When I met with former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Stephen Bosworth recently in Seoul, he said he had no idea about what the "pivot to Asia," the Obama administration`s diplomatic strategy, was about. The remark was surprising because it was made by a former envoy under the Clinton administration on the Obama administration both the Democratic Party administrations.
Bosworth added it seemed that the "pivot to Asia" was a framework in which the U.S. would get out of the Middle East, re-emphasize Asia and deal with China. However, I understood he meant to say the pivot, which is also called "re-balancing," was still abstract. In reality, there are growing doubts about the pivot to Asia, as the U.S. confronts Russia over the crisis in Ukraine and the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue is sailing through rough seas.
In that respect, U.S. President Barack Obama`s visit to South Korea today after stopping by Japan could be an opportunity to reaffirm the U.S. security commitment in the region and address concerns the allies have. Of course, the visits probably is a field study for making the concept of pivot to Asia more concrete and do some reality checks.
However, a close look at Asia would reveal a number of festering issues. The most important factor is Japan`s regressive distortion of past history. The cycle, in which Japan`s history distortion prompts China`s emotional reactions and South Korea and Southeast Asian countries` sympathy with Beijing, is making it difficult for the pivot to Asia strategy to take solid roots.
On Monday, a day before Obama`s visit to Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent an offering to the Yasukuni Shrine. On Tuesday, 147 Japanese cabinet members and lawmakers visited the shrine en masse. Asked about the shrine visit at a joint news conference following a summit with Obama, Abe gave the routine answer that he had visited the shrine to pray for those who fought for the country. Obama looked down, with his face dim. The state visit probably made it difficult for Obama to criticize Abe, but the scene was very regretful. Consequently, Obama`s visit to Japan and his silence about the shrine visit was an acknowledgement of Japanese right-wing forces` moves. Japan`s provocative moves of history distortions seem to make it difficult for Washington to make the big-picture approach of checking but induce China as a major cooperator. This will have negative impacts on the U.S. long-term interest.
It can be said that the originator of the pivot to Asia was former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. In May 1940, during the World War II, he moved the U.S. Seventh Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, emphasizing a pivot to Asia to check a rising Japan. Although he stressed the pivot in words, he failed to reinforce the fleet or make preparations, causing Japan`s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which led to the U.S. participation in the war.
Obama`s pivot to Asia is also long on strongly toned rhetoric but short on concrete moves amid an environment of defense budget cuts. Under the circumstances, if Washington calls for pivot to Asia only in words and thinks that Asia issues can be left in the hands of Japan, it could aggravate the already entangled situation in the region. If the U.S. wants to properly pursue the pivot to Asia, it should clear the fundamental issue of Japan`s history distortion. If not, the U.S. could lose its influence in Asia, let alone its regional hegemony.