America’s Unhinged “Pivot”

NEW DELHI – President Barack Obama’s first foreign trip since winning a second term highlights Asia’s new centrality to America’s economy and security. But Obama’s Asian tour also underscores the main question about American policy in the region: Will the United States’ “pivot” to Asia acquire concrete strategic content, or will it remain largely a rhetorical repackaging of old policies?

The United States, quick to capitalize on regional concerns triggered by China’s increasingly muscular self-assertion, has strengthened its military ties with its existing Asian allies and forged security relationships with new friends. But the heady glow of America’s return to center stage in Asia has obscured key challenges in remaining the region’s principal security anchor in the face of China’s strategic ambitions.

One challenge is the need to arrest the erosion of America’s relative power, which in turn requires comprehensive domestic renewal, including fiscal consolidation. But the need for spending cuts also raises the prospect that the US might be unable to finance a military shift toward the Asia-Pacific region – or, worse, that it will be forced to retrench there.

The US under Obama has increasingly ceded ground to China, a trend that admittedly began when the Bush administration became preoccupied with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This has spurred doubts about America’s ability to provide strategic heft to its “pivot” by sustaining a higher level of commitment in the Asia-Pacific region, where it already maintains 320,000 troops. The proposed deployment of an additional 2,500 Marines in Australia is largely symbolic.