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Foreign Policy

The U.S.’ Asia Pivot and Implications for the DPRK Nuclear Issue

Jan 07 , 2013
  • Duyeon Kim

    Deputy Director, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

The Obama administration began issuing a series of announcements since the fall of 2011 indicating that the U.S. would be focusing more on the Asia Pacific in an apparent move to realign the center of gravity of its core interests. According to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the ultimate and underpinning goal is to promote U.S. interests by influencing the shaping of rules and norms of Asia-Pacific to ensure that “international law and norms be respected, that commerce and freedom of navigation are not impeded, that emerging powers build trust with their neighbors, and that disagreements are resolved peacefully without threats or coercion.”[1]

The motivation behind the intensified focus appears to be a recognition of the Asia Pacific region’s growing role and position in geopolitics. In her Foreign Policy essay, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed, “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”[2] She outlined six key lines of action in her November Foreign Policy essay [3] and also notes the three core principles for updating alliances to a changing world. [4]

Behind the diplomatic jargon is what experts view as an objective to contain China’s rising influence amid Beijing’s growing military muscle. The U.S. Department of Defense believes that “China’s rise as a major international actor is likely to stand out as a defining feature of the strategic landscape of the early 21st century.”[5] While the rebalancing also comes at a time of economic austerity for the U.S. and constrained defe  nse resources, the Department of Defense plans to give the Asia Pacific region higher priority and minimize cuts in the Navy.  The DOD states that China’s military “is now venturing into the global maritime domain, a sphere long dominated by the U.S. Navy.”[6]

Thus, concrete elements of the Pivot can be found in the US military. President Barack Obama stressed, “I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority. As a result, reductions in U.S. defense spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.”[7]

On the diplomatic front, a major strand of the Asia Pivot is deepening US engagement with multilateral institutions in the Asia Pacific while successfully managing US-China relations. Since 2009, the Obama administration has sought to enhance its diplomatic presence in East Asia made notably visible by the numerous trips by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region that outnumber her predecessors.

Implications for the North Korean Dilemma

It does not appear Washington specifically had North Korea in mind per se while formulating its Asia Pivot approach. A renewed focus on China also does not necessarily translate into a renewed focus on or attention to the North Korea problem. Rather, the fate of Washington’s North Korea policy in reality has been contingent upon presidential attention and priority more or less irrespective of a broader regional policy. For the past two decades, North Korea has been on and off the back shelf on a need basis, and the current Obama administration has dealt with it reactively and tactically, rather than proactively or strategically. What is more, this administration has pursued a nonproliferation policy rather than a denuclearization policy vis-à-vis North Korea.

However, the Asia Pivot nevertheless has implications for the North Korean issue. A focus on China means China-North Korea issues would be dealt with within the framework of future U.S.-China relations, which could in turn affect the North Korean nuclear problem.

First, the Asia Pivot is expected to lead to a repetitive series of tension and cooperation between the two powers, which means, tensions could first appear on the periphery.  If the policy is ultimately a containment or encirclement policy, then surrounding countries could be the first to be affected by any conflicts that arise between Washington and Beijing during the Asia Pivot’s implementation. In other words, the first signs of conflict or tension between the U.S. and China may appear in issues or problems in countries surrounding China. History has shown that while powers may not collide head on, any conflicts in the relationship have been manifested through problems arising in neighboring countries.  Put in yet other words, for the purposes of this paper, the Korean Peninsula could become the battleground for and of such friction in the absence of careful management of Washington-Beijing ties.

Second, contrary to some beliefs, Pyongyang may not be able to be a complete wedge driver between Washington and Beijing, although it may indeed try to cause headaches and distractions. Instead, the real challenge would come if and when North Korean demands are aligned with Chinese interests.

Third, the influence and effect of the future U.S.-China relationship on South-North relations and South Korea-China relations could grow. This depends on the outcome of the 2012 U.S. and South Korean presidential elections, and whether Washington, Seoul, and Beijing’s North Korea policies are in sync and coordinated.

Fourth, the impression given off by the Asia Pivot – that it is targeted against and containing China – could potentially make it more difficult at times for Washington to win Beijing’s cooperation on issues like North Korea (and Iran).

Finally, as many experts and officials have noted, the future course of the Asia Pivot could ultimately force some countries to choose sides between the U.S. and China on how to deal with regional issues. Such phenomena could spill over into how regional players desire to deal with North Korea.

The Road Ahead: Variables and Challenges

The root variable for the future of the Asia Pivot, and in turn the North Korea issue, is ultimately who sits in the Oval Office and who is tapped as Secretary of State. Public announcements of an Asia Pivot signal a second Obama administration would implement the policy further in some form. However, key questions have yet to be answered on details – more specifically, how the Obama White House chooses to match rhetoric with actionable steps, particularly in a time of economic austerity for the U.S.  Some experts in Asia point to Washington’s “selective” or “issue-by-issue” engagement, raising questions about a “clear vision for the Asia-Pacific region backed up by a comprehensive knowledge and profound understanding of regional dynamics and concerns.”[8] It also remains to be seen if and how challenges in other parts of the world – namely Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East – will compete for presidential attention, political capital, and military resources.

China’s reaction is another variable in not only the direction of the Asia Pivot but in the future geopolitical landscape. Some Chinese analysts for now seem to brush off Washington’s fervor of “China’s rise” claiming their country is far from becoming the type of major superpower the U.S. seems to be forecasting. In public, the PRC has reacted rather cautiously with Vice President Xi remarks during this February 2012 U.S. trip: “China welcomes a constructive role by the United States in promoting peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific… At the same time, we hope the United States will respect the interests and concerns of China and other countries in this region.”[9]

Nevertheless, some nationalistic voices have been calling for military countermeasures to the new U.S. defense strategic guidelines and strengthening military posture in the region.[10] It is also unclear whether the Asia Pivot would prompt Beijing to heed to liberal voices calling for an alignment closer to Moscow and develop the BRICs grouping as a new “pole” against the West.[11]

The power dynamics in recent years among the Six Party Talks countries have evolved to the current structure of essentially one (North Korea)-to-five (U.S., South Korea, China, Japan, Russia) or two (North Korea, China)-to-four as a result of increasing North Korean provocations in recent years. Should China strategically align itself closer with Russia, the dynamics may eventually shift back to three (North Korea, China, Russia)-to-three (U.S., South Korea, Japan).

On a larger scale, revving up the pressure on China could force Beijing’s hand on a more aggressive and even larger game of “go” on the world map.[12] If Washington’s Asia Pivot is in fact an encirclement strategy, Washington may find itself actually playing a game of chess while Beijing continues to play “go” by continuing to expand its influence in Brazil and Africa.

Asia Pivot or not, it is evident China is growing, and Washington’s response to its “rise” will need to be carefully calibrated to calm fears about intensified U.S.-China strategic competition: ignoring a more assertive China could fuel existing beliefs that the U.S. is in decline while a hostile response would confirm Chinese suspicions that Washington seeks to contain its rise and “could cement the emergence of a U.S.-China Cold War.”[13] The next White House’s decision could in turn have an effect on how successful Washington can gain Beijing’s cooperation on the North Korea issue as they bargain other pressing bilateral and regional issues.

A potential benefit of strengthening one prong of the Asia Pivot – that is, strengthening U.S. multilateral diplomacy – is building confidence among Asian nations of US engagement and staying power in the region to balance a rising China. The Obama administration’s participation in high-level official meetings in regional fora has also raised costs of not participating in them in the future. At the same time, political transitions in key countries this year coupled with North Korea’s succession could lead to potential political challenges should priorities shift considerably in the region. Still, Beijing may find itself forced to make some tough decisions in the event that the next US administration makes a political decision to either implement the Asia Pivot with vigor or proactively deal with the North Korean nuclear issue.

Duyeon Kim is the Deputy Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC. Kim’s policy work focuses on nonproliferation, North Korea, US foreign policy, nuclear security and nuclear terrorism prevention.

[1] Tom Donilon, “America is Back in the Pacific and will Uphold the Rules,” Financial Times, 27 November 2011.

[2] Clinton, Hillary. “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, November 2011.

[3] Clinton, Hillary. “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, November 2011.

[4] Ibid.

[5] U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress [on] Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011. Washington, 2011.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Remarks by President Obama to the Australian Parliament, 17 November 2011:

[8] Choi Kang, “How U.S. Must Adapt in Asia,” The Diplomat, 23 May 2012.

[9] Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, “Remarks by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping at a Luncheon Co-hosted by the U.S.-China Business Council and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations,” Federal News Service, 15 February 2012.

[10] Bonnie S. Glaser, “Pivot to Asia: Prepare for Unintended Consequences,” Global Perspective 2012, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Go is a Chinese board game that means “encircling game,” which uses white and black stones with the objective of surrounding more territory, or a larger total area of the board, than one’s opponent.

[13] Bonnie S. Glaser, “Pivot to Asia: Prepare for Unintended Consequences,” Global Perspective 2012, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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