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  • War or Peace in the Indo-Pacific
  • Edward Friedman (bio)
Kurt M. Campbell. The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2016. xxiii, 399 pp. Hardcover $30.00, isbn 978-1-4555-6895-6.

If the 2016 U.S. presidential election had gone the other way, the author of The Pivot, former State Department Asian specialist Kurt Campbell, might have been chosen to serve President Hillary Clinton in carrying through the American pivot (re-balancing) to Asia initiated by Secretary of State Clinton during the Obama presidency. Campbell's analysis of America-Asia relations is replete with relevant history and thoughtful political commentary, which has much to do with whether or not The Pivot is a good policy. But Clinton did not win. The notion of an American Pivot to Asia is now dead and buried.

In contrast to Clinton and Campbell, high-level supporters of the winner, Donald Trump, were very critical of the Obama era pivot to Asia. Nonetheless, the Indo-Pacific region remains a vital concern of the U.S. government (USG), no matter who is the president. Yet the Obama era pivot was seen by the Trump camp as both vacuous and misdirected. It was vacuous to the Trump team in that the Obama team was unwilling to use force to challenge an expansionist and militarist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state. Campbell, however, continually asserts that The Pivot was not a military policy and that America should not try to contain China. To Trump, Obama was, therefore, a wimp who made America weak. The Trump camp insisted that it would use the American military to check, even to roll-back, Chinese expansionism in maritime Asia.

Despite the legal territorial claims of Vietnam and other Asian nations, the PRC was indeed turning the international waters of the South Sea into a Chinese lake. Trump promised he would use the U.S. military to make America great again. But, in office, Trump began to contemplate cooperating with CCP Supreme Leader Xi to check North Korean nuclear provocations. Campaign rhetoric aside, Trump's actual China policy was yet to be decided.

To the Trump camp, the Clinton-Obama pivot to the Indo-Pacific, in addition to being weak, was also misconceived. The Obama administration had not only abjured using military force, it also sought to implement an economic [End Page 147] pact to join Pacific Asia in an economic cooperation, a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The high labor and environmental standards of the TPP excluded the CCP state, whose East Asian development state mercantilist policies facilitated industrial exports at any price. Whereas Campbell does not capture the impact of Asian mercantilism in China, Trump saw it as bad for America. The Trump camp also believed that the TPP, as other trade deals, badly hurt the American economy. So Trump walked away from an Indo-Pacific economic partnership, leaving Xi's PRC to fill the gap. Trump's anti-TPP rage reflected a right nationalist trade protectionism approach that was widespread.

Even before the November 2016 presidential election, sentiment in American labor against trade liberalization had become so strong that even Hillary Clinton, an architect of TPP, backed away from TPP. Trump preferred bi-lateral deals to reduce U.S. trade deficits. But the bi-lateral trade agreement with South Korea, initially negotiated by the George W. Bush administration, had facilitated a great increase in Korean exports to America, while U.S. exports to Korea did not increase. That fact might lead one to wonder if Trump can actually deliver on his claim that bilateral economic deals with Indo-Pacific nations will do better for the American economy and for American interests in the Indo-Pacific than multilateral trade deals such as TPP. Despite populist protectionist passions, most economic specialists judged TPP to be an excellent trade deal.

Future events will also clarify whether Trump can deliver on his pledge to end Chinese military expansion in maritime Asia. Campbell worries that U.S.-PRC clashes could lead to war. One thing that Trump may have been working on behalf of his tough words on militarily standing up to the CCP state not leading to...