The shift of U.S. attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region, a signature piece of President Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda, enjoys considerable bipartisan support in Washington and has earned the praise of scholars and practitioners alike. Skeptics demur, however, arguing either that this "pivot" -- or "rebalancing," as administration officials now call it -- is toothless rhetoric or that it is a heavy-handed policy that has unnecessarily antagonized China. 

Robert Ross ("The Problem With the Pivot," November/December 2012) has put himself in the latter camp, disparaging the strategic shift as counterproductive and destabilizing. Although he astutely urges the United States to take into account China's insecurities, he misreads the motives behind Obama's Asia policy and offers a misguided prescription for the way forward. The right way to respond to China's anxieties is through sustained and deepened engagement, not withdrawal from Asia. As the United States continues to focus more on the region, it needs to make sure that its strategy is propelled forward by a reliable commitment of money, personnel, and bureaucratic resources.


In his essay, Ross misrepresents both the impetus for and the substance of the rebalancing strategy. What he characterizes as a knee-jerk response to Chinese aggression in 2009 and 2010 actually has much deeper roots. Obama came to office recognizing that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had led Washington to underinvest in Asia, a region central to U.S. economic and strategic interests. The first foreign leader he hosted in the White House was the Japanese prime minister, and Hillary Clinton's inaugural trip overseas as secretary of state was to Asia, where she visited Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China. Meanwhile, the administration's decisions to end the war in Iraq, begin the exit from Afghanistan, and fight al Qaeda with more precise counterterrorism efforts have enabled a greater devotion of time and resources to the Asia-Pacific. This reshuffling of priorities represents an acknowledgment of the changing geopolitical realities of the twenty-first century -- not simply a response to China.

Focusing on its military dimensions alone, Ross describes the policy as "aimed at bolstering the United States' defense ties with countries throughout the region and expanding the U.S. naval presence there." Yet these goals make up only a sliver of the overall strategy, which in reality includes economic, diplomatic, and security objectives: strengthening relations with traditional allies; building deeper ties with emerging powers, including China; working with the region's multilateral institutions; diversifying the United States' military posture; promoting human rights and democracy; and advancing U.S. trade and business interests. The strategy aims to reallocate resources not only toward the region but also within it, by engaging more with partners in Southeast Asia. The administration has also sought to account for the rising geopolitical importance of the Indian Ocean as a key route for global trade and has supported the development of closer ties between India and countries in East Asia. 

Ross' overly narrow conception of the rebalancing strategy leads him to argue that the United States has unwisely favored countries in disputes with China, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, at the expense of its cooperative relations with Beijing. Rather than trying to contain any particular country, however, Washington is seeking to construct a regional order undergirded by rules and institutions. U.S. diplomacy regarding disputes in the South China Sea, for instance, is based on principles and has sought to prevent a conflict from breaking out by encouraging all countries concerned to adhere to international law. This effort mirrors the U.S. strategy elsewhere in the world of protecting the global commons through a combination of U.S. power and international initiatives. That this approach appears to favor certain countries -- and that Beijing objects to multilateral cooperation that might constrain its ability to coerce its neighbors -- says more about China's preferred foreign policy than it does about any American bias. 


Ross' characterization of the current U.S. approach to Asia includes an improbable accusation: that the Obama administration has "reversed Washington's long-standing policy of engagement with Beijing." This observation would come as a surprise to policymakers in the White House, the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the Pentagon. Over the last four years, U.S. engagement with China has moved faster and gone deeper than at any other point in the history of the relationship. Since 2009, Obama has met with Hu Jintao, the outgoing Chinese president, a dozen times; the two countries' vice presidents have exchanged visits; Clinton has traveled to Beijing on five separate occasions; and senior White House and State Department officials have met with their Chinese counterparts frequently. 

Moreover, the Obama administration has invested substantial resources in a growing set of bilateral institutions, including the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the Strategic Security Dialogue, and over 60 other issue-based and regional dialogues with Chinese government officials. After years of repeated disruptions, U.S.-Chinese military relations are back on track, and the two countries' armed forces are moving toward practical cooperation in areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. 

The United States and China may not see eye to eye on every geopolitical issue, but there can be no doubt that this high level of engagement has paid off. Recent disputes between the two countries, including the diplomatic row over the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, have been resolved quickly and maturely. And even in the midst of these disagreements, the Obama administration has made clear, both publicly and privately, that a positive and constructive relationship with China is key to the success of its broader strategy in Asia. 

After recommending a policy of engagement that already exists, Ross concludes by arguing that in order to assuage China's insecurities, the United States should scale back its military presence on the "East Asian mainland" and "avoid entanglement in complex sovereignty claims in the region." In practice, adopting Ross' advice would require significant departures from current policy, including the withdrawal of troops from South Korea, the removal of missile defense systems in Northeast Asia, reduced engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and limits on the scope of the U.S.-Japanese alliance. There is no guarantee that taking any of these steps would even begin to resolve China's insecurity complex. But they would cause immediate damage to U.S. interests and undermine regional security. They would also reinforce China's desire for other countries to accommodate its rise without giving Beijing pause to consider the destabilizing consequences of its own actions. 

Ross is right that the United States should take China's legitimate security concerns into consideration. But today's policymakers are already doing so by working with China to address the greatest sources of competition between Washington and Beijing. Going forward, the two countries should continue to search for opportunities to cooperate to address the misunderstandings and mistrust that linger between them. U.S. policymakers can help this along by emphasizing the nonmilitary elements of its renewed focus on Asia to underscore that it is a multifaceted effort. At the same time, U.S. policy cannot be shaped solely by China's concerns, as Washington needs to account for the views and security of a number of allies and partners.


Now that the foundation of the strategic shift to Asia has been laid, the main challenge for U.S. policymakers will be to secure the resources necessary to continue it. The United States will find it difficult to advance its interests in the region if its allies, partners, and potential adversaries doubt that its commitments will be upheld. Locking in the new approach will require Washington to set aside money and personnel and to ensure that agencies are mobilized across the U.S. government in ways that reflect an institutional commitment to its Asia policy. 

"Show me your budget, and I'll describe your strategy" is a common refrain in the Pentagon. Often more focused on tethering dollars to strategy than other executive-branch agencies, the Department of Defense has devoted substantial amounts of money and attention to the rebalancing. Meanwhile, the end of the war in Iraq and the ongoing drawdown in Afghanistan are freeing up additional military resources to be directed toward the Asia-Pacific region in the form of new deployments, the prepositioning of military assets, and additional locations for the U.S. military to train and exercise with long-standing allies and emerging partners. 

This shift has involved the deployment of U.S. marines to Australia and the stationing of Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore -- small but significant steps that will strengthen and diversify the U.S. military's force posture in Southeast Asia. Washington was able to carry out these initiatives because they were affordable and politically sustainable, both at home and in Asia. In the years ahead, the continued evolution of the United States' force posture in the region should be complemented by efforts to strengthen partners' armed forces, carry out joint exercises, and pursue more ambitious military diplomacy. The Pentagon will need to sustain this momentum in the face of budget cuts and ensure that its small and gradual investments over the next decade ultimately add up to a meaningful strategic shift.

Although the military aspects of the rebalancing strategy have garnered the most attention in the media, civilian departments and agencies have also begun to shift their priorities and resources to Asia. Under the guidance of Clinton and Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, the State Department has deepened U.S. diplomatic engagement throughout the region. During their tenure, the United States has joined the East Asia Summit and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, and in July 2012, Clinton announced a new assistance framework, the Asia-Pacific Strategic Engagement Initiative. These steps have demonstrated that Washington is committed to keeping the region stable and helping it prosper. The State Department has also signaled its renewed dedication to Asia policy through considerable bureaucratic reforms, adding more than 70 new positions responsible for East Asia and the Pacific since 2009 and opening a new permanent U.S. mission to ASEAN in Jakarta. 


As different parts of the U.S. government are asked to commit larger shares of their resources to Asia, Congress must do its part by making sure that key agencies and departments have the funds in the first place. Beyond appropriating the necessary money, members of Congress also need to explain to their constituents the importance of investing U.S. resources in Asia, helping build support for the shift outside the Beltway.

The executive branch should also take several steps to guarantee that the shift toward the Asia-Pacific region is backed by the resources it needs. First, within the White House, the National Security Council staff should work closely with the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that all national security departments and agencies are prioritizing the initiatives of the rebalancing. Too often, gaps between policy guidance and budget proposals emerge late in the annual budget process, at which point they are difficult to fill. To help address this problem, the national security adviser and the director of the Office of Management and Budget should jointly pen an annual memo setting out budget priorities for the Asia-Pacific and host regular interagency meetings with senior policy and budget players. The Obama administration has already begun to take some of these steps, and it should continue to move in this direction. 

Second, in this age of fiscal austerity, devoting more attention to Asia may well require the United States to scale back its commitments elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, policymakers at the working level are often ill positioned to consider tradeoffs that cut across geographic boundaries and bureaucratic lines. Overcoming this challenge requires serious attention at the deputy secretary level or higher. The Pentagon has already begun to address this issue by having Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter convene meetings that specifically focus on identifying resources that can be redirected toward Asia. Other agencies should follow suit, and these departmental efforts should go hand in hand with regular interagency meetings at the White House to examine findings, coordinate initiatives, and assess results. 

Third, the White House should explic­itly articulate the rebalancing strategy, perhaps in the form of a presidential policy directive, outlining its near- to long-term priorities and coming up with specific metrics that departments and agencies can use to track their progress in executing it. For example, policymakers ought to be aware of the number of Asia experts and capable linguists at the State Department, at the Defense Department, and in the intelligence community. 

As it dedicates more of its resources to Asia, the United States should also ask its allies and partners in the region to shoulder additional responsibilities. Asia is now home to a number of wealthy and capable countries, many of which have recently gone from receiving international aid to giving it. Washington should insist that the militaries of countries such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand contribute to regional security at levels commensurate with their capabilities. It is also critical that the United States continue to coordinate with these countries on diplomatic, development, and defense initiatives to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. engagement in the region. 

The glamorous aspects of the rebalancing toward Asia -- the geopolitical maneuvers and machinations, the high-stakes diplomacy, the grand strategy -- are only part of what will be required to make the policy successful. Just as crucial will be Washington's focus on budgets, bureaucratic institutions, and personnel decisions, as well as its ability to continually assess the policy's progress and identify areas for improvement. In an era of fiscal tightening, coming up with the necessary resources for such an ambitious program will not be easy. But because the Asia-Pacific region is fundamental to U.S. national security and the health of the U.S. economy, the rebalancing is the most valuable investment in U.S. foreign policy today.

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  • SHAWN BRIMLEY is a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Director for Strategic Planning on the U.S. National Security Council staff. Follow him on Twitter @shawnbrimley. ELY RATNER is a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and worked on the China Desk at the U.S. State Department as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in 2011-12.
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