It doesn't matter what Obama says -- his Asia trip is all about China.
BY Stephen Walt
President Barack Obama is in Asia, ostensibly to reassure U.S. allies that he really does mean it when he says we're "pivoting" to Asia (or "rebalancing," or whatever). Yet even as he attempts to put the focus on Asia, events elsewhere are raising precisely the sort of doubts that he'd like to dispel. And that makes me worry that he'll spend all his time on this trip making promises and flowery speeches, instead of getting some commitments from his hosts.
This trip, like so many others, takes place amid doubts about U.S. credibility. If the United States and NATO don't do more to help Ukraine, what does that say about our commitment to uphold current territorial arrangements in the South or East China Seas? (Answer: not much, but many people seem to think it does.) But if the United States does do more regarding Ukraine (or Syria), what does that tell U.S. allies about its ability to make Asia a bigger priority and to stick to those priorities when crises emerge elsewhere? No matter what the United States does, its Asian partners are going to raise questions about Washington's staying power and strategic judgment.
Frankly, this recurring discussion about U.S. credibility -- including the sincerity of the pivot and the subsequent rebalance -- strikes me as silly. For starters, the United States is still the most powerful military actor in the world -- including Asia -- and it will be for some time to come. One can wonder about the regional balance of power at some point in the future, but not right now. And if China's increased military power is really so alarming, why are countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia doing so little to bolster their own military capabilities? Either they aren't as worried as they pretend, or they have become accustomed to assuming Uncle Sam will take care of them no matter what. It seems to be easier to complain about U.S. credibility than to dig deep and buy some genuine military capacity.
And there shouldn't be any doubt about the sincerity of the pivot/rebalancing strategy, because U.S. national interests dictate a greater focus on Asia in the years ahead. As former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner make clear in a recent article, Asia's growing economic clout and China's emergence mandate an American response. The credibility of the U.S. commitment in Asia doesn't depend on what presidents say or how often they visit, but ultimately rests on whether other states believe that it is in the U.S. interest to be engaged there. If it were truly not in America's interest to be a major strategic actor in Asia, no amount of presidential speechifying or handholding would convince our Asian partners otherwise.
More than anything else, Obama needs to spend his time in Asia explaining to officials there why it is in the U.S. interest to maintain its security position in Asia. This policy is not an act of strategic philanthropy; it is rooted in U.S. self-interest, geopolitics, and America's longstanding desire to be the only regional hegemon in the world. If China continues to rise and develop its military power, it might one day be in a position to strive for regional hegemony in Asia. The United States would like to prevent this, because a balance of power in Asia forces Beijing to focus a lot of attention on regional affairs and prevents it from meddling in other parts of the world (including the Western hemisphere). It's impolitic to say this out loud, but the long-term purpose of the "rebalancing" policy in Asia is to contain the more powerful China that seems likely to emerge in the decades to come. That's what Chinese leaders think, and they're right.
Moreover, the United States also has an interest in discouraging nuclear proliferation in Asia. China already has four nuclear-armed powers on its borders (Russia, Pakistan, India, and North Korea), and several other states might go nuclear if they decided they could no longer count on American security guarantees. As long as nuclear non-proliferation remains a core objective of U.S. foreign policy, it will have a strategic interest in remaining in Asia.
More of article at link: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/04/23/obama_asia_trip_pivot_china_japan_south_korea