The Squeaky Pivot
The Asia-Pacific is the most dynamic region in the world today. It possesses several, highly advanced global economies–including China and Japan–and is home to some of the world’s major manufacturers. Indeed, the largest numbers of goods pass through the Transpacific waterway. The United States is also a dominant player in this region and has been for some time. Yet, since the end of the Cold War, and the advent of the Global War on Terrorism following the 9/11 Attacks, the United States was not able to pay the Asia-Pacific region the kind of attention it preferred to give. Over the last two decades, America’s military position in the region has faded.
In response, the Chinese and others have stepped up to fill the void. China, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Australia, and others are all now seeking greater stakes in the region. After having assumed office in January 2009, President Barack Obama announced his intentions to begin shifting America’s strategic focus away from the wars in the Middle East and toward the economically dynamic Asia-Pacific. He ordered the opening up of the first U.S. Marine Corps base in Darwin, Australia. He intensified U.S. Navy and Air Force patrols of the region.
The U.S. began backing other states in the region, like the Philippines and Japan, who were desperately seeking to maintain their territorial integrity in the face of increased Chinese aggression everywhere. But, nearly eight years on, what was then dubbed America’s “Pivot to Asia” has not yet happened. In fact, the pivot has begun to wobble to such a degree that American credibility is now on the line.
Consequently, China has become more antagonistic and, as America wobbles in its pivot to the east, China swings hard to the West. Now, America’s once-dominant strategic position in the Asia-Pacific is coming into question, not just by the revanchist China, but by traditional American allies too. Should trends persist, I believe, that America’s Pivot will be incomplete, which will give rise to either a new paradigm where China runs the show there, or where there is a permanently contested region in which states like Japan are but steps away from all-out war with an increasingly assertive People’s Republic of China.
Fear & Loathing in the Asia-Pacific
China has historically been bellwether state in Asia. Under the various dynasties, China grew from a small civilization near the Yellow River to a massive, multiethnic empire that gobbled up a sizable chunk of land. The Chinese Empire of old also was the center of tribute system that encompassed most Asian states. The Chinese were also among the best educated and most advanced civilizations in history. When the Chinese Empire became insular and began minding its own business, it set the tone for the rest of the region as well. Soon thereafter, Western domination in the form of colonialism and commercialism overwhelmed the Chinese who had allowed themselves to lag behind the West, in terms of development. Ultimately, when China became a Communist state, it fundamentally tipped the balance of power in the Cold War. Its existence as a Communist state with revolutionary intentions is the reason why the United States fought both the Korean and Vietnam Wars (at least, in part).
Shortly thereafter, when the People’s Republic of China determined it was in their interests to move away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States, the Cold War was changed forever. Overnight, the most populace Communist state became a pliant ally of the United States and the West in their conflict against the Soviets. Eventually, the U.S. and the PRC would form a strong bond that would only intensify in the years following the Cold War, thanks to Globalization. Indeed, the United States and China had such close ties that many observers referred to the countries not by their individual designations, but rather as, “Chimerica.”
However, despite these fanciful descriptions of the relationship, the fact remained that China was still a Communist state (or, at least an authoritarian state). The wealthier that China became, thanks to its relationship with the West, the stronger both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) grew and the more powerful its military became.
During this time, also, thanks to the increased trade in the overall region, several other Asian states became wealthy. Aggregated together, Asia rapidly became the most important region in the world. Among these states, however, China set the tone that relations and development would take for the region. When the U.S. had a stronger presence in the Asia-Pacific, China was much more conciliatory and accommodationist with the U.S. Now, however, such behavior is all but gone.
After fifteen years of wars in the Middle East, countering Russian aggression in Europe and Central Asia, and the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression, the United States no longer appears as the strongest state in the Asia-Pacific. The birth of so many dynamic states in this region has led to a cacophony of competing interests and states. Even among allies in the Asia-Pacific, competition is fierce. Under these circumstances, China has felt the need to exert its power once more.
The Chinese seem to be intent on rebuilding the Chinese Empire of old. Most Asian states are keenly aware of China’s intentions and many are afraid of what that will mean for their independence. Given their histories, without the presence of a powerful counterbalance in the form of the United States, most of these states would be incapable of standing up to Chinese aggression and would be forced to accommodate China’s demands, in much the same way that these Asian states accommodated the Chinese emperors of old. Most Asian heads of state feared any kind of return to the Tribute system of old, in which China extracted terrible concessions from their smaller, weaker neighbors, and gave little in return.
But, the United States’ position in the Asia-Pacific had been slowly eroding. Of course, the American economic interests remained and many American businesses made money off of this region. Geopolitically, however, the U.S. military was slowly moving itself out of the area. Base closures in the Philippines following the end of the Cold War, the rise of more competitive indigenous states, defense budget cuts back at home, and eventually, the rise of Jihadism all distracted the United States from minding this region. Given this, since 2000, the Chinese military has expanded its capabilities and funding. The Chinese have engaged in terrifying brinksmanship with their neighbors. And, to better serve growing consumer demand at home, China has begun to spread out to the world, in search of new resources and allies. This is why, for instance, Africa is nicknamed China’s continent.
By the time that American policymakers had realized their strategic mistake in ignoring the Asia-Pacific throughout the 2000’s, it was already too late. The Chinese had become a true regional powerhouse. The absence or care of the United States had prompted stringently anti-Chinese states, such as Japan and Vietnam, to begin reorienting their defense policies to such a point that they have now become highly militarized. This is especially true of Japan, whose constitution forbids offensive military development, but whose leadership has not only disregarded this constitutional ban (whilst paying lip service to it), but has also begun calling for Japan to rewrite its constitution and abandon its aversion toward offensive warmaking capabilities.
Other states, such as South Korea, have nominally accommodated the Chinese. This should not surprise any keen observers of Sino-Korean relations: the elites of these two states have traditionally enjoyed a great deal of amity over the centuries. Their mutual history of having been conquered colonies of Japan has also imbued in them a hatred for all things Japanese. The Chinese, meanwhile, continue to expand not only their wealth, but also their claims to disputed territories. They have done this by illegally laying claim to several parts of the South China Sea, all in a bid to reassert their historical control over what was once Chinese imperial waters (or so they claim). This is also an attempt to build the infrastructure for being able to rebuff any American advance on the region, in the event of conflict.
The fear among America’s allies in the region is that the Chinese are expanding exponentially and they will be forced into another accommodationist role with the new China. Because America has been absent for fifteen years, these states no longer believe in the efficacy of America’s commitment to their independence and security. This is especially true after having witnessed the fiasco of the Iraq War, as well as the abandonment of both Georgia and Ukraine to Russian aggression in 2008 and 2014, respectively.
They fear that America will abandon them in the same way. With the Great Recession of 2008 and its aftermath, American allies in Asia fear that the U.S. no longer has the staying power to commit itself to resisting Chinese revanchism. As such, some Asian states are readying for war, while still others are seeking to accommodate what they perceive as China’s ascendancy and avoid being taken down by America’s precipitous decline.
Thus, virtually overnight, Asia went from being one of the most stable parts of the world to one of the unstable regions. It has become like a powder keg: states are jockeying for dominance over each other, ethno-religious tensions are becoming exacerbated, each state is afraid of the other, and they all hate the Chinese and Japanese (who hate each other). This is not a good scenario.
To Pivot or Not to Pivot?
The whole purpose of the Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia was to reassure panicky allies and rebuff China’s aggression. The initial dedication of 200 U.S. Marines into Darwin, Australia was more symbolic than anything. Many in the United States applauded Mr. Obama’s decision to implement the Pivot and to talk so openly about it as he did. However, the longer that the Obama Administration dragged the Pivot on, the more it became apparent that Mr. Obama was not serious about his own mission. As defense budgets tightened in the U.S., the American military was being tugged and pulled at in two major directions: in the Mideast and by Russia in Europe. These two situations demanded serious attention. Given the budget cuts, it was not possible to deploy a believable amount of American forces to Asia in a meaningful amount of time.
This meant that the Asia Pivot went wobbly. As it did, the slow trickle of American forces into the region antagonized the Chinese, meanwhile, the small amount of American forces alerted most U.S. allies to the notion that the U.S. was not serious about defending them from Chinese aggression. As such, individual states began making their own calculations. This has effectively put an end to the unquestioned military dominance of the United States in the region.
Quantitatively, it is true that the U.S. remains the most dominant military operating in the Asia-Pacific today with their stalwart allies, the Japanese, the second most powerful military in the region. But, perceptions matter. Indecision is costly for it signals weakness to our friends and enemies. Weakness is provocative. Strength, however, deters. If President Obama did not think that he had the requisite resources, or if he did not really want to do the Pivot in the first place, he should have never done it to begin with then. All that his actions have done has been to reduce trust in America’s deterrent ability, encourage friends to abandon us at a critical juncture, and to inspire enemies toward greater aggression against us.
The fact is, that now, thanks to the Pivot, the Chinese are convinced of America’s hostile intentions. They have begun to March West as we Pivot East. Thus, if the goal was to curb Chinese revanchism and contain China, then the U.S. has failed by virtue of the fact that China is expanding its reach globally.
Abandon the Pivot
As the 2016 election draws to its ignominious close, the next President of the United States needs to realize that America can in no way commit itself to completing the Pivot believable at this point. The Pivot was clearly an Obama Administration PR stunt, aimed at proving to a fickle public that Mr. Obama was not weak for wanting to pull out of the Mideast, but was quite wise for pulling out of the Mideast to focus on Asia–while doing neither! This has spoiled the goodwill of our allies and encouraged China. The U.S. does need to intensify its permanent military presence in the region. It needs to build off of the support that July’s UNCLOS ruling gave it. The one thing that the U.S. cannot do is what it’s been doing these last eight years. The U.S. needs to understand that it will be fighting Jihadists for some time. Policymakers also need to understand that Russia will continue to be a perpetual thorn in America’s side, primarily in Europe, but elsewhere also.
The U.S. is committed to defending NATO and Europe by treaty. But, also, the U.S. is committed to protecting Asia. Therefore, the next POTUS needs to publicly abandon the Pivot whilst quietly supporting the completion of his or her Pivot. What they must do is focus on getting the defense budget increased so that more military units can be built for permanent deployment to the region.
If this is not possible, then the Pivot must be abandoned as it has become far too provocative. As it stands now, though, I believe that the United States has lost Asia. No one has taken control of it yet. However, the Chinese seem inescapably committed to becoming the great regional hegemon in much the same way that it was before Europeans arrived in China. The Asia Pivot has gone wobbly and it is a failure thus far. It’s time to reassess. Either we do it right or not at all.