Obama's Asia 'Bluff'

The pivot to Asia isn't about foreign affairs. It's about diverting voters' attention from the shambles in the Mideast and AfPak.

When a leading expert on military affairs recently told a Brookings Institution meeting that President Obama’s much-touted pivot to Asia was “a bluff,” I considered the statement way off the mark. But since then, I have concluded that there is indeed less to Obama’s grand change in strategy than meets the eye. In fact, the pivot makes little sense. This suggests that one ought to look for domestic explanations.

The media points to the drawdown of American troops in the Middle East (particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan) and their increase in the Far East as exhibit one of the realignment of American military forces called for by the pivot. Actually, the new commitment to Asia is minuscule. The press refers to new deployment of 2,500 Marines in the region, but only 250 troops have actually arrived to date. The remainder are not expected to arrive for years. Furthermore, even when in full force—some say ten years from now—the Marines will add little to the 55,442 troops already stationed in the Asia-Pacific region at the end of last year, mostly in Japan (36,708), Guam (4,272) and afloat (13,618).

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in early June that there also will be a shift in U.S. naval forces. While until now the United States has divided its warships roughly equally between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Pacific will now host 60 percent of the fleet, albeit of a smaller fleet.

However, Panetta stressed that it will “take years for these concepts, and many of the investments we are making, to be fully realized.” There also will be more frequent visits by the American warships in Asian ports, and some ships will be berthed in Singapore, which is sure to delight the sailors and some local professionals but otherwise not matter much.

More significant is the question of what role these forces will play in the region. Obviously, our troops—even as augmented with a few Marines—are not meant to engage in any forthcoming military confrontation with China, with its constantly expanding and increasingly modernized army consisting of 2,285,000 active troops.

Nor is there any sign that China seeks a military confrontation with the United States. Although China’s military capacity is expanding, even the most hawkish American observers do not think China could stage such a confrontation for at least a decade. Moreover, that the Marines will be located 2,600 miles away from China reveals they are not meant to serve as a tripwire, which would entail placing them on the beaches of Taiwan or at the island chains contested in the South China Sea.

Military analysts will argue that these moves are not meant to provide a substantial realignment of military assets but rather to send a message. But as moviemaker Samuel Goldwyn famously quipped, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Using troops does send a message—but is it one we wish to send?

Both Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski strongly favored heightened U.S. attempts to engage China as a partner in maintaining global order and urged “co-evolution” with China rather than attempts to contain it. There remains plenty of time to turn to military moves if China refuses to become a responsible stakeholder in the international order. True, China has made several rather assertive claims in the South China Sea, but these have almost uniformly involved laying claims as a starting point for negotiations. The United States may feel that it ought to support countries close to China, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, so that they will not risk being bullied by the rising global power. However, this can be accomplished through treaties, trade and aid without resorting to the present U.S. strategy of militarizing the conflict.

Why then the military “pivot to Asia”? It does make sense as one part of an election-year campaign, designed to deprive the GOP of one of its favorite and winning claims: that Democrats are weak on foreign policy. The more American voters concentrate on the Far East—in which no war looms and we can act as tough as we want without facing short-term consequences or exorbitant expenditures—the more they might be distracted from the shambles in Afghanistan and the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia. Hence, the better the world looks.

Mitt Romney’s hawkish statements about China and Russia suggest the Democrats are not the only ones seeking to play this card. Both sides should note, though, that the message is being received. China is likely to respond in kind by further accelerating its military buildup and repositioning some of its own forces. Indeed, it may well deepen its already considerable military ties with Pakistan. The notion that the United States could bankrupt China by involving it in an arms race, as Reagan did to speed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is fanciful given that the United States is in more dire economic straits than is China and that China can invest in next-generation cyber weapons, space arms and antiship missiles without straining its economy.

It might be too much to hope that the Chinese authorities will understand the role domestic politics plays in our foreign policy. But one can rest assured that events in the Middle East—in Iran, Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan—will remind us soon where the true front lines are.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University.