We are all in favor of the U.S. taking an active and constructive interest in Asia. I’m not sure I would describe it as a pivot. First, it suggests that this area has been neglected, which isn’t quite so. Secondly, you really want a long-term, implacable, inexorable presence, and I’m not sure if the pivot conveys that nuance.
Does “pivot” convey that the United States could pivot back to the Middle East?
Yes, I think so, because America has got such broad interests around the world and such pressing issues to deal with in so many places. Asia is just one of them, and it is a peaceful part of the world. It may not be on the front burner.
Some say that the Chinese perceive the United States as weak and allege that the administration backed down on the Scarborough Shoal [contested by the Philippines and China in the South China Sea], allowing China to push the Philippines around. Now Washington is worried about a possible Japan-China confrontation in the East China Sea. Do you see the U.S. administration as standing up strong?
The U.S. is not a claimant state in the South China Sea or in the China-Japan dispute over the Senkaku Islands. But, of course, the 7th Fleet has been a presence in the region since the Second World War, and it is the most powerful fleet in the region. I think it has a stabilizing influence on the security of the region . . . encouraging countries to exercise restraint in dealing with these very difficult territorial disputes.
Are you concerned about the rising tension between China and Japan?
There are nationalist sentiments on both sides, and it’s an issue where neither side can afford to be seen to back down. We hope neither side escalates and triggers something unintended. I think something can happen. I don’t think it’s the intention of either side to spark a conflagration, but when you have ships at sea coming close to one another or aircraft — mishaps can happen.
How do you see China under its new leadership?
I think their preoccupations are with their domestic issues, which are considerable. But at the same time, they see their sovereignty and territorial integrity as a responsibility of any Chinese government to uphold and protect. And how flexibly they define that and how the give-and-take works out — well, you have to watch the actions as well as the rhetoric.
In the speech you gave in China last fall, it seemed as if you were advising the Chinese to tread lightly.