Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2013 edition of SERI Quarterly.
With the Obama administration making the transition to its second term, it is appropriate to review its policy goals towards Northeast Asia and whether policy implementation can be sustained. In this essay, I review what senior officials have said on these subjects, and consider the challenge of coping with the rise—or revival—of China, while focusing more sharply on the Korean Peninsula.
Three texts reveal how the United States government views its interests and objectives towards Asia. Chronologically, they are: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s October 2011 article in Foreign Policy; President Obama’s speech to the Australian parliament on November 17, 2011; and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon’s remarks to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Five topics merit attention: terminology; the purposes of policy; its scope; the approach to China; and sustainability.
In terminology, two words have gained the greatest currency: “pivot” and “rebalancing.” “Pivot” is a vivid word that plays upon Obama’s love of basketball, it also has a rather absolutist connotation. “Rebalancing,” on the other hand, is more relativistic, both in terms of where America places its priorities geographically and which policy arenas it emphasizes. The word that is least appropriate for Northeast Asia is “return,” which had some currency in the early part of the administration. “Return” may have been accurate for Southeast Asia but not for Northeast Asia.
In terms of the purposes of rebalancing, senior officials spoke in different but substantively convergent ways:
- Clinton referred to “harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism”; to “maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific”; to responding to the wishes of the region itself; and, in effect, the long, benign impact of America’s presence in and posture toward the region (“We are the only power with a network of strong alliances in the region, no territorial ambitions, and a long record of providing for the common good. Along with our allies, we have underwritten regional security for decades . . . and that in turn has helped create the conditions for growth.”)
- Obama spoke simply of a “large and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with friends and allies.”
- Donilon also implied a “shaping” objective, even though he did not use the word. He said, “We aspire to see a region where the rise of new powers occurs peacefully; where the freedom to access the sea, air, space, and cyberspace empowers vibrant commerce; where multinational forums help promote shared interests; and where citizens increasingly have the ability to influence their governments and universal human rights are upheld.”
 Hillary Rodham Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy Magazine, October 11, 2011 (www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/10/175215.htm); “Remarks by President Obama to the Australian Parliament—As Prepared for Delivery,” November 17, 2011, White House website (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/11/17/remarks-president-obama-australian-parliament); “Remarks by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon—As Prepared for Delivery,” November 15, 2012, White House website (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/11/15/remarks-national-security-advisor-tom-donilon-prepared-delivery).
The difference between Trump and Kim Jong Un is that Trump has no larger plan regarding North Korea and no nuanced view of when, how, why or how long military force is useful or effective. Kim has a larger plan, regime survival, maintenance of national pride, and resistance to US power. Trump changes his mind regularly; Kim does not.
US military buildup so far is not part of a larger strategy, so it's not clear what the end game is for the US. That was the same ultimate goal for the administrations of George W. Bush, Obama, and now Trump. The Carl Vinson strike group cannot stay at the DPRK's [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] doorstep indefinitely.
[The exchange of threats and military posturing between the United States and North Korea] raises the stakes. With the United States and others talking far too loosely about the prospects of a pre-emptive strike, that’s what would trigger retaliatory actions by North Korea.