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Blink and You Will Miss It: Obama’s Quiet Pivot Progress

by Elizabeth C. Economy
September 5, 2013

Philippine President Benigno Aquino greets visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a courtesy call at the presidential palace in Manila on August 30, 2013. (Romeo Ranoco/Courtesy Reuters) Philippine President Benigno Aquino greets visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a courtesy call at the presidential palace in Manila on August 30, 2013. (Romeo Ranoco/Courtesy Reuters)


Amidst the din of Syrian intervention talk and Fed picks, the Obama administration is pushing forward quietly, but determinedly, to flesh out the pivot to Asia. While most of the critical attention on the pivot or rebalance is paid to what is transpiring on the security front, there is real, albeit slow, progress on the trade front and the potential for significant advances in other areas such as environmental protection.

Washington is pushing hardest to advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which if successful could be one of the signal achievements of the Obama administration’s second term. The high-end trade agreement involves negotiations among twelve countries over twenty-one widely disparate areas, such as government procurement and fishing subsidies. A meeting of the chief trade negotiators in Washington is scheduled for mid-September, and there is a continuous stream of thorny issues such as intellectual property on medicine and tariffs that must be waded through before a final agreement can be achieved. Washington is putting significant energy behind its efforts to get an agreement by the end of the year, but by most accounts this is overly ambitious.

The administration’s efforts to promote regional security are also moving forward. Secretary of Defense Hagel recently traveled to Brunei for a meeting of the ASEAN defense ministers and along the way visited the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In the Philippines, there were further discussions of a framework agreement that would promote closer cooperation between the Philippine and U.S. armed forces and allow for a rotational presence of U.S. troops, much in the same way as there is in Singapore and Australia.

Finally, Congress held hearings over the summer to explore ways in which the United States could enhance the rebalance through stronger U.S. action in areas such as environmental protection. The United States is already engaged in a number of cooperative efforts with the Lower Mekong Delta region and a particular area of new focus in this environmental partnership could well be Burma/Myanmar, where biodiversity and timber resources are under severe threat and could benefit significantly from U.S. assistance.

Critics of the U.S. rebalance nonetheless continue to abound. The TPP comes under fire for the opaque nature of the negotiations as well as its exclusion—not deliberate or permanent—of China. Washington’s efforts on the security front—which are often mistaken as the sole element of the rebalance—have been blamed for sparking “an Asian arms race” and accelerating the “militarization of states.” Some also criticize the unstated focus on China as misplaced. Amitai Etzioni argues, for example, that the Obama administration’s decision to plan for Air-Sea Battle is an over-reaction to China’s development of its anti-access/area denial capabilities; moreover, in Etzioni’s view, China has used legitimate channels to resolve more recent trade and territorial disputes, so why is the United States creating a problem where none exists? It remains far from clear that Vietnam, the Philippines, India, and Japan would agree with such an assessment.

Whether or not the rebalance is in fact part of a U.S. “imperial pivot,” as some suggest, these critics miss the most salient point. There is no rebalance without the rest of Asia. If Australia, Singapore, Vietnam and others don’t buy into the brand of partnership or leadership that the United States is selling, the rebalance will die a very quick death. To assume otherwise ignores the vigorous debates ongoing in many of these countries, and ultimately demeans these countries’ ability to recognize and pursue their own political, security, and trade interests.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Loren Fauchier

    Naysayers about U.S. attention to security issues in Asia should remember that U.S. military presence already has provided a “peace dividend” for several countries. Without the 7th fleet imagine what might have happened to Hong Kong or Taiwan. Imagine the scenario with China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands. Now that China is bent on creating a blue-water navy and claims to have built a carrier-destroying missile, the U.S. must play a pivotal security role. And while it would be beneficial for the 12 countries AND China to sign the agreement, it lacks any serious attention in addressing the role and impact of state-owned enterprises on free trade.

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thanks for the update on Asia,

    “Critics of the U.S. rebalance nonetheless continue to abound. The TPP comes under fire for the opaque nature of the negotiations as well as its exclusion—not deliberate or permanent—of China. ”

    Well, that’s the rub. The systemic problem within USG is the lack of transparency … in everything. So, it is somewhat difficult for the voting public to have an educated opinion on this subject. Therefore, I will guess.

    I am guessing that USG is hoping to economically isolate PRC and force them into the global economic fold. Of course, I don’t agree with the “Slaughter Fallacy” (Anne-Marie Slaughter) that global governance by her method will work. My approach would be more transparent, accountable and sincere. The world needs durable global governance and there is a right way to do it, imo.

    It is unfortunate that USG is expending what capital it has on the El Modelo, or the neo-liberal western “democracy” approach, which is dated and “primitive”. There are smarter ways to do this imo.

    – kk

  • Posted by S. Mahmud Ali

    Dr Economy is absolutely right that countries such as “Australia, Singapore, Vietnam and others” are fully capable of recognising their “own political, security, and trade interests.” It is this ability which has driven the coalescence of a US-led tacit coalition along China’s periphery over the past decade during which Sino-US power relativities have come into question, accelerated but not fundamentally determined by the differential consequences of the 2008-2010 global downturn.

    As the USA seeks to shore up its alliance network with bilateral and multilateral agreements with both formal allies and newer “strategic partners” – many of them equally anxious over China’s “national revitalisation,” a China-vs.-the rest paradigm is unfolding across East Asia. This will possibly ensure the extension of US systemic primacy for some time, but with polarisation growing starker by the day, and Beijing showing no signs of accepting its perpetual subordination to an order designed by a distant power, even when China is no longer weak, colonised and fragmented, the potential for inevitable confrontations escalating to conflict will grow.

    A sub-systemic equilibrium may thus be fashioned with China confronting a large, diverse and powerful US-led not-so-tacit coalition ringing it, but unless China stops growing, or becomes a pro-US liberal democracy, or follows the Soviet Union to fragmented oblivion, such an equilibrium is likely to grow steadily unstable. The longer tensions are pent up, the more violently they are likely eventually to vent. Given the intensity of economic, financial and commercial globalisation around a Sino-US hub, the application of lethal, possibly orgasmic, violence will likely have suicidal effects, and not just for the combatants.

    This gloomy scenario is not inevitable, but unless visionary statesmanship on both shores of the Pacific, and in-between, discerns ways of graduating away from a Westphalian zero-sum configuration towards a non-militarised sense of mutual accommodation and collegial collaboration, it will be. As the system manager and the system’s foremost shaper, only the USA has the capacity to nudge others towards such a shared future. The question is, will it?

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