How China Helps the Pivot

After years of improving relations with neighbors, Beijing has driven them into U.S. arms.

Likewise, America’s economic policy is longer on trade details than broad national strategy, according to Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia specialist at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. The United States is pondering an alphabet soup of Asian trade and economic agreements—some with China, some without—that can have contradictory goals; more clear thinking is needed. Washington’s main emphasis is on one called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that so far excludes the large Chinese economy, though it may soon add Japan. But parochial claims of other members, such as Mexico and Canada, have stalled negotiations and the goal of having TPP terms completed by year-end seems unlikely. And whether it’s wise to omit China remains debatable; Beijing calls it just another containment tactic.

This leaves the pivot a work in progress. It already has brought diplomatic gains and most Asians are pleased to see the Americans back in force. The policy may discourage China’s more abrasive actions over time and thwart a drift toward gunboat diplomacy. New trade pacts eventually should boost regional economies though the American strategy needs clarification. It also needs a sustained political push and some Asians have doubts: will John Kerry care as much as Hillary Clinton?

Above all, the rebalancers must ensure that their program doesn’t take a clear anti-China tinge, confirming Beijing’s worst fears. If that happened, the cost of pivoting toward Asia could exceed that of past neglect.

Robert Keatley is a former editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post, both of Hong Kong.