Written by Harry J. Kazianis.
I have always been a big believer in goal setting. A simple idea we all take for granted, yet, goals allow one to make simple judgments when it comes to your own personal successes or failures. Metrics can be crafted to judge the strategy you enact to achieve a stated goal. The more clear cut and easy to articulate the goal is, the easier it is to define your progress towards it. Goals allow those who may wish to rate your progress the ability to craft analysis and offer counterstrategies, critique, or advice to improve or reject the strategy you have in place. And in the high-stakes game of geopolitics you can’t achieve much of anything unless you have a goal and the guts to state it loud and proud.
It is with the above in mind that I approach the question of America’s so-called “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific and larger Indo-Pacific region. Before one can analyze the success or failure of such a strategy we need to know what the goal is. Let me ask you a simple question: in one sentence, can you simply articulate what the goal of the “pivot” is without getting yourself into a tongue twister? If you are a U.S. government official tasked with such an assignment in a press briefing the response is likely a three to five minute affair of carefully worded phrases like “engagement,” “economics”, “partnerships” or “relationship building”–ideas that are so vague they end up being meaningless. Yes, Asia is important–we all know this. Yes, we want to sign important trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Yes, Washington wants to reassure allies in the face of “challenges to the international system.” This is all well and good, however, you can take these ideas and transplant them into any U.S. foreign policy statement in most places around the world. After while they all become mishmash.
Over the last several years it has become increasingly clear to me the pivot’s real meaning has become hard to pin down for a reason. I would argue the real problem with America’s pivot is that the Obama Administration is too busy creating verbal smokescreens to hide its clear intentions–intentions that are crystal clear for anyone to see. There is only one goal: a half-hearted “restrainment” of aggressive Chinese actions throughout Asia.
Why is Washington so afraid of being honest about its goals in Asia? For anyone who has followed Beijing’s actions over the last several years one thing is clear: Chinese foreign policy is becoming increasingly assertive and its own intentions are clear. A nasty brew of nationalism, historical anger, a sense of destiny combined with increasing military capabilities are driving China to challenge the status quo time and time again. Whether it’s crafting wild territorial claims like nine or ten dash lines, islands reclamation projects in disputed waters, setting up oil rigs in other nations Exclusive Economic Zones and developing a world-class military devoted to “counter-intervention operations” aimed squarely at Washington, Beijing is slowly overturning an international order that has brought peace and stability to Asia for decades.
So if China is clear about its intentions though its actions and deeds, why can’t America at least present a counter strategy out in the open? Not some hawkish containment doctrine but at the very least craft a coalition of nations who have a vested interest in challenging Chinese behavior? Washington seems to fear a backlash that could create the foundations for an even more dangerous stand-off, even a “Cold War” in Asia. Yes, it might ruffle some feathers in China; however, Beijing must know its actions will have costs–how else can we try to get China to change tact? As my wife, a therapist by trade would say: “If a behavior is functional, especially a bad behavior, why would it ever stop?”
So if the pivot’s goal is restraining or balancing China so it halts its aggressive actions in Asia we now have a basis to analyze such a policy. Is the pivot actually effective in restraining Chinese actions in Asia? The answer I am afraid is easy to see: no. Not even having the courage to state the goal of the policy has crippled the pivot from the very beginning–another prime example of the Obama Administration’s “leading from behind.” If anything, Chinese actions since the declaration of the pivot in mid to late 2011 have only become more aggressive. Beijing has taken effective control of Scarborough Reef and it has even more aggressively pushed its claims in the East and South China Seas. China’s military is becoming one of the world’s most advanced while its growing counter-intervention military capabilities continue to chip away at the ability of America to come to the aid of its allies with Taiwan declaring by 2020 America would not be able to save the island nation from Chinese aggression. This happens at the same time as U.S. officials are called to task for speaking the truth when it comes to China’s aggressive actions.
The U.S. pivot to Asia will fail for one simple reason–Washington won’t state its real goal. Not clearly articulating its objectives–for fear of souring relations or creating a new Cold War–is only making the problem worse. In my travels to Asia since the declaration of the pivot U.S. allies are constantly asking me what the pivot means and its intentions. Trying to hide our intentions is only creating confusion. Just in the last three years I can recall many interaction with U.S. officials who have expressed to me they never want to push language too far in official statements or briefings in public meetings with allies in Asia for fear of singling out China. No nation–especially a global superpower–can operate an effective foreign policy in such a way. Sadly it appears the pivot will die like many other “bumper-sticker” foreign policy slogans. At a time when Chinese actions sorely need to be restrained, history it seems is destined to look back at this period in Asia as a lost opportunity.
Harry J. Kazianis is Executive Editor of The National Interest and a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. The opinions in this article are his own. Harry tweets @GrecianFormula. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Pacific Command/Flickr.