In a press conference on Monday discussing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s inaugural trip to Asia, Susan Thornton, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, had this to say about the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia:
On the issue of pivot, rebalance, et cetera, that was a word that was used to describe the Asia policy in the last administration. I think you can probably expect that this administration will have its own formulation and it hasn’t actually, we haven’t seen in detail what the formulation will be or if there even will be a formulation.
Those words aren’t necessarily surprising in the context of the Trump administration, but it’s quite something to hear from the top dedicated U.S. diplomat for East Asian policy that the “rebalance” is officially over. The Obama administration had staked out the policy late in its first term, seeking to launch a sustained adjustment of U.S. foreign policy attention away from the Middle East and Europe toward Asia.
Indeed, the rebalance had its critics, with many arguing that the policy had fallen flat at least as early as 2014, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea diverted U.S. attention back to Europe even as the continued deteriorating of the situation in the Middle East — most notably in Syria — kept disproportionate U.S. attention focused on that region.
With the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the signature economic pillar of the rebalance — the finality of the policy’s end was already clear as well. As Obama administration officials were always the first to point out, the pivot and later rebalance were always far more than a military initiative.
Thornton’s comment, however, shouldn’t spawn excessive pessimism about the United States losing interest in the Asia-Pacific — even under the mercurial Trump administration. Thornton continued:
We’re going to remain active and engaged in Asia. The Asian economy is very important for U.S. prosperity and growth so we’ll be there working on fair and free trade issues; working on regional security challenges, such as North Korea, and continue to press for a rules-based, constructive, peaceful, stable order in Asia.
There’s no reason that this can’t and won’t continue to be the case for U.S. policy toward the region, even if the Trump administration decides to play a more antagonistic tune toward China on trade and economic matters more broadly. With half the world’s population and nearly one-third of global GDP, Asia must be taken seriously by any U.S. administration. Even Trump’s proposed “America First” grand strategy must contend with the opportunities available within the region.
To be sure, it’s not entirely clear that Thornton’s rosy take on this administration’s priorities in Asia will come to bear on policy. For instance, we’ve seen very little suggesting that the Trump administration prioritizes the maintenance of a “rules-based, constructive, peaceful, stable order in Asia.” Despite its presumptive seriousness about the North Korean threat, senior administration officials haven’t seriously reckoned just yet with issues like freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea — a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s Asia policy.
What’s most telling is that Thornton implicitly referred to the pivot and rebalance as a “bumper sticker,” adding that it’s “early to say” if the Trump administration will decide to adopt something of its own for its Asia policy. This gets to one of the more nuanced critiques of the Obama administration’s rebalance; namely, while it was a well-conceived articulation of U.S. economic, security, and normative interests in Asia, the pivot branding was an unnecessarily restrictive rhetorical construct, forcing suboptimal public diplomacy by the previous administration.
That critique recognized — as the Trump administration may come to realize in time — that the United States had never really quite “left” Asia to the point where it would be accurate to term its increased diplomatic and military engagement beginning as early as 2009, with the signing of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a true “pivot” or “rebalance.” Indeed, despite the “pivot” and “rebalance” rhetoric, successive Obama administration officials emphasized that the United States had always been a Pacific power and would continue to be one through the 21st century.
The Trump administration still hasn’t quite figured out what exactly its longer term objectives are in the Asia-Pacific region, apart from broadly reeling in the United States’ trade deficit with multiple Asian nations that enjoy a trade surplus with Washington. Trump has promised a massive military buildup, including an expansion of the U.S. naval fleet that will no doubt bolster the ability of U.S. Pacific Command to carry out its mission protecting the regional security architecture by continuing to defend a rules-based order.
Meanwhile, with the permanent bureaucracy of the U.S. State Department showing signs of irrelevance, assurances that long-institutionalized relationships at the bilateral level would keep running despite a new administration in town appear to be less convincing every day. Despite this gloomy picture, the Obama administration’s serious diplomatic and military efforts in the region leave behind a tall legacy, providing a helpful foundation for constructive growth should the Trump administration decide to pursue a more traditional approach to the region in line with older U.S. strategic priorities.
So, in summation, the pivot and rebalance, as conceived by the Obama administration, are unlikely to reappear anytime soon. This administration, in its early days, has shown a propensity for a piecemeal approach to Asia, treating bilateral relationships as its primary unit of analysis. If there is a “bumper sticker” for this era of U.S. policy in Asia, it may as well be “America First.”
Bonus: My colleague Prashanth Parameswaran and I discussed the legacy of the Obama administration’s Asia policy over a series of four podcasts. See “Obama’s Asia-Pacific Legacy: Assessing Policy Toward Maritime Challenges and the North Korea Threat,” “8 Years Later: Understanding the Obama Administration’s Asia-Pacific Legacy,” “US Defense Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific: What Obama and Carter Will Leave Trump and Mattis,” and “The ‘Pivot’ Gets Trumped: The Asia-Pacific Under President Trump.”