The U.S. Pivot to Asia: An Update

John F. Copper

In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a concept—cum a tenet of U.S. foreign policy—called the “pivot to Asia” in article titled “America’s Pacific Century” published in Foreign Policy. As it turned out, this announcement had major consequences.

President Obama signed on and made several trips to Asia where he advanced the idea. He ordered establishing a marine base in Australia, giving greater emphasis to the U.S. Navy’s mission in Asia, upgrading U.S. alliances in the region, and more.

Unquestionably, the “policy” made sense. Asia was where the action was and would be even more relevant in the future. It was the fastest growing region of the world economically (by GDP, trade, and other metrics), militarily (growing arms spending and acquisitions), and much more. It was where big power (China and the United States) competition lay. It was an area that the United States had neglected during the Bush administration owing to the focus on Middle East problems. Consequently, the Obama administration essentially left unchanged Bush policies in this region up to this point.

To some, the pivot held great promise. Some of President Obama’s supporters said it might become an “Obama doctrine” or even the Obama doctrine. It might be the centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. However, there were three problems or obstacles to advancing the pivot and making it a full-fledged policy, much less a doctrine. These were significant.

The Obama administration had to end U.S. wars in the Middle East and realize a financial “dividend” from doing so. Otherwise Obama had to find a way to increase the military budget or, alternatively, shift vital United States military resources to Asia from other places in the world.

President Obama also had to organize U.S. allies in Asia into committed supporters of the pivot. Inasmuch as Asians tend to see the world less in strategic terms, especially power balancing or zero sum thinking, and more in economic win-win strategies, the pivot needed an economic “leg.”

Finally, Obama needed to decide whether the pivot was to be an anti-China and/or challenge China policy for the region. It looked like that, as the term pivot sounded strategic in nature and most viewed it as a policy of reacting to China’s rise. Washington sought to play this down and renamed the pivot a rebalancing policy. But that did not stick and did not make sense anyway as China was not invited to participate and U.S. Asian allies saw it as a policy of containing China.

In any event, in spite of a rather showy start, the pivot soon faded from the Obama administration’s top priorities of foreign policy matters. Silence about the pivot, in fact, became rather deafening. For instance, in 2012 Jeffrey Bader, a top advisor on U.S. Asia policy in the Obama administration, published a book titled Obama and China’s Rise: An Account of America’s Asia Strategy, which, even though quite positive about President Obama’s Asia policy, did not mention the pivot.

Meanwhile, Professor Robert Ross, a China expert, authored a piece in Foreign Affairs (a pro-Obama administration publication) condemning the pivot, writing that it undermined regional security and decreased prospects of cooperation between Washington and Beijing since it fed China’s suspicions and aggressiveness.

At this time, U.S. Congress and President Obama reached an agreement to cut the U.S. deficit by reducing spending—oddly called “sequestration.” The deal meant cutting nearly a trillion dollars from the defense budget over a ten-year period. Meanwhile, military personnel costs were skyrocketing, and meant that little money would be available for advancing the pivot.

In 2013, the Obama White House began promoting the economic side of the pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, without emphasizing that it was originally proposed by Singapore, Chile, New Zealand, and Brunei, and that it was pushed by the Bush administration as a way of getting a “deeper” or “gold standard” trade agreement as opposed to more “shallow” ones concluded by China and regional countries. Obama put the United States in the lead role on the deal, but it soon got bogged down in disagreements and local opposition in Asian countries and encountered strong resistance from certain quarters in the United States.

When President Obama was asked about the pivot during a 2014 visit to Asia, his response was that the administration was making steady, if unspectacular, progress. Most of his audience heard the unspectacular. Asians, like others, were thinking of how Obama threatened Bashar al-Assad with a “red line” if the Syrian leader used chemical weapons, but then did nothing to follow through, thus breaking the central rule of superpower deterrence: do not break your word. This, plus President Obama’s weak stand against Russia in Ukraine, had undermined the credibility of the United States abroad.

President Obama forged unity among government officials who consistently espoused the line that the pivot was perfectly compatible with China’s strategic rise and a cordial U.S. relationship with China. But academics did not go along. They cited the need to convince Asian allies about the Unites States’ overall resolve and commitment in the face of China’s aggressiveness. The Economist pointed out a contradiction between the United States engaging in disputes over islands and reefs that had no relevance to U.S. security while trying not to alienate China.

In 2015, the U.S. military changed the name of the “Air Sea Battle” concept—designed to counter China’s anti-access strategy and extend any conflict into Chinese territory—to a much more innocuous term: “the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons.” This hardly displayed U.S. backbone. Nor did the U.S. Navy when, after the fact, it engaged Chinese ships in water cannon “battles” and sent ships into international waters close to where China was building runways and other infrastructure projects on disputed islands. According to defense experts, China has reclaimed at least 1,170 hectares of land in the South China Sea building on reefs and islets. It has also recently deployed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel chain without stirring a meaningful U.S. reaction.

The pivot has also become an election issue in the United States, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Secretary Clinton, who is credited with founding the pivot, is almost silent on the issue. She has even come out in opposition to the TPP, and some have questioned whether she will change her position on it after the election. But, just a few days ago, she said adamantly that she did not support it and would not support it during a lame duck session of Congress, or as president. Republicans, whom President Obama counts on for support for free trade deals, are changing sides or are at least not speaking words of support.

The focus of U.S. foreign policy remains on the Middle East with terrorism regularly in the news and a nuclear deal with Iran facing serious questions—though it remains President Obama’s hope for a diplomatic success that will be worth citing when his legacy is calculated.

Meanwhile, the Brexit and resultant chaos in the European Union means finalizing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement—which former Obama national security advisor stated compliments the TPP—is being held up. This hurts the TPP’s chances and also weakens the pivot.

This dim view of the status of the pivot at present, however, may be contradicted by President Obama’s planned trip to China to attend the G20 summit after which he will visit Laos in September, a first for a U.S. president. Obama may hope for a meeting of the minds with China on some important issues, especially regarding his administration’s narrative that the pivot and good relations with China can coexist. At this stage of Obama’s tenure, U.S. relations with China are at a low point—in fact, the worst for any president since before Nixon. Relations can hardly deteriorate further, which means that they will improve. There is awareness in Washington that the United States needs China to resolve a host of global issues. President Obama seems to understand this.

Perhaps the president also hopes that he can employ his charm and convince the government of Laos to desist from blocking the Association of Southeast Asian—the most important regional organization to nations there—unity so that it can present a case against China’s activities in the South China Sea. Laos has been the key to China preventing this.

But this may be little more than hope. G20 meetings are usually not that consequential, and U.S. bargaining chips appear weak. At present, China’s economic growth is quite respectable given the global economy and China’s efforts to shift to a consumer economy, control environmental damage, and corral corruption. In fact, China’s expansion is four times faster than that of the United States, which has fallen to around one and a half percent growth in GDP.

Laos is highly dependent on China economically, and is the number one destination for exports (double number two) and second for imports. The United States does not rank in the top five in either category. China provides more aid and investment funds to Laos than any other country. Laotian officials know this is not likely to change.

In addition, since China has seven dams on the river upstream, Laos needs China’s goodwill in allowing sufficient water to pass into the Mekong River that is Laos’ lifeblood. Laos is also beholden to China for building railroads and roads in Laos that facilitate its vital trade and other commercial contacts with Southeast countries as well as China and that provide landlocked Laos with links to the rest of the world.

Thus, it is doubtful that President Obama’s last trip to Asia will change much. It may, however, leave Asians with the thought that the United States has not abandoned the region, that the pivot is not dead, and that there is something Obama’s successor can build on.


John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies (emeritus) at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty books on China, Taiwan, and U.S. Asia policy.