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Why Obama should abandon the pivot

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In Brief

President Obama faced a stark choice when he went to Japan last week. Either he had to commit himself and his country unambiguously to supporting Japan militarily over the Senkakus/Diaoyus, or he had to accept that the ‘pivot’ — and by extension his whole foreign policy and US leadership in Asia — was no longer credible.


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To see why that was so, we need to understand what’s been going wrong with the pivot ever since Obama announced it in November 2011. The problem has not been that Obama couldn’t make it to APEC last year, or that John Kerry has spent too much time in the Middle East, or that the sequester has cut the Pentagon’s budget.

The problem has been that Washington has been unable to quell doubts about whether America really was willing to use ‘all the elements of American power’ to resist China’s challenge to the regional status quo based on US leadership in Asia.

This is, after all, precisely what the pivot is all about. And the pivot got into trouble almost as soon as it was announced when, early in 2012, Beijing set out to test it on the Scarborough Shoal. The pivot failed that test when Washington was not willing to support Manila in resisting China’s takeover there.

Since then the pivot has faced an even bigger test in the East China Sea. China’s increased assertiveness there since late 2012, including the Air Defence Identification Zone declaration late last year, has directly challenged Obama’s claim that America is willing to do whatever it takes to retain leadership in Asia. It does that by posing in stark terms the question of whether America is willing to engage in a conflict with China in order to protect its allies and retain its position of primacy.

Fifteen years ago the answer would not have been in doubt.

But over the last 18 months, Obama himself has studiously avoided making any commitment on this question, while his senior officials have sent mixed messages. Obama’s own silence on this question became all the more significant when last month in Europe he very clearly and explicitly affirmed US willingness to fulfil its alliance obligations to its NATO allies in the face of Russian actions in Ukraine. If he is prepared to commit himself in Europe, why not in Asia?

The natural conclusion to draw in Tokyo, Beijing and elsewhere in the region, has been that when push comes to shove the answer would be no. It has seemed that as China has grown more powerful militarily and economically, the US is no longer willing to bear the costs and risks of conflict with China to support its allies and, therefore, to sustain its leadership position in Asia.

That is what pressed Obama to make his clear and unambiguous statement of support for Japan in Tokyo last week. But that, alas, is not the story’s end. Everything now depends on how China reacts. That in turn will depend on whether the Chinese believe that Obama really means what he says, and will be willing to act on it if he is put to the test. If they do believe him, they will presumably back off in the East China Sea and let tensions ease.

If they do not, they will call his bluff and keep pressing, confident that America will urge Japan to back down over the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue to avoid Obama’s brave words being put to the test — which would be a clear win for Beijing. The risk is that Obama’s reputation for muddled statecraft over issues like Syria will encourage Beijing to believe he is bluffing.

If so, Obama will only be able to preserve the status quo if he really can convince Beijing that he is willing to go to war with China rather than see the US step back from regional leadership. And he will not be able to convince Beijing of that unless he really believes it himself.

Much therefore depends on a clear understanding of what a conflict with China over an issue like the Senkakus/Diaoyus would be like. One hopes that Obama did not make his statement in Tokyo last week without thinking very carefully about this. If he did, he will have faced some hard and unwelcome facts.

America would not lose a war with China in the East China Sea, but America has no clear way of winning it and no sure way to control it and limit the risk of escalation. Without a clear win for one side or the other at the conventional level, the outcome of such a conflict would most likely depend on which side could better convince the other that it would be willing to use nuclear forces rather back down.

And no prudent policymaker can be very sure that it would be America. Ultimately, the danger is that China is as serious about changing the status quo in Asia as America is about preserving it. If that is so, President Obama’s brave words in Tokyo have not saved the pivot. They have just set the stage for the next test.

That is why Obama should abandon the pivot. Its aim — to compel China to accept US leadership in Asia — is probably unachievable, and is certainly not worth what it would cost to achieve against a country as powerful and determined as China is today. But abandoning the pivot does not mean abandoning Asia. There are many ways America can remain a major power in Asia which are different to the model that the pivot aims to perpetuate, and which China might not be so determined to resist.

They would involve sharing power with China in some way, which would not be easy. The question for Obama, and America, is whether sharing power with China would be worse than going to war with it.

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at The Australian National University.

4 responses to “Why Obama should abandon the pivot”

  1. Dr White, do you really think China is going to give Obama that choice to “share power”? It’s got expansionist territorial claims on all its neighbors that can only lead to war if China presses. Part of figuring out how the US can live peacefully with China is figuring out how to get China to take its finger off the expansionism button. How do you plan to resolve issues like its claims to the South China Sea and to the Senkakus?


  2. Hugh presents as a true pacifist, an appeaser who would voluntarily give power to a communist country that runs over its citizens in tanks if they cry out for democracy in the hope that the country would abide by international law from then on and refrain from any more adventurous forays into other people’s sovereign territory or surrounds.

    This has proven to be potentially a massive mistake almost from the time Hugh drew breath on the topic by China seeking to control great areas of the East China Sea and the whole of the South China Sea including island outcrops of most nations surrounding the sea. This is being enforced at present by China with military threats and several maritime police forces backed by the Chinese navy.
    Where does the sharing of power stop? What if, and it is almost a given, China wants more and more and just takes it like it is doing at present to our close neighbours?

    • Bobby

      I think we need to be careful about responding to Hugh White’s argument. First I don’t think he’s a pacifist. I suspect he’s against war but that’s surely the response of a sane mind. He is a professional student of strategic affairs who would most certainly understands the reality and possibility of war. I certainly don’t think he is an appeaser. That’s a term used too much and unhelpfully denotes ‘giving in’ to Nazis. The term is not useful in discussing the rise of China or more correctly the return of a powerful China to the world stage.
      I accept that White’s argument is provocative. It flies in the face of the Mearsheimer realists who would suggest the laws of strategy mean the US and China must clash. He’s trying to argue a way of avoiding a costly and possibly dangerous competition.

  3. Excellent commentary. The issue is how far the US is willing to go to maintain “primacy”. I would argue that American primacy is not worth a war. However, the Americans can manage their decline by trying to be part – probably the most important part – of a coalition that can offset and manage China’s growing power. The question here is whether or not the Americans are capable of being part of something in which they are not the unequivocal leader. The US has been used to using and then discarding multilateral institutions when they don’t serve American interests. In a more complex world, the US needs to begin to become part of the international community rather than just a “leader.” It needs to lead by also learning how to follow. This will be its hardest test, since it has not had to do that in the modern era, since it emerged as the dominant world power.

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