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Asean Analysis 3 May 2013
Getting Asia Right: Forget The "Pivot"
By Ernest Bower,Senior Adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies),CSIS
Forget the "pivot."
The term was coined to divert attention away from a set of unflattering facts and ensure they were not misread to mean that the United States could not maintain its decades-long role as guarantor of regional security in the Indo-Pacific, purveyor of genuine soft power, top investor, and market of choice for Asia. The plan was to reiterate the obvious: that the United States was going to focus on the Indo-Pacific region for the first half of the twenty-first century. This was not news to anyone in the hierarchy of the United States’ military, foreign service, or business communities.
The truth is that the pivot’s message was not news to Asia either. U.S. allies and partners around the Indian and Pacific Oceans know that the United States has a strong foundational presence and that it is going to continue to invest in the region. It is useful for them to remind the United States to remain focused, but China is the main creator of demand for greater US engagement in the region.
China abruptly decapitated its own "charm offensive" in 2009 by submitting its nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea to the United Nations, forcing its neighbors to ask two questions: how is China going to use its rapidly growing economic power to assert its claims, and what role does it want to play in Asia? That was the turning point.
To date, Chinese political risk assessment in Southeast Asia has been very poor. Experts in China’s Foreign Ministry surely see that its actions, like bullying the weaker ASEAN countries to break consensus on an approach to a code of conduct in the South China Sea, are hurting China’s profile. But such voices of reason have not been heeded. Instead, China has pursued tactics that could actually result in a stronger, more unified ASEAN that resents China’s cynical manipulation.
Beijing has deftly tried to perpetuate discussion of the pivot in Asia. It has put diplomatic and public relations muscle behind an effort to promote the narrative that the United States cannot sustain the pivot. And this effort has been working. Any U.S. official or expert traveling in Asia has had to answer that question about ten times a day.
Sustaining this discussion is not in U.S. interests. It ironically puts the United States in a defensive posture just when it is starting to get it right in Asia. Playing offense in Asia does not mean chest-pounding proclamations or reasserting the pivot. It means building a political foundation in the United States for engagement with Asia. It means a calm, determined, and nuanced strategic commitment to building deeper and more granular relationships with allies and partners. It means investing in and developing nascent regional frameworks for security and economic cooperation. And it means moving away from the Sino-centric interpretation of Asia policy that is creeping into Washington.
Understanding that the countries in the Indo-Pacific are core to U.S. economic and security interests for this century and beyond is a key to an effective U.S. strategy and sustained engagement in Asia. So is understanding that countries and organizations like India, Japan, Australia, and ASEAN are as intrinsically important to the United States as China is, if not more so.
The signals suggest that President Barack Obama is moving in the right direction. The White House appears to be moving into position to start spending domestic political capital on telling Americans why engaging Asia is important to their future economic well-being and security. This move has been made possible because the political advisers whose sole roles were to protect the president and plan for his reelection are moving on to develop candidates for 2016. This has changed the chemical balance in the White House and allowed professionals like Deputy National Security Advisor Michael Froman to utter the word "trade" without admonishment.
While deep and serious budget cuts amid sequestration are bedeviling Pentagon planners, there are good signs that Indo-Pacific–focused budgets are not being cut. In fact, joint training exercises once on the budget cutting board, like the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training programs in Southeast Asia, have been funded. So have key assistance vehicles like the International Military and Education Training program.
There are even signs that trade, which was downplayed by a White House dominated by domestic political advisers in the first term, is coming back with purpose. The key signpost being watched by savvy Asia hands is whether Froman will walk across 17th Street to become United States Trade Representative (USTR). That looks likely, and it will indicate that the administration plans to really push for Trade Promotion Authority, step up efforts to complete a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement this year, and take it to Capitol Hill early in 2014.
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon has been testing the theme of Asia’s importance to the United States in his recent speeches. In an April 15 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Donilon asserts, "Nearly half of all growth outside the [United States] over the next five years is expected to come from Asia, and the choices that nations across the region make now will shape the character of the entire global system for years to come."
The missing piece now is getting the line managers in place to execute an Asia-Pacific strategy that leaves the pivot in the past. That strategy will drive a healthier discussion in Washington focused on the value of our relations with key Indo-Pacific partners, including but not limited to China, and put the pedal to the metal on economic engagement and trade. The deputy-level jobs needed for this strategy are all disappointingly vacant. These include assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, assistant secretary of defense for East Asia (Mark Lippert has been promoted to chief of staff at the Pentagon), and deputy USTR for Asia (Demetrios Marantis is currently acting USTR). These positions have usually been filled in April or May, but all remain vacant. This needs to be addressed immediately.
When that happens, the Obama administration will really be prepared to talk about the future of the United States and Asia’s central role in that vision. Talk that suggests episodic, here-and-gone engagement, like "pivot," is no longer useful or necessary. The United States is part of the Indo-Pacific and the region is core to U.S. national security and economic priorities.
This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. cogitASIA blog
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