The Lowy Interpreter

By Bates Gill and Tom Switzer

In his press club address earlier this month, Michael Fullilove warned that President Obama is pivoting away from the much-touted US 'pivot' towards the Asia Pacific. Both politically and militarily, we were told, the 'pivot' has 'gone off the boil.' America's heart, he lamented, is not in it.

But while it is true that the Middle East remains an important part of US foreign policy deliberations, it is also true that America is likely to remain the predominant power in the Asia Pacific across key indicators of national power. Indeed, the Washington consensus is that the national interest still demands America's deep engagement in the region, which is supported by its steadfast commitment to a forward military presence.

Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the long-term US commitment to Asia than its enhanced security relationships with Indo-Pacific allies. We all know about Australia's enhanced security relations with what Menzies called 'our great and powerful friend', but we are hardly alone in looking to America. A few months ago, Washington sent six new P-8As ('the most advanced long-range anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare aircraft in the world,' according to the Pentagon) to Japan on their first overseas deployment. In another first, numerous American Global Hawk surveillance drones will be operated out of Japan and elsewhere in the region. Add to this the landmark US-Japan defence agreements last October and it is clear that America remains strongly committed to the region.

But that commitment is more than an enhanced diplomatic and military profile. Take, for example, the US-led recovery effort in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in November. Not only did the Obama Administration send an aircraft carrier and hundreds of Marines to distribute food and water to remote areas, it also pledged $22 million in assistance. (The Chinese government, by contrast, pledged only $100,000 before increasing its total contributions to a measly $1.5 million.)

In another example of diplomatic heavy-lifting only Washington can do, President Obama, in a remarkable display of trilateral solidarity, sat down with the leaders of Japan and South Korea so the two of them, along with the US, could focus on the strategic interests which bind them together.

Fullilove says 'the economic element of the rebalance is in trouble.' He assumes the 'pivot' is doomed without the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. But the 'pivot' does not equate simply to the TPP. US trade and investment with the region is deepening: US foreign direct investment in Asia has increased by more than 170% since 2001, and Asian investment in the US has jumped by more than 130% in the same period. Meanwhile, Washington has signed several bilateral regional trade deals in the past decade and is in negotiation for a bilateral investment treaty with Beijing.

Besides, even if the President fails to get Trade Promotion Authority from congressional Democrats in a mid-term election year, there is always next year: a new congress, with more pro-trade Republicans, is more than likely to pass fast-track authority, which would still give Obama leverage to sign and ratify the TPP.

Historians since Thucydides have observed that the rise of a new power is often accompanied by regional uncertainty and sometimes conflict. China's rise will remain a central question for the region and for US foreign policy. But it is not inevitable that a China with 'plenty of puff', as Fullilove suggests, will become a hegemonic force that will impose its will across the region. In the event of a severe economic downturn, something China has not experienced in its 30-year bull run, it is at least as likely, if not more so, that Beijing's leaders would remain largely consumed with dealing with economic challenges at home rather than slaying dragons abroad. This, moreover, at a time when China is surrounded by more than a dozen neighbours, few of which are truly friendly toward Beijing.

It is also widely believed China will grow old before it grows rich. But even if Beijing can sort out its long-term demographic problems, other big challenges, namely political and environmental, loom.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding its own problems at home, the US will continue as the predominant power, not just in education and innovation but also energy self-sufficiency. Demographic trends, including moderately high immigration and fertility levels, also work to America's advantage. All of this is good reason to believe that, far from pivoting away, the US is intensifying its engagement in the region.

This article was originally published at The Lowy Interpreter