Pacific Pivot: Sam Switches Gears

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Examining why the US is making its presence conspicuously felt in Asia Pacific

The setting was Hawaii. It was September 2011 and the Apec Summit was in full swing. In separate statements, the host country made it known that they were going to pivot toward Asia Pacific. This pivot foreshadowed everything the United States has done in East and Southeast Asia since.

In the ensuing months, a lot of pundits interpreted this Pacific pivot as a concerted effort at hindering China’s regional influence. The Chinese themselves reacted to the development with some alarm—initially, that is. Today, however, the very worst implications of the pivot seems to be lots of posturing between the Americans and the Chinese. Yet, it is the practical implications, with a special emphasis on emerging giants “from the Indian subcontinent to the Western shores of the Americas,” in the words of Hillary Clinton, that have not been scrutinized enough.

The simple reason why the US is scrambling to reassert itself in the most dynamic continent on earth is because Europe has gone down the drain. Also, those decade-long adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan were total failures, which means no easy access to Central Asian energy.

Several decades ago, the US made an enormous effort to secure, protect, and prop up what it called a “trans- Atlantic alliance,” basically NATO et al. It was a smashing success that not only deterred its then-rival the Soviet Union but encouraged the growth of Western Europe and its brilliant 30-year economic boom.

This gilded age has reached its expiration date, sputtered, and then gone broke. It is now dead. Because the EU is sick, so is the US. The solution, as conceived by a panel of government functionaries, intellectuals, and think tanks, is Asia.

The point is, if the US must remain an undisputed superpower, Asia and the Pacific Ocean must be its infallible cornerstones. It is a sort of diplomatic and economic architecture, a ‘trans- Pacific alliance.’ Familiar?

While the sound bytes and commentary on the trend have made it appear that the US is brazenly displaying its clout in a tense neighborhood, the truth is far more nuanced. It is not as if America has been absent from the Pacific. The difference now is its economic might is slowly being hedged away from the Atlantic to ‘the other side.’

Asia is growing, its population is huge and diverse, and its various governments are, more or less, pliable. For these reasons, everyone from geopolitical expert Peter Feaver, to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, to National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, to President Barack Obama have made it explicitly clear that, while there is a military dimension to this effort, it is mainly an economic initiative. The proof is the much- reported, hard-power aspect of the strategy has not manifested itself as poignantly as, for example, carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf to keep tabs on Iran.

The rationale for the broader focus on South, Southeast, and East Asia is justified by the existence of vibrant export markets and good trade relations. If this enormous geographic area can be made as stable as the EU—rather, as stable as the EU once was—then the US can manage to thrive until the near future.

Of course, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that a long term confrontation is going to emerge from this so-called pivot. While American hawks (and a very imaginative segment of the press) like to think of US-China relations as a heated rivalry, both sides are eager to work together without causing mutual grief when their interests clash.

The American and Chinese economies are interdependent on many levels anyway and the path forward suggests mild stand-offs and occasional mud-slinging at worst. In the meantime, a lot of foreign investment is ready to be splurged on a dozen nascent Asian markets.

A year after the pivot doctrine broke out of Hawaii, another Apec Summit was underway in Vladivostok. It was September 2012 and the host country’s press agency released a statement from Vladimir Putin: Russia was going to focus its growth in Asia Pacific too. Uh-oh.

Print ed: 11/12

 

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