The Pivot and Its Discontents

Obama's new approach will encourage China’s military growth and add to the nationalist streak that runs through it.

Management of policy toward East Asia, especially China, has been a major accomplishment of the Obama administration. But despite the initial hurrahs, last year’s prominent announcement of a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region was unnecessary and possibly counterproductive.

The pivot’s aims could have been pursued without the trumpets. Its promise of modest new defense resources for the area changes little but injects a major psychological irritant into our relations with China that helps fuel Chinese nationalism and the PLA’s campaign for a larger budget. It also exposes the limited help we can expect from allies and gives conservatives an excuse to insist on more defense expenditures. Most importantly, the pivot will do little to affect the fundamental forces changing the region. The State Department, recognizing that the rhetoric raised concerns for allies in Europe and the Middle East, later shifted to the less value-laden term “rebalancing.” But in a recent meeting with Philippines president Benigno Aquino, President Obama spurned State’s language and proudly reiterated that he had made the pivot to the Asia-Pacific.

Few doubt that the Asia-Pacific region should be central to U.S. strategic thinking. Obama came to office when the center of economic growth had shifted to the region. The recession had weakened Western economies, and China had become a more critical engine of world growth, even as doubts grew about its ability to sustain such expansion.

In focusing on the Asia-Pacific, Washington also felt the need to demonstrate its foreign-policy dynamism and turn the page on two disastrous wars. It increased the rhetoric of commitment to East Asia, intensified diplomatic engagement in regional forums and signaled its intent to bolster U.S. military presence in the region. Despite the initial enthusiasm for the term “pivot” here and in Asia, the impact of our weak economy on Asians is not likely to be offset by troops in Australia. Efforts to assuage the belief that the pivot was directed at China have been given little credence, while China remains obsessed with American power and influence.

Whether “pivot” or “rebalancing,” the Obama administration’s increased focus on the Asia Pacific and particularly on Southeast Asia now mostly means showing up; Washington sent top officials to regional forums such as APEC, EAS, TPP and ASEAN to extol America’s affection for multilateral regional cooperation. Promises of expanded deployments and defense cooperation got the greatest attention. Noteworthy was Secretary of Defense Panetta’s announcement that the U.S. Navy would put more warships in the Pacific than in the Atlantic. More visible has been the deployment of five hundred marines to Darwin (and a promise to send two thousand more). The United States has moved to establish stronger working relationships with the militaries of Vietnam and the Philippines, two countries that have problems with China. To show concern for allied interests, Washington tried to diminish endless hassles with Japan over Okinawa deployments by agreeing to withdraw nine thousand marines. Furthermore, the administration insists it will shield military spending in the Asia Pacific from impending cuts to overall military spending. But this will be hard to pull off, and ground forces likely will diminish.

Essential to our renewed Asian engagement is, of course, bolstering our economic position in the region—currently an uphill battle and mostly beyond the control of the U.S. government. Tightening Asian economic ties predates the Obama administration, but important developments have occurred recently. The United States finally ratified a free-trade agreement with Korea. Japan has agreed tentatively to begin negotiating membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free-trade area. But China has become the largest and most important trading partner to our East Asian allies, including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The transnational production networks centered on and around China continue to expand; they have become indispensable to Asia-Pacific economies and a unifying element in the region. Secretary Clinton, recognizing the lack of focus on the economic dimension of the pivot, tried to highlight the importance of the American economic role in the region on a recent trip to Asia. Her rhetoric, while welcome, is hardly enough.

The Chinese Conundrum

The relatively diminishing economic influence of the United States has led to a Chinese belief that Washington now is trying to undermine Beijing’s regional policies to offset its own decline. Chinese and American sentiments will, of course, continue to be bruised by the contradictions of economic relations under any strategic approach. Complaints of currency manipulations and other Chinese transgressions will remain the stuff of relations. While they can be managed, they will not be resolved anytime soon. For better or worse, we seem able to live with these contradictions. Domestic politics could change that. On the other hand, serious Chinese economic weakness would damage the United States and Asia, generating discord and nationalist responses.