Debate Magazine

Obama’s Pivot to Asia is Against Japanese National Interests

Posted on the 31 August 2012 by Shahalexander
When the Obama administration announced the shift of foreign policy focus from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Asia Pacific region, the Japanese public welcomed it as they were critically concerned with rapid growth of Chinese military power. However, It appears too naïve for me. Contrary to widespread understandings among Japanese people including politicians and opinion leaders, I believe Obama’s pivot to Asia will ruin Japan’s vital national interest from the following three points. The pivot to Asia is not the shift of military presence, but it disguises massive shrinkage of US armed forces. Also, the pivot to Asia is not just a shift of geographical focus of US foreign policy, but a shift of partnership priority from mature liberal democracies to emerging economies regardless of the regime. Finally, an Asianized America will pose more unpredictable stresses to Japanese policymakers than an Anglo Saxon based America.
Let me begin with military shrinkage. In a previous blog post, I mentioned strategic emptiness of the pivot to Asia from military perspectives through quoting articles by McKenzie Eaglen, resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Despite rhetorical willingness for strong involvement in Asia, drastic cuts in defense spending lead to precipitous downsizing of US armed forces, particularly the Navy and the Air Force. Obama’s emphasis on upgrading military software is meaningless without sufficient size of military hardware to face off against rapid growth of Chinese armed forces. It is appallingly contradictory to an analysis by the International Institute for Strategic Studies that the pivot to Asia simultaneously means the emergence of the ASBC (Air-Sea Battle Concept) (“New US military concept marks pivot to sea and air”; IISS Strategic Comment; May 2012).
Certainly, it is the rise of Chinese naval and air power that led the US armed forces to shift their resources to Asia. However, a scaled down defense budget makes it difficult for the United States to counter China’s A2AD capabilities. In response to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s TV interview admitting that the defense sequester will pose disastrous constraints to US defense (“Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and ABC News Jake Tapper”; Defense Department News; May 27, 2012), Robert Zarate, Director of the Foreign Policy Initiatives, raises a critical concern that it will hollow America’s strategic “rebalance” to Asia. Furthermore, he denounces Democrat Senator Harry Reid for his remark, “Sequester’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a balanced approach to reduce the deficit that shares the pain as well as the responsibility.” More problematically, the rise of China is perceived when both allies and adversaries cast doubt on America’s capability and willingness to stay power in Asia (“An Off-Balance Pivot to Asia?”; FPI Bulletin; June 4, 2012).
The final point that Zarate mentions is related to inherent nature of Obama foreign policy. Emerged in protest to Republican unilateralism and American exceptionalism, Barack Obama gave apologetic and appeasing speeches in Prague and Cairo shortly after his inauguration. It seems that he does not necessarily desire to maintain the superpower position for America. From this perspective, we need to explore the real implication of the pivot to Asia, since it does not make sense as a military strategy.
People in the Asia Pacific region tend to be so naïve as to focus on the shift of geographical emphasis in US strategy. However, we must not dismiss recent article by a British Labour foreign policy strategist Mark Leonard (“The End of Affair”; Foreign Policy; July 24, 2012) to note the other aspect which is the shift of partnership emphasis from liberal democracies to emerging economies. To understand the fundamental idea of the pivot, we need to review a landmark essay by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (“America’s Pacific Century”; Foreign Policy; October-November 2011). Certainly, Secretary Clinton says that the United States needs to shift foreign policy focus from Iraq and Afghanistan to Asia. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not for the market but for defeating terrorists and rogue states that brandish nuclear threats. I firmly would like to emphasize this, because her article on the pivot to Asia is extremely “market oriented”.
The premise of Secretary Clinton’s essay is, “Harnessing Asia's growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests and a key priority for President Obama.” On the other hand, her commentary sounds very cool to traditional allies as she states “We are proud of our European partnerships and all that they deliver. Our challenge now is to build a web of partnerships and institutions across the Pacific that is as durable and as consistent with American interests and values as the web we have built across the Atlantic.” Though she says America is both a Pacific and an Atlantic power, the entire tone leans toward Pacific, or more straightforwardly, toward emerging economies. More critically, she gives a “farewell message” to America’s role as the superpower and the War on Terror, as she mentions “In the last decade, our foreign policy has transitioned from dealing with the post-Cold War peace dividend to demanding commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. As those wars wind down, we will need to accelerate efforts to pivot to new global realities.” Has global realities changed so much? The New Cold War with Russia and China emerges, and Iraq and Afghanistan still need Western involvement to fight against terrorists and radicals.
While Secretary Clinton talks extensively on economic opportunities in Asia, the focal point of security is how to manage the rise of Chinese military power. Rather than containing China’s regional and global ambition, the Secretary focuses on engagement with Beijing and market opportunities there, despite political risks associated with extremely repressive nature of the regime. Though the Secretary calls the alliance with Japan the cornerstone of peace and stability in the region, she hardly mentions strategies to curb regional threats posed by China and North Korea. This is also the case with other Asia Pacific allies, including South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and so forth.
The above points will be the clue to understand fundamental contradictions in Obama’s Asia strategy: expressing increased regional involvement while downsizing necessary military power. The Obama administration may think of geopolitical rivalry with China and other strategic challengers, but they are willing to make compromise with or even appease them in some cases. The Senkaku Islands clash is a typical case. At first, the State Department said China’s pressure can be regarded as an attack against Japan under the US-Japabese Security treaty (“U.S. says Senkaku Islands fall within scope of Japan-U.S. security treaty”; Kyodo News; July 10, 2012). However, Assistant Press Secretary Phillip Crowley said that though the security treaty would be applied to Senkaku as long as it is under Japanese authority, the United States would stay neutral on the issue of sovereignty (“Daily Press Briefings”; Department of State; August 16, 2012). Furthermore, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged bilateral talks on sovereignty of these Islands between Japan and China (“U.S. asks Japan, China to solve island dispute”; Daily Yomiuri; August 22, 2012). This is a substantial retreat from 2010 position when Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage even proposed a joint US-Japanese military exercise to stop China’s ambition to dominate the Asian sea lanes.
As to the background of the pivot to Asia, we should not dismiss Asianization of America which is mentioned in the above article by Mark Leonard. As opposed to widespread understandings, this will hurt Japanese national interest. I am not endorsing any kind of racism and ethnocentrism, but it is necessary to talk of this issue from politically incorrect and cold blooded relist viewpoints. As Asian voices grow bigger in American politics, “ant-Japanese” movements will become more influential. The typical case is the comfort women resolution in the House proposed by Congressman Mile Honda. As widely known, wartime history is a sensitive issue for Japan in relations with China and South Korea. An Asianized America will invigorate Chinese and Korean lobbies.
Recent studies show that the share of Asian population rises in the United States. As shown in the table, Chinese and other Asian subgroups are far more populous than Japanese Americans (“The Rise of Asian Americans”; Pew Social & Demographic Trends; June 19, 2012). More importantly, while Japanese descendants are reluctant to wartime experience of quarantine camp, Chinese and other Asian subgroups are willing to lobby for their home countries. Actually, congressman Honda acts for Asian American interests rather than Japanese Americans’. He represents the 15th congressional district of California which is the only minority-majority district among top 10 richest districts in the United States. Asians account for 29.2% of voters there. According to Wikipedia in Japanese, his fundraising is heavily dependent on Chinese and Korean lobbies. In view of recent territorial clash with China and South Korea, and comfort women dispute with South Korea (“In New Jersey, Memorial for ‘Comfort Women’ Deepens Old Animosity”; New York Times; May 18, 2012), further rise of Asian lobbies in the United States will jeopardize Japan’s national interests furthermore.
Some Japanese who are obsessed with Sinophobe viewpoints tend to welcome the pivot to Asia so naïvely, without considering the background deep inside. We, Japanese are in a position to share European concerns presented by Mark Leonard. A shift to emerging economies and Asianization of America are critical problem for Japan. Also, it is not regional priority in rhetoric but America’s real strength and the will for the superpower that can stop dangerous ambitions of challengers and adversaries. Remember how good it was for Japan when US global strategy was based on the Anglo Saxon alliance under the Kennedy-Macmillan and the Reagan-Thatcher duo. Therefore I regard Mitt Romney much more favorable for Japanese national interests over Barack Obama, even though he made an inappropriate remark on Japan. As a Japanese who agrees to European unease, I shall never bow down and praise poorly armed and empty pivot to Asia that the Obama administration launches.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog