A few days ago political scientist and Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer made an astute point on Twitter: "Hillary/Donilon/Geither to Kerry/Rice/Lew. Lots, lots less Asia focus in 2nd term Obama team. Let's hope Xi Jinping doesn't notice." I think Bremmer's assessment is spot on. Practically all of the most important people who have worked to implement the economic, diplomatic, military-security, and political components of the so-called Pivot to Asia have left the Obama administration. Even (former Defense Secretary) Leon Panetta, who did significant work on the pivot, is gone.
And it's not as if the outgoing personnel are being replaced with a new cast of Asia hands. John Kerry, Susan Rice, Samatha Power, and so on, are most comfortable working on transnational relations, ethno-religious conflicts, genocide, failed states, Africa, and the Middle East. All of these issues are important, to be sure, so is peace and stability in Asia. At this point, it seems the Pivot has quickly become a thing of the past.
Of course, we can debate whether the Pivot was the right set of policies to cope with a rising, confident Asia, a region with much promise and potential pitfalls. I have questioned the Pivot's emphasis on military and security affairs in Asia, believing it risked appearing too provocative to China. That said, if the Pivot wasn't working, if it wasn't achieving it's designed goals, that's not a good reason for America to scrap completely its focus on Asia. Create and execute a different Asia policy. But, alas, apparently that's not the case.
Just look at what John Kerry has spent most of his time on in his new position: the Middle East. He made a quick three-day visit to Japan, China, and South Korea in mid-April, a trip that was narrowly focused on crisis diplomacy involving North Korea. On the other hand, Kerry has already made four trips to the Middle East, as he tries to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives and resolve the ongoing violence in Syria. In fact, those four visits don't include his travels to Russia and Belgium, where he continued his diplomatic maneuvering on Syria.
I fear this is what foreign policy will look like for the rest of Obama's term in office. Team Obama will fixate, as has been the case in American foreign policy, on Middle Eastern politics. Asia will surface from time to time, only when a crisis emerges or when the US coordinates a visit with Asian political leaders, like today's trip to California by Xi Jinping. This is unfortunate.
By again obsessing about the Middle East and downplaying the importance of Asia, the U.S. will, in effect, cede ground to China in the competition for power and influence, especially in Asia. As a result, China can breathe a sigh of relief. Team Obama has probably just relaxed the noose of containment. America's allies, such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, etc., should be very concerned about their status and position in the region. And once again, the U.S. is likely left wanting for a set policies that can protect its interests in Asia.