24 May 2014
US Wins - Players Shake Hands

President Obama's "pivot" to Asia is all about China

US President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia is the right thing for both Asia and America. But despite claims to the contrary, the pivot is all about China!

US President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia is the right thing for both Asia and America. But despite claims to the contrary, the pivot is all about China! And quite rightly so!

Launching of Obama's pivot

The intention of President Obama's "pivot" to Asia was very clear from its announcement:

"... After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region ...

... With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation ...

... as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.

... As a result, reductions in U.S. defense spending will not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.

... we’ll reengage with our regional organizations...I’ll be proud to be the first American President to attend the East Asia Summit. And together, I believe we can address shared challenges, such as proliferation and maritime security, including cooperation in the South China Sea.

... Meanwhile, the United States will continue our effort to build a cooperative relationship with China..."

In short, the pivot is all about China!

Unpacking Obama's pivot

Obama's Asia pivot got off to an awkward start.

It was announced just over two years ago in a speech to the Australian parliament, rather than in the US or Asia. Its initial emphasis was on the military, rather economic or human dimensions.

The speech was very pointed at China, on which the region depends economically -- but in which it has little trust politically and militarily. Some argue that Obama's pivot reflects the US desire to "contain" China, and that by exacerbating strategic rivalry, the US has actually provoked China's present boisterous behavior.

Even Obama's use of the term "pivot" was awkward, given that US has long been a Pacific nation -- a region which is of growing economic importance to the US economy, in which it still has over 80,000 troops and substantial military assets, and in which it now has more allies than it ever had before. (The term is obviously the brainchild of a basket ball loving President.)

But "pivot" does capture the right sense in that under George W. Bush, the American leadership basically forgot Asia, as it got bogged down in Iraq, Afghanistan and the global financial crisis.

The fundamental reality is that with 60% of US trade being with the Pacific region, Asian maritime and regional security are vital US interests. Also Asian Americans, which now make up 6% of the nation's population, are America's fastest growing migrant group, and also dominate the vast number of foreign students in America. They provide a deep human and emotional connection between the US and Asia.

Overall, the US pivot is best seen as a longer term deepening of America's engagement with the Asia-Pacific region, in light of the region's growing importance, and in light of the reverberations from the rise of China. The main elements are:

Military. It is planned that by 2020, the US navy will reposture its forces from today's roughly 50-50% split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60-40 split between those oceans. Reductions in US defense spending will not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.

Economic. The Trans Pacific Partnership trade negotiations currently under way are the main element.

Dialogue. The US has established a "strategic and economic dialogue" with China. It also bought into China's proposal to develop a "a new type of great power relations", though this is undermined by strategic distrust, as reflected in disputes over cyber-espionage. The US has a "strategic dialogue" with India, a "joint commission" with Indonesia, a "strategic dialogue" with Pakistan, and many types of partnerships with virtually all countries in the region, including long standing alliances and partnerships with Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and so on.

People-to-people. For example, Obama's “100,000 Strong” initiative, is a national effort designed to increase dramatically the number and diversify the composition of American students studying in China.

President Obama's recent trip to Asia

President Obama's recent trip to Asia was a resounding success. He reassured the eternally nervous Japanese. He encouraged Japan and Korea to work together. He signed a comprehensive partnership with Malaysia. And with the Philippines an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was signed. It is a 10-year pact that will give US planes, warships and troops more access to the archipelagic nation.

US officials have made clear that Asian allies should not be concerned about US inaction in Syria and the Ukraine. Asian allies should look at Pentagon moves to reassure Eastern European allies and Baltic states by sending several hundred troops since the US is bound by treaty agreements to help defend them. As with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners in Europe, the US has defense treaties with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, but no such agreement to defend Ukraine.

It was also recently reported that the US military has prepared options for a muscular response to any future Chinese provocations in the South and East China seas, ranging from displays of B-2 bomber flights near China to aircraft-carrier exercises near its coastal waters.

How Asia can contribute to the pivot

The four countries that President Obama just visited, along with all other pivot beneficiaries such as Vietnam, should all make greater efforts to contribute to the pivot.

For example, Japan expects the US to defend it against China, and yet cannot manage to reduce its agricultural protection for the TPP. Malaysia should also make greater efforts to explain the benefits of the TPP to its public. For their part, Korea and the Philippines should join the TPP trade talks, and there are now signs that this might happen.

There are also other things all four countries should do to improve relations in the Asian neighborhood and with the US. Japan must stop its behavior which provokes China and Korea, such as visiting Yasukuni Shrine, and denying or questioning its war history. Korea should also stop stoking up anti-Japanese sentiments, and make greater efforts to have positive relations with Japan. A strong Japan/Korea relationship, since both are US allies, is one of the best possible hedges against China and North Korea. The Philippines should also make greater efforts to avoid provoking China.

For its part, Malaysia must stop its politically-motivated and other widespread human rights abuses. It cannot expect America to help it if it continues to manipulate and rig elections, and throw opposition leader Anwar in jail on trumped-up charges.

The pivot is all about China!

"Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China," said President Obama. "Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of international disputes". This was the chant of Obama’s recent four-nation trip to East Asia.

But in reality, the pivot is all about China. Why?

Because the rise of China has changed the balance of power in Asia, and is destabilizing the region. It is the only country really challenging "international rules and norms".

China is trying to assert authority over its neighborhood by force. It also feels encircled by US allies and would like greater freedom of naval movement.

Chinese President Xi Jingping recently said: "Strengthening military alliances with a third party does not benefit the maintenance of regional security." "Matters in Asia ultimately must be taken care of by Asians, Asia's problems ultimately must be resolved by Asians, and Asia's security ultimately must be protected by Asians."

Like all authoritarian regimes, China is paranoid about its own survival, and sees America and the West as threats to the regime. Projecting apparent external strength, such as anti-Americanism or anti-Japanese propaganda, is a good tonic for local public consumption, especially in light of growing social instability and economic fragility at home.

This is necessary, because as a fragile superpower, China has stoked up popular nationalism to maintain support for the regime. But this nationalism has become so strong and volatile, that the Chinese government is worried that the public will turn on the Party and the government. That's why the Chinese government spends more on internal security than on its military.

Beyond these points, there are several fundamental reasons for employing the pivot as a "China hedge".

First, history shows that when a new rising great power meets an existing great power that this can lead to conflict. And the risk of conflict is heightened by the Chinese view that the US military is occupying China's neighborhood -- even though the US does so with the consent, and increasingly so, of US Asian allies.

It is not clear to what extent China is serious about having a new type of great power relationship with the US. Another interpretation would be that China would like change the status quo (that is, get the US out of Asia) and then have a peaceful relationship.

Second, even though many scholars believe that deep economic integration between countries, such as in the European Union, is the best way of ensuring peaceful relations, many historical cases do not support this -- like Germany and the UK before World War 1, and Russia just today. The potential economic cost of conflict should mean that countries will find peaceful ways to solve their differences -- but in reality some countries will endure immense economic costs for political motivations.

Third, scholars of international politics argue that democracies don't go to war against each other ("democratic peace theory"). To the extent that this theory has validity, the risk of conflict with China will always be greater whilst ever it remains a non-democratic regime whose primary goal is existential survival.

In short, the pivot is all about China, and should be. The relationship between China, and the US and its allies will always be a rocky road. The US side will need continued engagement, vigilance and standing firm when necessary. Deep peace and security may not come to Asia, until China democratizes. And democratization may not necessarily be a peaceful process.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute


- Remarks by President Obama to the Australian Parliament, 17 November 2011.

Tags: asia, President Obama, Asian pivot, Asian rebalance

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