Long Live the ‘Pivot’

The following article originally appeared in The Business Standard on October 17, 2013.

Ever since it was unveiled in October 2011 to much fanfare, the American policy described as the “pivot to Asia” has been beset by one problem after another. Two years on, it is comatose, and could be well and truly dead. US President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel his visit to the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei – the last two for major regional multinational summits – may have been compelled by domestic political developments, specifically the government shutdown prompted by the legislative impasse between Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress. But his decision to cut or cut short a trip to Asia for the third time in his tenure as president contributes to a worrying trend, and casts serious doubts about his administration’s sense of strategic priorities.

The concept of a pivot to Asia came about as the result of several realisations on the part of senior US policy makers. The first factor was structural: an acknowledgement that Asia – home to over half of humanity, the primary engine of global growth, and a region with the potential for deepened military competition between emerging great powers – is increasingly vital to American interests. It was understood that US efforts and resources were being disproportionately allocated to a mostly self-sufficient and peaceful Europe and a fractured, if resource-rich, West Asia. The second, policy-related factor was the belated acknowledgment on the part of Mr Obama’s senior advisors that China – towards which Washington had made sustained efforts at engagement during his first term as president – was unlikely to evolve into a willing and co-operative partner to the United States on many regional or global issues.

But the pivot, championed by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and some of her advisors, came at an inappropriate time. Ms Clinton was on her way out of government, and her successor, John Kerry, appears not to share her sense of strategic priorities. Indeed, he spent the early months of his tenure diving into the thorny challenges of West Asia, such as the rabbit hole that is Israel-Palestine peace talks. Furthermore, the US became mired domestically in budgetary battles, resulting in cost-cutting measures, particularly for its defence department. An estimated $1.2 trillion in defence budget cuts is now to be expected over the next decade, which has resulted in some of the more ambitious aspects of military rebalancing to Asia being placed on hold. And, finally, with the Arab Spring wreaking havoc on the long-standing political order of West Asia – particularly in Egypt and Syria – that region has once again become the focus of American crisis management efforts.

There may have been a certain inevitably to some of these developments. West Asia’s veneer of political stability was simply unsustainable, while the warning signs of American fiscal profligacy were there for all to see. But they were all the more reason for Mr Obama – and not Mr Kerry – to travel to Bali and Brunei last fortnight and reinforce the sense of the US being a permanent fixture of Asia’s institutional architecture.

For not only have the military dimensions of the pivot gone largely unrealised, ambitious deadlines for trade negotiations as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – the primary commercial arm of the pivot – have not been met. Indeed, the TPP may be affected by the current legislative stand-off, as Mr Obama’s plans for trade promotion authority – fast-track trade legislation that circumvents potential Congressional amendments – are likely to face stiff opposition from both Republicans and Democrats in an American political environment increasingly predisposed to protectionism. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Bali was meant to lay a platform for the US and 11 other countries involved in the TPP to reach a deal by the end of the year, which makes Mr Obama’s absence particularly significant.

India has reason to treat American ambivalence about the pivot with serious concern. Despite continuing criticism in many quarters about the drawbacks of American hegemony – sometimes merited – Indian policy makers implicitly acknowledge that the US’ presence as a commercial and military force in the Asia-Pacific region provides a reassuring balance to a rising China. Indeed Indian public opinion, in so far as it can be discerned from surveys, displays a remarkable comfort with US global and regional leadership. And, as India’s recent economic and security woes illustrate, New Delhi is not yet in a position to go it alone in shaping a regional architecture to its own benefit. With a host of economic agreements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan and South Korea, and with membership in all Asean-led multilateral groupings, India is now an integral part of the Asia-Pacific region, so much so that the term Indo-Pacific has now been widely adopted in strategic circles. The US’ retrenchment in the region, if realised, would mark a serious setback for Indian interests.