March 8, 2013

The writer is a contributing editor to The Post. His e-mail address is jimhoagland@washpost.com.

President Obama’s determination to get U.S. troops out of the Middle East and Central Asia is much clearer than are his purposes in repositioning U.S. military assets into the Pacific. He seems at times to be a man fleeing a burning building looking for a calmer place to go.

But his geographic “pivot” can work if Obama defines his goals realistically and pursues them with a combination of firmness and opportunism. By design or otherwise, he is locating pressure points and acquiring bargaining chips in Asia that can be useful in fashioning a more stable U.S. relationship with China.

This contrasts with his first-term failure in dealing with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other challenges where he armed himself only with good intentions and pious wishes before hitting walls of resistance. No wonder he longs to wash his hands of the troubled, ungrateful Middle East (which will not let him move away that easily).

The president may be on steadier ground in Asia if his deft handling of the visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month is any guide. Obama underlined U.S. support for Japan without getting bogged down in details of the nasty islands dispute between Tokyo and Beijing. And his warmth toward Abe was carefully calibrated to encourage the Japanese prime minister to shelve his own penchant for nationalistic rhetoric.

For pivots as well as people, timing is everything. This turn fortunately coincides with the return to office of Abe — a tough-minded, activist politician capable of restraint when it is pushed onto him — and the arrival of the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping that was showcased at the People’s National Congress in Beijing this week. More to the point, the continuing development by China of its maritime power, missile forces, anti-satellite capabilities and cyberspying creates the need for a new U.S. strategy in the Pacific.

It is now accepted at the Pentagon that an attack by Beijing on Taiwan could not be successfully turned back by U.S. planes and ships. The dense deployment of missile batteries along the mainland Chinese coast has shifted the immediate balance of power, meaning that the United States will now depend on its ability to inflict massive retaliatory damage to deter China from crossing the Taiwan Strait. “We can no longer be a shield,” says a senior military planner. “We have to switch to being an effective spear.”

China’s growing ability to interfere with or destroy U.S. military satellites has also spurred the Navy’s development of a still-embryonic war-fighting doctrine known as the Air-Sea Battle concept — essentially an attempt to replicate at sea the coordination between air and armor defenses that NATO employed in Western Europe during the Cold War.

Hillary Clinton’s first-term diplomacy provides Obama with another opportunity. She skillfully converted the anxiety of China’s neighbors over that country’s assertiveness into a common front. Not long ago I heard Vietnam’s ambassador to Washington, Nguyen Quoc Cuong, publicly describe the U.S. military presence in the Pacific as “a stabilizing factor” in world politics. Live long enough and you will see and hear everything, I suppose.

But these pressure points — solidarity with Japan, friendship with Asian nations upset over China’s growing shadow, expanding deployment of U.S. missile defense systems around China and putting a few more ships and Marines in the Pacific — exert mostly psychological pressure on China at this point. They can be toned up, or down, depending on how conflictual the U.S.-China relationship becomes.

The Obama pivot has caught Beijing’s attention. Chinese intellectuals complain that Washington has made no attempt to explain the Air-Sea Battle concept to Beijing or to engage in a strategic dialogue about China’s “vital interests” in the South China Sea. The need for China to explain actions that have put its neighbors and Washington on edge — including its human rights abuses at home — is less evident to them.

That will have to change before there can be a meaningful leadership dialogue involving Xi and Obama. But this time at least, Obama has improved his chances for success by introducing a set of complications and potential punishments that the new generation of Chinese leaders may prefer to avoid.

Xi has emphasized to at least one high-level foreign visitor that his cohort came of age during the turmoil of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. They were either Red Guards persecuting their elders and siblings, victims of such persecution or in many cases both persecutor and victim at different phases of that vastly destructive period. They have witnessed the price of taking gigantic risks with stability.

Wisely managed, Obama’s pivot gives the president a chance to test the still uncertain but not foreclosed possibilities of change with and in China.