Pay No Attention to that Panda Behind the Curtain

It doesn't matter what Obama says -- his Asia trip is all about China.

Photoillustration By FP
Photoillustration By FP

President Barack Obama is in Asia, ostensibly to reassure U.S. allies that he really does mean it when he says we’re "pivoting" to Asia (or "rebalancing," or whatever). Yet even as he attempts to put the focus on Asia, events elsewhere are raising precisely the sort of doubts that he’d like to dispel. And that makes me worry that he’ll spend all his time on this trip making promises and flowery speeches, instead of getting some commitments from his hosts. 

This trip, like so many others, takes place amid doubts about U.S. credibility. If the United States and NATO don’t do more to help Ukraine, what does that say about our commitment to uphold current territorial arrangements in the South or East China Seas? (Answer: not much, but many people seem to think it does.) But if the United States does do more regarding Ukraine (or Syria), what does that tell U.S. allies about its ability to make Asia a bigger priority and to stick to those priorities when crises emerge elsewhere? No matter what the United States does, its Asian partners are going to raise questions about Washington’s staying power and strategic judgment.

Frankly, this recurring discussion about U.S. credibility — including the sincerity of the pivot and the subsequent rebalance — strikes me as silly. For starters, the United States is still the most powerful military actor in the world — including Asia — and it will be for some time to come. One can wonder about the regional balance of power at some point in the future, but not right now. And if China’s increased military power is really so alarming, why are countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia doing so little to bolster their own military capabilities? Either they aren’t as worried as they pretend, or they have become accustomed to assuming Uncle Sam will take care of them no matter what. It seems to be easier to complain about U.S. credibility than to dig deep and buy some genuine military capacity. 

And there shouldn’t be any doubt about the sincerity of the pivot/rebalancing strategy, because U.S. national interests dictate a greater focus on Asia in the years ahead. As former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner make clear in a recent article, Asia’s growing economic clout and China’s emergence mandate an American response. The credibility of the U.S. commitment in Asia doesn’t depend on what presidents say or how often they visit, but ultimately rests on whether other states believe that it is in the U.S. interest to be engaged there. If it were truly not in America’s interest to be a major strategic actor in Asia, no amount of presidential speechifying or handholding would convince our Asian partners otherwise.    

More than anything else, Obama needs to spend his time in Asia explaining to officials there why it is in the U.S. interest to maintain its security position in Asia. This policy is not an act of strategic philanthropy; it is rooted in U.S. self-interest, geopolitics, and America’s longstanding desire to be the only regional hegemon in the world. If China continues to rise and develop its military power, it might one day be in a position to strive for regional hegemony in Asia. The United States would like to prevent this, because a balance of power in Asia forces Beijing to focus a lot of attention on regional affairs and prevents it from meddling in other parts of the world (including the Western hemisphere). It’s impolitic to say this out loud, but the long-term purpose of the "rebalancing" policy in Asia is to contain the more powerful China that seems likely to emerge in the decades to come. That’s what Chinese leaders think, and they’re right. 

Moreover, the United States also has an interest in discouraging nuclear proliferation in Asia. China already has four nuclear-armed powers on its borders (Russia, Pakistan, India, and North Korea), and several other states might go nuclear if they decided they could no longer count on American security guarantees. As long as nuclear non-proliferation remains a core objective of U.S. foreign policy, it will have a strategic interest in remaining in Asia.

For all of these reasons, America’s Asian partners shouldn’t question the U.S. commitment to maintain its military presence in Asia and its security commitments to its various Asian partners. This policy is rooted in geopolitics and America’s own strategic interests. Obama could do everyone a favor if he explained this to his hosts in simple, clear, and forceful terms, and reminded them that the U.S. security presence has been a powerful bulwark of regional stability for decades. 

Unfortunately, such assurances might not be enough. As I’ve noted before, managing relations with our skittish Asian partners is going to be a challenging task in the years ahead. Not only do some key U.S. allies keep quarreling with each other — as Japan and South Korea are wont to do — they tend to be unhappy no matter what Washington does. If the United States focuses its sights elsewhere and doesn’t give Asia lots of love and attention, they complain they are being neglected. (With the exception of India, this accusation was partly true during the Bush years). But if the United States re-engages and tries to do more, then its allies fret that the United States is "remilitarizing" the region and threatening to ignite a new Cold War. They also use renewed U.S. attention as an excuse to free-ride some more.

I suspect Obama will try to walk a very fine line this week. He’ll do his best to reassure his hosts that the United States is serious about devoting more time and energy to Asia, while denying that any of this is directed at Beijing. He’ll make it clear that he wants to see a peaceful and stable Asia in which all nations can grow richer, and he’ll pretend that serious geopolitics is "so last century." Above all, he’ll try to convince America’s Asian allies that Washington still has their back, but that it won’t act in ways that might raise the temperature in the region. 

But I wonder if it’s time for a slightly different conversation. Obama should tell his hosts that the United States is committed to maintaining a balance of power in Asia and preventing Chinese hegemony down the road, for the reasons listed above. But maybe he could also find a way to remind them that while the United States cares about the Asian balance of power and about its allies’ security, it cannot and should not care more about this than these countries do themselves. He might gently suggest to his hosts that although the United States prefers to lead a network of strong and reliable Asian allies, it could do without those allies if it absolutely had to.  

In other words, the credibility of America’s Asian alliances is more our allies’ problem than ours.

Helping maintain a balance of power in Asia may be in our interest but it won’t be cheap, and providing the necessary level of assistance ought to be worth a lot to our Asian partners. Instead of flying off to Asia just to hold their hands, I hope Obama will also remember to ask them what they are going to do for us, and for themselves.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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