The U.S. Pivot to Nowhere

by Patrick Truffer. He graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs and completes a Master of Arts program in International Relations at the Freie Universität Berlin.

In an address to the Australian parliament in November 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that, with the “Pivot to East Asia“, the importance of the Southeast Asian region would receive more attention. This was interpreted as a shift in military focus from a peaceful, consolidated Europe to an emerging Asia increasingly under China’s influence.

Now, five years later, as Obama nears the end of his term, has this strategic realignment been a success? During this period, was there actually a shift in military focus from Europe to the Asian region? What consequences has this had on the power politics in the region? Could the United States do a better job of keeping China under check and help resolve regional conflicts?

US President Barack Obama addresses the Australian Parliament Parliament House in Canberra on November 17, 2011. President Obama is in Australia to mark the 60th anniversary of their security alliance and to bolster Washington's presence in the strategically important region (Photo: Rick Rycroft / AFP).

US President Barack Obama addresses the Australian Parliament Parliament House in Canberra on November 17, 2011. President Obama is in Australia to mark the 60th anniversary of their security alliance and to bolster Washington’s presence in the strategically important region (Photo: Rick Rycroft / AFP).

Even when U.S. President Barack Obama announced the “Pivot to East Asia” with a bang in November 2011 in Canberra, the American commitment in Asia was not new: The United States had long been both an Atlantic and Pacific nation. The U.S. had been intensifying its military and diplomatic engagement in the Asian region since 2004, under then-President George W. Bush. Corresponding developments in military technology could ensure the long-term supremacy of the United States in the Asian region even with China’s increasing military competitiveness. The Pentagon, for example, had noticed that China’s development and acquisition of precision weapons had made U.S. aircraft carriers increasingly more vulnerable (Nina Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot: U.S. Strategy to Preserve the Power Balance in Asia“, International Security 40, No. 4, 10.05.2016, p. 53f).

Additionally, the means of the U.S. Air Force and the U.S.Navy were augmented in Guam, Hawaii and Alaska as well as a loose network of partner states in the region established in the long-term. Improving diplomatic relations with China became a stated goal. Since Russia was no longer considered a military threat, there were plans from the beginning to shift military expenditures from Europe to Asia. However, to avoid upsetting its European partners or provoking China, the Bush administration has never shouted it from the rooftops (Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot”).

PLA "sinks" US carrier in DF-21D missile test in Gobi.

PLA “sinks” US carrier in DF-21D missile test in Gobi (see here).

With the bold announcement of the “Pivot to East Asia”, Obama did no service at all regarding the relations to the European partners or to China, and already 2012, the term “pivot” was replaced by “rebalance” (Lanxin Xiang, “China and the ‘Pivot’” Survival 54, No. 5, October 2012, p. 113).

The Obama administration further reinforced the military and diplomatic measures already initiated by the Bush administration. Also, the expansion of the network of partner states was intensified with the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a comprehensive free trade agreement signed in February 2016 by 12 states. If ratified, it could take effect in about two years’ time. With the enforcement of international law the U.S. will ensure long-term economic and maritime freedom in the Asian region.

With the “Pivot to East Asia”, Obama primarily wanted to seize the opportunity to boost the U.S. economy in the long term and create jobs, but other factors have also played an important role (Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century“, Foreign Policy, 11.10.2011). As far as Obama was concerned, U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was coming to an end after ten years in Afghanistan and seven years of a highly unpopular war in Iraq. He insisted that the responsibility for these two nations’ security would be transferred back to the respective national armed forces as soon as possible. Military resources would now be freed up and could be allocated elsewhere. At the same time, as part of overall budget cuts, Obama sought a significant reduction in the defence spending which had reached a record $750 billion in 2010 (Diem Nguyen Salmon, “A Proposal for the FY 2016 Defense Budget“, The Heritage Foundation, 30.01.2015). Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, U.S. criticism of its European NATO partners had become increasingly spiteful as the latter had repeatedly slashed their military spending in the aftermath of the 2007 global economic crisis, making the US even more responsible for the bulk of NATO’s budget. Even before Obama’s speech in Canberra, it was obvious that Europe, which had remained relatively economically prosperous, secure, and politically stable despite the global economic crisis, was not willing to assume responsibility for its strategic environment. For instance, in June 2011, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates was highly critical that the European states involved in the international military intervention in Libya had already exhausted their entire inventory of bombs in just eleven weeks. The entire mission would have been doomed, Gates argued, if the U.S. had not provided support to its European partners (Thom Shanker, “Defense Secretary Warns NATO of ‘Dim’ Future“, The New York Times, 10.06.2011).

troop_deploymentThe European partners were listening carefully, when Obama reassured the audience in Canberra that the reductions in the U.S. defence budget would not be at the expense of the Asian region and that U.S. military presence and missions in the Asian region would be the top American priority over the next decade. What this specifically meant for Europe would become apparent in 2012 when the V Corps was disbanded and two Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) with more than 10,000 U.S. troops were withdrawn from Europe. Today, there are only some 65,000 U.S. soldiers on European territory. But the cutbacks are continuing as the Pentagon plans to close fifteen of its 34 remaining bases in Europe over the long term (Andrew Feickert, “Army Drawdown and Restructuring: Background and Issues for Congress“, Congressional Research Service, 28.02.2014).

Finally, it was the Russian annexation of Crimea in spring 2014 and the subsequent war in Eastern Ukraine that eventually applied the brakes to the withdrawal of the U.S. presence from Europe. In its immediate aftermath, Obama announced his $1 billion “European Reassurance Initiative” in 2015 which would increase the number of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe with the rotation of an ABCT. This initiative received another $789 million in funding for 2016 and will enjoy an expanded budget of $3.4 billion in 2017. Almost 2/3 of this budget flows into the maintenance and expansion of equipment being held on the ready (tanks, artillery, ammunition, etc.) in Western Europe. This is apparently meant to be a long-term commitment of the U.S. in Europe. Despite the efforts to cut costs, a strategic realignment in Europe is therefore only taking place on a limited basis.

Under Obama, the economic and military measures regarding the Asian region are evident. The network of partner states has especially been strengthened. At the same time, the deployment of troops respectively their very specific reduction aimed not only to expand military cooperation with the U.S., but also to build partnerships between Asian countries. For example, troops have been reduced in South Korea and Japan to motivate these countries to play a more active role — certain parallels to European NATO member states are evident. Currently, initial results are being seen in Japan, where the new “Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation” were signed in 2015. In addition to the deployment of an X-band radar at Shariki in 2006, another such radar was stationed in Kyogamisaki in 2014. In the case of South Korea, the measures so far have shown to be less successful.

An aerial view from above U.S. Naval Base Guam (NBG) shows Apra Harbor with several navy vessels in port. As many as 22 total ships at one given time, marking the largest in-port presence at NBG in 30 years. The new ships in port, mostly destroyers from Destroyer Squadron-15 based out of Japan and three destroyers and a destroyer command ship from the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, will participate in Multi-Sail 2016, a five-day at-sea bilateral exercise off the Guam’s coast before returning back into Apra Harbor for liberty in Guam (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Ellis).

An aerial view from above U.S. Naval Base Guam (NBG) shows Apra Harbor with several navy vessels in port. As many as 22 total ships at one given time, marking the largest in-port presence at NBG in 30 years. The new ships in port, mostly destroyers from Destroyer Squadron 15 based out of Japan and three destroyers and a destroyer command ship from the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, will participate in “Multi-Sail 2016”, a five-day at-sea bilateral exercise off the Guam’s coast before returning back into Apra Harbor for liberty in Guam (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Ellis).

The military base in Guam has been further expanded. Since 2014, a fourth nuclear-powered attack submarine is based in Guam and the nuclear-powered strategic submarines U.S.S Ohio and U.S.S Michigan are often in Guam. In 2020, the III Marine Expeditionary Force will also be stationed permanently in Guam (Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot”, p. 68). In June 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced at the Shangri-La Dialogue, that, by 2020, 60% of the U.S. Navy fleet would be stationed in the Pacific region, i.e. at least six aircraft carriers would be assigned to the Pacific at any time.

In order to expand military training with its Pacific partner countries, a Marine air-ground task force has been stationed in Australia starting in 2012 and up to four new littoral combat ships have been sent to Singapore. After the Vietnam War, the U.S. armed forces had reduced their numbers in Asia from around 451,000 to an average of 69,000 between 2002 and 2014. This number has since climbed up to 77,000 troops in 2015 (Tim Kane, “The Decline of American Engagement: Patterns in US Troop Deployments“, Economics Working Paper, Hoover Institution, 11.01.2016, p. 5). Nevertheless, despite Obama’s assertions to the contrary, the cost-cutting has not abated in the Asian region. For example, the number of ships and aircraft required for a military operation remains inadequate and will remain so for budgetary reasons until after 2020 (Dakota L. Wood, 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength, The Heritage Foundation, 2016, 86).

From China’s perspective, these measures are being interpreted as an aggressive strategy with the aim of curbing China’s legitimate claim to regional power. China especially takes a negative view of the TPP, since they were not included in it. It also does not help that the U.S. itself does not recognize this as a containment strategy (Xiang, “China and the ‘pivot'”). China’s response to what it sees as strategic challenges in its neighbourhood is both internal (military armament) and external (forging alliances). Although Chinese defence has remained about 2% of its GDP since the early 1990s, the economic growth of the country has meant much larger budgets for its military, growing from $43.23 billion in 2000 to $214.5 billion in 2015 (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database“, 2015). This is hardly surprising and confirms the American assessment of the emergence of an increasingly competitive China.


However, the United States has underestimated the possibility of an external balance in power. The last few years have shown that China’s power can not been constrained and that its international influence is increasing. This includes, for instance, the initiative to build a “modern Silk Road” as announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 which would expand China’s foreign trade infrastructure and secure its gateway to Africa and Europe. China’s future military ambitions could also be fulfilled, for example with its plans to build a logistical support point for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in Djibouti. The justification for the construction of this base is PLAN’s involvement in the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. China also participated in a UN peacekeeping mission for the first time in 2013 (in Mali). Today China is involved in 10 UN peacekeeping missions with around 2,500 soldiers, the largest contingent being just over 1,000 soldiers in South Sudan, where China is also pursuing its economic interests in protecting oil production. In the Central Asian region and also internationally, China has found a partner with which it has much common and with which it shares some geopolitical and international interests: Russia. Already, both major powers are increasingly influential in Central Asia due to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot”, p. 85).

The territorial conflict in the South China Sea is another example that shows how China is no longer cowering in fear before U.S. displays of power and is consistently asserting its interests against Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines, all countries with a positive relationship with the U.S. and all signatories of the TPP. This has resulted in active U.S. involvement in this conflict with so-called “Freedom of Navigation” operations where U.S. warships demonstratively sail through international waters territory claimed by China, and U.S. reconnaissance aircraft fly over disputed islands (Joseph Bosco, “After the South China Sea Ruling, Time for More FONOPs“, The Diplomat, 29.07.2016).

Satellite images show where local officials say China is building its first overseas military outpost and a commercial port in Djibouti. Left: November 23, 2015 / Right: August 07, 2016

After the Philippines lodged a complaint in the Permanent Court of Arbitation (PCA) against China’s claims to the Spratly Islands in 2013, China began to fortify the reefs, adding land mass, and building up infrastructure for military use. If China continues to significantly expand its military presence in the Spratly Islands, the likelihood of a potentially unintentional armed incident with the United States would increase. A military escalation in the tensions between the U.S. and China would be ruinous not only for both countries, but for the entire Asian region and the world, according to a study by the Rand Corporation. On 12 July 2016, the PCA ruled in favour of the Philippines, deciding that China does not have exclusive rights over the South China Sea. China has made it known that it does not accept the court’s jurisdiction on the matter and has called the whole process a charade fabricated by the U.S. (Jane Perlez, “Tribunal Rejects Beijing’s Claims in South China Sea“, The New York Times, 12.07.2016).

Neither the Philippines nor the United States can enforce the decision of the PCA against the will of China and the “Freedom of Navigation” operations are not impressing anyone, least of all the U.S. partner states. The weakness of this network has been reflected in the change of government in the Philippines, an important U.S. partner. The president elected in June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, wants stronger relations with China and is distancing himself from the U.S.-friendly path of his predecessor. Since taking office, he has vehemently pursued drug dealers and addicts, which has resulted in the arrest of 18,000 drug addicts and a dramatic increase of fatalities during police operations. The U.S. criticism of the situation and the accusations of human rights violations have estranged Duterte from Obama. In late September, Duterte announced that the Philippines would be ceasing its maritime cooperation with the United States. In early October he even threatened to expel the U.S. Troops in the Philippines (Kevin Lui, “Philippines: Duterte Threatens to End Defense Pact with U.S.“, Time, 03.10.2016). Other U.S. partners in the region, for instance Vietnam, are also only partially reliable (Simon Tisdall, “Obama’s failed ‘Asian pivot’ leaves China ascendant“, The Guardian, 25.09.2016). This is the result of the Obama administration’s failure to achieve any progress with major regional conflicts such as the South China Sea or the nuclear threat from North Korea. In the light of an increasingly militarily and economically growing China, some countries in the region seem to have resigned themselves to having to deal with China in the long term.

Construction on Johnson South Reef. In regard to the territorial conflict in the South China Sea, there was a bloody skirmish between China and Vietnam about that reef in 1988 during which 64 Vietnamese sailors were being killed. Left: January 2014 / Right February 2016.

Construction on Johnson South Reef. In regard to the territorial conflict in the South China Sea, there was a bloody skirmish between China and Vietnam about that reef in 1988 during which 64 Vietnamese sailors were being killed. Left: January 2014 / Right February 2016.

The U.S. has always been an Atlantic and Pacific nation. Already President George W. Bush intensified its military and diplomatic engagement in the Asian region, but he never shouted it from the rooftops. President Obama has pushed these efforts further, but the “Pivot to East Asia” announced in November 2011 in Canberra has actually been a disservice to these efforts. The European NATO member states, which had already been heavily criticized for their reductions in their military spending, feared a substantial shift of U.S. forces from Europe to the Asian region, as signalled by the withdrawal of two ABCT. The fact that this reduction in troops was due more to cuts in U.S. defence spending than to a strategic realignment has largely been ignored. Since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, the European region has once again become a point of interest for the U.S., as indicated by the European Reassurance Initiative, which will be substantially expanded next year. Although budget cuts will continue to be noticeable with the closure and concentration of bases, the “Pivot to East Asia” itdelf is only having a limited effect on the U.S. position in Europe.

Unlike Europe, the number of troops in the Asian region has increased by almost 10%, and the military base in Guam has especially expanded with more military equipment being moved to the region. But here too the spending cuts by the U.S. Armed Forces are noticeable. The military equipment and the number of vessels and aircraft necessary for a military operation remain inadequate. With military cooperation, military training and joint exercises, the U.S. is trying to establish a network of partner countries in the region. The mid-term success seems rather ambivalent. Depending on domestic and regional political interests, certain states seem ready to change sides or align with both sides at a whim. Additionally, the TPP, which was intended to forge economic ties among the partner states, has yet to be ratified. Faced with the unrestrained economic and military growth of China and the U.S. impotence in resolving regional conflicts, some countries will have to accept China’s long-term role as the dominant regional power.

Despite the “Pivot to East Asia”, it is obvious that China will not kowtow to the U.S. On the contrary, the Obama administration’s efforts have led to a hardening of attitudes, because the entire strategy appears to China as an aggressive attempt to restrict its power. Courting potential partners in the region and creating the framework for the TPP while leaving China out has come to be seen by the Chinese negatively. There is therefore no rational reason for China to renounce its claim to power in the region, which is obvious from its point of view, as can clearly be seen in the territorial conflict in the South China Sea. On the contrary, China has steadily expanded its international activities since 2008, with its commitment to Africa, the fight against piracy, the construction of the “modern Silk Road”, global investment, participation in UN peacekeeping missions, and plans to establish a navy logistics base in Djibouti. Perhaps the U.S. would be better advised to accept the power demands of China and embrace a more diplomatically-constructive approach. A military conflict between both great powers, whether intentional or not, would be disastrous for both countries, the Asian region and the world. Moreover, a lasting serious conflict of interest with the U.S. and the similarities between China and Russia could lead to the two becoming companions in fate, which would cause further headaches in Washington.

Despite his bold announcement, Obama’s strategic reorientation has not managed to bring China under control or make any progress in important regional conflicts. At the moment, the measures taken by Obama are much more a “pivot to nowhere”.

More information

Duterte journeyed to Beijing this week to announce his “separation from the United States” in military and economic terms. “America has lost,” Duterte said. He claimed that a new alliance of the Philippines, China, and Russia would emerge — “there are three of us against the world.” His trade secretary said the Philippines and China were inking $13 billion in trade deals; that’s a pretty hefty signing bonus for switching sides. Duterte said he will soon end military cooperation with the United States, despite the opposition of his armed forces. […] If the Philippines becomes a Chinese satrapy, by contrast, Washington will find itself hard-pressed to hold the “first island chain” in the Western Pacific that encompasses “the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, and the Philippine archipelago.” Defending that line of island barriers has been a linchpin of U.S. strategy since the Cold War. It now could be undone because of the whims of one unhinged leader. — Max Boot, “Duterte’s Flip-Flop Into Bed With China Is a Disaster for the United States“, Foreign Policy, 20.10.2016.

This entry was posted in China, Djibouti, English, International, International law, Patrick Truffer, Peacekeeping, Piracy, Sea Powers, Security Policy.

1 Response to The U.S. Pivot to Nowhere

  1. US President-elect Donald Trump has announced he plans to quit the TPP on his first day in the White House. –> “Trump to dump TPP trade deal: World leaders react“, BBC News, 22.11.2016.

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