A pivot too far?
The declaration of America's strategic pivot to Asia announced in November clearly sought to generate confidence in America's future leadership role in this region and respect for Washington's capacity to orchestrate this very impressive diplomatic tour de force. Many in Asia have been worrying about American decline. Obama projected American optimism, principles, determination, and leadership.
This strategy has substantial potential benefits, but it is not nearly as certain a trumpet as the president and Secretary Clinton made it sound. Most importantly, the United States will not have the resources and capacity to fully meet the president's promises unless it addresses its domestic fiscal and related political problems far more effectively than recent experiences suggest is likely. Putting America's domestic house in order is a necessary condition for the success of the new Asia strategy. In addition, the Chinese may respond in increasingly challenging ways, especially as their domestic politics intrude.
Most countries in Asia, moreover, are determined to continue to expand their economic and trade relations with China even as they worry that Beijing will leverage its growing economic clout for diplomatic and security advantage. While they therefore want the United States to prevent China from successfully taking advantage of others in the region, no country wants to see a tension-filled U.S.-China relationship that creates pressure for everyone else to choose sides. They rather want to be able to maintain equally effective relations with China and the United States and to derive benefit from both the cooperation and the competition between the two giants in the region. The notion that the United States will shape the major outcomes in the region because countries there will welcome clear American leadership misunderstands these more complicated calculations around the region.
The United States had been responding to entreaties from its friends and allies in Asia by taking actions primarily on the diplomatic and security side until well into 2011. This ran the immediate risk that some countries, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, might succeed in dragging the United States into their own territorial disputes with China, a situation that Washington had wisely taken care to avoid in the past. More fundamentally, this broad approach ran the longer-term risk that Asia will increasingly become a cost center for the United States (providing security is expensive), while the region will continue to serve as a growing profit center for China (due to its vast economic engagement). Given America's fiscal plight, that is not a comforting or possibly even a sustainable trajectory.
The Obama administration's pivot to Asia prospectively establishes a more balanced economic, diplomatic, and security approach. The recent U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement ratification and efforts to create the TPP are very important steps in this direction. But this new integrated Asia strategy risks overreach by creating expectations that Washington will not be able to meet, feeding suspicions in China that may lead to a far more irascible U.S.-China relationship, and assuming goals among other Asian countries that miss their more complex perceptions of American prospects and strategies in the region.
It is therefore very important for American officials to keep tight control of their rhetoric so as to avoid unnecessary distrust and tension as they flesh out details of U.S. strategy. During the critical period coming up with North Korea, for example, U.S.-China communication and cooperation can prove extremely important. To the extent that American rhetoric feeds strategic distrust in Beijing, such cooperation on the issue of North Korea, which China regards as a major security concern, will be far more difficult to achieve.
While significant progress in U.S.-China relations is unlikely during the coming year because of the succession/election taking place in both countries, therefore, the United States should not neglect the importance of enhancing the relationship with Beijing as part of any successful regional and global strategy. No amount of success among other countries in Asia will in itself produce the regional results that Obama seeks.
Indeed, both the United States and China must keep in mind that they are best served by adopting positions that engender a healthy respect in the other capital concerning capabilities and goals so that neither acts rashly and both have strong incentives to cooperate where possible. As of now, it is too soon to tell whether Obama's November trip has laid the basis for a truly more balanced, sustainable strategy in Asia.