Introduction: Five Pivots to Asia – Comparisons and Overall Impact

Leaders in five great powers have all announced some version of a “pivot to Asia.” In this Special Forum we juxtapose analyses of their initiatives. The introduction offers us an opportunity to compare the pivots and to assess their collective impact on the regional security architecture. In contrast to the usual preoccupation with Obama’s pivot or even to the recent awakening to the competition between Xi Jinping’s pivot and Obama’s, our approach is more wide-ranging and closely informed by events in November 2014, when the diverse strategies for restructuring regionalism in East Asia were on full display at the APEC summit, the EAS summit, and the G20 summit.

The five pivots covered in this Special Forum are those of: Xi Jinping, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, and Abe Shinzo. Each is an initiative bolder than any the leader’s country had proposed in recent decades for increasing its centrality in the reorganization of Asia. The targets are at the southern and western geographical extremes: states along the Indian Ocean and in Central Asia. While hope is lingering in some circles to add North Korea or even Russia to the mix of states “in play,” their leaders have made it difficult for would-be suitors apart from Russian overtures to Kim Jong-un and Chinese overtures to Putin. The Northeast Asia US pivot continues to be challenging because of problems in Japan-ROK relations, but, along with other pivots, attention has become concentrated on the Southeast and South Asian pivot.

Leaders are proposing closer economic linkages through FTAs, development of large-scale infrastructure and transportation linkages, and security arrangements aimed at shaping the balance of power. They also have in mind images of shared values and community to cast the search for regionalism in civilizational terms. The juxtaposition of so many initiatives by the major powers coming in rapid succession with wide-ranging aspirations is testimony to joint awareness that Asia now faces a critical transition. The three November summits showcased the rising competition.

The November summits

November 2014 is a good time to take stock of the rebalancing under way in the eastern two-thirds of Asia. The APEC meeting in Beijing concentrated on proposals for economic restructuring, as 12 countries assessed the state of negotiations over TPP, and China sought to shift attention to a more expansive FTA of the Asia-Pacific or FTAAP, while simultaneously making progress on its Silk Road initiatives. In the background, FTA talks between China and South Korea reached a milestone. China was at home and in the driver’s seat, flaunting its financial largesse and initiatives. Abe was made to look like a supplicant with whom Xi barely deigned to meet. Putin was granted a new gas pipeline agreement, in principle, by Xi that gave him some face, even as Xi’s Silk Road Fund showed that their joint SCO was losing ground to a China-led agenda for Central Asia at odds with Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union.

Following the APEC summit, the EAS met in Naypyidaw, trying to revive attention to ASEAN’s centrality in the reorganization of Asia. While economics were high on the agenda—including at the separate ASEAN + 1 meeting with Obama—, security in the South China Sea was never far in the background. After two years of uncertainty, it was unclear if ASEAN could reassert its role as the diplomatic focal point to bridge differences in strategic thinking and cultural claims complicating regional relations. Even as Obama and Abe were outspoken on behalf of strengthening ASEAN and the EAS under its management, US differences with host Myanmar cast a feint shadow. Despite Obama’s efforts to forge the EAS into an organization that stands for norms of freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes or, ideally, international values more generally, a lack of consensus keeps the EAS a “talk shop.” Multilateralism has lost ground, as the various pivots indicate that ASEAN is weaker.

Finally, the G20 met in Brisbane with the broadest economic agenda, even as there was considerable interest also in Obama’s efforts to boost alliance ties, starting with Australia and Japan in a triangular framework. Although overshadowed by Putin’s disregard for criticism of Russia’s military build-up in Ukraine and Obama’s consultations with Angela Merkel and other European leaders, Asian security also mattered, as US allies and partners had to decide how much solidarity to show given divergent views of Russia, and explored a broader approach to the region with new leaders—from India’s Narendra Modi to Indonesia’s Joko Widodo. Countless bilateral meetings and the major multilateral ones as well gave leaders a chance to pitch their “pivots.” The fact that Xi and Australia’s Tony Abbott agreed on an FTA served to put China in the spotlight again, as Abe also drew attention with the sell of stealth submarines to Australia and a joint statement that aligned him with Obama and Abbott on security.

Reviewing the three, back-to-back summits together, we cannot escape the clear impression that Xi and Obama were dueling for leadership in the reorganization of Asia. Obama’s messages were not unexpected but more authoritative than might have been predicted just a week after a resounding defeat in the mid-term elections. He rallied countries behind TPP, appealed to ASEAN states for more cohesion, made values a central theme, and strove for multilateral alliance coordination. Yet, Xi’s ideas were fresher and were backed by more financial inducements. He did not put geopolitics or values in the forefront, but both accompanied initiatives for a Silk Road Economic Belt, a Maritime Silk Road, and an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. While Obama and Xi avoided the impression that they were poised for a Cold War style confrontation—as they found common cause on global climate, economic, and security initiatives—, this image served more to set limits on the fierceness of the competition than to give hope that the competition would subside in favor of a shared sense of cooperation. There was no reason to expect limited cooperation to alter the dynamics of either country’s “rebalancing” or of the other three “pivots.”

China’s pivot as the driving force

This Special Forum gives the greatest attention to China, including articles by Zhang Xiaotong, Min Ye, and Chris Hughes. While we are covering five pivots, there is no question that China’s pivot looms in the forefront. Obama is countering it in a largely reactive pivot, handicapped by political divisions at home and multiple crises in the rest of the world. Abe is likewise responding to China with another largely reactive pivot, but he makes it more complicated by demonstrating a revisionist agenda loathing to other nations and being divisive on values advocated by its alliance partners. Modi, arguably, is responding as well, although the fact that others are rushing to enlist India in their responses serves as a lure. Putin, in turn, is striving to piggyback on China’s pivot, although some had expected him to urgently seek more support against China given the large role of Central Asia in Xi’s initiatives. In the November summits Xi played the role of host, financial kingpin, and bilateral initiator in meetings with leaders.

China is the driving force in East Asia, advancing many labels for its pivot. Whereas in the 1990s it focused on great power multipolar relations after moving beyond the “strategic triangle” of the Cold War era, its views evolved in the 2000s and 2010s in a series of pronouncements about “neighborhood diplomacy” (zhoubian waijiao). In the Six-Party Talks, which China is still vigorously advocating, the Look West policy, the Silk Road Economic Belt proposal, the Maritime Silk Road proposal, and ASEAN +1 appeals, China has been gradually clarifying its regional strategy. In 2014, this has crystallized as Xi Jinping’s “Asia for the Asians” concept. He enunciated that theme in Shanghai in May and elaborated on it in Seoul in July. Recent Chinese articles have filled in some of the gaps in understanding what Xi means by this initiative, which puts China at the center and ranges across Asia in every direction. Each of the other states is responding to one or more of the sub-regional proposals that Xi is pushing, including to his Six-Party Talks framework as revised in approaches to North and South Korea in 2014 and his ASEAN +1 framework as refined in light of assertive moves in the South China Sea. Xi is causing other leaders to seek their own pivots.

Xi Jinping has introduced a new regional strategy. While elements of it were present from September 2013, when he broached the objective of the Silk Road Economic Belt, the full scope and financial weight behind his initiatives only became clear at the summits of November 2014. Xi announced a 40 billion dollar Silk Road Infrastructure Fund, he buttressed plans for launching the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and he expanded on his initiative for a Maritime Silk Road; he left little doubt that China-centered initiatives are the priority rather than RCEP led by ASEAN should it succeed in pushing the concept forward or TPP led by the United States should it not only conclude an agreement with eleven negotiating partners, but also take seriously the challenge of working with China to go further toward an FTA of the Asia-Pacific.

Zhang Xiaotong sets forth Xi’s initiatives, Min Ye explores Chinese debates that show strong preference for the exclusive Silk Road proposals rather than multilateralism led by others, and Chris Hughes compares the Xi and Abe pivots with more attention to the external limitations of Xi’s approach. Together, they give a message of Chinese unilateralism, utilizing economic levers to expand dependency and open the way to new geopolitical clout. Ambivalent in their responses, neighboring states are both tempted by large infusions of funds to develop infrastructure and wary of increased dependency that could lead to Chinese hegemony. Many have beckoned to Obama to make good on his promised pivot, presenting them with a counterbalancing force that stays within the bounds of hedging rather than leading to a new cold war.

Zhang points to the tension between Putin’s designs for a Eurasian Economic Union with more Russian influence over Central Asian states and Xi’s Silk Road Economic Belt with those states more integrated with China economically. Both initiatives give the appearance of stopping with economic ties, but they carry geopolitical aims as well, Zhang suggests. When a great power is aggressive to the point of threatening the sovereignty of its neighbors, then they look to another great power for support. In the case of Central Asian states watching the moves of Putin in Ukraine, China is the counterweight of choice, he indicates. In Southeast Asia, it is the United States, many have recognized. Unable to effectively compete with China’s economic muscle, Russia has had no choice but to adhere to the close partnership with China and to agree that the two initiatives in Central Asia are compatible. For Zhang, China’s recent moves and its economic clout have given it the lead in Central Asia in what he depicts as forming a “new geopolitical architecture on the Eurasian continent.” At the same time, as China gains secure access to natural resources, it is forging closer ties to important geostrategic actors. Given Russia’s increased need for China, it is swallowing its misgivings as China’s presence expands, seizing this opportunity.

The US pivot as the balancing force

Barack Obama’s pivot has evolved over five years with China in the forefront and allies tugging the United States in various directions to define what this means. It makes sense to divide the overall pivot into a Southeast Asian pivot and a Northeast Asian pivot. Even with this breakdown, we find that US calculations must take into account divergent appeals: in Northeast Asia from Japan and South Korea; and in Southeast Asia from multiple sources, which can be simplified as the Philippines and ASEAN as a unit. Much has been written about the US pivot, but analysis is scarce on how this pivot jibes with other pivots to Asia, including with those of major US allies.

The Northeast Asia pivot is about strengthening triangular alliance ties in the face of new strains: divergence over policies toward China and North Korea, ambivalence in responding to Russia, and widening hostility between the two US allies, South Korea and Japan. Increasingly, the US response centers on deterrence and, at least, minimal diplomatic consistency. This pivot is, more or less, on hold as Japan and South Korea insist on going their own way, while strengthening military ties to the United States, and all sides await the next moves by North Korea and the responses to them by China and also Russia.

The Southeast Asia pivot is about widening the alliance framework—with success in efforts to encourage Japan and Australia to embrace triangularity. Pursuit of ASEAN cohesion continues, centering on countering destabilizing moves in the South China Sea. Yet, the main target is India in the hope that Modi’s pivot will overlap with both Obama’s and Abe’s as well as with Abbott’s—a pivot by a middle power that is not receiving the same degree of attention. The triangle is firmer, states in Southeast Asia are on board, and Obama’s pursuit of Modi is likely to be gathering momentum.

Obama’s April travel through Asia, stops at three summits in November, and plan to go to India in January for the Republic Day celebrations are signs that the US pivot is a high priority for his second term. It awaits a new push for TPP, following elections in Japan that are uncertain in their impact on reaching a US-Japan understanding. Also awaited are hearings for Obama’s proposed secretary of defense, following Chuck Hagel’s abrupt resignation. As Xi has become more assertive in pushing for China’s agenda in Asia, Obama is intensifying his outreach in the region and attention to its various powers. Xi seized the initiative in November, but Obama is pushing back.

The Russian pivot

Another proposal for regional reorganization comes with Vladimir Putin’s “turn to the East.” This initiative gained substance only in the middle of 2014, leading some to see it as only a response to the Ukrainian crisis and sanctions against Russia. In fact, this was taking shape earlier before Putin’s plans accelerated in the spring. It rests on increasingly close Sino-Russian relations, stresses Russia’s central role in a multilateral security framework centered on North Korea, and puts energy and the development of the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia high on the agenda. Putin’s thinking is more aggressive and impatient than Xi’s in dealing with the United States.

Putin’s “turn” is heralded in Russia as a more fundamental rebalancing strategy than Obama’s better-known pivot. It redirects a country known over half a millennium as a European power and from the eighteenth century as a proud contributor to the high culture of Europe into one that prioritizes its place in Asia. After debating from the nineteenth century how it could strike a balance between Europe and Asia by strengthening its position in Asia, Russia has made an abrupt shift that could be aptly called “leaving Europe” and “entering Asia.” This has parallels to Japan’s far-reaching decision in the late nineteenth century on “leaving Asia” and entering Europe.

Putin’s pivot has not been going well despite the brave face Russians put on it. Xi’s multiple initiatives at the November summits had room for Russia, as in a new gas deal, but showcased China’s leadership and Russia’s marginality. Putin appeared to be an outcaste in Brisbane, did not go to Napyidaw, and was mostly sidelined in the frenzy of diplomacy in Beijing. Not only are the United States rallying opposition to him and China bypassing him—even in Central Asia—, but India, on which Moscow has counted, has shifted its interest to the United States, Japan, and Australia. Bad economic news, as oil prices plunge and sanctions bite, expose the contradictions in Russian arguments about success ahead, as discussed in my article that follows.

The Indian pivot

A fourth approach to a pivot is Narenda Modi’s reinterpretation of India’s “Look East” policy, which had been lingering without a strong sense of direction until in the late summer when the newly elected Indian leader made the rounds of summits with Putin, Abe, Xi, and Obama. As Rahul Mishra explains, he has moved beyond the call for looking to actually acting in what is now termed the “Act East Policy.” Mishra gives the exchange of visits between Modi and Tony Abbott special attention. These led to a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and a security agreement, as well as to a prominent place for Modi at the G20 summit. When considered in the context of a much lauded visit to meet Abe in Japan and an indisputably successful visit with Obama in the United States, Modi’s drift into the camp seen as hedging against China seems likely, although it is still early to specify how Modi envisions India’s pivot.

Mishra devotes much of his article to Modi’s diplomacy in Southeast Asia, starting with Myanmar—the gateway for India—and extending to defense ties to Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia. He finds that India is growing more vocal about the South China Sea, lining up with nations opposed to China’s conduct. No longer is ASEAN secondary for it, as it strives to make itself a power of consequence in the region, as China already is. This means not only conducting the sort of active diplomacy that India is doing now, but also building its economic and military prowess, making Northeast India better connected to other Indian states and Southeast Asia, building maritime connectivity, and no longer sitting on the fence on issues of strategic importance to the region. Mishra appears optimistic that Modi is proceeding with this transition.

The Japanese pivot

In 2013, the fact that Abe Shinzo was prioritizing Southeast Asia drew attention. It brought reminders of “Asianism,” an oft-revived concept of a quest for balance or an alternative to “entering the West” and depending heavily on the United States. 2014 revealed that Abe’s range extends to Northeast Asia—Russia and North Korea, but apparently not South Korea. Given commentaries that Koizumi Junichiro lacked an Asian policy and the DPJ—in 2009-2010, at least—had a failed Asian policy, Abe’s moves signify not only revitalization of this wing of Japanese diplomacy, but also a vigorous “proactive” initiative to go beyond the postwar limits of foreign policy. To date, they have been examined separately without being evaluated as part of an overall pivot or put in the context of the simultaneous US, Chinese, Indian, and Russian pivots.

Japan’s pivot seeks to highlight its autonomous diplomacy—in the process serving to frustrate the United States, as in the case of approaches taken to South Korea and Russia—, but the predominant images are of Japan reinforcing Obama’s pivot—with Southeast Asia, Australia, and India. As talks continue on TPP centered on US-Japan leadership and Japan insists that universal values and collective security are the core of its regional strategy, its supportive role grows all the clearer. Given troubling economic news in November and lingering uncertainty about plans for exercising the right of collective self-defense, Abe is further limited in bypassing US leadership.


The following questions add an element of consistency to the articles in this Special Forum. 1) What is motivating each pivot? 2) What are the geographical range sought from the pivots and the main partners for realizing it? 3) What balance of power is envisioned as a result of each of the pivots? 4) What sense of regional community is anticipated? 5) How does each pivot relate to plans for the transformation of one’s own country? Brief answers here may lead the way to more extensive comparisons.

Motivating the pivots are China’s ambitions and the responses of the other great powers, often with encouragement from more vulnerable states. Economic factors matter as states seek at times to capitalize on China’s vast appetite for resources and construction of infrastructure and at other times to strengthen international norms and access to alternate markets. We would be remiss, however, if we were to overlook the search for national identity present in various pivots. For China, Russia, and even Japan, “Asia for the Asians,” Eurasian civilization versus the West, and the renewed hope of Asianism should not be dismissed as motivating factors. Given the multiple forces contributing to the pivots and the high likelihood of persistence in the fundamental divide between Beijing and Washington, we must expect the pivots to become a sustaining set of forces, helping to define an era after the post-Cold War.

When the geographical ranges of the pivots are compared, we cannot help finding that they are growing increasingly expansive. From Northeast Asia as the focus in the diplomacy of the Six-Party Talks to ASEAN-centered linkages between Northeast and Southeast Asia, to competing notions of the Indo-Pacific, the Silk Road, and the Eurasian community, we are left with a regional orientation that could even include Iran and Turkey or intrude into Eastern Europe, should Putin or Xi realize his plans. Apart from the EU, all of the great powers are engaged. We should anticipate that the era of concentrating on narrow regionalism after the Cold War is now ending. Although there is widespread anticipation of multipolarity, a balance of power that avoids bipolarity is hard to foresee. Japan, India, and Russia are driven by national identities that make bipolarity uncomfortable. China’s economic clout reduces the possibility of the sort of balancing behavior that occurred in the Cold War era. Yet, Chinese assertiveness is driving Japan and, possibly, India as well as middle powers such as Australia closer to the United States. Although India’s obsession with full autonomy and its image as a potential superpower are often cited, it is too weak a great power at this time and under too much pressure from China to fail to see the benefits from drawing closer to the US-led camp. Meanwhile, Russian assertiveness, driven more by national identity than national interests, is blinding it to the reality that it is reinforcing China’s bipolarity strategy. While Russia and India may find new room to maneuver, developments in 2014 contradict their multipolar hopes.

Putin has sought multipolarity, but found that he has little leeway with China. His turn to the East is swallowed under China’s much better funded strategy and much more prominent presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Abe has sought Asianism with some autonomy to deviate from the US strategy, but found that Japan lacks military clout and an independent message about values that could resonate in the region. The only pivot that is gaining in vitality, although still in an early and rather vague form, is Modi’s. India has the autonomy and image of a future rising power that puts it in a league by itself. Yet, there is a considerable possibility that it too will not find a way to escape the gathering forces of bipolarity. None of the leaders who champion a pivot are giving up their hopes for something other than polarization. Thwarted for now, they are bound to follow Sino-US relations closely in the search for a new opportunity. After all, each pivot is based on a domestic strategy for transforming national identity, which is not satisfied by falling in line in a bipolar regional order.

In envisioning a regional community to their country’s liking, each leader is striving to reconcile particular notions of domestic identity with an outlook on the region in conformity with an overall outlook on the international community. This makes it hard to take a realistic look at what kind of regional community is actually feasible. In visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013, pursuing Vladimir Putin through 2014, and prioritizing the “comfort women” issue over South Korean ties, Abe made clear his defiance of US strategic appeals and national identity dependency on it. In insisting that Russia has the hard power and soft power to forge a distinct Eurasian community, Putin is making doubtful assumptions in his anger over the spread of the European Union and Western identity without soberly reflecting on the Sino-US divide and Russia’s real options. For Modi, there is the question of how he would balance India’s long-standing pursuit of autonomy—deeply embedded in national identity—and the turn to Japan, the United States, Australia, and even Vietnam in his “Act East” policy. Xi’s sinocentric notion of what his predecessor, Hu Jintao, called a ‘harmonious world” is being kept mostly implicit. Obama’s call for universal values remains the most explicit approach, although it lacks a focus on regional community. Defining two polarized communities will depend mostly on Chinese and US leaders.

Although analysis of international relations customarily prioritizes external threats and opportunities and realist or liberal economic responses, the pivots of the great powers with the possible exception of the United States are heavily driven by goals for transforming domestic national identity. They are, above all, about ideals for the future of one’s country. That complicates the response to China, since states are not likely to approach balancing, hedging, or bandwagoning as strategies independent of narrowly conceived domestic agendas. Abe and Modi used to be at the extreme in their country in thinking about national identity, and Xi and Putin have championed causes that put them in the extreme compared to other recent leaders. Polarization is gaining ground at the expense of multipolarity, but the process is complicated.