Moving the focus of US foreign policy from the Middle East to the Far East is the essence of Obama’s new strategy, summed up by the phrase “Pivot to Asia.” More than a decade after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the political and media missions begun by the Bush administration are being completely reconsidered. The combination of political, security, and energy interests has lost intensity in the face of lackluster results despite the vast resources that have been committed. That tragic reminder is alive in Washington, but strategic decisions are no longer made based on emotion or election planning. Shifting the focus of foreign policy further east (or west from California) will make it far more effective. The possibility of exporting democracy to the Middle East is fading, as is the idea of creating parliamentary regimes in the region, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows no end in sight. And so it makes more sense to concentrate on where the economy is growing, interests are more pressing, and tensions will be more likely in the future, but even if the missionary stance in the Middle East is no longer valid, pivoting to the Far East will require more intellectual articulation to confront a complicated situation head on. Military force will not suffice on a chessboard of large regional powers – both political and economic – and their interests. The situation is more complex, and the factors in play are more numerous and interconnected. It is not just a matter of choosing a right-and-wrong approach, but of drawing conclusions that are at the same time credible and effective, while maintaining the essence of one’s own positions.
China has taught us that foreign policy for any country needs to cater to the country’s own interests. Interacting with the China Center for Contemporary World Studies, part of the International Department of the CCP’s Central Committee and the country’s most prestigious think tank, is a source of precious non-conventional knowledge. Its positions are at the same time rigorous and adaptable. An informal lunch allowed this author to discover its central points with unusual candor. The concern for the situation in North Korea is genuine, as if China were losing control of a situation that is at risk of precipitating into chaos. Their condemnation of North Korea’s aggressive behavior is now clear, but the root of the problem is to be found in Washington. The reason is clear in its expository linearity: the United States do not want to resolve the Korean issue – or at least they are not working towards détente – because it is in their interest to maintain the friction and the threat. They keep the level of danger high to impose the presence of their troops, tens of thousands of soldiers in South Korea and Japan that guarantee the pax americana that was won nearly 70 years ago. Kim Jong-Un absolutely needs to be stopped, but he can be of use to the US according to this paradigm. And so China finds itself the victim of a conflict that it is not looking for, and that could prove fatal, as the first victims should the situation degrade would be its northeastern territories. There is also another cause for concern: America’s new policy has given breath to nationalistic anti-Chinese sentiments. In a sequence that was not planned but has been certainly unidirectional, Japan and the Philippines (like India and Vietnam before them) have had the audacity to challenge China thanks to the reassurance of US support, the Asian Pivot. To Chinese analysts these moves seem coherent but dangerous, able to send China’s Peaceful Rise into crisis and doubt. Territorial disputes are only the most well known instances of a regional opposition that would never have been possible without the protection of Washington DC. Despite the tenacity of these positions, it is in the very White Hose that signs of an opening can be found. It is a situation that is only a paradox in appearance, in line with the fluidity of the different player’s positions. China knows that the foreign policy that Obama has outlined with John Kerry is different from that of Hillary Clinton. Ideological differences over human rights and minorities have been set aside, because China is quick to rebut these arguments and the result is a sterile stalemate. The new Secretary of State is favoring more constructive and pragmatic approach that has certainly been more welcome in China. He knows that the best way to have a dialogue with Beijing is to involve it, even when pressing it on its decision making process. It is probably the mirror image of China’s needs that insists on mutual respect. In the complexities of the negotiations, even the language used is important: not by chance have the United States slowly been replacing “Asian Pivot” with the more neutral, reassuring, and acceptable term, “rebalancing.”