Any hope left for the ‘Asia Pivot’? : Rusty Pivots and Hopes for Hilary

By William Yeldham
Co-editor of Sir, from the University of Oxford

When President Obama fully outlined ‘The Pivot to Asia’ in a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011 hopes were high, both home and abroad, for what he could accomplish. But looking back 4 years later has anything really changed?

The short answer is not much, or at least not enough. Those clinging to defend the ‘pivot’ may tout the military support of South Korea, an increase in regional diplomatic ties and ongoing forging of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. However, support for South Korea is nothing new and the greater number of hosted Asian diplomats indicates nothing more than attendance. In fact, Foreign assistance to the region is actually down almost 20 percent since 2010.[1] Even the TPP deal recently hit a roadblock when talks in Hawaii broke down without agreement. Benjamin H. Friedman, a research fellow at the CATO Institute, has even dismissed it as more of an effort to draw attention away from military pullbacks in Europe and the Middle East than a true effort to make Asia more strategically important.

Furthermore, a key principle of the ‘Asia Pivot’ was not merely competition but co-operation as Clinton specifically outlined:

Some in the region and some here at home see China’s growth as a threat that will lead either to Cold War-style conflict or American decline. And some in China worry that the United States is bent on containing China’s rise and constraining China’s growth, a view that is stoking a new streak of assertive Chinese nationalism. We reject those views.

The message was that competition does not entirely preclude co-operation yet on this front America has failed dismally. China is now the world’s second-largest economy however its voting share in the, US centred, International Monetary Fund is equivalent to that of the Netherlands and Belgium combined. Why? because the American Congress refuses to pass legislation that would remedy this obvious discrepancy , even whilst rejecting any attempt to reduce America’s own voting share in the IMF. Is it any wonder then that China has sought to develop its own international monetary organisations such as AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank)? Here too the response of the Obama administration was hostile and ineffectually so by seeking to bully allies into staying out of it. Their failure in this was total. Not only did Britain, France, and Germany sign up as founding members, but so did Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Furthermore, the endeavour to turn away from the Middle East, although admittedly a fairly ambitious attempt, has been bogged down in the ongoing Yemen conflict, the fight against Da’Esh and most importantly the Iran Deal. However, whilst the USA’s pivot has been rusty at best there is increasing evidence to show many middle-eastern countries, encouraged by China, are shifting their attention East. Indeed ,over the past year, Chinese leaders have been flocking to the Middle East and strategically important neighbours like Pakistan. The increased activity is not strengthening China’s influence in the region but also indicative of a wider change in its foreign policy.

American and Chinese Foreign Policy

The key strategic difference in policy between China and US is the policy of ‘Non Interventionism’ which the communist regime in China has followed since Premier Zhou Enlai first laid out the principle at the Bandung Peace Conference in 1955. This has allowed China to play both sides of numerous regional conflicts for great economic gain. Today China is both the No. 1 trading partner Iran and its sworn rivals in Saudi Arabia and the No. 2 trading partner of both Israel and Pakistan. It is also seen as a likely leading consumer of new Iranian oil which will come pouring out of the country now that the P5 + 1 deal has retracted sanctions. Despite this economic affiliation with Iran, China’s relationship with Israel is closer than ever, partly as a result of friction between Obama and Netanyahu and the Iranian Nuclear deal. Indeed, in April the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth ran an article which argued that ‘Washington’s actions appear to be giving Israel plenty of reasons to strengthen its relationship with China’. In this way, China is able to play both sides of conflicts gaining influence in the region without ostensibly taking sides. More worryingly, China’s expected use of Iranian oil which may have disastrous implications for the bite of the much discussed ‘snap back sanctions’ in P5 +1. The deal is designed to allow for economic sanctions to be re-imposed against Iran sharply if it fails to comply with the terms of the agreement, however China’s appetite for oil is such that it is likely to fiercely oppose any re-imposition, which would curtail its supply, thus weakening any enforcement of the deal.

A good example of China’s newfound influence was its appointment as ‘mediators’ in talks between Afgan Government (and its western backers) and key members of the Taliban in Pakistan. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters. “We will support the Afghan government in realising reconciliation with various political factions including the Taliban,” “China is ready to play its constructive role and will provide necessary facilitation at any time if it is required by various parties in Afghanistan.”. Whilst this may seem bizarre as China’s has had little to no involvement in the recent history of the middle-east it is the culmination of strengthening relations with Pakistan. So the ‘Non Interventionist’ appears to be paving the way for significant Chinese influence in the Middle East, however is it really sustainable?

China’s Non interventionist Policy has a time limit on it

With increasing numbers of Chinese Nationals abroad China may find it’s favoured policy harder and harder to enact. Any persecution of/danger to Chinese nationals will force the regime to make a difficult choice between defending its citizens abroad and staying ‘Non-Interventionist’ of course to maintain any domestic credibility the former must be chosen. China’s execution of 4 foreign nationals convicted of murdering 13 Chinese workers on the Mekong River in 2011 provides a possible early case study for this. Although the regime’s initial reaction was a little insipid, domestic outrage prompted an active stance. The drug gang leaders responsible were apprehended and extradited to China to face trial. As it was, the occurrence didn’t rattle global headlines however, in mid-February The Global Times newspaper did report that Chinese authorities had considered sending an attack drone into Myanmar’s air space during the manhunt for Naw Kham. Had this gone ahead it would have been an enormous step far more akin to typical US policy that ‘non interventionism’. Nevertheless, it was the defence of Chinese nationals abroad which stirred the regime to action and with the ‘Go Out’ Policy encouraging more investment and workers overseas such another such occurrence seems more and more likely. This is particularly true if we take a look at China’s growing influence in Africa where it has recently been making significant economic and military inroads.

One recent example is Djibouti, with whom China has just signed a security and defence agreement precipitating discussions over installing a permanent Chinese naval military base. This is part of a wider trend as China is also establishing a military base in Zimbabwe. However, Djibouti is especially significant as it is already host to the only US military base in the region Camp Lemonnier which is home to 6000 troops and vital for conducting drone strikes in both the Arabian peninsula and the horn of Africa. Thus, China is not only widening its military presence in Africa but also directly challenging the USA and presenting a formidable contender for alliance, investment and military co-operation.

However it is China’s policy in Sudan and South Sudan that offers the strongest evidence of a shift in its ‘Non Intervention’ policy. The China National Petroleum Corporation has a 40 percent stake in the consortium that developed Sudan’s oil sector and was integral in constructing pipelines, refineries and other supporting infrastructure. At the peak of Sudan’s production, China obtained about 5 percent of its imported oil there. In addition, China is also one of the principal suppliers of arms to Sudan thus making it a key economic relationship which was enormously complicated by the cessation of South Sudan the consequent civil war in 2013. China’s foreign minister is engaging both sides in the internal conflict in efforts to end the conflict. Its special envoy for Africa, Zhong Jianhua, has offered to mediate the conflict, adding that ‘China should be engaging more in peace and security solutions for any conflict there’ and China is in discussion with the UN about adding combat troops to its contingent with the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. This is starkly different from their response to the 2011 Libyan civil war. Although it was forced to evacuate 36,000 Chinese personnel as the situation deteriorated, China subsequently avoided the clashes in the UN between Europe and Russia by abstaining on Security Council resolution 1973, which authorized a “no fly” zone over Libya. It’s actions in South Sudan are indicative of much more active foreign policy designed to safe guard its own international that is developing as China’s economic influence expands. The days ‘Non-Intervention’ are clearly numbered and the US must start taking the pivot seriously or be caught unawares.

Hopes for Hilary?

President Obama came to power with the promise to be ‘the first pacific president’ but this has not been the case. Admittedly he’s had a strong 4th quarter with the Iran Deal, the upholding of Medicare, the inclusion of Gay Rights in the constitution and the reopening of diplomatic negotiations with Cuba. These recent successes have helped to combat accusations of a ‘lame duck’ presidency. However, on Asia his foreign policy has not enacted all it set out to do. Part of this neglect has to do with reshuffles within the administration. A key proponent and figurehead of ‘The Pivot’ was Hilary Clinton and her candidacy for the upcoming presidential election has rekindled hopes that the Asia Pivot might finally occur. Hilary Clinton even coined the buzzword ‘Pivot’ in her November 2011 Foreign Policy article America’s Pacific Century which fully outlined the policy and sparked a flurry of articles debating the term. Working for the Bush administration she also made multiple trips to the region, engaging in what she called in 2010 ‘forward-deployed’ diplomacy. All of this may work in her favour as foreign policy is set to be a key issue in the 2016 election and a poll recently released by the Pew Research Centre indicated that the share of Americans who rated foreign policy as more important than domestic policy has doubled since last year. If Hilary Clinton chooses to focus on her diplomatic experience and strengths in the upcoming presidential debates reinvigorating the ‘Pivot to Asia’ may well become a key electoral promise. One thing is certain. China is adapting its previous foreign policy now and as its military and economic influence grows in regions such as Africa and the Middle East the shift away from ‘Non Interventionism’ will only become more pronounced. Unless Obama pulls it out of the bag his shot at implementing the ‘pivot’ is over, whoever succeeds him must strengthen economic and diplomatic ties not only with China’s rivals but the regime itself. Simply trying to shut China out by limiting its influence in the IMF and harassing its own international efforts is not going to work.


[1] Benjamin Friedman ‘What Asia Pivot’ –