The Debate

Blink and You Will Miss It: Obama’s Quiet Pivot Progress

Critics of various aspects of the rebalance notwithstanding, the U.S. is moving forward on a number of fronts.

Amidst the din of Syrian intervention talk and Fed picks, the Obama administration is pushing forward quietly, but determinedly, to flesh out the pivot to Asia. While most of the critical attention on the pivot or rebalance is paid to what is transpiring on the security front, there is real, albeit slow, progress on the trade front and the potential for significant advances in other areas such as environmental protection.

Washington is pushing hardest to advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which if successful could be one of the signal achievements of the Obama administration’s second term. The high-end trade agreement involves negotiations among twelve countries over twenty-one widely disparate areas, such as government procurement and fishing subsidies. A meeting of the chief trade negotiators in Washington is scheduled for mid-September, and there is a continuous stream of thorny issues such as intellectual property on medicine and tariffs that must be waded through before a final agreement can be achieved. Washington is putting significant energy behind its efforts to get an agreement by the end of the year, but by most accounts this is overly ambitious.

The administration’s efforts to promote regional security are also moving forward. Secretary of Defense Hagel recently traveled to Brunei for a meeting of the ASEAN defense ministers and along the way visited the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In the Philippines, there were further discussions of a framework agreement that would promote closer cooperation between the Philippine and U.S. armed forces and allow for a rotational presence of U.S. troops, much in the same way as there is in Singapore and Australia.

Finally, Congress held hearings over the summer to explore ways in which the United States could enhance the rebalance through stronger U.S. action in areas such as environmental protection. The United States is already engaged in a number of cooperative efforts with the Lower Mekong Delta region and a particular area of new focus in this environmental partnership could well be Burma/Myanmar, where biodiversity and timber resources are under severe threat and could benefit significantly from U.S. assistance.

Critics of the U.S. rebalance nonetheless continue to abound. The TPP comes under fire for the opaque nature of the negotiations as well as its exclusion—not deliberate or permanent—of China. Washington’s efforts on the security front—which are often mistaken as the sole element of the rebalance—have been blamed for sparking “an Asian arms race” and accelerating the “militarization of states.” Some also criticize the unstated focus on China as misplaced. Amitai Etzioni argues, for example, that the Obama administration’s decision to plan for Air-Sea Battle is an over-reaction to China’s development of its anti-access/area denial capabilities; moreover, in Etzioni’s view, China has used legitimate channels to resolve more recent trade and territorial disputes, so why is the United States creating a problem where none exists? It remains far from clear that Vietnam, the Philippines, India, and Japan would agree with such an assessment.

Whether or not the rebalance is in fact part of a U.S. “imperial pivot,” as some suggest, these critics miss the most salient point. There is no rebalance without the rest of Asia. If Australia, Singapore, Vietnam and others don’t buy into the brand of partnership or leadership that the United States is selling, the rebalance will die a very quick death. To assume otherwise ignores the vigorous debates ongoing in many of these countries, and ultimately demeans these countries’ ability to recognize and pursue their own political, security, and trade interests.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.  She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.