Whither the Pivot in 2013?

By Mike Green

U.S. lookout stands watch in the South China Sea. Sustaining emphasis on Asia will be a crucial challenge for the United States in 2013. Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

Editor’s Note: The CSIS Asia Team is writing a series of analyses that forecasts key issues and challenges in the Asia-Pacific for 2013. Dr. Michael J. Green opens the series by assessing the prospects for the U.S. rebalance to Asia at the outset of President Obama’s second term. Want more analysis? Plan to attend the CSIS Asia-Pacific Forecast 2013 event on January 29 in Washington D.C. or watch the webcast live online.

As security experts in the Asia-Pacific region forecast 2013, the variable they are often most interested in is whether the Obama administration’s much vaunted “Pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia will continue. The fiscal cliff, uncertain defense budgets, near silence on trade policy, and the departure of the officials most associated with the Pivot — particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell — have all raised questions about whether the administration’s active engagement of the region will continue.

Before assessing the future of the Pivot, however, it is probably necessary to define what it actually is. Theoretically, any new conception of grand strategy should marry the ends, or national interests at stake, the means for achieving those interests, and the ways those means will be employed to deal with new challenges to the nation’s interests.

The Pivot emerged from no such careful policy planning process or central strategic document. Instead, it was the result of a confluence of planning and narratives related to domestic political messaging, military strategy, and unexpected developments in Asia. These five elements were:

1. The broad sense that Asia is more important to U.S. national interests. This recognition is reflected in numerous public and elite opinion polls over the past few years.  As the Scottish economic historian Angus Maddison demonstrated, Asia is returning to the center of international economic output after a hiatus of 200 years that started with the industrial revolution and the demise of the Qing Empire in China.

The American people know this intuitively, which is why in recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs polls they began identifying Asia as the most important region in the world to the United States. Raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, President Obama also understood this. However, recognizing that a region is more important to U.S. interests does not in itself represent a grand strategy.  It begins to identify the ends, but not the ways and means.

2. Political messaging. As Bob Woodward describes in Obama’s Wars, senior White House officials around the President were looking for arguments to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan –the conflict which candidate Obama had identified as the “good war” to brandish his national security credentials as he critiqued the surge in Iraq.  The Pentagon’s January 2012 Strategic Guidance punctuated the theme that U.S. military forces had to focus more on East Asia after a decade of intense combat in Southwest Asia.

This was a proper prioritization of future missions, but also good political cover for much deeper defense cuts than outgoing Secretary of Defense Bob Gates had recommended as prudent.  However, there was very little strategic planning on Asia that went into the “rebalancing.”  As The New York Times reported, the military services were tasked by the White House to describe what might go into the rebalance only after it was announced.  In that sense, the Pivot is still a work in progress in terms of the means for executing the strategy.

3. A reaction to Chinese assertiveness. Broadly speaking, U.S. strategy towards Asia and the Pacific has combined the engagement of China continued by every president since Nixon went to Beijing in 1972, with the balance-of-power strategy continued by every president since Clinton revitalized the U.S.-Japan alliance in 1996.  The senior strategists in the Obama administration knew this, and made a point of inviting Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso as the first foreign head of state to visit the White House.

On the engagement side, the administration then tried to add more “strategic reassurance” and institutional superstructure to the relationship with China.  This included a joint statement on the occasion of President Obama’s November 2009 visit to Beijing in which he and President Hu Jintao each agreed to respect the other nation’s “core interests,” which included Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang for China and the U.S. role as a Pacific power.  That was not a good trade for the U.S. side, particularly when it was paid for with gestures meant to signal a new tone with Beijing such as delaying the traditional visit of the Dalai Lama to the White House.  Though the administration clearly did not intend to do so, it gave the impression of accommodation to a rising China.

The next year Beijing clashed at sea with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over maritime territorial claims, and refused to pressure Pyongyang after deadly North Korean attacks on South Korea. It was evident that Beijing was either unwilling or unable to deliver on its side of the strategic reassurance effort.  With a clamor from regional allies and partners for a more active U.S. stance, the administration increased the emphasis on balance-of-power in its approach to the region.  In January 2011 when Hu Jintao visited the United States, the joint statement he issued with the President did not include any reference to “core interests;” a deliberate omission insisted upon by the State and White House negotiators.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then put the word “pivot” into circulation when she used it in her article on Asia in Foreign Policy magazine in November 2011.  Military dimensions of the Pivot –or “rebalance” as it was being called in the White House –also began to surface.  The January 2012 Defense Department Strategic Guidance noted threats posed by the PLA and included assessments of PLA anti-access capabilities in the same sentence with Iran.  That April, the United States and Japan agreed on the mechanism for dispersing U.S. Marine units from Okinawa to Guam and Northern Australia.  Both the Strategic Guidance and the deployment to Darwin were announced by the President, giving these military elements of the Pivot particular prominence.  This aspect of the Pivot, while sound military strategy overall, has raised questions in the region about whether the purpose of U.S. engagement is actually to contain China.

4. Realignment of U.S. forward posture. In fact, the realignment of U.S. forward posture in the Pacific began over a decade ago, driven by the need to reduce pressure from U.S. bases on Okinawa and to deal with growing low-intensity challenges in Southeast Asia and growing A2AD (anti-access area denial) challenges in Northeast Asia.  In that sense, the realignment is not old, but it has become increasingly urgent and –for better or worse –identified with the Pivot to the region.  And precisely because the larger strategic context of the Pivot has not been articulated sufficiently, the specific force posture spending proposals have been blocked by the U.S. Congress.  It was in this context that CSIS was tasked to complete an independent assessment of U.S. force posture strategy in the Asia Pacific region in 2012.  Our report found that the overall administration strategy for the region was sound, but urged the administration to find venues to explain the larger strategic context for the Pivot more consistently for Congressional and foreign audiences.

5. Greater engagement of Southeast Asia. From the beginning of the administration, Secretary of State Clinton has been an active and enthusiastic participant in the sometimes dreary multilateral diplomacy of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), with unprecedented perfect attendance at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).  Previous Deputy Secretaries have shown similar enthusiasm about Southeast Asia, in particular Bob Zoellick, but Clinton is the first Secretary of State to sustain attention to the region.  How much of that will dissipate with her successor is not clear, though the intense diplomatic confrontations with China behind the scenes in recent years could make the ARF too important to skip.  Meanwhile, President Obama has fully embraced the regional institutional architecture centered on ASEAN.

There are multiple dimensions to Asian multilateralism, ranging from the trans-Pacific Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, to the smaller trilateral the United States does with Japan and Australia.  ASEAN members have been pushing for “ASEAN centrality” in this process and President Obama has obliged by joining and then attending two years in a row the new East Asia Summit (EAS). The move raised concerns among those hoping that APEC would maintain a strong trans-Pacific anchor in regional architecture, but the President’s commitment to the EAS may be the most lasting dimension of the Pivot. It means that in future American presidents will likely take two annual trips to the region (one for APEC when it is not in the Western hemisphere and one for EAS).

Some critics say that all the administration has done is pivot from North to Southeast Asia, but in fact the enhanced engagement of Southeast Asia represents a filling-out of overall U.S. strategy given the growing importance of ASEAN both as a major trading partner in its own right, and as an objective of U.S. and Chinese strategic influence.

So will the Pivot continue in 2013?  Certainly the American people will continue to see Asia as the most important region to their interests, but polls also indicate that Americans identify the Middle East as the most dangerous region to their interests. Given that 2013 could be the year of reckoning on Iran’s nuclear program, not to mention the likely denouement for Syria, John Kerry will require real strategic discipline to keep a focus on Asia. The administration has also had some difficulty managing the inherent tension between engaging China and maintaining a favorable balance of power in the region.  Allies such as Japan and the Philippines worry that in the second term the administration may tilt back towards an emphasis on reassuring, rather than dissuading, Beijing.  That would be unfortunate, since lack of consistency on that front hurt the administration in the first term with both the allies and Beijing.

Engagement of ASEAN is a noted success for this administration, but the terrain could become tougher in the years ahead, given renewed ethnic conflict in Burma, leadership transitions in Indonesia, and domestic political problems in Vietnam, Malaysia and elsewhere. A strong U.S. Trade Representative empowered to move forward on the Trans-Pacific Partnership would certainly help the sustainability of the Pivot, particularly with ASEAN.  Finally, all eyes will be on the defense budget. A carefully managed cut to defense spending that allows reprogramming for naval and air force capabilities in the Pacific is necessary.  Sequestration that throws the defense establishment into chaos would damage the region’s image of American strategic competence.

If the President sticks to his commitment to attend summits in the region twice a year, however, the impact of these decisions on trade and defense will come home to him and his team with a regularity that should help keep the Pivot alive.

Dr. Michael J. Green is Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS and an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University. You can RSVP for the CSIS Asia Pacific Forecast 2013 event on January 29 or plan to watch the live webcast online at CSIS.org and #Asiapalooza on twitter.

Michael J. Green

Michael J. Green

Dr. Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS. He is also an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University.