WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's Pacific rebalance effort — also known as the Pivot to the Pacific — effort is officially dead, according to a top State Department official.
Asked by reporters about the future of the rebalance, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton said Monday that the new administration has its own plan for the region, even if that plan has yet to take shape.
"Pivot, rebalance, etcetera — that was a word that was used to describe the Asia policy in the last administration. I think you can probably expect that this administration will have its own formulation. We haven't really seen in detail, kind of, what that formulation will be or if there even will be a formulation," she said
However, Thornton — speaking on the eve of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's first visit to the Asia-Pacific region — stressed that the new administration remains committed to the region, even if the flavor of that commitment may change.
"We’re going to remain engaged and active in Asia. The Asian economy is very important for US prosperity and growth, so we will be there working on fair trade and free trade issues, working on regional security challenges such as North Korea, and continue to press for a rules-based and constructive, peaceful and stable order in Asia," Thornton said. "Whether there will be a bumper sticker to put on that, it’s still early days, so it’s early to say."
Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy, says it is too early to judge the new administration’s relationship to the Pacific countries. But he warned there is uncertainty thanks to the "policy vacuum" that emanates from the lightly-staffed Trump team.
"Thornton’s wider comments included the kind of references to sustained US engagement, preservation of the rules-based order and free trade that allies should welcome," Graham wrote in an email comment. "Yet until the US does more to fill the policy void, including the physical absence of under-secretaries across the board at DoD and State, skepticism is inevitable about how far the inner core around President Trump are willing to buy into those as US interests."
As of publication, the Trump administration has yet to nominate anyone to fill the Asia-Pacific policy jobs at either State or the Pentagon, although it has nominated Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as its ambassador to China. Branstad has yet to have a hearing on his nomination.
Skepticism about the Trump plan in the Pacific is fueled, in part, by moves away from Obama-era regional decisions.
The most obvious is the decision to back away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement that was heavily backed by President Obama and then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
America’s participation in the TPP was also backed by Asian allies, such as Singaporean defense minister Ng Eng Hen, who in December lamented Trump’s decision to abandon the deal, saying that the agreement "would have been a concrete, tangible commitment, and to continue to be a dominant force the US needs a multifaceted relationship with countries in Asia. And China is pursuing that multifaceted relationship with many countries."
More subtly, a change in the strategy for Asia can be seen in budget priorities.
Just last September, Carter spoke of launching a new phase of the "rebalance," one that would involve increasing spending in two key areas — funding for the U.S. Coast Guard and increasing Foreign Military Financing for the 10 nations that form the ASEAN security collective.
A senior defense official told Defense News at the time that the Pentagon would be encouraging "increases in real terms" for the fiscal year 2018 budget.
Said the official then, "We’re certainly encouraging increased funding not just for the Coast Guard, but for the State Department’s foreign military funding. I don’t have the figures at my fingertips."
However, both the Coast Guard and FMF are reportedly being targeted for cuts under the first Trump administration budget, although Congress seems poised to push back against the administration.
On Monday, a bipartisan group of 58 House members wrote a letter in support of the Coast Guard, reportedly in line for a cut of $1.3 billion out of its $9.1 billion budget. Meanwhile, senators have expressed concerns about the future of the FMF program, with sources telling Defense News that the White House plans to propose replacing the current program with some form of loan plan.
Notes Graham, "The problem with Thornton’s comments (not her fault) is that they occur in a policy vacuum. Attempting to fill that before a positive alternative to Obama’s policies has been articulated while rejecting TPP or ditching the rebalance/pivot Asian ‘bumper sticker’ comes across as negative, oppositionally-defined approach, and risks playing into China’s hands."
Mike Yeo in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to this report.