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Daniel Twining: Asia's pivot to America

When U.S. President Barack Obama launches his four-country Asian trip in Japan on April 23, his main priority will be to reassure anxious allies that there will be no Asian Crimea. Just as no European nation wants to be part of a new Russian Empire, no Asian nation wants to forfeit its independence to a new Middle Kingdom.

     Russia's recent military intervention in Ukraine is a wake-up call. We live in a dangerous world of revanchism and territorial conflict -- trends that are more acute in Asia than in many other parts of the world. Rather than "pivot" to any region, Obama must drive home the message that America will not make strategic choices which leave its allies at the mercy of regional predators.

     Asians are not the only ones worrying over the extent of Washington's determination to deter great-power adventurism. In the Middle East, U.S. allies are pursuing independent strategies to guard against Iranian hegemony and Islamic extremism following a perceived U.S. retreat from the region. Russia's military occupation of Ukrainian territory challenges the American commitment to a Europe whole and free. Meanwhile, in Asia -- where there is no overarching alliance such as NATO to restrain revisionist powers -- anxious allies wonder how far U.S. security guarantees will stretch before they break.

Pursuing deals

Where America's friends fear a power vacuum, competitors see room to "push out." China is aggressively modernizing the world's largest military and deploying weapons expressly designed to strike U.S. forces. It is using gunboat diplomacy to carve out a sphere of influence over Japanese islands in the East China Sea as well as some of the world's most strategic waterways in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, just as a quarter century of great-power peace is eroding, the U.S. defense budget faces painful cuts amounting to a cool $1 trillion.

     Obama and others in his administration have given some fine speeches on the U.S.'s Asia strategy since announcing a strategic "pivot" to the region in 2011. But as Yukio Okamoto, a prominent Japanese commentator and former diplomat, remarked recently: "We do not see any actual sign" of the policy's implementation. A new report by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the much vaunted strategic rebalance makes the point: "Sweeping speeches and policy pronouncements unsupported by hard deliverables create a large gap between expectations and reality."

     There will be some good news for Obama in Asia. Leading regional economies clearly want the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will catalyze American trade and investment. Japan wants to play a greater role upholding international peace and security, and is finally developing the strategy and resources to do so. Indians are electing a new government whose overwhelming mandate will be to restore economic growth to Chinese levels, strengthening the southern anchor of the Asian balance of power. Southeast Asian nations, including unlikely Vietnam and Myanmar, are edging closer to America.

     Europe, which now understands that simply selling things to China is not a regional strategy, is also pursuing trade agreements with Asian democracies as well as engaging with Asian institutions.

Lean in

Beyond these promising developments lies the resurgence of American power in various forms. The energy revolution is transforming the strategic global map as leading economies line up to contract for U.S. oil and gas. The emergence of an American energy superpower means a big boost for the country's competitiveness. Nations like China, the world's biggest energy consumer and oil importer, look on with envy. Russian leader Vladimir Putin calls China and Russia "natural allies," united in their authoritarian politics and resentment of U.S. leadership. But Russian absolutism may not survive a world of falling energy prices, which could hollow out a government budget dependent on high power costs.

     For all the talk of the rise of other powers, the U.S. lead in advanced technologies, from robotics to 3-D printing, has actually grown over the past decade. America's demographic drivers will propel economic growth as societies in China, Russia and elsewhere age dramatically and rapidly. The U.S. economy remains the prime mover of global markets and will continue as such even if surpassed in size (though not sophistication) by China. The dollar's status as the world's reserve currency has been reinforced, not undermined, by global financial turmoil. And the U.S. lead in advanced military capabilities -- including drone warfare and offensive cyberoperations -- will surprise American adversaries in any conflict.

   Perhaps the truest test of power is whether it is welcomed or feared by others. In Asia, as in Europe, many countries welcome the forward projection of American forces. How many feel the same about Chinese or Russian military might? Consent for U.S. leadership remains the secret sauce of American primacy across the Atlantic and Pacific -- regions that together produce some 80% of the globe's gross domestic product.

     America may not always be loved. But most Asians, like most Europeans, would agree that a future order led by some other nation -- or a future disorder led by no nation -- would be worse.

     On his trip through China's neighborhood, Obama has no need to kowtow to any other power. In Asia, as in Europe, the president must instead "lean in" while Russian and Chinese efforts to forcefully revise land and sea borders are reminding countries that a distant, democratic superpower is a useful friend. 

Daniel Twining is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He previously served on the U.S. secretary of state's policy planning staff and as foreign policy adviser to U.S. Sen. John McCain.

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