Whatever happened to the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia?
The strategic refocus was announced with great fanfare, coming first in a Foreign Policy magazine piece by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, under the headline “America’s Pacific Century.” After a decade consumed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Clinton smartly wrote, America’s most important new task would be “to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.”
And Clinton’s op-ed came after Obama’s 2009 trip to Asia, in his first year in office, in which he declared himself, by virtue of his Hawaiian birth and his boyhood in Indonesia, “America’s first Pacific President.”
But on the surface at least, events appear to have intervened to keep the administration’s foreign policy focus attuned to the very same global trouble spots that have preoccupied past presidencies. There is the continuing concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. There was the Arab Spring that turned to winter. The bloody civil war in Syria shows no signs of abating. Afghanistan remains a worry, with its violent presidential election and the coming U.S. troop drawdown marred by increasing Taliban attacks. Then this year came the crisis in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula leading to sanctions and talk of a new Cold War with Russia.
Add to that list the perennial problem of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that has bedeviled presidents past and that remains seemingly intractable, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s frenetic shuttle diplomacy.
The result is the appearance that the Asian pivot was more aspirational than substantive. Or, as Obama’s critics might say, an example of naivety being eclipsed by the messy problems of the real world.
And the critics have gleefully pounced in pronouncing the pivot dead.
The National Interest magazine ran an article under the provocative headline “Forever On The Back Burner; Ukraine Crisis Usurps The Asian Pivot.”
Similarly, The Wall Street Journal columnist Michael Auslin wrote last month of “The Slow Death of the Asian Pivot.” He concluded “Mr. Obama’s pivot to Asia is on the rocks.”
“Mr. Obama seems to grow less focused by the day on Asia’s dangers,” Auslin wrote. “It was bad enough that he chose to skip last year’s major Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings due to domestic budget battles back home. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is prioritizing Middle East issues.” Auslin was primarily noting the Democratic Senate leader’s rejection of the “fast track” trade authority Obama was seeking — a power that was tied to implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact — as an example of how the president was unable to put his pivot into practice.
Not to be outdone, Bill Gertz of The Washington Times weighed in with a March 5 piece claiming the pivot was verbally undermined by Katrina McFarland, the assistant defense secretary for acquisitions, who told a conference “the pivot is being looked at again because, candidly, it can’t happen” — remarks she later disavowed. “The rebalance to Asia can and will continue,” McFarland said in the clarification.
As evidence of the death of the Asian pivot, Obama critics assert that China has been able to flex its military muscle in the region unchecked, for example when Beijing decided late last year to unilaterally establish a new air defense identification zone in an area of the East China Sea. According to this narrative, China’s reach has been expanding, while U.S. power and influence is on a slow, steady decline.
But is the pivot really dead? Is China really rising in the Asia-Pacific region while America is in withdrawal?
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel scoffs at the notion. In a recent Los Angeles Times interview, Hagel credits America’s “soft tools” of diplomacy, security cooperation and trade with keeping the Asian region largely peaceful, while the Middle East and the former Soviet bloc states are roiling with old-era tensions. “Asia-Pacific has pointed the way,” Hagel said.
In addition, Hagel had a retort to those who see the U.S. as a power in retreat. “We’ve got over 330,000 personnel deployed in the Asia-Pacific, 180 ships, over 2,000 aircraft,” he said. “It’s the largest combatant command we have in the world.”
I agree, for those reasons and more.
For one, China’s new military assertiveness has not necessarily translated into increased influence; quite the contrary, China’s moves — like the declaration of the air identification zone — have only made its regional neighbors more nervous. Every act of Chinese “expansion,” against Japan, against the Philippines, against the countries that claim the same island chain in the South China Sea, pushes those countries more towards the U.S. America is still seen in the region as the best counterweight to a rising China, and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.
It is true that China has been increasing its military budget to historically high levels, to $132 billion for 2014, a 12.2. percent increase over the previous year, as was reported in March. This is on top of an increase of more than 10 percent last year. And that doesn’t include “hidden” defense costs that are kept off the books and outside of public view.
But while China’s defense spending may be a worry for the longterm, for now some analysts say the overall figures are just commensurate with China’s huge economy, currently the world’s second largest in overall GDP terms (and that’s the same position Chinese military officials take). China’s military spending is still dwarfed by that of the U.S., at more than $500 billion, for a country with a quarter the size of the population of China’s. And much of China’s new spending will be going to modernize its navy and air force, and to provide needed pay raises.
Most importantly, America’s global influence — particularly in the Asian region — comes not from its military might, but from the impact of its “soft power,” and that includes everything from the lure of its educational institutions to the export of Hollywood movies. Global reach means more than the number of ships, submarines and fighter jets at hand. As Bill Clinton famously put it, we lead by the power of our example, not by the example of our power.
The naysayers should take note; the Asia-Pacific “pivot” was never simply a matter of how many military resources we can deploy to the region — although the U.S. remains unmatched on that score, too. Seen broadly, the repositioning was always more predicated on soft power, including our business links, educational and cultural exchanges, people-to-people ties and trade. On that score, the U.S. remains the dominant power in the region. And it’s a position that doesn’t appear likely to shift anytime soon.