The Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific is largely intended to reassure America’s allies and partners that the U.S. is committed to strengthening its economic and security ties to the region. The strategy has been welcomed by most nations of the region, but it has also sowed doubts and created unintended consequences that must be addressed if the U.S. position in the region is to remain robust.
The media narrative portraying the U.S. strategy as intended to contain China has made the region exceedingly uncomfortable. While it is true that many Asia-Pacific states worried in 2009 about a U.S.-China “G-2” condominium that would make decisions over the heads of the smaller regional members, more recently concerns have grown about the dangers of heightened U.S.-China strategic competition.
Singaporean Foreign MinisterK. Shanmugam called anti-China rhetoric a “mistake” in a February speech at CSIS and warned that “Americans should not underestimate the extent to which such rhetoric can spark reactions that create a new and unintended reality in the region.”
No nation in the Asia-Pacific wants to be forced to choose between the U.S. and China. To remedy the misperception that the U.S. wants to contain China,efforts should be made to clarify that American strategy seeks to integrate and promote greater cooperation with China.
Even as the region welcomes renewed U.S. attention, there is a widely held view that the U.S. presence too heavily emphasizes the military realm and underinvests in other pressing areas. Regional leaders privately call for the U.S. to focus more on nontraditional security matters and promote education and health, to spread the message of U.S. relevance and commitment to a broader audience that includes local communities.
Doubts persist about U.S. staying power in the region, given the record of inconsistent American engagement in Asia, competing U.S. interests in the world and economic challenges at home. To some, the announced shift in American strategy is simply a phase in America’s decline and a signal of the U.S.’s eventual retreat from the world.
The term “pivot” exacerbates these worries, suggesting that just as the U.S. has opted to devote greater attention to the Asia-Pacific today it could suddenly shift its focus away from the region in the future. Fears abound that Washington could be drawn back into the Middle East by a negative turn of events in countries that have experienced an Arab Awakening, possibly creating a threat to Israel; by a crisis with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz; by an Israeli or even a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities; or by another terrorist attack on the United States that is traced back to training camps in the region.
More serious, however, are uncertainties about whether the U.S. will resource its rhetorical commitments. Speaking to the Australian Parliament in January, President Barack Obama insisted that any reductions in U.S. defense spending would not come at the expense of priorities in the Asia-Pacific region. But the Pentagon possibly faces another $1 trillion in cuts on top of the $500 billion it has pledged to cut over the next decade.
A resolution of domestic debates over budget cuts that boosts confidence in the U.S. ability to implement its promises is urgently needed. Another unintended consequence of America’s Asia pivot is European fears of abandonment. To counter these anxieties, the U.S. should tell its European partners that a possible Chinese challenge to the prevailing international system requires more, not less, trans-Atlantic cooperation.
Key objectives of the U.S.’s pivot are to dissuade China from undertaking aggressive actions against the U.S. and its neighbors, and encourage Beijing to abide by global norms and rules and peacefully resolve disputes. So far, China’s official response to the pivot has been relatively muted, but it is premature to conclude that Beijing will remain restrained.
It is widely believed in China that the “shift in strategic focus to Asia” is largely motivated by concerns about China’s rise, and there are intense debates about how to respond. An article published in China’s Global Times, a nationalistic newspaper owned by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, called for China to adopt countermeasures to the U.S. strategy, including strengthening its long-range strike capabilities.
The shift in U.S. strategy has triggered an outpouring of anti-American sentiment in China that may constrain Chinese policymakers who seek to avoid an adversarial relationship with the U.S. Chinese analysts warn that if the leadership concludes that the Asia pivot signals Washington has defined China as an existential threat, Beijing would be compelled to fundamentally revise its foreign policy in ways that would result in a global zero-sum competition between the U.S. and China that could presage a new Cold War. This would surely be contrary to American interests.
Unless the U.S. attends to the unforeseen consequences of the Asia pivot, there is a risk that it could oversell and underdeliver. Overselling could prompt a muscular Chinese reaction and underdelivering could erode U.S. credibility with its allies and friends. Such unintended consequences would weaken rather than strengthen the U.S. position in the Asia-Pacific.
Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington.