U.S. Pacific "Pivot" -- A New Cold War?

Thursday's ASEAN summit in Indonesia will feature an unprecented addition -- an American president. Fresh off an Asia-Pacific summit in Hawaii and a visit to Australia, President Obama will drop in to underscore the new Asia-Pacific focus of U.S. foreign policy.

You might have thought that America's direction is homeward as our wars wind down. But the administration has the idea of stepping sideways from the Middle East to the Pacific region. They call it the "pivot." If done well, it could be a good idea to keep the United States engaged and deepen trade and cooperation. If done badly, it could needlessly antagonize China and lead to wasteful military spending, or even stupid wars.

Hillary Clinton lays out the strategy in the first paragraph of her article "America's Pacific Century" in the current Foreign Affairs:

As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. ... One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment -- diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise -- in the Asia-Pacific region.

After criticizing the "misguided" calls for "a downsizing of our foreign engagement in favor of our pressing domestic priorities," Clinton defines the "fulcrum" for the pivot as the U.S. treaties with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. And the "cornerstone" of Asian stability, she writes, is the U.S.-Japanese alliance. On the current trip, she and Obama have spoken repeatedly about the importance of U.S. engagement in Asia.

One concern about the "pivot" was articulated in a Washington Post editorial yesterday, which argued that the pivot to Asia is fine but should not fool the administration into thinking it can leave the Middle East behind. "The Arab Spring -- with its potential to transform the world's most troubled lands -- is the most dynamic and important opportunity Mr. Obama now has in foreign affairs. " Foreign policy is one arena where the ability to multitask is a must.

In its own right, though, there seem to be three elements in the U.S. "pivot" and the current trip. The first is straightforward enough, and benign. The Asian economies are growing and the United States wants to export to them and create American jobs. This is generally the first rationale Obama lists for his work in the region, such as during his press conference in Hawaii Monday. The Hawaii summit moved forward a developing Pacific free-trade area, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that includes Chile, New Zealand, Brunei, and Singapore, with the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru in line to join, and Canada, Mexico, and Japan expressing interest. China is not part of it.

The second element is a worthwhile, though delicate, effort to bring China's economic policies more in line with the global "rules of the road," or to "level the playing field" (both metaphors Obama uses). In Hawaii, Obama articulated this goal by noting that a couple of decades ago, China was not big and important enough to upset things if it violated economic rules and norms, but "now they've grown up, and so they're going to have to help manage this process in a responsible way."

Two specific issues that leave Americans "frustrated" as Obama put it, are China's currency and its violation of intellectual property rights. The currency does not float freely like other major world currencies, and is widely considered to be undervalued, making China's exports cheaper and U.S. exports to China more expensive. China's tolerance of piracy of software, movies, and the like -- which Obama pointed out are areas of U.S. competitive advantage in the world economy -- also has become much more frustrating as China's economy has grown.

The third element, and the most problematic, is a strategic concept of pivoting U.S. military forces to beef up a presence in the Asian neighborhood in order to counteract a perceived expansion of China's military power in the region. To this end, Obama today announced that 2,500 U.S. marines would be stationed in northern Australia and available to support allies in Asia. China's foreign ministry noted politely that the move "may not be quite appropriate." A communist-party Chinese newspaper less politely warned that "Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. ... If Australia uses its military bases to help the US harm Chinese interests, then Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire."

When Obama was asked at the Hawaii press conference about Republican candidates' drumbeat of China-bashing, he did not contradict the Republicans but rather said that he had told Chinese leaders that all Americans are concerned about the level-playing-field issues. He did not take on the military/strategic issues directly. But the whole tenor of his Asia trip seems shaded with an anti-China thrust, generally cast as beefing up U.S. support for regional countries that feel threatened by China's assertiveness.

Often lost in the panic about China's rise are several key facts that the U.S. administration would do well to keep in mind. China is modernizing its antiquated military but is in no way a match for U.S. military power and won't be for the foreseeable future. China has not fought a single military battle in the last 25 years, and follows a self-declared "peaceful rise" strategy that avoids military conflict. That strategy is crucial to the Chinese leaders' legitimacy, which is based on delivering prosperity and growth, not militaristic bombast. The United States is a hugely important trade partner for China (and vice versa) -- a basis for the U.S.-Chinese Strategic and Economic Dialogue. And China is well aware of the lessons of others' failures -- notably, (1) Japan's efforts in the 1930s to use military conquest to obtain natural resources; and (2) America's recent waste of massive economic resources on out-of-control military spending and unwise military adventures.

Strategically, the United States has nothing to gain from clumsy moves to "contain" China. It has everything to gain from a cooperative partnership with the rising power and economic success that is China today. If the "pivot" to Asia were recast as a new focus on improving the U.S.-China relationship as a bedrock of the region's security architecture, it could be a great idea. If it evolves as a new Cold War directed at a country that is not even an enemy, then it does not belong in the present century.