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Asia Pivot: Boost Trade—and Don’t Forget the Navy

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.


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.

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  • thibaud

    How do those of a “Jacksonian” libbetrarian persuasion justify the evident desire of their heroes, the Pauls and Paul Ryan, to gut the US blue water navy?

    It seems obvious that the deep fiscal hole that Mr. Mead has written about, eloquently and at length, will make it extremely unlikely that the US can deploy its power on a global basis at anything remotely close to the scale we’re doing now or have done for half a century.

    If a selective, regional approach is to be taken – and our retreat from Afghanistan and the winding down of so much of our European military presence indicate that this process is already underway – then what is the US strategy in Eastern/Southern Europe and the Near East?

    In these regions, Turkey, Russia and Iran, regardless of who leads those nations, will inevitably advance as the US begins to shift more and more resources and focus to the Pacific Rim.

    The Paulies’ response to these nations’ rise, more often than not, is to a) sneer at those evil and lazy furreigners, b) shrug at the implications and boast about this or that Fortress America attribute; and finally c) change the subject.

    Is their an intelligent, non-sarcastic “Jacksonian” strategy for dealing with Turkey and Russia?

  • Jim.

    Does all of it have to be our Navy?

    It seems to me that the world is ready for Japan to have a carrier group again. Not the IJN, of course, but something a bit more commensurate with its economic stature and interests in the region.

    Australia too. They need to beef up their Navy as well, even to the point of having a carrier of their own. New Zealand needs to be prodded into actually having a navy. Honestly. Now would be a good time.

    First thing we do is greatly expand our cooperation programs; carrier operations are no walk in the park. American flight decks need to be a home away from home for hundreds, or even thousands, of Japanese and Australian sailors and pilots. Annapolis needs to greatly expand its language programs in Japanese. (And Strine, for that matter.)

  • Cunctator

    Some of the criticism of the Obama Administration (of which I am no admirer) is undeserved. The shortfall in capabilities, particularly in fleet size, was also unaddressed by Bush II in the eight years he was president.

    However, what is worrying right now is that there is little attention being paid at the highest levels to the strategic implications of the drawdown in the USN. Fewer ships being built means a descrease in the country’s shipbuilding industry — and the loss of expertise and insights, to say nothing of industrial capacity, is extremely worrying. And those ships that are being built, such as the Littoral Combat Ship, are so fundamentally inadequate for the job expected of them that the situations can only deteriorate.

  • Anthony

    WRM, Asia pivot comparable to Marshall Plan (rebuilding Europe after WW II – modernizing industry, removing trade barriers, containing Communism, etc.) assumes major strategic investment. Geopolitically, concept makes sense but sensibilities of Europe and other allies must be part of equation. Equally, the maritime theater reality must be given cognizance as it correlates to a serious pro-trade Asian agenda. Implications as you suggest – diplomatically, militarily, economically, etc. – are going to be large. Here’s looking for a serious national discussion beyond Via Meadia.

  • Luke Lea

    @ WMD “These critics are right. We can’t have a serious Asia strategy without a serious pro-trade agenda.”

    And include China in? In any case we can’t have a serious pro-trade agreement with that part of the world unless we are prepared to address its adverse effects on the distribution of income here at home. The options are limited and, at this point, politically unpalatable to the ruling class. As in higher taxes, more progressive taxes, and a huge expansion of the EITC or something equivalent for the bottom 80 percent.

    It’s the difference between a responsible, sustainable foreign policy that seeks to project American values and the American example along with military and economic power abroad while protecting them at home and an irresponsible, unsustainable foreign policy which neglects the first and undermines the second.

    That our policy elites don’t know this can be chalked up to the highly decadent state of academic economics. It’s not just the greed of the plutocrats — and, no, it isn’t the fault of the corporations who, given the rules of the game (Gatt and all that) do what they gotta do to survive in the marketplace.

    It is really a disgrace.

  • Luke Lea

    [neglects the latter while undermining the former?]

  • J R Yankovic

    Solid common sense and, as usual, some embarrassingly good questions from (IMO) four of Via Meadia’s best commenters and – really, what more do I need to say? Other than that, (1) yes, the Indo-Pacific Anglosphere desperately needs to rise to its naval occasion before the moment escapes it; and (2) sadly enough, America has never been much more than a reluctant empire (there, I’ve uttered the hateful word). I. e., much as I think we’ve always reveled in the periodic opportunities for swagger and bravado, we’ve also tended to hate the REAL work of empire – the responsibility, commitment and lengthened attention-spans required (though who – at least among the “experts” – could have predicted the stamina and focus of the bulk of our troops in Afghanistan?).

    In other words, DEFINITELY high time for what Anthony calls a serious national discussion.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “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 Obama Administration doesn’t plan anything; they have been dragged into a greater focus on Asia by our allies in Asia. The Asians have done this to counter balance a growing Chinese threat. We know this wasn’t a planned exercise because there aren’t any new free trade agreements, or treaties, or military buildup. All that has happened is whatever kind of things our allies in Asia could force the Obama Administration to agree to. This article mentions the dragging of the US into fights being picked with China by our Asian allies, without recognizing that China is the aggressor all over Asia and the one picking all the fights. China is belligerent and all the other Asians are scared of them, they aren’t picking fights with them, they are just defending themselves from a bully and praying that America has got their backs.

  • Norman Roberts

    Do we face a threat in the Asia-Pacicic theater that would require a major naval counter force? I don’t see it, not for the next few decades anyway. Our focus should be on economics, and that means trade. It is a far greater damper on Chinese or Russian military adventurism than a couple of new aircraft carriers would be.

  • Brendan Doran

    These countries need to be told if they want our help spend an equal amount of GDP on Defense – 4%.

    You do realize the last great Entente led to WWI right?

    And you have NO STOMACH for war. Nor does Jacksonian America trust you enough anymore to keep sending their sons and daughters to die vainly in Progressive Social Experiments – see Iraq, Afghanistan.

    Your reach far exceeds your grasp. Withdraw.

  • Brendan Doran

    However if you wish to continue with RISK, a true Hegemonic Strategy places the client states and their Auxiliary Forces out front, with our Core Forces closer to the Center, giving us deployable and disposable Force.

    So again as an Economy of Force measure we need to find our Anatolia [Core geography] and have our forces Naval and otherwise there stationed. Our clients deal with local low and intermediate threats, we sortie as necessary.

  • thibaud

    @10 – “Your reach far exceeds your grasp. Withdraw”

    Who is “You”?

    It sounds very much as if you’re addressing Congress/POTUS/DoD.

    Again, is there a _non-sarcastic_, credible “Jacksonian” strategy for serious engagement with the three major theaters in the world today?

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