Has Obama's Pivot to Asia Just Annoyed the Chinese?


Emerging from the United States' decade of war, strife, and heavy diplomacy in the Middle East, the Obama administration announced a diplomatic and military pivot to Asia in late 2011. Billed as an effort to double down on existing commitments to allies and partners in the region, the Asia pivot has also secured new partners for America in the region, including Myanmar. Existing military efforts, like promises to deploy the majority of American warships in the Pacific by 2020 or to rotate greater numbers of marines through Australia, have been supplemented by intense economic efforts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Critics have lambasted the pivot as incompatible with America’s current foreign policy priorities (Syria, Iran, European debt crisis, etc.), and as ambiguous, with no official white papers detailing its implementation and execution. For these reasons, they maintain, the pivot has failed.

But this is largely missing the point. Much of the criticism of the pivot to Asia revolves around its lack of specifics, which is certainly the case. Yet worrying about the nuances of Asia policy largely ignores the true purpose of the pivot, which (though denied thoroughly by senior American policymakers) is to contain China. China’s considerable economic clout and its ever-growing navy (including a soon-to-be-launched aircraft carrier) has led the United States to become intimately more involved with regional initiatives like ASEAN. Using China’s territorial aggression as a rallying cry, the United States has recruited an unlikely and ad-hoc balancing coalition of traditional allies (Japan and South Korea) as well as newly cultivated partners (Vietnam and Myanmar). While the coalition is fragile and not firmly codified (though the TPP is certainly a start), the United States is attempting to balance out China’s military and economic rise through the reassertion of America’s own rights as a Pacific nation.

This is the point where criticisms of the pivot to Asia fall flat. Questions of the effectiveness of the rebalancing are ill-timed given that an effort to contain a major power only began a year and a half ago. Given that the balancing effort is still (correctly) unacknowledged by the American government, there is no reason to expect the publication of a major Department of Defense or Department of State white paper outlining American strategy in the region, at least one that is publicly available. More directly, the success of the pivot cannot be measured by a singular, tangible moment of catharsis, as the Syrian crisis may be viewed, for example. Balancing against another major power involves tremendous resources and time, and will be reflected in a vast multitude of ways, none of which is easily broadcast on cable news. With the tremendous amount of knowledge and money exchanged between China and the United States everyday, labeling China outright as an “enemy” or “adversary” will do little to help relations. The pivot to Asia, then, represents the best efforts to hedge American authority in the region while still avoiding any outright acknowledgement of China’s meddling in America’s Asian hegemony.