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. Continue reading