John Kerry’s first overseas trip as Secretary of State has been characterized by what appears to be a pivot away from the Obama administration’s pivot to the Pacific. During his trip, the “Asia pivot” was a strategic design taken by Obama in his first term to refocus America’s foreign policy away from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region.
The central goal of this decision has been to increase America’s presence in the region, solidifying and further strengthening ties with regional allies, and building up its military presence. While the U.S. has often been reluctant to explicitly articulate the real reasoning behind this move and has tended to characterize it as simply a “re-balancing” of U.S. attention, it has always been overwhelmingly about one country: China. This shift has understandably made China wary, with many seeing it as little more than a strategy of containment. Given this, the apparent pleasure in China at Kerry’s questioning of the pivot is not surprising.
During his trip, Kerry gave the impression that he would focus more on Middle Eastern issues rather than the Asia-Pacific, and during his confirmation hearing he expressed doubts about the merits of the pivot, particularly the necessity of the military aspect. His comments serve as a refreshing departure from a misguided policy that risks antagonizing China and potentially destabilizing the region.
With much of its foreign policy attention focused on the Middle East, in particular the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with a growing China expanding its influence in the region, the U.S. was worried about what it saw as its waning influence in the Asia-Pacific. As such it has begun to shift its attention, rhetorically and materially, back towards the region. The pivot builds on George W. Bush’s reclassification of China from a strategic partner, as it was considered during Bill Clinton’s presidency, to a strategic competitor.
One of the most noticeable areas of renewed U.S. interest in the Asia-Pacific can be seen in the Pacific Islands. Chinese influence in, and aid to, the region has grown dramatically since the U.S. largely withdrew from the region following the end of the Cold War. In the past few years, however, the U.S. has begun to reverse its previous pattern of neglect. High-level engagement by U.S. officials with countries in the region has increased, such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit in 2010.
USAID has also reopened its base in the Pacific Islands after an absence of almost two decades. Significantly, the U.S. expanded its military ties with Australia, including the deployment of 250 Marines, set to rise to 2,500, in Darwin. All of which is designed to counter the growing influence of China in the region.
U.S. re-engagement throughout the rest of the Asia-Pacific has also increased noticeably. It is increasingly pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement with multiple countries from throughout the region that does not include China, in order to strengthen its economic engagement. Furthermore, despite already having over 300,000 troops stationed in the region and over half of its naval assets based there too, the U.S. is set to “commit several thousand additional troops and increase its naval strength by another ten percent” over the next few years as part of its pivot. U.S. arms sales to the region are also set to rise dramatically.
Publicly, the U.S. plays down talk of China as a threat and reiterates its support for China’s peaceful rise and its desire for increased cooperation and dialogue between the two countries. But its actions say otherwise, and seem aimed more at containment and preparing for confrontation than cooperation or dialogue. Rather than “reinforce the United States’ role as an ‘anchor of stability and prosperity’ in the Pacific” as it is supposedly meant to do, the pivot instead risks unnecessarily antagonizing China and destabilizing the region. Indeed, as Richard Heydarian notes, it has already “contributed to greater uncertainty, turbulence, and belligerence” around the maritime disputes in the region.
The significance of Kerry’s comments lies not in the fact that someone is questioning the merits of the pivot — many people have — but in the importance of his position within the Obama administration. Having a secretary of state who, as PolicyMic Associate Political Editor, Tom McKay wrote, has a “nuanced view of U.S.-Chinese relations, and seems focused on … emphasizing broad commonalities for cooperation and a stable long-term trade relationship,” may help to temper the current confrontational strategy and re-balance the "re-balancing."