A Pivotal Moment? U.S. Policy Towards Asia

The US is getting cozy with Vietnam, Singapore and Australia. Paris wonders what this means for China.

By: /
21 November, 2011
Roland Paris
By: Roland Paris
Director, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

Is the United States “pivoting” its foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region, as prominent Obama administration officials, news reports, and commentators have claimed? 

Daniel Drezner, a Fletcher School professor and Foreign Policy blogger, isn’t convinced. For one thing, he points out, the U.S. never really lost interest in maintaining a presence in East Asia. The big difference now is “the eagerness with which the countries in the region, ranging from Australia to Myanmar, have reciprocated.”

Second, regardless of what U.S. officials may say or want, the rest of the world will continue to demand their attention:

A pivot implies that the United States will stop paying attention to Europe or the Middle East and start paying attention to East Asia. While I’m sure that’s what the Obama administration wants to do, it can’t. Europe is imploding, as are multiple countries in the Middle East. The United States can’t afford to ignore these regions, since uncertainty there eventually translates into both global and domestic problems.

Drezner sums up: “Talking about a United States ‘pivot’ in foreign policy is meaningless.”

Well, yes and no. Of course, the U.S. never lost its economic or strategic interest in the region, and there is a goodly dose of salesmanship in the administration’s talk of a foreign-policy reorientation towards the Asia-Pacific. And, yes, with the Middle East undergoing revolutionary changes, Europe facing the prospect of cascading economic crises, and American soldiers still dying in Afghanistan, any administration will be at the mercy of “events, dear boy, events.”

But Drezner understates the significance of recent U.S. moves in the Asia-Pacific. The administration’s talk of a “pivot” was clearly intended as a signal to China’s neighbours that, in spite of U.S. domestic fiscal problems and drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is not about to go wobbly on its military and diplomatic commitments in East Asia. The speech that U.S. President Barack Obama delivered in Australia last week challenged Chinese policies right across the board, from China’s currency-management practices to its regional military aspirations. Indeed, it read like a politely veiled U.S. containment policy towards China.


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Perhaps that’s putting it too strongly, because the U.S. is interested in both containing and engaging China. Nevertheless, these speeches – combined with related U.S. actions – have communicated renewed American resolve in the region. In addition to the symbolically important deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia’s northern coast, Singapore may soon provide basing for the U.S. Navy’s new littoral combat ships, Vietnam has invited the American warships to call on its Cam Ranh Bay port for the first time in three decades, and we may soon hear more announcements of U.S. ships and planes being allowed to operate out of local bases across the region. (In case anyone didn’t get the message, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose the deck of a guided missile cruiser as the venue to deliver a speech reaffirming the U.S. alliance with the Philippines “and all of our alliances in the region.”)

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has recently tested a new unmanned warplane designed to be flown from U.S. aircraft carriers, reportedly with three times the range of carrier-based manned aircraft. These drones would not only greatly extend the reach of U.S. air power in the region, but would also allow the carriers to operate outside the maximum range of Chinese anti-ship missiles.

Consider the sum total of these words and deeds. They may not add up to a “pivot” – at least, not if Drezner is correct and the metaphor implies that the U.S. will “stop” paying attention to Europe and the Middle East and “start” paying attention to East Asia. However, I doubt that the Obama administration has been formulating its policy in such stark, zero-sum terms. The message of the administration’s recent speeches and actions, rather, was that the U.S. will be increasing, not decreasing, its involvement in the affairs of the Asia-Pacific. And that is an important and credible message to communicate at a moment when the U.S. is disengaging from Iraq and Afghanistan, when China’s rising military assertiveness has been fuelling regional fears, and when there’s so much at stake in the Asia-Pacific for the future of U.S. military and economic power.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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