The Pivot Toward Asia: Overshadowed or Missing In Action?

By David T. Jones & Paul Tyson on May 7, 2013

Washington, DC - With much fanfare, the United States announced a comprehensive and wide ranging “pivot toward Asia.”  And within Asia there is a “sub-pivot” toward Southeast Asia.

There hasn’t been much public discussion of this reordering of U.S. foreign policy, but now that the President and the Secretary of State have made Middle East excursions, let us consider our Asian shift.

One notes the first trips of the second incarnation of the Obama administration were not/not to Asia.  So one can question the pertinence of the “pivot.”

Nevertheless, if the “pivot toward Asia” is recognition of the continuing and increasing importance of Asia to the United States, we welcome and applaud this focus.

 And yet, why the fanfare?  Has the Obama administration just realized that there is not a blank space west of the California coast?

The U.S. is and has been a Pacific and Asian Power for over a century.  Ships from Massachusetts were in Canton in the very early 1800s.  The U.S. Black Fleet opened Japan.  We made Hawaii a territory in 1898.  We governed the Philippines from 1898 to 1945.  We have territories and a state in the Pacific.

Much of post-WWII diplomacy was consummated in Asia:  the Korean War; crises over the Quemoy-Matsu islands and the defense of Taiwanese/Republic of China liberty against Communist China. 

Vietnam came later. We didn’t leave our hearts in Saigon.

Instead, following our 1972 “opening” to the People’s Republic of China, we put Asia on the backburner in relation to other concerns. We thought politico-social Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following Cultural Revolution/Great Leap Forward disasters would occupy Beijing indefinitely. 

Instead, we awakened to find China had become a global manufacturer and financial power, putting the rest of the world in its thrall, technically and financially.

Asia and the Obama Administration

Every new administration rejects as much of the previous as politically possible, particularly when there is a change in parties.  In Obama’s first term, the “Global War on Terror” ended; we declared we would do “smart diplomacy;” and the president visited half of the globe but not Israel, a type of decision that suggested spite rather than calculation or perhaps aversion to the Israeli Prime Minister.

Still, the current professed interest in Asia is nothing new for this Administration.  In 2012 there was a military pivot toward Asia.  For the United States, it means that 2,500 Marines will be stationed in Australia.  New navy vessels will homeport in Singapore, and 60 percent of U.S. naval deployments will be Pacific-based rather than split 50:50 between Atlantic and Pacific.

We are reported to be opening discussions (at least) for U.S. deployments (or “just visiting”) in Thailand; Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay (the Vietnam War era facilities still are good); and even in the Philippines at Subic Bay.  Clark AFB in the Philippines is not functional; Mount Pinatubo’s eruption took that off the table. 

Some rationales for U.S. military “tilt” may include sovereignty and international waters concerns in the South China Sea, resource claims, countering Beijing, and reasserting U.S. regional dominance.

However, the “pivot toward Asia” is much more than just military change.  Reportedly all is driven by a strategic assessment that concluded the United States was underweighted in regions such as the Asia-Pacific.  Administration officials rolled this policy out in a number of well-placed speeches to interested audiences.  It is the Washington version of preaching to the choir.

So what are U.S. interests in Asia?  President Obama has said U.S. policy in Asia wants to sustain a stable security environment and a regional order rooted in economic openness, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for universal rights and freedoms.

Administration officials further offered: “Rebalancing means devoting the time, effort and resources necessary to get each one right.  Here’s what rebalancing does not mean.  It doesn’t mean diminishing ties to important partners in any other region.”

But…fine as far as it goes.  Still, what is the strategic-military paradigm that fits the above deployments?

Much previous Asia attention has focused on the nuclear weapons program of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (aka North Korea) which makes bad behavior to extract aid (aka protection money) from the international community into a refined art form.  Pyongyang has optimized extortion as foreign policy.

In response, the United States has declared North Korea’s bad behavior will not be rewarded.  Time will tell whether North Korea will choose the “better path” advocated by the United States and the international community.  On the other hand, for 60 years, the leopard has retained its spots; expecting change may be thinking wishfully.

The Personal Connection

Administration officials have commented: “And, of course, no U.S. President has ever had closer personal ties to an Asia-Pacific nation than President Obama does with Indonesia--a warm relationship that was on full display in November 2010 when the President visited Jakarta.”

Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia as an “American expat.”  He has an Indonesian half-sister married to Canadian-Chinese professor.  Both the President and his sister attended high school in Hawaii.  They know Asia at the personal level.

This is commendable.  However, in our unscientific sample taken around the country, there is concern, particularly among some European scholars, that pivot means a focus away from a Europe that is going through its own share of economic difficulties.  Middle East experts have expressed a similar concern about their region, despite the president’s/Secstate’s flurry of visits.

Consequently, the “pivot toward Asia” faces the classic foreign policy problem.  How do you turn attention toward this issue-set when there are more pressing domestic issues such as the economy?  Where does this fit in the international food chain that includes Middle East Peace, Syria, Iran, and the Russian re-reset?

The answer is probably secondary to these in priority, but Asia still needs attention.

The Administration needs to do enough to give some substance to the pivot.  It needs to be more than the “Year of Europe” but probably less than the decade long “Alliance for Progress.”

The positive side of this shuffling in place for the USA is that we have a president with close ties to Asia and a Secretary of State with close ties to France/Europe.  We just might be able to have it both ways.


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