Optimism about the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia seems to be dropping with every passing week. While Asia hands lauded the initiative when it was announced during President Obama’s first term in office, in 2014 they sigh at the United States’ inability to extricate itself from crises the Middle East and, more recently, Eastern Europe. Furthermore, several enthusiastic backers of the pivot — Hillary Clinton, Kurt Campbell, and Tom Donilon, for instance — are long gone from the administration. Meanwhile, critics of the administration’s foreign policy see the pivot as “myth” or a sign of American “retreat.” As analysts have noted, 2013 wasn’t the best year for the U.S. pivot to Asia. The year ended with China having declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over a large swath of the East China Sea, rampant investment in naval assets and procurement in Southeast Asia, and a visit by Shinzo Abe to Yasukuni Shrine, provoking China (and others) in the process.
Strategically speaking however, U.S. sluggishness and lethargy towards the pivot has had some benefits. Particularly, the United States may have found a way to remain influential in Asia without allowing its friends and allies in the region to slump into the moral hazard of relying on the United States for the ultimate guarantee of maintaining the status quo in the Asia-Pacific. Imagine the alternative: the United States flawlessly and swiftly pivots to Asia, reallocating its military assets proportionately around the region. Its allies are assured that this massive U.S. presence in the region will prevent Chinese adventurism in the Asia’s inner seas and give little thought to building up their own domestic capacities. In such a scenario, even Shinzo Abe might have been less zealous on the issue of collective self-defense in Japan, content to continue Japan’s post-war trend of fielding a modest Self-Defense Force and relying on the United States for all else.
Instead of this odd Twilight Zone-esque picture of Asian security, what we have instead is skepticism and anxiety about the U.S. commitment to the pivot. From Japan to ASEAN, states recall Clausewitz’s dictum: “One country may support another’s cause, but will never take it so seriously as it takes its own.” As a result, states across Asia are investing more in their own defense. East Asia’s arms imports, for example, surged by 25 percent in 2013. This surge came from U.S.-aligned states who began to feel that their own militaries should form the first line of defense in any future conflict in Asia — not U.S. assets.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Make no mistake: the pivot is still happening — just not in the way most U.S. allies in Asia might have pictured it happening when it was announced in 2011. Ultimately, this strategic lethargy has prompted states who rely on the U.S. to preserve the regional status quo to invest in their own defense. I should note that the argument I’ve made here isn’t in favor of maintaining the current pace in the United States’ rebalance to Asia. The past 18 months did enough to let Asian leaders know that they need to invest more in their own security.
Of course, the general trend of militarization in the Asia-Pacific could have unintended consequences that could end up being deleterious to the U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific (for instance, instead of China taking center stage, disputes might arise between U.S.-aligned states). Fortunately, much of this militarization in the region is currently being prompted by China. Contrary to the lethargy of the pivot, China has been swift and systematic in offering several good reasons for states along the Asian rimland to invest in their own security.