Pacific Drift

In the Magazine
US President Barack Obama (R) listens as Chinese President Xi Jinping answers a question following their bilateral meeting at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, on June 7, 2013.Obama, with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping by his side, called Friday for common rules on cybersecurity after allegations of hacking by Beijing. At a summit in the Calfornia desert, Obama said it was 'critical' to reach a 'permanent understanding' on cybersecurity. He also voiced concern over intellectual theft and urged 'common rules of the road.' AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images) Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The arrival of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington into the storm-torn Philippines must have brought a ray of hope to the devastated victims of Typhoon Haiyan. Hauling massive amounts of food and water, the carrier, with its 5,000 sailors and 80 airplanes and helicopters, rushed from Hong Kong, where it was on shore leave, to tend to hard-hit areas nearly a week after the superstorm first hit the islands.    

The George Washington, normally stationed in Japan, is one of two American flattop aircraft carriers - alongside the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard - that call the Pacific their home. Nothing is new here: Two carriers have sailed the Pacific for decades and none are likely to be added anytime soon, regardless of the endless talk in Washington about "rebalancing" our firepower toward the Pacific region and despite the much advertised pivot to Asia - a term coined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a 2011 essay and hyped by members of the Obama administration as the way forward for U.S. foreign policy ever since.

But the Haiyan rescue and recovery effort being undertaken by America's armed forces only serves to underscore a question many Asians and foreign affairs experts on both sides of the Pacific are asking: What has the ballyhooed pivot actually changed? Does the policy really mean Washington will pay more attention to Asia in the future? Or is it an escape hatch designed to further lower America's involvement in traditional hot spots, especially in the Middle East?

According to Obama administration pronouncements and Pentagon planners, by the end of the current decade America will raise its presence in the Asian Pacific region to 60 percent of the combined military firepower around the globe. (Currently, forces are distributed evenly, half in the Pacific, half in the Atlantic.)

But China is launching a huge military buildup to accompany its growing economic prowess, and its armed forces are noticeably more aggressive and bolder in their moves against their neighbors. So will America's new "rebalancing" - even if it materializes as planned, rather than being hijacked by near-Eastern tensions, as it has been with Syria and Iran - be enough to allay growing concerns about China among its traditional Asian allies?

If raising the percentage of U.S. firepower in the Pacific means real growth in military assets, the answer is yes, says James Auer, director of the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies. For now, "the Chinese have a long way to go," he says, adding that the combined military strength of Japan and America in the Pacific is far superior to that of China.

But Auer has his doubts. He wonders whether raising America's strength in the Pacific to 60 percent of the whole will be done by increasing U.S. assets in the region or by maintaining the current strength while cutting forces elsewhere to 40 percent or lower. "I'm afraid what we might do is hold on to what we have" in the Pacific, Auer said. In which case, he added, it soon may not be enough to keep China at bay.

This question is raised constantly as forces of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), both large and small, persistently test their neighbors' resolve over long-disputed territories - mostly tiny islands or even lonely rocks that nevertheless are rich in fish or minerals.

One such flashpoint is the Senkaku Islands, as Japan calls them, known as Diaoyu to the Chinese. PLA boats have attacked the area that Beijing claims as its own. Tokyo has administered the area for decades, so America believes it has the duty to defend the islands as part of its mutual defense treaty with Japan. Nevertheless, America has remained studiously neutral on the question of the islands' sovereignty. And so far it has declined to interfere in any of the military confrontations, saying instead that the two sides should resolve their differences peacefully.  

A Japanese official, who asked not to be named as he was unauthorized to speak for the government, told me that by and large his government is happy with the pivot. "The U.S. under President Obama has consistently shown a strong commitment to Asia," he said.

But in private conversations, Japanese and other Asian diplomats express disappointment with policies that had initially raised the prospect of a deeper, more profound American involvement in the region. "The pivot just never materialized," one U.S.-based Asian diplomat from an allied country told me.

One traditional ally, Taiwan, has mostly been left out of at least one key aspect of the pivot. As part of Washington's new policies, America urges Asian allies to re-arm, fend for themselves, and increase their national defense budgets. Nevertheless, the Obama administration, in apparent deference to Beijing, declined Taipei's request to purchase a new generation of F-16 fighter planes, or the F-35 "stealth" warplane. Instead, the Pentagon offered to upgrade Taiwan's older generation F-16s, which are fast becoming redundant.

Consciously vulnerable to potential attacks from mainland China, Taiwanese officials nevertheless are cautious when approaching the delicate subject. America "must collaborate more closely than ever with fellow Pacific democracies," said Brian Su, director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York. "Taiwan is eager to join the United States in the Trans-Pacific Partnership," he said. He hoped the pivot "will continue to bring the two nations closer together."

The logic behind America pivoting toward the Pacific is unassailable. The term first emerged in a 2011 Foreign Policy article, in which Secretary Clinton analyzed America's "pivot point" in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In the 21st century, she wrote, America must "lock in substantially increased investment - diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise - in the Asian-Pacific region."

After all, as Clinton first wrote and as other administration officials later explained, Asian economies are fast-growing and in the near future the region will surpass Europe as America's top trading partner. Obama, who liked Clinton's fresh thinking, soon adopted "Pivot to Asia" as his foreign policy's "big idea".

Last month the president's new national security advisor, Susan Rice, pronounced a "more modest approach" toward the Middle East, describing in a New York Times interview how she and a group of advisors have further developed the new strategy. But while she concluded by saying that "there is a whole world out there" beyond the Middle East, Rice offered few details of what pivoting toward Asia would entail and precious little explanation about America's Asian policies.

Similarly, in September, Obama mentioned the word Asia only twice, and Pacific only once, in his annual address to heads of states gathered at the United Nations General Assembly. The rest of the 43-minute speech was dedicated overwhelmingly to the Middle East.

The man who replaced Clinton as America's top diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, is devoting most of his time seeking diplomatic solutions to the Iranian nuclear crisis and the civil war in Syria, and to reigniting the stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Asian diplomats I have talked to note, however, that while Kerry is indeed less attuned to their concerns than Clinton was, another veteran of the Vietnam war, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, is spending a great deal of his time on Asian issues. As is Vice President Joe Biden.

Beyond personalities, "There is a difference in perceptions between Washington and the region" on what the pivot means, said Carl Baker, the Honolulu-based Director of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There remains considerable confusion in the region regarding Washington's intent," he said. Beyond military issues, that confusion results from "great skepticism" about America's economic and diplomatic maneuvering in the region.

It all erupted last month when Obama cancelled a planned trip to Asia because of the government shutdown. He was scheduled to attend two major summits, including the gathering in Bali, Indonesia, of heads of state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Obama's no-show delayed the signing of a much-anticipated 12-country trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Instead, it became a great chance for China's President Xi Jinping to stride the regional world stage. He used the summit to sign trade agreements with several key members of the Association.

Asians are "reluctant to be forced to choose between the U.S. and China," said Baker of the CSIS. But the cancellation of Obama's trip raised further doubts among Asian partners about whether America's commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership was genuine. Some started to reevaluate their alliances and began to consider deepening their ties to China. As Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, put it at the time: "It is a very great disappointment to us President Obama is unable to visit."

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni

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