U.S. ‘pivot’ to Asia, take two

Washington is re-examining its Asia policy. When President Barack Obama began his second term in January 2013, he had sent a clear signal to the world that Asia was a top priority in his foreign policy and a “pivot” to Asia would be an essential piece of his legacy. Yet, one year on, U.S. allies in Asia, as Demetri Sevastopulo of the Financial Times puts it, are still “looking for meat on the bones of U.S. rebalancing.”

“You could almost hear the frustration as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry focused his energy over the past year on the Middle East, notwithstanding four trips to Asia,” writes Sevastopulo, “defense cuts, the overwhelming focus of John Kerry on Iran, and the cancellation of President Obama’s trip to Asia late last year to deal with the U.S. government shutdown have drained momentum from the initiative.”

“At a minimum, the ‘pivot’ is on the rocks,” says Michael Auslin at the American Enterprise Institute. Consequently, U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific have become increasingly worried.

Philippine president Benigno Aquino is comparing China’s present South China Sea policy with Hitler’s demand for Czechoslovakian land in 1938. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’? Well, the world has to say it – remember that the Sudetenland was given up in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II,” President Aquino told the New York Times in Manila on Feb. 4.

Philippine leader’s remarks came on the heels of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe comparing Sino-Japanese tensions with relations between Britain and Germany before the World War I. Japanese leader’s WWI analogy, an Economist analysis points out, “was not so much about growing military rivalry and naval competition. … Rather Abe was making a commonly made salutary argument: that those who think war is impossible between China and Japan because they are so intertwined economically overlook the way a previous wave of fast-growing trade and globalization ended – in a cataclysmic war.”

To highlight the United States’ concern for Asia and its strategic rebalancing to the region, Secretary Kerry recently made another trip to Asia – his fifth in a year. Kerry’s latest six-day, four-nation tour of Asia is a sign that Washington is working hard to counter a common perception in Asia that President Obama’s “pivot” is more rhetoric than substance.

This time, the U.S. is taking the side of its allies in East and Southeast Asia. Secretary Kerry has reaffirmed the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security that commits the U.S. to protect its ally and vowed the U.S. will defend Japan against attack, “that includes with respect to the East China Sea,” announced the U.S. Secretary of State, “the United States neither recognizes nor accepts China’s declared East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone.”

The Obama administration is also taking a more assertive stance in the South China Sea. “Recently,” reports the South China Morning Post, “the White House pointedly warned China not to create an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea. More significantly, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has for the first time pushed back publicly against China’s ‘nine-dash line’ – a demarcation on Chinese maps that Beijing uses to justify its claim to almost the entire South China Sea.”

Secretary Kerry’s trip comes at a crucial moment for the region, with flaring disputes between China and Japan and between China and several Southeastern Asian countries including the Philippines sending China-Japan and China-ASEAN relations to their lowest point in recent decades. Kerry’s visit sends a strong and reassuring message to the U.S. allies in the region that the focus of U.S. foreign policy is the “pivot” to Asia. That message is music to the ears of allies in Asia, which have been urging Washington to become more engaged as a counterweight to China.

The United States, however, must walk a fine line in Asia. On the one hand, Washington has to reassure its nervous allies that the U.S. is a “resident Pacific power” and stands ready to defend its allies. But on the other hand, the U.S. has to keep China onside to help tackle a host of global issues, including how to prod North Korea, Beijing’s belligerent ally, to take steps toward denuclearization.

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.