Did the “Pivot to Asia” Ever Actually Happen?

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April 21 2014 5:52 PM

Did the Obama Administration Ever Actually Pivot to Asia? 

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Pivot in progress.

Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

President Obama is making his fifth trip as president to Asia this week, with planned stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. With Russia possibly on the verge of invading Ukraine and new allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, an Asia trip frankly feels a little off-topic. This isn’t a criticism of the trip, which has been planned for a while, but it does often feel as though despite all the talk of its growing strategic importance, East Asia rarely seems to be the center of attention in Washington.   

Any time the president or secretary of state heads to the region, it inevitably provokes a new round of reflection on the administration’s once-prominent “pivot to Asia.” As the Los Angeles Times writes:

Since the much-touted decision to "pivot" to Asia, the Obama administration has found itself repeatedly pulled away by crises in the Middle East, political battles in Washington and, more recently, turmoil in Ukraine.
A key piece of the policy, an ambitious Pacific Rim free-trade pact, has met resistance from the president's own party and bogged down in tariff disputes with Japan. The promised transfer of U.S. warships, Marines and other military resources to the Pacific has been incremental, and limited by Pentagon budget cuts.
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The military component of the pivot was always a bit less that met the eye. The plan to have 60 percent of the Navy’s fleet based in the Pacific by 2020 isn’t all that impressive considering it was already 55 percent before the policy was announced, and given that plans to boost the forces in the Pacific come at a time of overall Pentagon cutbacks, it’s unlikely that U.S. forces in the Pacific will actually grow to any significant extent in terms of raw numbers. A planned deployment of Marines to Australia has been smaller than anticipated

What about diplomatic engagement? It’s certainly a crude measure, but I was curious wehther there was any evidence of the pivot in the amount of time the secretary of state has spent traveling in the region.

The pivot concept was first popularized after Hillary Clinton used the term in an October 2011 article in Foreign Policy, which argued that the U.S. needed to shift its diplomatic and security priorities from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

In her tenure prior to that, Clinton had made 25 visits to countries in East Asia (counting multiple visits to the same country, multiple countries visited on one trip, and Australia), or about .73 visits per month. After the pivot was announced, she made 20, or 1.4 visits per month. Looking at it another way, Clinton spent 26 days in Asia in 2012, vs. 18, 19, and 15 the previous three years of her tenure.

If 2012 was the high point of the pivot, things have slowed down since John Kerry took over and made the Middle East peace process his signature initiative—that is, when he's not attempting to put out fires in Syria or Ukraine. 

Since taking over, Kerry’s made an average of 1.14 visits to Asian countries per month, though he also spends a lot more time on the road in general. Out of 10 foreign trips made this year, only one included a stop in Asia. Last year, four out of 20 did.  

As for the president, his efforts to travel to the region—particularly to Indonesia, where he spent a significant portion of his childhood and remains extremely popular—have been continually hampered by crises elsewhere. Planned trips to Asia were postponed due to the debate over the Affordable Care Act, the BP oil spill, and last year’s government shutdown.

Of course, high-profile visits aren’t the best way to measure diplomatic engagement. But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that the administration is spending more of its energy on Asia, or less of it on the Middle East, than it did previously.

As Gideon Rachman argues, the fact that the pivot hasn’t been much in evidence doesn’t mean that the idea wasn’t a sound one. The Pacific is an area of growing strategic and economic importance and the U.S. position still carries a significant amount of weight there.

But the fact is that more attention tends to be paid to the places where things are blowing up on a regular basis. Thankfully, despite tensions running high on the Korean peninsula and the East China Sea, Asia is not yet that place. But it means that the region is often going to be pushed to the back-burner when more obvious crises present themselves.   

Thanks to Anna Newby for help with research. 

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