Adrift in Asia

U.S. Navy (Flickr)

Article Highlights

  • Unfortunately, the pivot has been not just a risk, but potentially a failure as well.

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  • Once lauded, the Asia pivot has now been doubted, derided, and dismissed.

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  • Washington has shown itself wholly unable to restrain North Korea’s belligerent behavior.

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President Obama has billed his “pivot to Asia” as a diplomatic maneuver, but it is just as much a decision of military and defense policy. Without fears over the rise of China, along with continuing irritants such as North Korea, there would be little reason for the U.S. to announce such a decision, which raises expectations and puts its credibility on the line. Unfortunately the pivot has been not just a risk, but potentially a failure as well: too little done to shift the dangerous trends in Asia, and too little rethinking of America’s interests in the region.

What was once lauded as a smart decision to reorient America’s security priorities to the world’s most dynamic area has now been doubted, derided, and dismissed. This is in part because the initiative has not followed through on its bold aims, in part because there has been little in it to change substantially the U.S. position in Asia, and in part because it has coincided with serious challenges to the region’s equilibrium. America’s defense policy in Asia requires a far more serious reassessment.

Today there are two major challenges for that policy to address. The first is growing tensions that have called into question America’s ability and willingness to help maintain stability in the region. As Europe was in the 19th century, Asia today is rife with territorial and border disputes. From the India-China border in the west to a cluster of disputed islands in the east, all the major countries in the region have some type of dispute with their neighbors. The maritime disagreements between China and its neighbors are particularly worrying, and have increased in frequency and intensity in the past two years. The Obama administration has made clear its determination not to get involved, while China’s smaller neighbors have little confidence in resolving their quarrels alone. This is true even of U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines, which have requested U.S. support in their ongoing face-offs with Chinese maritime vessels in contested waters and not received it.

Another cause of today’s instability is the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis. Washington has shown itself wholly unable to restrain North Korea’s belligerent behavior, whether that behavior takes the form of launching rockets, setting off nuclear explosions, sinking South Korean ships, or threatening war with both America and South Korea. Republican and Democratic administrations alike have taken any excuse to return to “negotiations” with the North Koreans, despite decades of bad faith, while refraining from any long-term punitive action in response to the Hermit Kingdom’s aggression. U.N. sanctions have been unable to alter Pyongyang’s behavior, and meaningful financial sanctions on the Kim family’s personal finances have been sacrificed at the altar of diplomatic negotiation.

The second major challenge is the long-term trend of China’s rise, along with greater military spending by all major Asian nations and our own shrinking defense budget. Thanks to 20 years of double-digit defense-spending increases, China now boasts one of the world’s largest, if not necessarily most capable, militaries. China’s military is far larger than that of any of its neighbors, continues to modernize, and fields planes, ships, and rockets on par with those of the United States’ closest competitors. Beijing has used its built-up military to become more assertive, as in the territorial disputes. Its navy now operates thousands of miles from its shore, while its space- and cyber-based capabilities have already been put on display.

In response, nations around Asia are trying to beef up their own militaries. None can match China’s modernization, but most are buying more submarines, many are investing in precision-guided missiles, and Japan, South Korea, and India are buying advanced fighter jets. In one sense, it is good that America’s allies are trying to do more to help themselves. But so many nations’ building up their militaries at once is a symptom of the greater uncertainty that these nations feel about their security.

 What has been the Obama administration’s response to both these trends? Rhetorically, it has stressed the pivot, but in practice it has carried out budget cuts and offered few specific proposals to increase America’s role in the region. Officials from the president on down never tire of talking about how America is a Pacific power, but their plans to maintain that status are unimpressive. Other than the moving of 2,500 Marines on a rotational basis to Australia, the temporary porting of up to four new U.S. warships in Singapore, and the basing of 60 percent of the U.S. Navy in Asia (much of it is already there), there is little to show that defense policy in Asia has changed all that much.

The pivot was announced right as the administration and Congress were forcing the U.S. military to cut nearly $1 trillion from its ten-year spending plans, leaving many in Asia to wonder whether there would be enough money for Washington to live up to its commitments. Would the U.S. be reduced to a partner that could be relied upon only in a crisis, if then? In truth, a few more pieces of equipment are unlikely to make a material difference in a region that now spends more on arms purchases than Europe.

The administration has also failed to explain its goals in Asia. Is U.S. policy meant to contain China? Influence, but not intervene in, the maritime disputes? Warn off rogue states such as North Korea? No American official will admit that the U.S. wants to contain China, the biggest player in Asia’s security equation; but if assuring allies and partners of their safety remains paramount, then some type of deterrence is required. Similarly, the U.S. repeatedly states that it has an interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in crucial waterways or on the high seas, but repeatedly refuses to get involved in the maritime disputes that so worry China’s neighbors.

In the Pacific today, the U.S. bases around 325,000 military personnel, an aircraft carrier and guided-missile destroyers, several dozen fighter squadrons and a bomber squadron, and the majority of its submarines. That is a credible deterrent and symbol of commitment to our allies, but one that is degrading over time. Asian nations that today have few doubts about American power are deeply concerned that, in a decade or so, China may feel less constrained and America will be even more risk-averse than it already appears to be.

What is needed? A clear willingness to hold China accountable for its pressure on smaller nations, and the courage to do more than submit to further U.N. resolutions against North Korea. Adopting a “broken windows” policy — responding to small incidents in order to prevent more serious conflicts — is prudent, not provocative. If America is concerned with the balance of power in Asia, then, for example, it will have to send ships more often to contested areas, vital waterways, and key partner nations. It will also have to share more military intelligence with allies that need to know when their territory is about to be compromised. Finally, putting greater pressure on our allies, especially South Korea and Japan, to work more closely with one another on defense issues is a prerequisite for more effective engagement in Asia.

The U.S. ought to combine that approach on defense with diplomatic measures, such as cutting off meaningless negotiations with North Korea and targeting the Kim family’s finances. Nor should Washington shy away from slapping sanctions on Chinese companies tied to the People’s Liberation Army or reducing, in response to provocations ranging from government-sponsored hacking to support for rogue regimes around the world, the number of high-level negotations we have with Beijing.

Spending more on defense may be politically impossible given current disputes about the federal budget. So the United States will have to use its existing assets in a different way, making clear that its commitments are real and its capabilities will be brought to bear, in order to create a security environment in Asia in which their full use is unnecessary.

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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