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Is the “Asia pivot” a failure? Successful statecraft rests on four pillars: sound strategic logic; high-level diplomacy that produces favorable outcomes; economic leadership; military might to amplify diplomacy. Measured against these criteria, the pivot falls short.
First, the pivot’s strategic logic is flawed. The strategy was animated by the idea that the wars in the Middle East and South Asia were ending, terrorism was receding, the Russia relationship was “reset” and it was time to turn to Asia – a region that promises to be the “central front” of 21st century geopolitics. Besides the latter, these assumptions were almost all wrong.
The Middle East faces the prospect of a nuclear Iran and a full-blown Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, South Asia faces a resurgence of extremism and Russia invaded Ukraine. It is true that Asia is of greater consequence to American foreign policy, and that China’s growing power poses a serious challenge. But the U.S. cannot address the China challenge if it fails to play its global superpower role.
U.S. allies know that geopolitics links all critical regions. Consider Japan and India. Japan gets most of its oil and gas from the Persian Gulf and has a strong interest in continued U.S leadership in the Middle East. Moreover, Tokyo’s calculations of Washington’s credibility include U.S. responses to aggression outside of Asia. India is concerned about Washington’s South Asia policies. If the U.S. does not strike a decisive blow against the Taliban, India will be tied down and unable to play the Asia role that Delhi and Washington imagine for it.
Second, high-level diplomacy by the Obama administration has been uneven. The administration should be credited for its engagement in Southeast Asia, including an important upgraded defense pact with the Philippines. But diplomatic engagement is seldom an end in itself. In Asia, maritime disputes need to be resolved and tensions among key allies lessened. On China, the U.S. must maintain a difficult equilibrium that balances Beijing’s power while keeping relations steady. Today Sino-American relations are unstable and Beijing is unimpressed by American power and resolve.
Third, economic leadership is missing. President Obama has not made the case to the American public for what could be a signature achievement: a pan-Asian trade agreement called the Trans Pacific Partnership. Asian allies have spent political capital on the agreement and are looking for Washington to do the same.
Finally, the U.S. is diminishing its military might. The Obama administration has stated that it will place 60 percent of its naval fleet in Asia, which makes sense given the importance of the region’s seas and oceans. But the navy is shrinking to dangerously low levels. The arithmetic is simple: 60 percent of less American ships means less ships in Asia. As U.S. military power declines, so will its influence in Asia.
Rather than chasing catchy phrases or grand reorientations, President Obama should continue the work of the past two decades: increase strategic investments in the Asia while remaining a global superpower.
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