Problems with the Asia Pivot

Washington has a credibility problem in the region

Tom Donilon, the U.S. national security advisor, was at the Asia Society in New York last week to talk (transcript here; video here) about the Obama administration’s effort to shift Washington’s strategic focus away from the military quagmires of the Greater Middle East to the dynamism of Asia – a region where, as the president puts it, “the action’s going to be.”  Unveiled to much fanfare (here and here) in late 2011, this signature initiative – variously known as the “pivot” or the strategic “rebalance” – is all about shoring up the U.S. presence in a vital region that is increasingly under the sway of an ascendant China.  Mr. Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia last November, for example, featured two countries – Myanmar and Cambodia – that no president had visited before, and was designed as one commentator put it to reverse “China’s drive to tighten its grip” on the region.

The administration has devoted high-profile resources to the pivot, as demonstrated by the president’s commitment to participate in the East Asia Summit’s annual meetings – a serious expenditure of time given the travel distance.  And Donilon’s appearance at the Asia Society is the second time he had given a major address on the region in the past few months (first time here). Yet despite these efforts, many in Asia still question America’s staying power and the administration’s determination to see through its two key regional efforts – the buildup of military forces that is plainly directed against China, and the ambitious set of trade and investment negotiations known as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) that would contest Beijing’s economic hegemony in East Asia.

Donilon sought to rebut these concerns last week by proclaiming that “when it comes to the Asia-Pacific, the United States is ‘all in’” – repeating a phase that the president has used before.  But even as Donilon was uttering this pledge, a New York Times report laid bare regional anxieties about U.S. endurance.  The newspaper pointed out that a small but growing number of influential South Koreans are calling for their country to develop its own nuclear weapons because of renewed doubts about Washington’s commitment to South Korea’s security.  This follows other recent reports (here and here, for example) about multiplying doubts in Asia about America’s strategic credibility.

Personnel changes in Washington have reinforced these concerns.  Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her point person on Asia, Kurt Campbell, were regarded as the pivot’s most vocal proponents but both have now departed the administration.  In his confirmation hearing (video here), John Kerry, Clinton’s successor, appeared to criticize plans for the military buildup.  Saying that it may unnecessarily provoke Beijing, he stated that:

I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet. I’m not convinced of that…. You know, the Chinese take a look at that and say, what’s the United States doing? They trying to circle us? What’s going on? And so, you know, every action has its reaction. It’s the old — you know, it’s not just the law of physics; it’s the law of politics and diplomacy. I think we have to be thoughtful about, you know, sort of how we go forward.

A Politico report last month noted that Kerry is “privately less enthusiastic about the pivot than Clinton” and that he wants to make “a more sustained focus on the Middle East and Europe than his predecessor.”  He also rejected, the report added, White House suggestions that he follow Clinton’s lead by making his debut overseas trip to Asia and instead decided on a 10-day swing through Europe and the Middle East.  (For more on the top priority Kerry places on reviving the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, see this Financial Times article.)

With Washington lurching from one budget crisis to the next, many question whether the administration has the fiscal resources to back up its rhetoric.  One defense expert argues that “the pivot is a bumper sticker without much of a strategic design at this point”, while another contends that “the administration articulated the pivot without considering the real resources that it would require.”

The U.S. Navy is slated to play a central part in the military buildup, but budgetary pressures are likely to force a noticeable reduction in the frequency of naval deployments.  The top U.S. military commander in the region testified to Congress two weeks ago that spending cuts are already starting to affect U.S. military activities in Asia and threaten to undermine the strategic pivot.  Ashton Carter, the Deputy Defense Secretary, and Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, have made the same point.  And a senior State Department official acknowledged last month the geopolitical ramifications of the fiscal constraints, noting that:

In some quarters [in Asia], doubts continue to linger, particularly regarding our financial ability and political will — given pressing security challenges elsewhere in the world — to maintain a long term regional presence.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London projects that China’s military spending will come to equal America’s in a decade, due to a combination of Beijing’s rising defense budgets and Washington’s fiscal travails.  According to a new Congressional Budget Office report, the Pentagon will need to find additional budget savings every year through 2021 in order to remain within the spending limits set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.  Responding to the emerging fiscal realities, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a review of the defense strategy embodying the Asia pivot, which President Obama himself annunciated just 14 months ago.  And according to one media report, Pentagon officials fear that the White House will ditch the military build-up altogether due to budgetary concerns.

Likewise in doubt is U.S resolve on the TTP.  The administration is seeking to wrap things up in time for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Indonesia this coming October, though the  president’s track record on trade policy – and that of his party – does not inspire much confidence it can deliver.  Indeed, the administration has already missed the initial November 2011 deadline it set for itself.  The White House points to the U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement that entered into force a year ago as an augury of its commitment to expanding economic linkages to Asia.  But the Bush administration did most of the heavy lifting in crafting the accord, only for it to be waylaid during most of Obama’s first term due to stout political opposition by Congressional Democrats.

Moreover, the administration has not moved to request so-called “trade promotion authority,” a traditional indicator of serious intent because it puts trade deals on a quick path to Congressional approval.  Indeed, a Republican effort to give the president this authority in September 2011 was opposed by the White House and blocked by Senate Democrats.  The administration announced a year ago that it would request this authority but so far has not followed up.  And judging by recent public opinion polling (here and here), economic globalization and the free trade agenda continue to face significant levels of skepticism within the Democratic Party.

Beyond these political difficulties, two new developments promise to complicate things even further.  The first is the president’s decision to pursue a free trade pact with the European Union, an action that will distract leadership attention and divert political capital from the TPP effort.

The second is Tokyo’s announcement last week that it will join the TTP negotiations.  Up to now, the TPP was an endeavor that carried more diplomatic symbolism than economic impact, given the relatively small size of its Asian participants.*  The entry of the world’s third largest economic power could have a transformative effect, however, allowing Washington to construct a truly muscular U.S.-centric trade bloc in East Asia.

But Tokyo’s decision also throws a huge monkey wrench into things.  Japanese participation needs to be approved by each of the 11 current TPP countries, a process that will take a number of months and jeopardize this fall’s negotiating deadline.  Plus it remains to be seen whether Shinzo Abe’s government will be able to overcome Japan’s deeply entrenched trade protectionism and make the concessions necessary for the pact’s successful conclusion.  And Washington’s efforts to bring South Korea into the TPP process promise additional complications.

Mr. Donilon’s cursory remarks last week regarding India deserve comment.  The Obama administration has devoted much effort to enlisting New Delhi as an active participant in the pivot.  In his November 2010 address to the Indian parliament, the president called the U.S.-India relationship “the most defining and indispensable partnership of the 21st century” and urged the country’s leaders not only to “look East” but also “to engage East” for the sake of enhanced security and prosperity throughout Asia. Secretary of State Clinton underscored this theme in her July 2011 visit to India. Speaking in Chennai (formerly Madras), a port city that has significant economic ties with Southeast Asia, Clinton urged India to take on a larger role in shaping the regional architecture for the Asia-Pacific. Reiterating Mr. Obama’s formulation, she stated that “we encourage India not just to look East, but to engage East and act East as well.”

The Defense Strategic Guidance promulgated by the administration in January 2012 skipped over long-standing Asian allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia to give singular mention of India as “a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.”  This was followed up by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s visit to New Delhi in June 2012, in which he made clear that Washington sees India as a “linchpin” in the pivot strategy.  Stating that the United States “views India as a net provider of security from the Indian Ocean to Afghanistan and beyond,” Panetta proposed the formation of a long-term strategic partnership, one that featured greater Indian access to the latest U.S. military technology and a defense trade relationship that went beyond a focus on one-off transactions to include joint research and co-production efforts.

Given all of this, it is striking that Donilon had so little to say about India – just two short paragraphs and much less compared to his passages regarding China, Japan, South Korea or even Myanmar.  (By coincidence, the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific has held two recent hearings (here and here) that gave much greater detail on India’s role in the pivot.)  Needless to say, however, the administration’s efforts to entice New Delhi to play a greater strategic role outside of its home region are not helped by persistent doubts regarding Washington’s own steadfastness to the pivot.

The Obama administration has a real problem matching its fine words and good intentions with concrete foreign policy actions, whether it’s in Asia or the Middle East.  It will have to do much more before Donilon’s assurances regarding the pivot have greater resonance.

*The TPP’s Asian participants are Australia, Brunei, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam.  Other participants, besides the United States, are Canada, Chile, Mexico and Peru.

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8 thoughts on “Problems with the Asia Pivot

  1. Pingback: Security in Asia | The New ASIA OBSERVER

  2. David Kart reiterates the same-old arguments that defense and policing the world should continue to be our major foreign policy thrust. He does that under the guise of elucidating State/White House differences on our Asia policy within the Administration. We need to balance our legitimate interests in protecting our way of life with stronger and more numerous efforts to enter into a genuine non-directive dialogue with China and other countries of the area. Person to person exchanges between non-governmental individuals need to be increased dramatically as a counterpoise to our government’s viewpoint.

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