Obama's Asia pivot distracted, ambiguous

UKRAINE is a distraction. Syria is a distraction. For believers in America's "pivot to Asia", the centre of President Barack Obama's foreign policy must remain the region of the future - Asia. The pivoters will be delighted that this week - despite a raging crisis with Russia - Mr Obama is embarking on a four-nation tour of Asia, beginning in Japan.

But not all are pleased. To its critics, the pivot has left the White House in thrall to a vague notion that Asia is the "future" - causing the US to neglect more dangerous problems in the Middle East and Europe. The sceptics argue that the administration's lofty focus on Asia has encouraged the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to use force, confident that America's eyes are fixed on the Far East. Just last week, Polish Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak suggested that, in the light of Ukrainian crisis, the US should now "re-pivot" to Europe.

So was the whole pivot a mistake? Not really. During the next decade, China is likely to become the world's largest economy. It is the only plausible long- term rival to America as a global superpower. Asia, as a whole, is increasingly central to the world economy. So for long-term economic and strategic reasons, it still makes sense for the United States to spend more time strengthening its position in Asia - and less time focusing on wars in the Middle East and power struggles in Europe.

But while the strategic insight behind the pivot is valid, the execution of the policy has been distracted and ambiguous.

A measure of distraction is, admittedly, inevitable. The rise of China is certainly the big strategic challenge facing America in the coming years.

But a large, declining power such as Russia is still capable of causing havoc on its way down - as President Putin is demonstrating. The Syrian civil war is a humanitarian disaster and countries across the Middle East, from Libya to Iran, demand attention. The crisis of the day will always command the attention of the White House - and rightly so.

That said, the Obama administration's inability to maintain its Asian focus has been compounded by the arrival of Mr John Kerry at the State Department. His predecessor Hillary Clinton understood the importance of Asia. Mr Kerry is much more engaged by the Middle East and Europe. His obsessional focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue - which is not even the most important issue in the Middle East, let alone the world - looks increasingly like a waste of time.

Combined with Mr Obama's tendency to cancel trips to Asia in response to domestic crises, it has left Asians unsure about how seriously to take the pivot.

The pivot's policies have also been problematic. The standard criticism is that Mr Obama has overemphasised the military side - allowing China to believe that "pivot" is just a fancy word for the containment of China.

But that is not necessarily a misunderstanding. The desire to prevent an undemocratic and increasingly assertive China from becoming the dominant power in Asia is a central motivation behind the pivot.

And the reassertion of America's military position in Asia is crucial to the effort to persuade US allies that they need not resign themselves to a future as satellite nations, in a China-dominated region. To that extent, some increase in US-Chinese rivalry is inevitable.

The real problem is that America's efforts have been sufficient to antagonise China but not sufficient to reassure US allies. Japan worries that the US was too tolerant of China's declaration of an air defence zone around some islands in the East China Sea that China and Japan both claim. The seizure last Saturday of a Japanese ship in Chinese waters, in pursuit of a wartime compensation claim, will ramp up Sino-Japanese tensions - just as Mr Obama lands in Tokyo.

The Philippines, another stop on Mr Obama's tour, complains that America was of little help when China grabbed Scarborough Shoal, a territory in the South China Sea that the government in Manila also claims. Mr Obama will strengthen military ties to the Philippines on his visit this week, although the agreement will stop short of reopening US military bases there.

The US' other military steps in Asia, as part of the pivot, have been modest. It has announced the opening of a facility to train marines in Australia and a small shift in naval resources towards the Pacific - all within the context of falling military spending. The whole exercise risks looking like an inversion of Theodore Roosevelt's famous advice to "speak softly and carry a big stick".

The pivot has generated plenty of loud talk - but the stick looks rather small.

The main non-military aspect of the pivot is the drive towards the Trans-Pacific Partnership, setting up a free trade area linking the US and 11 other countries in the region. Pointedly, China is not part of the talks - which, on economic grounds, is a strange omission, since it is the largest trading partner of Japan and Australia, which are both taking part in the TPP negotiations.

Pulling off the trade agreement would be a major coup for the Obama administration. But, predictably, the talks are getting bogged down, as vested interests dig in their heels.

However, if Mr Obama can achieve a breakthrough in the TPP trade talks this week, he will go a long way to convincing the critics that the pivot really means something.

FINANCIAL TIMES