“US Rebalancing Policy towards Asia”
Asia is experiencing major changes in its security architecture. There are a number of issues being faced by Asia at present, which include power balancing and alliances, governance and democracy, maritime and energy security, the relationship between economics and security, human security, terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and pandemics. Therefore, one needs to focus on “regional-global nexus” as a way to understand the dynamics of Asian security politics and its intersection with global security. Many policy makers recognise that America’s future prosperity and security are intertwined with the Asia-Pacific region, contending that the United States (US) will remain a strong, reliable, and an active partner in the region by investing in diplomacy, military, and economic resources in a way that is commensurate with its comprehensive engagement.
The rise of the Asia-Pacific region may well prove to be the single most trans-formative geo-political shift of the 21st century. The phenomenal development and peaceful rise of China have not only disturbed America but also its partner states since they perceive that a powerful China could challenge the US global status. Over the last two decades, Washington has remained stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, thus paving way for China to advance its political and economic influence within the Asia-Pacific. “Pivot to Asia”, or more specifically “US rebalancing”, demonstrates the realization of American strategic thinking towards the threat, which might pose not only diplomatically but also economically and militarily in the future. In 1900, former Secretary of State John Hay had declared: “Mediterranean is the ocean of the past, Atlantic the ocean of the present, and Pacific is the ocean of the future.” Over 100 years later, his words appear more prophetic than ever. When China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), after decades of rapid economic growth, and despite the recent slowing, eventually surpasses that of the US over the next decade, it will be the first time since George III that a non-Western and non-English-speaking state will become the largest economy in the world. This will reflect a profound shift in the centre of global geo-economic gravity. Also, with this shift in economic power there also comes inevitably a shift in political power.
US’ Asia “Rebalancing” Strategy
The US President Obama announced a new policy of “strategic pivot” rearticulated as a “rebalancing” in 2011. In the beginning, this strategy was called as “pivot to Asia” but later was retitled as “rebalancing” since the word “pivot” showed temporariness. “Rebalancing” means that while downsizing the presence in the Middle East, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe and elsewhere, the US is to invest more and pay greater attention to the Asia-Pacific. In January the same year, the Pentagon published its new “strategic guidance” paper, which named the Asia-Pacific region and the Persian Gulf as the nation’s two geo-strategic priorities. This doctrine intends to strengthen economic, diplomatic, and security engagement of the US throughout the region, both bilaterally and multilaterally. This policy is also based on the need for strategic reassurance in the face of a rising China. The rebalance is also driven by a desire to reassure US allies, friends, and other countries in the region that the US has not been exhausted after a decade of war in Afghanistan and it is not going to disengage from Asia-Pacific affairs. The US is using a comprehensive strategy to contain China’s rise, including military power, defence alliances, the trans-Pacific partnership (TPP), and efforts to drive wedges between China and its neighbours through diplomacy and arms sales. The rebalance remains a multi-faceted, extensive and rather much celebrated policy initiative. Politically speaking, the following three elements of the US “rebalancing” strategy have been figured out that include defence, financial and diplomatic aspects:
- Security Aspect: The recent adjustments in the US defensive posture reveal the importance of the element of security for the only global hegemony. Washington is aggressively shifting its extensive military potentials from other areas to the entire Asia-Pacific region, thus, reshuffling its defensive arrangements to ensure a much broader presence of the US armed forces to counter any possible belligerence. This incorporates the placing of highly sophisticated military assets in the Philippines and Australia and also in other regional allies, thereby guaranteeing an enhanced coercive amalgamation within the region.
- Financial Aspect: The “rebalancing” strategy also involves an intention to enhance trade and economic schemes amongst the US and its partners in order to foster a trustworthy environment. For this purpose, an idea of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade accord, has been put forward that currently contains US and eleven other players but excludes China. Moreover, the financial aid to Asia-Pacific allies has also been doubled.
- Diplomatic Aspect: The rebalancing strategy has witnessed heightened diplomatic and military engagement of US high-profile officials in Asia-Pacific. The agenda involves reinforcing the strategic partnerships, engaging multilateral organizations, controlling US-China hostility and promoting trust-building cooperation amongst the two global giants.
US’ Shift from Euro-Atlantic to Asia-Pacific
The economies of the Asia-Pacific region are increasingly important markets for the US exports of manufactured goods and natural resources. The economic and strategic implications are clear as the US’ future prosperity and security are intimately entwined with the prosperity and security of the Asia-Pacific region. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has produced the so-called “Air-Sea Battle” combat concept as a new operational doctrine in its preparation to fight a war with regional powers, i.e. China. Again, the growing US-India strategic partnership comes at a time in which Asia is moving away from the “unipolar moment” of the last two decades and towards bipolarity or multipolarity. The US efforts to maintain unipolarity in Asia are increasingly challenged, especially when China and (to a lesser extent) India are rising as major powers and are pursuing national interests on their own continent. Also, Russia appears to be moving towards a closer relationship with China, partly in opposition to the US rebalance.
There are four main reasons, which compelled the US to turn to Asia-Pacific; “the first recognizes the most profound shift where the country has to line-up its future strategic and diplomatic priorities while considering the US departure from Iraq and Afghanistan. Secondly, the recent budgetary cuts call for the urgency to lay before the table the country’s apex concerns in order to shun those policies, which could transgress the budget. The third motive encounters the rising economic and military importance of Asia-Pacific since the region has been marked as a defining feature of the century ahead, thereby deciding the fate of humankind. The fourth impetus, which is perhaps the mother of all, underlies the China’s rising might and its “perceived threat” to the US. Curtailing or countering China is the fundamental objective that has prompted America to adopt such a policy.”
Objectives of US Rebalancing Strategy
- Modernize and strengthen US alliances.
- Develop and strengthen ties with emerging partners.
- Support effective regional institutions that strive to solve problems based on internationally-recognized rules and norms.
- Increase trade and investment and expand broad-based economic growth.
- Ensure military presence in the region.
- Promote democratic development, good governance, and human rights.
- Expand people-to-people ties.
- Contain China.
- Woo India.
China’s Response & Counter Strategy
The trust – deficit is growing between the US and China. China’s strategic community anticipates how to counter the US “rebalancing” Asia, an outstanding strategic plan has been made, i.e. “March West” that asks China to shift its attention from the hot antagonism in East Asia and rebalance its geographical focus “westwards” from Central Asia to the Middle East, wherefrom the US is turning away. “Asia-Pacific Dream”, counter strategy of China is shaping up to be a powerful riposte to President Obama’s strategic rebalancing Asia. The US strategy mainly focuses on securitization (military side) in the region as the US wants to have “60 percent of its naval forces in the Pacific by 2020” while China’s counter strategy relies on the economic side. The series of economic corridors announced by China under “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative are steps in the right direction.
To counter the US scheme of TPP, China has enlisted 21 countries to join a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and promised to provide half of its US$ 50 billion in start-up capital. President Xi also announced a US$ 40 billion fund to promote his “neo-Silk Road” vision and bolster trade links among Asian economies. The silk road economic belt traces the old caravan trails past China’s western deserts toward Central Asia nations and into Europe. A 21st century “Maritime Silk Road” is supposed to follow ancient trade routes toward South Asia, Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. The two routes are supposed to ultimately meet in Venice.
In order to succeed in its strategy, China does not want unnecessary conflicts with Japan, Australia, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, New Zealand, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Myanmar, and India. China’s close relationship with Pakistan has reaped strategic rewards. The new regime in India under Modi has kept New Delhi focused on its confrontation with Pakistan and prevented India from devoting more of its attention to China and broader Asian affairs. This also allows China to focus on East Asia. In addition, Pakistan is providing China with access to the Indian Ocean through Gwadar Port.
But at the same time in Military Strategy of 2015, China laid out its military strategy in its first-ever defense white paper, promising not to hit first, but vowing to strike back hard if attacked in a world full of what it sees as potential threats. The defense blueprint breaks new ground. It codifies the ongoing transformation of China into a true maritime power, and puts more emphasis on high-seas. In order to challenge the US over its commitment to Taiwan and oppose Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, China is pursuing an anti-access and aerial denial (A2/AD) military strategy intended to blunt the effectiveness of the US Navy and Air Force in East Asia and the Western Pacific. The US “rebalancing does have a military component.” In response to China’s A2/AD strategy, the US Air Force and Navy have proposed the “air-sea battle” operational concept, and an office has been opened in the Pentagon to put the concept into practice.
The US “rebalancing” strategy brings certain implications in the region that are counterproductive in nature as the military aspect of the US strategic “rebalancing” is to include two inter-connected efforts: (a) geographical “rebalancing” and (b) capability “rebalancing.” Agreements are being made with countries like Japan, Australia, Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam to station maximum US presence. With regard to capability “rebalancing”, the US is trying to rebalance it’s investment in military technologies and force structure to best address Asia-Pacific military challenges. This essentially calls for shift from its current counter-insurgency focus on land in Afghanistan to seaborne-crisis response in the Pacific.
At the strategic level, “rebalancing” seems to help strengthen the US position in the Asia-Pacific…due to flaring up of territorial and maritime disputes in the East Asia. The region has also seen a spiraling arms race, which may force many states to scramble for more sophisticated weapons and equipment, and to be prepared to fight each other although all of them are fully aware that any military conflict between them would only bring disaster for all: a classic lose-lose outcome. Present unstable environment may just be what Washington intends to achieve from “rebalancing” strategy in Asia Pacific region. Only when the Asia-Pacific is plagued by persistent political tensions, lingering historical grievances, rising territorial disputes, strong strategic suspicion and mistrust among East Asian states, would Washington find chances to continue to dominate the region. The military strategy to complement these above mentioned goals entails positioning of US military power along the approaches to the Western Pacific, and the maritime chokepoints in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) including the Middle East, which may accord the US an inherent flexibility to apply pressures on the economic jugular of the potential adversaries, particularly China, right from the source(s) to destination(s).
By fostering deeper interactions with Vietnam, India and the other littorals, Pentagon would further complicate Chinese dilemma and provide the US with strong leverage. This ring of US influence is expected to run in an unbroken arc from Japan and South Korea as formal military allies in the North Western Pacific—the US itself at Hawaii, Guam and Northern Marianas—Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Taiwan in the South China Sea and Singapore guarding the Malacca Straits–Australia and New Zealand blocking off the southern deep water straits. Secretary Panetta hoped, possibly India acting as a “swing state” along with the US Central Command military component for concerted action in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The US wooing of India would disturb regional balance of power in South Asia. Moreover, issues in Asia-Pacific would become tenser and there would be lesser chances of resolution. Economic backlash due to engagement in hard power (military) may be witnessed in the region coupled with unholy alliance making in the Asia-Pacific, i.e. emergence of new blocs.
European member states of NATO have been observing the US Asia “pivot” or “rebalancing” anxiously as they see US withdrawal from Europe and greater focus on “Asia-Pacific”. NATO partners are concerned due to this development. But they also “see America’s turn to the Asia-Pacific region…the most significant opportunity to bolster the trans-Atlantic link since the attacks of September 11, 2001”. NATO’s challenges are worldwide, not regional, in dimension as globalization and technology have changed the character of the international system. What occurs in the South China Sea alters the grouping virtually what happens in the English Channel. Keeping in view China’s unprecedented rise and subsequent threat as portrayed by the US, “Europe should join US rebalancing Asia,” said former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on January 8, 2013 at Kings College in London, England.
Challenges and Opportunities for Pakistan
The US strategy of “rebalancing” Asia offers more challenges to Pakistan than opportunities. Pakistan has to create opportunities through wise and effective diplomatic ventures not only in the region but with the US too. Pakistan cannot remain neutral in US’ rebalancing given its location and friendship with China on the one hand and troubled relationship with India on the other. Pakistan has to re-invigorate its forgotten “Vision East” policy as next global chess board is ready in Asia-Pacific coupled with India’s likelihood of using America to offset both China and Pakistan.
According to Daniel S. Markey of Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), for more than a decade, US strategy toward Pakistan has been dominated by the struggle against terrorism. Today, as the US rebalances its foreign policy focus toward Asia, and as the US military draws down its presence in Afghanistan, the relationship between the US and Pakistan is poised for re-assessment. The outcome, however, is anything but clear. A clean break between Pakistan and the US seems unlikely, despite simmering disagreements over a number of issues. Also unlikely is a full rapprochement. If it chooses to do so, Pakistan could contribute to the advancement of US priorities in Asia, Afghanistan, and the war on terror. Markey recommends that the US should launch a new diplomatic dialogue with China, India, and Pakistan to reduce prospects for regional tension and violence; sign a trade deal that also encourages trade between India and Pakistan; re-allocate assistance to Pakistan to improve trade and transit infrastructure; and integrate Pakistan into East and South Asia policymaking across the State Department, National Security Council, and Department of Defense, and deemphasize the Af-Pak connection.
Again, if Chinese economy suffers due to military adventure in Asia-Pacific with the US and its allies, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would be affected. Since Pakistan cannot remain oblivious to Indian maneuverings, it needs to remain engaged and focussed. As far as India is concerned, different scholars have different opinions. India, in spite of having signed a strategic partnership agreement and nuclear deal with the US, is unlikely to become an ally. India will remain rhetorically sound, irritating the Americans and would prefer to maintain its strategic autonomy; it would never become an ally of the US [against China]. Though Washington would like to have India in its orbit, New Delhi would pursue its own course. But across Asia, the US and Indian interests are converging. India has been called the lynchpin of US Asia rebalance. With India’s “Look East”, and now “Act East” policies, the two countries can play a critically important role together in the Indo-Pacific region. The US, as articulated in the 2012 US Department of Defense Strategic Guidance document, anticipates that India will be both an active partner in helping provide security in the IOR and an “economic anchor” that will sustain growth in South Asia…India’s “Look East” policy may be helpful in this regard. Also, India would prefer that the US simultaneously ends its alliance with Pakistan. “India, therefore, is by every mean likely to strengthen its relations with America to offset both China and Pakistan.”
Nuclear Pakistan, having special significance in South Asia and in the pace and stability of Afghanistan, is likely to get affected in case of any disorder in South-East Asia. In such a situation, Pakistan could utilize its good relations with China in getting much closer to Russia for economic benefits. Pakistan could also get sophisticated defence equipments both from China and Russia. Because, China and Russia seem to be on one page on the US “rebalancing” strategy.
From the outset, there have been questions about the “sustainability” of the rebalance as support for rebalance is substantial, but questions remain about its implementation. “The costly cancellation of President Obama’s trip to the region during the US government shutdown in 2014 fueled that skepticism.” There are other unfolding events, i.e. Ukraine and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) crises are impacting Asia’s view of the rebalance. US’ regional allies are worried because US leadership has been “required” in the Middle East and Europe. And in the aftermath of Ukraine, there are calls for a pivot to Europe as more US troops are sent to NATO’s eastern frontiers. Moreover, US allies like Japan want its territorial issues resolved by the US and not just come to Asia-Pacific militarily to guarantee security in the wake of possible tensions with China.
There are lots of reasons, which point toward inability of the US to attain her objectives in Asia-Pacific, like emerging contours of multi-polarity, the inevitable persistence of its terrorism quagmire, challenges posed by North Korea, the gradually declining economic clout, stronger Russia seeking to limit the US influence worldwide and China’s growing power. This means that Asian countries would find it difficult to join a US-led containment strategy. Such counterbalancing factors point towards the difficulties of the US to achieve her aim of dominating the Asia-Pacific region.
Again, the US strategy of “rebalancing” focuses more on military side while China’s counter strategy mainly focuses on economics (Asia-Pacific Dream). There are already signs of the US shrinking economy as it witnessed “shutdown” in 2014. Is the US ready to sacrifice economic cooperation with China? Is it capable of resolving issues of its allies, i.e. Japan with China? Is NATO ready for yet another adventure against mighty China having taken into account NATO’s inadequacy and commitment with this region. Other elements that challenge NATO’s possible adventure in the region include as to what extent countries like Australia, Japan, India, Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand could comply with NATO’s role and possible backlash. Also, since NATO left Afghanistan without restoring peace and declaring victory there, how could countries of Asia-Pacific rely on an organization that lacks sufficient funds and will to sustain its operations outside.
The US’ “rebalancing” strategy seems to be unsustainable in the long term. The shifting balance of economic power is also beginning to be seen globally, where China’s economic presence in Africa, Latin America and Europe also challenges the long-standing economic primacy of the US. China’s growing global economic and political role will also begin to reshape international norms, rules and institutions. The current relationship between the US and China has been characterized by Chinese scholars as “Mutually Assured Misperception” (MAM). This trend would continue to dominate international security.
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Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.