In its short life, the Barack Obama administration’s much-hyped “pivot” to Asia has become a magnet for derision. Some critics say the strategy needlessly antagonizes China; others complain it’s not tough enough. Either the "rebalancing" lacks sufficient resources -- ships, planes and troops -- or it’s draining such assets from needier parts of the world. It’s all show and no substance. Or perhaps, given how many trips to the region President Obama canceled before this week’s visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, it boasts little enough of either.
Considering world events since the strategy was announced in 2011 -- from the Arab Spring and outbreak of Syria’s civil war to Russia's annexation of Crimea -- it’s tempting to suggest that Obama scrap the pivot altogether. A smarter move would be to rebalance the rebalancing: Talk less and do more.
The notion of prioritizing Asia should hardly be controversial. The region, as one of the pivot’s original architects noted recently, exerts an “inescapable gravitational pull.” It is home to half the world’s population, and before the middle of this century it should account for half the world’s economic output. Already the U.S. exports 50 percent more to Asia than to Europe. The U.S. and almost every country in Asia share an overwhelming interest in ensuring a free flow of goods, information and ideas to and from the region.
But it’s obvious now that all the trumpet-blaring back in 2011 about a coming Asian Century raised expectations too high and too fast. China naturally assumed the pivot was designed to thwart its rise and grew emboldened when budget cuts slowed the movement of U.S. military assets to the region. Japan, the Philippines and other countries that had assumed the same thing now fret about U.S. staying power. From Myanmar to Vietnam, small nations lament that they haven’t received the kind of attention and money once showered on the likes of Djibouti or Tajikistan. Clearly, the White House overpromised and underdelivered.
To right that imbalance, both the Obama administration and its critics need to refocus on the pivot's original purpose. Start with Japan, the first stop on Obama's trip. Leaders there want him to more forcefully denounce China's adventurism in the East China Sea. But the last thing Asia needs from Washington is another implausible “red line.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would do better to challenge the coddled Japanese farmers who appear to have stalled talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal with the U.S. and 10 other nations. That pact would do more than any amount of U.S. bluster to strengthen Japan’s economy and, ultimately, its security.
Obama’s critics in the U.S. are similarly shortsighted. By depriving the president of fast-track authority to pass trade deals like the TPP, Congress is likely to doom the one measure that could construct a framework to bind the region. And in refusing to reconsider the budget cuts mandated by sequestration, lawmakers make it virtually impossible to beef up the U.S. military presence in Asia.
For its part, the Obama administration needs to make a stronger and more sustained effort to flesh out its ambitions in Asia. Since the pivot was first announced, funding for diplomatic engagement by the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs has actually declined to $342.6 million. (Of the six regional bureaus, only the budget for the Western Hemisphere is smaller.)
A true rebalancing will take many years and require that expertise in Asian politics, economics and languages is spread across a multitude of federal departments. To ensure that this happens, the White House needs to push for the funding to create new Asia positions and hire additional technical experts. It needs to lift bureaucratic logjams and hold cabinet officials responsible for changing priorities. This is unglamorous work, sure to be talked about a lot less than the next Crimea. That’s fine -- perhaps then the work might finally get done.
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