The Wall Street Journal and The Australian
By Bates Gill and Tom Switzer
Skeptics continue to question the Obama administration's signature foreign-policy initiative, the so-called pivot to devote additional U.S. attention and resources to Asia as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draw to a close. When President Barack Obama missed the APEC and Asean summits last October because of the partial government shutdown in Washington, commentators both at home and abroad asked: if the U.S. could not keep its own house in order, how could it keep the peace in Asia?
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama's own party may not approve Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), often called fast-track legislation. Rejection would not only kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, but, many would say, the "rebalance" as well. The spin in the pivot, we are told, is just that, mostly spin.
But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of America's retreat are greatly exaggerated. The truth is that an already robust U.S. presence in the region will likely grow stronger over time.
We see this through diplomatic and military engagement. In the past year alone, U.S. cabinet secretaries John Kerry and Chuck Hagel made nine trips to the Indo-Pacific region. President Obama is slated to make two trips in 2014.
U.S. military presence in the region, including bases and other access agreements and about 100,000 personnel in the Pacific Command, remains steadfast. Defense budget cuts won't minimize U.S. presence either, since the Pentagon has committed to shifting the current 50-50 balance of forces between the Atlantic and the Pacific to 40-60 in favor of the latter by 2020. Moreover, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that even under the near-term constraints imposed by the Budget Control Act, the Pentagon budget will remain between $500 to $600 billion (in 2014 dollars) until at least 2028.
Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the long-term U.S. commitment to Asia than Washington's enhanced security relationships with Indo-Pacific allies. At the end of 2013, the U.S. 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 in their first overseas deployment.
In another first, numerous American Global Hawk surveillance drones will be operated out of Japan and elsewhere in the region. The landmark U.S.-Japan defense agreements last October outline the transfer of America's most advanced warplane, the F-35, to Japan along with increased cooperation on ballistic missile defense, cyber security, and joint training.
In Australia, the Labor governments of prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard intensified the security alliance and provided the U.S. military more access to Australian territory, including a rotational marine presence in Darwin, greater access to airstrips in northern Australia, and potentially a base in Perth for U.S. nuclear submarines. Their conservative successor Tony Abbott stands firmly behind such moves and has pledged to increase defense spending to around 2% of GDP from 1.59%.
The U.S.'s commitment to its allies—not least by shows of force in 2013 around the Korean peninsula and over the East China Sea—sent the right signals that Pyongyang and Beijing could not intimidate South Korea and Japan without repercussions.
But America's commitment to the region is more than an enhanced diplomatic and military profile. The U.S.-led recovery effort in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in November spoke volumes about American presence and capability. Not only did Washington send an aircraft carrier and hundreds of marines to distribute food and water to remote areas, it also pledged $22 million in assistance. By contrast, the Chinese government originally pledged only $100,000—less than the donation by furniture company IKEA—before increasing its total contributions to about $1.5 million.
To be sure, uncertainties remain. Without "fast track," for instance, it will be difficult for Washington to conclude and ratify the TPP, a key component of the pivot to Asia. But although many House and Senate Democrats appear unlikely to support TPA, the president might receive enough votes from pro-trade Republicans and moderate Democrats to override his party's skeptics.
Across most of Asia, there remains a well-founded conviction that the U.S. will continue as the predominant power, not just in education and innovation but also energy self-sufficiency. Crucially, demographic trends work to the U.S.'s advantage: It has moderately high immigration and fertility levels whereas China will grow old before it grows rich.
And even if Beijing can sort out its long-term demographic problems, other big challenges, namely political and environmental, loom. And unlike America, China sits in an implacably tough neighborhood surrounded by more than a dozen neighbors, few of which are truly friendly toward Beijing.
Notwithstanding some near-term setbacks, the U.S. is far from acting like a "pitiful, helpless giant" as Richard Nixon famously warned. It is heavily engaged in Asia, ensuring that the 21st century will be the U.S.'s Pacific Century.
This article originally appeared on The Wall Street Journal and The Australian