Page 1 of 2 Obama resets the 'pivot' to Asia
By M K Bhadrakumar
The dust has settled down sooner than one would have thought on the US President Barack Obama's four-nation Asia tour, and the inevitable stocktaking is well under way. Obama earmarked an entire week for the trip that took him to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Without doubt, it was a major statement of the Obama administration's strategic foreign-policy reorientation. But that statement is already lending itself to varying interpretations because of endemic geopolitical realities and priorities in the
contemporary world situation. The sharpest criticism is, interestingly, appearing in the US itself.
The salience of the tour came to be that China didn't figure in Obama's itinerary and this is at a time when Beijing has locked horns with America's key allies in the East and South Asia Seas. Clearly, China was the elephant in the room.
As the New York Times noted, "The balancing act has become even trickier because of the sharp deterioration of America's relations with Russia. Perhaps no country has more to gain from a new Cold War than China, which has historically benefited from periods of conflict between the United States and Russia."
To be sure, Obama spoke to different audiences simultaneously. On the one hand, he tried to reassure US allies of its commitment to remain supportive at a juncture when there are fears that China could exploit the prevailing international climate to become even more assertive or even belligerent on the Pacific Rim.
On the other hand, while vowing to defend the allies, the US would expect them to show restraint themselves and even insisted that Washington sought solid relations with Beijing and hoped to enlist the latter to find solutions to various issues.
Furthermore, while underscoring at all available opportunities during his tour that "we're not interested in containing China", Obama also insisted that the US is interested in China "being a responsible and powerful proponent of the rule of law" and expected that in such a role China "has to abide by certain norms."
Getting the balance right
The jury is still out whether Obama got the balance right in reaffirming America's support for allies while carefully calibrating his statements to avoid giving an impression that the US sought to isolate or antagonize China. To quote New York Times, "So far, China's reaction has been muted … China, some analysts said, is content not to pick a fight with the United States at a time when events, in Asia and elsewhere, seem to be going in its favor."
Broadly, there are two perspectives possible on Obama's Asian tour, which are not necessarily contrarian. One, this was a catch-up appearance by Obama following his failure to show up last October at the string of ASEAN-related summit meetings, especially the East Asia Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
Obama failed to attend the summits due entirely to America's domestic preoccupations over the budgetary crisis on Capitol Hill and the government shutdown.
But Obama's absence from the ASEAN-related conclaves was perceived in geopolitical terms in the Asia-Pacific, especially the Southeast Asian region, as a telltale sign of the wavering commitment in Washington to the "pivot" to Asia, which in turn spawned gnawing worries in the minds of US allies. At the ASEAN-Japan summit in Tokyo early this year, the Southeast Asian countries refused to be persuaded by the Japanese entreaties to take an open stance against China.
Indeed, the contrast couldn't have been sharper: while the government shutdown in Washington presented a picture (rightly or wrongly) of a superpower in inexorable decline and cast the US political system itself in poor light as increasingly dysfunctional, China promptly capitalized on Obama's absence by the grand unveiling of its strategy to reopen the so-called Maritime Silk Road (that has a history of over two thousand years), devolving upon a promise of massive investments by Beijing in the economies of its ASEAN partners, which America would be hard-pressed to match in sheer financial terms.
A second perspective on Obama's Asian tour builds on the above perception that the "pivot" already has lost its shine and a "reset" is in order. The heart of the matter is that the world has changed unrecognizably in the past couple of years since the former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton unveiled the "pivot" strategy in her famous article in the Foreign Affairs magazine. In retrospect, the pivot turned out to be Clinton's swan song, so to speak.
Strong on rhetoric
Clinton is no more in the driving seat when it comes to American foreign policy, and in the highly personalized business of policymaking in Washington, her absence through the past one year appears to have made all the difference to the pivot strategy. Furthermore, the original architects of the pivot strategy - apart from Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell - they have all left the administration.
Having said that, there was always a question mark as to how far Obama himself genuinely felt passionate about the strategy as such or, more importantly, as regards its main thrust on "militarization", although he has been consistent in his emphasis on the crucial importance of the US tapping into the phenomenal growth of the Asian region in the world economy.
Without doubt, there is growing evidence that in his first term as president, Obama didn't really subscribe to many of the things that Clinton or Gates espoused. Indeed, he had misgivings about the "surge" in Afghanistan. Again, he chose a path ultimately on Syria that wouldn't have found favor with Clinton. (In fact, although she had left office, she still advocated US military intervention in Syria.)
Most certainly, Clinton's other pet project, the "new Silk Road" in Central Asia, has already become distant memory. There is even talk that Obama may be willing to consider a presence of fewer than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan. The opening to Iran has been almost exclusively an Obama initiative.
The point is, how far has Obama been really committed to the pivot strategy? There are no clear answers here, although conceptually and geopolitically, the strategy serves the US's long-term interests. There cannot be two opinions that Asia is a crucial arena for the US' global strategies, being a region which accounts for 40% of the world's population and a third of the world's global Gross Domestic Product (in purchasing-power parity terms).
However, as it happened, excessive attention came to be placed on the "militarization" of the pivot strategy, which instead of deterring China, held out the danger of precipitating a confrontation with China at some point. On the other hand, doubts have arisen over the long-term execution and sustainability of the strategy, given the grim reality that a fiscally-stretched US may be hard-pressed to locate the budgetary means to fund the pivot.
US allies in Asia already complain that the pivot is strong on rhetoric but lacking in substance. Indeed, the US deployments so far have been mostly symbolic. Meanwhile, the American commanders during recent Congressional hearings have been openly acknowledging that the US armed forces are being starved of resources.
For instance, in his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in Washington last month, Commander of the US Pacific Command Admiral Samuel J Locklear said:
Budget uncertainty has hampered our readiness and complicated our ability to execute long-term plans and to efficiently use our resources … Due to continued budget uncertainty, we were forced to make difficult short-term choices and scale back or cancel valuable training exercises, negatively impacting both the multinational training needed to strengthen our alliances and build partner capacities as well as some unilateral training necessary to maintain our high end war-fighting capabilities. These budgetary uncertainties are also driving force management uncertainty. Current global force management resourcing, and the continuing demand to source deployed and ready forces from USPACOM AOR to other regions of the world, creates periods in USPACOM where we lack adequate intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities as well as key response forces, ultimately degrading our deterrence posture and our ability to respond.
While referring to the pivot strategy in Asia, General John Paxton, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps posed a key question during a recent speech, "Do we [US] have enough people and enough ships to do it?" He lamented, "We are on our way … to a less than a 300-ship navy. We are on our way to a 175,000 man Marine Corps."
According to General Paxton, the Marine Corps needs 54 amphibious ships to do its job, while current plans call for only 38, and that too is likely to shrink to 33. He asked, "With the dollars we have, and the ships we have and the aircraft we have, and the people we have, are we going to be ready to do what we need to do?"
In political terms, there is lingering uneasiness among US allies about the depth of Washington's resolve, notwithstanding remarks by the US President Barack Obama's hosts during his Asia tour that they were reassured by his words. To quote Narushige Michishita, a Japanese expert on security policy:
The wording of his [Obama's] statements was OK, but if you look at his demeanor and tone, he was very nuanced and trying not to get entangled in disputes with China.
This "nuanced" approach suits China fine, because it always took pains to maintain that its interests in the East China Sea are unrelated to those in the South China Sea, and vice versa. While not a mere naval strategy, China's two-fold objective is to make good its territorial claims while at the same time ensuring unimpeded strategic breakout beyond the constraints of the so-called First Island Chain that could be deemed to run from Northeast China through Japan and the Ryukyu archipelago, the Philippines and down to the Strait of Malacca.
Meanwhile, the Southeast Asian capitals are staying on the sidelines when it comes to tensions in the East China Sea, and they prefer to adopt a less direct and non-confrontational approach to China and keep tensions in check in the South China Sea.
The South Asian capitals have by and large kept a studied silence over the tensions between China and Japan. Simply put, they aren't interested in pushing the envelope in the East China Sea and would opt for a differentiated approach that serves the interests of maritime relations in the South China Sea.
Obama offered a clue to his own thinking on the 'pivot' strategy at his press conference in Manila at the fag-end of his Asia tour when he gave "the general takeaway" from his regional tour:
Our alliances in the Asia Pacific have never been stronger. Our relationship with ASEAN countries in Southeast Asia has never been stronger. I don't think that's subject to dispute.
But what followed was something quite extraordinary - the core tenets of what can probably be called by now the "Obama Doctrine". Obama held forth at some length to dispel the criticism in America regarding his foreign policy. Its application to the pivot strategy has stunning implications, and the important thing is that Obama articulated these thoughts during his Asia tour.
The bottom line, he said, is that he is being criticized at the failure to use military force, which is uncharitable because military force is something that needs to be deployed only as a last resort and it ought to be deployed wisely. Besides, he said that the American people have no interest in policies that "go headlong into a bunch of military adventures" that would have no bearing on the US's core security interests.
Obama elaborated, "[T]here are disasters and difficulties and challenges around the world, and not all of those are going to be immediately solvable by us [US]." Therefore, the prudent thing to do is to "look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep out military in reserve for where we absolutely need it."