Cantor fears Obama's ‘pivot’ to Asia sends the wrong signal

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The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia is sending the wrong signal to U.S. allies in other parts of the world, according to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Cantor, fresh from his first trip to the region, argues there’s nothing wrong with having a focus on China and Asia, since development there will be critical to future U.S. prosperity.

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But he argues the White House’s talk of a pivot or rebalance to Asia suggests other regions are less important. He said the policy signal has implications everywhere, from the Middle East to Europe, where Russian President Vladimir Putin is moving aggressively.

“I don’t necessarily like the choice of the word pivot or balance because I don’t think it speaks to our commitment to other allies and regions,” Cantor said in an interview.

He suggested the use of the term could be perceived as American disinterest about other regions, and embolden rivals like Putin — though he said he would not say the emphasis on Asia is the cause of the problems in Ukraine.

“I’m worried about the message that Mr. Putin takes from this,” he said.

Cantor recently returned from a trip to China, Japan and South Korea with eight other members of Congress, including Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the GOP’s vice presidential candidate in 2012.

The delegation met with officials from all three countries as well as U.S. military and business leaders. While there, they repeatedly heard concerns about China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, where it is battling a host of countries over territorial claims.

The congressional trip took place as Obama toured Asia, but the lawmakers went to Beijing and Shanghai while the president avoided China, even though it was a central topic on every stop of his trip.

Obama used his trip to reassure Japan, South Korea and other allies that the U.S. is seeking to balance China’s growing strength in the region.

The administration is seeking to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to increase U.S. economic clout in the region. Cantor and other Republicans back reaching an agreement.

“A trade agreement based on mutually beneficial terms will promote real economic growth and real jobs here at home,” Cantor and the other GOP members of the delegation wrote in an op-ed published on CNN’s web site after the trip.

The administration has also announced new troop deployments to the Philippines, a move Obama was careful to say was intended to aid in the response to natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

Cantor, the second-ranking House Republican, said he heard worries in Asia from allies and U.S. military commanders about the Pentagon’s plans to decommission the USS George Washington aircraft carrier.

The U.S. will not have a carrier in the region next year for more than four months because of budget cuts that have helped shrink the number of available carriers. More gaps will occur if the USS George Washington is decommissioned as proposed by the Pentagon.

“You have a tremendous advantage with forward positioning if you have a consistent aircraft carrier presence,” said Cantor, who toured the USS George Washington during the delegation’s trip.

He said allies said they felt “vulnerable” because of provocative actions by China in the region, and that this vulnerability would be highlighted with a reduced carrier presence.

The proposal to decommission the USS George Washington was included in the Pentagon’s budget for 2015 as part of an effort to save money under the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester. A two-year budget deal restored some of the Pentagon’s funding, but the sequester is scheduled to come back to life next year.

The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday voted to back an 11-carrier fleet supported by Ryan’s budget. The GOP budget would provide funding for the Washington’s reactor refueling overhaul, something that will extend the carrier’s life. It would also ensure funding for the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, which is under construction and would give the U.S. 11 carriers, assuming the George Washington is not decommissioned.

Cantor said he’s working with Republicans and Democrats to prevent the fleet from being minimized going forward.