Book Review: ‘The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia’

by Kurt Campbell

To read Kurt Campbell’s reply to this review, see below or click here.

As Assistant Secretary of State for Asia in Barack Obama’s first term, Kurt Campbell has a respectable claim to being the principal architect of the president’s Pivot to Asia. Not surprisingly, then, his new book The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia argues that the Pivot is the right policy for America in Asia over coming years, and explains how it should be elaborated and extended under the next president.

Kurt’s book will resonate with those who already think the Pivot has been good policy. The question is whether it can persuade the sceptics to change their minds. I’m not sure it will, because it fails to effectively address key weaknesses which were clear enough when the Pivot was first launched, and have become clearer still in the years since.

First, Washington has never clearly identified or analysed the problem which the Pivot is supposed to solve, and The Pivot doesn’t either. And yet there is no mystery here. America’s problem in Asia today is that China seeks to take its place as the primary power in Asia, and the shift in relative power between the two countries over recent decades makes China’s challenge very formidable indeed. This simple fact must be at the centre of any serious analysis of America’s policy options in Asia.

The Pivot mentions China a lot, but does not plainly acknowledge the centrality of its challenge to America’s predicament in Asia today, and nowhere seriously assesses the power and ambition that drive China’s challenge. Nor is the book clear about America’s objectives. In places it says America’s aims include preventing Asia falling under someone else’s hegemony, but elsewhere that the Pivot is all about preserving Asia’s geopolitical ‘operating system’, by which it plainly means preserving the status quo based on US primacy.

Thus the book, like the policy itself, is based on evasions about both China’s and America’s aims, and therefore avoids acknowledging how directly those aims conflict, and how stark and serious the resulting confrontation between them has already become.

From this first weakness flows a second. Because The Pivot does not clearly identify the scale of the problem, it does not offer solutions that measure up to it. Its policy proposals, set out in a ‘Ten Point Plan’, are not set against the scale of the task required of them, or the obstacles they face. The ten points include, for example: mobilising US public support for engagement with Asia (but without mentioning Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders); strengthening US alliances (but without mentioning the reluctance of US allies to be seen to align against China); and ‘Setting the Contours for China’s Rise’ (but without acknowledging that China has no reason to accept America’s ‘contours’ and plenty of ways to set some contours of its own).

Here too the weakness of the book reflects the weakness of the policy after which it is named. The practical steps taken under the Pivot have always been far too modest to meet the challenge America faces in Asia. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that they were ever intended to have more than a symbolic effect. The Pivot’s architects apparently assumed that a merely symbolic reassertion of US power and resolve would be enough to make China back off and abandon its challenge. China’s assertive posture in the East and South China Seas today is strong evidence that they were wrong. And yet this assumption infuses The Pivot.

Which brings us to the third weakness of the book, and of the policy. Neither seriously consider the costs to America of the measures that would be needed to achieve what they presume to be America’s aims of resisting China’s challenge and preserving US primacy. They underestimate the challenge, they underestimate the measures needed to meet it, and they therefore underestimate the costs and risks America must run to do so – diplomatically, economically and, above all, strategically.

In particular, The Pivot has nothing to say about the most important single question facing America in Asia today: is it willing to go to war with China to preserve US primacy? This question, more than anything else, will determine the shape of future Asian order and America’s role in it. China’s recent conduct strongly suggests that it will only abandon its challenge to American primacy if it is really convinced that the answer is ‘yes’. But nothing Beijing has seen or heard from Washington in recent years has convinced it of that, which is why it has been acting so boldly. Unless that changes, the chances of facing down Beijing’s challenge are very low.

That will not change until an American president is willing to stand up and explain to America’s people why US primacy in Asia is so important to them that they should be willing to go to war with China to preserve it. The answer to that question must encompass the fact that China is a nuclear-armed power with the capacity to destroy US cities. This is an issue which The Pivot entirely avoids. I found no substantive reference to China’s nuclear forces in the entire book, nor to extended nuclear deterrence as the foundation of America’s key alliances, and hence to its position in Asia. No analysis that evades these hard questions can address the future of America’s Asia strategy effectively.

So Kurt Campbell’s new book reinforces the impression that important elements of America’s foreign policy establishment still haven’t begun either to take China’s rise seriously or to consider the momentous choices America faces in response to it. Until that changes, America’s response to China is unlikely to become much more effective than it has been for the five years since Barack Obama launched the Pivot in Canberra. And so it becomes more and more likely that American power in Asia will continue to dwindle.

To read Kurt Campbell’s reply to this review, click herePhoto: Getty Images/Feng Li

Hugh White is a thoughtful critic of American policy in Asia with arguments that warrant serious attention. He has most notably argued that to avoid a Sino-American conflict, Washington should abandon the Pivot, generally withdraw from its longstanding leadership role in Asia, and grant China a substantial sphere of influence across the region. When confronting Chinese unreasonableness or recalcitrance, the US should punt rather than persevere.


Kurt Campbell

In his recent review, he applies these now familiar criticisms of US efforts in Asia to my book, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, which seeks to both explain and extend the case for a more engaged American policy in Asia going forward.

White lists three broad criticisms in his review: the book fails to adequately address Asia’s core strategic problem, which he claims is the risk of conflict with China; none of the book’s policy prescriptions sufficiently cope with the magnitude of this problem; and the costs of addressing the China challenge are too high.

At the core of these three criticisms is a stark and rather crude reading of Asia’s politics and the Pivot’s purpose. In White’s view, both are entirely about China. For White, the US and China are locked in a struggle for supremacy over Asia that can end only in conflict or (as White advocates) American acquiescence to Chinese leadership in Asia. Because the Pivot cannot deter Chinese assertiveness and may in fact invite conflict, White suggests it should be abandoned and Asia’s future left to Beijing’s prerogatives.

White’s worldview is overriding and rigid, but the subtleties and nuances of the region (and hopefully of my book) are often lost in his stark renditions. At the core, White misunderstands the fundamental nature of the US relationship with China, with its careful, calibrated mixture of cooperation, competition, and interdependence developed over decades. White instead sees the future of Asia as caught between two stark outcomes: an inevitable US-China conflict or a full-blown American retreat. The Pivot rejects this simplicity and argues instead for policies that would allow the US and China to coexist in an increasingly interconnected Asia and to work together for the betterment of both countries and the region. But the book goes well beyond simply the requirements of the US-China relationship to embrace a deeper American engagement in the region as a whole, from Japan to Korea to Southeast Asia, Australia, and India. White is only concerned with the US-China dimension of the equation and his expectations are profoundly pessimistic and dark, while my book seeks to harness the optimism and sense of possibility that has always animated life in Asia.

Now we turn to the specific critiques in White’s review.

First, White argues that the book is not ‘clear about America’s objectives’ in pivoting to Asia, though the book in fact states repeatedly and at great length that the Pivot’s core objective is to bolster Asia’s rules-based ‘operating system’. Built in the aftermath of the Second World War, this system consists of a complex set of legal, security, and practical arrangements that have underscored four remarkable decades of Asian prosperity and security, liberating hundreds of millions from poverty. At its heart are time-tested principles: freedom of navigation, sovereign equality, transparency, peaceful dispute resolution, sanctity of contracts, free trade, and cooperation on transnational challenges. This is a system that has served us all extraordinarily well and should be preserved.

In seeking to bolster it, the Pivot goes beyond previous American Asia strategies, which focused narrowly on keeping the region free from hegemony. While regional balance is important, it alone cannot ensure Asia’s many rising and transitional states opt for 21st century rules or join global efforts to halt climate change. For this reason, the Pivot aims to strengthen Asia’s operating system by avoiding the kind of narrow focus on China that characterises White’s review, and instead employs a broader multidimensional engagement across the region’s diverse states and institutions.

This leads to White’s second major criticism, which is that the prescriptions offered for the Pivot are not up to the task of handling a rising China that is undermining the Asian order. For White, sustaining Asia’s operating system ‘plainly means preserving the status quo based on US primacy’, which he believes invites military conflict with Beijing. This misreads Asia’s operating system, which has been built and sustained not only by the US but in concert with allies and partners, including China (perhaps its greatest beneficiary). The system will naturally evolve as China and other rising states seek to amend it, and the purpose of US policy is not to sustain primacy but to shape that evolutionary process in ways that maintain the order’s essential 21st (rather than 19th) century characteristics. This effort can and must be accomplished through diplomacy rather than through the conflict that White prophesises and the disengagement he instead proposes.

This is why the book advocates, and most Asian states welcome, comprehensive American involvement in Asian affairs. The Pivot attempts to sustain Asia’s operating system by improving ties with allies, partners, and institutions to build widespread support for its core principles while raising the costs for steps that undermine it. White hastily dismisses the prescriptions offered, but it should be clear that many make a difference. Efforts like TPP can strengthen free trade, support for multilateralism provides forums for addressing transnational problems, and bolstering transitional states creates a more democratic and cooperative region; all of which boost the existing operating system. In this way, the Pivot tries to enmesh China in a larger, encompassing regional framework and avoids a ‘China first’ or ‘G2’ approach that would seek an elusive and unenforceable Sino-American grand bargain.

White is sceptical about all this. He argues allies are reluctant ‘to be seen to align against China’, but the Pivot calls for supporting shared regional principles, not containment. White questions whether enmeshing China in norms and rules matters since China has ‘no reason to accept them’, but that misses the point, which is to create a framework that gives Beijing reasons to accept them, particularly when they have aided in China’s own success. Indeed, China is responsive to persuasion, inducement, or sanction on many issues, as recent cooperation on climate change, Iran sanctions, and Afghan peace (as well as Chinese interest in TPP) demonstrates. If the US acts as a conductor coordinating Asian states in common support for the operating system, it can make a difference.

Where White’s criticism has some purchase is in his third point: that the US presidential election calls into question the longstanding foundations of American Asia policy. But he is wrong to suggest that the book overlooks this. An entire chapter, nearly forty pages of the book, is dedicated to the risks to the Pivot’s promise, including the kinds of domestic, grassroots nationalist efforts exhibited in the current American presidential campaign that could upend Asia policy.

Beyond the academic arguments around hegemonic transition and competition, White holds a subtly disguised view that the US is simply not up to the challenge of managing relations with China. In his view, disengagement back to Hawaii or even Los Angeles is infinitely preferable to the testing, vexing challenge of creating a coexistence with China that will never be easy, but nevertheless central to achieving the promise of the 21st century in Asia.

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