US Primacy in World Politics and the Strategic ‘Pivot’ to Asia

This is the second in a series of posts from a recent research symposium organised by Dr Ellen Hallams on ‘The Reconfiguration of American Primacy in World Politics: Domestic and International Challenges.’ In this piece, Dr Hugo Meijer explores the US ‘pivot’ to Asia.


The Obama administration has launched a series of diplomatic, military, and economic initiatives as well as issued a number of public pronouncements that over time have come to shape and define the so-called US “pivot” (or “rebalance”) toward the Asia Pacific. After a decade of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, this policy shift signaled a new direction for US foreign policy in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, existing public debates and analyses have so far tended to oversimplify key aspects of the policy. First, they have focused almost exclusively on the military dimension of the rebalance. Second, the US rebalance toward Asia has often been depicted, in a rather reductive manner, as a US “grand strategy” of military containment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Washington, it is argued, is tightening its alliances and enhancing its military capabilities across the Asia Pacific in order to contain the rise of China, its most likely future military near peer competitor. This post, based upon the research for a collection I recently edited on the topic, aims to counter these misconceptions by bringing to light the breadth and complexity of what is a diplomatic, military, and economic repositioning of the United States toward (and within) the Asia Pacific.

At the diplomatic level, the region has received a remarkably high level of attention with a host of presidential and cabinet-level visits. During the first term of the Obama administration, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made far more visits to East Asian countries than each of her three predecessors did. The administration complemented these bilateral visits with a renewed emphasis on American multilateral engagement in the region, especially with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

In the military realm, the Department of Defense released, in January 2012, its new Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, intended to reshape the Pentagon’s priorities and capabilities in an era of budgetary constraints and after a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It unambiguously stated that “while the US military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia Pacific region” (emphasis in the original). That same month, the Pentagon also released the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) that establishes the guiding precepts and capabilities necessary to overcome anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) threats. The administration has also sought to strengthen and update existing formal military alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand, while diversifying and deepening its diplomatic and security cooperation with partners such as Indonesia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam. Washington announced, among other initiatives, the reposturing of the US Navy from the existing 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to a 60/40 split between those two oceans by 2020, the transfer of several elements of US forces based in Okinawa to Guam, the upgrading of its missile defense posture, the deployment of marines to Darwin in Australia (as part of what is meant to become a 2,500-strong rotational force), the deployment of littoral combat ships to Singapore, and signed an enhanced defense cooperation agreement with the Philippines. These steps aim to redistribute and disperse American forces across the Asia Pacific, making US defense posture in the region more agile, flexible, and financially sustainable.

On the economic front of the rebalance, the Obama administration has taken a variety of steps aimed at tapping into the economic dynamism of the East Asia Pacific, which Washington considers as vitally important for US interests. The national, bilateral, and multilateral economic initiatives taken by the US government include the expansion of American exports to the region under the National Export Strategy; launching a process by which US foreign aid to East Asian countries would be increased by 7 percent; the conclusion of the second largest existing US free trade agreement—after the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—with the Republic of Korea, the seventh-largest US trading partner; and the continued negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. The TPP includes the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam (but not China) and could potentially lead to a regional free trade area across the Asia Pacific. It seeks to create a comprehensive and high standards free trade agreement that would liberalize international trade across the Pacific. In particular, Washington’s major economic interests in the TPP—which might become the largest US free trade agreement to date—stem from the fact that the region hosts 40 percent of the world’s population, produces close to 60 percent of global GDP, includes many of the world’s fastest growing economies, and has become a critical part of global supply chains.

Finally, the linkages between this deeper US economic engagement in the Asia Pacific and its security implications should be emphasized. First, growing trade flows pass through potential flashpoints such as the Strait of Malacca and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Second, besides unresolved territorial disputes, multiple security challenges continue to be potential sources of instability in the Asia Pacific, such as interstate military competition, growing rivalry over energy and natural resources, nuclear proliferation and piracy—among others. From Washington’s standpoint, these concerns require the maintenance of American military preeminence in order to guarantee regional stability and sustained, open access to Asia’s sea-lanes of communications and to the global commons. As the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) puts it, “Our economic strength is closely tied to a stable international order, underwritten by the US military’s role and that of our allies and partners in ensuring freedom of access and the free flow of commerce globally.”

As previously mentioned, most of the public debates on the rebalance have overemphasized, when not focused exclusively on, its military component and have tended to describe it as an American grand strategy of military containment of the People’s Republic of China. This short paper stresses the twofold fallacy of these analyses. First, although the military dimension of the pivot is undoubtedly important, it is but one facet—and not necessarily the most innovative—of the US rebalance, together with its diplomatic and economic components. Second, the American pivot to Asia is not an attempt by the United States to militarily contain the People’s Republic of China in the same way it did with the USSR during the Cold War. In a globalized economy where potential rivals are also economically interdependent and in which political ideologies do not crystallize into competing blocs, even if Washington wanted to contain China it would not be able to do so. As Jeffrey Bader, former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, succinctly puts it:

Washington [does] not seek the containment of China, as was the case with the Soviet Union [. . .] because of the hopelessness of pursuing such a policy toward a country that [is] much more profoundly integrated into the global system. [. . .] Containment in the style of US policy toward the Soviet Union after World War II [is] not a plausible option.

Instead, the United States is redirecting its foreign policy attention, priorities, and resources—in the post–Iraq/Afghanistan wars period—toward the world’s most strategically sensitive and economically dynamic region. In the words of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.” China’s strategic and economic clout certainly is a central concern for US policymakers, the American pivot to the Asia Pacific is driven by a much broader and complex set of political, strategic, and economic objectives.

The overarching ambition of the US rebalance is to preserve American primacy in world politics while avoiding a major power war with the PRC. In order to do so, Washington does not seek to contain China – as this strategy is deemed to be hopeless and ineffective. The rebalance seeks to sustain US pre-eminence by re-adjustment in the complex “web of linkages” between the diplomatic, military and economic components of American presence in the Asia Pacific since the end of WWII.

Image: American President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao participate in an official arrival ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Nov. 17, 2009, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

3 thoughts on “US Primacy in World Politics and the Strategic ‘Pivot’ to Asia

  1. Outstanding article which gives a very accurate explaination of what is the “pivot to Asia”. But to be able to maintain that tendency during the coming decades, US will need to rely on Europe to cope with terrorism in the Middle East and with Russia in Eastern Europe: 2 clear and present dangers. The problem is that no country in Europe is able to deal with those issues so far, furthermore no European policy is about to pop up concerning those problems…
    Thus, even if I understand the need fo the US to pivot to Asia, I personally think that they cannot afford it until Europe will be able to deal with its strategical issues…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They may not be able to afford it but they must do it. The US cannot pick and choose between Asia, Europe and the Middle East – they must be able to do all three. The alternative is to adopt a less interventionist posture and let other states shape the international system as the US enters a period of strategic retrenchment. Those states who do shape the international system will not be the EU states (they are completely clueless on dealing with mass migration across their borders – how could they possibly adopt a leadership role in the international system?). It will be China and Russia, and what international system emerges will be very different from what exists today.

      The US simply has no choice – it has to step up to the plate. That means it has to lead not from behind but from up front, and maybe it has to be willing once again to ‘pay any price and bear any burden.’

      I remember how the world changed in the 1980s from Cold War to Post Cold War era, and with the peaceful end of the Cold War, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and felt maybe better times were ahead. Those better times within a short post-Cold War interregnum did not last. We are now back to a traditional multipolar world that is increasingly competitive, and it will get worse. Both Russia and China are making moves that are a clear challenge to US global leadership and to western security interests in general. Its not a new Cold War – its something different. We are in uncharted territory.

      That means the US needs to get serious about leading and I don’t think it has been since 2008. It also means that the US political leadership needs to do better to push Europe to take its own security more seriously. Talk of a 2% GDP target on defense spending for Europe misses the mark – I think it will need to be considerably more than that. If Europe doesn’t pull its own weight, and expects the US to do it all, then the mess that is now apparent in Europe will get much, much worse. I think Ukraine is unresolved, and Russian moves against the Baltics are yet to come. How does Europe handle an aggressive Russia willing to rattle nuclear sabres on its eastern frontier, and at the same time an endless flood of humanity pouring up from its south? How does it deal with ISIS that will inevitably exploit those people as cover to bring more operatives into Europe? How does it deal with a Russia that, together with Iran (which will soon be awash with money and military hardware thanks to the Iran deal) are positioning themselves to dominate the Middle East? These are the questions that European and US policy makers need to be confronting – and at the same time, the US cannot fold under pressure from an assertive China in East Asia.


  2. Great article. I agree that the rebalance is not about containment of China. That particular horse has already bolted the barn (so to speak) in that China cannot be ‘contained’ in the traditional sense as was practiced against the Soviets. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is heavily integrated into the globalized international system, and unlike the Soviet Union, its economy really matters in world affairs, so it can’t be isolated. The US cannot contain China and do not seek to do so.

    What they seek to do is maintain US strategic primacy in Asia against a determined Chinese challenge. Its not just about military power – its also about political, economic and diplomatic influence. The ‘one belt and one road’ initiative and the AIIB are part of a Chinese grand strategy to realize the China Dream, and restore China to what it considers to be its rightful place as a regional or global great power – a middle kingdom. I think that the Chinese feel they cannot achieve that within the existing US-led international system and so must reshape that system to their own needs, and that demands ending US strategic primacy in Asia. The US is not about to cede power and influence to China and have responded with the Rebalance. Its not about containment, but it is about strategic competition.

    The question is, will they (the US) succeed in maintaining strategic primacy? TPP is floundering whereas AIIB is going ahead, and the US political narrative going into a 2016 election year does not generate confidence that the US will be ready to lead there. Militarily, the US is, as you say, moving ships, aircraft and people – but can they sustain that with US partisan political bickering raising the prospect of the return of Sequestration in 2016 that would then see savage cuts to US defense spending – and potentially see rebalanced forces smaller in terms of numbers than the pre-rebalanced force. Although Chinese economic growth is certainly slowing, their defense spending is not, and China looks set to surge ahead in terms of building more expansive naval and air capabilities after the 2015 White Paper. So US economic malaise, combined with partisan political paralysis are having both a detrimental effect on US ability to make the Rebalance really happen, and also generating regional uncertainty on US commitment to the Rebalance over the long term.

    Interesting question – what happens if the Rebalance loses steam as a result of US domestic pressures in the years ahead? Second question, and noted above by Jerome – how does the US ‘balance the Rebalance’ against growing security concerns elsewhere, and I think the Russian threat to Europe, and now its role in the Middle East is the most important one.


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