More Carrot? A Response to Robert S. Ross

More Carrot? A Response to Robert S. Ross

This post responds to Robert S. Ross’s November/ December 2012 Foreign Affairs piece, The Problem with the Pivot. According to Ross, “The Obama administration has responded to Chinese assertiveness by reinforcing U.S. military and diplomatic links to the Asia-Pacific, to much acclaim at home and in the region. But the ‘pivot’ is based on a serious misreading of its target. China remains far weaker than the United States and is deeply insecure. To make Beijing more cooperative, Washington should work to assuage China’s anxieties, not exploit them.”

Ross argues that rather than reinforce military and diplomatic links to the Asia-Pacific, the United States should focus on assuaging Chinese insecurity: “In contrast to previous administrations, the Obama administration has dismissed China’s legitimate security interests in its border regions, including even those that are not vital to U.S. security. By threatening China and challenging its sovereignty claims over symbolic territories, Washington has encouraged Chinese leaders to believe that only by adopting belligerent policies will a rising China be able to guarantee its security. Herein lies the great irony of the pivot: a strategy that was meant to check a rising China has sparked its combativeness and damaged its faith in cooperation.”

Ross seemingly forgets that a strategy of increasing assuagement has been the norm at least since Bush’s second term as applied through China dove Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. This policy was beefed up through the Obama administration’s first term support of the Group of Two (G2) policy. China, in turn, “thanked” the United States for its support through a series of belligerent actions: Suspension of a senior U.S.-Chinese security dialogue for the first time and announcement of unprecedented sanctions against U.S. companies with ties to Taiwan, voicing excessive hostility toward democratic countries and imposing economic sanctions on Norway, naval power projection vis-à-vis Japan and ASEAN, etc. Even Ross must admit that in “a few short months, China had managed to undo much of what it had gained through years of talk about its ‘peaceful rise.’” How does Ross recommend responding to the rejection of the U.S. carrot? By offering more carrots. The United States appears to have fostered a security dilemma by being too soft, and Ross recommends that the United States continue to respond softly in the face of Chinese projection.

The pivot, and U.S. presence, restores balance to the relationship by returning the stick to the carrot-stick toolbox. While Ross is right to point out that there is risk of encouraging the escalation of tensions any time a state places its forces assertively, disengaging or lessening a forward presence would further destabilize the region: a decreased role for the United States at a time that China and others wish to take on a greater role has the potential of creating a vacuum of power. The importance of engagement cannot be overstressed. At the same time, the ability of the United States to achieve peaceful ends and engagement will depend on the perceptions, of both allies and China, of the U.S. ability to prevail in the event of conflict. While being heavy handed will risk a security dilemma, the United States cannot assuage and engage if it does not have skin in the game. U.S. force posture must demonstrate a readiness and capacity to fight and win, even under more challenging circumstances associated with A2/AD and other threats to U.S. military operations in the Western Pacific. Only from a foundation of strength will the United States be able to support necessary peaceful engagement with China and avoid conflict.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Taylor Wettach

Taylor is a participant in the Government of Japan-administered Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. Previously, Taylor worked for the Office of the Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He graduated magna cum laude graduate of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.