Not surprisingly, there was no mention of the “pivot to Asia” or “rebalancing” of US foreign policy during the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump last week.
It would be a major surprise if the issue came up in their two remaining debates.
As they say, all foreign policy issues are in the end domestic in nature anyway.
In October, 2011, I interviewed the man credited with framing the US pivot to Asia, Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The focus of our discussion was Myanmar and signs it was embarking on a new path.
Campbell reported the dramatic progress in Washington’s effort to draw the Burmese generals out of decades of military rule:
“The dialogue I’ve had with them over the course of the last couple of months has no resemblance to the dialogue we had two years ago when we first started. It’s fundamentally different. I would say it is the outset of what we try to institutionalise – a different approach to diplomacy, which is among the most difficult I’ve ever engaged in. I’ve had dialogue with the North Koreans. I’ve had difficult discussions with various militaries around Asia, but nothing as difficult and unproductive as some of the discussions with Nay Pyi Taw. But that has changed fundamentally. There is a new desire to engage. I hope very much that they are sincere and they are able to take our relationship to a new stage, but I have to underscore that we have seen steps like these in the past only to be disappointed by dramatic reversal.”
It was also around this time that Clinton announced that, as the war in Iraq wound down and America began to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, “the United States stands at a pivot point”.
Two years later, with the pivot project in full swing, Campbell left his diplomatic post. Now, he has written a 400-page book on this highly significant topic: “The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia”.
Although our conversation was brief, I could sense Campbell’s enthusiasm for America to take a more active role in Asia. In the book he mounts a spirited defence of the “Pivot to Asia” strategy – a vision that has yet to be translated into concrete details.
His argument is that the US needs to do more in the Asia-Pacific region in order to help revitalise its own economy, to realise the full potential of the region’s dramatic innovation, and to maintain peace in the world’s most dynamic region – where, he writes, the lion’s share of the history of the 21st century will be written.
The book offers insights into the thinking and actions behind what he describes as the “quiet drama playing out in American foreign policy far from the dark contours of upheaval in the Middle East and South Asia and the hovering drone attacks of the war on terror. … The US is in the midst of a substantial and long-term national project, which is proceeding in fits and starts, to reorient its foreign policy to the East.”
His vision for the pivot has 10 core elements:
1. “Clear and authoritative declarations of US Asia strategy”
2. “A focus on strengthening ties to our Asian allies”
3. “Embedding China policy within a larger Asia policy framework”
4. “Increasing ties with long-standing partners like Taiwan and New Zealand, as well as new partners including India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Pacific island states”
5. “Integrate the Asia-Pacific both regionally and internationally through the expansion of free trade agreements and economic interaction”
6. “Helping build trans-Pacific institutions and capacities over pan-Asian groupings”
7. “Update and modernise its military capabilities in the region”
8. “Support Asia’s transitional states on their democratic journeys”
9. “Strengthen people-to-people ties”
10. “More integrated transatlantic approach to the region’s challenges”
Campbell also offers specific proposals for action by Washington on Thailand. He discusses the 2014 coup, the red-yellow divide and the state of politics in Thailand, and suggests: “Amid this domestic turmoil, the US will need a policy that is both nuanced and subtle and that is intended to engage Thailand while encouraging a return to democratic governance.”
He proposes a three-point policy towards Thailand:
1. The US should support Thailand by maintaining open lines of communication with senior-level Thai officials – and encouraging deeper domestic talks between the political parties and military leadership. He writes: “A unilateral refusal to engage in high-level dialogue by the US would, in comparison, prove counterproductive.”
2. The US should continue military and intelligence cooperation despite Thailand’s political turmoil. Any downgrading of exercises and assistance should not be done in such a way as to undermine the broader strategic relationship – or raise concerns about the broader alliance that might push Thailand toward China and other partners.
3. The US should work to encourage Thailand to resume its active role in Asean diplomacy. Since the coup, he notes, Thailand has aligned itself closer to Chinese positions in multilateral organisations, particularly Asean, reducing its ability to serve as a bridge between China and those Asean member-states embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing.
Campbell concludes his discussion on Thai-US relations with this highly interesting proposal/advice/caution:
“Thailand’s political situation is volatile and uncertain, and the military government may remain in power into the near future. It will be incumbent upon the US to manage its expectations for a return to democratic government and not to let setbacks or impatience undercut US influence – which is an indispensable ingredient in restoring Thailand’s democracy.”
To me, this sums up the position towards Thailand of a key architect of America’s Asia pivot: Washington’s “rebalancing” should aim at helping Thailand keep its “balance” – and avoid forcing it to “the other side”.