US policy in Asia-Pacific region won’t turn on a dime

By Avery Goldstein Source:Global Times Published: 2013-10-22 20:48:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Over the past month, some analysts have begun to argue that the US is abandoning its "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region. They point to the new US focus on eliminating Syria's chemical weapons, its reemphasis on Iranian nuclear concerns, and the budget crisis that required US President Barack Obama to stay in Washington rather than attend the 2013 APEC, ASEAN, and East Asia Summit meetings in Indonesia and Brunei.

Taken together, these events are taken as a sign that the US is losing both interest in sustaining the pivot and its ability to make the investments the pivot requires.

But such claims are mistaken, if understandable. This new misperception builds on an old one.

Talk about the pivot began in the summer of 2011 when it was most clearly outlined by then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Analysts too quickly focused on the word that was used to describe the policy rather than its substance.

In fact, as with claims earlier in the Obama administration about a "return to Asia," there was no fundamental change in policy since the US had never left Asia.

During the Bush administration, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drew much attention.

But the US continued to play an active and important role in the Asia-Pacific region: dealing with periodic tensions in the Taiwan Straits, the persistent problem of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, and trade and investment relations across the region.

The term "pivot" itself contributed to this misunderstanding. It suggested a turn toward new interests and a turn away from old ones, an image which does not match reality.

The term officially preferred by the Obama administration, "rebalancing," a reallocation of resources in response to the growing economic and strategic significance of the Asia-Pacific region, more accurately captures what was actually the resumption of a long-standing trend in policy since the mid-1990s that had been interrupted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the US wound down its heavy military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington was ending a period of extraordinary involvement in regions that had temporarily overshadowed its more sustained and growing engagement with the Asia-Pacific region.

Some analysts assert that the US no longer has the economic strength to focus on the Asia-Pacific region while it faces challenges elsewhere.

Although the US must now be more attentive to trade-offs between "guns and butter," Washington remains able and willing to ensure its global interests.

As two senior Obama administration officials responsible for East Asian affairs emphasized at a press briefing during the 2013 UN General Assembly session, the US can still "chew gum in one region and walk in another."

Their point was clear; even as the US was dealing with immediate challenges in Syria and Iran, it would continue its increasingly active involvement with the vital Asia-Pacific region.

Analysts also err when they mistake form for substance. Obama's unfortunate absence from the recent meetings in Southeast Asia has been cited as a symptom of the inability to sustain the "pivot."

Many claimed that other world leaders in attendance, especially Chinese President Xi Jinping, were able to steal the show.

Xi did make a strong impression with a welcome message that raises hopes that China will follow through on it by constructively engaging its neighbors. It does not, however, tell us anything about US policy.

Although Obama would have greatly preferred to attend the meetings as planned, his absence in no way altered the country's vital interests in the region, or the economic and military capabilities that underpin its ability to ensure them. 

US interests in the Asia-Pacific region endure, as does a foreign policy that accords the region the growing importance it merits.

That policy's essential elements, namely efforts to foster a constructive relationship with a rising China and welcome its emergence as a responsible stakeholder, commitment to fulfilling obligations to allies, determination to oppose the use of force or coercion to alter the status quo, and support for the principle of freedom of navigation on vital sea lanes, have not changed.

The author is the David M. Knott Professor of Global Politics and International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, and also director of its Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

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