Misunderstanding the Pivot to the Pacific: What is the U.S. Role?

Russia's Pacific and Arctic interests will become increasingly significant. (Credit: Bigstock)

2013-10-11  By Robbin Laird

When discussing the “shift” in U.S. policy towards the Pacific with Europeans, one is usually treated to a strategic analysis of the shift.  The U.S. is seen as shifting from Europe and moving its interests to dealing with China and the Pacific.  And the U.S. must be investing in this shift and rebuilding its forces accordingly.

One can point out that the U.S. has been a Pacific power since the end of the 19th century, that the U.S. entered World War II because of Japan not Germany, and that the U.S. has been the lynchpin for Pacific defense since the defeat of Japan and has fought two major wars in the Pacific since World War II.

Notably, the rise of the PRC as an economic, political and military power although rooted in the region has global significance.  The PRC military is in the throes from benefiting for worldwide arms transfers, global engagements and operations from the Indian Ocean, African and other global locations.

One can argue that this is the beginning rather than the highpoint of PRC global reach, but global reach it is and a Pivot to the Pacific alone would be an inadequate global response to the rise of the PRC.

It is also important as well to understand the role of key Pacific powers in the changing Pacific defense dynamic.

It is not ABOUT the United States; it is about a new Pacific defense context INVOLVING the United States. 

It is about the Second Nuclear Age and the role of North Korea and China.  It is about conflicts among key players in the Pacific maritime region.

It is about the shift of China away from a primary “soft power” play to something more threatening to the interests of a number of Pacific powers.

For example, Vietnam is buying European and Russian systems to deal with the PRC threat and not doing so to contribute to any U.S. sponsored Pivot to the Pacific.

And if the Pivot to the Pacific is so central, why is President Obama not showing up at the 2013 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit?

The stated reason for not showing up is because of the Washington lockdown around the budget, but is this not a clear statement in and of itself about the limits of U.S. policies?

In an interesting piece in Russia Direct, Marc Jitab argues that the absence of Obama provides an opportunity for Putin to expand the Russian role.

President Obama was supposed to speak on the global ramifications of America’s leadership and priorities, which is not without a tinge of irony as his absence was triggered by a breakdown in American leadership in its most powerful arm of government, Congress. 

On the other hand, President Putin will still be present at the dais to speak on new opportunities for growth in the Asia-Pacific. President Putin will be joined on stage by Andrey L. Kostin, the President and Chairman of VTB Bank.

Russia’s interest in the Asia-Pacific is concentrated on exporting food and energy. Russia is also attempting to position itself as a transportation bridge between Asia and Europe. 

According to Dr. Mikhail Troitskiy, a Moscow-based political analyst, Russia has had overly optimistic plans in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia currently represents only about 1 percent of trade in Asia, with the bulk of it being oil and liquefied natural gas supplies and some arms trading with countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. 

It has been reported that the Russian President will brief the leaders in Bali about developments during the recent G20 summit, with presidential aide Yuri Ushakov also having been quoted as saying that the CEO Summit is a “good opportunity to promote Russian approaches towards regional integration processes due to the social and economic development of Siberia and the Far East, and Russia’s participation in the Customs Union and the Eurasian economic space.” 

“President Putin will also probably state that Russia is prepared to increase energy supplies to the Asia-Pacific region and invite Asian companies, on an ad hoc basis, to engage with Russian upstream oil and gas activities. The invitation will be to expand trade ties with Russia with a focus on energy commodities,” Troitskiy added.


The absence of the American President only highlights the significance of several other key players in the region shaping the future of the region, Russia being a notable example.

Any U.S. Pivot to the Pacific is occurring in a shifting global context, and not one dominated by the United States.

The so-called U.S. pivot to the Pacific is a response to pressures from US allies.

Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia among others feel the pressure from the Chinese and have placed demands on the U.S. to respond.

All of these allies are buying the F-35 and many have Aegis missile defense systems, the same missiles being deployed by the Obama Administration in Europe.

Japan is the key ally for the U.S. in dealing with Pacific defense. 

In the recent meetings with Secretary of Defense Hagel, the Japanese highlighted that new F-35s, P-8 maritime patrol aircraft and Global Hawk long-range reconnaissance UAVs would be deployed to Japan.  Indeed, by 2020 it is planned to have 5 squadrons of F-35s deployed to Japan, two with the USMC, two with the USAF and one by the Japanese Air Force.

(In our forthcoming book on the Pacific, we place a significant emphasis on the centrality of the US-Japanese relationship in shaping a 21st century strategy:


For the United States, the pivot also involves shifts in forces. 

Notably, the USMC is moving from parts of Japan to Guam.

It is also working with the Philippines and Australia to build a light footprint force in the region.

This is facilitated by the contributions of the new USMC aircraft, the Osprey that can fly rapidly and at significant range.  It can be refueled in flight and is being converted to a refueling platform as well.

This light footprint aspect can also be seen in Europe where the so-called Special Purpose MAGTF based in Spain operates throughout Africa with six Ospreys and three C-130J lift and tanking aircraft.

A key aspect of the pivot is how the U.S. can play a balancing role.

Although some may see this as about the U.S. confrontation with China, it really is about the projection of power by China in the region and Asian reactions.

And in these reactions, U.S. allies are looking to the U.S. for new systems and capabilities as well.

Most recently, the South Korean government rejected a bid to replace their F-15s with a new variant of the F-15 in favor of an F-35.  The F-35 is seen as necessary to deal with the missile and nuclear threats from North Korea as well as playing a role in the future defense of Korea if that is to come about in the future.




But European firms are key players in the pivot as well, notably Eurcopter and Airbus Military.

Eurocopter is building the largest Puma helicopter in South Korea and it is intended for export from South Korea.  Airbus Military is already providing 5 tankers to the Australian Air Force, which sees them as key elements in shaping its ability to project power in the region as well.


In other words, the pivot may be the language of President Obama. 

But the rebuilding of Pacific defense is the reality.

For the first five pieces in our series on “The Changing Global Context: US and European Approaches and Options,” see the following: