The Asia Pivot: Old Policy, New Name

February 9, 2014

Arthur Moore

Asia Pivot ships at port

Washington’s re-engagement with the Asia Pacific, or “Asia pivot,” is not as new as the US media and some political commentators have made it out to be. It has long been US policy to prevent the emergence of a single power dominating the Asia Pacific region, and US planners have carefully maintained a regional balance of power since the days of the Cold War. The result is a longstanding US military, diplomatic, and economic presence throughout the region, much of which predates any mention of a “pivot.” The Arab Spring and its aftermath have not distracted Washington from the importance of playing a leading role in the Asia-Pacific region. The belief that US military engagement in Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq involved a substantive shift away from Asia is simply erroneous.

An Enduring US Footprint in the Asia Pacific


Promoting economic cooperation and global trade has been a consistent theme of US foreign policy. Thus, the Trans-Pacific Partnership does not represent a break with the past, but rather the continuation of a multi-decade push by the United States and its allies to open up regional markets. Washington has also cast a wide net with various nuclear deals, most notably with India in May 2006 to support the South Asian state’s civilian nuclear program, which helped consolidate US influence relative to other Asian powers, namely Russia and China. Other economic deals have been negotiated with regional players, notably Tokyo and Seoul, as Washington pursues its national interest to deepen trade links in the region.


While Washington was fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, various Asia-Pacific allies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were seeking to increase military cooperation and interoperability with US forces. Some agreements reached over this period include boosting military exchanges with Japan and approving new military sales to Taiwan. The decision by the Obama administration in late 2011 to station troops in Australia on a rotation basis does not represent a break with the past because it is consistent with US forward-deployment strategy in the Asia Pacific, which will be touched on shortly.


Washington’s ‘hub-and-spoke’ system of alliances has remained in place since the end of the Cold War. The scheme helps preserve America’s hegemonic position along with the regional status-quo. More recently however, the ‘hub-and-spoke’ system has come to be complimented by multilateral initiatives, such as ASEAN and APEC. This renewed emphasis on multilateralism stands as an attempt to balance against growing Chinese economic and diplomatic influence – influence that threatens to marginalize US power in the future. Hence, whilst Washington has slowly shifted its focus away from bilateral initiatives and towards multilateral cooperation, its commitment to preserve the status-quo in the region remains unchanged.

US Foreign Policy Aims

Extended Nuclear Deterrence

The United States provided extended nuclear deterrence for its allies throughout the Cold War and it continues to do so today. Nowadays these efforts are aimed at nuclear-armed adversaries such as North Korea. The issue of just how reliable said deterrence is stands as a topic that’s outside the scope of this article, but it seems that the nuclear deterrence once aimed at states like the Soviet Union and China has thus far been successful in stemming any major tide of nuclear proliferation in the Asia Pacific.

Off-Shore Balancing

The beginning of the Cold War ushered in a new era of ‘off-shore balancing,’ which involved permanently positioning US troops and bases in allied countries such as Japan and South Korea. The original rationale behind the strategy was to complement US containment efforts by restricting the possibility of USSR expansionism. Today the rationale remains the same, though the question of who plays the role of foreign aggressor has become murkier.

Preserving an Asia-Pacific Balance of Power

US foreign policy will always be aimed at preventing the rise of one dominant power in the Asia Pacific region. In this, the US is a victim of its own geography, being reliant on safe and secure Atlantic and Pacific waterways for its survival and economic wellbeing.

The More Things Change…

While it’s true that American influence in the region has declined relative to the rise of China, Washington never diverted its attention to the degree that the ‘pivot’ label implies. It still seeks to maintain the status-quo as it always has, and the United States remains a valuable military and economic partner to several middle powers in the region.

On the other hand, it’s quite possible that Beijing will not be able to maintain the kind of economic growth it has been experiencing for the past few decades. China will be facing several challenges in the coming years, whether demographic (an aging population), social (urban-rural divide), or economic (a difficult wean from SOE-driven growth towards a market economy). Regardless of whether Beijing is able to proactively deal with these problems or not, it stands to reason that US military forces and economic influence will remain in the region long after the word “pivot” has faded from the collective lexicon of pundits worldwide.

Arthur Moore is a contributor to

View Opinion
  • Agree. The United States has had an aircraft carrier homeported in Asia for over four decades; the only carrier homeported overseas. The U.S. has also had tactical fighter wings stationed in Japan, Korea and Alaska for decades. Rather than saying pivot, we should say reemphasis.

  • Jeff Woll

    What are your thoughts about the shrinking size of the American Navy?

  • Thomas Bremner

    Mr. Moore
    I certainly agree with your analysis. My one comment would be that American foreign policy in the Asia Pacific has been in place much farther back than the cold war. Indeed it has been constant for well over one hundred years.
    Thomas Bremner

  • C. J. Chen

    A better American interpretation of an American Asia policy.f

  • RIchard

    And should China decide that Tiawan is really part of Mainland China, what then? Do we just let it fall?

  • Dr. Ronald Cutburth

    Alyson always shows advanced skills on her chosen topic of “Geopolitical”. More factual than the old CIA country studies, more broad than the Strategic studies Institute.

  • peat

    the second sentence says more than the rest of the article

  • peter

    very good

  • Mississauga Dad

    We should be a lot more than simply ‘concerned’ about Chinese economic activities. We should be terrified and be actively fighting back. Make no mistake – the Chinese have only ONE goal – total economic (and hence political and social) domination of the world. They will stop at nothing to achieve this goal. Their internal economy is in many ways a fraud – prices set and regulated at both supplier and purchaser ends by the government; a banking system controlled by the government and reporting to nobody but the government; a total lack of any real ‘private’ companies; massive infrastructure projects bankrolled by a fraudulent non- market responsive currency; a housing industry which is booming because of millions of totally empty high rise apartment buildings being built all over the country; a labour pool provided by hundreds of millions of poorly paid workers who are little better than slaves; a total lack of regard for any environmental standards that the western world embraces. Let’s not fool ourselves – China may be Communist with a nice face presented to the outside world but it is first and foremost Communist and its prime goal is always, and will always be, to extend its Communist domination over the rest of the world.

  • Fawad Haider

    I think that US should keep its nose where it belongs. A big preacher of human rights on one side and on the other it is the biggest abuser of those rights. What hypocrisy. For a change, people should be left to live their lives in the way they want to. I have nothing against the article but the American mindset needs serious tuning for sure.

  • Quinton Payne

    The origins of our foreign policy in the Asia Pacific germinated in Teddy Roosevelt sending his diplomatic / colonial delegation in 1905, the reverberations of which continue to this day. An excellent reference of this is the book "The Imperial Cruise" by noted author James Bradley.


    Succint article. Re the key second sentence: "It has long been British policy to prevent the emergence of a single power dominating Europe, and British planners have carefully maintained a European balance of power since the days of the Napoleonic wars." The analogy is too close for comfort these days as troubling island disputes in the region mimic those in the Balkans prior to 1914.

  • leonard

    The second paragraph says it all. Holding freinds together. Perhaps the title including PIVOT might be more descriptive it was edited to ASIAN GUDGEON

  • TJ Avatarici

    After a long slumber the Asian dragons are awakening.
    The fleets and air forces (and space forces) will be built and a soft, weakened, unresolved US society will be eased out of the to-be-determined Chinese sphere of influence.

  • Patrick

    Has anyone ever run a cost benefit analyses of the maintenance of the amount of power we project in the Asian Pacific compared to the stable trade (etc.) we receive as a result? Our continued presence in Japan and Korea appear to many of us to be more of an economic and political liability with little in the way of replicating benefit.

  • adifarid

    ever since the WWII in 1945 erupted…..the pacific waterways had always been the most important linked to many military powers worldwide… in WWII it has been the stage where for many super carrier control these routes….n as to respond in matter of seconds….

  • Adam

    Great point. Two problems with “pivot”. First, it appears to be a slight of hand to obscure a capitulation in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Second, it may wrongly signal to China a threat of expanded US presence in East Asia/Pacific regions.

  • bruce shand

    The author fails to state any actual benefits from maintaing this policy or pitfalls of not doing so. Mere projection of power seems inadequate reason. And as we’ve seen in the changes of Southeast Asia, China and Russia over twenty years is that markets ulimately trump military power. Hence the wisdom of the founders in welcoming trade but eschewing political ties with foreign powers.

  • Andrew

    China is the future antagonist. Beijing has carefully positioned itself as neither friend nor enemy, and is carefully waiting until the moment that it has a clear advantage to act. It’s motives are mostly clear: regional hegemony by China. Other motives include, resource acquisition (South China Sea), naval blocking and anti-acceess ability (directed at any country who does not comply with their wishes, first and foremost, Japan).

    The ultimate motive will bring Beijing to the center of power in the region in the long term, and allow them to dictate terms to everyone else. The first targets will be the (perceived to be easier to influence) ASEAN countries, with whom China has already been cultivating increasingly warm relationships (Malaysian and Indonesia here. Laos and Cambodia already follow the Chinese line with Burma). Thailand, Vietnam and the Phillipines still stand out in opposition (although the Thais are too pre-occupied with their own problems at the moment). China will use its economic leverage over Australia to drive a wedge into its alliance with the US over the long term, a major gamble.

    Ultimately China’s desired position will allow it to totally humiliate Japan, a long term strategic goal of theirs, and the China-Japan relational dynamic is the most critical and sensitive in the region by far. China will attempt to provoke Japan into an open conflict, when Beijing can choose the timing and setting of the battle, without adequate US support. Think 2025 for that one.

    China has numerous problems, and it will not move toward democracy in our lifetimes. It is not in the nature of the regime or the culture. The regime requires total control of the population, resources, and politics, and the guiding hand over capital and institutions. It will maintain this at any cost. It will endeavor to overcome its problems, and is doing so pro-actively. It will keep the lid on any problems using materialism, populist programs, fear and intimidation, and force when necessary. They have become experts at social control, surpassing the Nazis who are the ones they most admire and are trying to perfect their methods (carried over by Stalin, and thence to Mao, etc).

    The challenges for the US in this theater are numerous, long, term and complex. Little can be done to influence the Chinese. They are arrogant and indifferent to us and laugh at us, demanding that way "respect" them. Instead, coordination among the other regional players and out-playing the Chinese in diplomacy (especially in South Korea, and the ASEAN countries) is key. Maintaining a high level of military intelligence, readiness and both numerical, and technological edges over the PLAN are also key. The third area would be to carry out deeper anti-PLA and anti-CCP informational warfare, and limiting their options for gaining critical resources with which they can solve their problems.

    This will be challenging indeed. We shall all see one of the world’s greatest geopolitical chess games played out in real life on the world stage of the Asia-Pacific theater in our lifetimes. Let us hope we can play well, and better, than the opponent.


Lost your password?