Obama 2.0 Confronts Asia (Page 5 of 5)

Although the Russian government has been working on its own Asian Pivot, the Obama administration continues to treat Russia as an afterthought in most of its regional initiatives. Russia might be tempted to align closer to China to address common concerns about U.S. military policies and to get Washington’s attention. Russia and China recently announced that they would cooperate to counter U.S. missile defenses, which they see as aimed at negating their nuclear deterrent and global influence. They are also expanding their energy trade.

The main unresolved issue affecting the Obama administration’s Asian pivot, however, is how China will fit into the new framework. U.S. officials are divided regarding whether Beijing represents a potential partner or problem. The administration has yet to find a robust balance between deterring and engaging Beijing, as well as between assuring its allies and friends that the United States would neither abandon them to China’s growing might nor entrap them in an unwanted confrontation with Beijing. 

The Obama administration has tried to avoid confronting China directly by emphasizing general principles—freedom of the sea, peaceful settlement of territorial disputes, etc.—rather than pursuing policies designed explicitly to counter China. Nonetheless, PRC policy makers accuse the United States of stirring up trouble in their backyard. They complain about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S. missile defense deployments in Asia, and U.S. diplomatic interventions in Beijing’s maritime territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and other countries.  Outside the PRC, Asian leaders have generally welcomed the renewed U.S. security presence and its increasing role in the region, but they have also taken pains to avoid being seen as siding with Washington against Beijing. 

The Obama administration’s economic vision for East Asia, embodied in the TPP, also competes with that of China, which is actively lobbying countries to enter rival free-trade agreements that do not include the United States. For its part, the Obama administration has not formally excluded China from joining the TPP, but Beijing would need to revalue its currency, end subsidies to state-owned companies, better protect foreign intellectual property, and take other steps that China has either long resisted or proved unwilling to implement.

But perhaps the most serious challenge for the Obama administration’s Asian policy lies at home. The United States faces a tight fiscal environment that will constrain the resources Washington needs to implement its Asian pivot.

Even more than further increases in the Pentagon’s budget the United States needs to “rebalance the rebalance”—in other words, to augment the non-military elements of the pivot by increasing the resources available to the U.S. civilian national security agencies.

The current public preoccupation with military rebalancing—asking how many U.S. ships and planes will be in the Pacific—has given some Asians the misleading impression that the Pivot is essentially a grand redeployment of the U.S. military to contain China. Greater emphasis on the role of U.S. civilian agencies in the Pivot will help dispel this misperception and make it easier to gain support from cautious Asian leaders seeking a greater U.S. role in their region but not at the risk of antagonizing Beijing.

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