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Obama's Pacific Pivot: Day One

One hundred eighty U.S. Marines landed on the Australian north coast on Tuesday. Should China be worried? The move appears to fit with the much-discussed American military and diplomatic build-up around the Pacific Rim. It sure looks like a message to Beijing, but America’s ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, denied it.

“There’s this kind of sexy, fun narrative that you hear from pundits and others trying to suggest this is about China, but it’s not,” said Bleich it on Sky TV over the weekend, as The New York Times reported.

Hard to square his comments with the rapid reorientation of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus towards the re-invigorated Asian power. Just take the astonishment this week at a report released by the Brookings Institute claiming China’s leadership sees itself as the long-term favorite in a head-on competition with the United States for hegemony.

We asked Bruce Cumings, a Korea expert who recently authored Dominion From Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power, his thoughts.

“If you believe [the ambassador], you probably also think you down pheasants by pointing right at them,” replied Cumings.

“In fact this ‘pivot’ is part of a series of defense policy moves that amount to the most significant transformation of the American military position in the world since the Soviet Union collapsed. Perhaps this new defense posture may even rework the post-World War II order itself, founded on Atlanticism and NATO. If we are witnessing the dwindling of Europe, a withdrawal from insoluble Middle East and South Asian crises (Iraq and Afghanistan), the pull of a growing China, and an America turning around to face the Pacific rather than the Atlantic, this is no small matter.”

The context Cumings offered made it sound reasonable to believe that this day in Darwin might someday be seen as a pivotal bookend to Nixon’s trip to China, 40 years ago last month.

“For the half-century after Pearl Harbor wars both hot and cold kept Western Europe and the U.S. tied in a close embrace,” he said. “Today, however, President Obama appears to have a different pheasant in his sights — the PRC — and he is leading his quarry by surrounding him with new policies and arrangements starting from Burma and going all the way around Southeast and East Asia, even to North Korea (with whom Obama made an important agreement on Leap Day 2012). Eventually we may look back on Darwin as the symbol of a new ‘Pacificism’ in American foreign policy.”

Look for Cumings’ in-depth analysis of the “Pacific pivot” in the upcoming inaugural issue of Pacific Standard.