Why California Is the Hinge of America's Asia-Pacific Pivot

Here in California, the Far West of America's continental expansion kicked off by Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark Expedition, we are in the far east of what was long known as the Far East. So it makes perfect sense that California is the hinge of America's Asia-Pacific Pivot, our big geopolitical pivot from fateful over-engagement with the Islamic world to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific.

Not that the move away from the other end of the pivot is at all easy. We may or may not be headed for a military strike on Syria (though that move might fall apart before the fact). Egypt's a bloody mess (with Hosni Mubarak of all people freed, clear of all charges, while the most populous Arab nation's only democratically-elected president, USC-educated Mohamed Morsi, is imprisoned). Iraq is worse than it was before the Iraq War. Our long goodbye from Afghanistan trundles on. And a new factor, the Snowden revelations, continues to roil and rile international opinion.

But, with the notable exception of Chinese President Xi Jinping being able to play cheshire cat at his California summit with President Barack Obama, due to his knowledge that Edward Snowden was in Hong Kong and that Snowden's revelations of global surveillance would effectively turn the tables on U.S. complaints about Chinese cyber-espionage of emerging military and civilian technologies -- something that no one not in charge of the National Security Agency could account for -- the Pivot is going rather well.

Now Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is in the closing stages of a four-nation, week-long trip to the Asia-Pacific. Starting off for overview purposes at Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, Hagel continued on to Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines. He is meeting with most of the Asian defense ministers on this trip.

And development of the sweeping Trans Pacific Partnership on trade and investment continue as well, the civilian side of the Pivot, which notably does not include China, continued with the latest negotiations in Brunei.

Incidentally, while this is not specifically California politics, as it has dynamics that go far beyond even expansively inventive views of state politics, it is right in the wheelhouse of California governors. (Though the politico/military aspects of the Asia-Pacific Pivot are beyond the bandwidth of a gubernatorial operation.) The economic, technological, social, and environmental elements of the Asia-Pacific Pivot are directly involved, even some of the diplomacy. Which is no surprise, since California is at the hinge of this enormous geopolitical pivot.

Governor Jerry Brown conducted his own very expansive trip to China earlier this year, then held in effect a parallel summit to the Obama-Xi summit in Rancho Mirage, California, meeting separately with the Chinese president, whom he already knew, and hosting China's first couple for much of the summit's weekend.

And before that, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger undertook expansive trade and investment missions to major parts of the Asia-Pacific. Schwarzenegger undertook several high profile trade missions to China, South Korea, and Japan. Earlier this year, Schwarzenegger, now, among a few other things, a University of Southern California professor, was the featured speaker at USC's annual global conference in Seoul, South Korea. USC, where new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was a graduate student in public policy, has a massive presence of Asia-Pacific students.

Schwarzenegger's predecessor, former Governor Gray Davis, also pursued expanded trade with Asia-Pacific nations. A particular breakthrough in exports to China occurred during his governorship, and Davis set a record in gubernatorial appointments of Asia-Pacific Americans to state office.

Brown and Schwarzenegger have both pushed California's policies on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and greenhouse gas reduction in Asia-Pacific dealings, especially with China. And there is interest in China and elsewhere.

Brown focused on these issues in his recent summitry across China and in California. Schwarzenegger pursued them by having ample participation from China and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific in his three Governors Global Climate Summits in California and continues the effort today through his global R20 organization of sub-national governments.

During his first incarnation as California's governor in the '70s and '80s, Brown pursued his own foreign policy, with Japan, then the Asian economic superpower, and China a significant part of that. Brown was deeply imbued with the emerging ethic of the Pacific Rim. Several years after leaving office, Brown, who had been a leading light of the San Francisco Zen Center community, pursued a mastery of Zen Buddhism in Japan, spending the better part of a year living in the centuries-long center of Zen culture Kamakura outside Tokyo.

Because of our location, relationships, ethnic makeup, technology, and fusion culture, those of us in the New West are already deeply involved with the Asia-Pacific Pivot.

Of the 20 leading recipient nations of California's exports, the top seven are Pacific nations.

As America's great commonwealth out here on the Pacific Rim, California encompasses the Asian and Pacific Island influences to our west and the Latin American influences to our south. It also casts a large shadow across the region with its world leading roles in technology, entertainment, and agriculture. And California's role in higher education and research is very well recognized.

In fact, a well-known Chinese rating service just named Stanford and UC Berkeley two of the three leading universities in the world, ranking behind Harvard, with Caltech also in the top 10 and three more University of California campuses in the the world top 20.

Even one of the greatest Asian superstars, Bruce Lee, was actually a Californian, born in San Francisco. While he became a superstar in Hong Kong, Lee found much of his way in Los Angeles, where he taught martial arts to Steve McQueen and other stars and became a TV star himself after developing his own unique form of martial arts in Oakland.

Although the Asia-Pacific Pivot seems a new concept to the surface-oriented moment-by-moment media of today, which still misses the story, it really isn't. Focusing more on the Asia-Pacific region has long been in the cards as Asian economies rebuilt and rose to the fore in the decades after World War II and the ruinous Pacific War that was such a critical and yet underplayed part of it.

Indeed, many in California, Washington, and elsewhere fully expected an Asia-Pacific Pivot to take us from our European and Atlantic-centered stare-down with the Soviet Union to something new and much more mercantile when the Soviet Union fell at the end of the Cold War and the People's Republic of China's ruling Communist Party turned to a form of state capitalism.

San Francisco hosted the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945; another pivotal role for another post-conflict transition seemed in store.

But America's geopolitical direction was murky in the Bill Clinton years, and by their end a new and very different fixation was about to emerge. Not that the new Bush/Cheney Administration -- which ignored the Hart-Rudman Commission's warning of an inevitable major domestic terrorist attack and sent National Security Advisor Condi Rice forth on September 11, 2011 to opine on the country's greatest security threat, "rogue nations" and their missile programs -- had any idea.

Soon enough, Bush and Cheney used al-Qaeda's Pearl Harbor-like strike on New York and Washington to spin up their remarkably non sequitur agenda of invading Iraq, and the U.S. was off what seemed its more natural course of focusing on the Asia-Pacific, and the question of likely future superpower China, for a dozen more years.

Speaking of China, its extreme mindfulness of the Californian factor in events was very clear again just last week. A leading Chinese army officer slammed Hollywood for its "vast propaganda powers," declaring in a widely published op-ed that the scifi action hit Pacific Rim -- in which, as you no doubt know, humongous robots with human pilots are created to form the "Trans Pacific Defense Corps" to battle invading Godzilla-like creatures (which the Japanese have called kaiju since first imagining them in the post-Hiroshima era) -- is pro-US "propaganda" on behalf of the Asia-Pacific Pivot. I'm not so sure that the film's Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, can be described as an American psy ops agent. (Although Mexico will be part of the real life Trans Pacific Partnership on trade and investment, and China will not.)

Still, it is true that in the Battle of Hong Kong, the crew of the giant Chinese jaeger robot dies first, followed by the Russians. The Aussies do better but get in big trouble. Fortunately, the American/Japanese crew saves the day by saving the Aussies and taking out both kaijus!

So it is true in the movie that the South China Sea, most important waterway on the planet as the site of the dimensional rift through which the kaiju are sent to take over the world, is made secure by an alliance of America, Japan, and Australia. Maybe that's not a subliminal message the PRC wants out there when it is claiming sovereignty over virtually all the South China Sea, in real life one of the most important bodies of water on the planet, though not because of any kaiju problem. (So far, that is.)

It's also true, oddly enough, that Pacific Rim is wildly popular in China.

Perhaps it's just part of the creative tension I think we had better shoot for in dealing with conflicting agendas as they play out over the rest of the century.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.