The Debate

America’s ‘Military First’ Asia Pivot

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The Debate

America’s ‘Military First’ Asia Pivot

The Pentagon and U.S. military continue to dominate the so-called pivot to Asia.

America’s ‘Military First’ Asia Pivot
Credit: DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen

Despite its growing operations in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, America’s pivot to Asia still seems to be led by the Department of Defense and military.

In a press conference on Thursday, Pentagon Press Secretary Admiral John Kirby said that the Pentagon and armed forces’ new responsibilities in the Middle East would not come at the expense of its focus on Asia.

“I think given the fact that there’s a lot going on in the world that we’re still making these visits and still having these discussions speaks volumes about how important we believe the Asia Pacific theater is,” Kirby told reporters. He also pointed out that “more than 350,000 American troops are based somewhere in the Pacific, 200 ships, the majority of the Navy is in the Pacific. And we have five of our seven treaty alliances are in the Pacific region. We’re very committed to that region.”

The admiral has a point: despite the distractions elsewhere in the world, defense and military officials continue to make the Asia-Pacific a high priority. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel just returned from a roughly week long trip to India and Australia. It was his sixth trip to the region as secretary of defense, and Kirby said that Hagel intends to visit the region at least four times this year.

Following closely on the heels of Hagel’s trip to the region are ones by General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Bob Work, the deputy secretary of defense. Gen. Dempsey’s trip is notable because he is currently spending four days in Vietnam. This is the first time a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has visited Vietnam since the country united under the government in Hanoi. In other words, Dempsey is the most senior military leader to ever visit Vietnam. Notably, along with meetings with Vietnam’s top military officer and defense chief, Dempsey met with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

Right as Dempsey wraps up his trip to Vietnam over the weekend, Deputy Secretary Work will begin his own trip to the region. Work will spend six days in the region visiting Guam, Hawaii, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. While the Pentagon hasn’t released many details on his itinerary yet, the trip is notable because it is his first to Asia since he took his current position in May. Taken together, Hagel, Dempsey, and Work’s trips span the Indo-Pacific region and include visits to America’s long-standing allies as well as new partners Washington is looking to increase its cooperation with.

To be fair, Secretary of State John Kerry has stepped up his Asia diplomacy during his second year in office. Last month, Kerry visited both China and India to hold strategic dialogues. Already this month he has traveled to Myanmar for the ASEAN Regional Forum, Australia for a 2+2 with Hagel and the Solomon Islands (Kerry also visited Afghanistan last month and this month). Kerry also gave what was at least billed as a major address on Asia at the East-West Center in Hawaii on his way home from his latest trip to the region.

While Kerry’s increased focus on the region is commendable, it has been underwhelming to say the least. To begin with, most of his trips have been short and narrowly focused around a specific dialogue or summit. With the exception of the 2+2 with Australia, these dialogues and summits have produced little in substantive achievements. Similarly, his East-West Center speech — though entitled “U.S. Vision for Asia-Pacific Engagement” — offered little in the way of actual vision. Moreover, Kerry’s trips have usually been dominated by events elsewhere in the world, most especially the Middle East. Thus, while Kerry has been physically present in Asia, his attention has usually remained focused elsewhere. As a result, his trips have not been celebrated in the region in the same way that Hagel’s trip to India was, or Dempsey’s current trip to Vietnam has been.

More notably, the White House continues to be entirely absent from the Asia-Pacific. It is still not clear who Obama’s point person is on China or Asia now that Kurt Campbell and Tom Donilon are gone. Most of the White House advisors appear generally uninterested in the region. This most certainly includes the president himself, who — despite launching the pivot in grand style — has hardly mentioned the region since, even in his broad foreign policy speeches.

As a result of all this, the achievements of the pivot are still primarily military in nature. Examples of these include the new deal on Marines rotating in Darwin, Australia, as well as the Philippines providing the U.S. military with increased access to some of its bases. Additionally, America’s mil-to-mil cooperation with China seems to be the only part of the relationship that is improving. Meanwhile, it’s unclear if the Trans-Pacific Partnership has made any progress, or if it will still be signed by the end of this year. Even if the TPP negotiations are concluded this year, the administration has done little to ensure its passage by the Senate. Hillary Clinton has even publicly doubted the Senate will ratify the TPP.

Although the military component of pivot is important, it is in this area that the U.S. was already strongest. Moreover, it is America’s economic and political interests in the Asia-Pacific that dictate the importance of ensuring peace and stability in the region. Unless America increases its economic and political cooperation in Asia, it will simply be left providing security for security’s sake.