04/24/2014 06:16 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2014

Navigating the Asia Pivot


President Obama is in Asia this week to reassure our Asian allies about the U.S. "pivot to Asia." Former National Security Advisor Tim Donilon described the "pivot to Asia" as "a shift away from the war efforts in the Middle East and South Asia that have dominated U.S. national security policy and resources for the past decade and a shift toward the region that presents the most significant opportunity for the United States." As a significant shift in defense strategy, the Asia pivot is a head-scratcher. As an economic strategy, however, the Asia pivot is compelling.

The central problem with pivot to Asia strategy is that it is framed as a national security strategy. There is no doubt that there are security challenges throughout Asia that require U.S. force projection. China has announced a 12.2 percent increase in its defense budget to $132 billion in 2014. While China's defense budget is one-third of the U.S., it is significant enough to project power, and that is what it is doing.

Beijing recently claimed an air defense zone over a large swath of the East China Sea, including disputed remote islands controlled by Japan. China has also rattled sabers with the Philippines and Malaysia over disputed islands in the South China Sea, and issued new fishing regulations requiring Chinese approval to fish in the South China Sea.

Beyond China, North Korea continues to pose a nuclear threat to our Asian allies, and U.S. bases in the area.

Despite these threats, shifting our national security focus from the "war on terror" to Asia seems profoundly tone deaf to the continuing and emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said:

When the president framed rebalance, he discussed how we could now safely turn our attention to Asia because the war in Afghanistan was receding and al-Qaida was on the path to defeat. I'm concerned those conditions haven't panned out.

Indeed, Iraq and Afghanistan remain highly unstable, and that's not the only problem. The Syrian civil war, which has produced 150,000 deaths and 2 million refugees, still has a significant potential to destabilize the entire region. If negotiations with Iran to contain its nuclear arms program fail, hardliners in the country could provoke confrontation with Israel, which has vowed to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The Pakistan Taliban threatens to throw that nuclear nation into disarray. Failure to secure the elusive peace agreement between Israel and Palestine continues to sow discord.

The Kremlin's annexation of Crimea, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, al-Shabab in Somalia, and political instability in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, all pose significant challenges to our security and that of our allies.

The focus on Asia is, however, smart economically and perhaps points the way toward a more strategic foreign policy. The Asia-Pacific consumes almost 60 percent of U.S. exports and produces more than half the world's economic output. Concluding a multi-national trade agreement with twelve nations party to the Trans Pacific Partnership could yield $78 billion in annual income for America. This is perhaps what Donilon pointedly meant as "the most significant opportunity" for the United States.

In an era of fiscal restraint, U.S. policy makers should implement a foreign policy guided by opportunity rather than threat, and align its resources accordingly. The U.S. should pivot to South America and Africa as well, where opportunity is not just about trade, but investments in infrastructure, agriculture and manufacturing that will create future markets, and build prosperity and stability in partner nations. Economic opportunity is one of the best antidotes to political instability, and is much cheaper than boots on ground and costly weapons systems.

An opportunity based foreign policy would not neglect state-based or terrorism threats to the United States, but it could force the United States to better assess truly strategic threats and focus limited resources to maximize our security. Defense hawks are concerned about defense budget reductions, but assessing our foreign policy more holistically could produce significant gains for our security.

To assist in developing an opportunity-based foreign policy, the foreign affairs committees in the House and Senate must come up with and pass a foreign affairs bill. Alternatively, Congress could develop a security budget across agencies and committees that advances strategic opportunities through foreign aid, diplomacy, intelligence, law enforcement and defense. Congress could develop a BRAC-like committee to make defense budget cuts to inoculate against earmarks and special interests. President Obama this week should encourage nations to shoulder more of their own security challenges, and share more in global development, not as a sign of U.S. disengagement, but of global partnership. The true pivot is not in Asia, but back home, and whether the administration and Congress can more crisply define U.S. strategic interests and the whole-of-government approach to secure them.