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22 February 2013, Gateway House

The pacific pivot: A decade late and five years too soon

The announcement of the Pacific pivot by the U.S. in 2001 has led to several nations making bold political moves. However, the U.S. isn’t yet ready to be a regional protector against China. What does Washington have to do to prepare itself for the Pivot?

Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King's College, London

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Tim Wilsey is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College London and a former senior British diplomat. An earlier version of this article first appeared in WDS, an independent publication of King’s College, London.

President Obama’s speech to the Australian Parliament on 17th November 2011 came as a surprise to many.[1]  However it was, in one sense, a decade late. The incident in April 2001 in which an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft was obliged to land on Hainan island after a collision with a Chinese fighter had startled the Bush administration and persuaded Washington and London that more resources would need to be devoted to a more confident and assertive China.[2]

Then out of a clear blue sky on 9/11 came the Al Qa’ida attacks on New York and Washington and, for a whole decade, US foreign policy focus was diverted to the Global War on Terror. Of course China never went away; it could be a source of irritation on currency rates, of frustration over its failure to impose its influence on North Korea and of concern over its policies in Africa. By and large, however, it was a responsible member of the world order and of the Security Council.  In fact the Bush administration enjoyed generally good relations with Beijing partly because of Washington’s refusal to countenance Taiwanese Prime Minister Chen Shui-bian’s deliberately provocative talk of independence. The last thing the US needed, in the midst of its other commitments, was to send a task force to defend Taiwan from a potential Chinese cross-strait invasion.

Nevertheless US allies in Asia felt uncomfortable. Few had much sympathy for the unpredictable Chen but the US policy felt like a rebuff to an ally. On trips to the region British (and doubtless American) officials would be quietly and politely admonished for their “tunnel vision” towards the “Global War on Terror” and the associated campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.  While the West was focussed on its Counter Insurgency operations in the Middle East and South West Asia, they would be told, China was being given too free a rein to consolidate itself as a regional hegemon. As these visitors fed the message into their foreign policy machines back home it would be recognised as a valid concern, but there was not the policy “bandwidth” to grapple with the problems associated with the rise of China as well as the West’s existing and more immediately pressing priorities.

In that sense the Canberra speech was long overdue. Since the speech US diplomats have attempted to soften the rougher edges. They point out that the word “pivot” was never mentioned and that “rebalancing” was the term employed. They also suggest that the speech was not aimed at China and indeed that it refers to cooperation with Beijing in a number of areas. This might imply that Washington is rowing back on the whole concept. This is not so but it does reflect a realisation that delivering the pivot will be a lot harder than originally envisaged. Firstly the US will need to extract itself from a number of complex entanglements in Europe and the Middle East. And secondly the US is not yet configured to provide a coherent policy challenge to China in the Pacific. This article contends that the years before these two conditions are satisfied will be a period of substantial strategic risk for the US. Meanwhile US allies in the region have already had to trim their sails to the reality of Chinese power; albeit more often economic power than military.

It is not difficult to see why the pivot seemed such a good idea to the incumbent of the Oval Office. His predecessor had left him a legacy of two wars which the US was destined to lose. In the era of asymmetric warfare the West’s Counter-Insurgency strategy (even as rewritten by General Petraeus) and the “Comprehensive Approach” have failed at considerable cost in blood and treasure.  The campaign in Libya showed all too well America’s reluctance, for the foreseeable future, to engage in land wars.  “Boots on the ground” (except for Special Forces) will not be seen for many years to come in a war-fighting capacity.

Libya also reminded the Pentagon how ill equipped Europe is to pursue its military goals. For all the publicity over the Anglo-French air campaign it could not have been mounted without US assistance. As one American official quipped to the author recently “Why should we support Europe when it spends under one percent of GDP on defence?” A decade of watching the European members of NATO under-perform has taken its toll on the transatlantic military alliance.

The end of the Bush era also coincided with the financial crash of 2007/8 and the subsequent crisis in the Eurozone. Seeing Europe’s economic woes it is little wonder that Obama should turn to the relatively prosperous Pacific when looking for export markets to provide jobs and to get the US economy back into sustained growth. Indeed these economic aspects were a fundamental part of the Canberra speech. “After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.” and later “the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority, and that’s creating jobs and opportunity for the American people”

To what extent shale oil played a significant part in the thinking behind the original speech is debatable but it certainly affects the picture now. The World Outlook 2012 from the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests that the US could be energy independent by 2030.[3] Already more than 85% of crude oil that transits the Straits of Hormuz is destined for Asia, primarily China, Japan, South Korea and India, leading to the inevitable question in Washington “Why do we have carrier strike groups deployed to safeguard China’s energy supplies?”[4]

Indeed much of the Canberra speech was substantially strategic and military in character. Certainly there is a determination to become more involved in the various regional trade and diplomatic fora but defence issues are high on the agenda. “I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority. As a result, reductions in U.S. defence spending will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia Pacific” …” And we will constantly strengthen our capabilities to meet the needs of the 21st century.” Indeed, we are already modernizing America’s defence posture across the Asia Pacific.

Furthermore, and contrary to some of the subsequent claims, the speech did have China and its recent “assertiveness” in mind. It is true that Obama spoke of  “our effort to build a cooperative relationship with China” but he later added “we continue to speak candidly to Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people” and then even more clearly that  “certain rights are universal; among them, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and the freedom of citizens to choose their own leaders” and finally of “models [that] have been tried and …. failed; fascism and communism, rule by one man and rule by committee. And they failed for the same simple reason: They ignore the ultimate source of power and legitimacy; the will of the people”. This may not read too harshly in the West but in China it reaches to the core of the Communist Party’s fundamental insecurity. A study of the response to the Canberra speech has demonstrated that in its official utterances the Party and government have been restrained but that in less official media the pivot has widely been seen as a challenge to China in Asia.[5]

Indeed the official restraint shown by Beijing is mirrored by a similar reluctance in the West to cast China in the role of future strategic enemy (as opposed to economic rival). Partly because of problems over definitive attribution but also because of the fear of economic reprisals at a time of financial weakness in the West, there has been a marked reluctance to take China to task for its alleged widespread theft of Intellectual Property through cyber attacks on Western companies.[6]  Furthermore the US has actually been reticent about siding with its regional allies against Chinese assertiveness over the disputed islands in the East and South China Seas. In fact Tokyo was clearly taken aback by Washington’s initial statement of neutrality on the Senkaku Islands.[7] The Philippines felt a similar reticence from Washington over Scarborough Shoal.

Yet in one country a recently re-elected President Obama showed no such reticence. His visit to Burma in November 2012 was a bold move to ensure that the regime stuck to its promises and maintained its trajectory towards elections in 2015. However it must also have been a humiliating blow to China which had (carelessly) lost an ally from under its very nose and crucially a land route for energy imports avoiding the choke point of the Malacca Straits. To see Japanese companies so actively competing for Burmese contracts must also infuriate. However it should not be assumed that the Burmese trajectory towards democracy will be seamless or indeed successful. China must have cards (many of them in the Army and security services) still to play.

It would be reassuring to think that Beijing would conduct a post-mortem on Burma and conclude that its main global allies (Pakistan, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Iran, Sudan amongst others) all have unattractive political aspects and that China might be better served by choosing better partners such as India, South Korea, Japan, and Australia (most of which already have burgeoning economic relations with China). However the strong likelihood is that China will be determined to hang onto its existing allies with rather more vigilance than it showed in Rangoon. Indeed the Burma experience could lead to more, rather than less, Chinese “assertiveness” in the Pacific region.

Herein lies the danger of the Pacific Pivot. It is that the US is not yet ready to assume the mantle of regional protector against China. This is now understood by US allies in the region but there was a brief moment when it seemed as if those allies had been so emboldened by Obama’s speech that they were starting to act with more courage than was wise towards China. This may, for example, explain the breakdown of the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia in July 2012 over the disputes in the South China Seas.

So what does the United States have to do to prepare itself for the Pacific Pivot? It has to extract itself from many of its commitments in Europe and the Middle East so that it can transfer policy and military resources to underpin the pivot or rebalancing to the Pacific. This could take at least five years to complete.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan will be mostly complete by the end of 2014, although the plan is probably to retain a Counter Terrorist and training capability of some 10,000 troops plus enablers for several more years. Essentially this is the reinvention of the Biden Plan and it should work reasonably well as long as Afghanistan does not descend back into civil war. If the worst does happen the Americans will surely depart, as they did from Iraq. There is no appetite at all for getting drawn back into the Afghan conflict.

Pakistan will remain a concern and will continue to consume State Department and Pentagon policy attention. The FATA tribal areas on the Afghan border will doubtless continue to shelter Al Qa’ida remnants. Equally if not more important will be the continuing worry about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from Islamists of the Pakistan Taliban and related groups. The US will also be keen to ensure that the Pakistan Army itself does not become so alienated from and hostile to the US (as happened during much of 2011 and 2012) that its own control of the arsenal begins to represent a threat to the West. And finally there remains the danger of Punjabi terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba resuming their terrorist campaigns within India leading to a potential nuclear standoff without (after 2014) the calm and experienced hand of Manmohan Singh to urge restraint in the sometimes hawkish Indian security community.

But Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations will continue to be the most resource-intensive issue. Unlike Pakistan this does not just suck in policy time but also requires substantial naval and air assets in or near the Gulf, both to provide a military option against the nuclear sites themselves but also to protect the freedom of trade through the Straits of Hormuz. It may be that the sanctions will have brought the Iranian clerical regime to the negotiating table but the greater likelihood is that the military option will have to remain an option (whether or not employed) for much of the next 5 years. President Obama will not only be motivated by his obligations to Israel but also by his conviction in nuclear disarmament and “Global Zero”. He knows full well that an Iranian weapon will lead to a Saudi Arabian nuclear bomb and to the similar ambitions of Turkey and possibly Egypt.

Whatever Obama’s personal distaste for Benjamin Netanyahu, the United States will continue to remain closely allied to Israel. There will be no rebalancing of this relationship. However Obama may not wish to invest too much policy time on the “Middle East Peace Process” (MEPP). For as long as Netanyahu will not stop settlement building this would be wasted effort. He may try to leverage his support over Iran in return for some movement on MEPP but he will have to contend with The American Israel Public Affairs Committee.  He might wish to see Europe carry more of the burden but to Israel and much of the US Europe is too pro-Palestinian to be a credible substitute.

Washington’s Counter Terrorist interests will also require a presence in the region; to monitor and act in Yemen, Somalia, and Mali as well as any additional countries where the Arab Spring may have led to Jihadists establishing a foothold; certainly Syria but possibly also Egypt and Tunisia. Much as strategists might wish to hand off these tasks to Europeans (such as the French in Mali) the limitations imposed by European human rights legislation will ensure that the Americans will need to stay engaged, probably employing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) to target AQ and its franchises in the region.

By contrast with the Middle East and Africa the US will find it much easier to disengage from mainland Europe. Certainly there will continue to be close diplomatic engagement, especially as long as Britain and France remain as members of the Permanent Five (P5) on the United Nations Security Council. US presidents will also need to keep a weather eye on Moscow. Russia, especially under Putin, is still potentially too dangerous to pass this responsibility to European powers.

Whilst it will be difficult to extract itself from the above entanglements, the US may also find it harder than envisaged to transfer its naval forces from the US East coast to the West. It sounds a curiously old-fashioned notion that the projection of power should (over 70 years after Pearl Harbour) be seen in terms of deployed aircraft carrier strike groups. However it is still a barometer of power and is interpreted as such by China, which is taking its own early steps in developing a carrier capability.

The US currently has 11 aircraft carriers and their associated aircraft, escorts and support vessels. In very general terms 6 of these carrier strike groups are based at Norfolk, Virginia as part of the “Atlantic fleet” and 5 are stationed on the west coast and in Japan in the “Pacific fleet”. To deliver the Pacific Pivot the US should reallocate at least one carrier strike group from the Atlantic fleet area to the Pacific.[8] This is no easy task in logistical terms requiring a considerable transfer of facilities from maintenance through to housing and education. Furthermore there will be political and significant economic aspects with Virginia Congressmen arguing the case against and Washington State and California politicians taking the contrary view.

None of this will happen overnight and it will anyway be part of a much wider debate about the diminishing defence budget and the competition for resources between the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy following the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global financial crisis of 2007/8. Furthermore aircraft carriers are vulnerable to submarines and China has invested a lot in submarines as a defensive “access denial” capability in its near seas. Indeed it is this capability that would make a conflict over Taiwan such a hazardous venture for the US. One estimate suggests there will be up to 170 submarines (belonging to various nations) in the Pacific by 2025.[9]

The military component is important but arguably a more important transfer is that of political and diplomatic effort. Policy “bandwidth”, referred to earlier, is a helpful concept. One of the reasons for NATO’s failure in Afghanistan was the sudden transfer of US attention to Iraq in late 2002 in preparation for the invasion of May 2003. It was not that military, development or diplomatic resources were pulled out of Afghanistan but that policy focus suddenly shifted away and did not return until 2008. It was all but impossible to get senior US political attention to focus on key issues such as the opportunity for reconciliation with the Taliban which arose in that period. So for all the massive resources of a government like the United States there is very limited political “bandwidth” at the top in Washington.

Moving this concept to the Pacific Pivot it is clear that the US has plenty of capability in the Pacific. There are already well-staffed embassies, of course, in all key countries, military bases, the five carrier strike groups, etc. If the Pacific Pivot becomes a reality there will also be more subtle increases in skills. Young diplomats and intelligence officers will elect to learn Mandarin instead of Arabic if it appears to be good for their careers. The most gifted ambassadors will apply for Beijing over Riyadh or Tokyo over Paris. But the real change must come in Washington. The pivot will take root when the Presidential Daily Briefing starts most days on Pacific issues (the Senkaku Islands dispute or the North Korean satellite launch) rather than on Iranian enrichment progress, a Yemeni bomb-maker or prospects for the Afghan Presidential elections.

Will this delay in extracting itself from European and Middle Eastern commitments and physically transferring focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific have a damaging effect on the interests of the US and its Asian allies? After all neither the US nor China has the slightest intention of entering into military conflict with each other. To that extent the delay could be seen as academic. Furthermore China and the US are economically inter-dependent although the US currently has more to lose from a serious deterioration in relations.

Crucially, however, it is the actions of regional actors which will define the success of the Pacific pivot. Very few are now willing to be seen as part of an anti-China power bloc. Even Australia has to be mindful of China as the main customer for its mineral resources. Japan may be in no mood to compromise on the Senkaku Islands, and it has built up a formidable naval capability of its own, but its economy is so interlinked with China’s that it will have to be cautious, even under a nationalist Prime Minister like Shinzo Abe. The Philippines and Vietnam are being more prudent with China since the row in Phnom Penh in July 2012. India, which sees China as a strategic rival and worries about Chinese naval power, is still reluctant to be seen as too closely allied to the US. India’s non-aligned history still runs deep. Singapore has significant investments in China which it will not wish to jeopardise.

We shall never know whether a Pacific Pivot announced in 2001 would have produced a less nuanced approach from US allies in the region. Nor is it easy to judge whether China’s regional reach would have been significantly restricted, compared to where it is today. Historians can speculate on such points. The more important issue now is how much damage could occur between now and that time when the Pivot is complete. Supposing this takes five years China would surely be remiss not to take advantage of the period to make and then consolidate some regional advantage; nothing (one hopes) too provocative but nonetheless substantive. Therein lies the danger of the Canberra speech; throwing down the gauntlet before being ready for the challenge ahead.

Tim Wilsey is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College London and a former senior British diplomat. An earlier version of this article first appeared in WDS, an independent publication of King’s College, London.

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[2]    For the Hainan Incident see the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report at

[3] The IEA report issued on12th November 2012 is available at

[4] See the IEA report “World Oil Transit Chokepoints”

[5] Chinese Leadership and Elite Responses to the U.S. Pacific Pivot Michael D. Swaine

[6] In December 2007 a letter sent to UK businesses by Jonathan Evans, the Director General of MI5 took the unusual step of specifically mentioning the threat from China. See for example

[7] The US later confirmed that the Senkaku Islands were covered by the bilateral security treaty. See for example

[8] Leon Panetta speaking at the IISS in 2012 said that 60% of the US Navy would be dedicated to the Pacific and 40% to the Atlantic.

[9] For the figure of up to 170 submarines by 2025 see IISS news July 2012 page 9.

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