Does US ‘pivot’ to Asia have a future?
Brookings India hosted a private roundtable discussion on Does the U.S. ‘Pivot’ to Asia have a Future? featuring Dr. Daniel Twining, Senior Fellow for Asia with the German Marshall Fund and a consultant for the U.S. National Intelligence Council, which conducts long-term assessment on the global future. The discussion was moderated by Dhruva Jaishankar, Fellow for Foreign Policy at Brookings India. The discussion focused on the United States’ Asia policy in the context of this year’s elections and the possible implications for India.
America is engaged in a carnival-like election where the ground realities in American foreign policy are being turned on their head by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton has embraced some traditionally Republican views, especially as far as trade and foreign policy are concerned, such as stronger use of force in the Middle East and support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, which she has since moderated. On the other hand, Donald Trump’s views remain rather unclear and often contrary to traditional Republican views. His foreign policy standpoint seems to be governed by an aversion to free trade agreements and alliance politics in general as well as a particular apathy to Japan, a long term U.S. ally.
It is unclear whether, once in office, Trump would really implement his campaign claims. However, the American political system is sufficiently decentralised, with large bureaucracies playing a significant role in policy formulation and implementation, hence making it impossible for Trump to pull all the strings and actually do what he says. Evidence also shows that Trump is quite keen on devolving power—he famously told one potential Vice Presidential nominee that he would be put in charge of both domestic and foreign policy. This would be a glimmer of hope for an otherwise bleak Trump presidency. The Democratic side was shaken up by the unpredictable Bernie Sanders phenomenon and his ability to draw youth to socialist ideas. The nomination of Tim Kaine as the Vice Presidential candidate will assuage concerns among some Democrats as well as Republicans.
Many Americans and Asian allies are wondering about the future of American leadership in Asia after November. With a President Clinton, there is likely to be a lot of continuity. She is expected to have a tough business-like relationship with China. She will likely prioritise not only American allies in Asia but also close partners like India and build the US-India relationship. She will have pressure from her left within the Democratic party on trade and other issues, but she may be strong enough and forceful enough to overcome it. Hillary Clinton, aided by a Republican majority in the Congress, will be also be able to push forward the TPP. Treaty allies such as Japan will be dismayed by a Trump presidency that does not value alliances. On the other hand, the Chinese seem to support Trump precisely for this reason: his rejection of alliance commitments would significantly weaken the United States.
Strategic competition with China now dominates foreign policy debates in Washington. American opinion on China has hardened significantly and with it the realisation that the U.S. needs to prepare for long-term competition with China. The U.S. does not see this strategic competition as being restricted to China’s neighbourhood, where the Chinese have a clear advantage, but expanding to other non-traditional spheres such as cyberspace, in case of conflict. While there will be a policy review of the U.S. policy on Asia and South China Sea in particular by the new president, the U.S. is unlikely to be able to play a decisive role in solving these disputes, owing to its mere geographical distance from the region. The American sentiment is that the disputes can only be solved through active involvement of Asian countries. For the U.S., the future of Asia is about the rise of friendly powers that gradually undertake responsibilities and not about the U.S. being the region’s policeman. Pushing ahead with free trade agreements with Asian countries and enhancing civil, military and political cooperation will help in achieving that goal. However, the U.S. is particularly worried about the weaknesses of China’s neighbours: Japan is a declining economic power, while ASEAN countries stand divided on their approach to China.
In such a scenario, the U.S. would expect India- a country with strong links to the U.S.- to play a more active role in Asian security. India and the United States have similar ideas regarding their Asia policy, and India’s position in Asia has dramatically improved thanks to the country’s partnership with the United States. As long as the U.S. is not dragged into a Sino-Indian conflict, the U.S. would be comfortable with more Indian foreign policy activism by India. India can also play a more decisive role in West Asia, as it is a trusted partner for many countries in the Arab world, has huge economic and human assets and is geographically close to the region. Lastly, regardless of who becomes the next American president, the future of India-U.S. relations is unlikely to waver from its upward trajectory, owing to the bipartisan support it enjoys in the U.S.
Sara Perlangeli, a research intern at Brookings India, contributed to this report.
Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this report is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are of the discussant(s), contributor(s) or author(s). Brookings India does not have any institutional views.
In 2011, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote an article announcing a U.S. pivot to Asia. A discussion immediately started as to what tangible outcomes this approach would entail. Many in Asia wondered whether the pivot (or rebalance as it was later termed) would be primarily economic, diplomatic, or military. A few doubted the U.S. commitment to the region and the costs associated with this approach. In Europe and West Asia, the prospect of partial U.S. withdrawal was contemplated. Others asked whether a pivot to Asia had not already taken place. Many of the doubts about the U.S. role in Asia have resurfaced in the context of the ongoing presidential election campaign, with candidates of both major parties proving critical of existing U.S. overseas commitments. Among other things, the future U.S. role in Asia has immediate implications for India, including for its own ‘Act East’ policy.
Daniel Twining is a senior fellow for Asia with the German Marshall Fund and a consultant for the U.S. National Intelligence Council, which conducts long-term assessment on the global future.
Brookings India is organising a private and off-the-record discussion on July 28 with Dr. Twining on some of the future of the United States’ Asia policy in the context of this year’s elections and the possible implications for India.
Invitations to this discussion are not transferrable. All participants should RSVP by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Given limited space, an early confirmation of your participation is requested.
Senior Fellow for Asia
German Marshall Fund
Fellow, Foreign Policy
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