Faltering US pivot to Asia impairs US leadership

The Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia is faltering and causing diplomatic uncertainty and confusion in Asian capitals.  Vice President Joe Biden should use his upcoming visit to Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo in early December to better explain the U.S. strategic and future-oriented vision for peace and prosperity in Asia.

Every country in Asia wants to have a strong relationship with Washington.  The U.S. is the major trading partner for many Asian countries and a critical political power.  However, the same is true for China.  No Asian capital can ignore the economic and political power of this rising power.

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The U.S. pivot strategy is causing confusion instead of clarity because it ignores the depths of China’s relationships in the region and the memories of Japanese wartime aggression.  In contrast to its origin as a multidimensional strategic initiative, the pivot now seems to be a unilateral, “one size fits all” approach to multiple countries in a region with complex trade, cultural and political histories.

Although the Obama administration says the pivot is a political and economic focus on the fastest growing region of the world, its actions only show military hedging against a rising China.

For example, during U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel’s recent visit to Tokyo, he expressed support for the collective self-defense and “normalization” of Japan’s military.  This prompted immediate and serious concerns from South Korea and China.  In response, China revealed its fleet of nuclear submarines for the first time in more than four decades and South Koreans have expressed their disapproval.  Japan pointed to China’s show of military force as the justification for transforming and upgrading U.S.-Japan defense cooperation.  The U.S. fell into this predictable and avoidable political trap.

A more subtle and patient U.S. approach would work better.  Instead of wielding its hard power, the U.S. needs to lead with a quiet but bold strategy that incorporates the views of affected allies in the region.  In this respect, U.S. leaders should have a better understanding of how Asian leaders differently view U.S. leadership in the region.  This effort would lead the U.S. pivot to Asia to get the hearts and minds of Asian allies and partners.

The Obama administration needs to work closely with its allies and partners to develop this strategy collaboratively.  If asked, allies such as South Korea would prefer a strategy for constructive and transparent partnership with China. 

Vice President Biden should take time during his visit to understand the shortcomings of the pivot and listen to Asian allies about realistic solutions.  With continuing budget problems, Washington should explore a more effective and realistic plan for articulating its commitments in Asia.  Since there are serious domestic concerns in the U.S. regarding economic recovery and bitter party politics, Washington is not in the best position to make balanced, timely, and effective decisions concerning Asia.

Park is a professional staff member of Representative Jinha Hwang on the Foreign Affairs & Unification Committee of the South Korean National Assembly

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