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Reinforcing Washington's Hegemony: Behind the U.S. Pivot Towards Asia

The pivot is best understood as an extension of a century and a half of U.S. foreign and military policies.

A year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled a major transformation in U.S. foreign policy in an article titled “ America’s Pacific Century,” which announced the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, the Pacific, and the strategically important Indian Ocean. “One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade,” she wrote, will be “to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise— in the Asia-Pacific region.” The increased engagement, she wrote, would be underwritten in part by “forging a broad-based military presence.”

Shortly thereafter, the Pentagon published its new “strategic guidance” paper, which, signaling at a shift away from Iraq and Central Asia, named the Asia-Pacific region and the Persian Gulf as the nation’s two geostrategic priorities. To emphasize the new commitments, Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and President Barack Obama made high-profile visits to allied Asian and Pacific nations. Republicans, in Mitt Romney’s foreign policy white paper, upped the ante, insisting that the United States “expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific” and pressure its allies to “maintain appropriate military capabilities.”

The Continuing Pursuit of Asia-Pacific Hegemony

The pivot is best understood as an extension of a century and a half of U.S. foreign and military policies. In the 1850s, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward argued that if the United States were to replace Britain as the world’s dominant power, it would first have to dominate Asia – hence the purchase of Alaska, the northern route to Asia. By the 1890s, Washington had finally assembled the navy needed to challenge Britain’s mastery of the seas. Meanwhile, amidst an economic depression and related domestic turmoil, policymakers saw access to the Chinese market as a way to put the unemployed to work while increasing corporate profits and establishing the United States as a global power. The turn-of-the-century sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor provided an excuse for the United States to declare war on Spain, seize the Philippines and Guam (as well as Puerto Rico and Cuba), and annex Hawaii to secure the refueling stations needed to reach China.

After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, the Pacific became an “American Lake.” Hundreds of new U.S. military bases were established in Japan, Korea, Australia, the Marshall Islands, and other Pacific nations to reinforce those in the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii, which were greatly expanded. Together these bases “contained” Beijing and Moscow throughout the Cold War, serving as launching pads for the Korean and Vietnam wars as well as for military interventions and political subversion from the Philippines and Indonesia to the Persian Gulf.

In the late 1990s, when China was first seen a potential strategic competitor for Asia-Pacific hegemony, the Clinton administration adopted a two-track policy of engagement and containment. Deng Xiaoping was welcomed to Disneyland, President Clinton was welcomed in Beijing, and China was given the green light to join the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, the U.S.-Japan military alliance, which has long functioned as the NATO equivalent in East Asia, was reinforced. The Clinton administration sent nuclear-capable aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait and accelerated missile defense deployments designed to neutralize China’s missile capabilities. Before they were sidetracked by the “war on terror,” President George W. Bush and company promised to “diversify” U.S. Asia-Pacific military bases, reducing their concentration in Northeast Asia in order to distribute them more widely along China’s periphery.

Although the Bush administration extended the “war on terror” to Indonesia, the Philippines, and southern Thailand, it otherwise largely neglected Asia and the Pacific. This opened the way for growing Chinese influence, deepening the integration of ASEAN nations into China’s surging economic orbit. With the pivot, the Obama administration has signaled its determination, according to the Guardian’s Simon Tidal, “ to beat back any Chinese bid for hegemony in the Asia-Pacific,” even at the expense of a new Cold War. As General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it, “the U.S. military may be obliged to overtly confront China just as it faced down the Soviet Union.”

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