My post yesterday on foreign and domestic criticism of President Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia elicited responses including those that faulted me for focusing on two minor issues, and missing the forest for the trees. The very initiatives that I referred to, and praised, in the opening of the article have been adduced as evidence that the rebalance, as the administration calls it, is indeed working.

One of the issues I did not address yesterday was the larger question of just what the pivot is for. This is something that others and I have questioned, and which the administration has never satisfactorily answered. Given the depth and diversity of American interaction with Asia, why is the pivot necessary? What is the goal? Is it to contain China? To create a democratic Asia? Simply to halt the erosion of America’s standing? Without the answer to the big question of ‘why,’ it is hard, if not impossible to judge how well the pivot is working, or if it is achieving its goals. Without being unnecessarily snarky, it sometimes seems that the Obama administration is guided by Woody Allen’s dictum that 90 percent of life is showing up. In other words, just being present, showing interest, and the like is enough, by the administration’s lights, to make the pivot a reality, whether or not the policy actually deals successfully with any of the pressing issues facing Asia.

There is another pivot going on in Asia, which might be useful in comparison to Obama’s. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has shaken up Asian regional politics by aggressively pursuing a policy of creating new partnerships, breaking restrictions on Japanese security activities abroad, and offering Japan to Asian nations as an alternate partner of choice to China. Abe’s actions may be the most comprehensive and assertive by a Japanese premier in memory, but are they working? How do they stack up in comparison to Obama’s?

Abe has it both easier and also harder. Japan is undeniably an Asian nation, unlike America, so his assertions of Japan’s desire to play a larger role in Asia are inherently more believable to the target audience than are numerous American avowals of interest in Asia. That is a factor that Obama, let alone any American president, can’t control, so put it aside. On the bigger question of ‘why,’ however, Abe’s coherent plan seems to me to beat Obama’s. In his keynote address to the 2014 Shangri-la Conference, Abe clearly laid out Japan’s goals for regional security and the role it would play. He may not have called out China by name, but it was clear what his target was. By comparison, Obama and his officials have never clearly spelled out why America had to pivot, since they are unwilling to directly criticize China for threatening regional stability.

In terms of specifics, Abe also has made impressive moves. He is in the process of overturning Japan’s decades-long ban on collective self-defense, has scrapped the restriction on arms exports, and has already sold maritime patrol ships to the Philippines and Vietnam. In addition, he has signed an agreement with Australia to jointly research and develop submarine technology, has finalized plans to purchase the F-35, and increased Japan’s military budget for the second year in a row. Yet compared to America’s putting F-22s and more Navy ships into the Pacific, Abe is necessarily limited in how much he can increase Japan’s military presence, and thus its ability to act. That, however, may not be the right metric with which to judge his moves, since he is scaling his actions to fit a larger goal of reshaping Asia’s balance of power.

One might take Abe to task for the political ramifications of his pivot. Since taking office, Japan’s relations with its closest and most important neighbors, China and South Korea, have cratered. A year after becoming premier (for the second time), Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where World War II war criminals are enshrined, enraging Beijing and Seoul. He has failed to get substantive meetings with the leader of either country. Yet it is not unreasonable to see Abe’s pivot precisely as a response to the parlous state of relations with China and South Korea stretching back years. In that respect, his approach may not have led to an accommodation between Japan and its nearest neighbors, but that was not its primary goal. Instead, his outreach to India, Australia, and Southeast Asia is a bold gamble to expand Japan’s web of working relationships and reshape the larger balance of power.

On trade policy, Abe is actually fairly well tied to Obama’s pivot. Japan has signed on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), thereby making it Abe’s signature trade piece, along with increasing the overall number of free trade agreements Japan has. A failure to conclude TPP would harm Japan’s regional trade presence, as it would America’s. Also, like Washington, Tokyo was caught flat-footed by China’s successful proposal of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which I discussed yesterday, and has been left behind, as most Asian and major European nations have indicated their interest in signing on with Beijing. As Asia’s financial architecture evolves, potentially away from American and Japanese influence, Tokyo’s attempts to protect the role of the Asian Development Bank, which it largely runs, will become more difficult.

With baseball season soon on us, we all want to read the box score. It’s usually more entertaining than useful, but sometimes it does allow one to put the trees together with the forest. In the case of pivots to Asia, I would argue that Japan’s Abe slightly edges America’s Obama. That’s not to say either are without any value or destined to fall short. But after five years or so, the limits on Obama’s pivot seem to be more apparent, while Abe’s much harder task seems to be, at least initially, successfully shaking up Asian security relations, while making less of a trade and economic impact. Like his counterpart in the White House, Abe may soon run up against the limits of his ability to take the initiative in Asia, but given widespread concern over China’s intentions, he will likely be able to continue surprising observers with his willingness to push boundaries.

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