Major Power Relations At Crossroads
Will Trump fashion a new strategy or stick to the same path in the Pacific?
By Clifford A. Kiracofe  ·  2017-03-27  ·   Source: | NO. 13 MARCH 30, 2017
Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 19 (XINHUA)
Both during his campaign and after the election, U.S. President Donald Trump has stated that he wants new policy ideas and new policy faces on his team. He also said he wants good relations with major powers. Because these are still the early stages of his administration, it is reasonable to believe that developing an effective new national strategy, and a new foreign policy to go along with it, will take some time. Trump may or may not follow the Obama line. If he does not, then will he call for a new direction, and for cooperation between the major powers?

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's Beijing visit is an encouraging step forward for the new administration's foreign policy. Tillerson, decidedly upbeat, gave an important signal. He used the same diplomatic language as the Chinese side has to characterize the main elements for a constructive relationship. These include the principles of mutual respect, mutual benefit and properly managing differences.

A reported informal summit, possibly in April, with Chinese President Xi Jinping, hosted by President Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, offers a golden opportunity. The two leaders would have the chance to exchange views in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. A good start to fashioning a positive win-win new type of major power relationship could be made. Not only would such a result benefit both countries, but it would benefit the international community by promoting peace and development.

President Xi already proposed a new type of major power relations in June 2013, during an informal summit with former U.S. President Obama at Sunnylands, California. The U.S. side, however, never followed up effectively. Nonetheless, the proposal is not only constructive, but essential for managing differences, stabilizing relations, and promoting international peace and development.

While Trump has clearly signaled a desire for a new foreign policy, there are many domestic obstacles. The unprecedented hysteria in Washington against Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, has destabilized major power relations. Similar posturing against China by many politicians, not to mention influential think tanks, has also had negative effects.


U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a speech aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier on March 3 (XINHUA)

The pivot policyin the Pacific is part of a bipartisan establishment consensus developed just before the 2008 election. This decade old consensus was the basis of the Obama administration's national strategy and foreign policy. From a geographic standpoint, the pivot policy is one part of the strategy to contain the Eurasian landmass. A second part of the policy focuses on Russia. The policy as implemented by the Obama administration escalated tensions in Europe and in the Pacific.

Evolution of containment

On the Pacific side, the containment concept involves several elements. One of these is the strengthening of the Cold War alliance with Japan as the primary U.S. ally. This relationship is similar to the old Anglo-Japan alliance (1902-23). The pivot also gave rise to Shinzo Abe's U.S.-approved "strategic diamond" concept which involved Japan, the U.S., India, and Australia. Another element to the pivot involves some old geopolitical ideas about what are referred to as "island chains" in the western Pacific. These include the Japanese islands and the Ryukyu Islands, and impact on the East China Sea and South China Sea. Interest in these island chains dates back over a century to the time just after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Following Washington's burst of Pacific imperialism, German and Japanese strategists began to reflect on the various clusters of islands and their relevance to naval warfare. Just before World War I, U.S. military strategists reflected on the island chains and developed the famous "War Plan Orange"—a series of plans formed by the U.S. military in the early 20th century for potential conflict with Japan—which correctly foresaw Japanese imperialism triggering a future war.

During World War II, the U.S. naturally dusted off old war plans relating to the Pacific and updated them to focus on the Japanese enemy even more acutely. After the war, in 1948, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff again updated the island chain concept with significant input from the greatly revered General Douglas MacArthur. This time, the concept was put to use during the Cold War and directed against the Soviet Union in a bid to "contain" it.

The Obama administration's pivot policy brought this century old island chain concept back to prominence. In the context of U.S. global intervention, the U.S. Army had been favored in the Middle East. The navy and air force thus saw the benefit of promoting emphasis on the Pacific where they would be assured of a larger share of the defense budget for new weapons systems and far flung deployments.

The Obama administration launched a China policy review when it first took office in 2009. This complex review process always takes time and involves extensive inter-agency coordination to arrive at a conclusion. By late 2010 the pivot plan had finally emerged and was put into motion in 2011. The tensions, first in the East China Sea and next in the South China Sea, developed from the implementation of the Obama's pivot, along with Japan's cooperation. During this period, the South China Sea was often in the spotlight. As usual, the lawyers on all sides of the various issues squabbled endlessly. But a peaceful solution can only arise through extended diplomatic dialogue and negotiation over time. The alternative, which few want to see, is conflict.

According to the World Shipping Council, China is the largest exporter of containerized cargo in the world. It exports three times the containerized cargo of the U.S. and six times what South Korea and Japan each export in this category. Looking at the registered tonnage of merchant marine fleets as of 2012, according to British sources, Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland had about 40 percent more registered tonnage than Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. combined. From the data, it would appear generally that China, including Hong Kong, has the most to lose from disruptions in merchant shipping and navigation.

Washington must rethink its national strategy and foreign policy in light of changing international circumstances. Century old zero-sum geopolitical strategies to carve up and contain Asia are obsolete. Looking at the Pacific, positive cooperation between the U.S., China, Russia, and Japan is essential to stability, peace, and development. The upcoming informal summit between Xi and Trump can open the door for a better future for not only China and the United States, but also for the international community as a whole.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and former senior professional staff member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

Comments to


China Focus
Special Reports
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise with Us
Partners:   |   China Today   |   China Hoy   |   China Pictorial   |   People's Daily Online   |   Women of China   |   Xinhua News Agency
China Daily   |   CGTN   |   China Tibet Online   |   China Radio International   |   Global Times   |   Qiushi Journal
Copyright Beijing Review All rights reserved 京ICP备08005356号 京公网安备110102005860