Thinking about the US ’’Pivot’’ to Asia

Le texte publié ci-dessous est tiré des remarques présentées par Christopher Ford à une conférence organisée par le Hudson Institute qui a eu lieu au Harvard Club de New York, le 27 février. Christopher Ford plaide pour une alliance plus étroite des Etats-Unis avec les pays d’Asie qui sont inquiets de la montée en puissance de la Chine.

Whatever you call it, as a preliminary matter, let me say that I applaud the idea of our doing more by way of proactive political, military, and economic engagement in the Asia-Pacific. We never “left” the region, of course, and it has always remained a very important U.S. priority, so it is disingenuous to talk of being “back” in Asia as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially did. But I do approve of ratcheting up the attention we devote to regional issues, and I do think that the “pivot” has so far produced some good results.

Its announcement certainly got Beijing’s attention – and not unhelpfully, for that was a time when Chinese analysts were concluding that our financial crisis of 2008-09 and our subsequent crippling problems of debt and runaway domestic spending were sapping our strength, would lead to U.S. retrenchment and disengagement, and were pulling us precipitously down the global league tables of what Chinese strategists call “comprehensive national power.” They may have seen the “pivot” as a desperate move by a declining and defensive hegemon to prevent China from fulfilling its historical destiny of “returning” to dominance, but it was also a sign that despite everything, we were still a force to be reckoned with.

From the standpoint of competitive strategy, the United States thus got some real mileage out of the “pivot” approach. In the context of dealing with a China in which more aggressive approaches seem increasingly to be winning out over the traditional strategic caution and low-profile non-provocative “time-biding” strategies that were a hallmark of Chinese policy under Deng Xiaoping and his hand-picked successors, our signal of continued regional involvement was a good thing – probably increasing Beijing’s incentive to stick with Dengist “time-biding,” at least for a while longer.

But the “pivot” so far has been largely a diplomatic and political affair – a potentially ephemeral thing, relatively easily done, and perhaps just as easily abandoned. It is, to my eye, a good first step, but the “rebalancing” to date has been no more than a down-payment, as it were, upon some assumed substance that is yet to come. The question is thus whether this emphasis upon the Asia-Pacific will be sustained, institutionalized, and backed by ongoing commitments of resources.

The short answer, of course, is that I do not know. Indeed, it is sometimes hard to know what to make of the strategy behind the “pivot” in the first place. There are various possible interpretations, some more favorable than other. Some conservative observers – and I know a few of them – worry that the “pivot” isn’t really about Asia at all, being instead a sort of political shell game played by the Obama Administration on Americans and for purposes of U.S. domestic politics.

The theory offered by such critics is that the “pivot” seems to fit into a troublesome pattern. Ideologically antagonistic to the idea of assertive U.S. global engagement around the world but afraid of being depicted as yet another “weak-on-national-security Democrat,” the argument goes, Barack Obama felt it necessary to campaign against the Iraq war not by publicly calling for a full-blown U.S. retreat from the world (though this is what he wanted) but by the expedient of claiming that we had simply misunderstood the real objective and should reorient ourselves towards it. Obama decalred that it was Afghanistan, you will recall, that was the real “war of necessity,” and he contended that in order to fight properly there, we needed to get out of Iraq. In this way he could pretend to be a strong national security leader even when on the retreat in Mesopotamia.

After we got out of Iraq, however, the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan clearly didn’t seem so necessary to the Obama Administration after all. With Afghanistan having served its purpose as an excuse to disengage from Iraq, President Obama duly discovered that it was the Asia-Pacific that was really important : now we needed to get out of Afghanistan in order to move our emphasis to the Far East. Some critics thus fear that the “pivot” to Asia will suffer a similar fate as the now clearly disingenuously-identified “war of necessity” in Afghanistan – namely, they suspect that after using “pivoting” to Asia as an excuse to disengage from the Middle East, reasons will be found not to remain seriously engaged in the Asia-Pacific either. The “necessity” of each change of focus, they note, seems to last only for so long as it legitimates retreat and retrenchment wherever we are currently most invested.

So is this really the case ? To my eye, the jury is still out – though I certainly share the concern that our recent Asia focus will not be sustained, and that the “down payment” we have made with “pivot” diplomacy in the last couple of years will be squandered.

It is certainly possible that the “pivot” has been exactly the sort of cynical political game that some conservatives suspect. Indeed, one already hears Obama Administration officials suggesting quietly that the “rebalancing” to Asia has been “misunderstood,” and that it’s reallynot so much a new politico-military strategy as an initiative for economic and socio-cultural engagement. There is in Washington these days increasing talk, as it were, of “rebalancing” the “rebalancing.”

When I was in China last year doing interviews for a book, in fact, I was told by one high-ranking Chinese think-tanker that they had been privately assured by the Obama Administration that Secretary Clinton had “overstated” the “pivot” and that Beijing should rest easy. Whether any such reassurance actually occurred is far from clear. Nevertheless, it is not beyond imagining that now that President Obama has been immunized against accountability to American voters – the “pivot” having perhaps played a role in his re-election as an example of a robust and at least ostensibly security-focused strategy – the vigor and apparent security emphasis of the “rebalancing” will now be detuned. And indeed, Obama officials have recently suggested that the “pivot” may have to be abandoned as sequestration – a step which was originally President Obama’s idea – goes through.

That said, I give former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell credit for sincerity and a lot of hard (and good) work in initiating the “pivot.” Nevertheless, he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have now both moved on. And how serious the White House is about the “pivot” has perhaps yet to be truly tested.

If the “pivot” was a political gimmick from the start, of course, we can be confident that it willnot be sustained, institutionalized, or backed with any significant resources. If the “shell game theory” is correct, the “rebalancing” to Asia will have served its purpose when it has finished justifying our disengagement from the “distraction” of Afghanistan. (Whatever role it might have been intended to play in helping protect Obama’s right flank in the 2012 election campaign, when promoted by administration figures as a military strategy, is now over.) Accordingly, perhaps, the “pivot” will then quietly fade away : U.S. military capabilities relevant to a potential state-on-state clash across a battlespace contested by adversary “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) systems will not receive funding and programmatic endorsement, shipbuilding and aviation force postures will be allowed to atrophy, new co-operative endeavors with regional allies will not be developed, and so forth.

Clearly, this theory is an unfavorable interpretation. Hopefully, it is not the case. A competing possibility is that the “pivot” has indeed been sincerely meant, and should be taken at face value as an effort to boost our engagement in the Asia-Pacific across the board. This, however, returns us to the issue of sustainability. And in this regard, resources are clearly going to be a challenge.

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, for instance, announced last year, with much fanfare, that the United States will start deploying 60 percent of its naval forces in the Pacific for the first time. This is a nice sound bite, and certainly seems to suggest seriousness. But one should be cautious.

My Hudson Institute colleague Doug Feith has rightly argued that this is a much less meaningful statistic than one might think. Our military, after all, is a global one with globalinterests and responsibilities, and it doesn’t matter hugely what is initially stationed where because our forces are routinely being shifted around to where they are most needed. A crisis in Asia would draw a “swarm” of American power from all over, just as one elsewhere might lead us to pull at least some forces from the Pacific. Baseline deployments do serve a signaling function, and I myself was pleased with Panetta’s announcement, but one shouldn’t overstate its importance.

More fundamental is the question of what we posses in the first place. Sixty percent may be in the Pacific, in other words, but 60 percent of what ? The details matter. (Forty percent of a 300-ship Navy, for instance, is a much bigger presence than 60 percent of a 150-ship fleet.) The much more important question is what our total force is, what capabilities it has when the budget-cutters have finished with it, and how trained and ready we are for a full range of missions. Even a real “pivot” will collapse if not given real support, and our current era of self-inflicted economic and fiscal wounds will make robust regional engagement challenging.

So an enormous component of the challenge of sustaining the “pivot” clearly involves money – specifically, Washington’s lack of it as we allow entitlement spending to squeeze discretionary spending (e.g., for national defense) increasingly out of the federal budget. But if we are serious about the “pivot” – and about making it sustainable over time – things aren’t just about money.

If we are serious about an Asia-Pacific strategy – especially in a time of fiscal constraint – we will need to work with our regional friends and allies in ways that we are as yet unaccustomed to doing. So far, they are still waiting to see what the “pivot” really means. To date, it has been more a matter of pronouncements from Washington than a subject of deep engagement and collaborative development with our friends and allies. This will need to change if our “rebalancing” is to last.

Doing that may require some political and psychological adjustment in Washington. We have a vestigial memory of competitive strategy planning in the Cold War context vis-à-vis the Soviets. Then, however, our role was more that of essentially telling our subservient allies what the collective strategy was to be. In today’s Asia-Pacific, we will need both to re-learn competitive strategic planning as a mindset – and, by the way, to admit to ourselves that strategic competition is indeed what we’re engaged in in the first place – and to un-learn our Cold War-era habits of alliance management by diktat. The challenge now is be to work with our regional friends and allies to develop competitive strategies together, and more as full partners than ever before. They certainly need us to work with them, but we also need them.

Interestingly, my impression is that it is just such a collaborative approach to competitive strategy that the Communist Party-State in Beijing fears most from us. They have convinced themselves that we are on a strategic downslope, but this is not true of Asia as a whole – and China’s rich statecraft literature, which goes back some 2,500 years, teaches rising powers to fear countervailing coalitions among those who fear the implications of their rise. What could be more worrying for Beijing than closer security, political, and economic cooperation between the non-Chinese powers of the region, and in ways that marry Asia’s modern dynamism with America’s still-enormous global power ?

If the United States does really mean what it says about Asian engagement, I’d suggest that one way to salvage the “pivot” is to take a page from that Chinese statecraft literature ourselves – by developing and institutionalizing new approaches to collaborative competitive strategy in the region. The time is ripe.

Propagandists in Beijing have begun to articulate notions that posit the Party-State’s pseudo-Confucian authoritarianism as a superior alternative to Western democratic pluralism, and have spoken with disturbing candor about China’s ambition to construct a “harmonious world” analogous to the “harmonious society” the Communist Party has built in China. A “re-ideologization” of global affairs seems to be underway, even as a growing and more muscular China girds itself to deter or displace the U.S. political and military presence that has underpinned the open, liberal order of the Asia-Pacific for so long. Yet China’s recent aggressiveness over previously dormant territorial disputes has alarmed its neighbors, making them interested – to a perhaps unprecedented degree – in working with us to secure and maintain that open order. Shame on us if we do not settle down to the job of working ever more closely with these friends.