Two Years On: U.S. Pivot to Asia

Last Friday marked the second anniversary of Hillary Clinton’s article in Foreign Affairs declaring and defining the United States’ “pivot” to Asia.  The article–like Obama’s announcement two years earlier that he would be “America’s first Pacific president”–came freighted with loaded claims about America’s role in the world.  Clinton’s piece was important, not just as an argument in favour of eliminating tariffs, but about expanding free trade.  It was also an argument for an expanded military presence in and around the Pacific Rim.  Ultimately this was a defence of American Exceptionalism on the world stage.  This was not only in America’s interest, Clinton wrote, but in the region’s, as well.  “The region is eager for our leadership,” she wrote.  The document is primarily economic in focus–a call to invest resources in a hotly emerging market–and yet, under the thin veil of humanitarian rhetoric (ten references to “human rights” despite no articulated alteration of policy) the true spirit of the document remains strategic: a plan to remain dominant in a world where the number one competitor to the United States is China.

Image courtesy of Talk Radio News Service, ©2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Talk Radio News Service, ©2012, some rights reserved.

As the pivot has gained shape it has become clearer that the “pivot,” or “rebalancing,” is more about offsetting Chinese power than it is about any of the more lofty goals Clinton outlined.  The United States is continuing to build a Pacific fleet in spite of substantial sequestration cuts  Not only that but the United States is also (less successfully) attempting to orchestrate new trading blocs that would limit China’s economic agenda-setting power both in the region and in the world.  At the same time, America is not acting in a domestic vacuum.  Forced to deal with issues at home, Obama has lagged consistently in shoring up and “updating” diplomatic ties with allies in the region, while China has begun to see the advantages of wooing its neighbours and has done so successfully.  While an evaluation of America’s pivot on its own liberal terms would show it to be in almost any light a failure, the picture, illuminated by the realist notion of balancing China, becomes more complicated and even a little convoluted.  America has so far succeeded in containing China militarily.  However, without any clear purpose or gain, economic and diplomatic efforts have been far less successful in delaying, (or perhaps even not delaying) China’s likely eventual dominance.

America’s intentions in Asia are reflected most clearly in its continued military buildup.  In addition to plans calling for 2500 marines to be stationed in Darwin, Australia, the U.S. also  deployed a littoral combat ship to Singapore (with plans for three more).  The U.S. has also increased the frequency of its joint military training exercises, and started to improve intelligence and military relations with Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia (basing drones in Japan as early as this Spring).  Ultimately the U.S. aims to increase the proportion of its armed forces in the Pacific, now at fifty percent, to sixty percent by 2020.  And at a conference in Singapore last May, former defence secretary Leon Panetta unveiled the new weapons that America would be using in the Pacific in an attempt to reassure his audience that sequestration cuts would not damage America’s credibility.  According to the New York Times, when Panetta told the audience of foreign officials that the new weaponry-including a submarine designed to navigate restricted areas of China’s coastline-was not intended for use against any particular enemy, most of Panetta’s audience did not believe him; they had good reason for skepticism.  Indeed, the U.S. has launched a campaign designed to surround China with American military forces as part of a strategy, dubbed “Air-Sea Battle”, that The Pentagon has been secretly working on this for decades.  It is unlikely that it was this aforementioned program that Secretary Clinton was referring to when, two years ago, she wrote that in order to “build mutual trust” between the United States and China, “[b]oth sides would benefit from sustained and substantive military-to-military engagement that increases transparency.”

As could perhaps be expected, U.S. attempts to encircle China diplomatically and economically have been far less fruitful than its military manoeuvres.  As some writers have already noted, the anniversary of Clinton’s memo occurred during an embarrassing time for the Obama administration.  As America attempted to cast itself as a legitimate alternative to China, its government had effectively shut itself down.  This had its most direct impact as, earlier this month, Obama was forced to flake on meetings in Brunei and Indonesia regarding trade and security, the third such time he’s postponed a meeting in Asia.  Secretary of State John Kerry, who has questioned the merits of an Asia pivot, went in his stead, indirectly upping the pull of the Chinese president Xi Jinping, the most powerful leader in attendance.  These two meetings would not have shaped the future of Asian relations, but the event is representative of two larger themes: the first is an apparent willingness on the part of the Obama administration to be involved in the inter-workings of Asia, and to have a stronger relationship with regional institutions like ASEAN, APEC, and ARF; the second is an inability to convince Asian partners of America’s good faith and reliability.  Countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia–for reasons historical and economic–remain divided, even as they acquiesce to American military requests.  Many of them, certainly those listed just above, would disagree with Clinton’s rosy depiction of an America with “no territorial ambitions, and a long record of providing for the common good”.  Besides diplomatic ties, Obama has also struggled to put together an economic framework for further cooperation with the region.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the mainstay of America’s economic policy in Asia – a huge agreement that would regulate the way goods of all sorts, including intellectual properties, are traded–and it looks further from completion than it did when negotiations opened in 2010.  In spite of pleas for transparency, it has been negotiated in the dark, while what has been leaked has received the type of negative press, redolent of the votes on SOPA and ACTA but worse, that would likely prevent Congress from signing off on the necessary trade promotion authority–even if those same Congressional committees were not working on rebooting the government.

In short, the so-called “pivot” to Asia cannot be addressed on its own terms.  It is a gun packaged in the bright colours of human rights and fair trade and sold as responsible economics.  This U.S. policy can best be described as creating the enemy it is looking for.  The diplomatic blocs America seeks to create in opposition to China have yet to form, and likely will not, but it will continue to build up its military might in an expensive attempt to encircle its primary trading partner.

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