The semantics matter, analysts said, when one of the most sensitive parts of the plan includes dealing with Chinese suspicions that the maneuvering is intended to blunt China’s economic and military rise.
Any hope of a deeper, more complex U.S. focus on Asia, analysts who study the region say, hinges on how the second Obama administration tweaks the long-standing policy toward China that some dub “congagement,” an attempt to blend containment of growing Chinese military power with engagement on trade and diplomatic issues.
Justin Logan, the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center in Washington, argued in a report this month, called “China, America and the Pivot to Asia,” that few are fooled that U.S. policy isn’t really about containment and that the United States should step back from involving itself in “every diplomatic flare-up” so that it retains greater distance from the squabbling parties.
“If the Chinese were getting up in our face saying, ‘We’re putting 60 percent of our naval assets in the Caribbean and developing military alliances with Cuba and Venezuela, and none of this has anything to do with the United States,’ no one would believe that,” Logan said.
He suggests offloading some of the security responsibilities to allied nations such as Japan, South Korea and India, and encouraging talks among those nations without U.S. officials present, let alone in the lead. Logan said it was healthy for there to be some doubts about exactly where U.S. forces would be committed in any regional flare-up. That would encourage nations to avoid such high-stakes disputes in the first place or to look inward for defense strategies and “help minimize free riding,” as he put it.
Logan’s report describes two polarized camps when it comes to how the U.S. should approach China. The hawkish policy camp, nicknamed the “dragon slayers,” demands a bigger U.S. military presence in Asia to restrict China’s sea access and act as a barrier to any bullying of weaker nations.
At the other end of the spectrum on China policy are the analysts Logan calls “panda huggers,” who are betting that a focus on trade and diplomacy over military might will force China to democratize and become a more trusted U.S. partner.
The administration’s current plans call for deploying 2,000 Marines to Australia and four coastal combat ships to Singapore – hardly terrifying prospects for the Chinese, the hawks complain.
But critics of the notion that the pivot lacks military chops point out that there’s already a huge U.S. military presence in the Asia Pacific, larger than during the most recent Republican administrations. There are 40,000 American troops in Japan, more than 28,000 in South Korea and 4,500 in Guam, a self-governing U.S. territory. There are six aircraft carrier strike groups and the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which conducts regular joint military exercises with Asian allies.
When the Obama administration got serious about the pivot in 2010, Boston College’s Ross said, “you couldn’t have asked for a more robust strategic presence than we had at the time.”
Obama has made that presence even greater, at the expense of irritating the Chinese without any appreciable strategic benefit. That includes an increase in a U.S. military presence in South Korea that Obama ordered to reverse President George W. Bush’s decision to reduce it by 40 percent – including a cut in joint military exercises, pulling troops out of the area between the demilitarized zone and Seoul, and announcing that in 2012 the U.S. would hand over wartime operational control to South Korean forces.