Last November President Obama laid out a new vision for American foreign policy – a shift in focus toward Asia. Speaking to the Australian Parliament in Canberra, the president said:
“With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress. As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision – as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”
The president spoke of stronger military ties and economic partnerships in the Asia Pacific. He said the US will promote civil societies and the advancement of the rights of all people in places like Burma. He talked about combating piracy and extremism in Indonesia.
The president – as well as administration officials – have taken to referring to this new strategy as a “pivot” toward Asia.
Bhaskar Chakravorti, a senior associate dean at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, said this pivot was unavoidable.
“A pivot towards Asia is centered on the 800-pound, or the 1600-pound gorilla in the room, which is China. And the question about China has to do with how do we both compete with and collaborate with, and help and get help from China all at the same time?”
Chakravorti added, that’ll be complicated.
“So what that involves is having a presence in Asia so that I can do business with China, I can keep close tabs on what China is up to, and then also make friends with other parties, other countries in Asia that potentially could become part of China’s orbit, or want to get away from China’s orbit, in which case they would rush to embrace the US.”
Chakravorti said carrying out this strategy could be easier for a second-term president.
This pivot toward Asia is becoming possible as the US winds down its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. And also as US influence in parts of the Middle East is on the wane.
But can a second-term Obama Administration pull off its new Asia policy? Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, said it’s a matter of resources.
“Obviously there are going to be significant cuts in the defense budget, so it’s going to be tough for the United States to spend more money on maintaining its own forces in East Asia. I think we’re going to try, but the administration may not have the resources to do as much as some people think that it should.”
So while Friedberg said the Asian pivot is a good idea in theory…
“Thus far, it doesn’t have much substance. Most of what the administration has done has been talk, and talk is important, but it has to be backed up with actions.”
Friedberg is also an Asia-Pacific advisor to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Friedberg emphasized, however, he was not speaking for the Romney campaign during our interview.
Still, I asked Friedberg how a Romney Administration might differ in terms of its policy toward Asia.
Friedberg said, “Just to back up one step, if you look back over the last 20 years – since the end of the Cold War, both Republican and Democratic Administrations, starting with George HW Bush and then down through the Obama Administration – have pursued a mixed strategy towards China of engagement, on the one hand, in economics, certainly, diplomatic engagement and so on, and on the other hand efforts to maintain a balance of power even as China grows stronger. So I think there is likely to be more continuity than change, whoever is elected in 2012.”
Friedberg did add that it’s his sense that a President Romney would “perhaps” go a little further strengthening the US position in the region. And a Romney Administration might be tougher toward China on economic issues.
But Bhaskar Chakravorti at Tufts, who identified himself as an Obama supporter, thinks a President Romney would be far more constrained in Asia.
“Mitt Romney, if he does get elected, will do so on the single issue of jobs back home.”
Of course, any future strategy in Asia, for any president, is subject to the real world cooperating. After all, unforeseen events have a way of intruding on grand policy plans, no matter what they are, or who is making them.