Asian gazing (part IV): the logic and consensus of the US pivot
5 Jun 2013|

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates look out over North KoreaWashington’s political deadlock and partisan bloodletting has reached the point that a former US diplomat compares the Congressional confirmation hearings for ambassador appointees to a hostage siege in Beirut. The observation is from Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs for Bush’s administration, speaking at the Asia Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur.

The hostage siege comment was an aside in speech on the US pivot that carried the headline ‘Continuity and Change in US engagement with Asia’. The lack of much bipartisanship on almost any subject in Washington underlines the significance of the fact that there is a solid US consensus on the rebalance. The consensus is for the facts and force of the policy shift, even if there’s some argument about what the policy should be named.

Hill’s speech title goes to one of the key arguments in Asian strategic star gazing at the moment: Is the pivot just more of the same with a bit of re-badging, or does it mark a significant shift in the weight and focus of US grand strategy? As an official from the previous administration, it’s no surprise that Hill saw much continuity in the rebalance.

The continuity claim is why many in Washington prefer the term rebalance to pivot:  the US never went away so it’s not necessary to turn back. This has a certain logic to it, but it’s deeply disingenuous given what the US has been doing with its military might for the past decade. Indeed, the Asia that the US is turning or rebalancing towards has changed considerably during the period America has been fighting two long, costly, frustrating and divisive wars.

Whether you favour the change or continuity side of the argument, both labels are useful in speaking to different parts of the American psyche as it grapples with the meanings of those wars. Turning away from Iraq and Afghanistan and moving beyond the war on terror can mean pivoting towards another region and fresh challenges. Yet if the US pivot to Asia is to succeed and take permanent effect as grand strategy, it’s going to need a broad consensus in Washington as well as plenty of support in Asia.

The Washington consensus on the military part of the rebalance has been greatly helped by the fact that it’s been carried along by first a Republican Defense Secretary in Robert Gates, then by a Democrat in Leon Panetta, and now again by a Republican, Chuck Hagel. That’s quite an achievement for a policy that has a declared existence of only two years, run by a Democrat President.

The claim of continuity from Gates to Panetta to Hagel goes some way to explain this unusual consensus when every other part of the Washington system is involved in a permanent political dogfight. Gates is the Republican who did such a good job of rebalancing US defence policy for George W. Bush post-Rumsfeld that he stayed on to keep doing the job for Obama. Gates gave opening speeches at the Shangri La Dialogue over five years and you can draw a line though most of those contributions in support of the claims for continuity and consensus in the US approach. Look, for instance, at the speech Gates gave in 2011 when he spoke of ‘the enduring and consistent nature of America’s commitments in Asia, even in times of transition and change.’

For me, though, the US military element in Obama’s pivot dates from Gates’ 2009 speech where he backed the initiative Hillary Clinton had launched on her first trip as Secretary of State – heading to Asia to begin the push to get the US into the East Asia Summit. He signalled that the Pentagon wouldn’t be bound by its traditional opposition to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Signing the TAC is a prerequisite for joining the EAS, and the tyranny of old briefing papers and ancient Pentagon dogma from the Cold War wasn’t going to hold up the Hillary-in-a-hurry effort to get into the EAS. Or, as Gates put it, negotiating accession to the TAC ‘demonstrates our willingness to take regional norms into account as we consider our relationships across the globe.’

Draw a line from that Gates speech in 2009 and it runs straight through what Panetta said last year and Hagel at the weekend. Membership of the EAS matters as much as the new 60% rule for the US military in Asia in explaining why the rebalance might just amount to a grand strategic shift in the way the US thinks about the globe.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.