To hear the Obama administration tell it, the motivations behind the current U.S. foreign policy pivot to Asia couldn’t be more obvious.
“Many would agree or argue that the lion’s share of the history of the 21st century is going to play out in the Asian Pacific region,” a senior official at the State Department told reporters traveling to the region with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week.
“Enormous rising prosperity, big challenges, big opportunities,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The United States wants to play a major role in that unfolding drama, and we’re determined to do so.”
The problem is figuring out what that role should be, and then pinning down a lucid strategy for attaining it. As President Obama prepares to depart Saturday on a four-day tour of the region, a growing number of foreign policy analysts on both sides of the aisle say his administration has thus far done neither.
“The Asian pivot is a bumper sticker without much of a strategic design at this point,” said Gordon Adams, a international relations professor at American University who served on President Bill Clinton’s national security staff during the mid-1990s.
Others fear that the administration’s overemphasis on Asia may leave in the lurch other parts of the world such as Latin America and the post-Arab-Spring Middle East.
“I’m all for doing more in Asia and I think we should do more. The issue is just that we shouldn’t be doing less everywhere else in order to do that and I think that what’s implied in that word, ‘pivot,’” said Walter Lohman, who heads the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
The unstated goal of the pivot appears to center on alerting China — a rising superpower that holds an estimated $1.5 trillion in U.S. debt — that “we’re not leaving the region,” said Mr. Adams.
But when it comes to specifics, he said, the questions are many.
“Is the endgame here democratization in China? Is it the elimination of corruption in China? Is it the restraint of Chinese influence in its near abroad? Is it the overthrow of the Chinese regime?”
Without such answers, Mr. Adams said, “I don’t know how I would define success except spending a lot of time and money wandering around the Pacific.”
White House National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon, noting Asia’s growing importance to the U.S. as a source of trade and job growth, contended there was substance behind the administration’s rhetoric, focused on an “overarching objective” to “sustain a stable security environment and regional order rooted in economic openness, peaceful resolution to disputes, democratic governance and political freedom.”
“We aspire to see a region where the rise of new powers occurs peacefully, with the freedom to access the sea, air, space and cyberspace, empowers vibrant commerce, where multinational forums help promote shared values, and where citizens increasingly have the ability to influence their governments, and universal rights are upheld,” Mr. Donilon told a gathering at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A China agenda
But the question of how to deal with a rising China appeared to dominate the preparations for the president’s visit, which includes stops in Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, where he will attend Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference Monday. Mr. Obama’s trip was preceded by visits to the region this week by both Mrs. Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta.
Their agendas seemed as driven by desires to militarily confront China as impulses to avoid doing just that.
Mr. Panetta signed a joint vision statement with Thailand, paving the way, he said, to “stronger military-to-military ties as we adapt to the shared threats and challenges that we will face together in this region and in the future.”
Mrs. Clinton appeared in Australia at a shipyard where U.S. companies are engaged in the $8 billion construction of three Australian navy destroyers.
Separately, the pivot’s economic component has run along two fronts, opening previously closed Southeast Asian nations to private investment from U.S. companies and backing a multicountry trade agreement apparently designed to counter China’s regional economic dominance.
The first front is centered on Burma, where U.S. trade sanctions were recently lifted and Mr. Obama’s visit will be the first by a U.S. president.
The second involves the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an the 11-nation free-trade pact, likely to be the focus of Mr. Obama’s meetings on the periphery of Monday’s ASEAN conference.
The administration’s approach involves prepositioning a variety of resources from across the spectrum of military, economics and diplomacy, so that several different strategies may emerge during the years to come, said Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Century.
“Managing North Korea, managing the tensions in the East and South China Seas and then ultimately, in the long run, managing the rise of China,” Mr. Cronin said. “Those are the three things that different strategies could be built for and what the administration is doing is trying to reallocate resources to and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
“Whether they’re doing an adequate job of allocating sufficient resources is a good question,” he said, adding that the administration appears bent toward overextending the U.S. militarily in the region without seizing aggressively enough on much-needed opportunities to profit from deeper economic ties.
“We are living off borrowed time with our strong defense investments of the past,” Mr. Cronin said. “The administration articulated the pivot without considering the real resources that it would require.”