Asia pivot: old wine in new bottles?

Carl Pi-Cheng Huang

Around this time last year, one of the biggest U.S. foreign policy issues was US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s America’s Pacific Century speech:

“As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.”

pivotpic

This pivot point later became known as United States’ “Asia pivot” policy through which America looks to sustain its leadership, secure its people’s interests, and advance American values. Clinton later also wrote that “a strong America is working with new powers and partners to update an international system designed to prevent global conflict and promote global prosperity.”

While the Asia pivot did not receive much attention during the 2012 presidential campaign, with Obama’s re-election and recent visit to Asia, America’s new Asia focus seems to raise increasing concerns. On the one hand, Robert Ross wrote on Foreign Affairs that the Asia pivot is “unnecessary and counterproductive.” On the other hand, Trevor Moss believes that Ross is wrong because the ‘friendly’ world he imagines, without the Asia pivot, simply does not exist. It is also noticeable that to some others (including AU’s Gordon Adams), the Asia pivot is still an empty policy or “a bumper sticker without much of a strategic design.”

With a closer look, the Asia pivot is problematic not because of its impact, but because of its all-inclusiveness. Today, it can mean almost any U.S. foreign policy towards Asia, from state visits, signings of defence pacts, promotions of trade agreements, to ambiguous neutrality in Asia’s territorial disputes. Does this year’s Asia pivot reveal anything new about U.S. foreign policy? One can remain suspicious for the following reasons:

1. It is not America’s first active Asia foreign policy

Obama’s historical visit to Myanmar earns him a lot of credits – but this does not make him “America’s first Pacific president” (At least Taft’s a contender?). Despite 9/11 and the global War on Terror, G.W. Bush also managed to make five trips to Asia (two in his first term and three in his second term, including the Beijing Olympics), signed FTA’s with Australia and Singapore, and approved major arms deal to Taiwan. Yes, the Asia-Pacific might be the most dynamic region in the world now, but previous American presidents did not ignore it.

2. It is not a policy departure from Obama’s first term

In Daniel Drezner’s article last year, he believes that Obama’s foreign policy doctrine includes a strategy of counterpunching, which is actually quite identical with Asia pivot:

“In response to international provocations, the United States has signaled that it can still rally allies and counter rising threats. For example, the United States tightened its economic and security relationships with most of China’s neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region, forcing Beijing to rethink its strategy. In demonstrating a willingness to balance against rising threats, the United States has reassured its allies that it will not be retreating into isolationism anytime soon.”

The only difference between counterpunching and the Asia pivot, it seems, is the administration’s failure to explain the former to its people. However, the fact that the Asia pivot occupies a more substantial rhetorical space does not mean a policy departure is in place. In essence, the Asia pivot is a continuation of the same strategy Obama had initiated before the 2012 election.

3. It is not a departure from America’s post-Cold-War strategy

On a broader level, the Asia pivot is also consistent with America’s efforts to preserve its preponderance after the Cold War. Michael Mastanduno argues that to preserve America’s unipolar moment, it should take both balance-of-power and balance-of-threat into account. In terms of the Asia-Pacific, it means that America should not only care about balancing against the rising China, but also assuring the PRC and other Asian states that it is not a threat. If the U.S. fails to do so, Asian states might balance against America’s presence in Asia (Some ASEAN states under the Cambodian leadership have already been advocating a limited U.S. role in regional security).

While the Asia pivot is widely read as rebalancing against the PRC, Obama has shown that the United States will not “go it alone.” Embracing multilateralism and international institutions such as ASEAN and East Asia Summit does not guarantee America the interests it wants, but they are necessary to maintain the balance of threat and are consistent with Mastanduno’s argument 15 years ago.

4. The US is not immune from distractions

One final point is that although Asia is currently on the top of Obama’s foreign policy agenda, there are other factors that could affect a president’s agenda setting power in foreign policy in spite of his own will. Media and Congress are one source, the international system, in general, is another (while the former is not independent from the latter). As taught in American foreign policy class, there are always new developments in the world and the U.S. can be easily distracted. With recent escalations of events in the Middle East (Israel and the Gazza Strip, Egypt, continuation of crisis in Syria), Obama’s focus might ultimately remain there and the U.S.’s full engagement in Asia might sometimes just be impossible.

When Bush came into office in 2001, he also had a specific focus on Asia initially, prior to the events of 9/11. Whether the U.S. will stay in Asia for long this time will be a test of whether a president’s agenda setting power really matters in foreign policy, and the result is likely to be more of the same.

Carl Pi-Cheng Huang is a graduate student at Graduate Institute of Political Science, National Taiwan University. The views expressed are exclusively his. He can be reached at (r01322015@ntu.edu.tw) and on Twitter @carl_pch

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