America doesn't need a pivot to Asia
The supposed strategic shift is adding uncertainty by over-promising and under-delivering.

DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta speaks with Vietnamese Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam, on June 4, 2012, during a 10 day trip to the Asia-Pacific to meet with defense counterparts.

Article Highlights

  • In reality, an Asia pivot is less than it appears, it won’t solve Asia’s problems & may add to the region’s uncertainty.

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  • Everything wrong with an Asia pivot can be summed up by 4 R’s: rhetoric; reality; resourcing; & raising expectations

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  • The world still wonders what the purpose of the Asia pivot it: To contain China? To promote democracy?

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It is time to bury the Obama administration's pivot to Asia. This reallocation of military and diplomatic resources was supposed to guarantee stability in a region seeking to balance China's rise. In reality, this strategic shift is less than it appears. It won't solve Asia's problems and may even add to the region's uncertainty by over-promising and under-delivering.

Everything wrong with the pivot can be summed up by Four R's: rhetoric; reality; resourcing; and raising expectations and then doubts. So far, the first and perhaps biggest problem with the idea of the pivot—or, as the Defense Department calls it, the rebalancing—is that it remains largely rhetorical, vague and aspirational.

True, there are some laudable moves, such as basing U.S. Marines in northern Australia and agreeing to port new U.S. warships in Singapore. These, however, hardly add up to a breakthrough. The world still wonders what the purpose is: to contain China, to promote democracy, to make the United States the de facto hegemon of Asia, or simply to reassure nervous nations about China's rise?

The reality is that not much will change in America's actions. The pivot says nothing about taking on new commitments, for example toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or to countries with whom America does not currently have formal alliances. Just as importantly, Washington has made clear in recent months that it will not take sides in the territorial disputes that have roiled the East and South China Seas, even when allies like Tokyo and Manila are involved.

Further evidence for this reality comes from the resource constraints imposed on this grand project. The Obama administration is trying to do it on the cheap. Pivot funding is in danger from sequestration—forced budget cuts resulting from larger budget politicking in Washington—that, if allowed to proceed, will cut another $500 billion from a defense budget already reduced by $900 billion since 2009.

The administration claims that America's military presence in Asia will not be affected by these budget cuts. If that is so, then U.S. military posture in the rest of the world will be cut back. More likely, any buildup will be difficult to sustain. The shifting of more planes and ships to the Pacific will soon slow down, as the size of the Air Force and Navy shrink, and as other world problems such as Iran and Syria continue to dominate the attention of American policy makers.

This, in turn, is raising doubts about the pivot in Asia, so soon after the rhetoric from Washington had raised expectations. Countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines led themselves to believe that the pivot would have concrete results, such as quickly increasing American presence in the region and perhaps even American support in their maritime territorial disputes with China. Both accordingly reached out to Washington, holding new military exercises or discussing greater security cooperation.

Yet this enthusiasm makes it all the worse when those hopes turn out to be dashed by Washington's failure to act. As one Philippines senator asked during his country's standoff this spring with China over the Scarborough Shoal, what good is the alliance with the U.S. if America refuses to back up its partners in times of need? By appearing to make unrealistic promises, the Obama administration has created new diplomatic headaches for itself in managing the fall-out from its failure to deliver.

What then is the point of the pivot? By not getting involved in maritime disputes, other than rhetorically, Washington is actually taking the most realistic approach possible. No administration, Republican or Democratic, is going to risk a crisis with China short of any overt attempt by Beijing to take over territory clearly controlled by other nations. Building up U.S. forces in Asia, were it even possible, would not change that political calculation.

The current American military posture can be diversified to a few more countries, but essentially, Washington has had the right balance for the past several decades. While it would be a mistake to shrink the U.S. air and naval presence in Asia, all Washington could do is slightly increase it, and that will change nothing in the region. Moreover, there are few realistic options for new partners in Asia, especially ones such as Japan and Australia that can provide some level of regional security cooperation. That means America's current grouping of allies and partners is right-sized for the political and security realities of the Asia-Pacific for the foreseeable future.

As long as Washington persists, however, in proclaiming that it has a new policy for Asia, it will have to answer uncomfortable questions about what it all means. Once their political conventions are done this month, both Governor Romney and President Obama should decide to speak softly and carry the same-sized stick as a warning to any who would unilaterally upend the delicate balance among Asian nations.

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