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POLITICS: PennAve

Lawmakers rethink Asia pivot

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Politics,White House,Congress,Barack Obama,National Security,China,PennAve,Tim Mak,Japan,Asia,Foreign Policy,Magazine

Lawmakers are assessing whether President Obama's "pivot" to Asia needs to be replaced with a strategy that is more effective, more aggressively reassures American allies and more clearly projects American military power.

A major theme during Obama's presidency has been the strategic shift of economic, military and diplomatic resources to the Asia-Pacific region. But Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., co-chairman of the Senate U.S.-China Working Group, said the strategy has been more about style than substance and that the United States has not properly demonstrated its commitment to regional allies.

While he considered a pivot “well-grounded in the economic interests of the United States,” Kirk quipped at a conference examining the U.S. relationship with Asia that the White House’s "press release per soldier ratio was quite high” when it came to actually increasing military force in the Asia-Pacific.

Further, the senator criticized the White House for deciding that “alliances are, eh, not that important, as you can see with the dialogue between the United States and Israel.”

Strategies being examined include counterbalancing rising Chinese power with a series of encircling regional alliances, allowing locals to take a larger role in regional affairs, an American withdrawal from the region or a focus only on crisis management there.

One professor at the conference suggested that removing American troops from South Korea could give the Chinese an incentive to allow the reunification of Korea and the end of the nuclear threat in the peninsula. Another academic, Shen Dingli, an international relations professor at Fudan University in Shanghai and a physicist by training, suggested cooperative technological innovation to reduce threats to its interests in the region.

“This … pivot to Asia — I don’t like that term. It suggests that we were not there, and now we’re making steps to go over there. The United States has always been involved in Asia. What we need is a coherent strategy,” Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., said. Cognizant of criticism over the term, the White House has rebranded its strategy as the Asia-Pacific "rebalance."

One major challenge to the pivot has been that world events continue to draw attention from the region. With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad still in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening NATO's influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East peace process collapsing, there has been little time to consider the rise of China and to reassure regional allies.

Administration officials have waved off the suggestion that world events would hinder America’s strategic moves.

“There is no reason why we cannot bring greater focus to the Asia-Pacific and keep our eye on the ball in the Middle East,” Vice President Joe Biden said in an Asia-Pacific policy speech last year. “Folks, that's what big powers do. To use the vernacular, we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

According to a new World Bank report, China is expected to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy this year, well ahead of the predicted 2019.

The Asia-Pacific is, ostensibly, about more than China. But every significant move the Obama administration makes has been related to the rising world power. When the U.S. reassures allies like South Korea and Japan, it is pressed to do so by fears that China will soon dominate the region. When it negotiates trade pacts, it is at least partly in the hopes of countering Chinese economic hegemony in the region.

"The Beijing-Washington relationship is the most important relationship for the United States. … The Chinese economy is so huge that it reaches into every congressional district," Kirk said.

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