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Recalling the Pivot to the Pacific

SNA (Tokyo) — In the year 2011 the Obama administration rolled out a new policy called the “Pivot to the Pacific,” which was supposed to herald a shifting of the United States’ attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific, deemed to be the most important geography for the emerging 21st century. It hardly need be remarked that the central issue of concern to the US policymakers was the rise of China, with its massive population and rapidly developing economy, which presented the most plausible future challenge to American global hegemony.

The Japanese government, of course, enthusiastically welcomed the Pivot as a way to shore up the US-Japan alliance and to boost Tokyo’s own position in East Asia, which was in some ways already being eclipsed by Beijing.

But the Pivot never really got off the ground. While in 2011 it was conceivable that the US military could substantially draw down from Iraq and Afghanistan, and begin to head to a different region, the Middle East never quite relented. A series of fresh developments, with the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant being the most symbolic, captured the attentions the US policymakers once again. While China’s latent power remained more profound than anything existing in the Middle East, the daily rhythms of East Asia were not nearly as dramatic.

Last week’s visit to Japan by new US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was in part a reminder that the Obama administration hasn’t entirely forgotten the Pivot. Carter’s major statement actually came on the eve of his departure at a speech held last Monday at the McCain Institute of Arizona State University. The terminology has now changed from “pivot” to “rebalance,” but the concept remains the same. In Defense Secretary Carter’s words, “Over the next century, no region will matter more for American security and also for American prosperity.”

Carter referred to the revision of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation that are currently absorbing so much attention from Japanese military planners. He celebrated the fact that they would “allow us to take our cooperation to a whole new level and into new areas like space and cyberspace.” The keyword sprinkled into the language on both sides of the Pacific is “seamless”—that the revisions of the Guidelines will henceforth allow “seamless” cooperation between the US military and the Self-Defense Forces.

While it’s not apparent that the United States will truly extricate itself from its excessive military involvement in the Middle East anytime soon and be able to carry out the putative “rebalance,” the alternative possibility of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces becoming a more active and aggressive military organization in cooperation with the United States does seem to be growing in plausibility. At least, that’s what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Defense Ministry would like to see become the case—though the depth of popular political support they have within Japan for this vision is certainly open to question.

During his tour in Japan, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter did allude to one area in which the political stance of the United States and Japan are not entirely in alignment—the matter of the ownership of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands: “We don’t, as we frequently say, take a stand in any of those territorial disputes.” But Carter added, “We take a strong stand against the militarization of these disputes.”

In other words, the current US position on the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands is that it doesn’t say who really owns them, but if Japan’s administration of the islands is attacked with military force, this would trigger US defense responses under the terms of the alliance agreements.

The bottom line is a rather common sense point: the nations of East Asia—most of all China and Japan—would be well advised to develop their own mechanisms to ensure that military conflict doesn’t break out in the region. Whatever the United States may say about its “commitments,” the superpower will remain distracted for the foreseeable future.

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