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Why the White House is turning its attention to Asia

April 23, 2014 at 6:21 PM EDT
President Obama’s four-nation Asia tour marks a policy shift toward the continent, which has been overshadowed by international concerns in the Middle East, and now the Ukraine crisis. Gwen Ifill talks to former State Department Official Kurt Campbell and Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute about the purpose behind the president’s trip.

GWEN IFILL: For more on what’s become of the Asia pivot, I’m joined by Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during President Obama’s first term, and Michael Auslin, a resident scholar of Asian studies and director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

So, Kurt Campbell, what is the stated and the actual purpose of this visit at this point?

KURT CAMPBELL, Former State Department Official: I think it’s pretty clear-cut, actually.

The president’s going to reassure friends and allies in Asia to underscore that this pivot, this rebalance to Asia is significant, it’s going to continue, and that there is a deep recognition, I would argue a bipartisan recognition, that the lion’s share of the history of the 21st century is going to be written in Asia, and we want a large part of that overall picture.

And I think the trip, it is the first time the president has gone to Asia when it’s not part of a multilateral summit. And so, in each one of these countries, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, he has discrete tasks, build stronger relationships with each of these leaders, but overhanging the whole set of challenges in each of the countries is how he manages the relationship with China.

He’s got to walk a fine line. He’s got to send a message of resolve and determination. But he’s also got to make clear that we’re prepared, in fact, we need to work with China going forward.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Auslin, as you look at the president’s itinerary, what is significant about where he is going, each of these separate, discrete places, and where he is not going?

MICHAEL AUSLIN, American Enterprise Institute: Well, he has got two key allies that he’s going to first in Japan and then South Korea.

And very importantly, these two have had terrible relations over the past years. One of the big things he needs to do is to try to get them to work together. And so I think that is sending a message that he is going to them first.

He is going to Malaysia, where he has had an excellent first term working with Prime Minister Najib and trying to maintain that and build on it, and, of course, the Philippines, where, as your report noted, we have a very tense, very long relationship with them, but one we’re on the cusp, potentially, of moving into a new era, getting new access to our forces and our bases.

GWEN IFILL: But if China such a big deal, as Kurt Campbell says, why not China on this trip?

MICHAEL AUSLIN: Well, the president goes to China. He has been to China before. And I think there are times that you go and you talk with allies and partners and friends and times that you don’t.

I think that what you see among our allies and friends is a real concern about the substance of the pivot. Is it being adequately resourced? Is it just rhetoric? And the president has said it now for several years. And, obviously, there’s still concerns.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about that, Kurt Campbell. What is significant about — you have written that he is reformulating priorities, his turn is finally occurring.


GWEN IFILL: What is the evidence of that?

KURT CAMPBELL: Well, look, this is not something that you can measure immediately, right?

It’s going to take a significant period of time. The stepping up of our game involves diplomatic engagement. I think Michael rightly points out why we are visiting these countries. To give you a sense, this is the first visit of a president of the United States to Malaysia since 1967. The streets of Kuala Lumpur were dirt and there were water buffaloes roaming around.

Malaysia is like our 10th or 11th largest trading partner, right? So there’s a diplomatic component. There’s an economic component. The president is going to be underscoring the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. There are a number of people-to-people exchanges.

We tend to focus on the military dimension, which is undeniably important. But, frankly, we have the resources. Part of what is going to need to take place is a reformulation of some of our capabilities. We’re going have to focus more on naval, air assets, and a little bit less on army and ground forces. And that’s going to take time.

GWEN IFILL: But what — to what degree, Michael Auslin, has this been overshadowed by administration attention elsewhere, especially in the Middle East, especially Afghanistan and Iraq and now with Ukraine?


It’s one of, I think, the problems with the rhetorical flourishes of the pivot, is that regional powers choose to turn away, so to speak, from other areas and focus on one area, not a superpower. And if diplomacy is measured in inches, the problem is that pivot, in perception in Asia, is measured in centimeters.

I think one of the biggest issues — and we can all agree that the execution of the pivot hasn’t been to the level that we all had hoped. Senator Menendez released a report on that last week. Our top commanders in the region have said the same.

But I think the bigger issue is that we never fully articulated what the goal of the pivot was. If we needed it, what was it for? Is it to control China or counter China? Is it to ensure American political or military dominance? We never quite explained what it was for, and therefore everyone could read into the pivot what they wanted, and everyone could be disappointed when it didn’t live up to their expectations.

GWEN IFILL: Kurt Campbell, you’re one of the — we keep using the word pivot, but you are one of the architects of this.


Look, all I would say is that, during the first term, right, if you look at the previous 12 or so years, no strategic statements, no detailed arguments about what the United States was about. Several important articles and speeches by Secretary Clinton. Very clear statement of President Obama what we were trying to accomplish in Asia.

I believe that they have laid out a very clear game plan for what we’re going to need to do that involves the kind of difficult choices with respect to building a relationship with China.

GWEN IFILL: But economic issues, diplomatic issues, power…

KURT CAMPBELL: Everything.

GWEN IFILL: Geopolitical power issues?

KURT CAMPBELL: Look, 50 percent of the world’s economy now is focused in Asia.

We cannot be a prosperous nation unless we step up our game economically. We are going have to export more to the largest growing middle classes in the world. There’s going to be more investment from Asia into the United States. And I think, as Michael indicated, there are huge security challenges in Asia.

And we have kept the peace there for decades. Our role is still important. So I think our role is vital. If anything, it’s going to go up over time. And I think there’s a broad recognition that this will not take, you know, a couple of years. It will take a decade or more to step up our game substantially.

GWEN IFILL: But Michael Auslin, do our partners in this effort, at this point, halfway through the second term almost, do they trust to us execute this pivot in a way that will benefit them, as well as the Asian — the nation’s directly involved?

MICHAEL AUSLIN: Well, I think, as Kurt said, it’s going to take a long time. But, unfortunately, the sands, the waters are shifting in Asia as we are moving more of our focus there.

You know, Admiral Locklear, commander of Pacific Command, testified before Congress last month that the balance of power in Asia is shifting against us and towards the Chinese. That is what our allies are looking at right now. It is another issue. Gwen, I think of form vs. function.

We can have all the forms of moving 60 percent of the Navy to Asia. The question is, what for? Again, we haven’t fully articulated why we’re there. And one of the key issues, which we mentioned here in the report, the territorial disputes. That’s what our Asian friends and allies concern themselves with. That is what they care about. And if we don’t get involved or show that we are getting more involved, then, to them, the pivot means nothing.

Now, the president had a very strong statement in the

Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun yesterday where he stated that it comes under Article 5, the Senkakus. And that should begin moving the needle on their concern. But the fact is, they have watched this for a while. The Philippines, the Vietnamese, everyone has seen us talk about what we’re going do. But they’re dealing with its daily effects of what China is doing and waiting for us to get involved.

KURT CAMPBELL: Gwen, can I just…

GWEN IFILL: One final — briefly.

KURT CAMPBELL: Look, one narrow measurement on military power, absolutely, power shifting more towards China, but we have many other assets in Asia, a lot of friends.

I will trade — I will take our friends, our structure of engagement over the one close friend that China has, which is North Korea.

GWEN IFILL: Kurt Campbell, chair and CEO the Asia Group, and Michael Auslin, AEI director of Japan studies, thank you both very much.

KURT CAMPBELL: Thank you, Gwen. It’s great.