Tom Pickering Interviews Henry Kissinger on America's Rebalancing Towards the Asia-Pacific

Last Wednesday, the World Affairs Council of Washington, D.C. hosted the Sisco Memorial Forum, established in honor of the late diplomat Joseph Sisco. Tom Pickering interviewed Henry Kissinger on a range of foreign-policy challenges that confront the Obama administration, but focused mostly on America's rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific region. Here are a few takeaways:

In the immediate postwar period... the focal point of [U.S.] foreign policy was Europe: the restoration of Europe, the protection of Europe... Europe remains important, but it is now safe from military attack. But in Asia, we have seen the emergence of a number of major countries of a scope much greater than [that of] the European national states: India, Japan recovering, and China. A rebalancing of American policy was inevitable.

This last proposition struck me. It's widely alleged, after all, that the U.S. neglected the Asia-Pacific for much of the past decade, even though the rise (or restoration, depending on one's perspective) of the region was in plain view during that period. Looking forward, moreover, many wonder if the U.S. will be able to sustain its rebalancing given the weakness of its economy and the turbulence that engulfs much of North Africa and the Middle East.

There [are] two aspects to remember about the pivot. People say it was too military, because now a larger percentage of [America's] military force is in Asia than before. But the fact is that this came about largely because we reduced our forces somewhere else, not because we augmented the forces in Asia all that much. Secondly, I don't think the issue of...the international order of Asia is exclusively or primarily a military problem....I'm a great friend of China, but I've always said that it is not in the American interest or in the world interest for one country to exercise hegemony over all of Asia. But in contrast to the European issue, this is not a military problem primarily. It's a problem of political [and] social relationships of China and the United States with the countries that are surrounding China. So, of course we should have adequate military forces accessible to Asia, but I would not assign them in such a way that they look as designed for offensive operations.

In June 2012, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told the Shangri-La Security Dialogue that the U.S. Navy intended to station 60 percent of its fleet in the Asia-Pacific by 2020, up from 50 percent at the time of his speech; while part of the 10 percent increase would come from the addition of eight ships to the region, part of it would come from the decommissioning of five ships in the Atlantic.

Given the territorial disputes that continue to roil the Asia-Pacific, placed in sharp relief by China and subsequently South Korea's announcements of air defense identification zones, one has to imagine that the military component of the region's strategic tensions will only grow. As David Sanger observed at the beginning of the month, "as the Chinese grow more determined to assert their territorial claims over a string of islands once important mainly to fishermen, America's allies are also pouring military assets into the region -- potentially escalating the once obscure dispute into a broader test of power in the Pacific."

Americans think that every problem has a solution, and they think that it is our task in the world to educate those who have not yet caught on. The temptation of our foreign policy is to offer a program with a time limit, after which the problem is supposed to have gone away. The Chinese, culturally, think that there is no final solution to any problem; that every so-called solution is an admission ticket to another set of problems. So the American approach is to deal with the symptoms; the Chinese general approach...is conceptual. They are asking where we are trying to go...they ascribe complicated motives to very pragmatic American actions.

We [Americans] are brought up on a world of sovereign states and equality of states. That has never been the Chinese experience: through the longest period of Chinese history, they were the dominant country, and they thought of the world as they being the central kingdom and all other countries being in some kind of tributary relationship to them. China didn't have a foreign ministry until the end of the 19th century.

One shouldn't think of China as Xi [Jinping] taking China [in a certain direction], because, in fact, as President, Xi has less power than the American president. He has considerable power, but he has the Standing Committee, which he cannot ignore, and he has the Politburo, so he has to try to form a consensus.

Regarding the increasingly competitive marketplace of ideas that informs the formulation of Chinese foreign policy, Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox's September 2010 SIPRI paper, "New Foreign Policy Actors in China," is an excellent resource, as is Susan Lawrence and Michael Martin's March 2013 CRS report, "Understanding China's Political System."