The Debate

Missing in Asia: The Pivotal Person in Obama’s Pivot

If it is to move forward, the US pivot to Asia is going to need a new point person.

Missing in Asia: The Pivotal Person in Obama’s Pivot
Credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

It is tough to get a fix on what is wrong with President Obama’s Asia pivot. On the face of it, it is the perfect policy at the perfect time: it serves America’s economic interests by pushing a high-end trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); it reinforces and expands America’s role as the dominant security player in the region; and it advances the ideals of the American political system through capacity building in countries such as Myanmar. Yet, no matter how much attention the president and his team are paying to the region—and no one can legitimately claim that the Asia Pacific is suffering from a lack of U.S. attention given the number of trips to the region by senior U.S. officials—the sum of the policy is rapidly becoming less than its parts.

Certainly, the region is no longer in the state of rough equilibrium that has characterized it for the past few decades. Japan and South Korea are at odds. The Chinese economy is a black hole from which no real light is emerging.  Political protests are bouncing from one place to the next, raising questions of legitimacy from Taiwan to Thailand. The Chinese nine-dash line is transforming from a figurative to a literal naval battleground between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors. And political transition in North Korea has produced a future for the country and the region every bit as bleak as that of the past.

Yet these problems, in many respects, should be small potatoes for the United States. Why, therefore, with a well-conceived policy, a surfeit of attention, and mostly manageable problems, does the U.S. rebalance seem off-kilter?

The evolution of the pivot over the past two-and-half years suggests two factors: first, the transition from the articulation to the implementation of the pivot. It is terrific to breathe new life into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but getting the deal done is a different matter. It needs to be a top priority not only for the U.S. Trade Representative but also for Treasury, Commerce, and free-trade-minded members of Congress. The White House needs to put real heft behind the deal and getting trade promotion authority (TPA) for the president from Congress. The United States is fleshing out the security component of the pivot piece by piece, and the deal signed by the president in the Philippines is a real success, particularly if one thinks back to 1992, when Manila kicked Washington out of Subic Bay. Still, it does U.S. credibility no good to have a Pentagon official publicly question America’s staying power in the face of defense budget cuts.

Second, and even more important, is the departure of Secretary of State Clinton. Without her, and her deputy Kurt Campbell, there is no-one person who serves as the pivot’s pivotal spokesperson. Secretary Clinton was the public face of the rebalance. Others may have had a say in its design and played a supporting role, but she had both the ability and the interest to navigate across the issues and give the pivot a sense of strategic purpose. Both at home and abroad, it is now unclear who can or does play this role. The recent series of visits to the region by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, as well as National Security Adviser Rice, leave the impression of a set of policy silos rather than an integrated, coherent whole.

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It is not too late to push the pivot forward, but the president needs to determine who has the diplomatic skills and presence, the intellect, and the interest to ensure its success. (And let me say, I don’t think that there is a clear choice here.) He also needs to put his presidential weight behind the TPP and get the three former senators in his cabinet—Vice President Joe Biden, Kerry, and Hagel—to Congress if he, himself, can’t do the glad-handing necessary to win TPA. Finally, if he hasn’t read Maureen Dowd’s April 30 New York Times column, he should. Whining, whiffing, and whinging are just the worst and certainly won’t bring any diplomatic wins.

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.