US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

When President Barack Obama travels to Beijing to attend the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this fall, members will be looking for signs that the president is still committed to implementing his so-called “Asia pivot” policy. 


The initiative, unveiled in a column written by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is driven by the administration’s belief that the East Asia Pacific region is moving rapidly towards a dominant spot on the world stage — and the United States needs to be there.  

As Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in late 2011, much of this century’s history will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq.

“The Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics,” she wrote. “Stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas, the region spans two oceans — the Pacific and the Indian — that are increasingly linked by shipping and strategy…It is home to several of our key allies and important emerging powers like China, India and Indonesia.”

And that makes the region a priority for the Obama administration, Clinton argued. 

“Over the long run, Asia is certainly the most dynamic economic area in the world,” said professor David Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

“It has some of the biggest ingest militaries in the world; it has North Korea — one of the worst actors in the world,” he said. “So the general proposition that the United States needs to pay more attention to Asia over time, I think, is strategically correct.” 

But the rebalancing of American money, time and attention demands close dealings with a rising China — a delicate act for the United States even in the best of times. 

And with several of America’s tradition Asian allies engaged in tense standoffs with Beijing over maritime territorial claims, the policy is littered with potential land mines.

Military shift

The policy of reorienting American’s focus towards Asia heralded a significant military shift: that is, the reconfiguration of the ratio of American military power from its longtime 50-50 split between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans to 60-40. 

The move, which immediately raised hackles in Beijing, revealed the belief among U.S. officials that shoring up American military presence in the Pacific was necessary as a counterbalance to an increasingly assertive China. 

“As we look at the rise of China and its growing maritime capability, our continuing disagreements with the Russians, I think clearly the potential for needing U.S. maritime power in the Pacific has risen,” said Admiral James Stavridis, dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. “Therefore, it makes sense 60-40 in the nautical sense.”

The stakes for both countries are high. Both are grappling with complex economic challenges at home, while also being ever more economically interdependent.

And, experts say, the United States and China will be the two largest economies in the world for decades to come.

From the Chinese point of view, those deployments are clear evidence of a containment policy, a charge which the former top U.S. diplomat for East Asia Kurt Campbell has denied repeatedly.

“I think sometimes there has been a mistaken notion that our focus has somehow been aimed at China, when in fact one of the principal beneficiaries of much more intense engagement has been China,” Campbell said during an interview in 2012.

“Much higher diplomatic engagement, a clear desire by the United States and other countries to work with China in partnership to deal with [global] challenges,” he said.

But the ongoing territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas between China and several U.S. allies in the region, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, add another layer of strain.  

“The Chinese positioning of an oil rig near the Paracels and in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, certainly in disputed waters, has caused a lot of tensions recently,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior Asia adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 


Glaser adds that, so far, the pivot has not dissuaded China — a very challenging objective in and of itself. 

“If we look at what is going on in the South China Sea, in particular, we can see that the Chinese assertiveness is not being deterred,” she said. “And we don’t see, I think, that the United States has really make much headway in getting the Chinese to recalibrate.”


“I think the Chinese, in fact, blame the United States, that its rebalance to Asia is emboldening its neighbors to confront China and challenge Chinese interests,” Glaser added. 

China policy shift

Part of the problem, critics say, is that U.S. officials have not thought through how the Chinese are likely to perceive American engagement in Asia. China expert David Lampton believes a more nuanced approach is needed, especially with regard to China.

“When we talk about rebalancing, you’re talking about shift. That means shifting your attention from one area of the world to another,” he said. “So you not only create anxieties in Beijing that that shift is going in their direction, but you also create anxieties among our allies and areas where we were previously committed.”

It can have a cascading effect, he said. 

“So Europe begins to have doubts about the staying power of the United States, Putin begins to think maybe he’s got more room to operate, in the Middle East, Central Asia, actors there are beginning to wait for our drawdown, Afghanistan and so forth.”

Still others point out that much of the new policy is more rhetoric than reality. 

“Very little is being done to materially affect what is happening in the region, i.e. the territorial disputes and coercion and the like,” said Michael Auslin, director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Even Campbell, who vigorously defended the pivot during his time in the Obama administration, has publically expressed concerns about whether or not the United States is committed to pivot, which by its very nature is a long slog. 

“More can be done to reassure the region and signal a subtle, sustained, and integrated American approach to Asia,” Campbell wrote in a recent column in the Financial Times newspaper. 

It can seem at times as though the administration has dropped the ball in Asia, Glaser said.  But that is more a case of being drowned out by the latest global conflagration.  

“I think that the rebalance to Asia remains a priority for the Obama administration even though it might not be in the headlines on a daily basis,” she said. “There really is a lot of ongoing activity, but of course it doesn’t necessary capture the headlines that perhaps developments in Iraq or Syria do.”

China and its neighbors will be looking for signs that president remains commitment to the pivot’s ambitious goals when he attends the APEC summit in Beijing and the East Asia Summit in Myanmar just a few days later. 

“One goal is to reassure allies and partners in the region that the US will continue to play a key role in ensuring peace and stability in the region,” she said. “And to and balance against China’s rise.”


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