THE BLOG
11/21/2013 09:18 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Obama Sets Big Trip As He Regroups Around the Asia-Pacific Pivot

Lost in the shuffle over the health care controversy comes this word. President Barack Obama is heading back to the Asia-Pacific on a big trip early next year to further the US geostrategic shift.

There is no question that the federal government shutdown debacle, which prevented Obama from taking part in long-planned Asian summitry and first ever visit to the Philippines, was bad for America's geopolitical pivot from fateful over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific. Obama's absence, and the total disarray in Washington, enabled the leaders of China -- that would-be superpower which unnerves its neighbors with its extraordinary claim to sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, one of the world's most strategically significant bodies of water, not to mention its aggressive moves in the East China Sea near Japan -- to raise doubts that America will help when the chips are down. It also gave Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premiere Li Keqiang the opportunity to travel the region providing economic carrots to complement the PRC's looming military stick.

All the US could do in answer was send the George Washington carrier strike group through the region for notable port calls and maneuvers with some of China's neighbors. An impressive spectacle, but clearly not enough. High-level planning with allies Japan and Australia continued, but that's not public, and Japan is suspect in some quarters after its own imperial adventures in the Pacifi War portion of World War II.

And even the massive US role in helping the Philippines recover from one of the biggest typhoons in world history, which is bringing US Navy and Marine forces into an integrated command structure with Philippine forces as they play the leading role, is not enough. The Marine three-star who ordinarily runs Pacific expeditionary forces from Okinawa is coordinating the US role from inside Philippine armed forces headquarters at Camp Aguinaldo outside Manila.

So Obama, beset by other problems, is heading out to the Asia-Pacific again on a big trip in April. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, not nearly as identified with the Asia-Pacific Pivot as predecessor Tom Donilon, made the announcement in a speech Wednesday at Georgetown University reaffirming the country's commitment to the Pivot.

America wants this to continue and this is the reason for the U.S. strategic shift, Rice said.
The US, Rice declared, is fundamentally a Pacific power, and has long used its clout to ensure a secure region in which individual countries can prosper, as they have.

Without specifically mentioning China's potentially hegemonic moves, Rice said that the reason for America's geopolitical shift back to the Pacific is Washington's desire for the continuance of what exists.

"Ultimately," she said, "America's purpose is to establish a more stable security environment in Asia, an open and transparent economic environment and a liberal political environment that respects the universal rights and freedoms of all," she said. "Achieving that future will necessarily be the sustained work of successive administrations."

The key to it all, said the still relatively new national security advisor, once America's UN ambassador and a longtime Obama confidant, is enhancing security arrangements to secure a stable environment for progress.

"We are making the Asia-Pacific more secure with American alliances -- and an American force posture -- that are being modernized to meet the challenges of our time," Rice declared. "By 2020, 60 percent of our fleet will be based in the Pacific and our Pacific Command will gain more of our most cutting-edge capabilities."

The Pivot, she argued, will leave the US "better able to respond to provocations and better able to launch operations like Operation Damayan" now aiding millions of Filipinos in recovering from the recent typhoon.

"We are updating and diversifying our security relationships in the region to address emerging challenges as effectively as we deter conventional threats," Rice said.

One of those threats is North Korea, whose nuclear weapons test and missile launch provocations have been uneasily managed by the US and the international community. Which includes China. While loathe to give up on its longtime ally -- China fought side by side with North Korean forces against US and UN forces after North Korea invaded South Korea in the Korean War over 60 years ago -- as that would hand the entire Korean Peninsula to a key American ally, the PRC's leadership has acted to rein in the Pyongyang regime's threatening antics on occasion.

While confrontation with China is certainly envisioned -- at some point I'll try to delve into wargaming being done at the Naval War College and elsewhere -- the Obama Administration clearly prefers to avoid outright conflict in favor of what I think of as a creative tension between the two powers. Rice uses some different terminology.

"When it comes to China, we seek to 'operationalize' a new model of major power relations," Rice said. "That means managing inevitable competition while forging deeper cooperation on issues where our interests converge -- in Asia and beyond."

She cited shared US/China goals on containing North Korean nuclear weapons, peacefully resolving the Iranian nuclear controversy, stabilizing Afghanistan and ending conflict in Sudan among a variety of ways in which the US and China can work together to minimize international crisis.

The two countries are already working on combating piracy and China is sending its first ever UN peacekeeping force; to Mali, where French troops beat back an Al Qaeda-aligned push against that African nation's very shaky central government.

Rice emphasized that enhancing security in the region is the underpinning for all progress.

"America's purpose is to establish a more stable security environment in Asia, an open and transparent economic environment and a liberal political environment that respects the universal rights and freedoms of all," she said. "Achieving that future will necessarily be the sustained work of successive administrations."

"We are making the Asia-Pacific more secure with American alliances -- and an American force posture -- that are being modernized to meet the challenges of our time," Rice said. "By 2020, 60 percent of our fleet will be based in the Pacific and our Pacific Command will gain more of our most cutting-edge capabilities."

The resources shift will leave the United States better able to respond to provocations and better able to launch operations like Operation Damayan that is helping millions of people in the Philippines recover from the impact of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda. Natural disaster management has long been one of the hallmark issues in the Asia-Pacific. With climate change, we can only expect that to increase.

That sounds nice, doesn't it? If both Americans and Chinese act with wisdom and forbearance, it might even turn out that way. The US, incidentally, is going to have to pick a new ambassador to China.

Obama has had two so far. Appointing former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman effectively removed a potentially formidable moderate conservative Republican presidential challenger from the gameboard. Huntsman still came back from Beijing and ran, but found no traction in a hard right primary environment. His service as Obama's ambassador may have helped him finish third in the New Hampshire primary. The problem was that he did it without Republican votes, which is not a sustainable model for a Republican presidential primary campaign.

Huntsman was succeeded by Obama's first commerce secretary, former Washington Governor Gary Locke, the nation's first Chinese-American governor. Locke announced in the past week that he is leaving next year, opening the door for a new ambassador to emerge from a pool of potentials including former California state Controller Steve Westly, a big early Obama backer and clean tech venture capitalist and former eBay international exec with extensive experience in China, and some others, perhaps including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

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