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US' Asia pivot still a work in progress

The Straits Times | Jonathan Eyal | Wednesday, Apr 30, 2014

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.

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