Event ReportsPublished on Mar 14, 2012
The United States' pivot to Asia is real and enduring, according to Professor Jeffrey W Legro, Professor of Politics and Randolph P. Compton Professor in the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.
US swing to Pacific real and enduring

The United States’ pivot to Asia is real and enduring, according to Professor Jeffrey W Legro, Professor of Politics and Randolph P. Compton Professor in the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. He was speaking at a talk on ’America’s Swing to the Pacific’ organised by the Observer Research Foundation on 14 March.

Elaborating on the much-talked about American swing to the Pacific, Legro traced the swing to the days of the President George H.W. Bush, whose administration tried to increase America’s knowledge about Asia. Legro pointed out that Hillary Clinton’s first official trip being to Asia and not to Europe, the US joining the East Asia Summit, Trans-Pacific Partnership, re-opening of relations with Burma, etc., as evidence of America’s commitment to the region. This change in American policy is taking place at multiple levels: at the global level, transnational level and bilateral level and across multiple issues. There is a refocusing of resources in the region. However, one of the barriers in this pivot is America’s lack of understanding about change. This is gradually changing.

The reason for the pivot is the fact that the world’s economic and political centre has shifted to Asia and so the US has to be in the region politically, economically and strategically. This swing follows from a formulation of a new grand strategy by the US and a conceptual shift and acceptance of how the US should deal with the world across political divides. Professor Legro characterised this grand strategy as one of "enmeshment" of the rising powers in Asia. The relative decline of the US means that it will weaken in relative power and has to figure out arrangements acceptable to other countries too. The US aim is not to contain China as America’s economy runs through China. President Obama campaigned on re-engaging with China. However, the problem that the US faced was that he came to power at the time of the financial crisis. So China felt that the US overtures were a sign of America’s weakness and started showing signs of assertiveness. So the US had to send a new message that it would not be marginalised in Asia and was here to stay.

According to Professor Legro, in the US’ mental map of Asia, the foundation is its relations with India. In the recently-released Defense Strategic Guidelines, the partnership with India is mentioned, showing the critical role for strong ties with India. The US moving to the Pacific means that India might have to take more responsibility. This could be a potential danger for India as India is being intertwined in this new political structure which pushes it out of its comfort zone of non alignment towards entanglement. There is also a clear recognition in the US of India as the primary power in South Asia. This gives stature and flexibility to India as India will get new ways to leverage its interests throughout the Pacific. The US pivot puts India in a natural region of its interests and makes India a central player in a structure that will help it offset Chinese influence in the region.

Professor Legro concluded by saying that though the essence of the swing is not new, it is qualitatively new and builds on the change in Indo-US relations under President George W. Bush. This swing is much more durable and real and foreshadows the nature of politics in the Asia Pacific for years to come. If President Obama is re-elected, one is likely to see another cooperative phase with China.

The talk was followed by discussion. The talk, chaired by Dr Mohan Guruswamy, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, was attended by academicians and former diplomats.

(This report is prepared by Dr. Uma Purushothaman, Junior Fellow, ORF)

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