BY: M. STEVEN OSBORNE
The “pivot to Asia” has become a key maxim in the American foreign policy lexicon. Initially, the Obama Administration took up the pivot to Asia as a centerpiece of its foreign policy. The goal was to shift the focus of American foreign policy from the Middle East and North Africa to East Asia. Events ultimately thwarted this planned shift and the Obama Administration was forced to focus on the very region from which it sought to shift focus. The United States went on to become embroiled in the Arab Spring, encouraging regime change in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Since the beginning of the Trump Administration, there has been a renewed focus on East Asia; however, this has not been the result of a deliberate “pivot” but a reaction to the growing capacity of North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal. While the deliberate American pivot to Asia did not materialize, Asia’s pivot to the rest of the world has been profound and a defining moment of the early 21st century.
Though never consciously implemented, the pivot to Asia operated on some flawed assumptions. It was imprisoned in Cold War thinking. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the United States and the Soviet Union were viewed as primary actors, with other nations playing the role of secondary bloc nations: communist, free market, or third world. The pivot to Asia operated from the assumption that the United States is the lone remaining primary actor. The temptation is to simply replace China for the Soviet Union as the primary foil for the United States; however, the reality is more complicated, and Asia’s pivot to the rest of the world validates a more nuanced view.
In centuries past, while European nations were colonizing continents, East Asian nations had a reputation for being reclusive. Until the nineteenth century, the major issue in Euro-Asian relations was whether Asian markets would open to international trade, and if so whether it would be willingly or unwillingly. Now, East Asian nations are increasingly active all over the world. These nations are among the world’s largest economies and increasingly powerful and influential. Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group coined the term “G-Zero” to describe a “world order in which no single country or durable alliance of countries can meet the challenges of global leadership.” Bremmer’s theory is that the world is in a G-Zero state. The vacuum created is being filled in new and interesting ways. Within this G-Zero milieu, East Asian nations increasingly operate on an even playing field with European and North American nations. Great power competition between the nations of Western Europe may be over, but the age of great power competition is back.
In many ways, East Asia possesses the same dynamism that Britain, France, and Spain showed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Like the European powers at the beginning of the industrial revolution, East Asian nations are rapidly developing their economies. Nations such as Vietnam and South Korea, that just decades ago struggled with war and destitution are now attracting business and investment while projecting power. China and Japan have shown particular interest in African investment. This investment is not just economic, but cultural and political. China has not only been extracting minerals from African mines or utilizing African lands for agriculture but also setting up Confucianist schools to teach Chinese language and culture to locals. Japan has also been sharing agricultural technology and investing in local development. The political motivation for this investment is to secure African support for various initiatives and use the continent as a platform for international influence and access to resources. Japan has also followed suit and demonstrated independence in securing multilateral trade. After the United States backed out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it was Japan that rallied other nations to implement the trade arrangement without the United States. This move exhibited a capacity for international leadership that Japan has been reluctant to exercise until recent years.
East Asian nations are also developing a vibrant diaspora around the world. Like seventeenth-century European powers, East Asian countries are dealing with the effects of crowded urban environments. Many young people in nations, such as South Korea, are finding it hard to find available employment and are looking for jobs and education in Europe and North America. Likewise, China has developed an extensive presence in many corners of the globe. While history may never repeat, it does rhyme, and this bears some similarity to the outward movement of European peoples who migrated to developing colonial environs looking for new opportunities.
The liberal international order, enforced by the United States, premised the Obama’s Administration’s pivot to Asia. American and Western European terms define the liberal order, often imposing on Asian and African cultural norms. Enforcing this order has been the dominant motivation of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. The American role as guarantor of the liberal international order is now called into question. Western nations are beset with conflict between various strains of globalism and nationalism. Many nations in the developing world have come to view liberalism as hostile to their cultures and value systems. East Asian nations are offering their perspectives on how governance is best administered. While there is much concern about other nations adopting China’s combined model of political authoritarianism with a controlled market, American activity in Asia should not be viewed as a contest between American liberal democracy and Chinese illiberalism. Currently, purely in terms of economic exchange, China may be more committed to international trade than the United States. The competition that has arisen between the United States and China is part of a larger reality involving the rise and reemergence of multiple powers in a manner not seen since before World War II.
In the coming years, other East Asian nations may emerge as independent competitors on the global stage. The latest American maxim to describe its vision for the region is “free and open Indo-Pacific.” This goal may prove to be a true turning point towards an Asia-focused foreign policy. A true American pivot to Asia whereby the United States treats partners as fellow primary actors is most likely to find success.
M. Steven Osborne is an attorney practicing in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He holds a Juris Doctorate and a Bachelor’s Degree in Politics and Policy from Liberty University.
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