Forever On The Backburner: The Ukraine Crisis Usurps The Asia Pivot

March 27, 2014 Topic: Great Powers Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz

Forever On The Backburner: The Ukraine Crisis Usurps The Asia Pivot


No one can make the argument that Asia is not important to the United States. The Obama Administration has not been shy about voicing its commitment to the pivot/re-balance, with National Security Advisor Ambassador Susan Rice commenting how the Asia-Pacific remains “a cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy” and that “no matter how many hotspots emerge elsewhere, we will continue to deepen our enduring commitment to this critical region” during her remarks at Georgetown University last November. Now the world is currently in the grip of such a hotspot, as the uncertainty of what will transpire between Russia and Ukraine continues to grow. The Obama Administration has understandably been at the forefront, including imposing sanctions against Russia. But this does not excuse forgetting about one’s own policies, especially one like the pivot/re-balance which is being watched closely by both allies and skeptics the world over. Yet this is exactly what happened. Like the government shutdown, the Ukraine crisis has proved that the Obama administration is more reactionary than forward-looking, which is detrimental to the pivot/re-balance actually living up to its hype.

The government shutdown last year, which prevented President Obama from visiting Asia during both the APEC and East Asia Summits, was the most recent red flag for the validity of the pivot/re-balance. Many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, were concerned that the United States would not be able to fulfill its commitments to the region if it could not control its own domestic issues. Of even greater concern is how U.S. allies such as Japan saw this negative symbolism. At the East-West Center on March 5, Dr. Nobuhiro Aizawa, a researcher from Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), stated that the uptick of questioning the closeness of Japan towards the United States policy-wise had gained steam from Obama’s inability to attend the summits last October. According to him “the word pivot is there but symbolically speaking Obama not showing up to the meetings was a negative image, when you talk about public diplomacy this matters very much.”


Now, those concerns are exacerbated by the recently announced U.S. defense budget cuts. Earlier reassurances that the pivot/re-balance would be unaffected by such cuts were contradicted on March 5 when Katrina McFarland, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, stated that “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen.”Although there is no call for scrapping the pivot/re-balance, this statement would do little to alleviate the concerns felt by U.S. allies and partners in the region. Clearly, the best response would be direct addressing of these concerns by someone in a position of authority who could show that the Obama Administration still is fully behind making the pivot/re-balance a reality.

Such an opportunity came on March 6 when the Brookings Institution hosted former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to speak at an event titled “A Review of the ‘Asia Rebalance’ and A Preview of the President’s Trip to the Region.” However, aside from making a very broad overview of what the pivot/re-balance is and speaking the general Administration rhetoric that “the rebalance to Asia was the right strategy in 2008 and remains so today” because “it is rooted in the recognition of America’s role in Asia,” the rest of the talk did not focus on the pivot/re-balance or even Asia itself. Rather the event became all about Russia and Ukraine. It started off innocently enough, with the moderator asking Mr. Donilon’s thoughts on how China would address the Ukraine crisis. That, at least, was relevant to Asia since Mr. Donilon addressed the conundrum facing China over its high value on non-interference would be in conflict with its relationship with Russia. But after that it became the Russia-Ukraine show, including during the Q&A session. Neither Mr. Donilon nor any of the participants in the audience tried to steer the conversation back to the pivot/re-balance. As for the President’s upcoming April visit, which has been touted to make up for his inability to visit last time, nothing whatsoever was mentioned.

Luckily, there was some discussion of the President’s upcoming visit at The Heritage Foundation on March 19. Each of the speakers put their fingers on the exact issues that are central to the skepticism that many countries in Asia still feel about the United States’ commitment to the pivot. According to Mr. Bruce Klinger, a Senior Fellow in the Asia Center at Heritage, “there is no pivot” because not only are no forces from the Middle East or Europe being rotated to Asia but no new forces are being sent there either. With the recently announced budget cuts and leftover concerns from sequestration this concern is not likely to go away anytime soon. Japan and South Korea are particularly concerned about U.S. security commitments following the waffling of the Obama Administration after the Syria “red line” was crossed. Since the United States did not follow through then what will guarantee that it follows through if China or North Korea cross similar lines? In order to start addressing these concerns, Walter Lohman, Director of Heritage’s Asia Center, stated that President Obama needs to come back with a concrete plan, such as an agreement with the Philippines to start rotating U.S. troops through there. Only then will countries in Asia begin to see some reality in the rhetoric.

After the Brookings event, I was glad for some candor at Heritage concerning the Obama Administration’s failures to address the pivot/re-balance. Rather than show that it can be forward-thinking and plan for a continuance of political and economic cooperation and cultural integration with Asia, it continues to run off after the newest hotspot at full steam ahead. What will happen if something arises in either Russia or Ukraine? Will Obama cancel yet another visit? Will rhetoric once again trump reality and harm U.S. credibility in Asia? If he does, woe be to the pivot/re-balance’s chances of success.

Image: State Department Flickr.