The Cable

Donilon defends the Asia ‘pivot’

The White House’s top national security official defended the Obama administration’s rebalancing toward Asia and pledged to continue that policy in President Barack Obama’s second term in a speech Monday. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon addressed the Asia Society in New York Monday afternoon on the U.S. government’s Asia policy and said that changing administrations ...

The White House’s top national security official defended the Obama administration’s rebalancing toward Asia and pledged to continue that policy in President Barack Obama’s second term in a speech Monday.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon addressed the Asia Society in New York Monday afternoon on the U.S. government’s Asia policy and said that changing administrations in China, Japan, and South Korea this year marked a crucial point in the future of Asian diplomacy and America’s role in the region. The U.S. rebalancing toward Asia, also known as the "pivot," was Obama’s premier strategic foreign policy initiative in the first term, he said.

"It was clear [in 2009] that there was an imbalance in the projection and focus of U.S. power. It was the president’s judgment that we were over-weighted in some areas and regions, including our military actions in the Middle East," Donilon said. "At the same time, we were underweighted in other regions, such as the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, we believed this was our key geographic imbalance."

For a definition of the strategy, Donilon pointed Asia hands to Obama’s Nov. 2011 address to the Australian Parliament in Canberra, which coincided with the announcement of greater U.S. military deployment in Australia and Southeast Asia.

"So make no mistake, the tide of war is receding, and America is looking ahead to the future that we must build," Obama said then. "Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth — the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation."

But Donilon focused on defending the pivot against accusations that it necessarily denotes a turn away from American engagement in the Middle East or Europe. He also pushed back against the widely held regional view that the strategy is meant to contain China’s rise.

"Here’s what rebalancing does not mean. It doesn’t mean diminishing ties to important partners in any other region. It does not mean containing China or seeking to dictate terms to Asia. And it isn’t just a matter of our military presence," Donilon said. "It is an effort that harnesses all elements of U.S. power — military, political, trade and investment, development and our values."

He also emphasized that America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region will not be diminished by the country’s fiscal woes or the defense cuts that will have come as a result of the sequester. Donilon pledged to keep former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s promise to commit 60 percent of the U.S. naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 and he promised the United States would "prioritize" the region when rolling out new military platforms and technologies.

"In these difficult fiscal times, I know that some have questioned whether this rebalance is sustainable. After a decade of war, it is only natural that the U.S. defense budget is being reduced. But make no mistake: President Obama has clearly stated that we will maintain our security presence and engagement in the Asia-Pacific," he said. "Specifically, our defense spending and programs will continue to support our key priorities — from our enduring presence on the Korean Peninsula to our strategic presence in the western Pacific."

Donilon also paid tribute to deceased Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and praised his dedication to diplomacy in search of peace. Holbrook aide Vali Nasr released a new book this month arguing that the White House national security team, led by Donilon, systematically stifled Holbrooke’s efforts to push forward on a diplomatic solution to the Afghanistan war.

"Richard was famous for his work from the Balkans to South Asia. But he was also a real Asia hand as the youngest-ever assistant secretary of state for East Asia," Donilon said. "Richard dedicated himself to the idea that progress and peace was possible — a lesson we carry forward, not only in Southwest Asia, where he worked so hard, but across the Asia-Pacific."

Read Donilon’s full remarks, as prepared for delivery, here.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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