Friday, November 28, 2014

US Rebalance to Asia – An Assessment

Dr Harinder Sekhon, 
Senior Fellow, VIF

US President Barack Obama landed in Beijing on Monday for the APEC summit, the first of a series of summit and bilateral meetings with regional and world leaders. This visit comes at a time when a majority of Americans are despondent that the country's competitors around the world are swelling while the country's defence resources and the capacity to respond to global challenges shrink. US defence budgetary cuts to the tune of a trillion dollars for this fiscal further add to this mood. This gloom is not confined to the US alone but extends to the Asia Pacific as well where serious doubts exist about Obama’s commitment to his Doctrine of 2012 directing a strategic “pivot” or Re Balance to Asia as an important element of his grand strategy for the region.

While host China seeks to allay the fears of regional countries by organizing the APEC agenda around a “series of initiatives to nurture regional economic growth and connectivity, long-term progress in these areas will not be possible if China continues to assert unilateral claims to international waters and airspace in the South and East China seas -- and to back these claims up with the threat of force” by seeking to create “a sphere of influence that erodes the security and sovereignty of Japan and other neighbours”. There is apprehension that in East Asia, China seeks “to overturn the existing, pluralistic regional order and replace it with a Sino sphere imposed at least partly through force of arms”,1 as the US has been more occupied with developments in Ukraine and the Middle East. While those are serious issues that required immediate attention, the US must not lose sight of its long term and more serious challenge posed by a rising China in East Asia.

Strategic power plays in the Asia-Pacific region and the role of the two main players, the US and China, has emerged as one of the major drivers of international relations in the twenty first century. China’s rapid economic rise over the past two decades has “made it possible for China to increase its military capacity and ramp up its political role in the region and beyond.” While China has been at pains to insist that its rise will be peaceful, and “poses no threat to its neighbours or the existing international, political and economic order”, its rising assertiveness, more visible since 2010, is a matter of concern and compelled the US to re orient its policy towards the Asia-Pacific. In November 2011, Obama attended the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, the first for a US President, signifying a major shift in US policy to protect its strategic interests in Asia. Also in November 2011, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton published an article in Foreign Policy Journal titled, ‘America’s Pacific Century,’ clearly laying out the importance America attaches to Asia-Pacific. She wrote:
Harnessing Asia's growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests and a key priority for President Obama. Open markets in Asia provide the United States with unprecedented opportunities for investment, trade, and access to cutting-edge technology. Our economic recovery at home will depend on exports and the ability of American firms to tap into the vast and growing consumer base of Asia. Strategically, maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is increasingly crucial to global progress, whether through defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, countering the proliferation efforts of North Korea, or ensuring transparency in the military activities of the region's key players.
This reaffirmation of its attention towards the Asia-Pacific led to a strategic pronouncement of US policy in the form of the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. While this policy was not new and was mainly a continuation and expansion of policies already undertaken by previous US administrations, Obama’s Doctrine had two distinct features. First, it was more comprehensive and included “all the necessary components of a strategy, namely, military, political, economic and ideological.” The second feature of Obama’s pivot strategy was that it extended the scope of Asia Pacific to include South Asia, particularly India, and linked the Pacific and Indian Oceans as one continuum in US grand strategy for Asia.2

The main objectives of the “Asia Pivot” were:

(a) Re-assertion of US interest in maintaining stability in the region through the prevention of regional conflict and flaring up of inter-state antagonisms.
(b) Maintain security of the global commons, especially the sea-lanes through which more that 50% of global trade and 70% of ship-borne oil transits.
(c) Create an enabling environment for further expansion of trade between the United States and East Asia and among regional states through bilateral free-trade agreements and the facilitation of a Trans Pacific Partnership.
(d) Though not explicitly stated, to keep a watch on Chinese activities and managing its role in the region by influencing the “terms of its admission and full integration within those regional and international regimes where the US is still the dominant actor.”
(e) To play the role of a benign and indispensable hegemon and thereby “acquire the leverage necessary to influence regional actors and their choices.”3

The US hoped to achieve its aims through a three - pronged policy of stepped up military deployment in Guam and Australia, trade and diplomacy. But the pivot’s emphasis on making the US military presence in the region more flexible, and putting measures in place for its rapid deployment caused concern amongst the Chinese. While the US insists that its strategic rebalance only seeks to “enhance regional stability for the benefit of all, rather than to contain or threaten China,” the Chinese see this move by the USA as an attempt to maintain its “hegemonic dominance, thwarting China’s rise and keeping it vulnerable”. This has further exacerbated regional tensions in East Asia where China has been more aggressive in recent months while the US has been busy elsewhere. These tensions focus on the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and have an important maritime dimension, leading to a high probability of war in the region. Besides Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines too feel vulnerable and have joined the effort to draw American attention back to Asia-Pacific.

Most countries view the US pivot strategy as more rhetoric than substance. Some nations feel there has been a significant change in US priority to Asia from the rebalance, though not necessarily much in the way of increased military presence, and that the signal sent in the region had been vital in reassuring some and, hopefully, deterring others. Others feel that there had been much less to it than meets the eye and that whatever steam it had originally has now dissipated (e.g. Obama’s West Point speech had omitted it altogether). But there could also be an important gap between reality and perception — whatever the actual substance, it has been seen in some quarters, notably in Beijing, as an exercise in US hard power, and even provocative, and produced a counter-reaction accordingly.

At a time when friends and allies of the US are expressing doubts about its commitment to its re-balance strategy, US Secretary of State, John Kerry sought to allay such fears and apprehensions. In a recent statement, he said, “The Asia Pacific is one of the most promising places on the planet, and America’s future and security and prosperity are closely and increasingly linked to that region.” Elaborating further, Kerry said, “President Obama’s rebalance towards the Asia Pacific and the enormous value that we place on longstanding alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines and our bourgeoning relationships with ASEAN and countries in Southeast Asia”4 would be a priority.

Kerry outlined four main aspects of the rebalance strategy: First, the opportunity to create sustainable economic growth, which includes finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which should not be viewed through the narrow confines of a trade agreement but also as a strategic opportunity for the United States and other Pacific nations to come together and prosper together. Second, powering a clean energy revolution that will help address climate change while simultaneously jumpstarting economies around the world. Third, reducing tensions and promoting regional cooperation by strengthening the institutions and reinforcing the norms that contribute to a rules-based, stable region. Fourth, create an environment that will empower people throughout the Asia Pacific to live with dignity, security, and opportunity.5

There is no doubt that US economic and political interests in the Asia-Pacific region are huge, and there is a demand for an increased US presence in, and strategic priority given to the region from many Asian countries. But the long-term question is whether the US has the will and the resources to keep up its effort against the background of the continuing rise of China and its own domestic compulsions. China has the potential to easily focus on dominating the region, without worrying too much about the rest of the world beyond its direct trade, investments and resource needs. The US would always have other priorities elsewhere and this is what worries many of China’s neighbours and why they are so hard to satisfy and reassure.

In this context, while China and the US are unlikely to be real friends and close allies for the foreseeable future, they could nevertheless work together closely on many issues, for example North Korea, climate and the environment, securing the global commons, etc. The US could view Chinese proposals for an inclusive economic agenda with a positive attitude as the alternative of constant competition and potential confrontation would be detrimental for everyone. According to the New York Times, “last month 51 top American business leaders, led by the U.S.-China Business Council, urged Mr. Obama to make the conclusion of a bilateral investment treaty by 2016 a priority in his meetings with Mr. Xi.”6 They propose that such a treaty would be beneficial for both countries. The US also needs to play a more positive role in improving the multilateral system, since ultimately a rules-based co-operative approach is in US interests as is a revitalized G-20.

Despite speculation in some quarters about US decline, it should not be viewed in absolute terms. The US possesses inherent strengths and great influence, which give it the ability to do worthwhile work globally. US soft power remains enormous though investing more in tools like diplomacy and overseas information capability, would be well worthwhile. The world still looks to the US to assume a leadership role but this should be exercised more as a team player and through partnerships and consultative leadership where possible, not from a “sole super-power” perspective. For this strategic perspective and strategic patience are needed more than ever. The US needs to think long-term and build the right fundamentals through clearer guiding concepts, principles, strategic priorities and goals.
The US should be bolder in its readiness to reform institutions, its own and the international ones. US consultative leadership is needed not only in the obvious political and economic areas, but on the major cross-cutting issues where progress remains so difficult, but equally important: climate change, cyber security, non-proliferation, macro imbalance. The rebalance to Asia remains vital, and should be pursued as a long-term goal. Helping respond to Chinese assertiveness in the region is necessary, but so is a co-operative US/China relationship. These are all challenging issues, as the US, has not been able to build a strong and dependable network of regional institutions and alliances in Asia as it has in Europe in the post World War – II period.

While the US should not hesitate to promote its values and principles, it has to ensure its own behaviour does not depart too much from those values and rules. To remain influential and relevant in the region, the US will have to naturally remain engaged with East Asian and South East Asian powers. But it will have to resist the temptation to claim for itself economic privileges, exemptions and political authority to act in an arbitrary manner just because it is the chief security provider. Ideas of US exceptionalism and lecturing others would need to be avoided while continuing with the effort to preserve a wide liberal, democratic base in the world.

The US referred to India as the "linchpin" of its rebalance strategy; and by virtue of its own strategic and economic interests in the region, India cannot remain unmindful of developments taking place in East Asia. While India is pragmatic and more inclined to safeguarding its national interest by following an interest-based policy rather than getting drawn into a strategic competition with China or become a security provider on behalf of the US, India will have to devise a long-term and effective strategy in order to emerge as a relevant player in East Asia. In recent months, India has strengthened its Look East Policy through bilateral and multilateral engagements with the smaller regional powers and ASEAN countries, thereby insulating itself from the risks of strategic competition or complicity between China and the United States, but a sustained involvement with this region is required.

  1. Daniel Twining, “An Asian post-election checklist for Obama, Nikkei Asian Review,
    November 5, 2014.
  2. SD Muni, Vivek Chadha, editors, Asian Strategic Review 2014 - US Pivot and Asian
    Security, IDSA and Pentagon Press, New Delhi, 2014. p. 7
  3. For details see, Congressional Research Service, Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s Re-balancing Toward Asia, March 28, 2012, and Mario Del Pero, US: Which Grand
    Strategy for Asia and China? ISPI Analysis No. 187, July 2013.
  4. Remarks on US-China Relations by John Kerry, US Secretary of State, at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, DC, November 4, 2014
  5. Ibid.
  6. Wang Dong, Robert A Kapp and Bernard Loeffke, Resetting US-China Relations, The New York Times, November 10, 2014. Available at:

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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