Via Meadia has been closely watching the rollout of Washington’s new Asia-Pacific policy, somewhat awkwardly called a “pivot.” All in all, we have noted, the focus on Asia is an ambitious foreign policy project that could come to rival the Marshall Plan in its impact on global geopolitics. Pundits and politicians across the political spectrum have gradually cottoned on and in its broadest outlines the new Pacific policy commands wide support. But no policy is without its slipups or weak spots.National Defense magazine points out a few problems:
The [Pacific] plan already is being shredded both by election-year politics and criticism that it alienates Europe and other allies. The strategy also is complicated by Washington’s uncomfortable stance regarding China.The president’s guidance, critics said, antagonizes China and implies that the United States is pivoting away from the rest of the world.
Some of this is trivial. The United States isn’t turning away from Europe, or the Middle East, or Africa for that matter. Washington can walk and chew gum. The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on. If anybody thinks Washington isn’t engaged with Europe, Russia and the Middle East, they haven’t been paying attention.Other criticisms are more serious:
From a military perspective, the Obama plan has been blasted by shipbuilding industry advocates and other defense hawks on Capitol Hill who had assumed that pivoting to Asia meant a huge naval buildup. “The Asia-Pacific region is primarily a maritime theater, so our ability to project military power there depends mostly on the U.S. Navy,” [Senator John] McCain said. “And yet the Navy is still short of its own goal of 313 ships. What’s worse, the administration now proposes to retire seven cruisers earlier than planned; to phase out two major lift ships needed by the Marine Corps; and to delay the acquisition of one large-deck amphibious ship, one Virginia-class attack submarine, two littoral combat ships and eight high-speed transport vessels,” he griped. “We are now retiring ships faster than we are replacing them.”
The Obama Administration’s plans for cuts in military spending seem to be running ahead of the realistic possibilities. Maritime Asia strategy is likely to be less cheap than some officials hope. A strong Navy is vital to our ability to project power in faraway waters and the rapid pace of military and missile technology is likely to force a faster pace of spending rather than allowing for big cuts.Furthermore:
He [McCain] hammered the White House for not having concluded or ratified a single free trade agreement of its own making. Agreements signed with South Korea, Colombia and Panama were started by the Bush administration; China, by contrast, has secured nine trade agreements in Asia and Latin America since 2003, McCain said. It is negotiating five more, and it has four others under consideration.“The bottom line is that America’s long-term strategic and economic success requires an ambitious trade strategy in Asia” [said McCain].
These critics are right. We can’t have a serious Asia strategy without a serious pro-trade agenda. Here the Obama Administration has problems with its base: unions, environmentalists, and the “new protectionists” who keep finding creative arguments for supporting inefficient industries and raising the prices American consumers and businesses must pay for the things they need.Via Meadia‘s overall position is that the Obama Administration has correctly drawn the outlines of America’s new policy in the Pacific, but that filling in the details is going to take time. The implications for American diplomacy, trade policy and military spending are going to be large, and healthy debate is a natural and necessary part of the policy process. We’ve already noted that one unfortunate byproduct of the policy is that some Asian countries will try to engage the US on their behalf as they pick fights with China over contentious issues like the South China Sea. The policy of balancing China in maritime Asia also needs to be balanced by a direct approach aimed at deepening US-China relations and building trust. Striking the right diplomatic tone, meshing that with the right military posture, and undergirding it all with an appropriate trade policy will engage the attention of our top diplomats and strategists for some time to come. VM commends the administration for this positive start, and we look forward to a serious national conversation on how to carry the policy to the next stage.