IT IS already being described as the moment when America’s “pivot” to Asia was seen to have gone awry. Not the shock when Rodrigo Duterte, the new president of the Philippines, an American ally, caused titters by calling Barack Obama the “son of a whore”—but when he called a few days later for an end to American military assistance, including joint patrols in the South China Sea. “China is now in power,” he declared, “and they have military superiority in the region.”
China is chuffed. The Philippines, after all, had brought a landmark case against China’s activities in the South China Sea to an international tribunal at The Hague. In July the tribunal rubbished China’s territorial claims and criticised its construction of artificial islands. Outraged, China swore to ignore the ruling. America insisted it must be binding. Its interest in the South China Sea, it has always said, is in upholding international law. So imagine its embarrassment now. The vindicated plaintiff appears to be saying to China, “Go ahead, help yourself.”
The intention of the pivot was to reassure America’s allies in the region. Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of American forces across Asia and the Pacific, boasted last week that, in terms of American military hardware, “Everything that’s new and cool is coming to the region.” That includes the first of the Zumwalt class of destroyer, with looks straight out of “Star Trek” and a captain by the name of James Kirk. Yet although America has boosted its strength in the Pacific, its defence budget is severely constrained. Chinese military spending, meanwhile, has been growing by 10% a year, much of it on naval, satellite and cyberspace programmes designed to deny America access to the airspace and seas around China in any conflict, and to undermine America’s commitments to its Asian allies.
America still has the world’s strongest armed forces, and even the most fearsome military presence in East Asia. Yet the alchemy of power involves more than iron force, as Admiral Harris underlined by stressing another vital aspect of the pivot: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country free-trade pact foundering in Congress. In August the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, called TPP’s ratification “a litmus test” of American credibility in Asia. With both presidential candidates opposed to TPP, and Mr Obama’s chances of pushing it through the lame-duck Congress looking ragged, it is a test America will probably fail.