US presidential State of the Union addresses (SotU) are frequently as important for what the leave out as what they include. President Obama’s SotU, delivered yesterday in Washington, is notable in this regard, especially for foreign policy observers. It has been widely noted that he said almost nothing about Syria and Bashar al-Assad, Egypt, or Iraq. But for the Asia Pacific commentariat, the region's almost total absence must be noted, or more properly put, admitted.
It is time to start putting to bed the much-beloved trope of the Asian security and economics conference circuit: that the US 'needs' Asia. It doesn't.
In fact, Asia needs the US far more than the US needs it. This is why Obama can get away with saying scarcely a word about Asia; China was mentioned just twice in throw-away references.
This SotU is yet further evidence of an argument I have been banging away at for a while: that the pivot is an elite project that only activates the US foreign policy community and think tank set; that most Americans know little about Asia, perceive it mostly as an export platform for cheap stuff at Walmart, and do not really care that much; that the pivot is wildly over-rated in Asia as a some major strategic shift of the US against the Middle East; and that America hardly 'needs' Asia as Asian commentators love to intone. (I have a full-blown article forthcoming on this in Pacific Review this year; email me for a draft version.)
Great powers have the luxury of not learning and of refusing to admit structural pressures that others must accommodate more rapidly. Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was talking up the 'Chinese menace' at Davos. China retorted that the Japanese are the 'Nazis of the east.' Yet Obama did not even bother to mention this mushrooming tension between the world's second and third largest GDPs, one of which is a long-standing US ally. Why not? Because ultimately, the US, as the greatest of great powers, need not bother if it really doesn't want to.
Asian elites love to say that the US is 'losing' Asia every time it misses some meeting in Asia, as if talk-shops like ASEAN actually do much. Last year, when the US missed APEC, there was talk of the US ceding Asia to China.
But this is better understood as plea for US attention. By hyping oneself as 'necessary', maybe the big guy on the block will pay attention. But if one actually follows the American domestic political debate (CNN, Fox, the New York Times, and so on) on the pivot, rather than the think-tank/academic discourse, one will not find much urgency. In fact one is unlikely to find much popular interest at all. And one certainly will not find many Americans saying Asia is more important than the Middle East. Just look at Obama's extended discussion of Iran and terrorism, and compare that to two one-word references to China, plus no mentions of Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, the South China Sea and so on.
Always remember that Asian states need the US a lot more than the US needs them. US regional allies need it to hold back China, and even China needs Americans to buy all their exports and provide a savings safe-haven. Sure, Americans benefit from cheap Asian exports and lending, but that is a lot less important. Almost all of Asia's growing economies are so deeply based on exporting to the West that a cut-off would lead to economic chaos and political turbulence. This is one of the many reasons why Asian exporters should rebalance toward local consumer demand. But so long as Asia’s mega-exporter oligarchs persists with the 'tiger' model of export dependence, the US has enormous leverage. Where would Sony, Samsung and so on be without the American consumer?
Hence in both security and economic affairs, the relationship is highly asymmetric, and those who tell you otherwise are trying to cover the weaknesses of many Asian states and their desperation for US attention with bravado that America 'needs' Asia. As I have been trying to argue on my blog for awhile, if Asians do not want the US in Asia, it is no big deal for US security, and it is an economic blow far worse for them than it is for America. And things are getting even more asymmetric as the US becomes energy independent because of fracking, so have fun fixing the Middle East, China!
The US Founders identified the luxury of US distance from Eurasia long ago, so forgot all these hyperventilating Asian columnists (Kishore Mahbubani being the most obvious) who resent that America can be a lot more insouciant about Asia than vice versa.
If you spend all your time reading reports from the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings, and their Asian analogues like the Asan Institute (or academics like me, I will admit), then you'd never know that the pivot scarcely arises in the political discussion of the median American voter. Obama's SotUs have repeatedly said little to nothing on this, nor did the many presidential debates, both in the primary and general elections in 2012.
In other words, when US politicians talk to Americans about what they think voters believe is important, they scarcely mention Asia. But most of us are trapped in a 'hermeneutic circle' of academia, think-tankery, government and intelligence officials and so on, where the wisdom of the pivot is simply take for granted.
So why did Iran get so much more play in the SotU than China? I see two primary reasons:
First, domestically, there is no obvious constituency for the pivot in US politics. Asian-Americans are not a coherent voting bloc on this, and they are less than 5% of the US population. Business’ earlier enthusiasm for Asia, especially for China back in the 90s, has waned under relentless mercantilism, industrial espionage, and corrupt corporate governance environments in Asia.
Neither the Democratic nor Republican parties’ coalitions really care about Asia either. Obama voters are focused on domestic issues (as the SotU demonstrated once again), while GOP voters' foreign policy concerns are overwhelmingly driven by their Christian, post-9/11 kulturkampf against Islam. Evangelical voters are obsessed with the Middle East; just go watch Fox News for a few days.
Second, internationally, there is no real geopolitical need for the US to pivot, contrary to the Asian commentariat's desperate pleas for US attention. The US is very safe and comfortable behind huge oceans, its globe-spanning dollar and economic prowess and powerful military. It may choose to be involved in Asia, but it does not need to be. It can easily buck-pass China to local front-line states like Japan and India. If North Korea were to absorb South Korea, how would that effect US security? It would surely be a catastrophe for South Koreans and Asia generally, but not really for the US.
As Stephen Walt has argued for years at his blog, the US has enormous room to play ‘hard to get'. That is the luxury of superpowerdom, however infuriating it may be in Asia.