Page 2 of 2 Obama resets the 'pivot' to Asia
By M K Bhadrakumar
Obama went on to stress that military force is only one of "the tools we've got in the toolkit" and if there are occasions where "targeted, clear actions can be taken that would make a difference, then we should take them." But otherwise, it is the diplomatic track that ought to be given priority.
Obama claimed that this foreign-policy approach is paying off and "it is fair to say that our alliances are stronger, our partnerships are stronger, and in the Asia Pacific region, just to take one example, we are much better positioned to work with the peoples here on a whole range of issues of mutual interest."
He concluded that the focus, therefore, ought to be on "steadily" advancing the interests of the American people and the US's
partnerships. The stress was on an incremental approach.
It is extraordinary that Obama spoke in this vein at the concluding lap of his Asia tour, which was being widely looked to locally for signs of a robust confirmation that America-led bilateral security relationships remained the backbone of peace and stability in the region and that was what the pivot primarily aimed at.
In a nutshell, Obama underscored that he eschewed military adventures abroad in countries engaged in messy conflicts, and wanted instead to focus more on diplomacy and trade.
This is perfectly understandable because Obama hopes to spend more time on domestic issues at a time when the economy is barely recovering and when social disparities are growing. Call it one of the vagaries of history, or the decline of a superpower, but Obama hopes to pay attention only on foreign-policy issues that affect the US's core interests.
Indeed, Syria has been a glaring example of how the "Obama Doctrine" is at work. We know that he nixed the proposal for arming and organizing vetted moderate Syrian opposition commanders - something that was collectively proposed by the then secretaries of state and defense Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey and the then CIA Director David Petraeus. Later, he chose the path to work with Russia on eliminating Syria's chemical weapons rather than embark on a military strike.
Of course, the detractors are galore - be it on Obama's approach toward the Syrian conflict or on relations with Russia and the 'pivot' strategy in the Asia-Pacific. As an American columnist Trudy Rubin wrote:
[S]ending the Ukrainian army MREs - yes, more of them - just makes us look foolish. People are asking whether, as was the case with those sent to the Syrian rebels, their sell-by date is about to expire … In Manila, Obama seemed not to recognize that China is watching. So are America's Asian allies, who have to judge whether Washington will support them if Beijing makes aggressive moves… That kind of approach will convince Moscow, Beijing and Tehran that Obama can be ignored, which will create new foreign-policy headaches. It signals a president who isn't really interested in the foreign-policy game.
Unsurprisingly, an opinion piece in the Philippine Daily Inquirer framed the big question as the US president headed home: "Is Obama pledge really ironclad?"
The fact of the matter is that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed during Obama's visit to Manila defines a new mode of security relationship between the two countries and revises the framework of the expanded presence of US forces in Philippine military bases. It is perceived by many as a counterweight to Chinese territorial expansion in the South China Sea as well as to meet the Chinese challenge to the US hegemony in Asia-Pacific.
The EDCA emanates out of a US commitment to defend the Philippines, which, in Obama's words, is "ironclad … because allies never stand alone." But how much ironclad is Obama's commitment? In a symbolic speech to Filipino and American soldiers at Fort Bonifacio last Tuesday before his departure after the overnight stop in Manila, Obama quoted from the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and said the two countries had pledged to defend each other "against external attacks, so that no potential aggressor could be under the illusion that either of them stands alone." He added that the "deepening of our alliance is part of our broader vision for the Asia-Pacific."
On the other hand, Obama didn't give a categorical answer when asked after the signing of the EDCA whether the 1951 MDT would apply in case the Philippines' territorial dispute with China escalated into an armed confrontation. He sidestepped neatly and said China had an "interest in abiding by international law" and that "larger countries have a greater responsibility" doing so. Obama added, "Our goal is not counter China. Our goal is not to contain China."
Throttled in the cradle
The big question will be how China perceives the reset of the pivot strategy by Obama. While Beijing is intensely watching Obama's policies on Ukraine, given its far-reaching impact on the world order, it will be wrong to rush to judgment that China views all of American policy through the prism of the most difficult crisis of the day, rather than taking the longer view.
The coming weeks and months will show whether Beijing would choose to exploit the recrudescence of old European enmities (and America's entanglement in them, being a congenital Atlantic power), to lean hard on China's neighbors in the region.
So far, the official Chinese reaction by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has narrowed down to a perfunctory objection to Obama's assertion that the US-Japan alliance treaty also covers Senkaku.
As for the 10-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the US and the Philippines, a commentary by Xinhua over the weekend analyzed that "the next few days could actually derail the implementation of the agreement", given the groundswell of opposition in the Philippine Senate and House of Representatives that their country "would not be getting much in return" for "virtually allowing the whole country to be an American military base."
The paradox cannot be lost on Beijing that although Obama is as "Pacific" an American president as could be in a long while, his presidency is still tied by umbilical cords to trans-Atlantic concerns and constrained by its involvement in the never-ending exigencies in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere.
In a sense, therefore, it is possible to say that Obama's tour is a valiant attempt to revert US Asia-Pacific policy to a "pre-pivot" mode - which was never going to be easy, because Obama also has to cope with the rise in regional tensions following the unveiling of the pivot two years ago. The latest standoff between China and Vietnam becomes a test case.
Without doubt, the fizz has gone out of the US' pivot strategy, as unveiled by the then secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Arguably, Beijing throttled the pivot in the cradle in 2012 on the Scarborough Shoal. The 'pivot' never really regained its verve after the US' failure to militarily intervene.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe subsequently has tried his best to inject fresh life into the "pivot", but then came the Chinese move to create the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). China promulgated the ADIZ but then, curiously, it wouldn't enforce it. Suffice to say, Beijing has been reactive. Interestingly, Obama's Air Force One flew through the ADIZ after filing a routine fight plan.
The core issue comes down to the US' willingness to engage in a conflict with China, which could well happen if the US is bent on perpetuating its dominance of the region. But Obama understands the severe limitations in going to war with China. During his recent tour, he was throughout taking a position of strategic ambiguity when directly confronted with that question.
It is a moot point why Obama wouldn't give a blanket, all-weather commitment to protect Japan or the Philippines when he is prepared to do that in the case of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. But then, the US, including the Obama administration, has never made any bones about the fact that the NATO is of pivotal importance to America's global strategies. US Secretary of State John Kerry made a pretty strong valedictorian speech at the 50th Munich Security Conference in February to emphasize the point.
Ironically, the US is better placed today in Asia than it has been in the recent decade or two and why should it upset the apple cart? China's growth is integral to the recovery and rejuvenation of the American economy. China is potentially the principal source of investment in the American economy. China's proposed reforms in the direction of opening up the financial system and domestic market are hugely attractive for the American business. China's cooperation is vital to contain the North Korea problem; to conclude an Iran nuclear deal; to stabilize Afghanistan, and so on.
Again, India has transformed as a close friend of the US and there is huge untapped reserve in the US-Indian partnership. Malaysia has turned the corner and has left behind the openly anti-American decades in its foreign policy. Myanmar is moving out of China's orbit and is manifestly eager to engage the US. Vietnam has buried the old enmities and looks at the US as a counterweight to rising China, which creates more space for Hanoi to negotiate with Beijing.
Most certainly, the specter of nuclearization of the Far East haunts Beijing as well as Washington. Again, the US too feels uneasy about the surge in Japanese militarism, as indeed China (and South Korea). As for Beijing, the burgeoning trade and investment relations with the US (and the West) are critical to the realization of China's Dream. Thus, on the whole, the US-China interdependency could become a factor of regional stability in Asia-Pacific.
Therefore, if a reasonably good case can also be made that the present Chinese leadership consists of cool, rational, thinking people, and, secondly, assuming that China has set its national priorities of reform in all earnestness, Obama is doing the right thing to initiate a reset of the pivot strategy.
Era of retrenchment
Obama is not going to compel China to accept US leadership, which he knows is an unachievable goal anyway. During the remainder of the Obama presidency, a US-China confrontation can be safely ruled out.
Besides, it isn't at all as if the US's Asian partners do not have a mind of their own and are blithely taking shelter under the American umbrella. Expanding the flourishing trade and investment ties with China is a top priority for each of them.
Obama failed to meet the principal objective of his Asian tour, which was to secure agreements on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a US-dominated free-trade area. The TPP is facing stiff resistance from Japan and Malaysia, in particular.
By the way, not once during his Asia tour, Obama touched on China's "assertiveness", an argument that originally provided the raison d'etre for the pivot strategy. Obama's emphasis was on China's adherence to international law and an overall conduct with a sense of responsibility, which is only expected of big powers.
The notion of China's assertiveness was a flawed one in the first instance. The plain truth is that according to World Bank estimate, China is expected to replace the US this year as the world's largest economy on a "purchasing power parity" (PPP) basis. It means that very soon, China will have a bigger economy than of the US for purposes of military spending.
In PPP terms, China's economy can be 60% bigger than the US economy in a decade. Clearly, the talk about assertiveness has lost relevance. Containment of China, or the pivot to Asia, is no longer an affordable proposition, either. As a Guardian columnist put it recently, "Are Americans prepared to give up social security or Medicare in order to maintain US military supremacy in Asia?"
The heart of the matter is that paradigm shifts often take time to sink in. There is a shift in the US foreign policies taking place under the Obama presidency, which is away from its 'militarization'. David Sanger of the New York Times recently wrote, "Obama acknowledges, at least in private conversations that he is managing an era of American retrenchment."
Equally, the Asian region is rapidly transforming and while it is in need of more regional security contributions from the US, it is the resident states that are going to make the ultimate difference in the medium and long term. The economic trends are making the pivot unsustainable and the need arises for the US to negotiate more with China, promoting peace and stability by working with its allies for a regional framework that can manage tensions in the contested neighborhood.
It involves sharing power with China, which may not be easy but is becoming unavoidable and it could even have a pleasant outcome, as the end result could be more social and economic progress and reduced risk of wars.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).