February 7, 2013

Return of the G2

The following article originally appeared in The Indian Express on February 7, 2013.

Is the United States set to adopt, once again, a "G2" worldview? As key foreign policy positions change hands in Washington, the debate surrounding American policy on the Asia-Pacific is being reignited. The outcome could potentially compromise the interests of India and other countries across the region that harbour latent concerns about China's rise.

The concept of a G2, in circulation for much of the past five years, gives priority to preserving close US-China ties at the expense of other key relationships. Proponents of a G2 argue that an accommodation between the US and China, as the two largest economic and military powers, can best address regional and global challenges, political or economic, existential or institutional. However, this covenant risks compromising liberal values and the interests of other emerging powers, led by India, as well as of long-standing US regional allies, such as Japan and South Korea.  Uncertainty surrounding the nature of the US presence and role in Asia also risks intensifying security competition between China and other Asian states, thus undermining an environment conducive to commerce and regional growth.

The G2 was a defining feature of US policy when Barack Obama first assumed the presidency in 2009. But attempts at strategically reassuring China backfired; Beijing responded with high-handedness during Obama's visit to China and at the Copenhagen climate summit later that year. Although Washington accommodated Chinese concerns, and risked the ire of states along China's periphery, Beijing refused to reciprocate, a product of its premature triumphalism in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. China also responded with greater assertiveness in its dealings with its neighbourhood, whether it was on the South China Sea or the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. In time, a G2-oriented approach gave way to the stated American goal of a "pivot" to Asia, an integrate-but-hedge policy constituting a reallocation of military assets, a stronger commercial presence, and closer relations with states across the Asia-Pacific.

The second Obama administration brings with it a change in personnel, a transition often accompanied by changes in policy. Some of the most vocal proponents of the pivot within the US government, including the former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, are moving on. Former Senator John Kerry has succeeded Clinton in the role of America's top diplomat, and several key foreign policy positions are likely to be announced in the coming days and weeks. While Kerry's views on Pakistan have been carefully followed by Indian observers, his approach to China and the Asian balance of power has faced far less scrutiny. In the prepared remarks during his Senate confirmation hearing, Kerry made no reference to the pivot and just a solitary — and neutral — mention of China's emergence. Taken together, his focus on the limitations of US power, tepid convictions about the merits of shared liberal values and emphasis on economic interdependence point to a more accommodating approach towards China.

But doubts about the pivot predate Kerry's nomination and run deep in Washington's diplomatic establishment. Michael Green, a former White House Asia official, suggested as much last December in the context of Japan's and South Korea's elections. "It is not hard to imagine an incoming team (at the US State Department) deciding that the highest priority in the second term must be modifying the harder edges of the pivot and quietly reassuring Beijing," he wrote on Foreignpolicy.com. "There are hints that some in the administration have already been shifting their public statements in this direction." The apparent inability of some of the G2's proponents to learn from past mistakes is another cause for concern. Speaking in Beijing last year, Jeffrey Bader, one of the architects of East Asia policy in the first Obama administration and an early exponent of the G2, reportedly described the pivot as directed equally against a rising India in an apparent bid to assuage Chinese concerns.

If American policy suffers from one structural defect it is weak institutional memory. As Obama's new Asia policy team takes shape under Kerry and other principals, it would do well to revisit the mis-steps of 2009. For its part, New Delhi must begin to anticipate a period of uncertainty — with luck, mercifully brief — as Washington once again weighs the relative merits of the pivot and the G2