The Pivot and American Statecraft in Asia

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source:  Information Processing

Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, critiques the Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia. Australian strategists are a good source of analysis on this issue because they are caught in the middle and have to think realistically about the situation.

Whenever I see a book or article on this topic I quickly search for terms like DF-21, ASBM, ASCM, cruise missiles, satellite imaging, submarines, etc. The discussion cannot be serious or deep without an understanding of current military and technological capabilities of both sides. (See High V, Low M.)

Book review: ‘The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia’, by Kurt Campbell: 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.

… 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.

… 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.

… 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.

See also Red Star over the Pacific and The Thucydides Trap.

I added the following in the comments. These questions of military/technological capability stand prior to the prattle of diplomats, policy analysts, or political scientists. Perhaps just as crucial is whether top US and Chinese leadership share the same beliefs on these issues.

It’s hard to war game a US-China pacific conflict, even a conventional one. How long before the US surface fleet is destroyed by ASBM/ASCM? How long until forward bases are? How long until US has to strike at targets on the mainland? How long do satellites survive? How long before the conflict goes nuclear? I wonder whether anyone knows the answers to these questions with high confidence — even very basic ones, like how well asymmetric threats like ASBM/ASCM will perform under realistic conditions. These systems have never been tested in battle.

The stakes are so high that China can just continue to establish “facts on the ground” (like building new island bases), with some confidence that the US will hesitate to escalate. If, for example, both sides secretly believe (at the highest levels; seems that Xi is behaving as if he might) that ASBM/ASCM are very effective, then sailing a carrier group through the South China Sea becomes an act of symbolism with meaning only to those that are not in the know.

This Aug 2016 RAND report delves into some of the relevant issues (see Appendix A, p.75). But it is not clear whether the 2025 or 2015 scenarios explored will be more realistic over the next few years. A weakness of the report is that it assumes US forces will undertake large scale conventional attack on the Chinese mainland (referred to as Air Sea Battle by US planners) relatively early in the conflict, without fear of nuclear retaliation. A real decision maker could not confidently make that assumption, PRC “no first use” declaration notwithstanding.

See also Future Warfare in the Western Pacific (International Security, Summer 2016) for a detailed analysis of A2AD capability, potentially practiced by both sides. I disagree with the authors’ claim that the effectiveness of A2AD in 2040 will be limited to horizon distances (they assume all satellites have been destroyed). The authors neglect the possibility of large numbers of stealthy drone radar platforms (or micro-satellites) which are hard to detect until they activate to provide targeting data to incoming missiles.

This article by Peter Lee gives a realistic summary of the situation, including the role of nuclear weapons. As a journalist, Lee is not under the same political restrictions as RAND or others funded by the US military / defense industry. The survivability of the surface fleet (=aircraft carriers) and the escalatory nature of what is known as Air Sea Battle (=ASB) are both highly sensitive topics.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.