The Puzzles of the Pivot: America in the Asia-Pacific


Kurt Campbell, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia (Twelve, 2016).


Last week, ASEAN defense ministers met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in Hawaii to reaffirm their commitment to deepen cooperation and to strengthen the “Asia Pacific’s principled and inclusive security network.” The post-World War II “rules-based global order” has been shaped largely by the United States. Underwritten by U.S. naval power, this order long provided peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. The actions of China and others appear to undermine the extent to which the current rules-based global order will remain preeminent.

Figuring out the meaning of a “principled and inclusive security network” has become more difficult as the rules governing such a system increasingly come under sustained challenge. Nowhere has this challenge been clearer than in Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Most recently, the country’s leadership declared its intent to ignore the findings handed down by the tribunal that ruled in July on the status of features contested by China and the Philippines in the South China Sea.  This tribunal was authorized under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The question of whose rules should determine the shape of the 21st-century global order is one of the most vexatious foreign policy challenges facing Western policymakers today. The world’s economic and strategic center of gravity has shifted from Europe toward Asia. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute observes that five of the top 15 military spenders in the world in 2015 are Asian countries: China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Yet the current global order does not adequately reflect these shifts in global influence, with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council including only one Asian member, China. It is no surprise that regimes such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Development Bank and the China-driven Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank present viable alternatives that give emerging states a greater say in their own affairs. These regimes could complement the current system, but could also challenge its authority. From an American perspective, there is a desire to socialize emerging powers such as China into the existing system as stakeholders, rather than as free riders or even spoilers. For Washington, preventing of hegemony by another power is a key pillar in preserving this order.

For observers of U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific, there are key questions that remain unanswered. How can this international order be preserved? What will the U.S. commitment look like and how will it evolve? How exactly will the United States encourage China to engage with global institutions on American terms? When does participation by emerging stakeholders cross the line from actively shaping rules to hegemonic behavior of the kind occurring recently in the South China Sea? And how should the United States respond to these challenges?

Asia-Pacific states support the U.S. strategy of preventing regional hegemony to varying extents. In the case of longtime U.S. ally Australia, the preservation of the status quo — the post-World War II rules-based global order — remains a core tenet of its strategic posture, with the term mentioned no less than 41 times in the 2016 Defence White Paper. However, a recent report published by the Perth USAsia Centre and United States Studies Centre found that 69 percent of Australians surveyed are comfortable with the idea that China could be or is the world’s leading superpower. The challenge for Australian policymakers of expanding ties with China while preserving strong relations with the United States was evident in American displeasure at Canberra’s decision last year to lease the Port of Darwin, which hosts rotational U.S. Marine Corps forces, to a Chinese company for 99 years. For other states, particularly in Southeast Asia, the picture is murkier still. The July tribunal ruling provided a strong negotiating position for another U.S. ally, the Philippines. Yet newly elected President Duterte has indicated his willingness to set aside the tribunal award in bilateral negotiations with China over the South China Sea disputes, and he declared that he would end joint Filipino exercises with the U.S. military. Other Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia, possess even fewer options in enforcing regional norms, particularly when President Jokowi appears reluctant to lead within ASEAN. American voices, including Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, have often said that ASEAN is the fulcrum of the Asia-Pacific region. What happens, then, to regional institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum when no-one can lead from within ASEAN?

A book that grapples directly with these vexatious questions of global order, The Pivot: the future of American statecraft in Asia is an engaging overview of the Obama administration’s famously named Asia strategy from the perspective of one of its main architects, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt M. Campbell. Throughout, he argues that the Asia-Pacific will indisputably become the site of history and the epicenter of America’s economic revitalization over the course of the new century. Unlike in the past, the United States can no longer treat the region as a “secondary theater.” The Pivot is also a deeply personal memoir replete with anecdotes from a career in academia spanning 25 years and criss-crossing the Asia-Pacific.

In its introduction, Campbell declares that the book advances two main arguments: First, Asia should be more central to the formulation and execution of American foreign policy; Second, the United States should pursue a “comprehensive and flexible strategy” in Asia. That means adequate resourcing to maintain alliance commitments and sustaining the “operating system” (or rules-based order) in Asia.

The meat of the book is in its middle three chapters, in which Campbell outlines the major choices for Asia-Pacific states, his own ten-point Asia strategy for the United States, and the potential challenges to its implementation. Policymakers will be most interested in this part of the book, as it provides the grounds for intellectual debate about what the pivot aims to do and how it will be achieved. The case built in those chapters revolves around the fundamental idea that U.S. strategy in Asia is unequivocally about preventing the hegemony of another power and encouraging a balance of power that preserves the current “operating system.”

Some readers may find that The Pivot does not adequately address questions about the extent to which the U.S. will preserve that operating system. For example, in his review, Hugh White argues that the book fails to acknowledge the scale of China’s rise and its challenge to U.S. hegemony. According to White, the ten-point strategy is “too modest to meet the challenge,” having not more than mere “symbolic effect.” Most importantly, in White’s view, the book sidesteps the question of whether the United States is willing to go to war with China to preserve U.S. primacy. In his controversial 2012 book The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, Hugh White offered a prescription that, while anathema in Washington, proved useful for reminding policymakers that there are uncomfortable questions about the future of Asia that must be confronted head-on. The answer to that question will indeed shape policy in many Asian capitals, as some, like Manila, already show signs of hedging.

Campbell responded to White and claimed the review to be a “crude reading” of his book that does not truthfully reflect the complexities of the U.S.-China relationship depicted in the text. Campbell asserts that “most Asian states welcome comprehensive American involvement in Asian affairs.” However, the future of U.S.-led global institutions and “shared values” is a less resolved picture than that presented by Campbell. There are no easy answers. China continues to enforce some parts of the “operating system” while blatantly ignoring others.

Lastly, given the prospects for a Clinton presidency, the book provides a potential prologue for the future. The Pivot is authored by Campbell, but the story is as much Hillary Clinton’s as it is his. Secretary of State Clinton is a pervasive presence in the book, starting with her hiring of Campbell and her seminal Foreign Policy essay that unveiled the pivot in detail. She is often described in terms of her leadership style and her commitment to redress perceptions of U.S. “absenteeism” in Asia-Pacific multilateral fora during the Bush era. More than mere platitudes to his former boss, these parts of the book highlight some of the concrete achievements in Asia policy during her tenure, culminating in the restoration of political ties with Burma and a historic visit by President Obama to that country in December 2012. The book serves as a biography of the pivot, a chance to peer behind the curtain to see the cast of characters involved and observe how their ideas might reappear in a Clinton administration. It gives us some idea of the potential strengths and weaknesses of future U.S. engagement.


Natalie Sambhi is a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre where she focuses on Indonesian foreign and defense policy. She is visiting the U.S. from 24 October for discussions on security and trade issues at the Australian American Leadership Dialogue’s annual Honolulu Leadership Dialogue.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Peter Reft