The Pivot and Its Discontents

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.

Many assert that it is important to make clear to China that the United States will confront its misbehavior, so Beijing understands that its rising military power will be met and U.S. primacy in the region preserved. Finding the right balance between assertiveness in the face of a rising China and not feeding Chinese nationalism or reinforcing PLA demands will not be easy. We and many others believe our overall presence and influence in the area can be preserved without the chest beating of a condescending, pedagogical approach to China. Openly aggravating Beijing does not resolve the fundamental constraints of American influence in the region.

Today, the pivot is in fact explicitly directed at China, and repercussions will not be short term. It will encourage China’s military growth and add to the nationalist streak that runs through it.

Enhancing military deployments does not adequately deal with alliance problems. U.S. allies want us firmly involved in their defense even as they focus on maintaining a robust working relationship with China. Washington remains strongly attached to its Japanese and Korean alliances and has worked hard to give substance to this trilateral relationship. But will these prosperous allies pay for a greater share of their defense? Indeed, the pivot’s promoters apparently hope our renewed determination will somehow bring forth more resources for defense. One must ask how long the United States will continue to subsidize the defense budgets of two wealthy countries while its own defense expenditures shrink.

A Dynamic Region

More fundamental is the nature of power in the area. U.S. presence and regional influence are welcome but not sufficient to galvanize governments to distance themselves from China’s economic weight. None are prepared to endanger their connection to China, and they do not want the United States doing so. They may welcome American moral and political support on South China Sea issues, but short of establishing military cooperation to actively engage in maritime disputes, Washington is unlikely to change the regional dynamic or provide a ready alternative to China’s economic footprint.

At the same time, the U.S.-China economic ties leave both countries strongly attached to the status quo. This problem also is evident in the attitudes of Filipino and Vietnamese governments, which see China as a threat to their sovereignty and an indispensable trade partner; they do not want to escalate their maritime problems and hope the Americans will help resolve them. But this issue is a festering one, and the United States must be careful not to promise more than it is prepared to do. The Korean free-trade agreement did strengthen the U.S. foothold in Northeast Asia, but it is unlikely to tilt the South Koreans away from their bigger China market. Meanwhile, Japan is far from even beginning negotiations on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The United States will remain a major player in the Pacific. We are central to the management of dangerous East Asian problems—North Korea and Taiwan. Our forces continue to deter a declining Pyongyang and provide for the protection of Taiwan, which looks to be slowly moving toward a quiet de facto accommodation with the mainland. Both China and resilient Southeast Asian countries show little interest in changing the present direction of events, whatever assertions about who owns the seas.

The most important uncertainties in East Asia relate to what happens in China’s politics and how Beijing deals with its burgeoning economic challenges. Change is already upon us, and we may have some ability to influence some of it. But be careful what you wish for: a deteriorating China could harm us far more than a growing but second-class Chinese military power. Without denigrating the importance of our forces, we should stop beating our breasts about remaining a Pacific power.

Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. Stephen Bosworth is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.