Among journalists and pundits, there is little agreement on the status or prospects of President Obama's signature foreign policy initiative, the Asia Pacific pivot, or as it is more thoughtfully but less memorably known, the rebalance: is it dead? Is it in need of revival? Is it doing just fine, thank you? Or in a particularly Slatelike pitch, was it ever even a thing to begin with?
How to account for such different conclusions? First, most of those arguing the rebalance has fallen short are merely impatient. This is a long-term project. The rebalance is intended to guide American actions and resources over many years. Some 30 months after President Obama outlined the strategy in his address to parliament in Canberra, that project naturally remains unfinished, as the Administration continues to deliberately move the economic, military, and diplomatic pieces into place:
- Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations are tough going, but still going. The degree of difficulty is directly related to the stakes: the promise of TPP is in its potential to lay down a liberal trade order for the region for the 21st century. Meanwhile, other agencies of the US government continue to pour energy and resources into the region. In June, for example, US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker will lead a delegation of American CEOs on a swing through Southeast Asia, the second of her brief tenure. Her department is opening two new offices, in Yangon and Wuhan.
- As Bates Gill and Tom Switzer noted last month, the US military is undeniably reallocating assets to emphasise the Indo-Pacific: Marines are in Darwin, Littoral Combat Ships are deployed to Singapore and Global Hawks are in Japan. But there's more to come. By 2020, the US Navy will base 60% of its surface combatants to the Indo-Pacific; the US Air Force will base 50% of its fifth generation fighters here; and the Marine rotations to Darwin continue to grow in size, on target to reach 2500 by 2017 (Slate's Josh Keating dings the Administration for not having 2500 there now, but that was never the plan). At his stop in Manila, Obama may sign an agreement to rotate more US forces through the Philippines.
- Perhaps most importantly, and contra Landler and Sanger in the New York Times, the US has stepped up diplomatic engagement dramatically. The US signed ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009, joined the East Asia Summit in 2010, and hosted APEC in 2011. The State Department is steadily boosting the number of its diplomats in the region, including by establishing a new permanent mission to ASEAN in Jakarta in 2010. Cabinet-level visits have increased. In addition to Pritzker's visits, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel just spent three days with the assembled ASEAN defense ministers (Secretary of State John Kerry's record is a rare exception in this regard). There has never been more presidential attention. Following Obama's current Asia trip, which will include stops in Malaysia and the Philippines, Obama will have visited Southeast Asian countries more than any of his predecessors at this point in their terms, and he will return again in just seven months.
None of this is to say there is no reason for uncertainty regarding the US commitment to Asia. The real risk to the pivot is congressional dysfunction.
Congress' inability to agree to a budget deal in 2011 resulted in indiscriminate defence budget cuts which threaten the ability to sustain new military commitments in the medium term. Tea Party activism sunk the last big push to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 2012, which would have given the US additional credibility when making its case for a rules-based order regarding maritime disputes (the US Navy has long abided by its rules anyway).
Congress could prove an even bigger obstacle in the year to come. Democrats in the House have promised to obstruct passage of any new trade agreements, including TPP. The House Foreign Affairs Committee leadership over the past year has sought to limit US engagement with some governments in Southeast Asia due to human rights concerns – limits that would prevent the Administration from effectively addressing those concerns. Individual Senators continue to block Obama nominees for key posts as a way to extract Administration concessions on unrelated issues, leaving the Defense Department without a confirmed Assistant Secretary for Asia Pacific Security Affairs for much of its two terms. There are no remaining members in Congress with the deep knowledge of the region boasted by giants like Dick Lugar, Bill Cohen, Daniel Inouye, Kit Bond, or Jim Webb, and few junior members on the horizon interested in following in their footsteps.
President Obama's trip to Asia this week provides an opportunity for him to clarify that the rebalance remains his policy, and that he intends to follow through. But a more important and more difficult trip would also be a much shorter one: down Pennsylvania Avenue, to convince Congress of the merits and singular importance of his strategy.