Does Asia need the US 'pivot' after all?

US President Barack Obama

It has been three years since US President Barack Obama announced his intent to “pivot” strategically to Asia. Perhaps because of the dozens of the world’s burning conflict zones or whether the “pivot” plans were simple rhetoric, there has been little progress toward implementing this strategy.

And yet Mr Obama is now visiting some of America’s stalwart allies in the Asia Pacific on a weeklong tour. He will stop in at Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines on a mission to reassure these nations that the US has not forgotten them.

One question on everybody’s mind is: can the US president convince increasingly sceptical allies that he is committed to Asia’s future? But the real question should be: does it need to?

It can’t be easy being the US president. The world is a fluid place and America has fingers in most pies. Right now, the international news cycle is focused on eastern Europe where Russia is making splashes in its backyard Ukrainian pool.

In the Middle East and South Asia, where the US spent all of last decade fighting wars, the situation is not cooling either.

A calmer region, in contrast

In stark comparison, the Asia Pacific region is characterised by relatively cordial and peaceable relations between the various countries. None have taken drastic military actions for decades and transnational militancy is almost unheard of.

The worst events usually arise from natural disasters which are becoming easier to deal with as each nations grows in prosperity.

Taking a step back, and putting the simmering maritime disputes aside for a moment, the security situation in the Asia Pacific is actually one of the safest in the world.

Most of the economies are growing stronger each year, largely on their own steam. Trade is booming and standard of living is rising.

Yet Mr Obama is looking at the region from an American point of view. He wants the region to keep relying on America militarily and economically. But he also sees the reality: a region growing almost self-sufficiently without too much input from the world’s largest economy.

Many elites in Asia want more American focus too, especially to counter a rising China. Mr Obama agrees with them, at least in theory, but his actions seem to belie a different path and a more nuanced strategy.

Looking again at details of the US planned defense spending reveals the Obama administration never meant to spend more that $US10 billion in additional military resources as part of the “pivot” this year.

So after three years and little evidence of regional initiatives or commitment of military resources, perhaps Mr Obama is beginning to recognise the limits of US dependency.

He will have his hands full with a diverse agenda as he tries to balance a defence commitment with US allies and console China that this updated defence structure is not directed at them. But he won’t be able to have it both ways.

The US is changing in the eyes of the Asia Pacific governments and is probably more considered as a back-up option, rather than the first port-of-call.

Japan is taking good care of itself militarily, as are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China.

This attitude is in part a response to a US retreat from overstretched commitments around the world but there is also a sense that Asia does not need the US as much as it did in the past.

The reality of a sidelined US

With all that said, there will be a ceiling on how far the region can go if it strikes out on its own.

It must be remembered that the ability to concentrate on their economies in the past few decades, rather than spend precious resources on their military, comes from the promised US military protection umbrella.

America spent its own resources to keep the vital trade routes open, thereby giving the Asia Pacific a huge free boost when they matured as economies.

The Asia “pivot” is still in the minds of the Obama administration and will receive more resources once the world’s other pressing problems are resolved.

That’s all very well but the world is not going to settle down any time soon. If Mr Obama wants to pursue his goals in Asia, he will need to knuckle down and just do it.

Instead there is probably more to this hesitancy than meets the eye. America is still vitally important to international security and if there is a problem, Washington is still the first phone call to make.

But the simple reality is that most of the time, the US is not as important as it would like to believe.

Mr Obama’s tour reassures America’s allies in the region. He will receive plenty of questions about protection but the real breakthroughs will come via economic negotiations.

After all, the real driver in the world system is interdependent trading alliances. American warships are useful only if they ensure Asian countries can continue their trading. Mr Obama appears to understand this reality.

nsmith@nbr.co.nz

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