Is the Obama administration pivoting away from its "pivot"? Today's visit to Washington by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will begin to provide an answer.
The pivot, of course, was the Obama administration's signature first-term foreign policy initiative. Starting in 2012, in response to signs of increasing Chinese assertiveness, Washington began a series of steps designed to reassure its friends and allies in the region by bolstering the U.S. presence in Asia. The pivot was an appropriate and widely-welcomed response to the growth of Chinese power and the worrisome trends in its behavior. Mr. Abe's visit provides a highly visible test of the President's resolve to follow through on his initiative.
Over the past several years, Japan has been on the receiving end of much of China's belligerence. The perpetually insecure Chinese Communist party leadership appears to believe that confrontation with Japan will stir nationalist sentiment, buttressing its public support and its grip on power.
To that end, Beijing has:
• escalated a minor incident involving a drunken Chinese fishing boat captain into a major diplomatic crisis;
• blocked exports to Japan of rare earth minerals essential to high-end electronic manufacturing;
• permitted (and perhaps encouraged) violent mass demonstrations that resulted in extensive destruction of Japanese property in China;
• stepped up provocative movements by air and sea around disputed islands controlled by Japan;
• allegedly "painted" Japanese naval vessels with fire-control radar, risking escalation into a shooting war.
It is this brinkmanship that has Prime Minister Abe in a state of genuine anxiety about Japan's security. North Korea's most recent nuclear test, under indifferent Chinese eyes, has only exacerbated his fears. He is traveling to Washington in search of reassurance.
Unfortunately, there are reasons to fear that he will not find what he is seeking. There are signs that President Obama's Asia policy could end up more closely resembling a full pirouette than a pivot.