An Asian Pivot? Perhaps

By Richard Weitz

This year’s U. S. Army War College Strategy Conference, which met from April 10-12, focused on  “The Future of U.S. Grand Strategy in an Age of Austerity: Challenges and Opportunities.”

The Hon. Richard Armitage, a career diplomat and the former Deputy Secretary of State for the George W. Bush Administration as well as current president of Armitage International, opened the conference with a keynote address that surveyed U.S. challenges and opportunities in the world.

Everyone knows the U.S. rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region was about China. Credit Image: Bigstock

His presentation began and focused on developments in Asia, reflecting the Asian-orientation of the current Pentagon leadership.

Armitage stressed that, despite the widely used term “Asian Pivot” and Secretary Hilary Clinton’s statement that “we are back in Asia,” the United States never left Asia, which is why he favored using the term “rebalancing.”

In fact, we are rebalancing from elsewhere to Asia as well as rebalancing within Asia, shifting the focus from northeast Asia to a more widely distributed focus on the entire region.

In Armitage’s view, a bipartisan consensus now exists among U.S. leaders regarding the key elements of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia.

The Obama Administration has taken pains to stress that its Asian rebalancing results from a variety of developments, especially the winding down of U.S. combat operations in the Middle East and the growing importance of Asia for the world economy and, consequently, U.S. economic wellbeing, and was not driven by the growth of China’s economic potential and military power.

Armitage dismissed such observations as polite pretense since, in his view, everyone knows the U.S. rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region was about China.

Armitage accepted that the current Administration was not seeking to contain China–which he believed would be difficult given our interdependent economies, the large numbers of Chinese students who attend U.S. universities, and the lack of international support for such a policy.

However, U.S. officials are concerned about the lack of transparency in the Chinese military developments and the implications of the growth of China’s power for the regional and overall balance of power and the effectiveness of institutions.

Armitage noted that historically it is often difficult for established powers to accommodate a rising power, but he downplayed the near-term prospects for a U.S.-China military clash of arms since both countries’ political leaders are focused on their internal problems.

In his view, China has made great progress as it was “re-rising” to its traditionally dominant position in world affairs, but it suffers from major problems.  Among those problems are:

  • above all corruption,
  • but also environmental pollution,
  • access to water,
  • internal migration of people from the countryside to the cities,
  • and transitioning its economy from an export-driven to a consumption-based economy, which once accomplished would in Armitage’s opinion benefit everyone, including the Chinese and the Americans.

The Beijing leadership is also preoccupied with frustrated minorities in the regions of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and the Xingjian. The PRC’s leaders have never had to face all these problems together, a situation of great concern to them as well as others.

The lack of Chinese political and security transparency does however complicate this global power transition by deepening uncertainties regarding China’s goals and means.

Above all, it remains unclear how committed Chinese leaders are to maintaining freedom of access to the global commons. They appear to have a 17th century view of national sovereignty in a 21st century world, where leaders accept they must sacrifice some of their national freedom of action for the greater common goods of international peace and prosperity.

Since the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, which coincided with China’s transition to a global oil importer, the Chinese government has undertaken a sustained effort to strengthen its military and develop a bluewater naval capacity. But the United States is so far ahead of the Chinese Navy that it could take the PLA Navy years to catch up.

Armitage stressed that we are masters of our own fate — we can preserve our military superiority if we allocate sufficient resources to that end, develop the Air-Sea Battle concept into a genuine operational doctrine, and, alluding to the cost overruns in the current aircraft carrier program, do not forget how to build warships efficiently.

Noting that the Asian rebalancing has required few new U.S. resources, Armitage believed that DoD could accept a reduction in its budget to the levels of a few years ago, but he believed that “sequestration” could have a devastating impact and should be avoided.

Even so, Armitage contested the common Chinese view that the United States was only an exceptional country because it had a strong military and economy. He argued that the United States had a powerful military and economy precisely because the United States was an exceptional country, especially in terms of its values. Problems arose, however, when we became so committed to one value (e.g., democracy promotion) that U.S. foreign policy became unbalanced.

Armitage approved of what he saw as the current Obama Administration’s approach toward China. In his view, during Obama’s first two years in office, he strived to avoid offending the Chinese by, for example, meeting with the Dalai Lama or selling the Taiwanese all the arms they wanted.

But “the Chinese don’t do gratitude”; they are coldly calculating realists.

They still protested U.S. policies, in some cases elevating their demands in the face of the softer U.S. policies, and confronted the United States over its naval presence in the South China Sea.

Now the Obama strategy is to do whatever is in the U.S. interest regardless of what the Chinese leaders think because the Chinese will still cooperate with the United States whenever it is in their interest.

The Obama Administration also takes care to tell the Chinese in advance what we will do. Not only does this avoid embarrassing public surprises in the relationship, but our publicly declaring our plans in advance makes it difficult for us not to proceed that way regardless of the Chinese reaction.

With respect to the new North Korean leadership, Armitage correctly anticipated that the DPRK would launch its space rocket despite all the international warnings against taking such an action.

In his reading of the Pyongyang’s calculations, the United States and other countries have rewarded North Korea’s past bad behavior so often at the negotiating table that we have “taught the puppy to pee in the middle of the road.”

Armitage warned against underestimating the skills of North Korean negotiators since they have proven their talents in selling us the same concessions time and again. They no longer fear that we will use military force against them, especially given the hundreds of thousands of American citizens in South Korea, so they can continue to develop their nuclear and other potential powers while waiting for the upcoming changes in leadership in Beijing and Moscow, that might open new opportunities for them.

In contrast, relations between the United States and South Korea have never been better than under the current national governments.

With U.S. support, the Republic of Korea under President Lee Myung-bak has made economic progress and achieved elevated international status by holding several major international conferences. But South Korea and perhaps the United States will soon have new presidents, which might result in a regression of the bilateral relationship to its traditionally troubled mean. In Armitage’s opinion, the weight of history will always complicate U.S. relations with the Koreas. For the United States that history started in the 1950s with the Korean War, whereas for Koreans it began more than a hundred years ago, in the first decade of the 20th century, when we recognized Japan’s sovereignty over the Koreas in return for Tokyo’s recognition of  U.S. sovereignty over Hawaii and the Philippines. The troubled historical record is a consistent source of mistrust between the parties.

Armitage called Japan the most important U.S. ally in the region.

These two large democratic countries have a relationship built on deep bilateral economic and security ties as well as shared democratic values. The United States benefits tremendously from its military bases in Japan. Among other benefits, they provide a foundation for the strong security cooperation between the two countries, which would not be possible without the U.S. bases .

However welcome, the new access agreements to the modest military facilities in the Philippines, Singapore, and Australia cannot compare in terms of military value with the large and permanent U.S. bases in Japan.

Unfortunately, Japan is struggling economically and divided politically, which constrain its ability to play a major global security role as an international security provider and major foreign aid donor.

According to Armitage, the ASEAN countries, with a combined population of more than half a billion people, are of increasing importance to the United States due to their growing economies and increasing desire to balance China’s rise with closer ties to the United States. Even so, ASEAN countries clearly want to avoid being in a position where they have to choose between China and United States.

In pursuing the rebalancing toward Asia, American diplomats must strive to avoid giving ASEAN countries the impression that Washington sees them only as pawns in a U.S. grand strategy designed to contain China. It is imperative for the United States to develop extensive cultural, social, political and economic ties with the ASEAN states along with closer security relations when they are comfortable with them.

Armitage acknowledged that the Bush administration, of which he was a part, left the Obama administration a bad inheritance in Afghanistan in 2009 because “we took our eye off the ball.”

In his opinion, the Afghan War is not worth another American war death.

The current U.S. counterinsurgency strategy implies that the local Karzai government must be more effective and assume a lead role in fighting the Taliban guerrillas—“and the government we support is not good enough.”

However, he says that the United States cannot just leave tomorrow because Americans will be remembered for the way in which they exit. A pullout that resulted in the massacre of pro-government civilians and the suppression of women’s rights would not be beneficial.

Armitage cautioned that the current efforts to negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban confronted the problem that the movement was internally divided and it was unclear whether any single Taliban leader could induce all its factions to cease fighting as part of a peace deal. Unfortunately, Armitage did not see how the United States could prevail in Afghanistan as long as the Afghan Taliban found sanctuary inside Pakistan.

In Armitage’s view, Pakistan is in an even more precarious situation since its very viability as a nation state remains in doubt.

One of the major reasons for this instability is the diverse ethnic and religious mixture of the population. There are really four separate nations in a single weak nation state. The poor performance of some of its earlier national leaders meant that, at the local level, people saw little benefit regardless of whether a civilian or military government was in charge. Their exploitive policies explain why even today the country has a poor stock of human capital. The country desperately needs to accelerate its rate of growth to alleviate poverty and provide jobs for the bulging youth generation.

Although we would like their military and security leaders to break with the Afghan Taliban and other extremist groups, Armitage noted that, from Islamabad’s perspective, it was somewhat rational to work with these groups since they do help counter Indian influence. In addition, Pakistanis distrust the United States because Washington has cut-off aid to Pakistan in the past and did not fully supported them on other occasions.

Armitage believed that a bipartisan approach to India had emerged, with most U.S. strategists favoring stronger security ties with India. The Indian-American lobby is very influential in Congress and has helped strengthen the bilateral U.S-Indian relations The main barrier now was on the Indian side. Indians are still struggling with their domestic problems–including economic inequality, corruption, political infighting, and the transition to a new generation of leaders–which has made it difficult for India to assume the more elevated global role sought by Americans.

With respect to developments in the Middle East, Armitage was unsure whether to call it “the Arab Spring” since it has dragged on and evolved so long. But the term “Arab Awakening” was inappropriate since the Arabs were never asleep and have had a great civilization in the past. Whatever you call it, Armitage stressed it was not about democracy—the popular protesters were demonstrating above all against corruption, but also a lack of opportunity and other socioeconomic issues, with a desire for democracy falling much further down the list.

Armitage acknowledged that some of the developments presented challenges to U.S. security.

For example, the protests in Bahrain could lead to the removal of the U.S. naval base there. But he also believed there would be opportunities for improving the U.S. global posture. For example, one of the emirates of the UAE has already offered to host the 5th Fleet if it has to leave Bahrain.

Armitage saw Turkey as filling the void created by the lack of alternative leaders.

Egypt is still preoccupied with its internal transition, the United States is focused on containing Iran, and Saudi Arabia still has limited regional leadership capabilities. The Turks benefit from  being predominantly moderate Sunni Muslims that eschew violence or other extremist views. For a while it looked like Turkey would be so sucked into the Middle East vortex that it would weaken its security ties with the West, but Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy has in Armitage’s view run into Middle East realities. Having “bloodied their noses,” the Turks have now renewed and even expanded their security partnership with Washington.

Armitage noted that Iranians also want to return to great power status on the world stage—which may explain their interest in nuclear weapons–but he considered them handicapped by their being excessively ethnocentric. Any Iranian decision on pursuing nuclear weapons would have to calculate whether having nuclear weapons would genuinely enhance Iran’s security and influence given that other neighboring countries like Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia could follow suit and develop their own nuclear arsenals, effectively surrounding Iran with even more nuclear weapons states.

In terms of military options regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Armitage considered Iran too large in size and population to be susceptible to a military campaign like Operation Iraqi Freedom (“If you like Iraq, you are going to love Iran”), though he did not exclude more limited military options by Israel, which is why he considered the prospects for war this year 50/50.

He believed Iran would rely less on direct counterforce in dealing with any attack and more on indirect asymmetric means of retaliation. For example, Iran could lay mines in the Persian Gulf, which would cause shipping insurance rates to soar. Tehran could also instruct its proxy Hezbollah—which excels at money raising, financing, and illegal activities as well as terrorist operations—to blow up an embassy somewhere.

He noted that Iranian agents were suspected of attempting recently to bomb Israeli targets in Georgia, India, and Thailand.

Armitage did not identify Russia as a major threat to U.S. security.

He acknowledged that since they have nuclear weapons we must talk to them, but in terms of genuinely usable power resources they were a “one-trick pony.” They continue to rely on these energy resources to influence Europe and other countries.  In general, Armitage considered Russia a nation in decline. It has a long and rich culture but an aging and unhealthy population that will exert a drain on social resources. In his view, Russians never recovered from their loss of the Soviet empire. Unlike the United States, they have not been able to renew their population through immigration. Vladimir Putin is trying to reconstruct the former Soviet Union, but his reelection to the presidency was more difficult to orchestrate than expected, so he will likely be distracted by internal problems.

Armitage dismissed the notion that Russia would be our chief enemy, unless we unwisely chose to make them that way. He noted that we can cooperate with them on some issues, citing the management of North Korea as an area where the Russians have genuinely sought to be helpful. Instead, we would likely have a mixed relationship with them for the foreseeable future: “We can’t call them totally bankrupt and a lost case but they are not someone we want to be seen with all the time.”

He also downplayed the idea of a Russia-China alignment against the United States, believing that xenophobia in both countries would invariably constrain their relationship. Putin and other Russians invariably worry about the demographic imbalance between the two countries, which makes the Russian Far East, resource rich but population poor, strategically vulnerable. Even the Russia-China arms sales relationship was under stress due to the improving quality of China’s indigenous defense industry. The Chinese can now manufacture almost all the defense equipment that they used to import from Russia only a few years ago except for advanced jet engines.

In his discussion of Latin America, Armitage asserted that the Obama Administration had toned down the democracy rhetoric of the preceding Bush Administration. Armitage noted the problems that arise when democratic elections bring populist leaders to power. He cited the example of Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez has adopted a populist stance. In his opinion, the presence of supporting institutions like a free press, a strong political party, and the rule of law is essential for a democracy to function efficiently. In their absence, an elected populist finds it easier to rule as an autocratic, as Armitage believes has happened in Venezuela and Bolivia.

Referring to the declinist literature about the United States, Armitage acknowledged that the political stalemate in Congress might give one that impression, since the Congress was unable to reduce the budget or reign in spending, and opinion polls rate American political figures so low.

But he argued that the American political system was self-correcting—eventually the people elect reformers who clean up the mess. And he noted that Americans still win the most Nobel Prizes and its businesses often develop great products.

And the European countries suffer from more serious economic problems due to the failure of their monetary union.

So, while the United States might be declining somewhat relative to some other countries, Armitage believed the United States would remain the indispensable nation for years to come.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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