Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

US' Asia pivot still a work in progress

President Obama's trip to Asia has helped clarify several aspects of the US pivot to the region. But many ambiguities remain, including how Washington intends to react to China's rising global clout.

United States officials are justified in feeling pleased with their president's tour of Asia. For wherever he went, President Barack Obama struck the right tone, reassuring America's allies without precluding a future security dialogue with Beijing.

Yet, it would require more than one successful tour for the US to clarify its regional policies. For although the broad parameters of the US "pivot", or rebalancing to Asia are now clearer, they are not necessarily more coherent or permanent.

Perhaps for reasons of personal vanity, senior Obama officials still like to pretend that America's pivot to Asia was the product of a great academic exercise in policy reassessment.

However, that was never the case: Like all previous shifts in US foreign and security policies, the pivot to Asia began life as a cost-cutting exercise, masquerading as a great thought. Mr Obama used the pivot to claim that a leaner US military could also pack a bigger punch if it concentrated on today's global security challenges.

That's neither unusual nor necessarily bad: Countries are run by politicians, not academics, and policies evolve from the compromise of daily life rather than the rarefied debates of university seminars. But it does mean that US administration officials should stop pretending that those who query the US pivot to Asia simply don't understand the world they live in.

A prime example of this attitude is the article Mr Thomas Donilon, the Obama administration's former national security adviser, penned in the Washington Post on the eve of the US President's Asia trip. He trotted out all the cliches about Asia's growing economic significance and China's rising global clout.

As surprising as it may seem to Mr Donilon, most policymakers are familiar with these banalities. What they expect from the White House is a clear indication of how the US proposes to deal with these challenges.

Playing with statistics

A GOOD way to begin may be to drop the claim which most US officials still make that the pivot to Asia means no reduction in US military presence elsewhere in the world. For, if this is indeed the case, then what is the purpose of the entire exercise? And, if resources are not being redeployed from elsewhere, then why do US officials keep repeating percentage figures about America's military assets which will be in the Asian theatre of operations by the end of this decade?

The easiest way to get out of this dilemma is for US strategists to stop copying the bad habit of their counterparts in the old communist countries who used to drown any argument in a flood of often bogus statistics.

Take as an example the US administration's often repeated claim that "60 per cent" of US naval assets will be stationed in Asia by 2020. That sounds impressive until one recalls that 50 per cent of the US Navy has always been deployed in Asia, and that when President Obama announced the pivot, 55 per cent of America's naval assets were already in the region.

So, if one looks at these figures, the conclusion is that the administration is now making noise about a pivot which, if all goes well, is only supposed to increase its naval footprint in Asia by another 5 percentage points. This is precisely the amount of increase which the US already achieved in the past without the need to announce any new strategic concept.

President Obama made an encouraging start in this direction by resisting military number- crunching exercises during his current Asia tour, concentrating instead on reassuring allies about US commitment to their security. The military agreement which will be concluded later today by Mr Obama in the Philippines exemplifies this "modular" approach to security by envisaging future US troop deployments without specifying numbers.

Trade relations

MR OBAMA also took another welcome step in defining his Asia pivot by reminding his hosts that the concept is not only about military commitments, but also about deepening trade relations, and particularly about the completion of his Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) idea.

But, yet again, the TTP project could do with a little more clarity and honesty from Washington. It is true that many Asian countries have sought to defend their pet trade lobbies in the negotiations. However, it is also true that the US Senate has hitherto failed to give the President the fast-track authority he needs to conclude these, and that the culprits for this failure have been none other than Mr Obama's own Democrats.

Yet the same president who wastes no opportunities to blame Congressional Republicans for the fact that he had to cancel a previous trip to Asia is strangely silent when it comes to the equally egregious behaviour of his own supporters in Washington. During his trip to Japan, Mr Obama rightly urged his hosts to "get out of their comfort zones" on TPP negotiations. The American President would do well to follow his own advice.

Removing ambiguity

BUT the biggest challenge facing the US pivot to Asia is that of handling the region's territorial disputes. Until now, Washington's position was that it did not comment on sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas, including those that involve its treaty allies.

The policy was clearly advantageous for the Americans, for it gave the US maximum flexibility in handling potential crises. America's ambiguity also meant that US allies had to exercise restraint in their behaviour as they could not count on automatic US support should they provoke a crisis through their own recklessness.

And, by keeping itself aloof from territorial disputes, the US also hoped to prevent its Asian pivot from becoming an exercise in containing China, which is a party to most of these territorial disputes.

But there is a growing consensus in Washington that this carefully nurtured ambiguity about territorial disputes may be destabilising rather than bolstering Asian security. Because they do not know what level of support they can count on, America's regional allies tend to overcompensate for their strategic uncertainty by either reacting too aggressively to what they see as the slightest provocation from China or by acquiring military capabilities which only increase the risk of an accidental armed confrontation.

And, because China itself does not know what the US reaction may be, decision-makers in Beijing may be tempted to try their luck by pushing their country's territorial claims even further. So, US silence on such matters could actually invite more, rather than less, confrontation.

And, as the Ukraine crisis has recently shown, it's easier to persuade a country not to use force in pursuit of a territorial claim than to dislodge a country which has already resorted to force and occupied a territory.

If the US wishes to prevent a Russia-style showdown in Asia, it would be well advised to come off the fence by stating its territorial stance now. That's precisely what President Obama has done. While he was careful to mention that the US considers the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as just under Japanese "administration" rather than sovereignty, Mr Obama repeatedly emphasised in Tokyo that the US military guarantee to Japan applies to these disputed territories.

Washington claims that this is not a significant strategic departure, but merely a reiteration of America's "long-standing position". Yet the reality is quite different: This is the start of a more fundamental US initiative to tell China in explicit and direct terms what the US would consider as an unacceptable infringement of the current status quo.

Work in progress

NOTWITHSTANDING these important steps, the recasting of America's pivot to Asia remains a work in progress, a blueprint still in need of substance.

Mr Obama will have to dispel suspicions that he is simply too weak to contemplate the use of American military forces. For the man who once said that "a US president does not bluff" went on to do precisely that in Syria and Ukraine, and now has a reputational problem.

Restoring US reputation does not require the Americans to fire one shot in anger, but it may require them to show that they are ready to do so in the most extreme of circumstances.

Nor is it obvious that a strategy of maintaining the current status quo in Asia should be the main focus of America's future regional policy. A good case can be made that an accommodation of China's expanding regional role may be a more sustainable objective, provided this is done peacefully and does not result in the creation of rigid, new spheres of influence.

And the US still has to decide whether it should merely encourage the better functioning of existing regional security cooperation structures in Asia, or whether it should seek to promote new regional alliances.

Still, there is no question that Mr Obama's visit has consolidated and clarified America's pivot to the region, to the benefit of most of the region's nations, including ultimately China itself.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the Americans usually end up doing "the right thing, after exhausting all the alternatives".

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com