What the Pivot to Asia Really Means

October 17, 2016  • Zach St. Louis

Key Points

  • Asian countries are not just looking for a strong commitment of defense from the United States, but an engaged and innovative commercial partnership.
  • If the United States wants to “pivot to Asia,” the country faces a long but necessary road ahead.

Above, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell discusses the US relationship with Asia with the New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger.

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, an essential task handed to the next president will be proving the commitment of the United States to Asia. Each candidate has expressed a stance on business, nuclear arms, trade, defense, and other issues concerning the region. Their views differ greatly not only from one another, but also from President Obama’s current strategy. This makes it the job of the next administration to make clear what the US position will be on Asia, and how closely it intends to work with its partners there.

“We have a huge amount of work to do in the immediate aftermath of the election to reassure Asians and others about the purpose and continuity of American leadership in the world,” said Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “These concerns won’t go away the day after Election Day.”

For Campbell, US commitment to the security and economic prosperity of Asian countries is vital to American interests.

Building Strong Partnerships

Asian countries are not just looking for a strong commitment of defense from the United States, but also, according to Campbell, an engaged and innovative commercial partnership. For that reason, the “pivot to Asia,” the phrase coined to describe the Obama administration’s efforts make the region a foreign policy priority, needs to focus on institution-building and deepening American relationships, to go beyond a promise of security.

“There is inevitably going to be tension in the US-China relationship going forward.”
— Kurt Campbell

Campbell explained that some of the relationships between the US and Asian countries, particularly China, are currently strained by economic and political differences, but it is in the best interest of both countries to work through those hurdles. “There is inevitably going to be tension in the US-China relationship going forward,” he said, “but there will also be areas of cooperation, which are essential.”

The coordinated effort of the United States and China in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 to help restore the global economy is a model example of how these countries can and must work together. A similar cooperation between the two countries will be required in the future to deal with the issue of climate change, which has been shown to negatively impact Asia more than any other region in the world, said Campbell.

The Road Ahead

Many Americans are wary of partnerships in the region, especially in the midst of this presidential campaign, which used extremely divisive rhetoric to discuss how interconnected the US should be with these countries. For Campbell, it will be an important step for the next administration, and those going forward, to practice “domestic reassurance” to tell the American people that a continued US presence in Asia is in their best interest.

“Our central challenge is going to be to, first of all, summon the political will to make clear to our own public what we’re about,” said Campbell.

If the United States truly wants to “pivot,” the country faces a long but necessary road ahead, said Campbell, particularly as there are competing priorities of urgent issues occurring around the world.

“For us to be back in Asia is going to require a number of administrations, and a substantial investment of time, attention, and money during a period where there are really other pressing issues in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere,” he said. “It’s not one administration, it’s a succession. It’s a bipartisan commitment.”

Kurt Campbell, CEO of the Asia Group, and former assistant secretary of state of East Asian and Pacific affairs, sat down with New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent David Sanger to discuss his new book The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia as part of the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series at the Aspen Institute.