Management of policy toward East Asia, especially China, has been a major accomplishment of the Obama administration. But despite the initial hurrahs, last year’s prominent announcement of a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region was unnecessary and possibly counterproductive.
The pivot’s aims could have been pursued without the trumpets. Its promise of modest new defense resources for the area changes little but injects a major psychological irritant into our relations with China that helps fuel Chinese nationalism and the PLA’s campaign for a larger budget. It also exposes the limited help we can expect from allies and gives conservatives an excuse to insist on more defense expenditures. Most importantly, the pivot will do little to affect the fundamental forces changing the region. The State Department, recognizing that the rhetoric raised concerns for allies in Europe and the Middle East, later shifted to the less value-laden term “rebalancing.” But in a recent meeting with Philippines president Benigno Aquino, President Obama spurned State’s language and proudly reiterated that he had made the pivot to the Asia-Pacific.
Few doubt that the Asia-Pacific region should be central to U.S. strategic thinking. Obama came to office when the center of economic growth had shifted to the region. The recession had weakened Western economies, and China had become a more critical engine of world growth, even as doubts grew about its ability to sustain such expansion.
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