Watch: Experts on Why the US Needs to Reframe its 'Pivot' to Asia

“Asia 2025: A Path Toward Peace and Prosperity,” a panel discussion at a half-day forum marking the formal launch of the Asia Society Policy Institute. (1 hr., 12 min.)

NEW YORK, April 8, 2014 — U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Asia later this month, a four-country swing intended to reinvigorate the United States’ “pivot” or “rebalance” to the region. And according the panelists on stage at Asia Society in New York on Tuesday morning, such a reinvigoration — or even a rebranding — of the U.S.’s presence in Asia is sorely needed.

“When I first heard of the term ‘pivoting,’ I got an image like a New York City policeman patrolling the street at night — he has to look here and there, pivoting in this direction or that direction for anything suspicious,” Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, told the packed auditorium. “That is not a very encouraging image.”

Cui made his remarks as part of “Asia 2025: A Path Toward Peace and Prosperity,” a panel discussion at a half-day forum marking the formal launch of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a new think tank focused on creating solutions for the Asian Century.

“It was definitely not designed to be a kind of military led engagement with the region,” CFR Senior Fellow Alyssa Ayres said of the U.S.’s intentions for its Asian pivot. “It was something that was designed to recognized the importance of the fast growing rising economies in Asia that were setting the pace for global growth, of the importance of rising powers in Asia.”

But, added CSIS Senior Vice President for Asia Michael Green, there was a “problem with the messaging”: “After the pivot article, all of the deliverables in the next year were military.”

Indeed, according to Shaukat Aziz, former prime minister of Pakistan, the pivot “was perceived first as a military type engagement to contain certain other countries in Asia that were growing.” Aziz continued, “I’ve talked to many people around the world, and that was the perception. Obviously, there was a communication issue there.”

Green said the “worst thing” the United States could do now would be to back down on its military presence in the region, but he said the U.S. also needs to increase other outreach efforts. “TPP and trade is the most important dimension of that,” he said, “but so is culture, exchange — all of the things Asia Society focuses on in its work.”

It was the topic of potential military conflict — specifically related to disputed islands between China and Japan — that brought perhaps the biggest crowd response of the discussion. Cui asked the crowd what the United States would do if it were in a similar dispute with another country.

“I don’t think the United States would subject itself to any international arbitration when its sovereignty and territorial integrity is concerned,” he said. “Most probably you would send out an aircraft carrier task force there. We are not doing that — yet.”

Other highlights from the panel, which was moderated by Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, were:

Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Singapore’s Ambassador to the U.S., on ASEAN and the South China Sea:

“What ASEAN has been trying to do, on the realistic expectation that it will take generations to resolve the bilateral sovereignty disputes [is] to try to establish is a code of conduct in the South China Sea. … That area, the South China Sea, has probably 60 or 70 percent of the world’s shipping going through. The whole concept of freedom of navigation, people need to feel confident about that.”

And V. Shankar, CEO for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Americas at Standard Chartered, on income inequality in the region:

“The reality is that 800 million people in Asia still live with an income of less than $1.25 a day. What has driven Asia’s growth is technological change, globalization, as well as market reform. But these same three factors have left a lot of people — not every boat has risen. A lot of people are left behind. … You can’t have peace and stability in the region if you have rising inequality of income.”

Earlier in the day, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, an Honorary Counselor of the Policy Institute, discussed strategic trends in U.S.-Asia relations with IMF Deputy Managing Director Zhu Min. You can watch the complete conversation here.

Cui and Aziz then offered brief remarks on “Why Asia Matters,” which you can watch here.

Later, William J. Burns, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, delivered the keynote address at an invitation-only lunch to follow. You can watch his remarks here.

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Dan Washburn is Asia Society's Chief Content Officer. The Financial Times named his book, The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, one of the best of 2014.