Pivot to Asia 2: What is the US up to?

In this Wall Street Journal essay published in August, Michael Auslin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute argues that “it is time to bury the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia”. He writes:

This reallocation of military and diplomatic resources was supposed to guarantee stability in a region seeking to balance China’s rise. In reality, this strategic shift is less than it appears. It won’t solve Asia’s problems and may even add to the region’s uncertainty by over-promising and under-delivering. 

Everything wrong with the pivot can be summed up by Four R’s: rhetoric; reality; resourcing; and raising expectations and then doubts. So far, the first and perhaps biggest problem with the idea of the pivot—or, as the Defense Department calls it, the rebalancing—is that it remains largely rhetorical, vague and aspirational.

True, there are some laudable moves, such as basing U.S. Marines in northern Australia and agreeing to port new U.S. warships in Singapore. These, however, hardly add up to a breakthrough. The world still wonders what the purpose is: to contain China, to promote democracy, to make the United States the de facto hegemon of Asia, or simply to reassure nervous nations about China’s rise?

The reality is that not much will change in America’s actions. The pivot says nothing about taking on new commitments, for example toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or to countries with whom America does not currently have formal alliances. Just as importantly, Washington has made clear in recent months that it will not take sides in the territorial disputes that have roiled the East and South China Seas, even when allies like Tokyo and Manila are involved.

In this Atlantic piece, National Journal senior correspondent James Kitfield asks whether the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia is really “a hedge against China”. Kitfield concludes that “the United States is reenergizing a classic hedging strategy, simultaneously engaging China while creating a network of bilateral military partnerships and alliances on its periphery as a potential counterweight and hedge against the rise of a belligerent China. That strategy has been greatly advanced by Beijing’s bullying behavior in recent years during a series of maritime standoffs over disputed islands in the South China Sea, nearly all of which China claims as its own. The U.S. position is not to become directly involved in such territorial disputes, but to insist that they are settled peacefully and that “freedom of navigation” is maintained, a direct swipe at China’s claim.”

Last year, at the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) forum, Obama administration point man for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, talked to FPI director Robert Kagan about the pivot to Asia.

What is the US up to? Is it wise to “hedge” against China – or could this lead to a new Cold War in the region?

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