Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted jointly for Weekly Toyo Keizai, and Dispatch Japan. Michael Green is professor of Political Science at Georgetown University, and holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. During the George W. Bush administration, Prof. Green served as senior director for the National Security Council, responsible for coordination of policy toward the Asia-Pacific.
TBL: Do you consider the ‘Asia pivot’ a new strategic initiative?
GREEN: It is a strategic recognition that Asia deserves more attention with respect to resources, and senior administration time. Secretary Clinton set that tone, very early on in the Obama administration’s first days. It makes sense because the center of international political and economic dynamism is shifting to Asia; power is diffusing, and it is shifting to Asia, especially with the rise of China and India. It makes sense for the US to play the leading role in this process. The public recognizes this. Both the German Marshall Fund and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs polling over the past two years documented a sense among the US public that Asia is more important than Europe and other regions.
TBL: How does that translate into actual policy?
GREEN: It is useful to discipline the State Department and the Pentagon to send a clear signal that Asia is going to get priority. For example: In my understanding, the Pacific Command will not be cut; no matter how the Defense Department budget cuts proceed, the cuts will come out of Europe; possibly two infantry brigades, and other force structures. But it won’t come out of Asia.
That is a very important signal for the Army to hear; It is important for the State Department to hear, because USAID will have to adjust. It imposes a certain discipline on the bureaucracy.
It also sends an important message to the Asia-Pacific region, which is always worried about American withdrawal. The message: Despite the financial crisis, this administration is not going to make cuts in our Asia policy.
And, very importantly, Republicans are not challenging this. That is the good news.
TBL: Is it a new grand strategy?
GREEN: I am a little more doubtful. It is much more political than strategic. The focus on Asia is exactly right. The term “pivot” is where I have trouble.
Superpowers don’t pivot. Global superpowers do not, even under the kind of economic pressure we are under now, enhance security by looking like they shift radically from one region to another. It violates Teddy Roosevelt’s notion of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. It oversells the whole thing.
TBL: Doesn’t ‘superpower’ mean you can do that?
Green: Not effectively. China is overreacting. I have been in favor of maintaining a balance of power in our China relationship, but the “pivot” label came so suddenly, and so jarringly, that it created problems with China that we did not need.
TBL: It seemed quite a different approach from the initial Obama policy.
Green: That’s right. The Obama administration started off, in 2009-2010, emphasizing more of a concert of power with China.
That’s the problem with the “pivot.” It seems to come out of nowhere, and it comes after the 2009 statement with Hu Jintao saying that we respect each other’s core interests, and after statements about strategic reassurance. We sent signals that the US would go the extra mile to cooperate with China on climate change, strategic reassurance, due respect of core interests. All of a sudden there was a jarring new agenda which makes it implicitly all about China.
TBL: What about Europe, and NATO?
That is an important point. Europe matters enormously. In fact, Europe is incredibly important to our China policy. We need a global approach to China, and the transatlantic relationship has been critical for that.
Finally, while it looks as if the US Pacific Command is not going to be cut in the upcoming budget battles, the commander in the Pacific does not own those forces. The air and naval assets in the Pacific, if something goes hot in Southwest Asia, are shifted.
TBL: So we need to maintain a global, rather than Pacific policy.
GREEN: Exactly. We really can’t have a hermetically-sealed region if we are to be a global superpower. In the context of the defense cuts that President Obama is promising -- $500 billion, and maybe more – there is a lingering danger that the US Pacific force structure could be hollowed out if events get hot in the Middle East.
And we have not solved the problems in the Middle East. It is not as if we can simply turn our attention to Asia, and look away from other critical areas.
TBL: So you are not impressed with the “pivot”?
GREEN: I think a lot of it is political. It is cover for the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a message of robust and assertive policy toward China, which I think has a political dimension because it is allowing the administration to show that it is not ‘cutting and running’ from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Overall, I think the strategy is basically right, though it is not adequately resourced, and the speed with which it took place created some unnecessary problems. The rhetoric of the pivot probably hurt the strategy in some ways.
TBL: Would this have occurred if China had been cooperative on the Cheonan sinking, on climate change, and on currency matters?
GREEN: The Chinese brought this on to themselves to some extent because of their position on the Cheonan, on the South China Sea, the Senkakus. All of these incidents brought out animosity in Asia, a desire in the region for the US to counterbalance China. The Chinese created the conditions where the administration, to its credit, really enhanced relationships, particularly in Southeast Asia, but with all of our allies.
I don’t think a lot of countries in the region necessarily appreciate the pivot label, because they don’t want to be implicated with us in putting a stick in China’s face. The foreign minister of Indonesia has questioned the pivot.
But there’s no doubt the Chinese made this possible.
TBL: You mentioned before that you think a lot of the pivot is political.
GREEEN: If you read Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars, you get the strong impression that the people who wanted to get out of Afghanistan were using China and this pivot logic, without knowing a whole lot about China or Asia. So the ‘pivot to Asia’ narrative was present from the beginning of the Obama administration, but a lot of it had to do with the debate over Afghanistan.
TBL: But it’s not all political, is it?
GRENN: No. I think Kurt Campbell and Hillary Clinton began putting the pillars of the policy in place from the very beginning.
Let’s put it this way: China’s actions helped make the policy pivot more effective; the political desire to leave Afghanistan played a role. And some of the pillars of the pivot were being put in place from the very beginning.
TBL: If we start at India, and move down to Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, and then up to Japan and Korea, there seems to be a pretty interesting network, even if informal, of new security ties. And it’s not all US-led: It’s Japan-India, or Japan-Vietnam, or even Japan-Korea.
GREEN: This is not new. This was basically the Bush Administration’s Asia strategy. The pillars were the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which we negotiated; the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade initiative, which we began; the transformation of the strategic relationship with India; and the Armitage-Nye focus on upgrading the strategic relationship with Japan.
But I give the Obama administration a lot of credit for adding energy and substance to this process, in Southeast Asia in particular.
TBL: What about ties with India?
GREEN: The Obama administration has largely dropped the ball on India. Senior Obama officials have told Indian officials that Washington does not engage in ‘balance of power’ politics the way Bush did.
And the Obama administration had no trade agenda for the first year or two.
So the building blocks of a true regional policy are finally getting into place, but it has taken the Obama administration a long time to get this done, to get back to some of the building blocks – especially with respect to India and trade – that the Bush administration had earlier put in place.
TBL: What about Southeast Asia?
GREEN: I think Secretary Clinton in particular saw a vacuum in our Southeast Asia policy. Condi Rice had skipped two of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meetings. Clinton filled that vacuum very quickly. and effectively, and was very welcomed, in part because of China’s much more aggressive stance in the South China Sea in 2010.
So, some of this “pivot” is new; some of it is old, but it took the Administration a while to act on existing policy.
Overall, I would say that this now amounts to a fairly solid bipartisan approach to Asia policy. This means: We should be building up our trade alliances; building up our maritime alliances.
TBL: What about China policy?
GREEN: Based on the President’s recent Asia trip, I don’t see a coherent China policy. We cannot have a policy toward China that is based only on ‘balance of power.’ We have to engage China. The agenda for cooperation was clear and robust – some people thought too robust – when Obama took office in 2009.
Now, I don’t see any engagement policy. In fact, the rhetoric toward China is a good deal more hard-line now from the Obama administration than it was under Bush, or Bill Clinton.
Chinese violations of intellectual property rights, trade restrictions, human rights violations, and cyberspace abuses are egregious, but I am not sure where the White House sees US-China relations going right now.
TBL: How will expanded maritime ties in the region affect US force structure?
GREEN: We will have more access, and be more welcomed, around the region. It is not very well-known, but we now do more naval exercises with India than we do with any other country. We do more exercises with India than India does with all other countries in the world combined.
There will be more intelligence sharing. Although India did not choose a US contender for its next jet fighter, we are actually selling India a lot of defense articles.
In India, it will not be bases; it will be deeper defense relations.
TBL: What about the rest of the region?
GREEN: In Australia, we will obviously have more access. The new facility is for all intents and purposes a base, and it will take some stress off of Okinawa. It will not replace Futenma. It will allow the Marines to send a Maritime Expeditionary Unit (MEU)), which are broadly part of the US special operations community, for very real exercises and training.
Korea, under Lee Myung-bak, is keen to maintain a hefty US presence, and he is even looking at having more regular rotations of Marines, in particular because of the Cheonan and West Sea challenges. This is not a replacement for Futenma, but there may be more rotations of Marines and naval units into Korea than before.
We will have more operations with Vietnam, and more regular visitations with the Philippines.
TBL: Are we pushing too hard, too fast?
GREEN: I wouldn’t put it that way. But we have to be careful to not overplay our hand. These relationships could change based on changes in the national leaderships of these nations. In 2004, for example, we pressed the South Korean government to give us “strategic flexibility” -- in other words, the right to use our troops based in South Korea in contingencies outside of South Korea . That was a big mistake. The South Koreans were reluctant to agree because of obvious implications for China relations. The South Koreans actually publicly said ‘no’, and the Chinese took huge comfort from that as a sign the US-ROK alliance was becoming weaker.
The lesson is that if we push too hard – if we are not sensitive to the local political conditions – we create a dynamic where we are asked to not come. We could end up with a situation in which governments are voted out of office, with new governments coming in on an explicit platform of denying or limiting US access.
TBL: Doesn’t that logic apply to Futenma?
GREEN: In a sense, yes. But the problem in Okinawa is a local government problem, not a national government problem. At the national level, Japan’s two leading parties support the US-Japan plan for Okinawa. The problem is that at the local level the opposition is becoming insurmountable.