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Foreign Policy

Obama’s Most Portentous Foreign Policy Mistake: The ‘Pivot to Asia’

Jun 24 , 2014

“The Pace of Obama’s Disasters: Bergdahl one week. Then Ukraine. Now Iraq. What could be next?” This is the title of an article written by

Stephen Harner

What indeed? Even as his analysis takes a tour d’horizon of Obama administration foreign policy mistakes, Stephens leaves out the greatest Obama foreign failure of all: The so-called “pivot to Asia.” 

It is argued persuasively by organizations such as the Cato Institute that, despite how troubling the situations in Syria, Iraq, and the Ukraine are, entering or reentering these conflicts cannot be justified in terms of America’s core strategic interests. On the contrary, U.S. core interests demand that America remain disengaged, while, moreover, quickly ending futile and strategically unjustifiable “nation building” in Afghanistan. 

By contrast, the “pivot to Asia” policy formulated during the first two years of Obama presidency has been and will continue to be hugely, if ironically, consequential for American strategic interests. Its consequences have been disruptive, counter-productive, and fundamentally inimical to America’s core strategic interests, and to the stability and security of Asia. 

What is, or should be, the overarching strategic interest of the United States in Asia?  In short, it is the building of a mutually beneficial, constructive, non-confrontational, “win-win” relationship with China. This has been the case during the entire Obama presidency, as well as earlier. Any such relationship, however, requires U.S. recognition and accommodation of China’s core national interests. Unless there is a conflict between Chinese and American core national interests–which, I submit, there is not–American policy should be to actively seek U.S.-China strategic partnership. 

Listening to the rhetoric from Obama administration officials over the past six years, it often seemed that they fully embraced this concept of U.S. core interest. Vice President Biden went so far as asserting that the U.S.-China relationship would be the “organizing principle” of international relations in this century.  

How then does one understand, or explain, the “pivot to Asia” policy, first announced in 2010?

First, we should understand that while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton served as principal spokesman, the policy was and is essentially a Pentagon project. 

Looking through the oft-heard rhetorical window dressing, the ‘pivot’ is essentially about maintaining predominant hegemonic U.S. military power in East Asia. Its most coherent program has been “strengthening U.S. alliances” in Asia–most importantly with Japan, the location of key air U.S. bases, and home port for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, but also with the Philippines (including reentering former Subic and Clark bases), and Australia, while cultivating new defense ties with such countries as Vietnam.  Overall, the pivot calls for deploying 60% of U.S. strategic naval and air power to the region by 2020.  

What so far have been the consequences of the “pivot to Asia” policy?  We see them everywhere:  

  • After receiving a signal that the U.S. “does not oppose” such a move, Japan’s “nationalized” the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and continues to refuse even to acknowledge China’s claim to sovereignty over the islands. China as been compelled to respond Japan’s unilateral change in the status quo, and we so live with dangerous, almost daily, confrontation between Japanese and Chinese coast guard vessels and aircraft.
  • The de facto U.S. “tilt” in favor of Japan in the dispute, despite long-standing policy of “taking no position” on territorial disputes.
  • U.S. support for Japanese protests and accusations of “aggression” toward China’s completely legal and justified declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea area–complementing a U.S.-Japan ADIZ existing since the 1950s–including over the Diaoyu islands. 
  • Emboldened by the U.S. ‘pivot’ and assurances by Hillary Clinton and President Obama that the U.S. will always stand by Manila, Philippines’ began persistently and provocatively  occupying the South China Sea islands claimed by China. They also refused to enter into constructive dialogue with China (an obstreperousness certain to be hardened by the new U.S.-Philippines military pact).
  • A December 5 near collision between a Chinese naval ship training with the Liaoning aircraft carrier in the South China Sea and the U.S.S. Cowpens guided missile cruiser that had been shadowing the Chinese ships in a Cold War protocol against the Soviet Union. Secretary of Defense Hagel charged that the Chinese vessel has been “irresponsible” but the real irresponsibility was in the Cowpens’ provocative close-in shadowing actions.
  • Histrionic, dangerously provocative actions by Vietnam to disrupt China’s drilling operations conducted within the 12 mile limit of territory claimed by China. Statements by U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Kerry, evidence a “tilt” to Vietnam in the dispute. 

One of the great tragedies of the Obama presidency has been the absence of a foreign policy decision-maker who resembles someone along the lines of Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski. That is, anyone (including Obama himself) who possesses the strategic geopolitical vision, credibility, and influence to counter powerful Pentagon and bureaucratic interests in the status quo and to achieve real change.  

The strategic geopolitical vision and change required is not hard to see. It is sincere willingness on the part of the United States to forge a “new type of great power” relationship with Asia’s most important country and potential American strategic partner: China. This is the vision proposed by President Xi Jinping to President Obama at the Sunnylands Summit in June 2012 and by others since then.  

Forging a stable, constructive, “win-win” relationship between the United States and China requires a reversal of the “pivot to Asia,” a staged but definite withdrawal of American forces from Asia and end to the post WWII/Cold War system of U.S.-Asian alliances.  

Ending the unnatural and historically aberrant U.S. military hegemony in East Asia would encourage all Asian states, foremost among them Japan, to pursue in good faith cooperative relations with regional neighbors, creating conditions for true regional comity.  

Asian nations are capable of resolving their differences and reaching win-win modus vivendi and would more readily do so if the United States were not interfering. American intervention has rarely been a force for stability and comity in the region, and clearly is not such a force today.   

The Obama administration is contending with a host of foreign policy mistakes. The Administration should therefore correct the most portentous one by reversing the “pivot to Asia.” 

Stephen M. Harner was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in Beijing, Washington, D.C., Hong Kong and Tokyo.  He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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