Is Obama's 'Pivot to Asia' Really a Hedge Against China?

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The U.S. seems to be engaging China while creating a network of bilateral military partnerships and alliances on its periphery as a potential counterweight.

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President Obama on a 2009 trip to the Great Wall. (Reuters)

On his recent swing through Asia, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey heard two questions at nearly every stop: Did America's recently announced strategic pivot to the region mean reestablishing the kind of massive permanent military bases that characterized its Cold War presence? And was it aimed at containing China?

"First, I didn't carry around a backpack with American flags in it and go around planting them," said Dempsey, giving his first solo press briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday shortly after his return from Asia. The Pentagon's strategy instead envisions access agreements to more national ports and bases in the region, the general said, as well as an increased presence through joint military exercises, frequent training rotations, and multilateral operations. "Our new strategy and rebalancing in Asia is also not about containing China."

Rather, Dempsey argued that the strategic balance of power, whether economic, demographic, or military, is shifting inexorably toward the Asia-Pacific region. Given that reality, an increased U.S. military presence is seen as a stabilizing force --  an argument widely accepted by smaller nations in the region such as Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, each of which he visited. "And I received nothing but positive feedback from leaders in the region who welcome our rebalancing," he said.

All of which is to say that the United States is reenergizing a classic hedging strategy, simultaneously engaging China while creating a network of bilateral military partnerships and alliances on its periphery as a potential counterweight and hedge against the rise of a belligerent China. That strategy has been greatly advanced by Beijing's bullying behavior in recent years during a series of maritime standoffs over disputed islands in the South China Sea, nearly all of which China claims as its own. The U.S. position is not to become directly involved in such territorial disputes, but to insist that they are settled peacefully and that "freedom of navigation" is maintained, a direct swipe at China's claim.

Certainly it has not been lost on Beijing that the United States is solidifying military ties with many of its neighbors, including with countries engaged in tense territorial disputes with China such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

"As our military forces become more available in the region and more engaged, we think that will build trust and avoid the misconceptions that can lead to conflict," said Dempsey. "We think that is stabilizing rather than destabilizing."

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James Kitfield is a senior correspondent for National Journal.

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