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Foreign Policy

Why Brookings is Wrong About the US “Pivot” to Asia

Feb 11 , 2014

In the minds of the former U.S. government officials and policy academics who populate Washington think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Asia before the arrival of the East India Company’s Taipans and Commodore Perry’s “Black Ships” was devoid of an accepted, or acceptable, international order. China, Korea, Japan and the rest of the region were backward and incapable of sophisticated engagement with each other, or with the outside world.  

Stephen Harner

It has only been the West, and, especially, after WWII (a cataclysm proving the region’s incapacity for harmonious peaceful co-existence), the United States, that have provided the region a loadstone capable of ordering, uplifting and pacifying its fractious, benighted nationalities. 

History has bestowed upon the United States a civilizing mission, informed by a variant of Sun Yat-sen’s notion of “political tutelage,” to recreate Asian civil societies in liberal western modes, while U.S. military power must be permanently imbedded in the region to suppress latent Asian barbarism.  

To these think tank “scholars” (often, if not always, once-and-future U.S. government officials/government contractors/consultants/lobbyists in Washington’s revolving door quasi-public/quasi-private milieu) nothing in the past sixty years has altered the justification for this U.S. mission or its “hard power” military forces, bases, and alliance structure: not the end of the Cold War, not vibrant political processes in almost all countries, not the epochal emergence of middle classes following spectacular growth and regional and global economic integration, not the formation of intra-Asian political-economic associations.  

On the contrary, the exigency of pursuing the United States’ civilizing and pacifying missions seems to have intensified.   Indeed, it has become a vital U.S. interest against which the lion’s share of U.S. military and government resources must be directed. 

Some Obama administration officials will dispute it, but such thinking is behind the Obama administration’s “rebalance” (more vividly described as “pivot”) to Asia. 

That vested U.S. institutional interests, particularly Pentagon’s, are on high alert to prevent any slackening or backsliding in the “rebalance” program is evident in the “Return to the Rebalance” mock Memorandum to President Obama posted January 23 on the Brookings Institution website by Jeffrey A. Bader and Jonathan D. Pollack. 

A personal note: Jeff Bader was one of my State Department entering FSO classmates in 1975, and we worked together briefly in Hong Kong. After serving in Beijing and Tokyo I left State for Citibank but Jeff stayed and rose to senior policy positions directly relating to China, and was one of Hillary Clinton’s chief China policy advisors.  

In their Memorandum, Bader and Pollack proffer that the “rebalance” to Asia policy “has generated widespread support among nearly all of the countries in the region, though China views it warily…” The policy, they say, “…remains both appropriate and overdue.” 

In a slightly breathless style that, while no doubt honed over decades of drafting such memos seems strange (and superficial, which could account for some unintended policy consequences), the authors at once flatter and wheedle the President with:  

“We need to build on the demonstrated success of the policy, fully ensure that our actions match our words, and impart unequivocally that the rebalance reflects a long-term reorientation of U.S. policy priorities.”  

What are the United States’ challenges?  The authors offer three:  “to protect and enhance America’s long-term political, economic and security interests; to reaffirm and deepen U.S. relationships with long-standing allies and partners while reaching out to new ones; and to achieve the first two goals without alienating a rapidly emerging China or generating open-ended military rivalry across the region.” 

As next steps, and particularly for “providing dynamism and direction in the U.S.-China relationship,” they recommend: 

“First, it is essential to ensure that cuts from sequestration do not damage U.S. readiness and capabilities in the western Pacific or cause cutbacks in planned deployments under the rebalancing strategy.  

“Second…strive to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations in the first half of this year.”  Third, demonstrate support for China’s economic reform…completing negotiations for a U.S.-China bilateral investment treaty by 2016…. 

“Fourth…get our key Asian partners more closely aligned with our interests….support Prime Minister Abe’s efforts to strengthen Japan’s security in the context of our bilateral alliance…. 

“Finally, we need to actively pursue the de-escalation of territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. This means supporting the negotiation of a code of conduct in the South China Sea and enhanced efforts to separate resource disputes from territorial issues in both areas.” 

How, we should be asking, does this agenda look from Beijing?  Even more to the point, how would it look to a disinterested observer, unburdened by a vested interest in the status quo? 

In reality, the “pivot” policy is full of contradictions and fundamentally not in the interests of the American people. Thanks to the mentality and history described above, the United States has been and remains grossly  “over-balanced” in Asia, and not only our military bases and forces. Also in our interference in the political, economic and social affairs in many Asian countries, of which TPP is just one current example. 

The U.S. “rebalance” to Asia policy looks more than anything like a Department of Defense strategy to keep and grow Pentagon personnel levels, budgets and new weapons development, under the pretext of “strengthening alliances” which, in intention and effect, is a growing potential security threat to China and is fueling a wasteful and dangerous regional arms race.  

No “rebalance” is needed in other areas either. 

Asian countries and societies were in harmony in a natural order of peaceful co-existence before the arrival of the West.  They are capable of re-establishing such an order themselves and would more readily do so without outside interference. 

It is tragic, if not scandalous, that some of America’s leading think tanks (the Cato Institute being the splendid exception) are continuing to promote the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” rather than demanding its reversal. 

Stephen M. Harner has been a U.S. State Department (FSO), banker (Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch), and consultant in China and Japan since 1975.  He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University (SAIS).

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