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In November 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote an article, America’s Pacific Century, in Foreign Policy in which she drew an outline of US policy towards Asia over the foreseeable future. The six spokes of the pivot that Clinton outlined included strengthening bilateral security alliances, deepening America’s relationships with rising powers, engaging with regional multilateral institutions, expanding trade and investment, forging a broad-based military presence, and advancing democracy and human rights. In essence, the pivot heralded Washington’s realisation of Asia’s growing importance and the gradual shift of the centre of economic and political gravity back to the world’s largest continent.

Despite Washington’s repeated denials, analysts were quick to see the pivot as a US manoeuvre to balance China’s increasing political and economic muscle. Yet whatever Foggy Bottom’s intent was, a realignment of American military and economic attention from the Atlantic to the Pacific would inevitably reduce Beijing’s room to manoeuvre – this is a fact of machtpolitik one cannot get around. China’s increasing assertiveness in its neighbourhood – the nine-dashed line and the air defence identification zone – have caused heightened tension between itself and US allies in the region add to the suspicion that the US pivot to Asia is a counter to China’s attempt to create for itself a de facto Monroe Doctrine.

Other reactions to the pivot argued that American rebalancing to Asia would fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict with China, or that the pivot was premature. Yet others thought that a safer alternative would be to further enmesh China in a web of international institutions and trade so that it feels no need to challenge the status quo and a few pointed out that the United States had no reliable partners in Asia for a pivot. In any case, the Obama administration’s pivot could not have come at a worse time – in the Middle East, the Arab Spring had started and the United States found itself playing a military role in Libya in addition to its duties in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan. Furthermore, as Egypt slid into chaos and Syria erupted, Iranian nuclear ambitions monopolised the State Department’s mindshare; this, despite ignoring several other uprisings such as in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. With US resources drawn by the Middle East and burden-sharing – such as with India in Afghanistan – not bearing fruits, observers noted that the pivot might have simply been wishful thinking but it was unlikely that the United States would be able to unravel itself from the Middle East and redeploy in Asia in the near future.

Though the United States has not lived up to the full range of its anticipated deployment to Asia, it has not left the region completely unattended. Beyond developing the much-discussed Air-Sea Battle strategy, Washington has been trying to bring together its (potential) allies in the Indo-Pacific region under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The United States has also increased its presence in Australia even if only symbolically, and Washington has opened the taps on weapons sales to the Indo-Pacific countries in recent years. Defence-related exports – hardware, infrastructure, training – has seen a steady increase, much to the satisfaction of domestic industries.

Obama’s strategy bears a close resemblance to the Nixon Doctrine. Almost 45 years ago, on July 25, 1969, President Richard Nixon elucidated in an informal chat with newsmen in Guam a new US approach in the struggle against world communism. In what would later be known as the Nixon Doctrine, the president declared that the United States would assist in the defence and development of its allies but not undertake the entire task on its own. This decision opened the weapons floodgates to countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East as well as the Philippines, Thailand, South Vietnam, South Korea, and others in Asia.

The advantage of such an approach, then as now, is that the cost of providing security is off-loaded onto regional allies while simultaneously providing a boost to one’s own economy. Another condition that recommends the Nixon Doctrine in a situation like the pivot to Asia is that there is little enthusiasm in the US Congress or among US citizens to engage substantially in an unknown part of the world over the long haul; nor can the US economy presently afford a Europe post-1945 style entrenched defence of Asia. The sale of advanced weaponry, such as the eight AH-64s to Indonesia in August this year, pleases US allies and states with closer relations could be enticed with manufacturing under license or even transfers of technology.

Another advantage of a Nixon Doctrine in the Indo-Pacific is that it limits US commitment to any state, a wise strategy by Washington given the regional reticence to side unequivocally with the United States against a potential Chinese threat. Even Japan, South Korea, and India, the three states with the most to be concerned about China’s increasing muscle, are playing both sides. If Washington is not careful, Asian states will very likely shift the greater burden of their defence – or at least freedom from Chinese interference in their affairs – onto the United States as Europe did during the Cold War. To be fair, the United States has been at odds with India throughout the Cold War and suffers from a deficit of trust despite warming of relations, and other states in Southeast Asia have their own reasons to want to maintain some distance from Washington.

Yet another advantage for the United States of leading in Asia from afar is that its allies cannot pull it into their conflicts, as one worries about Taiwan or Japan, albeit with correspondingly lesser control over their actions. In Asia, where inter-state grievances are based not only on national interest but also on decades- or ever centuries-old offences, this may work in the United States’ favour.

Critics may argue that Beijing will see this as provocative and step up the modernisation of its armed forces but that is to naïvely assume that China would not modernise without the pivot – as India can attest from experience, that is patently false.

Analogy hunters may jump up and down screaming about how the analogy of the Cold War does not hold; they should understand that no analogy, if broken down sufficiently, will hold. Taken to its logical conclusion, this implies that we cannot learn from history – an endeavour I am not ready to give up on just yet. So is it really a second Cold War? In that the two sides have not come to blows, target each other with their nuclear arsenals, actively spy on each other, try to gather allies to balance the other, and have intractable conflicts, yes. Perhaps it will be mellower than the first one, but a Nixon Doctrine appears to be the strategy the White House has chosen for its spitting contest with China.

After two Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the slow tempo of a Nixon Doctrine might catch observers off guard, but seeing US actions in Asia from such a prism, it might reasonably be concluded that the Obama administration is indeed pursuing its security goals but treading softly. While heeding the warning of a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict with China, the United States has nevertheless not abandoned its interests in Asia, nor has it waited until it is too late. Capability-building can hardly be done overnight, and these small steps meet the Goldilocks requirement. Given the financial constraints, local suspicions, and domestic unwillingness, this is the best option available to US planners.

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