This is the second in a series of posts from a recent research symposium organised by Dr Ellen Hallams on ‘The Reconfiguration of American Primacy in World Politics: Domestic and International Challenges.’ In this piece, Dr Hugo Meijer explores the US ‘pivot’ to Asia.
The Obama administration has launched a series of diplomatic, military, and economic initiatives as well as issued a number of public pronouncements that over time have come to shape and define the so-called US “pivot” (or “rebalance”) toward the Asia Pacific. After a decade of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, this policy shift signaled a new direction for US foreign policy in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, existing public debates and analyses have so far tended to oversimplify key aspects of the policy. First, they have focused almost exclusively on the military dimension of the rebalance. Second, the US rebalance toward Asia has often been depicted, in a rather reductive manner, as a US “grand strategy” of military containment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Washington, it is argued, is tightening its alliances and enhancing its military capabilities across the Asia Pacific in order to contain the rise of China, its most likely future military near peer competitor. This post, based upon the research for a collection I recently edited on the topic, aims to counter these misconceptions by bringing to light the breadth and complexity of what is a diplomatic, military, and economic repositioning of the United States toward (and within) the Asia Pacific.
At the diplomatic level, the region has received a remarkably high level of attention with a host of presidential and cabinet-level visits. During the first term of the Obama administration, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made far more visits to East Asian countries than each of her three predecessors did. The administration complemented these bilateral visits with a renewed emphasis on American multilateral engagement in the region, especially with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia Summit (EAS).
In the military realm, the Department of Defense released, in January 2012, its new Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, intended to reshape the Pentagon’s priorities and capabilities in an era of budgetary constraints and after a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It unambiguously stated that “while the US military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia Pacific region” (emphasis in the original). That same month, the Pentagon also released the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) that establishes the guiding precepts and capabilities necessary to overcome anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) threats. The administration has also sought to strengthen and update existing formal military alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand, while diversifying and deepening its diplomatic and security cooperation with partners such as Indonesia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam. Washington announced, among other initiatives, the reposturing of the US Navy from the existing 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to a 60/40 split between those two oceans by 2020, the transfer of several elements of US forces based in Okinawa to Guam, the upgrading of its missile defense posture, the deployment of marines to Darwin in Australia (as part of what is meant to become a 2,500-strong rotational force), the deployment of littoral combat ships to Singapore, and signed an enhanced defense cooperation agreement with the Philippines. These steps aim to redistribute and disperse American forces across the Asia Pacific, making US defense posture in the region more agile, flexible, and financially sustainable.
On the economic front of the rebalance, the Obama administration has taken a variety of steps aimed at tapping into the economic dynamism of the East Asia Pacific, which Washington considers as vitally important for US interests. The national, bilateral, and multilateral economic initiatives taken by the US government include the expansion of American exports to the region under the National Export Strategy; launching a process by which US foreign aid to East Asian countries would be increased by 7 percent; the conclusion of the second largest existing US free trade agreement—after the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—with the Republic of Korea, the seventh-largest US trading partner; and the continued negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. The TPP includes the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam (but not China) and could potentially lead to a regional free trade area across the Asia Pacific. It seeks to create a comprehensive and high standards free trade agreement that would liberalize international trade across the Pacific. In particular, Washington’s major economic interests in the TPP—which might become the largest US free trade agreement to date—stem from the fact that the region hosts 40 percent of the world’s population, produces close to 60 percent of global GDP, includes many of the world’s fastest growing economies, and has become a critical part of global supply chains.
Finally, the linkages between this deeper US economic engagement in the Asia Pacific and its security implications should be emphasized. First, growing trade flows pass through potential flashpoints such as the Strait of Malacca and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Second, besides unresolved territorial disputes, multiple security challenges continue to be potential sources of instability in the Asia Pacific, such as interstate military competition, growing rivalry over energy and natural resources, nuclear proliferation and piracy—among others. From Washington’s standpoint, these concerns require the maintenance of American military preeminence in order to guarantee regional stability and sustained, open access to Asia’s sea-lanes of communications and to the global commons. As the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) puts it, “Our economic strength is closely tied to a stable international order, underwritten by the US military’s role and that of our allies and partners in ensuring freedom of access and the free flow of commerce globally.”
As previously mentioned, most of the public debates on the rebalance have overemphasized, when not focused exclusively on, its military component and have tended to describe it as an American grand strategy of military containment of the People’s Republic of China. This short paper stresses the twofold fallacy of these analyses. First, although the military dimension of the pivot is undoubtedly important, it is but one facet—and not necessarily the most innovative—of the US rebalance, together with its diplomatic and economic components. Second, the American pivot to Asia is not an attempt by the United States to militarily contain the People’s Republic of China in the same way it did with the USSR during the Cold War. In a globalized economy where potential rivals are also economically interdependent and in which political ideologies do not crystallize into competing blocs, even if Washington wanted to contain China it would not be able to do so. As Jeffrey Bader, former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, succinctly puts it:
Washington [does] not seek the containment of China, as was the case with the Soviet Union [. . .] because of the hopelessness of pursuing such a policy toward a country that [is] much more profoundly integrated into the global system. [. . .] Containment in the style of US policy toward the Soviet Union after World War II [is] not a plausible option.
Instead, the United States is redirecting its foreign policy attention, priorities, and resources—in the post–Iraq/Afghanistan wars period—toward the world’s most strategically sensitive and economically dynamic region. In the words of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.” China’s strategic and economic clout certainly is a central concern for US policymakers, the American pivot to the Asia Pacific is driven by a much broader and complex set of political, strategic, and economic objectives.
The overarching ambition of the US rebalance is to preserve American primacy in world politics while avoiding a major power war with the PRC. In order to do so, Washington does not seek to contain China – as this strategy is deemed to be hopeless and ineffective. The rebalance seeks to sustain US pre-eminence by re-adjustment in the complex “web of linkages” between the diplomatic, military and economic components of American presence in the Asia Pacific since the end of WWII.
Image: American President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao participate in an official arrival ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Nov. 17, 2009, courtesy of wikimedia commons.