Acuto, Strategic Distrust and the Pivot: Weekly Digest

By | April 07, 2012 | 3 Comments

When it comes to North Korea and Northeast Asian security issues, analysis spilling from the pens of Western academics tends to focus on American decision makers and United States grand strategy in the region.  In this weekly digest installment, SinoNK focuses on three recent publications that deal with, in in some form or another, a critique of the American-centric approach to understanding Northeast Asia regional security.  The first is a review of the Six Party Talks by Michele Acuto.  The second is a report by Kenneth Liebethral and Wang Jisi which reveals the degree of strategic mistrust in Sino-American relations.  The third is a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report overviewing America’s so-called Asia “pivot” strategy.  Analysis of the three publications is followed by a few other interesting reads.  – S.C. Denney, Assistant Editor

Hu Jintao and Barack Obama | Photo Courtesy of American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

Acuto, Strategic Distrust and the Pivot:  Weekly Digest

by Steven Denney

Michele Acuto attempts to paint China’s role in the Six Party Talks in a way that allows for a re-conceptualization of China as a non-adversarial actor in a multilateral diplomatic dialogue in his article “Not Quite the Dragon:  A ‘Chinese view on the Six Party Talks, 2002-8.”  In order to accomplish this feat, Acuto argues for a “re-reading of the diplomatic history of the Six Party Talks” in a way that renders “justice to the role of Beijing in maintaining a continuous process” instead of limiting the focus to security challenges for US administrations or the challenges posed to the US by a volatile US-DPRK relationship.  By taking an alternative look at the Six Party process from its inception until 2008 through the lens of Chinese efforts at regional multilateral efforts, Acuto finds that an alternative, uniquely Chinese approach, to negotiations over North Korea may hold the key to successful security diplomacy and increase the possibility of institutionalized multilateralism.

In order to put Acuto’s critique into better context, Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi’s report published by Brookings Institution entitled “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust” will do more than enough to highlight the gap in America’s strategic conceptualization of China.  Acuto’s critique of one-track, American-centric analysis of the Six Party Talks is put into broader context by both Lieberthal and Wang, with damning implications that jump off the page for any security junky or informed reader of Northeast Asian politics.  Acuto attributes the US’s lack of understanding of China to the failure of academics and policy analyst to give fair and balanced coverage to diplomatic history.  Lieberthal and Wang’s analysis is far less forgiving.  Despite the often cited statement that the US welcomes the “peaceful rise of China,” the authors think an honest assessment of Sino-US relations reveals something much different.  Contrary to the official statements in newspapers and official government positions in white papers, the contemporary Sino-US relationship is becoming largely defined by growing strategic mistrust.

As even casual North Korean watchers are well aware, a trust deficiency between the US and China has significant consequences for North Korea.  Wang, writing from the perspective of the Chinese government, finds fault in “the present security threat posed to China by the United States in East Asia,” particularly “the widely held view in Beijing that the United States would like to see ‘regime change’” in North Korea “aimed at undermining or overthrowing it at China’s expense.”  This, according to Wang, is a primary reason the US and China are unable to cooperate to bring about a peaceful resolution to tension on the peninsula and contributes to Chinese distrust of the US that “has persisted ever since the founding of the People’s Republic of china (PRC) in 1949.”

In addition to China’s skepticism towards US policy on the peninsula, Beijing’s interpretation of America’s Asia “pivot,” despite reassurances by US officials that America’s decision to make a “strategic turn” toward Asia is in no way in response to China’s economic and military rise, has resulted in an even high level of strategic distrust.

The Congressional Research Service’s (CRS) recently published overview of America’s “pivot” to Asia, entitled “Pivot to the Pacific?  The Obama Administration’s ‘Rebalancing’ Toward Asia,” plays right into Acuto’s critique but is still useful and insightful insofar as it gives credence to China’s concern that the US is implementing a Cold War era containment policy, a la NSC-68.  Indeed, the notion that “the Obama Administration… is [adopting] a two-pronged approach to China:  reaffirming and strengthening cooperative ties while simultaneously establishing a strong and credible American presence across Asia to encourage constructive Chinese behavior and to provide confidence to regional leaders who wish to resist potential Chinese regional hegemony” must come across as slightly confusing to Beijing and is certainly part of the reason Wang Jisi argues that many Chinese decision makers find it hard to trust the US,  despite the official statements.  What, then, are the implications for further cooperation on the Korean peninsula?  Despite Acuto’s optimistic message for something like an institutionalization of the Six Party Talks framework, analysis by Lieberthal, Wang and, perhaps unintentionally, CRS researchers, indicate a coming strategic divergence – if it hasn’t happened already.

More Pivot-related Readings

NYT’s review of Lieberthal and Wang’s publication.

Hillary Clinton’s piece in Foreign Policy, entitled “America’s Pacific Century.”

After reading the CRS report, take a look at Stephan Haggard’s review of US Grand Strategy in Asia (Part I & Part II).  Supplement these two readings with his review of Condoleezza Rice’s strategy towards dealing with North Korea and her strategy to avoid “getting micromanaged.”

In the Economist, a look at China’s military expansion, called the “dragon’s new teeth” shows the way in which the West focuses on the belligerent aspects of the “dragon,” something Acuto, in his article cited above, says is misplaced.

How Much More Can be Said?  More Satellite Missile Talk

Leonid Petrov calls it “ballistic blackmail” in this Asia 360 interview.

Chris Green writes about the concept of constructive engagement in his article follow-up to an interview with Yonsei professor John Delury about his recent piece in FP with fellow Yonsei professor Moon Chung-in.  A transcript of the interview was published at his blog.

Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk has some interesting analysis following his Track 2 conversations with North Korean officials.

To satisfy one’s “alternative” crave, the following two reads should suffice. Kim Myong-chol, the “unofficial” spokesman of Kim Jong-il, argues that the US is largely responsible for the latest diplomatic breakdown and that if improperly dealt with will lead to another nuclear test.  Also, former Soviet diplomat Georgy Toloraya argues for a “pragmatic” approach by exploring the options of offering launching assistance and forming an international consortium (“a la KEDO”) to help develop the DPRK’s space launch facilities “on a commercial basis.”


  1. Every US president and secretary of the State in the past decade or longer has said “the United States welcomes a rising China” or something to that effect, something the Chinese know every well not to be taken seriously. It is no more than diplomatic nicety and has zero iota of truth. America’s “return” to the western Pacific region has one goal and one goal only: Containing China. Beijing knows it, Washington knows it, everyone knows it.

  2. Reading through the CRS report discussed in the digest, I couldn’t help but smirk. The CRS research team, obviously writing with a pro-US bias, nevertheless indicates throughout the report that the the so-called “pivot” may be interpreted as a move by the US to contain China.

    How can you discuss the strategic placement of Marines in Darwin, Aegis destroyers in Singapore and the promotion of our core values (which are apparently human rights and democracy – two things China is not exactly well-known for) without implying a strategic move to contain China? You can’t. And in order to not come off as idealistic (or ideologues), the CRS team makes sure to mention that the Asia “pivot” may be interpreted as a neo-Cold War containment strategy as a way of saying “yeah, we know; you know; they know; we all know.” But it wouldn’t be very PC or congressional-like to state so explicitly, now would it?

  3. Steve,

    I wasn’t speaking about the CRS team and their work specifically, I simply commented on this very strategic move of the US government. The message is so loud and clear that everyone is pretty much on the same page in terms of understanding the intents and implications.

    By the way I wouldn’t associate too much significance to spreading “America’s core values” as I think it is 99% about containing China and 1% about championing for human rights and democracy. Come on, we all know how pragmatic the US is, don’t we?

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