Why Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ Will Prove a Non Event

Why Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ Will Prove a Non Event

© Murdani Usman / Reuters

HONG KONG—After two years of dithering and drift in the Pacific, the Obama administration is now trying to give substance to its noted “pivot to Asia.” The White House’s problem simply put: Symbols and gestures do not amount to substance, no matter how many trips Michele Obama or John Kerry make to Beijing.   

Secretary of Defense Hagel huddled with Southeast Asian counterparts in Hawaii before setting out over the weekend for Tokyo and Beijing. Later this month, President Obama will visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines to make up for a tour of the region he canceled last year when the government shutdown grounded him.

This is the pivot in action. It is hard to see how it will amount to much.

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The strategy is just as it has appeared in drips and drops since Obama declared the policy in 2012: To fortify the U.S. presence in the western Pacific just as it was during the Cold War decades. In a region alive with change, with China as the primary driver, this is going to come off as flatfooted and nostalgic. The pivot could induce the very decline in relevance it is intended to prevent.

Hagel has a difficult-to-impossible balancing act to pull off as he travels to Tokyo and then Beijing. He does not appear up to it, having made mistakes even before arriving in the Far East.  

Meeting with Asian defense ministers in Hawaii, Hagel announced that the Pentagon was cancelling plans to include a Navy vessel in a review of the Chinese fleet because Japan was not invited to watch the parade.

Gestures do not accomplish much except when they are intended as insults. It is hard to see what Hagel intends to get done by offending Beijing just before he arrives to smooth what have been stony relations on the military side.

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Among other things, Hagel will lecture the Chinese, specifically the People’s Liberation Army command, on the problem of cyber-spying and covert hacking. Given that Edward Snowden has just revealed that the National Security Agency has been cyber-spying and covertly hacking Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, you would think a rewrite of the script would be in order.

There is plenty of nervous chatter on this end of the Pacific as tensions continue to build between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed islands and the broader matter of China’s emergence as a “great power”—a phrase Hagel used in Honolulu. But it has less to do with adventurous policy judgments in either capital than with the potential for a fatal mistake in the air or at sea.

“There are too many young pilots and naval officers who aren’t thinking of policy or politics but who have their fingers literally on the triggers,” said Anthony Rowley, a longtime Asia hand now resident in Tokyo. “This is what you hear from the analysts and the admirals.”

The Pentagon can do little in this context. It has no place “honest brokering” the islands dispute.  Hagel acknowledged as much in Hawaii, and is no help preventing calamitous errors at sea or in the air above it.

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Before arriving Sunday in Tokyo, Hagel indirectly warned the Chinese against “bullying” and promised to “sit down, close the door, and talk very clearly and directly to our friends.” Down-home rhetoric of this kind is always an admission that words of limited potency are all there is on offer.

What could Hagel do to change the game? Sit down, keep the door open, listen to the Chinese, and then talk such that the role they will ineluctably assume in Asia is not just acknowledged but welcomed, because they are truly friends and not simply friends in empty flourishes.   

In Tokyo, Hagel announced that the U.S. will add two destroyers to its Japan fleet and both will carry advanced missile-defense systems. This is in response to anxieties in Japan since North Korea staged more missile launches in recent weeks.

Good enough. The Japanese are clear they need to be reassured that Washington intends to meet its longstanding security commitments.

But more hardware hardly passes as any kind of new policy initiative. It is merely another round in the long running threat-counter-threat cold war between North Korea and the rest of the world. This is no contribution whatsoever to a resolution of the North–South divide.

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The pivot is not only a security question. When Obama travels the region, one major topic on all four stops will be the enhancement of trade and economic ties.

In South Korea, he will review the latest from Kim Jong–un, the hard-to-fathom new leader in Pyongyang. In Tokyo, he will discuss Sino–Japanese tensions, and in Malaysia and the Philippines, the South China Sea disputes will be on the docket.

These are important questions all, but they are essentially make work—not the stuff of trans–Pacific summitry. “This trip goes in the Woody Allen file,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an accomplished Asia watcher. “After the poor impression Obama left when he canceled in November, 90 percent of this is just showing up.”

O.K., but the remaining 10 percent is vital to the pivot, as Manning acknowledges. Obama’s core purpose on each stop will be to press the Trans–Pacific Partnership, the complex, controversial trade pact Washington has nearly finished negotiating with many Asian nations—China being excluded, conspicuously and by design.

“You have to see the pivot as multi-dimensional,” Manning said. “If we want to sustain our economic involvement in the region, it has to be an effort to maximize leverage in shaping the rules of the 21st century—and preventing China from playing a larger role.”

It is a good executive summary of the TPP and of the pivot. And a good digest, too, of what is wrong with both.

Preventing and excluding China is altogether retro, 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Think of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Then think of the pivot’s long-term chances.  

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