deterioration in East Asian security could produce a third all too quickly. In this regard, the triangle does appear to be a better arrangement than any other currently conceivable configuration.

It could also prove productive. Last week, at a riveting Asia security conference in Los Angeles, Professor Susan Shirk offered penetrating observations about China's emerging leadership. This former Clinton administration State Department official, now on the University of California San Diego faculty, compared Xi to his predecessors, who, she asserted, were "no more than ordinary politicians who worked their way up". By contrast, Xi is "Red royalty", and is on the whole popular with the Chinese people today, in part because of his evidently deep feeling that it is high time for his country to be governed competently, not corruptly.

"Much to everyone's surprise, including mine," she said, "Xi is trying to rule as a strong man."

Her analysis concedes that, viewed through the usual Western media filters, this does "set off alarm bells". But, in fact, the consequences for China-US policy "might be pretty good", she added. A China with "a more decisive leadership" could prove welcome at the Obama White House, eager to capitalise on the triangulation of its Asian pivot.

In the past, after all, China's decision-making process on regional and international issues has operated at something less than the speed of light. Not to mention Japan's.

The geopolitical expanse of Asia promises to support more than one triangle combination, of course. Go past China and Japan, and you run into South Korea (with whom the US has a security treaty), into Indonesia (the world's fourth-most populous nation) and into India (the second-largest population, but gaining on China).

Rice's surprise "Asia pivot" announcement included news of proposed visits this year by President Joko Widodo of Indonesia and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea as well.

And one notes that all this diplomatic activity came in the wake of Obama's recent state visit to India, artfully dressed up as all bubbly and celebratory of the new government of Narendra Modi. America, we see, has a number of ways to triangulate its Asia policy.

Last week's unveiling of the Obama administration's updated National Security Strategy claimed to set out ways to "advance our rebalance to Asia and the Pacific … The United States has been and will remain a Pacific power. Over the next five years, nearly half of all growth outside the United States is expected to come from Asia." It welcomes the rise of a "stable, peaceful and prosperous China. While there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation."

In fact, it would be a fool's errand to try to contain, much less confront, China; on the contrary, truly inspired and strategic American diplomacy would relentlessly seek out areas of cooperation, work to deepen and broaden them, and smooth out differences to the maximum degree possible, even losing an argument or two here and there.

Triangles aside, George Yeo, the highly regarded former foreign minister of Singapore, views today's world as profoundly altered by China's rise. He recommends viewing the new world order as a solar system with two suns, no longer with just the US one. This transformative development forces the countries of Asia to reconfigure their diplomatic orbits to take into account the new pull from Beijing.

As Yeo imagines it: "This is a new planetary dance giving new orbital freedoms to everyone, new possibilities but also new dangers." So what about India? Yeo wryly says: "Yes, India is like a Jupiter with growing pull." It is not yet the third sun. And any new triangulation will take time.

Tom Plate's newest book is In the Middle of China's Future. The career journalist is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles