Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping recently visited the United States to meet with top officials and tour various cities. China experts followed the trip closely because Xi is anticipated to become China’s next president. Thomas Fingar spoke with the Shanghai Oriental Morning Post about the visit, and about the Obama administration’s Asia policy.
How will the Obama administration’s strategic adjustments towards the Asia-Pacific shape or influence Xi’s visit? Given the fast-changing environment and shift of power towards Asia, will there be any changes or differences in the United States’s treatment of China’s anticipated future leader?
The primary impact is likely to be on the discussions between Xi and his American interlocutors. I assume that U.S. officials will want to explain the announced strategic adjustments and that Xi will seek authoritative answers to questions that he and other Chinese leaders have about the objectives and implications of the adjustments.
Contrary to your question, I do not believe the environment is changing rapidly—shifts in the global system and the shift in dynamism and wealth toward Asia have been under way for decades. The United States has been and will remain a part of that transition. The U.S. goal is to ensure that the changes result in increased security and prosperity for all—a win-win situation not unlike what happened when first Japan and then the other “Asian tigers” preceded China on the path toward greater wealth and power.
What interests Washington most about Vice President Xi? What expectations does the United States have for his visit?
Washington expects Xi to succeed Hu Jintao and understands that he will be first among equals in a collective leadership that constrains Xi’s ability to act independently. But U.S. officials also understand that Xi, like all leaders, brings personal preferences and agendas to the job and that dealing with him will be influenced by his personality, understanding of American culture, and goals for the relationship. Simply stated, the Americans Xi meets will want to get to know him and what he is like.
U.S. officials understand that he is here as China’s vice president and therefore is unlikely to be bringing new initiatives. They do expect him to have questions about U.S. and Obama administration positions on a wide range of global issues and to have questions about U.S. intentions in Asia.
Is the U.S. “pivot to Asia” strategy aimed at containing or encircling China? Almost all U.S. official statements try to clarify that the United States is not trying to contain China, but its policy focus and military deployments in the Asia-Pacific have made many Chinese scholars doubtful of U.S. intentions. What are your observations? Is U.S. rhetoric consistent with its actions?
I do not like the term “pivot to Asia” and am pleased that U.S. officials seem to have stopped using that term. The United States is not returning to Asia; we never left. I think the basic point of recent statements is that with the end of the U.S. role in the conflict in Iraq and plans to draw down in Afghanistan, the United States will be able to focus more attention on other parts of the world. Asia is, and has been, the most dynamic, fastest changing, and in many ways most-challenging region of the world for many years. The region is also very important to the United States and deserves more attention than it has received. The Asia-Pacific is a region of superlatives—biggest economies, largest militaries, most nuclear powers, largest military budgets, largest foreign exchange reserves, etc. It would be unwise and impossible not to pay attention to developments in and affecting the region and its relations with other parts of the global system.
I have been working on China for more than 45 years and working with Chinese counterparts for 40 years. I must say that I have just about abandoned efforts to persuade important groups in China that the United States is not attempting to surround, contain, or thwart China’s rise. They seem determined to believe that it is the case no matter what we say or do. It is impossible for me to look at the policies and actions of the last eight administrations and come to any conclusion except that the United States means what its leaders have said: that it is in the interest of the United States for China to be strong, secure, and prosperous. The record shows quite clearly that the United States has assisted China’s rise. It also shows that China’s rise has been beneficial to the United States. We are not poorer or weaker or more insecure because China’s people live better and China plays an increasingly important role on the world stage.
Do you think the Obama administration has changed the direction of U.S. strategy toward China or Asia compared with the Bush administration?
The short answer is, “no. ” The Bush administration was preoccupied by terrorism, Iraq, and Afghanistan and devoted less time and attention to Asia. Obama is redressing the balance and better aligning attention with current interests. Arguably what has changed is the perception of China held by others in the region. A series of foreign policy blunders in 2010 undercut the success of China’s diplomacy and increased regional concern about China’s intentions. That prompted requests for reassurance that the United States would remain engaged in the region and that the Bush administration’s “neglect” of certain regional meetings was not a harbinger of a retreat from Asia. The Obama administration seeks to provide that assurance and to make clear that we are engaged in Asia because we are a Pacific power with great interests in the region. We are not there to contain or block anybody.
The United States is struggling with its economy and also cutting its defense budget. Do you think this strategy comes at the right time?
Downturns in the economy never come at a good time. The great recession has taken a heavy toll but we are recovering and will recover. We have been spending too much for too long and need to cut back. In my opinion, we also need to tax ourselves more to pay for modernization of infrastructure, better schools, and other requisites of continued prosperity. We are winding down two long and expensive wars and should reduce our defense budget. It will take time to replace worn out equipment and to reduce the large role that defense expenditures played in the U.S. economy during the Cold War, but we will get there eventually. More importantly, now is a good time to reduce defense expenditures and reorganize our military because we do not have any enemies and are not bent on conquering other nations.
Is the “pivot to Asia” strategy concrete or more of a “paper tiger” given the fact that other challenges, including Iran, are still occupying the United States?
As previously noted, the term “pivot to Asia” exaggerates the amount of change. The United States never left or lost interest in Asia, but is now able to devote more attention to the most dynamic, and in some respects most dangerous place in the world. Building a new security architecture that is inclusive—including China—and addresses concerns in and about North Korea is and should be a priority. Forging institutions to ensure continued stability and prosperity in the region despite paralysis at the global level and adjusting to changes in production and supply chains are among the long list of specific issues that need attention. The United States has a stake in the way these issues are addressed and must be engaged in the search for solutions.