National security officials in the military and at the Pentagon are voicing growing worries that the second Obama administration is preparing to jettison the new policy focus on Asia known as the “pivot” or rebalancing.
Evidence cited by these officials includes a recent Chinese government visitor who was told that the White House plans to kill the shift to Asia in mid-2013 as part of its conciliatory approach to China. Beijing is the key, but unspoken, target of the major military and diplomatic effort to increase security in Asia and calm the fears of U.S. allies alarmed by what they see as the new Chinese hegemon in Asia.
The Obama administration so far has failed to criticize China for its years of cyberespionage attacks or even acknowledge publicly that China is conducting computer assaults. The administration also has provided lukewarm support for key allies, as its low-key handling of visit last month by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed.
China is currently engaged in maritime disputes with most of its neighbors in Asia and is becoming increasingly aggressive in claiming control over vast areas of international waters that host vital shipping lanes used by energy-poor countries in the region.
A second troubling sign for the shift to Asia was the departure last month from the State Department of Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, a key policy player who was widely respected for his handling of most Asian policies and who is considered the father of the Asia pivot.
Mr. Campbell left last month to launch a new consulting firm called the Asia Group.
China’s state-controlled media continue to ramp up criticism of the Asia pivot and especially the U.S. military element known as the Air Sea Battle Concept. Official Chinese spokesmen have called the battle plan a stalking horse for what Beijing calls U.S. “containment” or “encirclement” of the growing regional communist power.
The Air Sea Battle Concept, unveiled from its classified roots in November 2011, seeks closer Navy and Air Force cooperation in the Pacific, along with closer alliances and joint training. The plan also involves new weapons to counter what the Pentagon calls anti-access and area-denial weapons, such as China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles, cyberwarfare capabilities and anti-satellite weapons.
However, with the budget cuts of the past four years and now the additional sequester reductions, officials say the outlook for funding the pivot and Air Sea Battle is dimming.
Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told a House hearing Tuesday that the recent budget cuts have the potential to undermine the pivot “as our ability to operate and maintain our force is at increased risk.”
Additionally, the new Secretary of State John F. Kerry and new Defense Secretary Charles Hagel both advocate conciliatory policies toward China and thus could abandon the pivot policy.
Mr. Hagel also could be influenced to drop the pivot by the Chinese military, which viewed him favorably in a recent report in the official PLA Daily newspaper. The paper praised Mr. Hagel in a Feb. 28 story as “not a pacifist but [someone who] has always held a cautious attitude on the use of U.S. forces overseas.”
The article written by Wang Zhengxu said Mr. Hagel favors abandoning what the author called a U.S. policy of treating states as either “friend or foe,” and said Mr. Hagel “recognizes that the two sides have their differences but he points out that ‘concentrating single-mindedly on common interests’ is the key to the development of mutually profitable relations.”
Asked by senators in written policy questions during his confirmation if he believes the Asia pivot is a “necessity,” Mr. Hagel declined to say it was needed. He said the policy “will require strong and continuous U.S. commitment” amid budget constraints.
A State Department official also avoided a direct answer when asked if the pivot is on the ropes. The official told Inside the Ring that the Asia-Pacific region is a “strategic priority” and that “we will broaden and deepen our engagement in the region accordingly.”