Strategic Logic of the American “Pivot to the Pacific”

William Kyle
University of Mary Washington, Class of 2013

Five years of Obama administration foreign policy are now in the history books as we continue to move beyond the Global War on Terror era. While the jury is still out regarding the ultimate impact of this administration’s re-direction of American foreign policy, its initiatives are clearly designed to steer American foreign policy in a profoundly Pacific direction. This shift has direct consequences for the U. S. Navy as we move further into the so-called “Pacific Century.” 1 This article examines the strategic logic of the American “pivot to the Pacific” through an assessment of the Obama administration’s policy implementation, actions and accompanying rhetoric, and possible implications for the future trajectory of the U.S. Navy. While popularly cast as a security-driven effort to hedge against China’s rise and growing assertiveness, closer examination reveals that the strategic pivot is more accurately described as an attempt to graft ‘smart power’ principles to regional policy as a means to integrate American hard and soft power assets to secure America’s regional interests. 2 The resulting culmination of carrot-and-stick tactics has significant implications for a U.S. Navy that faces increasing challenges in the rapidly militarizing Pacific region while facing declining resources to meet those challenges. The strategic pivot, therefore, seems to leave the U.S. Navy in the unenviable position of being the vanguard of this new American foreign policy direction while facing concomitant reductions in force structure and modernization budgets.   However, it is not at all clear that the Pacific “pivot” strategy as implemented by the Obama administration actually requires a dramatic, Cold War-like increase in American forward naval presence.

More than two years after Secretary of State Clinton outlined a broad policy to “pivot” to the Pacific, there are many indicators that the strategic pivot to Asia is more than just another step in an escalating US-China competition, even though some foreign policy realists simplistically depict this strategy as a classic, emerging hard power rivalry where competing national interests increasingly collide. 3  Instead, the US has stressed involvement in regional multilateralism and economic integration, prominently playing up US involvement and achievements in the region using symbolic rhetoric to convey the message (and the policy’s goal) that the United States is, and will remain, an integral Pacific power. 4 Although security policy already constitutes a key component of the unfolding multifaceted Pacific strategy, the limited security initiatives discussed to date do not appear to be the policy centerpiece. In reality, the pivot to the Pacific is more of an amplification of previous American policy in a symbolic shift in American focus toward the region, incorporating the Obama administration foreign policy imprimatur in the amalgamation of ‘smart power’ principles, rather than a revolutionary policy change that results in significant reallocation of resources.

The current Pacific-first policy approach emerged from a background of internal economic problems and the Obama administration’s desire to move beyond the tarnished and Middle East-centric legacy of the Bush foreign policy era. The expensive and controversial US War on Terror, coupled with the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, questioned the perception of the United States as the pre-eminent international power and challenged the US-led liberal international system constructed in the years following World War II. A shift in the geography of global economic power to the East gave rise to perceptions that an ascendant Asia has begun to eclipse reeling Western nations and copious assessments that America’s “unipolar moment” has ended. 5 This reality faced the Obama administration when it formally announced a profound realignment of its foreign policy direction in 2011. From the beginning, President Obama placed Asia high on the American foreign policy agenda, going so far as to label himself America’s “first Pacific President” as early as 2009. 6 Fighting popular perceptions of previous American neglect in the course of America’s lengthy and distracting ‘War on Terror’ and its related contingencies, President Obama stressed that the United States was turning its principal attention towards Asia for good. 7  In November 2011, this new Asia policy directive got its own catch phrase when then- Secretary of State Hilary Clinton published an article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled “America’s Pacific Century,” emphasizing both the current and future importance of the region and America’s desired role in Asia. In this article, Secretary Clinton stated, “In the last decade, our foreign policy has transitioned from dealing with the post-Cold War peace dividend to demanding commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. As those wars wind down, we will need to accelerate efforts to pivot to new global realities.” 8  Thus was born the American ‘pivot’ to the Pacific.

Since Secretary Clinton’s pivot pronouncement, analysts and journalists typically have applied two very distinct narratives to describe the pivot strategy. The first narrative is heavily steeped in realist international relations thinking, and is clearly reflected in such papers as Robert Ross’s Foreign Affairs article “The Problem with the Pivot.” 9 Focusing disproportionately on the pivot’s security, Ross asserts that the Obama administration has “reversed Washington’s longstanding policy of engagement with Beijing, turning instead to costly initiatives whose force is disproportionate to the threat from China.” 10 Although it is far from a universally held view, concern over the perception of the ‘pivot’ as a new, highly militarized move that came at the expense of American interests elsewhere led the Obama administration to change metaphors for this foreign policy strategy, more recently denoting it as the American ‘rebalancing’ to Asia. 11 This subtle change reflects US policymakers’ attempt to emphasize this strategy as a continuation of US policy by eliminating the controversial ‘pivot’ metaphor, despite the term’s persistence in the debate. 12

This first type of narrative characterizes the pivot as a fulfillment of realist international relations theory expectations, as this school of thought anticipates adversarial interactions between a rising and a falling power. The influence of such works as A.F.K. Organski’s seminal 1958 book World Politics, with its power transition theory and related schools of realist thought (e.g. Robert Gilpin’s hegemonic war theory and John Mearsheimer’s offensive structural realism) furnish the theoretical framework for this narrative. 13  Cold War realism’s legacy clearly persists with such terms as ‘containment’ in the literature denoting America’s grand strategy towards peer competitor China. 14

According to the works of Organski, a rising power dissatisfied with the international system that the leading power administers nearly always results in conflict, as the dissatisfied power will seek to challenge the status quo. 15 Contemporary China is issuing such a challenge to the international order that the United States has overseen since the end of the Cold War. For example, China takes exception to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea territorial disputes, including its provisions for exclusive economic zone neutrality. 16  China also appears to be undermining Western economic conventions and institutions, seen in its lackluster enforcement of international trade practices following its 2001 accession to the WTO and aggressive use of cyber-espionage to strengthen its domestic industry. 17 In the security arena, China provide material support and diplomatic cover for pariah regimes in Iran and North Korea, and continues to threaten conflict with stalwart American ally Japan over the issue of sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. 18 Concomitantly, China is overseeing a substantial increase in military spending that has put it on course to overtake America’s defense spending in coming years, enhancing its ability to challenge American preeminence in the West Pacific and perhaps beyond. 19

All of these factors serve to increase mutual strategic distrust over long-term intentions between China and America. 20 A common realist interpretation of an international actor’s threat level as equal to its capabilities and its intention arguably dictates that the United States must react to enhance its security given the military rise of a strategically opaque China. 21 The pivot fulfills the role of a reactive security policy in this type of narrative. It is this filtering lens of realist analysis that crystallizes a distorted, security-centric view of Obama’s Pacific policy. Both hawks, who advocate more robust military deployments, and doves, who recommend more limited means to defuse heightening US-China security tensions, have employed this first type of narrative, despite their vastly different policy prescriptions for American diplomacy in Asia. 22

Despite the prevalence of realist-tinged and security-centric descriptions of American strategy in the Pacific, a second narrative from academic literature has also gained traction in the policy community. This narrative notes that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Pacific has consistently sought to engage in, and strengthen, regional multilateralism. 23  Secretary Clinton’s policy statements describe a multi-dimensional, three-pronged approach for future American statecraft in the Pacific. 24 Rather than simply rebalancing military assets from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration seeks permanently to shift diplomatically, economically and strategically to the Pacific. Even scholars belonging more in the idealist camp of international relations theory have described American policy in the Pacific in this light. 25 Maintaining flexibility, while stressing the importance of public goods such as the maintenance of global commons (e.g. freedom of navigation in the world’s oceans), this foreign policy strategy possesses many hallmarks of a new theory of statecraft: smart power.

The term ‘smart power’ has recently originated from such international affairs scholars as Suzanne Nossel and Joseph Nye, and has also gained traction as an idea inside the Beltway. 26 State Department officials are eager to proclaim smart power to be “at the very heart of President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s foreign policy vision.” 27 The 2007 Center for Strategic and International Studies Commission on Smart Power Report and Joseph Nye’s several publications on the same subject provide a starting point for analyzing the components of smart power. 28

In some respects, smart power is an amalgamation of Nye’s previous concepts of soft power (the intangible capacity of ideas and values to influence and legitimate an actor’s behavior in the international system) and hard power (a state’s ability to wield carrots and sticks in the international system to realize its interests, traditionally including military and economic power). In his words, “smart power is neither hard nor soft – it is the skillful combination of both.” 29 Smart power essentially is the efficacious use of a state’s soft and hard power assets employing ‘contextual intelligence,’ which is “an intuitive diagnostic skill that helps policymakers align tactics with objectives to create smart strategies.” 30 Some analysts contend that ‘smart power’ is a backlash to the allegedly strategically costly and ill-received foreign policy of the second Bush administration, reflecting a desire by foreign policy practitioners to develop a more informed, comprehensive and logically organized process to formulate strategy. 31 Whatever the motive for this integrated theory of power application, it is clear that this concept is rapidly gaining influence in the foreign policy community, undeniably spurred along as a result of declining defense budgets and less robust hard power capabilities in today’s age of sequestration. 32

The first key step in formulating a “smart” US foreign policy includes establishing clear objectives in American grand strategy. 33 According to Nye, American grand strategy should secure national survival and the provision of global goods such as the current international order. 34 He stresses the importance of maintaining old alliances and creating new power networks incorporating rising powers, understanding that current American preponderance does not equate to hegemony so it would be foolish to try to prevent the ‘rise of the rest.’ 35 Nye even specifically addresses what he refers to as the potential challenge of the rise of a hostile hegemon in Asia (i.e. China), recommending a “policy that welcomes China as a responsible stakeholder but hedges against possible hostility by maintaining close relations with Japan, India, and other countries in Asia that welcome an American presence.” 36  This type of policy certainly appears more consistent with the descriptions of the pivot versus the more confrontational, security-centric realist approach to East Asia that others advocate. 37 This approach is illustrated in the approach of the United States with regard to the recent conflagration surrounding Beijing’s establishment of an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) over disputed territory in the East China Sea. While the U.S. subsequently signaled its displeasure and non-compliance with this unilateral and aggressive step when it flew B-52 bombers through a portion of the ADIZ without prior notification to China, but fell short of direct confrontation and did not demand PRC leadership rescind the ADIZ during Vice President Biden’s recent trip to set the destabilized region aright. 38  It seems that the Obama administration is seeking to hedge and gradually integrate China into the existing rules-based order, rather than directly confront the increasingly capable and potentially belligerent Middle Kingdom.

While scholars and pundits disagree as to the direction that American Pacific strategy should take, a key motivation identified in all interpretations of the American rebalancing is the accelerating rise of China as a regional and perhaps world power. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the removal of the common threat that had served as the raison d’être for the initial cross-Pacific rapprochement, US-China relations have been in a state of uncertainty. 39 China’s consistent economic growth has been a game changer in East Asia, with the economic rise of other regional powers shrinking in importance when compared with the rapid ascent of the one-fifth of humanity who live in modern day China. 40 The question, then, is not whether the pivot is in part a response to China’s rise, but exactly what type of reaction it is. 41

Whether the rise of China results in conflict, such theoretical questions inform and shape American foreign policy in the region. Therefore, it is not surprising that American assessments of China’s capabilities and future intentions loom large in the strategic pivot discussion. In recent years, China has not been shy in using its growing clout to pursue its goals and interests more aggressively than hitherto, threatening neighbors and attracting worldwide attention. 42 This conforms with aforementioned realist ideas of power transition in world politics, with China apparently trying to translate some of its newfound power into reshaping the rules of the international system. 43  While the Obama administration has been at pains to emphasize that the rise of China is not driving the American pivot back to the Pacific, many analysts and scholars see things differently. 44 Copious realist analyses of China’s growing military capabilities regularly catch the attention of American academic and policymaker circles, such as those of scholars Andrew Erickson and Adam Liff, that,

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) increasingly has the resources, capabilities, and confidence to attempt to assert China’s interests on its contested periphery, particularly in the Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China Seas). This development has the potential to seriously challenge the interests of the U.S., its allies, and other partners in the region, as well as access to and security of a vital portion of the global commons—waters and airspace that all nations rely on for prosperity, yet which none own. That’s why the PLA’s development matters so much to a Washington located halfway around the world. 45

The stronger emphasis on engagement and integration efforts in American rebalancing may indicate that the Obama administration does not currently accept the China threat theory, but the pivot doubtless contains elements that constitute soft balancing efforts.

Diplomatically, the strategic pivot has initiated several concrete steps to ensure the United States’ continued role in the Asia Pacific. Secretary Clinton’s penchant for “forward deployed” multilateral diplomacy has led the administration to emphasize frequent official travel to the region to bolster alliances and strengthen multilateral institutions. 46 As part of the pivot, the US formally joined the East Asia Summit (which President Obama attended in person in both 2011 and 2012), signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, established a permanent mission to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and created a new regional assistance framework, the Asia-Pacific Strategic Engagement Initiative, signaling US desires to maintain a more integrated presence in the region. 47 In addition to reaffirming ties and commitments with traditional allies and partners in the region (e.g. the Philippines and Japan), the United States has also sought out new relationships with states like Vietnam and Indonesia. 48 Perhaps most notably, the United States has been very proactive in encouraging the ongoing democratic reforms in authoritarian Myanmar through increased diplomatic engagement, with President Obama even becoming the first incumbent president to visit the country in November of 2012. 49 The pivot has experienced its own share of shortfalls, however, as recurring domestic issues and crises and distracting developments in the Middle East (i.e. the Syrian conflict and the Iranian nuclear deal) are contributing to a commonly held perception across Asia of a gap between rhetoric and action on the part of the United States, indicating an overall lack of seriousness in its allegedly renewed emphasis on the Asia-Pacific. 50

While China has been critical of America’s new Pacific posturing, the reality is that the Obama administration has also worked to deepen US-China relations. 51 President Obama and Hu Jintao, his former Chinese counterpart, met at least a dozen times since 2009, in addition to Secretary Clinton’s many meetings with regional officials and trips to the region which totaled over 100 days during her tenure. Secretary Kerry has continued this high level of personal engagement while both the US and China have invested substantial resources in over 60 issue-based and regional dialogues. 52 Even the US-China military-to-military relationship, traditionally the weakest component of the bilateral relationship due to China’s treatment of mil-mil contacts as a bellwether tool to signal disapproval of American policies, has improved substantially under Xi Jinping’s leadership. China refers to the new pattern of closer military ties as a “a new type of military to military relationship,” and have thus far encouraged more senior-level exchanges, an expanded range of dialogue topics, and growing joint military activities, signaling the desire of both countries’ leadership to forge closer connections and lessen the chance of any misunderstanding or miscalculations that may result in conflict. 53

Economically, the United States has pivoted in two key ways: promoting a series of business and economic initiatives to assist Pacific and Southeast Asian nations, and pursuing an ambitious regional free trade area agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). 54 Besides trade and investment, the United States is seeking to make more comprehensive inroads in the region, reflected in such efforts as increased involvement in often overlooked economies in Oceania, and the creation of a new cooperative framework, the “US-Asia Pacific Comprehensive Partnership for a Sustainable Energy.” 55 Other significant programs and initiatives, such as the Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) Initiative between the United States and ASEAN, have been publicized as important elements of American rebalancing to the Pacific. 56 Most notably, the United States joined, and is now sponsoring, a massive new Free Trade Area (FTA) in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, currently comprising much of the Asia Pacific with US-determined entry requirements that make imminent Chinese accession unlikely in the near-term. 57

Finally, the security aspect of the strategic pivot also seeks to enhance the United States’ military presence and image in the Asia Pacific in the coming “Asian century.” Perhaps it is because of early high-profile steps such as the stationing of 2,500 US Marines in Darwin, Australia and a squadron of littoral combat ships (LCS) in Singapore that this aspect of the pivot has been the most prominent publicly. 58 It may also be due to clear references in such important guiding documents as the Pentagon’s “Sustaining US Global Leadership – Priorities for 21st Century Defense” and the “Joint Operational Access Concept” to the threat that China’s apparent anti-access/area denial military strategy in the West Pacific poses to American interests. 59 Since their promulgation in 2011 and early 2012, respectively, the Department of Defense has continued rebalancing in many ways, such as gaining access to new bases, developing strategic partnerships via joint exercises and arms sales, and debating new force structure and doctrines. 60

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert provided a useful summary of the main ways that the armed forces are rebalancing to Asia, namely by deploying more forces (e.g. increasing the Pacific theater share of naval ships and aircraft from fifty to sixty percent of the navy’s total), fielding new capabilities focused on Asia-Pacific challenges, and developing partnerships and intellectual capital across the region. 61 Rather than encouraging our allies to challenge China’s rise, the United States has taken measures to assuage the fears of China, even including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to join in 2014s massive Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercise and conducting joint naval and disaster relief exercises in Hawaii in November 2013. 62 However, an unfavorable budgetary environment on the home front may ultimately render American military rebalancing in the Pacific a paper tiger, with budget constraints, rather than a Pacific surge, dictating changes in force distribution. 63

At least one expert academic is keen to point out the gap between the forces that the current U.S. maritime strategy would require in the increasingly militarized Pacific of the 21st century, and the likelihood sufficient resources will be readily available. 64 Rather than expend exorbitant resources that may or may not materialize to maintain uncontested global command of the sea, a luxury that the United States enjoyed in the post-Cold War era until recently, the U.S. Navy may be better suited to tailor its strategy to reflect that of contemporary American foreign policy in the Pacific by becoming more multilateral. 65 While previous ideas and initiatives, such as Admiral Mullen’s “thousand-ship navy” and “offshore balancing”, have been proposed as a means to sustaining regional influence, the apparent continued reliance of the contemporary segmented hub-and-spokes American alliance system in the Pacific upon the US Navy as security guarantor indicate a lack of development in implementing this strategic concept. 66 As prospects for the U.S. Navy to meet even the relatively humble 306-ship navy plan fading rapidly, pursuit of a more coordinated and cooperative relationship with regional allies via equitable burden-sharing security arrangements is most likely the best way forward. 67 At the very least, this approach is more consistent with contemporary ideations of a “smart” foreign policy than the Cold War-era network of bilateral relationships the United States currently utilizes in the Asia Pacific. Expert scholars have recognized the risk that the pivot currently runs in potentially antagonizing China while cutting defense budgets and engaging only in limited hedging and soft balancing against its military rise. 68  This risk of making an enemy out of an increasingly capable great power while presenting only a hollow deterrent represents a sure recipe for disaster for American credibility and national interests. 69

The uncertainty accompanying China’s rapid emergence as a dominant regional power and rising global power clearly is not the only consideration behind the Obama Administration’s pivot to the Pacific. Stepping up America’s diplomatic involvement in the region, both in its bilateral relations (including its traditional hubs and spokes alliance system, new and previous partners, and especially with the People’s Republic of China) and in multilateral institutions, the Administration’s priority appears to be focused on maintaining America’s preeminence in strategically vital Asia rather creating a strategic encirclement of China. This is also true economically, where American efforts to foster greater regional economic integration are exclusionary only insofar as they promote current international standards. Finally, at a strategic level, while the United States is enhancing its symbolic role in the region, it is not undergoing a massive military buildup, nor is it overseeing a large regional redeployment of forces in terms of numbers capabilities to maintain regional hegemony in the face of an increasingly powerful PLA. 70

In attempting to uphold a stable rules-based system in East Asia while accommodating China’s rise, the Obama administration appears to be mixing diplomatic, economic and security policies to amplify America’s regional presence and ensure US readiness should China prospectively challenge the normative status quo. The pivot, then, is consistent with Nye’s smart power formulation and American ‘congagement’ of China, seeking to ‘integrate but hedge’ with regards to the PRC. 71 At its core, the ‘strategic pivot ’is a direct application of smart power instead of a fear and insecurity-driven policy as realists have suggested. Given the shrinking Navy force structure and modernization budgets, a national security strategy based on “smart power” principles to lessen the need for Cold-War like naval forces in the region may be the only viable option. Assuming no alleviation in the looming budgetary crisis facing the US defense establishment, the United States Navy must adapt its strategy and force structure with the times, or it risks finding itself increasingly outdated and outmoded in the America’s Pacific Century.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)


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  59. United States Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” (January 5, 2012), (accessed December 1, 2012); Department of Defense, “Joint Operational Access Concept,” (January 17, 2012), (accessed December 1, 2012).
  60. Luke Hunt, “U.S. Increasing Military Presence in the Philippines,” The Diplomat (December 18, 2012), (accessed December 30, 2012); Brendan Nicholson, “Chinese Invited to Naval Exercise,” (February 4, 2013), (accessed February 11, 2013); Jim Wolf, “Analysis: U.S. Arms Sales to Asia Set to Boom on Pacific ‘Pivot,’” (January 1, 2013) (accessed March 7, 2013); Ward Carroll, “Army Reorganizing with Eye on Pacific Pivot,” (October 24, 2012) (accessed December 30, 2012); Randy J. Forbes, “America’s Pacific Air-Sea Battle Vision,” The Diplomat (March 8, 2012) (accessed August 14, 2012).
  61. Jonathan Greenert, “Sea Change: The Navy Pivots to Asia,”, November 14, 2012, (accessed November 20, 2012).
  62. Richard Jayad Heydarian, “U.S. Pivot Sparks Asian Arms Race.” Asia Times Online (January 17, 2013) (accessed March 6, 2013);

    Brendan Nicholson, “Chinese Invited to Naval Exercise,” (February 4, 2013), (accessed February 11, 2013);, “China’s Navy to Join U.S.-led Pacific Drill in 2014,” (March 24, 2013) (accessed March 25, 2013);, “Chinese Troops Drill in Hawaii as Military Ties Deepen with U.S.,” (November 11, 2013) (accessed November 15, 2013).

  63. J. Randy Forbes, “Rebalancing the Rhetoric,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 138 no. 10 (October 2012), (accessed March 20, 2013); Matthew Pennington, “Cuts Could Endanger U.S. ‘Rebalancing’ to Asia,” (March 1, 2013) (accessed March 5, 2013).
  64. Bernard D. Cole, Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013): 57-60.
  65. ibid.
  66. Ronald E. Ratcliff, “Building Partner’s Capacity: The Thousand-Ship Navy,” Naval War College Review 60, no. 4 (Autumn 2007): 44-46; Robert Farley, “Offshore Engagement: The Right U.S. Strategy for Asia,” The Diplomat, (November 20, 2013) (accessed November 30, 2013).
  67. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, (November 8, 2013) (accessed November 30, 2013): 1-3, 48-52; Bernard D. Cole, Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013): 57-60.
  68. Andrew S Erickson, “China Channels Billy Mitchell: Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Alters Region’s Military Geography,” 6.
  69. ibid.
  70. Bruce Klingner and Dean Cheng, “U.S. Asian Policy: America’s Security Commitment to Asia Needs More Forces,” The Heritage Foundation (August 7, 2012), (accessed November 2, 2012): 9-11.
  71. Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011): 89-90; Joseph S. Nye, “Work with China, Don’t Contain It,” (January 25, 2013), (accessed February 11, 2013).

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