What Obama should say about China in Japan
A ChinaFile conversation

Article Highlights

  • Obama should abandon the term “pivot,” which is causing more angst than reassurance.

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  • No one believes that the pivot is “not about China.” Why keep up the charade?

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On Wednesday, Barack Obama will land in Tokyo beginning a week-long trip to four of China's neighbors-but not to China itself.

In Obama's stops in Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, and Kuala Lampur, the specter of China will loom large. This will be especially pronounced in Tokyo, where the big unanswered question is how involved the United States would be if China seized the Diaoyu, the disputed islands administered by Japan, which calls them the Senkakus. Below is AEI's Dan Blumenthal's response to what President Obama should say about China in Tokyo. -The Editors

Dan Blumenthal:

President Obama is headed to a nervous Tokyo that needs clear signs of U.S. endurance and credibility. He should abandon the term "pivot," which is causing more angst and confusion than reassurance and clarity.

The "pivot" now appears ill-conceived for three reasons. The first is a mistake of strategic conception. Yes, Asia is of emerging consequence in world affairs: all post-Cold War presidents have recognized this. And, China has had the potential to pose the greatest challenge to the United States since it became the prime actor in world affairs. Without a doubt, Asia needs more American attention and resources. But the U.S. is a global superpower with vital interests in several, interlinked, regions. There can be no Asia policy without a global strategy. For example, Japan gets most of its energy from the Middle East where Washington has played a stabilizing role. And what about India? How will Delhi play the role we imagine for it in Asia if we mishandle Afghanistan? Furthermore, all Asian powers watch Washington's handling of the other revisionist states - Russia and Iran- for clues about its fortitude in Asia. U.S. grand strategy must account for these facts.

The second mistake is one of implementation. It is not possible for Washington to play a consequential role in Asia while drastically cutting its defense budget, and demonstrating an uneven commitment to the Trans Pacific Partnership. A U.S. military second to none is the sin qua non of stability in Asia. The TPP is the gold standard of multilateral trade agreements, integrating Washington more deeply into Asia. But many countries have spent political capital on the TPP and worry that Washington is not doing the same. Tokyo needs to see the President build support for the pact in the United States.

Finally, no one believes that the pivot is "not about China." Why keep up the charade? It has gained the U.S. nothing in Beijing, where Chinese policymakers view it with hostility. The U.S. China strategy should be what it has been for two decades, built upon the dual pillars of engaging China while balancing its power.

Instead of reaching for a new strategic masterstroke, the President should settle for something more mundane: building on the Asia work of his predecessors. If a slogan is needed how about an old one: "speak softly and carry a big stick?" 

You can see more responses at ChinaFile.com.

 

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Dan
Blumenthal

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