What Does Washington's 'Pivot to Asia' Policy Mean?

      April 27, 2012 13:23

      Han Sung-joo

      In his farewell address to Americans in 1796, the first U.S. president George Washington warned his fellow citizens against forging "permanent alliances" with foreign countries and getting pulled into European disputes. Over the next 100 years, the U.S. maintained a hands-off approach in Europe and kept its strategic focus on the American continent. Situated in the middle of two great oceans, the U.S. was shielded from European disputes by the Atlantic, while the Pacific provided a bridge to Asia.

      But in the 20th century, the U.S. was involved in two great wars in Europe and fought against Japan in Asia. In the latter half of the 20th century, the U.S. led a multilateral alliance in Europe, fought a protracted war in Vietnam and established alliances in Asia with Australia, Japan and Korea.

      U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century was focused primarily on Europe. The U.S. sought to unite Europe against the Soviet Union through the Marshall Plan, the large-scale economic aid program for postwar Europe, and protected the allies through NATO. In the 21st century, it needed the support of European countries in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The glue that held this alliance together were common ethnic and cultural roots, the shared values of democracy and free-market capitalism and a sense of camaraderie forged through the years between the U.S. and Europe.

      But the Obama administration announced in the latter half of 2011 that it would shift its foreign policy focus under the slogan "Pivot to Asia." Washington dispatched 200 Marines to Darwin, Australia early this month and is expected to send another 2,000 troops as well as fighter jets there. The reasons are the rise of China as a superpower and the growing influence of Australia, India, Korea and the members of ASEAN on global economic growth.

      The Obama administration is bolstering ties with allies neighboring China, including Burma, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam. As China steps up its territorial claims in the South China Sea, opportunities for security cooperation with ASEAN have increased. U.S. policymakers stress that America's military presence in Asia will not be affected by the steep federal budget cuts. The U.S. signed an FTA with Korea and is pursuing a Trans-Pacific trade pact with Australia, Japan and New Zealand.

      Some are skeptical of the "Pivot to Asia" policy. With a population of 500 million, Europe is still the world's biggest market and the 26 member nations of NATO are Washington's greatest ally. Critics say it is unrealistic to place more importance on Asia than Europe. The war on terror, global warming and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction all require support from European allies. Criticism within the U.S. of the "Pivot to Asia" policy stems not from the shift in policy focus but from concerns over focusing on one particular part of the world.

      The "Pivot to Asia" seems mainly intended to keep China in check and has already triggered opposition and concern from Beijing. China, the country with the longest border in the world, shares it with 14 countries and is extremely wary of Washington's "encirclement" strategy. China has responded by boosting military spending to produce its own missiles, aircraft carriers, submarines and stealth fighter jets, while bolstering ties among the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization founded in 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and the Boao Forum. Beijing is also seeking to forge FTAs with Japan and Korea.

      This will inevitably affect Washington's strategy. But the U.S. congressional and presidential elections in November will also sway it. There is a strong chance that the administration will not shift the entire focus of foreign affairs to Asia, but lead to an extension of the focus from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. It is a positive development for Washington to pay greater strategic attention on Asia. But it must be careful to prevent the policy change from agitating China, while maintaining a balance in policies toward Europe and other regions.

      By former foreign minister Han Sung-joo

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